It was the summer of 1996.
Jay-Z’s first album, Reasonable Doubt, had just been released, Michael Jordan had just won his fourth NBA championship, and Bill Clinton still knew the definition of the word “is.”
I was ten years old and my family headed to Miami Beach’s Eden Roc resort for one of my father’s biennial conferences for the Cuban American Medical Association.
For him this meant 3 days of lectures, meetings and glitzy dinners; for my sister and I this meant 3 days of unadulterated “fun in the sun.”
We’d get up early and hit the buffet around 8 or 9 am, then spend the rest of the day at the beach and the pool, playing games and horsing around with the many friends we had made with the other doctors’ kids.
We’d grab a quick lunch sometime in the early afternoon and then continue our adventures until the early evening, when we’d finally have to get upstairs to shower and have dinner with our parents.
Needless to say, I looked forward to these little staycations every two years throughout my childhood, and the memories made on them will be with me across my lifetime.
Now, why was this particular weekend different from the rest?
Well, apart from these childhood exploits, it was on this particular summer that I learned a valuable lesson in what would inevitably be my future career.
You see, the Eden Roc has a beautiful Olympic style pool.
At this stage of my life (I was ten) – although I was a bit overweight for my age – I was already deeply involved in sports.
I was playing baseball, I had ventured into soccer for a couple of years, and I was working towards a “junior” black belt in Kempo karate.
I loved to be active and compete just as much as I loved to eat – and both showed demonstrably!
It was on this trip that after dinner one evening my dad bet me that I couldn’t swim twenty back-to-back laps in the pool.
Challenge accepted: without thinking twice I proceeded to take off my shirt and shoes and plunge myself into the pool for twenty non-stop laps with perfect freestyle form.
“Wow, I can’t believe you did it!” shouted my father.
“I told you!” I exclaimed boastfully as I dried myself off and threw on my shirt.
At this point it was almost midnight, and so we walked back to our room as a family and called it a night…..
And then morning came.
“J.J., get out of bed! It’s time for breakfast!” I heard my mom shout from the other room.
“Okay, mom. Getting up now.”
Except that I didn’t.
I physically could not move my arms or legs.
Was I dreaming?
“Please, God, let me be dreaming,” I thought.
I tried again.
“Mom!!!!!” I yelled as tears started rolling down my fat cheeks.
“What happened to me?!”
“I can’t move!”
She didn’t believe me at first: “Oh, come on now. Of course you can move, J-man. Stop playing around!” she yelled from the other room.
“I swear mom! I can’t move my arms or legs! I think I’m paralyzed!”
By this time I was crying frantically, and so she finally ran over to see what was going on.
I spent the next two days as an invalid, either laying down or being dragged and propped up by my parents like in “Weekend At Bernie’s.”
My glorious and fun-filled staycation turned into one of the most miserable experiences of my little life.
What my chubby ten year-old self was experiencing in that moment was what we in the fitness industry know as Direct Muscle Soreness, albeit mine was an extremely intense case.
This type of muscle soreness is muscle fiber trauma that is caused by performing extremely high repetitions of an exercise – such as twenty non-stop laps in an Olympic pool as a fat ten year old!
Working a muscle to extreme fatigue creates intense soreness that is caused by micro-trauma at the cellular level.
For intermediate to advanced level lifters who have spent years perfecting their techniques and building a considerable amount of base strength, training a muscle to this state can yield impressive results and push a stagnant muscle group into a renewed cycle of growth when combined with the proper recovery techniques and nutrition regimen.
However, for most beginners new to the world of strength training (or the young, aspiring Michael Phelps’s of the world), this type of intensity is detrimental to your progress, and, if pushed to an extreme, can yield a result such as mine – or worse, it can cause permanent damage to not only your muscles, but also to tendons and ligaments that haven’t been prepped for this type of effort.
The irony of this is that this type of muscle soreness is what most people associate with a “good workout.”
If they can’t walk for a week after a training session, they must’ve not pushed hard enough.
Most trainers know this; and instead of educating the public on proper technique and training methods, they obliterate new clients into the ground to keep them coming back for more.
Not only is this incredibly unethical in my opinion; but it is also a tremendously inefficient training strategy.
I’m glad you asked.
I’ve written on this topic before, but the vast majority of us have sub-standard to about average genetics.
