If I had to summarize the 3 most common resistance training mistakes (or to put it more kindly, inefficiencies) that people are guilty of during their workouts, my “terrible triad” could be summed up in a single sentence: “Slow, isolation lifts performed on machines.” Let’s take a look at each of these 3 components one at a time:

Slow…
Amazingly, many people unconsciously equate slowness with good form. They’ve never articulated it that way, to themselves or others, but that connection nonetheless exists
Why do people tend to perform their lifts slowly? Because it HURTS. Honestly! It’s because they can ffeeeell it better.
Why should people lift in an accelerative manner? Lots of reasons, in short, for any given weight, more speed means more tension on the muscle(s). More tension means greater fitness gain. Yes, too much tension can cause an injury- very true. You’ve gotta find the “sweet spot:” enough speed/tension to elicit a training response, but not so much that you injure yourself. How to find the sweet spot? Start off conservatively and gradually work your way up from there.
Another point about speed: we’re actually wired to move things with speed. Why? Because it’s easier- it conserves calories…simple as that.
Isolation Lifts…

People are intuitively drawn to so-called “isolation” lifts like leg extensions, biceps curls, and lateral raises. Why? Because it hurts! When most of the training stress is loaded on to a small number of muscles (isolation isn’t literally possible), you can really ffeeeell it.
Why are multi-joint, “compound” lifts a better choice?
First, by training more muscles with less lifts, your training becomes more economical- you accomplish more in less time. True, there’s less load for any particular muscle, but that’s OK- just add more weight and you’ll be ffeeeelling it before you know it
Second, multi-joint lifts are safer, because more muscles are participating in the task. How come no one knows their max on triceps kickbacks? Because then you’d REALLY ffeeeell it (i.e., you hurt yourself you dummy!)
Thirdly, if you’ll just give it a chance, you’ll find that compound lifts are a LOT more fun than isolation lifts. Has your training been fun lately?
Finally, human beings are wired to move economically, so it’s more “functional” to use these types of lifts. Think squats, lunges, pulls, presses, rows, jumps, and so forth.
On Machines…
Yup, people are drawn to machines. They’ve been taught that machines are safer, easier to learn, and more effective than free weights. Of course, all the existing research says otherwise…
Why are free weights a better choice?
Firstly, they do involve skill. But that’s a good thing- promise! You’ll be happier, fitter, and more functional if you teach your muscles how to control weights (in addition to just moving them).
Second, the above mentioned control adds an additional degree of demand upon your neuro-muscular system, which leads to better results
Thirdly, in commercial gyms you’ll find the free weights much more available than the machines. If you’re training at home (good idea by the way) you’ll find free weights cheaper to purchase than machines. They also take up less space.
The Solution?
Well of course, compound free weight exercises performed in an accelerative manner. Now this approach might require you to learn some new tricks, and you won’t “ffeeeell it” in quite the same way, but my clients commonly tell me that (in addition to the improved fitness gains) they have much better energy and far less pain when training this way.
Is this approach for YOU? If you’re finding your workouts to be long, tedious, and unproductive, why not try something new?
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39 Comments
  1. Peter 11 years ago

    Agree with all of the above Charles, we see these issues all the time in our gym. Trying to explain to somebody that a squat supercedes dozens of sets of leg extensions becomes a daily occurance.

  2. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Well that’s the issue isn’t it? Effectively explaining WHY free-weight compound movements performed acceleratively are superior to slow isolation exercises on machines. The keywords here are “control” and “tension” – the two prerequsites to muscular growth.

