On October 11, I’ll hit the platform at the RPS Power Challenge in Everett, Mass., for the seventh meet of my powerlifting career. I’m shooting for a 1500 total and a double bodyweight bench press.
In March, I went 8-for-9 with a 1435 total at 198 and won Best Lifter, which was a nice comeback after I turned in an absolute turd of a performance in April 2013.
What was the secret to the dramatic turnaround?
Simple: I cut out the crap that didn’t matter.
You see, I used to have a serious disorder. It’s called Exercise F.O.M.O. (Fear Of Missing Out), a devastating variation of the more common social F.O.M.O. You see this all the time when groups of friends go out to the bar, only to have everyone glued to their phones, texting their friends that aren’t there because, you know, God forbid they miss something more fun going on somewhere else.
F.O.M.O. is stupid and preventable. Put down your damn phone and enjoy the people around you.
Exercise F.O.M.O. is an overarching term used to describe the general disease of using an unfocused approach to exercise in an attempt to reach multiple, conflicting goals. As we move on, you’ll see that this deadly affliction comes in many forms.
Exercise F.O.M.O. occurs when someone becomes so obsessed with finding the “perfect” program that they try to do everything all at once, yet accomplish nothing. They want to get shredded, but they also want to squat three times their bodyweight. While adding five inches to their biceps. And training for a Tough Mudder. On a juice cleanse. Gotta flush out those toxins, ya know?
You see how stupid that sounds? The person who takes that approach will not achieve a single one of those goals to the fullest potential. It’s the fast track to mediocrity and nothing more.
Luckily, Exercise F.O.M.O. is curable.
Picking one goal and attacking it without mercy is the fastest way to become the best version of yourself. Stop multitasking and start attacking.
EXHIBIT A: THE PROGRAM HOPPER
The classic example of Exercise F.O.M.O. is the program hopper. Everyone’s been there. You’re fired up to start a new exercise program. Maybe you pulled it from the pages of a bodybuilding magazine, bought it in an e-book or were lucky enough to have a trainer write it for you. The first few workouts are great, but then… F.O.M.O. sets in.
Maybe the results aren’t coming as fast as you’d like. Maybe a flashier program caught your eye. What is it you’re missing? Is it the program? (Probably not) Or is it just you? (Probably)
That nagging feeling that there’s something better out there will poison your results. It’s cliché at this point, but a mediocre program executed with maximum faith and focus will always outperform the perfect program done with skeptical effort.
You have to stick to a program for six weeks, bare minimum. Strength changes won’t show up any faster than four weeks unless you’re a complete novice, and hypertrophy takes even longer. Weight/fat loss will be somewhere in the middle depending on your starting point, but long-term results require long-term commitment. Six weeks minimum, eight weeks is even better, and 12 weeks tells the true story about a program’s effectiveness.
I don’t care if you can’t objectively measure faith in the lab, but it’s just as important a training variable as sets, reps and load. Buy in or get out.
Another fatal F.O.M.O. mistake is failing to properly organize your assistance work. Sure, the big money is in the big lifts if you want to get strong, but beyond the first few months of training, you need an intelligent approach to assistance work to bring up weak points and keep driving your big lifts.
For the longest time, my “approach” to assistance work was “whatever I feel like”. I accepted the fact that muscles were muscles and the physiology for growth was pretty much the same across the board: take a muscle to failure or pretty damn close and it will grow, independent of volume, load or exercise selection. It’s tough to argue against that logic on paper or in the lab, but on the platform it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Dave Tate always says that you need “indicator exercises”. You need assistance exercises that you know drive up your main lifts. Dave’s example is always the floor press. If his floor press went up, his bench press would go up. The same couldn’t be said for his incline press and certainly not for pec flyes or pushups, so he took the floor press and treated it like a main lift. That means careful planning for sets, reps and intensity over the course of a training cycle.
How many times have you finished your main lift, got to your assistance work and just winged it? What’ll it be today? The arbitrary 3 sets of 10? Cut a set short if you’re feeling lazy? Go 4×8 if you’re feeling wild?
Ask yourself: would you plan like this for your precious Big Three? Then why the hell would you be so careless with your assistance work?
