Stop majoring in the minor

It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about? – Henry David Thoreau

Are you prioritizing your time at the gym correctly? Are you focusing the majority of your time on what will lead to the majority of your results? Or are you like many other out there that focus on the minor? That get caught up on the small stuff that really doesn’t amount to much? When writing an essay, your first priority is not what type of font to use; or what type of paper to print on, but rather what the main topic/argument/thesis of the essay will be. The same logic applies to fitness, training & diet.

He's got his priorities right

Don’t misinterpret this as meaning you should to ignore the details; there is a difference between checking if you’ve crossed your t’s and dotted your i’s and worrying about what binding your essay will be presented in; before you even have anything written down. Don’t make the mistake of spending too much time concerned with stuff that doesn’t result in a lot. You want your payoff/results to reflect your workload/input. By all means you still need to spend time on the small stuff, but only focus a little of your time and energy on these things.

You can see it all the time, people concerned & stressed over the little things that don’t eventuate to much. Doing forearm curls, yet require lifting straps to deadlift anything under 300lbs. Blasting through concentration curls and being unable to complete pullups or even chin-ups. Countless leg extensions and not one body weight squat. Now obviously, all these exercises can have a place in anyone’s training regime, but they really shouldn’t make up the bulk of a program or take precedent over big compound movements. More often than not people focus on the smaller muscle groups over the larger (mostly undeveloped) muscle groups. Think about how big your actual biceps and triceps are, now compare that to your quadriceps & hamstrings; now why would it make sense to dedicate the same amount of time to both muscles groups? Simple logic would dictate to spend more time on the bigger muscle group! Majoring in the minor applies to the entire gamut of training life, however I’ll focus simply on exercise selection and programming choice.

Stealing from time management strategies used by businesses can really help you analyse how to allocate and prioritize your workouts. There are five steps to effectively managing your time:

  1. Understand the process
  2. Focus your goals
  3. Time allocation
  4. Priorities
  5. Action

Common sense steps right? Now you don’t necessarily need to have a clinical understanding of muscle function and myofribular contractions, sliding filament theory etc. But you should understand the basic principles of anatomy and factors of how we get muscles stronger and bigger:  progressive overload, adaptation, exercise selection, sets/reps, tempo and rest. There are plenty of sites and other resources that explain this, Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe is an amazing book for this. Basically, if you don’t understand the process you won’t be able to know which activities deserve your priority and which ones don’t. As they say, knowledge is power.

An example of how your goal affects your training

Once you understand the process, it only seems logical to establish what you want to achieve. Without a clear goal, you won’t be able to select the strategy best needed to get there. It’s like getting in your car and driving with no destination, you’re going to waste gas and cause wear & tear to the vehicle and you’ll either drive in circles or end up in a place you don’t want to be. Gain muscle, lose fat, increase strength, improve performance in a certain sport, just ‘be healthy’. Now they are not always mutually exclusive goals, but it does take a different strategy to accomplish each, so you should have one to focus on as this will concentrate your time & efforts in the most appropriate place.

The goals carry into time allocation & prioritizing your activities. Having clear goals will mean less time is wasted in fruitless exercises. If strength is your goal, you’ll know to spend less time on cardio and more time lifting heavy weights in the 1-6 rep range with lots of rest in between sets. Want to lose weight, your focus will shift towards HIIT, lower rest periods and increasing intensity. Now some strategies will overlap with each other, but the main focus of the program in its entirety will each have their own nuances.  This is also where understanding the process comes into play, knowing how important the posterior chain is to athletic development will affect exercise selection. Understanding that upper back development is more important than chest development will not only improve your posture but also bring up other lifts. Different muscle in the body are composed of different muscle fibres too, which will also dictate exercise selection and training frequency; you can squat almost everyday without ‘overtraining’ (you pretty much squat every time you sit and stand up, those intense Russian olympian programs also incorporate everyday squatting).

All the planning and preparation won’t amount to anything if not put into action. This one kind of speaks for itself. As Gordon B Hinckley said, undoubtedly a long time ago, “You can’t plow a field simply by turning it over in your mind”.

Strength Development Goals examples

Urgent/Important Matrix

Critical Activities

  • Training for a meet
  • Improving glute & hamstring strength
  • Improving anti-movement ab strength (See anything written by Dr. Stuart McGill)

Important goals

  • Increasing pullup performance
  • Improving accessory lifts
  • Olympic Lifts
  • Injuries
  • Direct anterior & lateral deltoid work
  • Bicep hypertrophy
  • Calf press strength

Action Priority Matrix Exercise Selection examples

The Action Priority Matrix

Major Projects

  • Squats
  • Deadlift
  • Bench
  • Pullups
  • Overhead Presses
Quick Wins
  • L sits
  • GHR
  • Face pulls
  • Palof Press
Hard Slogs
  • Pistol Squat
  • Good Mornings
  • Stiff Leg Deadlift
  • Power cleans
Fill Ins
  • Bicep Curl
  • Calf presses
  • Cable flies
  • Leg extensions/curls

The above list of goals and exercise is from my own training routine and by all means isn’t exhaustive or probably even correct. But it is what I am applying at the moment and fits into my current goals. This will change person to person, goal to goal.

