The Commercial Gym Conundrum

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I was going to do nothing but wish everyone a Happy New Year today, but I got an interesting question from one of my old distance coaching clients yesterday that I wanted to share:

Q: I read your blog about a week ago on how anyone looking to put on muscle will also put on some fat. You mention (quite modestly) that many of your clients want to look like you. At the risk of over-inflating your ego, I’ll say I wouldn’t mind that either.

Now before I go on, I’ll say that I definitely buy in to your training philosophy, particularly with regards to injury prevention. Why else would I fly out to train with you, right?

That said, one point I’d like to see you address in your blog more closely is that the reason you have the “look” your clients aspire to is that you appear a bit on the top-heavy side. Don’t get me wrong, we all know of your badass deadlifts (Note from TG: see below) but it’s hard to convince some skinny kid that deadlifts and squats will do anything for upper body, especially in commercial gyms (where most people have to train) where guys never do lower body and still look much like you do.

How would you address this? Why should someone bust his ass on lower body work when there are plenty of examples of guys who train arms 7 times a week and, (heaven forbid) have some big ass arms?

A: While I could easily write a book on this topic (Note to self: I need to write a book), I’ll try to keep this as short and sweet as possible. Which is to say, I need to leave to head to the facility to train in like 30 minutes.

So, yeah, you bring up some interesting points pertaining to what I’ve said in the past here on the blog. I think it comes down to this, and it’s a quote I feel summarizes my thoughts to a tee (courtesy of my friend, John Brooks)

You’re not strong enough to worry about how you look.

Now, I’m certainly not insinuating that this applies to you (or anyone reading this); but it most certainly applies to 95% of trainees out there. I think you “get it.” Meaning, you understand that in order to get “the look,” you HAVE to put the work in.

Or, put another way, you recognize that 80% of your results are going to come from 20% of the work – deads, squats, chins, bench presses, rows, push-ups, single leg work, etc. If more people placed an emphasis on those things alone, they’d probably be a lot more satisfied with their results. Including a tricep and rear delt day on your off day isn’t going to cut it.

This isn’t to say that I don’t have a little bodybuilder in me, and I don’t perform barbell curls from time to time. I do, but it’s rare. For me, what works best and has reaped the best results, is to focus on compound movements.

Too, I feel that if more people trained like an athlete, they’d probably look like one. Does it apply to everyone? No. There are plenty of juiced up meatheads in every gym in America, doing lots of stupid things, that look hella big (and strong). The one caveat, though? For many (not all), they have no semblance of athleticism.

What good is to be able to bench press three plates on each side (ahem, in the Smith Machine), if you can’t even touch your toes? Or beat my five year old niece in a foot-race for that matter? Sorry, but that doesn’t impress me. Even if you can leg press 10 plates on each side.

Awesome, you have 16 inch arms. But can I tell you how many times I’ve had guys come into my facility with impressive physiques who can’t even skip correctly.

Yeah, yeah. yeah: the argument can be made that everyone has different goals and that their training should garnered towards those goals. Far be it from me to tell someone what their goals should be. But come on, I AM a strength and performance coach for crying out loud. Should it come as any surprise why I’m so set in my ways?

That said, with regards to your statement: it’s hard to convince some skinny kid that deadlifts and squats will do anything for upper body, especially in commercial gyms (where most people have to train) where guys never do lower body and still look much like you do.


How would you address this? Why should someone bust his ass on lower body work when there are plenty of examples of guys who train arms 7 times a week and, (heaven forbid) have some big ass arms?

– How many of those guys who train upper body seven times per week, train without sweatpants or windpants on? I thought so.

– I’ve never said that training arms is a waste of time. I just feel that if someone wants to pack on mass on their entire body, there should be a checklist of priorities. Deadlifts before isolation bicep curls. Always. No debate.

I actually co-authored an article on t-nation on this very topic. Click ME

– Some of your body’s largest muscle groups are below the waist: excluding the obvious sexual pun I could use here, I’m referring to the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. What’s more, I’d argue that squats and deadlifts do more for upper back development than any Hammer Strength machine will ever do.

Think about it: when you place 300+ lbs on your back and squat it, your ENTIRE body comes into play. You have to fire just about every muscle in your upper back so that you don’t tip over.

What’s more, and this is purely my own opinion, I just feel that deadlifts/squats are going to have more of an impact on upper body development (due to the fact that they’re both a full body movement), than bicep curls will have on lower body development. It’s just common sense.

– In the end, however, it comes down to this: if you really want to improve, you’ll seek out people who are stronger than you. The best training year I ever had was when I trained at South Side gym in Stratford, CT (they’re no longer located there) back in 2005. I trained alongside some big mofos, and let me tell you, there’s nothing that will motivate you more than to watch dudes speed press 405 lbs like it’s air.

Training environment is hyoooooge. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people come into the facility, and after one week, walk up to me and say, “you’re totally right.”

Even if it’s only once per week, find a better place to train where you’re going to be surrounded be less douchy people, and you’re less likely to want to throw up a little in your mouth.

On that note. I hope everyone has a safe and happy New Years. Thanks again for all the support, and keep your eyes peeled for a little change of scenery soon…….;o)

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