  3. David 11 years ago

    I was surprised that you advocated lifting faster. I slowed my tempos because of a lot of the articles I read by Poliquin. Come to think of it, I am perhaps the slowest lifter in my gym. People look at me funny. I am good on compund movemets, work every set to failure (maybe not a good idea), and my poundages haven’t moved in years. Then again I am always lifting as part of a diet so my calories are maybe not high enough to realize gains. I’ll try upping the tempo. can’t hurt, Thanks Mr. Staley

  4. Will Brink 11 years ago

    David, as Charles points out, it’s not speed for the sake of speed, but finding the balance between speed of the rep and stimulus to the muscle being focused on. As a rule, a controlled (vs just slow) Eccentric part of the rep, followed by a more explosive/fast explosive effort during the Concentric phase of the rep, using an appropriate weight for the re range, is what stimulates the most motor units within that muscle. So, Charles is saying finding the balance between speed, weight chosen, etc, is what’s most effective, vs some sort of “super slow mo” rep often recommended. So, don’t get to fixated on the word “speed” he’s using there. 🙂

  5. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    David, slower tempos reduce tension, which in turn reduces Type IIB motor unit recruitment. Plus, lifting slow is dysfunctional, boring, and painful.
    Often lifters see some guy slopping out quick reps on the bench press (for example) and then start equating high-speed with bad form. Big mistake. Bad form can be fast or slow, as can good form.
    I’d also drop the training to failure stuff— like slow tempos, it’s dysfunctional, boring and painful. If you need atonement, go to church, not the gym!
    Hope that helps to clarify, and I agree with Will’s comments also

  6. Endris 11 years ago

    Just a couple of questions:
    First is about training to failure. Started lifting when I was young and for years I was taught….push each set to failure. Now what I am hearing hear is to NOT do that? Correct?
    If so, how is this better and when should one stop a set.

  7. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Hi Endris, thanks for your comment. I felt the reasoning behind accelerative lifting and avoiding failure was made clear in the article, but to elaborate, muscular TENSION is what promotes the positive adaptations most people seek from their training. If you perform (for example) a set of 10 with a 10-re-max (1RM) weight, with each rep, the tension is less than the rep that preceded it— there’s less tension on rep 9 than there was on rep 8, and less tension on rep 8 than rep 7 and so on. The REASON there’s less tension is because as fatigue accumulates, you’re moving slower and slower with each successive rep. Less speed= less tension.
    This means that on any given set, the first reps are most valuable, and the last reps are least valuable. If you desire more total reps, I’d recommend more SETS, not more reps.
    With this in mind, there’s no absolute rule about when to end any given set, but based on accelerometer date at my facility, I’d recommending stopping each set halfway to failure- in other words, if you can do 8 reps, do 4 reps- acceleratively.
    Hope that helps!

  8. Deb 11 years ago

    In regards to isolation exercises in particular lateral raises I would like to know how else I can build my medial delts if the isolation exercises aren’t effective?
    Thanks,
    Deb

  9. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Hi Deb! The medial delt gets plenty of work during all forms of overhead work- military presses, push presses, push jerks, jerks, etc. It’s also more involved than you might think during flat benches, incline presses, dips, pushups, and so on.
    Hope that helps!

  10. Mike 11 years ago

    I don’t understand how Charles thinks slower reps would reduce tension. I feel it increases the tension when doing the negative slowly. As far as painful, yes, but boring, he must me doing somehting wrong.
    I suggest trying H.I.T by Dr. Ellinton Darden, which focuses on one set to momentary muscular failure.

  11. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    It’s not my opinion, it’s a fact. I’m speaking primarily about the concentric aspect however. For any given weight, more speed = more tension. Less speed = less tension.
    Eccentrically, it’s a bit more complex: if you lower the bar very quickly on (say) a bench press, there will be a marked DECREASE in tension, UNTIL you decide to apply the brakes and reverse the bar’s direction, upon which time the tension will be massive. So the mantra is- control the eccentric, and explode the concentric.
    HIT, by the way, is absurdly stupid, boring, dysfunctional, and unproductive.

  12. Mike 11 years ago

    Can you futher elaborate on why you feel HIT is “absurdly stupid, boring, dysfunctional, and unproductive.”

