Training (and) Wheels

Posted on by Ben Bruno

I’ve always really liked analogies because I think they’re a great way to convey complex concepts in a simple, easy-to-understand manner.

Case in point: I often share a lot of different exercise variations, so someone recently accused me of trying to “reinvent the wheel” with training. He added that “every damn thing he posts has some combo of the same damn shit as like some special exercise.”

Now I don’t know this gentleman (I use that term extremely loosely) so I don’t take his criticism personally, but I think it actually brings about a great analogy between wheels, tires, and the training process that I want to expound on a bit.

Bear with me.

I’m actually fine with that dude’s criticism for the most part, but I’d just like to change one small thing. Rather than say I’m trying to “reinvent the wheel,” I’d change it to say that I try to modify the wheel to improve it to best suit my needs. Or put another way, I try to choose the best wheel for me.

Think about it this way. When you walk into a tire store, you’re faced with a slew of different options. They all fall under the scope of wheels, but they’re all slightly different, and it’s on you to pick the best model for your car. To do that, you have to take into account the size and model of your car, as well as what you use it for.

Do you live in area where it snows? If so, you may need snow tires. If not, you obviously won’t.

Do you drive off-road a lot? If so, you better have special tires for that, but if you do all you’re driving on road, then those special tires are a waste of money.

Similarly, you have to realize that performance and durability are generally inversely related. Ultra high performance tires usually won’t last long, while super durable tires typically won’t be nearly as responsive. You have to figure out which is more important to you, or else find a hybrid tire that gives you a blend of both. There is no right or wrong here; it just depends on what matters more to you at that time in your life.

Scientists in research and development are constantly toiling away in labs trying to think up new ways to improve existing tires to make them perform better, last longer, or some combination thereof to suit peoples’ various needs.

Training is much the same.

All good training is fairly similar. People like to focus on the differences and harp on the minutia, but when you really distill all good training programs down, they’re far more similar than different. You have to train hard and train in a progressive fashion, and you have to do it consistently for a long time. To do that, you have to take recovery measures to ensure that you’re able to keep chugging away.

That’s the stuff will never change.

That’s the proverbial wheel.

Now just as there are lots of different tires that fall under the spectrum of wheel, there are lots of different training methods that have been proven to work well, so it’s about finding what works best for you based on your goals.

The same basic tenets of good training apply to everyone, but the details will vary.

Exercise selection is one of those malleable details, albeit an important one.

Are you a tall guy with long femurs? If so, you may find that back squats don’t really do a good job of hitting your quads because you inevitably turn them into a good morning/squat combo due to your structure; so if getting bigger quads is important to you, you may find better luck with a front squat, Bulgarian split squat, lunges, or even the leg press.

On the other hand, if you’re a short and stocky dude that can drop into a nice deep squat with an upright torso, then back squats will probably torch your quads and may be a great choice. If you have a bad back and/or bad knees though, then they might not be. It really depends.

Performance and durability are inversely related in some respects and inextricably linked in others.

It goes without saying that pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone physically (which is absolutely essential in order to make any appreciable progress) is inherently risky to some degree, and gets continually more so as you get stronger and start handling heavier and heavier weights, so in that sense high performance and safety are somewhat at odds with one another.

But training isn’t like buying tires in the sense that you can’t just pick one or the other. With tires, you can go strictly for performance and just buy a new set when they blow out, and assuming you have the funds to do so, that’s your prerogative. You only get one body though, so performance and safety must go hand in hand, and it becomes more about striking a balance and blending the two together.

Are you a powerlifter looking to increase your total? If so, then you’d better be squatting, benching, and deadlifting on a consistent basis and picking accessory exercises to build those lifts. Same goes for Olympic lifting, or anything else where you’ll be tested in a certain exercise; you must obviously practice those exercises.

If you’re not married to any specific lifts though and just want to build muscle, get stronger, look better, and feel better, then you have a lot more wiggle room with your exercise selection and it becomes more about picking exercises that work best for your body given your anthropometry and injury history.

I fall into the latter category in that I don’t really care what exercises I do because I’m not going to be tested in any of them. I don’t train for the purpose of improving any specific exercise, so to me there’s no such thing as main lifts and accessory lifts; there’s just good lifts and bad lifts…for me.

Sure I train to get stronger, look better, and feel better, but above all else, I honestly pretty much train for the sake of training, just because I love it. I love trying to see what the hell I’m made of, and I truly believe that you don’t know your limits until you push them.

That being said, I’ve found that as I’ve gotten stronger, my body can’t handle crushing heavy squats, deadlifts, and bench presses week in and week out without breaking down. It’s just not in the cards for me. If I go light on those exercises I’m fine, but who wants to go light? Not me.