The Five Pillars of ‘Fitness’

  • Cardiovascluar endurance
  • Muscular Strength
  • Muscular Endurance
  • Flexibility
  • Body Composition

A common way to assess fitness is to see how well each of these pillars is built. Just like the support for a gazebo, if there are missing or underdeveloped pillars some see this as an unstable structure. However, this doesn’t exactly transfer directly to the body, as a jack of all trades approach will mean that all pillars are sub-par. It is definitely important to have a ‘balanced’ training style, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be your goal. Choosing a specific goal (no matter what it is) should and will come at a detriment of the other four pillars. It will dictate what you should be devoting a majority of your time on. Training for a marathon? 1RM squats won’t really help and will most likely be detrimental to your marathon time. Want to touch your toes, high intensity hill sprints probably won’t do much for that goal. Increase your 1RM? Performing 20 rep sets most likely won’t add anything. Wanting to add slabs of muscle to your frame? A high volume approach is the most common approach. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t do any of the above listed activities, but they must be tailored to your needs and goals; marathon runners, bodybuilders, powerlifters, sprinters, swimmers, gymnasts, rugby front rowers, soccer mid fielders are all athletes with specific performance criteria that may not transfer well across other disciplines.

What is a major training tool for one athlete will be a minor training tool for another. This doesn’t only apply across sports but also within the realm of bodybuilding and weight lifting. There are four main goals in weight training:

  1. Strength
  2. Hypertrophy
  3. Conditioning
  4. Aesthetics

I listed them in that order because each goal while seemingly different, all build upon the preceding goal. This is to not say that strength is a lower goal, on the contrary, it means that strength is at the core of all following goals, it is essential to build a solid base of strength in order to achieve and excel at the other goals listed. No one ever got jacked listing 5lb dumbbells, having strength is quintessential to every activity in the gym, building muscle, conditioning your body and lastly looking good!

Rocky... Strong

Building strength should be the focus of every beginner and will lead to better results and gains in the short term and set them up for a long and awesome weight training journey. Being strong is what will lead to major results. A very simplistic way for a beginner to analyse where to focus their time will be the location of the muscle on the body, the closer to the center mass the muscle is, the more important it is to train. So ideally the core is your first priority, (it is the ‘core’ of the body and is essentially the power link between your upper and lower body. A weak core is akin to trying to transfer power through a rope as opposed to a rigid pole, a weak connection degrades the power transfer). Some debate here, but next up are the legs, namely the hips, glutes, quads & hammies. Yes, they are extremities, BUT almost all power starts in the legs, be it jumping, pushing, lifting, throwing, punching or tackling. The power originates at the feet and works it’s way up the body. Put simply; You can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe. Next up is the back, which supports the spine and the rest of the body. Taking precedence over the chest, not only are the pectorals significantly smaller than the latisimuss dorsi, but a lot of our bodies are imbalanced due to our lifestyles (sitting, crouching, slouching and other bad posture habits). Then come the upper arms followed by the calves & forearms.

Albeit an overly simplistic breakdown of muscle building priority, it serves to highlight where most people should focus their training to get the biggest results. Focusing on the minor muscles without logic or purpose will lead to subpar results despite putting in a lot of work. Ten minutes spent on squats or pull ups has a far greater payoff than 10 minutes spent on forearm curls. Stalled progress and training plateaus will eventually lead to people focusing on the smaller/minor muscles/exercises i.e., addressing a weak point in the power chain, a structural/muscle imbalances or injury rehab.

There is definitely a difference between the details and the minor. For example, having weak external rotators will have a negative effect on your lifts & strength. However, being a small and visually unnoticed muscle, it is often ignored in people’s training routine. Yet this is a very important group of muscles to train & strengthen. They help with posture and shoulder issues, great for prehab and rehab of the shoulder socket and helps to counter a hunched posture. Ignoring this small muscle group holds a lot of people back in their gains. It really doesn’t require a lot of extra work, mainly a few minutes every workout either doing band pull aparts, face pulls, dumbbell external rotators, to name a few. Being able to activate these muscles during the three big lifts will break through a lot of plateaus and help add poundages. Compared with say the bicep brachii which I think gets way too much attention, this small muscle has relatively little carryover to other lifts, focusing on building a bigger and stronger back will have more carryover to your bicep size and strength than those 30lb dumbbell curls. Not to say the bicep isn’t important and shouldn’t be trained, rather it has a lesser effect on lifts and most people devote too much time in their training routines to this ‘show muscle’

There are so many options available out there for selecting exercises. It’s important to know exactly where to focus your time to get the best results. Failing to do so will lead to subpar results and disappointment.

If you don’t do what’s best for your body. You’re the one who comes up on the short end. – Julius Erving

References & extra reading:

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