  13. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Yes. HIT advocates the exact opposite of optimal loading parameters. It’s essentially low tension, low intensity, low skill, low function, and low attention span. It precludes the performance of most useful exercises, including Olympic lifts and strongman events. It’s typically done using machines, which are far inferior to free weights. It values volume over intensity, quantity over quality.
    But it does hurt, which is why most people think it works.

  14. Endris 11 years ago

    Charles, I understand your position on Machines vs Freeweights. But whats your position on a Bowflex system?

  15. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Bowflex is worthless— only slightly better than jogging.

  16. Mark Rippetoe 11 years ago

    HIT is a silly way to train that does not reflect the demands of either work or sports. One-set-to-failure on machines lacks almost every single factor necessary for prolonged functional strength acquisition, power development, kinesthetic improvement, and overall training success. But it does sell Hammer Strength equipment. I’m shocked — SHOCKED — that Charles has bothered to even deal with the question. He is generous with his time.
    So Charles, the Apollo moonwalk was a fake, right?

  17. Donnie 11 years ago

    Hate that HIT style training, especially the variation where you do a very tiny ROM, yeah you add weight but your strong in a 2″ bench press, you can no muscle and you go back to traditional training and realise you actually lost strength when you try to a proper exercise again.

  18. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Donnie, in fairness to the HIT people, I think you’re referring to Power Factor Training, another idiotic idea. But I hate it too

  19. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Mark, please don’t tell me you really think we landed on the moon…

  20. Phil 11 years ago

    WOW Ok here’s a new analogy one could apply to then effectiveness of training with or without machines
    The human race over time has become as a whole less and less active over the years with this progress so have the general physiques of the humans in that time to the state we are in now. at overly obese slobs who get the majority of their activity on a couch or at a desk pushing buttons. Even the so called blue collar working class is largely now mechanized and even those workers are the majority in poor physical condition.
    Follow this linage back in time to the industrial era, the agricultural boom, the advent of gun power, the iron age, and early history of cave men throwing rocks and building houses with their bare hands and the physique, athleticism, and physical condition of the population as a whole goes UP, independent of the poor nutrition , lack of medically facility and advances, and housing of the time.
    One could then compare this to the linage or hierarchy in forms of training, and the physiques and physical preparedness follow suit. at the bottom rung you have the average couch potato, then you have the infomercial exercises who looks for the next magic contraption or pill that allows the least amount of non daunting work to aim to keep them in shape , then you have the aerobic fans who get on a tread mill, jog a bit, or consider walking a great form of training. Next comes then come the exercisers who go to the gym and bounce from machine to machine that allow work but in a uniquely comfortable way pounding out rep after rep is search of the burn on some contraption. Then we have the precious few who do venture into free weight eight exercises but usually blinded by the latest fad grinding out slow reps on a bosu ball to make an already some what effective exercise unsafe, less effective and more painful. Of these we then have even less who make the transition to actual training. Athletes and the like who adopt multijoint compound exercises with the most simple and effective equipment and exercises. Squatting, pressing, deadlifting, cleaning, snatching, and throwing big weights in a fashion that has them defeating the task at hand not he task defeating them. Lastly I would add those how get really primal and move on to training with things that arent designed at all for a person to “exercise” with. Rocks, trucks, logs, big tires etc…
    With each succession the training and equipment become more and more simplistic, yet they demand that our bodily response to complete the activity become more complex. We have to recruit more and more of our body in a powerful and explosive fashion just to complete the simple task at hand, and the payback from each simple repetition of said move creates the stimulus for greater bodily adaptation.
    Also now if you take a look at each group as a “WHOLE” who take part in the various training methods and I guarantee you as you move down that line from couch potato, to exerciser, to competitive lifters and those who work hard manual labor or lift odd heavy and or demanding things on a regular basis the physiques as well as their general physical condition and athleticism rises dramatically. Sure even the couch potato group wil have some genetic freak who still look and perform well, but if you take the Whole of these populations and what they do on a regular basis as the standard the answers to what is the most effective use of your training time if you desire to be big, strong, hot, confident, and athletic will become VERY clear to you.
    Like most things in life. If you seek the best way to do something its usually best to look at what the least people are doing.
    Lift heavy, lift fast, throw things, sprint, chase things, have fun. Beat the task at hand. Adopt the goal of you inflicting your power on it, not having it inflict pain on you. Then smile go home with the empowering feeling of making said activity your bitch, have a big plate of meat, rest up and recover for your next bout.