I’ve tried to fight it at times, and I still sometimes do dumb things against my better judgment, but it almost always ends up being a losing battle. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way many times, and I continue to do so. At least I’m learning.

Rather than try to bang a square peg into a round hole, I’ve gravitated towards different exercises or exercise variations that allow me to keep pushing myself hard without beating up my joints.

I’ve become that scientist in the lab, only my lab is the gym, and rather than trying to create better tires, I’m trying to find more joint-friendly methods of strength training for people like myself that have injuries that prohibit them from doing various exercises.

I’m not “reinventing” the training wheel at all. I’m just making small changes here and there along the way as new problems arise.

If something hurts, I try to figure out a way to make it not hurt.

Or if I want to do an exercise but don’t have the necessary equipment at my disposal, I’ll try and figure out a way to get a similar training effect with something else.

Pretty simple, really.

It’s almost never big overhauls and almost always small tweaks. In fact, it’s usually just what that dude said: some combo of the same damn shit.

While my exercise selection has changed quite a bit since when I first started training, my overall training philosophy hasn’t really changed all that much. I still train my balls off; I just do it with different exercises.

People like to focus so much on exercise selection, but to me the focus should be on exercise application.

I don’t think everyone should necessarily train like I do, just like I don’t think every car should use the same tires.

That’s why we have tire stores with lots of variety, and that’s why we have such a broad spectrum of writers from a wide array of backgrounds to give you different options according to what you’re looking to accomplish.

Now What?

So where does this leave you?

If you’re someone that knows a lot about tires (i.e. training), then go ahead and pick the best ones (i.e. training program) for what you’re looking for.

If you don’t know jack about tires though, you’ve got to put your faith in someone you trust whom you feel can understand your needs and goals and go with their recommendations initially, and then adjust as you gain experience and learn more.

When in doubt, start with a basic all-purpose tire (i.e. a simple strength program centered around the basics), as that should be fine at first, and get more specific as you spend more time driving (i.e. training) and learn what your individual needs are.

But don’t get mad that the store has lots of different options; be thankful you have a choice.

If just accepted the wheel at face value and never sought to improve it, we’d still be using wooden spoke wheels.

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  • http://twitter.com/BlairODonovan Blair ODonovan

    Great stuff Ben! Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/harryclarke81 Harry Vincent Clarke

    Great info never done tire training. Will keep it in mind for the future. Again great read thanks.

  • Jake

    Awesome blog ben. Would really like to get an insight as to your actual* training. Maybe post up a sample week of all the exercises/sets/reps you did?

  • http://twitter.com/supremefitnyc luis pineda

    Ben, I’m going to but it very ” SIMPLE ” you the MAN! Keep doing what you’re doing.

  • Qu1ckbadger

    Ben- I like your “wheel” variations. I try to be creative but you have a knack for coming up with useful modifications, especially with single limb and glute work. Don’t worry about the critics. Keep up the great work!

  • Josh

    Good post. I’m finding this blog to be among the best training resources I’ve found on the ‘net (along with T-Nation colleague Bret Contreras). I do have a question about something in this article. You mentioned — and I’ve read this from other sources too, like Lyle McDonald and Stuart McRobert — that those who are tall with long femurs may be better off doing other exercises than the back squat. Do you have any more specific guidelines on that? Or perhaps I could be more specific — for someone who’s 6’2” and 170 lbs, do you think it likely that they’d fall into the “maybe better off choosing another exercise” category?

  • louisXIV

    Ben: all science, or knowledge, is overwhelmingly cumulative. Round wheels may have begun life as semi-round things that “worked” OK. But then followed a modifier called *additional thought*, which was likely opposed by the oval wheel fundamentalists.

    In this field, we must find a way to acquire ever better adaptations while minimizing the things (like injuries) that limit the all important variable for success: sustainability of training.

    You are going a long way in these explorations and are rounding out all our wheels in the process. Happy Thanksgiving.

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  • George

    As someone with serious, long term back pain I’m looking forward to the stage in my recovery when I can train my lower body with some intensity again. Your website and YouTube channel are going to be one hell of a useful resource so thanks!

  • Jez

    Nice article Ben. I’d even go so far as to break it down further into tyres and wheels. People have the wheels (knee extension dominant movement, hip extension dominant, etc.) what you’re doing is providing more use or outcome specific tyres (variations or tweaks). When you consider that it’s the tyre that actually comes into contact with the road, those tires (exercise variations) will actually have a huge impact on the direction you move.