Lessons from the Gym

The Time When Gyms Were CoolIf you read this post, then you should be aware that I simplified my training as much as I could lately. I lift conventional weights. You know, barbells, dumbbells, etc. I still do calisthenics, but way less than before. This is the path of endurable resistance for me at the moment of writing this article.

So, what have I been able to learn (or relearn) during this time. Well, lots of things. Let me share some of them with you.

Conclusion #1: Simple Exercises Are Better for Building Muscle

It may be hard to accept, but the simplest exercises are the best for muscle-building. Barbell bench presses are superior to one-arm or planche push-ups. Barbell squats are superior to pistols.

Let me be an example. I still follow the same routine I laid out in the “Simplify” article, and it still works. I lift more weight. I do more reps, sets, etc. That training program consists of simple compound exercises. I do way less thinking regarding this type of training (because to be honest, you do not need to think a lot about lifting barbells/dumbbells). I just come to the gym, lift more, and go home. It should not be harder than that.

As a result, in 4 months I am 4 kg heavier than I was. My nutrition was the same. I don’t measure the levels of bodyfat, but considering that I got stronger in archer chin-ups with full one-arm negatives, I don’t think bodyfat is an issue. Of course, this could happen due to training variety (switching the focus from calisthenics/kettlebells to barbells/dumbbells). However, building muscle with bodyweight/kettlebell/sandbag exercises was never this easy.

Take-home point: if your goal is to build as much muscle as possible, maybe calisthenics, kettlebells, or sandbags are not for you. If you still believe you can do this with Rough Strength training implements, then it can be a good idea to work on simple compound exercises (like weighted dips or weighted chin-ups) along with the cool stuff.

Conclusion #2: MED Works

Several years ago I stumbled upon a concept of a minimum effective dose [MED] and its application in strength training. I was confused because the author suggested to train less, and it was rather strange to me at that time. The principle of MED in strength training calls for using just the bare minimum of effort. You know, if you can do less and get pretty close results to doing more, then do less. Well, now I understand this concept and fully support it. You do not need to train just for the sake of training. It won’t do you any good. Train for results and have fun in your spare time.

If we take a look at my program, there is only 3-4 exercises per day 3 times a week. The results speak for themselves.

[Note: minimum effective doses of a competing athlete and a recreational strength training enthusiast can differ a lot. Use what is suitable for you]

Take-home point: do only what needs to be done. If you can get away with doing less, then do less.

Conclusion #3: Routine Flexibility Guarantees You Consistency

When things get crazy, it is hard to squeeze in all the training sessions you have planned. That’s when a simple and flexible routine comes handy. Despite the travelling and lots of other events, I was able not to miss any sessions of the “Simplify” routine. How? Due to its structure. If you take a closer look at it, you will notice that it is an Upper-Lower-Upper split. This gives you lots of room for manipulation. You can easily pair days in case you have time only for two days in a row instead of classic Mon-Wed-Fri. For example, on Monday I perform an upper body session, on Wednesday – lower body. Now, for some reason Friday and the weekend become unavailable for training. Instead of missing sessions, I can move the last one to Thursday.

Take-home point: if you have a busy schedule and make up silly excuses about it, then a flexible training routine might be a way to go.

Conclusion #4: Pick a Gym with a Good Air Ventilation System

This was never an issue for me because I trained either outdoors, or in my apartment (and both of them have sufficient air supply). However, my current gym has a so-so air ventilation system. This causes some lightheadedness here and there. This is not a big problem for me. However, you should be aware of this stuff.

Take-home point: train outdoors.

Conclusion #5: Watch Your Technique

Another thing I’ve (re)noticed is that lots of people use mediocre technique in 90% of exercises. What’s worse is that they try to “teach” others the same mistakes. If you are trying to help them, they just engage that douchebag mode because they think they know it all. Do not be one of these losers. Clean up your technique as much as you can and be open to constructive critique.

Additionally, there is a certain group of people in the gym who try to invent new exercises. You know, gym Teslas and Edisons. In 99% of cases, they end up doing useless crap because they lack the simple knowledge of anatomy. Also, they become “stars” of gym fail compilations on YouTube. Do not be one of them either.