Look back at your old training logs (you keep a training log, right?) and take note of when your squat, bench or deadlift made the most progress. Now, what assistance work did you do? What other exercises got stronger too? Whatever those are, keep ‘em in your back pocket because they will be your ticket from average to good or good to great.
Here’s the bottom line on assistance work: stick with the same exercises for at least four weeks. No shorter but not too much longer. Make sure the weight or total volume increases every single week. No exceptions. After 4-6 weeks, switch exercises and start over.
I want to talk specifically about the strain of Exercise F.O.M.O. that causes an extreme problem with exercise selection. We’ll use a case study, examining a particularly neurotic powerlifter. You guessed it – that’s me.
When I painfully underperformed at the APF meet in April 2013, I did my own programming, which was a risk in itself. But most importantly, I used WAY too many exercises and rep ranges. I was hitting a different rep range for the squat, bench and deadlift every week, making it difficult to make steady progress. I’d hit 8’s one week, 3’s the next, 5’s the next. Sometimes I’d miss reps, so my 8’s turned into 7’s and my 3’s turned into 2’s or 1’s. There was no continuity and it showed on the platform.
At the same time, I was so scared of becoming “unbalanced” (whatever that means) from so much heavy lifting that I was doing too many different exercises. Heavy benching required at least two rowing variations, plus biceps curls to balance the triceps work and rotator cuff exercises to keep my shoulders healthy. Oh, and you can’t forget the overhead pressing – that’s what builds the bottom of the bench press, right? And lots of pull-ups – at least 10 reps for every set of overhead press.
And that’s only the upper body. Onto the legs! Gotta deadlift twice a week, once heavy and once for speed. But when that speed still sucked, I added snatches. There’s no faster pull than a snatch, right? And single leg work – dammit, I hated every second of it, but you gotta be Quadzilla to keep those knees from crashing in during squats, no? That, plus at least 100 banded hip abductions at the beginning of every workout. On top of my already exaggerated warmup.
And don’t get me started on the warmup! Foam roll everything. Lax ball it too, if it needs it. And my glutes and pecs always needed it. Next, stretching and breathing. Six deep breaths and no less to unglue my hips, ankles and lats. Then we gotta crank on that locked-up t-spine – in extension and rotation. No cutting corners here. And God help me the day I discovered band distraction…
A RECOVERING ADDICT
You see how insane that is? I was literally addicted to being meticulous. Completely obsessive compulsive. Workouts often exceeded the 2-and-a-half hour mark. I’d beat myself up mentally if I had to cut the session short and omit the ever-important wrist curls (flexion, extension and ulnar deviation, mind you).
Guess what happened in the end? I wasn’t good at anything. In fact, I got worse. I dropped 70 pounds off my total and didn’t set a single PR at that meet.
REHAB THROUGH SIMPLICITY
Simplicity became my saving grace. For my next meet, I switched to full body workouts. Two big exercises per session meant I didn’t have the time or energy to do a million assistance exercises. And guess what? That was OK! Not only did I survive – I got stronger.
Instead of worrying about my arms getting smaller cuz I wasn’t doing curls every week and instead of lying awake at night because I didn’t maintain a 2:1 pull-to-push ratio, I zeroed in on being the best squatter, bencher and deadlifter I could possibly be.
Now don’t get me wrong. I still did assistance work, but I limited it to two exercises at most each workout. I still did conditioning, but never more than twice a week. And I still did bodybuilding-style workouts, but only at the end of a tough training week when I needed to give neglected muscles some extra work.
You see, before you reach a certain level of strength or size, exercise variation is extremely overrated. Stick with the basics, get stronger every day and save the muscle confusion for the P90X dweebs.
ONE ASS, TWO HORSES
Jim Wendler has said, “You can’t ride two horses with one ass.”
Jim’s the king of simplicity, as shown by his ingeniously simple 5/3/1 program. The widespread success of that system and other bare-bones programs like Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength and Jason Ferruggia’s Minimalist Training proves that almost anyone can get bigger and stronger with just a few simple exercises 3-4 times per week.
Now, your training doesn’t have to be simple, but your goals should be. Some people have made a living (or an entire WODing, kipping and wall-balling fitness empire) based on being a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none. But if you’re not seeking mastery in some element of life, what the fuck are you doing?
Trust the process, enjoy the journey and overcome the fear of missing out on what you could be doing.