We have full time jobs, tons of stress from the hustle and bustle of the world, we don’t eat as well as we should and, on top of all this, we don’t sleep enough.
It’s because of all of this that we need to be smarter about our training if we wish to progress at all in the future.
While a juiced-up bodybuilder with amazing genetics and super-human strength can blast a muscle group into oblivion and then not train it again for another 7 days, the rest of us need to train the different muscle groups with a lot more frequency – as in multiple times per week – if we want to see any kind of results.
The only way to do this is to train just enough to illicit a physiological response in the body; but not enough that you need to take two Advil and say a Hail Mary every time you need to get on and off the toilet.
Another thing to keep in mind is that lifting is a skill that must be learned and learned well.
It takes time to develop sound technique and properly initiate efficient motor unit recruitment.
If you start training with 5 sets of 20 reps on an exercise, the chances of you learning how to perform that exercise properly are pretty slim to none; and once fatigue sets in for a beginner level lifter, form tends to deteriorate quite rapidly and the stress of the exercise being performed is usually transferred away from the muscles and onto the joints and tendons – ouch!
Also, the only way to learn and master a new skill is to practice it often.
Think about it: if you wanted to get better at shooting free-throws, would you only shoot them once per week?
I didn’t think so.
You’d practice as much as possible.
This same logic applies to lifting.
If you want to get stronger and more efficient with your lifts, I recommend training each muscle group 2-3x per week with relatively low reps, and staying well away from technical failure on all exercises.
Pick 3-4 compound exercises per training session and hit them for 2-3 sets of between 6 and 12 repetitions.
For example, a sample session might look like this:
- Barbell Squat 3×6-8
- Dumbbell Bench Press 2×6-10
- Single Arm Dumbbell Row 3×8-12 ea.
- Cable Chop 3×10-12 ea.
Focus on form and lift the weights slowly, deliberately, and under complete control.
Repeat every other day for a total of 3 lifting sessions a week – that’s it!
If done correctly, you should definitely feel fatigue in the worked muscles in the subsequent days after a session; but you should still be able to walk around and function as a normal human being.
Spending your “off-days” performing low-aerobic intensity cardio, stretching, and foam rolling will further the recovery process, along with quality sleep and nutrition.
Training in this fashion will illicit superior results for the majority of people: they will be training each muscle group with the frequency needed to spur on physiological change and adaptations within the body, while still allowing the tendons, ligaments and joints to acclimate themselves to the routine.
Furthermore, the musculature and CNS will have plenty of time to recover between bouts.
Once you have built a strong base of strength and mastered the technical aspects on a handful of exercises, you may expand your routine to include more variety and volume.
Not only is training in this fashion more enjoyable day to day; but it will remain a part of your life indefinitely because you will feel like you have made a considerable impact on your fitness goals and acquired – and mastered – a new skill.
Swimming those twenty laps that day didn’t make me a better swimmer.
In fact, it made me never want to swim again.
And that’s exactly the experience most new lifters have with the weight room or their first session with a trainer.
The best trainers and fitness professionals understand the concept I laid out in this post and will work with new clients slowly and incrementally to build their base and get them started on a life-long journey of fitness and great health.
Getting stronger is a skill that must be worked on consistently and responsibly.
If you are new to training, stay away from high-rep sets, a ton of volume, and “mixing it up” with thirty different exercises.
Pick anywhere from and no more than 6-12 compound exercises that train multiple muscle groups simultaneously; and spread them out across 3 workouts each week.
Train them with low(er) reps for 2-3 sets each and don’t worry about how many calories your are burning throughout the workout.
Recover fully before each and every set, focus on lifting the weight with picture perfect technique and establish a mind-muscle connection with every single rep.
Making this your focus will pack your frame with lean muscle, facilitating a faster metabolism over time and, combined with an effective eating strategy and smart cardio methodologies, will yield far superior results than trying to annihilate your body each workout.
I recommend training in this fashion for at least one to two years before increasing exercise selection and volume.
An effective training regimen should leave you feeling like you got a good workout in; not like you got into a car accident.
Training to extreme muscle soreness day in and day out will eventually leave you weaker and, more likely than not, injured.
Be smart with your approach and, especially in this day and age, take the road less traveled: make a commitment to take a long view approach with your health and fitness and focus on building your body over months and years; not days and weeks.