Take-home point: your technique should be as close to perfect as possible.

Conclusion #6: Try to Avoid Mirrors

I know it is hard when mirrors are everywhere you look. However, looking in the mirror too much is not only narcissistic and gay. If you look in the mirror while performing an exercise, you project your energy there instead of the resistance you are fighting with. When I found out this simple tweak back in the day, my strength increased tremendously.

Take-home point: look at the weight your trying to crush.

Conclusion #7: Diet Matters

A no-brainer. Yet anyone can become a victim of a poor diet. I am talking here about energy on your training session. If you still believe that what you eat exactly before the training matters, then you think not deep enough. The energy levels during your workout depend not on what you eat 2 hours before, but on what you ate last day. Digestion is a long process. It takes hours, not minutes. If you eating is shitty today, maybe tomorrow is not a good day for serious training.

Let me explain why this is important. Let’s assume you’ve eaten poorly the day before. Today you come to a training session and for some reason you have no energy. The best solution is to go home, eat and comeback tomorrow. However, you think that a real macho would train anyway. The second best solution is to lower the working weights a bit. The training session is already wasted, but you could at least practice in some exercises. However, you think that a real macho would use his regular working weights or even more. As a result – BOOM! – you get injured and miss several weeks of training.

Take-home point: as a rule of thumb, if your eating is shitty today, take a day off and eat properly tomorrow.

Conclusion #8: Nothing Changes

I’ve been in different gyms in 2007, then 2010, then 2012, then 2015, and nothing has ever changed. The majority of people still believe that machines are superior to weights. The majority still believes that supplements matter. People still come to the gym to socialize, not to train. People still do dumb shit there. It is frustrating picture to see.

No take-home point.

Closing Thoughts

I hope my experience was useful to you and you learned something new. Thanks for reading.

P.S. There was the Rough Strength’s birthday on April, 6th. Thank you for your support and enduring reading my ideas. Remember, there is no Rough Strength without you.

Keep playing rough!

Alex “The Conclusion Boss” Zinchenko

Every time you don’t like and share this article, you upset a kitten somewhere.

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15 thoughts on “Lessons from the Gym

  1. Adam Trainor

    Re #2: Seems like lately there’s been a lot of talk about the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) and probably for a good reason. Not that you mentioned to it, but this conclusion alludes to it. Focusing on the 20% of work that gets you 80% of the results is just about being more efficient. This is not a plan for excellence, not necessarily, but certainly covers more than what the average person is doing. Ex: Bicep curls simply don’t fit into my workouts. They’re fine. Just not enough ROI.

      1. Adam Trainor

        Sorry I missed them Alex. I’m just catching up on your content. Great to hear I was hearing the message between the lines. Good stuff.

  2. Dave

    I am in the same boat as you. Been considering purchasing the barbells, then leasing it out to people while I travel.

    It’s kind of hard dispute the usefulness of being able to do deadlifts and Farmer’s walks in controlled settings.

  3. Dave

    Speaking of simplification, can you explain why athletes avoid the bench press like the plague, and advocate for the clean and press or military press instead?

    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author


      Clean and press is a more functional move. Additionally, bench presses got bad reputation in late years because they can cause shoulder problems.

      – Alex

  4. TS

    I wouldn’t conclude that barbells are ultimately better that than calisthenics, however, changing your regime every now or then, or better, as part if a planned periodization, is certainly superior to not doing so. Use starting strength to tap into that linear progressionand switch to calisthenics in time before stalling. Use calisthenics to improve your base and work capacity, and get some fun, and then go back to starting strength For a while. As you advance, substitute starting strength with 5/3/1. And consider including some snatching and C&J too, as they are great fun and complements calisthenics on a beautiful way ;-)

    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author


      >I wouldn’t conclude that barbells are ultimately better that than calisthenics

      I’m glad you didn’t conclude this because I never said so.

