All Show and No Go? Deconstructing "Arms Day"

When I first heard the phrase "curse of knowledge" I knew exactly what it meant.  For one, I thought of past teachers that couldn't understand why I failed to grasp their subject (looking at you, my 9th grade math teacher).  For another, I thought of my previous life as a social marketer, when I had a boss keen on telling me that what I "should've done" only after it had been completed.

In both cases, someone forgot what it's like to be without the knowledge that they take for granted. I'll be the first one to say that I get plagued by the curse of knowledge all the time. I try to hide it well - the curse, that is, hopefully not the knowledge - but it still leaks out.

Sorry, overly manly man.  That type of workout is so 20th century.

Sorry, overly manly man.  That type of workout is so 20th century.

Such was the case when I made an offhand comment that having an "arms day" is useless until a guy can knock out 10 full range chin-ups, or 2-3 for women. That's exactly when someone asked "why?"

It's a simple question. Yet I wasn't able to give an intelligent answer. I had 3 different thoughts rushing to leave my mouth, but none of them could make its way through coherently. What I said was glorified gibberish because I didn't even know where to start.

And just like your textbook introvert, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.  The only solution?  I must blog it out of me.  To be clear, I have nothing against taking the swoletastic voyage and getting a pump.  But I do take offense at prioritizing aesthetics over function.  And here's why:

1. Our bodies remember movements, not muscles.

What I love about training is that it's super specific.  If you want to get good at deadlifting, you need to deadlift.  Even better, there's direct carryover to the ability to pick something up in the gym and the ability to pick something up in life.

On that same thought, we could do a ton of weight on a leg press machine, but how often are we put on our back and told to push? Child-bearing jokes aside, if that same leg presser puts a bar on their back and squats, it's not going to look very good.  

Or if we do a ton of bicep curls, we're going to feel the "pump" and get good at bicep curls.  But last I checked we use a lot more muscles to pick stuff up than just our biceps - especially if we're on our back and pushing (we've come full circle).  If we're not training how to pick something up in the real world, we're setting ourselves up for problems.  Which brings me to my next point..  

2. It's a healthier approach.

When I first started lifting my Mondays went by a different name: "All Chest, All Day."  Bench press, incline bench press, flys, the pec deck, pushups, dips - I did all of it.  The biggest lesson I learned? This approach was not the right recipe for getting "bigger."  But it was the right recipe for a shoulder impingement.

I speak from experience when I say that if we only care about the muscles we see in the mirror, we're taking a very myopic approach.  While we may see gainz, we're setting ourselves up for muscular imbalances by overworking some muscles and underworking others.  

One of my favorite gauges for these imbalances is the disparity between someone's bench press and their 3-rep max chin-up.  My best bench press to date has only been a measly 270, but my best 3-rep chin-up has been 294 pounds (adding 106 lbs to my 188 lb frame).  The number of shoulder issues I've encountered since changing my priority to strength?  Zero.

We're also leaving a lot on the table when we only work our mirror muscles.  Dips, bicep curls, shoulder raises, etc. are easily trumped by chin ups, front squats and overhead presses from a muscle building point of view.  When you start working the muscles you can't see in the mirror (hamstrings, glutes, traps, lats, etc.) that's when you'll really notice aesthetic changes.

3. Why are you lifting?

At last, we come to the crux of the issue: do we want to look strong or actually be strong?  It's a lot like the psychology behind crash dieting - do we want to look healthy, or do we want to actually be healthy?  Those that use crash diets choose the former, but we know the latter is best for long-term physical and psychological health.

When we measure ourselves purely from an aesthetic point of view, we're trying to hit a moving target.  There will always be a few inches we could lose from "here" and a few inches we could gain "there."  But when we focus on hitting realistic strength goals we'll get aesthetics with the added benefit of achieving tangible goals through hard work.  

And you know, actually being strong.