Why The "Optimal" Bros are WRONG About Training
Their MAJOR Methodological Flaw
by Alec Enkiri | 9/15/23
Meet the oPtiMaL Bro
There is a trend that has emerged in the fitness world in recent history that touts itself as the "optimal" method for weight training. These optimal bros eschew the traditional methods of weight training that have consistently built the biggest, strongest men to walk the planet for the last couple centuries. With this "optimal" movement, free weights are now often denigrated as being the domain of "stupid meatheads," whereas their machine and pulley counterparts - which create a more even strength curve or more "ideal" line of pull - are favored as being the tool of choice for the modern, intelligent (read: people who are trying to figure out how to skirt out of working hard) lifter.
Joints are locked into place using external restraints so that the optimal bro can isolate his muscles while he isolates his muscles. Gotta make sure to isolate so you don't forget to isolate while you're isolating!
Because flexing one single muscle at a time really hard is the key to massive size and strength.
Tension is Tension, Bro
From these people you'll often hear phrases like "tension is tension bro, the muscles can't tell the difference." The implication being that free weight, machine, cable, compound exercise, isolation exercise, etc., none of it really matters because "tension is tension." So as long as tension is being applied then the muscles and body will grow big and strong. For some reason this logic is only ever used by optimal bros to assert the idea that cables and machines and isolation exercises can produce just as much muscle growth (if not more) as classic, compound free weight exercises, but oddly it's never used by them to assert the opposite. But if "tension is tension" then squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, and chin-ups have to be just as good as hack squats, machine presses, and iliac pulldowns because, after all, "tension is tension."
But that's not really what these people want to conclude. They don't actually want tension to be tension. What they want is for compound free weight exercises to somehow be inferior to cables, machines, and their weird, aggressively isolated movements because their entire philosophy is based around the idea that these things are what is "optimal" in the first place. If one thing is optimal, the other thing, by default, has to be suboptimal. Therefore, by their very own logic, tension cannot be tension, Funny enough, it actually works the other way around though where their "optimal" exercises are what fail to actually produce a stimulus sufficient for building massive strength and hypertrophy as compared to many of the "suboptimal" movements they so heavily criticize.
And while the reality is that there are kernels of truth to the assertion that "tension is tension" and the muscles can't tell the difference, this perspective also misses the entire forest for the trees.
The body is a unit. It is a system. A large part of what dictates how big and strong you will ultimately become in your weight training endeavors is how much systemic stress that you can consistenly generate. The very nature of machines and cables and isolation exercise is the ABSENCE of systemic stress. And that is actually their biggest advantage! They are low stress to the system, and as such, they can be done for high workloads with little detriment because they simply don't beat you up very much. Thus, if work capacity or volume is something you require these methods can be quite the boon.
Easy 10s and 15s on this machine all day long with minimal residual fatigue. That "easy volume" is the major benefit of this sort of work.
However, because they are incapable of applying that potent systemic stress that can be created by their compound, free weight counterparts they will not create all that much growth or strength development in the long run in and of themselves in the ABSENCE of that more potent systemic stress. Without the systemic stress present the body simply does not feel threatened enough to create impressive adaptations.
Adaptation is a costly process. It requires resources, time, and energy. The body prefers homeostasis, i.e. maintaining the status quo. The body prefers not to spend its resources adapting unless it absolutely has to. So you have to give it no other choice but to adapt and the first step in that process is applying a potent, threatening stress. The best, most reliable way to do this is to nail the entire system at once with something massively threatening to the system, such as a barbell squat or heavy chin-up. You cannot create this type of potent systemic stress with a hack squat or iliac pulldown. Point blank.
It is because of this that the "optimal" tenets are merely adjuncts to a proper weight training program. They are a great way to add the cherry and the sprinkles and the chocolate syrup onto the top of sundae, but the "non-optimal" exercises that these people love to poo poo are the motherfucking ice cream at the bottom of the bowl. It's not a sundae unless you have both, and at the end of the day, the ice cream is obviously far more important than the fucking sprinkles.
What the optimal movement has seemingly morphed into at this point is a group of cultists who think they want to get jacked - but don't really want to work very hard to do it (a physiological impossibility) - being mislead by a few cult leaders who are simply touting the efficacy of these methods as means to stand out from the crowd in an overly saturated fitness marketplace on social media.
Social media rewards extremism and what could possibly be more extreme in the weight training realm than claiming that everything that works doesn't work and the real secret is to do this much easier thing instead.
Extremism: Exhibit A
"Tension is tension, bro"
"Squats suck for legs"
More clicks ---> more exposure ---> more money. It's really that simple.
It's a form of charlatanism, which is unfortunately, all too commonplace (and highly accepted) in the fitness industry. But there is a major flaw present in this ideology that essentially renders it wholly moot as a basis for training.
So What is This MAJOR Flaw?
The optimal ideology encourages newbies to bypass the initial training stage of learning the fundamentals of weight training.
