Not every fitness question has a tried-and tested solution, but there’s always a way to plan around even the most confusing of issues.
1. How much muscle can I build without steroids?
There have been a few attempts to establish how much muscle you can build without chemicals, but the most well-researched is the Fat Free Mass Index, which plugs your height, weight and fat percentage into a slightly complicated formula [Google it – Ed] to give you your FFMI.
According to studies comparing drug-free bodybuilders with steroid users, the upper limit is around 25. That said, quite a few 1950s bodybuilders beat those numbers when designer steroids basically didn’t exist.
2. What’s the perfect squat form?
Head forward or down? Toes straight or slightly out? Shoulder-width stance, wider, or narrower? A glance at the different styles of half a dozen pros should be enough to convince anyone that there’s no single ‘best’ option, only what works for your leg-length and muscle distribution.
If you’re lifting for a specific goal, base your style on that. If you’re going for all-out strength, experiment to see what lets you lift the most, and work with that. Just don’t round your back – that’s standard across all lifters.
3. How much recovery do I really need?
Sometimes, you can train hard six days a week and still feel ready to get after it on Sunday; other days, two sets of curls leave you ready for bed. Sets, reps and rest all contribute to just how stressful a workout is, but you also need to consider your age and the types of moves you’re doing (eccentric-heavy workouts are harder to recover from).
Finally, the aspect you might not have considered is psychological stress: if it’s a tough week at work, it might not be quite the time for that Russian squat plan.
4. What’s the perfect tempo?
Four… Three… Two… And squeeeeze. If you’re doing every rep like this, well, you’re not wrong, but you also might not be working hard enough. “Time under tension certainly helps for building muscle,” says trainer James Adamson. “But if you’re able to count every rep perfectly, are you really going all out?”
Your alternative method: disregard overcomplicated 4020-style prescriptions, and think of reps as ‘fast’ or ‘slow’. Simplicity is often the best answer.
5. How much of my gym performance is in my head?
To be fair, dozens of studies have attempted to answer exactly this question, from ‘to failure’ tests, where rugby players were tasked with all-out efforts on a bike, followed by a short sprint with no recovery (proving that your brain almost always keeps something back, even if you think you’re going full blast), to studies where researchers yelled at subjects on while they exercised (result: you almost always go faster if someone shouts at you).
You’re never going to get an exact answer, but the key takeaways are constant: music, focus and competition will push you beyond what you thought was possible.
6. How much running mileage should I put in?
Consistency is key, so a few months of injury-free training beats a few weeks of all-out sessions, followed by crippling shin splints. If you’re running for health, though, things are more clear-cut – several studies, including one published this year by the Mayo Clinic, suggest that moderate weekly mileage is the most beneficial for health, with benefits starting to taper or shift into reverse as distances creep up.
Your best bet: train for a 5k, not a marathon – you’ll get more health benefits with less investment and injury.
7. Should I skip breakfast?
A 2007 study done on the one-meal-a-day Warrior Diet suggests that packing your daily intake into fewer meals can burn fat while preserving lean muscle.
The biggest problem? Appetite. How successful you’ll be with no breakfast depends on how you cope running on fumes; if you can make it to lunch on nothing but green tea and a couple of BCAA tablets then stick with it.
8. What’s the perfect warm-up?
There’s little evidence about what works, so focus on what doesn’t. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found warming of the specific muscles used in the day’s training leads to better performance than just trying to raise your core temp. Find something that gets you in the right mindset to train hard, too. That’s the most important muscle that you need to get ready.
9. What’s the best for building my chest?
Dumbbell bench pressing, for instance, might activate more motor units in the pec muscles at a certain weight than barbell benching, but does that mean dumbbells are more effective for building your chest? Well, maybe, except that muscular recruitment differs substantially from person to person. You’ll still need to experiment to see what works for you.
10. How many times a day should I eat?
Ah, the classic. The old bodybuilder prescription of six-small-meals-a-day was flawed. More sensible, according to Precision Nutrition’s Brian St Pierre, is asking how often eating is practical. “Most of our clients get on best with three meals and a snack, or protein shake,” he says. “But if you’re covering all your bases and your current frequency isn’t working for you, try switching it up.”
11. Does nutrient timing matter?
You know the theory: eating according to when you train helps you perform better, get leaner and look healthier. It seems to be that your overall intake by day matters most, and that the rest varies by individual. If you’re not sure which approach to take, try both and track your results. If your lifestyle means one option’s more manageable than the other, stick with that.
12. Is ‘the pump’ worth it?
The pump is when your muscles fill up with blood faster than it can be cleared from the area, making them temporarily look larger. For decades, the benefits were based on bro-science, but now there’s evidence that the increased bloodflow transports oxygen and nutrients to the muscle, suggesting that the effect isn’t just in your head.
For the best reason to chase the pump, it’s worth asking Arnold. “When you are pumped up, you feel stronger and it’s easier to motivate yourself to train hard and achieve high intensity,” says the Governator. “Sometimes you will walk into the gym and feel lazy but you will get a fantastic pump after a few minutes and suddenly feel energetic.” Sold!
Find fitness tips and inspiration and more in every issue of TRAIN magazine.