Excuses, Excuses I: Fake Specificity
I’ve heard lots of people claim to avoid a certain exercise or training structure because it doesn’t fit their sport or particular physical goal. I have no inherent problem with this reasoning – heck, I even use it to explain why none of my runs ever go over 10km. There is considerable support for it: the ultramarathoner will not benefit from the mass gain caused by 10 sets of 10 front squats, and the powerlifter doesn’t need to run 42km. Sport is specific by nature; if it doesn’t fit the specific needs, you don’t need it.
My problem is when this legitimate reason becomes an excuse to avoid something difficult.
I have a friend who is into bodybuilding. At least, he says so – you wouldn’t know by looking at him, but that isn’t the point of this post. Anyway, he uses fairly traditional straight-out-of-Men’s-Health routines and exercises – 3 sets of 10, curls and rows, etc. One thing he avoids, for whatever reason, is having to work towards pull-ups. Despite the various types of curls, rows, and pull-downs he uses during Back and Biceps Day, he remains incapable of a single perfect pull-up.
His rationale is that he doesn’t train for functional performance, so he doesn’t need to be able to do a pull-up.
At first glance, it seems a vaguely reasonable idea. Bodybuilders need a degree of muscle isolation that other sports don’t bother with. However, the pull-up is a fantastic exercise in this arena simply because of the number of muscles worked and the amount of weight being shifted. A perfect pull-up forces your back, biceps, and forearms to shift almost 100% of your body weight. For me, that would be close to 185lbs per pull. As I do sets of 8-10, each set has me shifting as much as 1850lbs. In comparison, doing a set of 10 bicep curls with 20lbs per arm means you’ve shifted 400lbs. Even if all of this was done with just your biceps and forearms, it pales in comparison.
Simply put, there has never been an elite bodybuilder who left pull-ups and variations thereof out of his program, and for damn good reason. Thus, the pull-up is not excluded because it doesn’t fit the goal.
Careful analysis – admittedly, perhaps more than many people are willing to undertake – of goals and methods is required to properly determine what must be cut away. Outdated or unproven reasons should be examined and discarded. In short, figure out what you’re talking about.
Now, I would rather assume that people simply need more information and help in the gathering thereof than consider the alternative, which is that people leave certain things out simply because they’re fully aware of what they suck at. That friend of mine may avoid pull-ups not because he isn’t aware of their value, but because the inability to perform even a single rep reminds him of how weak he is – especially given that he knows at least two of the girls I’ve trained can do sets of 3-5. It’s more comfortable to avoid that reminder of his shortcomings and craft an excuse for it later on.
At this point, “It doesn’t fit my programming” is not a reason, but an excuse to avoid your weaknesses. This is, I think, one reason people are likely to fail, and a subset of the “I’m scared of difficulty” mentality. If you aren’t ready to explore, then you will not realize your full potential.