"Old School Lifting" is Not the One Noble Path of Exercise

some gripes from an old man who can't really lift anymore

In the 20 years I’ve been lifting weights fads have rolled in and out with supreme regularity. Lifting, as a culture, is driven by an odd mixture of folk wisdom, science, rumor, and trend. When I started lifting, every muscle magazine you read (and you read them because the internet still came over the phone and charged by the minute) emphasized isolation - you wanted to focus particularly on single muscles to whatever degree possible in order to “shock” them. (Shocking muscles is one of those vague notions that seems to float around the gym perpetually, despite nobody really knowing what it means.) But as time went on, the conventional wisdom flipped to the complete other direction: muscles grow when they work together. So single arm isolation curls were out, chin-ups were in. And whether you drank your whey protein before, after, or during your workout shifted around like a suitcase in a baggage hold….

The point isn’t that things don’t get better. I do think that there’s some durable progress. The simple wisdom that losing fat requires changing your diet has settled in and is quite important. Cardio is great for your health, but unless you’re an elite athlete devoting truly heroic amounts of time to cardio, you are very unlikely to burn sufficient calories to put yourself into deficit, particularly given that you will likely eat more from the hunger inspired by that very cardio. That (some kinds of) stretching has no injury-prevention value is another beneficial wisdom that’s been communally adopted. Other stuff, we’ll see. I am a big believer in the insurgent-thinking-turned-popular-belief that there is no strength or mass gaining advantages to short rest times, and that you should rest between sets until you feel adequately rested/your heart rate goes back to normal. (It is important in general that you allow others to work in but especially true if this becomes the norm.) I will admit though that I believe this in part because I’m lazy and hate having to do sets on short proscribed rest periods.

But the weight room is still as subject to faddishness as teens on Tik Tok. Here’s one thing that has become huge and which I think is a significant negative turn: the widespread belief that “old school” or “meat and potatoes” lifting is both the best way to get fit and somehow more virtuous, specifically that which is exemplified in powerlifting routines and principles, or at least in the “big three” exercises of bench press, deadlifts, and squats. Like seemingly everything else in the gym, this notion sort of flitted in through the air conditioning and into people’s brains at some point and now every guy who was doing P90X or whatever three years ago is like “YOU PULLING TODAY?” and has an opinion on whether the supinated hand on a mixed grip threatens the biceps. They like chalk, circle plates, and intense arches in their bench press form. They hate machines but in a supposedly different way than meatheads of yore and also they want you to know that they are very much not meatheads and they think crunches are low status and that the Olympic lifting medalists with giant guts are “if you think about it, what really being fit looks like.”

I concede that the term “old school lifting” in the post title is a bit loose. I mean it to include not just classic powerlifting programs but also, for example, the very widespread Starting Strength/5x5s approach to lifting, which means lowish reps at high weights for traditional compound lifts like the big three and military press etc. None of which, I will repeatedly stress, is wrong. That stuff can be great for the right person in the right context. It’s just that this stuff is being incorrectly universalized, and in a very weird way, has become equated with a kind of weight room virtue that I find bizarre and unproductive. Influential fitness YouTubers and the general weightlifting street have embraced this ethos of lifting (indeed the notion that lifting should have an ethos or is an ethos in itself) and now everybody’s doing their barbell shoulder presses standing up and kids who don’t know where their hamstrings are think they need to do power cleans to get ripped. Too many average inexperienced lifters now believe that in order to get in shape, look good, and be a “real lifter,” you have to regularly perform highly technical lifts that are usually performed at heavy weight and which can easily jeopardize vulnerable joints and tissues when not done correctly. It’s problematic!

There’s such a bizarre mythology around this stuff now. Like the idea that you “can’t really get big” unless you deadlift. (You think I’m exaggerating?) I hear it around the gym more often than you’d think. And it’s complete bullshit. College football great Hershel Walker famously shunned weights altogether and only trained with calisthenics, with bodyweight exercises. This is Hershel Walker in college.

Does this look like a man who lacks muscle to you?

Exercise is like going to heaven: there are many paths to the sacred. You have quite a menu to choose from. And I get it - the menu is intimidating, especially when you’re starting out. The fact that something called The Art of Manliness (lol) (update: perhaps not lol!) is telling you that lifting one particular way is a mark of character, the “right” way to do it, is comforting. The paradox of choice, and all that. But you can get fit with all manner of routines and programs. Even the much-mocked “bro splits,” where you organize your lifting days around specific body parts (like chest day one, back day two, arms day three…) can work. People had traditionally advised against them because most of us just don’t have the schedule flexibility necessary to lift often enough for that kind of a routine to make sense. But can you get big with bro splits? Sure. It’s the same old calculus: how often are you lifting (frequency), for how many minutes (length), how hard are you going (intensity), and are you sticking to schedule (consistency)? People now disparage bro splits because it’s this low-status thing associated with a “glory boy” mentality, which we’re told is in some very vague way less enlightened than the mentality of guys who wear lifting belts that extend from their nipples to their dicks. It’s all weird to me, man; it’s exercise, not religion. I’ll do whatever works. I don’t mess with CrossFit - 20 rep squat sets, no thank you - but people who dedicate themselves to it can look great. It’s all tools, and the question is which are most efficient for you, personally, given your body, your reality. If I could get big doing nothing but wrist curls and the hip abductor machine, buddy, I’d do it.

