There’s a saying popular in the small world outside the gym that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That if an approach doesn’t work, try another one.
Inside the gym, what works is what gets you somewhere. How you get there is much less important than showing up.
So what’s the relationship between process and results in lifting? At first blush, the sport feels like a chase. We work out to reach goals: getting strong, looking good. So much of what we focus on and measure — heavy poundage in a powerlifting competition, body fat percentage, the size of your quads — are numbers we’re striving to reach.
But while chasing results might be what gets us to start lifting, the sport is all about the process. More specifically, it’s about repetition.
For all of the variety of programs people take on to reach their various goals, we all generally follow the same rough path — progressive overload via selected exercises, done over time — to get there. It’s not like the real world: the repetitive process shouldn’t just be rejected if things aren’t working. Rather, it should be examined.
The few rules surrounding lifting’s repetitive cycles are so general they can be adopted by every program and approach. Lifters should work out their whole body, get lots of sleep, and eat well. Cardio and recovery should be monitored. Exercises should be difficult enough to be challenging, should be a little harder each time — more weight, more intensity — and should be repeated. Breaks are occasionally needed, and there’s always something to tinker with.
That’s pretty much it.
And while the hows above vary wildly, the framework they operate under is pretty much total. There’s really just one way to get anywhere: doing the same thing — a tough workout — over and over again, over time. And then doing it over and over again some more.
Becoming stronger through repetition
It’s best to repeat yourself with a program, which are thoughtful paths by which to repeat yourself optimally. Powerlifting programs train just about every muscle and get people incredibly strong without having to pump out 1,000 reps weekly. Kettlebell work is functional, and drills down daily movement patterns. Bodyweight training builds up both muscle mass and cardio, feels very holistic, and can be done anywhere.
Their exercises are different, but the programs are, in the big ways, the same. They all take time and effort. They don’t build muscle right away, but eventually. They need to be followed strictly — form, not missing workouts, eating right, recovery. Every program repeats things, it’s just what they repeat that’s different.
Of course, it wouldn’t make sense to stick too long with a program that isn’t working and doesn’t progress. What’s tricky is progress often stalls less because of the exercises themselves than from how ill-matched a lifter may be to a particular set of exercises. Finding the PEBCAK error — the problem exists between the chair and computer; in this case muscle imbalances, weaknesses, not eating or sleeping enough — is how trainers earn their paychecks.
Put another way: there are hundreds of ways to get strong, but a much wider variety of body types and health histories among the people who pick up those programs. People begin weight training as they are. As they adapt on the fly to new exercises and ranges of motion, the lifts are not yet smooth, and natural. And until then, and until lifters become actually strong, there are infinite places for the lifts — and repetition — to stall.
The complexity of the big lifts is one reason why powerlifting training doesn’t work for some lifters right out of the gate, and why many lifters switch programs or quit early, and look for the perfect pill. But it doesn’t really exist. Good trainers might ramp clients up to barbell work with programs that build up general physical preparedness and proprioception.
This kid-gloves progression is, for some people, necessary, because of the extent to which desk work and sitting have ruined people’s postures and posterior chains. Serious barbell work was, up until a few decades ago, mostly undertaken by high school football players as offseason training, and muscleheads who spent most of their waking hours wanting to get strong. We forget that, for incredibly inactive people, repeating these precise lifts correctly can be pretty hard.
Even at low weight, executing the squat correctly involves internalizing dozens of cues, firing each muscle in unison, and breathing correctly. A squat can fail at just about any point: bad glutes will sink a lifter in the hole; a weak upper back will cause the bar to shake on the shoulders; weak quads might prevent a lifter from standing all the way up.
Fixing one problem often creates another. It’s natural for beginners, who may not be seeing progress anyways, to chuck the whole thing, and find another way to get strong.
But going deeper usually works better than going somewhere else. Analyzing your lifts’ weak points will improve them. Tape your reps, find out where you fail, and build up the lagging body part. Blast your failing glutes with good mornings, or improve your quad strength with front squats. The problems that keep popping up are annoying, but they can be fixed.
Hitches in lifts can also be overcome through repetition itself. Enough reps of an exercise grease the neuromuscular pathways, taking the brain out of the equation, so to speak, and making the movements smooth and automatic.
Think about backing your car into a driveway: it’s hard to keep every step straight at the start. Then it isn’t. How do you get better at squatting? You squat.
Exercises worth repeating
Pavel Tsatsouline, the kettlebell guy, recommends below-limit lifts, done over and over, to grease the groove. The premise — you get better at chin-ups by doing chin-ups, so you should do them as often as you can without tiring yourself out — is that sub-limit work builds up capacity over time.
Do a few kettlebell squats when you go to the kitchen, and leave room in the tank to do more later that day. Do five chin-ups whenever you pass through the doorway. And since these repeatable exercises build up strength, it’s not just a theoretical concept. Adding sub-limit work on top of a program improves how you move, and gets you stronger. It’s an actual lift: it’s good to do more.
Formally, these sub-limit reps are expressed in many programs as volume components — where lifters do a bunch of high-rep sets after a workout. It’s also why athletes might spell intensity periods — high weight, lower reps — with volume blocks. You don’t want your squat to fail because the movement is new, or foreign. Repetition is how you learn what you’re doing and you can’t cheat.
“When things go wrong in real life, we stop what we’re doing, and do something else. But lifting is much simpler than that.”
It’s also an abstract concept to grasp, at least while you’re training. Because no program works very fast and since no person gets strong right away, a lifter might, at best, put on a pound of muscle a week. This can be harder to see than a hitch in a squat. We know, if we stick to repeating ourselves correctly, we’ll get pretty strong after a year, and incredibly strong after a decade. And we know that personal bests pop up at the gym now and then — old max lifts become working weights. But we don’t exactly feel it.
Day to day, strength is mostly theoretical. Weights jump up slowly, and a program’s success has to be taken on faith. We believe if we keep working out and doing the right things, we’ll achieve the results that we want.
All this effort to gain 2.5 pounds on a lift can be frustrating. But there’s another way to look at it: people have done this before for a long time, and it’s always taken time. Since it takes so long to get where we want, there’s no sense in rushing results. We have a surplus of time in which to repeat ourselves. We might as well enjoy it, as we bear down and focus. Everyone before us, who did things the right way, has arrived.
Lifting, then, reveals process as the ultimate goal. It’s a freeing idea. When things go wrong in real life, we stop what we’re doing, and do something else. But lifting is much simpler than that. There’s really just one way to do things. Success isn’t reaching a goal, but figuring out how to walk down the path that has gotten everyone there.
LEG DAY OBSERVER is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.