      – Alex

  5. Dan

    Alex I am really disappointed by rule #1 I used tolove to read rough strength because you said that ths principal of resistance is more important than any other. But here you are sayIng that barbells are the best way to lift. This is totally not why I like your method and I feel very let down. Why have you moved away from Minimalistic rough strength methods? Will you ever go back?

    I have no problem with the rest of the rules because they are only relevant for gym going people.

    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author


      First of all, not a “rule” but a “conclusion”. Everything written in the article is just my experience. Feel free to ignore it.

      Secondly, you are misinterpreting my words. I never wrote “that barbells are the best way to lift.” I wrote that simple exercises are better for building muscle. Reread the section.

      Thirdly, reread this article.

      Finally, I still pursue the one-arm chin-up and do handbalancing. Will I leave the gym? Probably. Once I feel the urge to train with my implements again.

      – Alex

  6. Randy

    Hi Alex,
    Great insight as always. I find a mirror helps me with #5; watching your technique. I have one small dresser mirror in my shed gym that I use to check my form on exercises such as good mornings. I never finished the gable end of my shed, and now i never want to. I joke that is is a radon-free exercise environment. Training in a closed up gym would be rough to do full time again.
    Keep it Simple, and Less is More! These principles really apply to training.
    My biggest training insights have been keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum to keep excess weight down, and being flexible with my training days when need be. By being flexible it keeps me consistent. Plan to train three days per week, and then modify the days this happens as necessary to accommodate the family needs and responsibilities.

    I really enjoy Rough Strength and your articles!

    In strength,

    p.s. I already have hair growing on my palms.

  7. Mayukh Sen

    Hello Alex,I am about to ask you a question out of curiosity,some people say high volume push ups and pull ups build a lot of muscle,like even if you can do 60 in a row and are doing 800 push ups everyday for a month or two,you will experience considerable growth,is this true?Even if the muscle grows,what kind of hypertrophy would it be? Will I also increase strength,lets say I only lift heavy,so if all I do is this for a while,will I lose any muscle from previous heavy lifting? Thanks in advance.

    1. TS

      //like even if you can do 60 in a row and are doing 800 push ups everyday for a month or two,you will experience considerable growth,is this true?//

      Not likely. Better to vary your workout. The applications of sandbags, kettlebells, or barbells will improve this programming.

      //Will I also increase strength,lets say I only lift heavy,so if all I do is this for a while,will I lose any muscle from previous heavy lifting?//

      Not likely either. Not significant, at least. If you are used to lots of heavy lifting, however, running an 8 or 12 week cycle with high volume will lay the foundation for rapid strength gain when you shift back to heavy barbells.

      That being said, why not combine for a cycle, say 12 weeks?

      week 1-4
      Use Wendler 5/3/1 for the heavy lifts, and kettlebells, push-ups, pull-ups, pistolsquats and other bodyweight exercises that you can do at really high volume as ‘assistance’.

      week 5-8
      Use Wendler 5/3/1 for the heavy lifts. Select high-volume bodyweight/kettlebell lifts for about 2/3 of the assistance, and lower volume for the rest, for instance weighted dips and pull-ups, or progressions towards the one-hand chin-up and hand-stand push-up for the rest.

      week 9-12
      Use Wendler 5/3/1 for your heavy lifts. Select low-rep calistenic progressions and statics for all your assistance needs.

      Make sure to balance your programme with sufficient pulling to pushing.

      Weighted back extensions, levers, and pistol squats are great assistance exercises to the deadlift.

      For the squat you may want to use the same, or get some variation with box jumps, prowler pushing, hill sprints, or simply more squats at a lower weight.

    2. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      >if you can do 60 in a row and are doing 800 push ups everyday for a month or two,you will experience considerable growth,is this true?
      I haven’t experienced this.

      >Even if the muscle grows,what kind of hypertrophy would it be?
      Does it matter that much to you?

      >Will I also increase strength,lets say I only lift heavy,so if all I do is this for a while,will I lose any muscle from previous heavy lifting?
      You may loose some muscle because the stimulus is different or may not. It requires experimentation. Anyway, once you get back to what you’ve done, you’ll gain the muscle mass back due to muscle memory.

      – Alex


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