Ever since I first starting going to the gym, long before I was a Coach, long before I had even shed that stubborn layer of fat I used to carry everywhere, there was always someone telling me about a specific piece of equipment or exercise that I should be using if I wanted results. In the beginning I would spend a lot of time trying to work out ways to incorporate all this wisdom into my program, and my program became horrifically confused as a result.
It took me a long time to realise that the most intelligent answer I could receive to questions like “Is this piece of equipment better than that one?” or “What’s the best machine for me to use to build muscle in my legs,” was “I don’t know.”
Eventually I became qualified. After that I became experienced. These days I’m just hoping to eventually be wise.
As I walk that path, though, I find myself now the recipient of a lot of questions like the ones I mentioned above. There’s always a new piece of equipment, a new trend, a new method of programming, or something that’s taking the fitness world by storm. Even in my private life I will be asked at social events what I think of a piece of equipment or training methodology.
The answer is that it doesn’t matter.
Muscles respond to one thing and one thing only.
Whether you swim, use suspension trainers, kettle bells, whether your coach is qualified in Crossfit or Movnat, or whatever’s cool at the moment, if you’re trying to foster adaptation in your muscles, there is only one language they speak.
That language is tension.
Your machines, your free weights, your kettle bells, your suspension trainers, they all have their virtues and drawbacks, but the thing they have in common is this; they are all just mediums. They are all just tools you use to create tension. It’s not the tool itself, but the way in which it is used that will make the difference to your results, and different tools are going to be right for different jobs.
Imagine you’re doing a few jobs around your house, and the first job involved hammering some picture hooks into the wall. You pick up a hammer and use it. It performs the job brilliantly, and you say to yourself, “This hammer is amazing, by picking it up and using it I had this job done in a few seconds. Clearly it’s the king amongst tools and I must use it for everything.”
The next job is cleaning your windows. How’s that going to go with a hammer?
The hammer’s just a tool. It performs a function, and as such is better for some jobs than others, but its value is dependent on how it’s used, it doesn’t generate force independently.
Likewise any piece of equipment you see. One isn’t necessarily inherently better than another, they are all designed for different jobs, but with one purpose, and that purpose is to create tension. One might be better for you as an individual, due to physical makeup or circumstances (want to train legs but need a piece of equipment that fits in a suitcase? I’m going to be recommending a TRX over a commercial-grade leg-press. You can use either to generate tension to some degree, but that’s not what’s governing your limitations right now), but they all do the same thing.
So stop worrying about whether you should be using the leg-press, the hack-squat, or the free-weights, or which combination of the three is optimal, and start worrying about how much tension you’re creating in your muscles and for how long. Three well-constructed sets of hack-squats where you maintain tension for sufficiently long that your muscles are forced to adapt is going to kick the shit out of five sets on the barbell with poor form and no real tension. Pick a piece of equipment and make sure your technique is right and you’re getting the most out of it.
A lot of wise-sounding people talk about muscular damage, creating microtears in the muscle so they repair stronger. A lot of people talk about metabolic stress. These have become industry buzzwords, and they are not without value. Sure, we want these things, without them we won’t adapt, but they are all products of tension. Without tension we don’t ever achieve them.
So what’s your practical take-away from this article? When you’re doing a set, the following things don’t matter as much as you thought they did:
What equipment you used.
How many reps you did.
How much weight you stacked on the bar.
They are all secondary considerations after how much time you placed your muscles under tension for.
Now go out and crush it.
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