  21. Rob 11 years ago

    WOW – i more confused than ever! so much so, that i dont kow where to start. In the year and half of training i have read train each body part, 1 or 2 set max per session, 3 times a week, each body set to complete failure, rest one day, or even 2 then same routine again etc. Anything more and your overtraining!
    Then i constantly got the impression, train one body part per session, legs one day, chest the other etc giving them a full week to recover,
    Then i recently bought and read the much respected Brinks e-book, of which has Poliquins theory of slow tempo training for full intensity, with split body parts, even split sets for chest and back for example, training both upper and lower in the same session, reducing to 4 days a week. Also advising not to do any cardio, or even, very little abdominal work, if any.
    Then most recent article from the great L Labrada, great example of mascularity and lean-ness, undulging in both cardio and weight work, either on alternative days or, same training sessions, which contradicts Poliquin!
    Having always read that you should never do any form of cardio after a big session on the weights., especially when your desire is to build lean body mass, or is it safe to say LL has reached his desired size, and thats his routine on maintaining his incredible physique.
    Then Charles slams all other routines, justifiably so, including the fundamentals of Poliquin’s training in a roundabout way, emphasising there is only one way to building, and thats fast explosive training.
    Brinks mentions that it’s best to stick to a routine for quite some time, giving a routine a proper go to really monitor any progress with one self, for we are all quite different, but then describes to break up your routine frequently so that the human body is challenged and kept surprised for maximum growth!
    I have much respect for the few names that i made referrence to, and it appears that its all bit hit and miss, trial and error, and i can accept that, but was really hoping to get more direction from the pro’s. I feel that these pro’s slightly contradict each other, or thats how i perceive it, causing aspiring body bulders like myself much confussion. Is it safe to say there is no real blue print for building ones altimate physique?……please correct me if i’m wrong.

  22. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Hey Rob!
    First, you are correct on one count: there is no single “best” way, and it’s important to clarify that I have never said or implied that there is only one way. A brief look through physique training history shows a wide variety of training styles and methods among successful physique and strength athletes
    I do however, strongly feel that certain principles have proven themselves irrefutably over the past several decades:
    1) Machine training is easier less functional, and less effective than free weight training
    2) Training to failure is misguided, inefficient, counterproductive, and in violation of our current scientific understanding of motor learning.
    3) The motor cortex understands movement, not muscles
    4) At any resistance, more speed = more tension. More tension = greater Type IIB motor unit recruitment. Greater Type IIB MU recruitment = bigger, stronger muscles. Training to failure results in relatively low tension efforts as compared to multi-set, low rep, accelerative training using compound free weight exercises.
    Consider the difference between lifting 135 pounds for 3×10 VS 135 for 10×3— both examples performed in 12 minutes
    In the former example, the weight on the bar is 135. The total reps is 30. The total volume is 4050 pounds. The duration is 12 minutes.
    In the latter example, the weight on the bar is 135. The total reps is 30. The total volume is 4050 pounds. The duration is 12 minutes.
    The ONLY difference is that in the latter example, because you’re managing fatigue instead of seeking it, you’ll have more average acceleration on the bar, which means m ore average tension, which means greater average MU recruitment, which means greater results.
    Oh, and it’s a LOT more fun, a lot less dangerous, and a lot less painful. Which is why you probably won’t try it.