For example, there is a large learning curve to mastering an effective free weight squat. On the other hand, there is very little learning curve to learning an effective leg press. Thus, with the leg press an early stage trainee can more effectively stimulate muscular hypertrophy earlier in the game than they can with a squat. So by the logic of the optimal bro that makes the squat a lesser exercise.
But this logic is myopic.
Weight training is a marathon, not a sprint. The processes of muscular development and strength acquisition are long term adaptations. It requires a lot of time, a lot of consistency, and a lot of hard work to achieve impressive levels of either on any scale. So to emphasize the short term at the expense of the long term is simply not a worthwhile tradeoff. What happens in the case of the optimal bro who fully buys in from the onset is that he never bothers to learn the fundamentals of weight training. He doesn't master things like the squat and its variations, the bench press and its variations, the myriad of effective deadlift variations, the barbell overhead press, the chin-up, etc. etc. because why would he? Not only has he been made to believe that they are less valuable, but also all of these movements have high learning curves and it takes a good bit of time and patience to be able to maximize their full strength and hypertrophy potential for yourself.
So in the name of short term gratification the rule of the day is to simply skip this initial learning phase altogether, and instead move right into (over) emphasizing what is actually just the adjunct ("optimal") work, and reap the small gains that come along with that in the immediacy.
However, the problem with this methodology is that eventually (in relatively short order) these "optimal" exercises will stagnate. In the absence of adequate fundamental work, you can't really get stronger at them for any considerable period of time. And you can only do so much volume before you run out of time or energy. But the potency of the stimulus from these movements is so low that the body is going to acclimate to this stressor very early on and then refuse to adapt any further beyond that because you aren't giving it a reason to. These things simply aren't threatening enough. Remember, homeostasis at all costs.
The problem, of course, is that now you have somebody has run out of adaptation potential on their "optimal" exercises, and lacks the ability to be able to pivot back into the fundamentals to spur on further progress because they skipped that initial phase of learning in their training career because they were duped into believing that those fundamentals were suboptimal for their goals and therefore lacked efficacy.
You cannot lean on tools that you lack the fundamental skills to use properly.
Any idiot can lay down onto a leg press and push. But only an idiot who has dedicated the time and energy required to master the nuance of the squat can truly reap the potential long term benefits it offers (which are much greater).
You will derive all the benefits a leg press has to offer in a matter of months. You will only derive all the benefits a squat has to offer over the course of years and decades. The leg press is better used for a short period of time and then shelved for a period of time before being used again in the future, whereas the squat is better used consistently in the training program for years and years at a time because adaptations will continue to be made as long exposure is kept consistent and proper programming principles are adhered to.
But you cannot regress in an UPWARD fashion. Thus, if you lack the fundamental skills of weight training then you lack the fundamental skills of weight training and when your short term gains with the low skilled, non-fundamentals have been realized then you are going to be staring at an impenetrable wall, making ZERO gains until you decide to make the (now major) investment and take a few steps back to learn said fundamentals.
On the other hand, if you made the minor investment of learning these fundamental skills in the initial phases of your training journey then the sky is the limit. Now you have access to everything. You can play with the fundamentals until you get bored or until progress slows down, and then you can easily regress into the non-fundamentals (the "optimal" stuff) and play more in that realm until you get bored or progress slows down, and then you can pivot back once again.
But you are only afforded this freedom if you mastered the fundamentals in the first place.
Thus, the optimal ideology is nothing but a myopic philosophy that places short term gratification ahead of the bigger picture in what is an inherently long term endeavor that much more greatly rewards those who are able to see said bigger picture.
It places the motherfucking cart before the motherfucking horse.
The part the cult leaders often leave out of their ramblings to their cultists is that they themselves all mastered the fundamentals BEFORE transitioning into the "optimal" tenets that they now follow. You see this time and time again on social media. Some advanced guy spent years and years putting in hard, heavy work with nothing but a barbell and the classic compound, free weight exercises. He built an impressive base and got massively strong that way.
Then somewhere down the line he either got bored of lifting like that, got too beat up to keep lifting like that (because no one knows how to program properly), or simply realized that he could stand out from the crowd and make more money by spouting off about how these classic exercises "suck," and suddenly our experienced trainee who owes 95% (shit, probably 99% in reality) of his gains to the barbell and free weight compounds shifts into the "optimal" world and starts training that way as the cherry on top of what was an already successful lifting career.
And that's all well and good! If you have paid your dues you can do whatever the fuck you want at that point and pretty much anything will work.
But you have to pay your dues first, man.
If you are one of these optimal bros - you've bought in and you are just starting out on your journey - I would encourage you to take a deeper dive into how your mentors used to train, how they made the majority of their gains in the first place, rather than how they are training right now.
What they used to do when they were where you are now is much more important than what they are doing right now when they have advanced much further down the path than where you currently find yourself. Sage advice, bro.
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