Look, I deadlift now. I think deadlifts can be a great exercise, for both targeting muscles that are infrequently worked in other exercises and for giving you that total-body exhaustion. But again, I’ve been lifting for 20 years, I (eventually) learned real proper technique from being observed and coached by qualified people, and I’m not looking to add weight on my deadlift PR at this point in my life. I emphasize safety and I’m probably not working up to more than 75% of what my one-rep max might be. The simple fact of the matter is that when an exercise becomes a fad the way that deadlifting is now you’re going to get a bunch of guys who watch a YouTube video for two minutes and then throw way too much weight on a bar and lift recklessly. And you absolutely, 100% can get hurt easier doing complex lifts like deadlifts than you can using a seated leg press. The first couple minutes of this video lays it out well.

Should you definitely not do deadlifts? I’m not saying that; that’s not the point. The point is that deadlifting is simply a tool, like literally every other exercise in the weight room. If you can do it safely and effectively, great. But you absolutely do not need to deadlift to get strong or look good, even in the specific elements of the posterior chain that it can work so effectively. And if you’re deadlifting because you think it’s more manly, because everybody on YouTube does it, because your 8th grade gym teacher told you that you had to, or because you want girls to see you moving three plates a side in something, then you’re a dumbass. Lift strategically and for effect based on your goals - and, if we’re being honest, your goals are almost certainly to look hotter.

I talk to younger guys at the gym sometimes who are doing these powerlifting programs, and when I try to get them to narrow down to what they’re trying to accomplish in the gym, the truth that eventually comes out is that they want to get bigger to look better to girls and more intimidating to guys. And though I never say anything, when I hear that they’re powerlifting simply to gain mass, my internal monologue always goes… why?

While the divide between lifting for lean mass and for strength might be overblown, the simple fact is that there are more efficient ways to achieve the former than doing traditional powerlifting. You can read many other people who know a lot more than I do on the importance of hypertrophy. If you look at the big powerlifting YouTube accounts the guys in them are freakishly strong and very impressive athletes, but they aren’t generally walking around in bodies that everybody would like to inhabit. That’s no insult to them; looking jacked isn’t their goal. But that’s the whole point, right? Lifting weights is always a means to a given end. The problem is that people have convinced themselves that there’s some sort of ethical or serious way to lift and made lifting an ends rather than a means. I also think that guys get tunnel vision on this stuff and then wonder why they’ve plateaued. You’ve been doing 5x5s for three years and you’re wondering why it takes you three months of lifting to put another 5 pounds on your bench? It’s called Starting Strength for a reason. You build up a base of strength and muscle while gaining experience so that you can lift safely and then you can pursue more efficient strategies like reverse pyramids - unless you feel like 5x5s are working for you, in which case, cool!

Here’s my essential point: the purpose of lifting weights is to look better for the vast majority of people doing it, and if this is true of you then you should admit that to yourself and structure your program accordingly. I lift for one reason and for one reason only, and that’s vanity. I don’t lift for functional strength because I simply don’t need functional strength in my life very often. If I did, my priorities would change. Right now, in the life I’m actually living, I don’t work for a moving company, play defensive end, or regularly have to fight off sabretooth tigers. Instead, I’m your typical human being who feels pretty good about himself but still sometimes likes external validation and would like to appear attractive to other human beings even though I’m happily in a relationship, for all kinds of evolutionary and enculturated reasons. For looking good lifting weights has vastly better returns for a given amount of work than cardio. (For me!) So I lift. I suspect many other people lift for the same reasons, even if they won’t admit it.

Powerlifting is great if that’s what you want to do. If you are authentically and intrinsically motivated to do powerlifting, go for it. If you want to be stronger for a specific reason like sports, if you want to compete in meets, if what you genuinely motivated to be stronger for its own sake, that’s awesome. But powerlifting is not more “authentic” than any other kind of exercise, and the concept of authenticity in exercise is bizarre and stupid; powerlifting is not more manly or humble or “meat and potatoes” than any other kind of lifting; powerlifting is not the only way to get big or even a particularly efficient way to get big; powerlifting can invite serious injuries if you don’t know what you’re doing and haven’t been coached. Decide what you want to get out of lifting weights and go get that with the most efficient and sensible plan you can find. But be authentically motivated in whatever you do.

I’m 40 years old with bad shoulders and an extra 30 pounds I am very unlikely to lose due to my meds. My shredded days are probably behind me. (And if they return a trip back to the mental hospital will probably follow.) But I still look pretty good and would like to continue to put on mass moving forward. That’s my goal: to add muscle to look better, for myself if for no one else. My goal is not to make myself into the kind of guy Mark Rippetoe wants to get a beer with. And I think a lot of people would be both happier and more successful in the weight room if they would be frank with themselves in that way too.