  23. Phil 11 years ago

    “Is it safe to say there is no real blue print for building ones altimate physique?……please correct me if i’m wrong.”
    Thats pretty safe to say some what just as its safe to say ANY and I mean ANY program will work if you give it your all, beleive in it and stick to it and dont half arse it and question it, stick to it long enough to let it show its results. Same is true with diets they all work if you do them not every one works or more importantly enjoys the same thing.
    Works and optimal are two totally different concepts. Walking may very well be a very great and hard stimulus for some people and they will get great results from it. Just like dloing concentration curls with a 100lb DB very well wil give you some massive bicep hypertrophy.
    You have to also take into account time, effectiveness etc. When it comes down to it basing your workout on big compound moves with a barbell should be #1. Your going to be well ahead of the crowd just for that no matter what program or system you apply to those. Your still an infant in training age at what you listed as your time under a barbell. Take 12 weeks and do one type of take a week or two break a deload in the gym and then do 12 weeks of something opposite note that progress. In time your going to sort the cream from the crop in what you enjoy and whats effective for you.
    Thats the beauty of this stuff you NEVER stop learning. You have to get a basic foundation in place and then keep testing what you feel is correct .

  24. Rob 11 years ago

    Thanks Charles, and totally agree free weights over machines, more so, dumbell work is king………so what your suggesting, if read it correctly, there is a slight advantage of 10 sets of 3 reps, if thats the case, would you wait longer between sets?
    Sorry for the detailed questions, its just that i’m about to structure a new 12 week program, and would prefer to not waste time if possible.
    Regardless of whatever routine i have tried, i have always given my total dedication to training when at the gym, its the best part of my day, definately not lacking in enthusiasm when throwing the weights around – in a controlled manner of course!

  25. James 11 years ago

    I can see why more speed = more tension, but a slower rep would increase the time under tension which I believe is also an important factor. After increasing the durations of my sets I have made some great gains in strength and size.
    Regarding the HIT = pointless comments, I dont think this is completely clear cut either. The great Dorian Yates used to train using this protocol.
    I tried a Mentzer style program about a decade ago and granted I didnt grow too much (possibly due to poor diet at college) my strength levels went through the roof.
    Still, I am of the opinion that you have to keep changing things up to keep your body guessing so I will try a period of faster reps to see how it goes. One advantage I can see right away is that I will be able to use heavier weights. Using a slower tempo has meant I needed to drop the poundages I use in the gym.

  26. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    James, I agree- if your muscles don’t have any time under tension they won’t grow. This is why I recommend multiple low-rep sets, performed acceleratively. The mistake most people make is in thinking that everything has to be accomplished in one set- it doesn’t.
    Variety is also important as you suggest. This is why I recommend free-weight compound drills, such as squats, which can be performed in an endless variety of ways— in this example, low bar back squat, high bar back squat, medium stance, wide stance, front squat, overhead squat, zercher squat, box squats, the list goes on. Isolation lifts and machine lifts do not allow for this wide range of variation.

  27. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Rob, I used 10×3 just as an extreme example to show how, if you were to do the exact OPPOSITE of what everyone else does, you’d make better progress.
    There are many good ways to arrange your training; the main thing is to do multiple (5-15) sets of low (1-5) reps on free-weight compound exercises, using a controlled eccentric and an accelerative concentric.

  28. Will Brink 11 years ago

    Mike, Dardon’s recommendations have been debunked decades ago, both in the research and in the “real world.” The concept is simply outdated.
    Rob, it’s easy to get confused. It also seems you are sort of combing a bunch of different approaches, only leading to more confusion. For example, there is no rule a bodypart needs a week to recover. Depends on many variables, and you will see many effective programs calling for greater frequency then that, including Poliquins info, etc,
    Two, there’s no right way to train for all people all the time period. There is however plenty of wrong ways to train…
    Lots of the recommendations you see that are seemingly contradict only do so because they are giving advice to a specific person looking for a specific outcome. That’s going to change depending on goals, experience levels, etc, etc. I don’t know if I am seeing Charles “slam” Poliquin in his responses, but he can comment on that if he wishes.
    James. Dorian didn’t really use any Mentzer program. I know Dorian pretty well. He went to visit Mentzer one time, and Mentzer told people after that how he trained Dorian, etc, etc. All BS. Dorian did use a lower volume than most pro’s of the day that’s true, but nothing like any kind of Mentzer HIT stuff. Dorian believed in using heavy loads and getting the job done and getting out, unlike many pros of the day, who would do 15-20 sets per bodypart and such. Dorian also has great genetics, and “help” from other sources, so he’s not exactly a great example to use for us mortals anyway.

