5 Strength Training “Rules” You Can Completely Ignore

Health and fitness are fields that are meant to be firmly rooted in science, but that doesn’t prevent a lot of myths, misconceptions, and lies from circulating the industry — and interfering with your strength gains.

We’ve heard them all, and these are the myths we’re the most tired of hearing.

1) Sore Muscles Mean You’re Getting Stronger

“If your workout doesn’t leave you cramped and painful, you didn’t work out hard enough.”

Sore muscles can mean a lot of things, but “you have had a productive workout” isn’t one of them. We don’t know exactly what causes muscle soreness, but it’s typically ascribed to a buildup of lactic acid or microscopic muscle tears, both of which can signify that you’ve had an intense workout, but that doesn’t mean the soreness is necessary if your goal is building strength.

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) usually accompanies new training stimulus, like a different exercise or increased intensity or volume, but whether or not you’ve been doing the same set-rep scheme for a few weeks or months, the lack of DOMS doesn’t mean you’re not still making progress.

Oh, and the same goes for that highly valued feeling of being completely and utterly gassed at the end of a workout, as you would after max-effort lifting or a non-stop WOD of thrusters and burpees. Intensity has its place, but remember that one of the reasons it can be so tiring is that it’s tremendously taxing on your central nervous system. Make sure you’re using intelligent programming that provides plenty of medium-intensity workouts and enough rest after the tough ones.

Which brings us to…

2) You Shouldn’t Exercise on Rest Days

Don’t take “rest day” so literally. Even if your workout was super taxing — especially if your workout was super taxing — it’s important to move on your rest days.

A lot of people take that to mean a brisk walk and then back to the couch for more Netflix, and while that’s a million times better than nothing, you shouldn’t be afraid to engage in some resistance training that takes you through your full range of movement. Mobility work, yoga, bodyweight circuits, or a light kettlebell workout can help to reduce stiffness, improve range of motion, and perhaps most importantly, boost blood flow and deliver nutrients to your beat up muscles.

The latter reason is why it’s actually a good idea to include movements that are similar to the workout you’re recovering from, like push-ups after chest day or light kettlebell swings after deadlifts.

All that means that while exercise requires recovery, exercise also is recovery, if it’s not too taxing.

[Want the right workout for your rest day? Here’s how to structure active recovery.] 

3) Cardio Will Eat Your Muscle and Strength

We keep saying this, but it bears repeating: any kind of cardio, when programmed correctly, can improve your lifting performance. It increases blood flow, opens capillaries, and by improving your cardiorespiratory system it can reduce recovery time between sets.

There are two schools of thought: don’t do cardio, or keep your cardio to high intensity intervals training. HIIT can be a great time saver and it shreds fat like nobody’s business, but even steady state cardio has its benefits: it’s less taxing on the central nervous system and less likely to impede your recovery from strength workouts. That means it’s not too difficult to drop it into a strength cycle, even if it’s not programmed.

Additionally, some steady state cardio can help alleviate soreness, improve sleep and appetite, and warm your body for mobility.

[Avoiding cardio is one of these 5 powerlifting “rules” you should break.]

4) You’ll Only Get Stronger With Low Reps

Conventional wisdom says that if you’re looking to build strength and power, you stick to heavy sets of three to five reps per set. If you’d rather build muscle, you’re better off with eight to twelve reps, or maybe even twenty reps. That’ll produce a bigger pump and more hypertrophy.

As a guideline, low reps for strength and high reps for hypertrophy can certainly be useful, but it leads a lot of athletes to feel that unless you’re lifting as much weight as you possibly can with low reps, you won’t get stronger from that workout.

The fact is that training a variety of different rep ranges and intensities is an excellent way to become stronger, more capable, and more athletic. Not only is there some evidence that high reps can be just as effective at building strength so long as you lift to fatigue, but many athletes forget that increasing muscle mass and size is an excellent way to help you get stronger, especially if you’ve plateaued.

Why? Bigger muscles can increase fat oxidation, which is critical for high intensity sports; they can produce more fast twitch muscle fibers, which are excellent for strength and power; and they can improve work capacity. Plus, who doesn’t like the aesthetic component?

[Bodybuilding exercises are one of the most underrated ways to increase strength in weightlifters — don’t miss the rest of the list.]

5) The Post-Workout Window Is Essential for Building Muscle

For some reason, there’s no keeping this myth down. For many athletes, the ritual of the post-workout protein shake is sacrosanct.

While it’s true that some research have shown better muscle protein synthesis when protein is consumed straight after a workout than when it’s consumed a few hours later, these studies are a little flawed. Often the subjects weren’t doing resistance training, they were untrained or elderly, the control group’s total protein intake for the day was lower, or the study didn’t look at the effect of protein timing over the course of a full training cycle.

The truth is that while the availability of amino acids after resistance training does have a better effect on muscle protein synthesis — lifting helps you build muscle, in other words — that doesn’t mean you have to rush to a protein shake ASAP after your workout’s over. Even a meal consumed hours before a training session can help stimulate post-workout muscle protein synthesis.

[What about the insulin effect? Click here to read our complete guide to the myth of the post-workout anabolic window.]

Are there any other gym myths you wish people would ignore? Let us know in the comments below.

Featured image via @elleryphotos on Instagram.

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I’m a journalist and content producer with over seven years' reporting experience on four continents, with most of that spent covering health-related issues. My resume includes covering cholera outbreaks in Kenya and the clubbing scene in Shanghai, which is also where I wrote my first ever health article for an English language magazine. (It was on diarrhea.)After returning to Australia to finish up degrees in Journalism and International Relations I wound up in New York City where I’ve worked for Men’s Health, VICE, Popular Science and others. I try to keep health relatively simple — it’s mostly vegetables and sweat — but I live to explore the debates, the fringes, the niche, and the nitty gritty.