  29. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Great comments Will.
    And no, I’m not “slamming” Poliquin, but he’s wrong about TUT, or at least the way he achieves it.

  30. George B. 11 years ago

    I’ll use machines from time-to-time just to change things up, for example, I can load up the leg press machine with some decent weight, but I definitely use free weights and dumbbells most of the time (and body weight, and bands, tires, weighted balls, sand bags … but that is another subject altogether).
    I guess I use kind of an intuitive pace on my lifts, not excessively slow, but usually not frantically fast, I try to use a smooth, medium to semi-fast controlled pace, trying to make a mind to body connection (and often cursing to myself as to why I’m doing this stuff).
    The compound exercises are best, but I must admit I do throw in some bicep, tricep and forearm/grip work.

  31. carmen gianpetro 11 years ago

    Charles,how about this px90 system i just saw on an infomercial?I’m 58yr old retired concrete laborer,woefully out of shape,and this system tell’s me i can get results training at home.The thinking behind the system seems sound ,in that it utilizes free weights,muscle confusion,and compound exercises.I’m very confused myself,and would like more bang for my buck if i go to the gym,not to be some sore old man with a sagging chest and stringy arms.It’s been a loooong layoff,as my knee’s tell me everyday.Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.Thank’s sincerely,Carmen Gianpetro

  32. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Carmen, P90X is patently absurd. Sorry.
    In your situation, you need some type of personalized instruction/support. This could mean anything from a personal trainer/coach to joining an exercise class to enrolling in a recreational sports league of some sort. Or some combination of the three. For you, I’d be more focused on developing the new habit/lifestyle as opposed to worrying too much about the methodology. Find some folks who’r doing what you’d like to be doing, join in, and start paying your dues!

  33. carmen gianpetro 11 years ago

    As far as paying dues in life ,I think i’ve done that.I’ve been doing hard physical labor for over 40 years and would still hit the gym.This isn’t my first rodeo,I was just reaching out to you, because of your vast knowledge.Thanks but no thanks,i’ll figure it out on my own.

  34. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Carmen, I apologize if my comments came across the wrong way— I meant no offense. As far as paying dues, I still need to pay them myself, despite a lifetime in the game, so I’m only giving you the same advice that I follow myself

  35. carmen gianpetro 11 years ago

    Charles,thanks for the considerations,sometimes that old Southside of Chicago mentality kicks up and I go on the defensive.I wish I could afford your book,i’ll continue to read the blogs and when I hit that wall we can talk.Thank’s,Carmen

  36. Vengeance 11 years ago

    To Charles Staley
    “Bowflex is worthless— only slightly better than jogging”
    The way I see it, bowflex is like working-out with chains. You do know that chains is an intigral part of pure strength training right? But then again, yes, I know that bowflex’s wear-out; which is why free weights will always be better…they never wear-out. The point of bowflex’s is that their max tension is at max-extentsion…just like chains. They have good tension down low, but max tension is near max extension, just like true strength training should be. I agree that Bowflex’s aren’t the best investment and that free weights are a better investment, because bowflex’s wearout, and free-weights always give the same tension. But for the while that bowflexes work optimally, I would have to give them the go-ahead…

  37. Author
    Charles Staley 11 years ago

    Hey Vengeance,
    I hadn’t even considered the fact that Bowflex wears out, but thanks for bringing that up. My issue is the constant tension/variable resistance. “Exercisers” think this is a plus because it hurts more, however experienced trainees know that free weights are far superior.

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