The “Best” Route to Swoleville?

“Knowledge without mileage equals bullshit.” — Henry Rollins


The past week has provided for an interesting convergence of physical culture themes, punctuated by the resurgence of a few instances of the age-old “HIT vs old-school bodybuilding” debate.  Actually, the debate has now mushroomed so as to include many other methodologies (CrossFit, Oly lifting, power lifting, parkour, all manner of natural movement schools, kettlebells….you get the idea) and has come to resemble what I can only imagine early Christianity looked like in the year 300 AD.  I guess we’ll eventually convein and cobble a “Nicene Creed” for physical culture and be done with it, once and for all.  I really don’t care how it all turns out (I’m not going to adhere to “doctrine” anyway).  Just call me up when the Crusades are on; I’m all in for that! ;)

But fun (and as aggravating, at times) as they may be to watch, these “what’s best” arguments are absolutely pointless.  Pointless, of course, because “best” can only be defined by context and as measured against one’s goals and Five Ts orientation.  What’s “best” for a seasoned athlete, for instance, would be ludicrous overkill for the average, just-wanna-be-healthy Joe and Jane.  And probably just as ludicrous for seasoned athlete in another sport.

That the above can’t really be nicely packaged for public consumption is something that has dogged me as I try to push forward my “3 Pillars” idea of health, fitness and wellness.  Just try to wrap the intellectual underpinnings of Efficient Exercise, Paleo f(x) and ID Life into 3 separate, snappy-shiny soundbites, and you get an idea of the difficulty in “selling” legit wellness information to those who need it most (the masses).  Combining all three of those ideas into a single, tidy package is damn near impossible.  People want quick, easy fixes — and quite frankly, that simply does not exist.  Now, the cornerstones of proper exercise, lifestyle habits and supplementation are not all that difficult to understand, but it does take at least a bit of effort and a questioning, curious mind to form a solid grasp on these things.  More so, at least, than blindly adhering to the latest Dr. Oz proclamation.

But let’s face it — very few reside in the “question authority” camp.  In the not too distant future the “1%” will refer not the monied elite, but the physical culture elite.  Or hell, just those merely considered “healthy”.  This I truly believe.

An additional speedbump: most folks will realize that, the more you dig, the more there is left to uncover.  Now some — myself included — take great joy in this.  There’s always more to learn!  For others, though, this notion can be damn near paralyzing.  Unhappy with navigating the endless river, they want to scale the mountain and plant the flag.

Ahhh, but there are certainly bright spots on the horizon.  In particular, I had a lengthy discussion with a fellow over the weekend who was torn as to what exercise protocol he should follow.  He loved and was drawn to the “science” and (in his mind, at least) the pragmaticism underpinning HIT, but could not deny the efficacy (or evidence-based effectiveness) of old-school bodybuilding “art”.  Now I generally run far far away from these discussions as they tend to lead (much like diet conversations) nowhere but right back to the questioner’s pre concocted beliefs.  But hey, in this instance, his buying the beer kept me a bit more engaged.

I went directly to questioning what his primary goal might be — aesthetic, performance-related or health.  He could only pick one; no overlap allowed.

He demured a bit, fudged (very common), and attempted to combine elements before finally settling on “aesthetics”.  No foul here — people wanna look good nekkid; no shame in that. 

We then dove into a very Socratic discussion of the Five Ts.  Again, he was buying the beer, so I played the willing Physical Culturalist Huckleberry.  And I for sure became a better Socratic facilitator as the IPA count mounted.  We discussed, at length his relationship with the following:




Temperament, and


All, by the way, within the context of his overriding goal; that of “gettin’ swole”.  

Ultimately we landed on this: he had access to just about any tool he needed.  Time was an issue, for sure — but if need be, he’d let go of other time sucks — especially so if the results were forthcoming (the old”realized returns on time investment” juggle).  Techniques might be an issue, but he could, if need be, hire help along the way.  His parents had done him absolutely no favors whatsoever, in a genetic sense, vis-a-vis his goal; this he understood, acknowledging there was no “inner Arnold” lurking in his DNA.  And he felt that realizing some gains — whatever scant — would just add fuel to his already high motivation.  He was fully on board with the “best he could be” proposition.  All in, as it were — eyes wide open.

Okay, so now we’re *really* getting somewhere.  Drilling deeper.  No need to talk about performance-based S&C.  No need to balance optimal “health” vs a severe time crunch.

Ultimately, though, he was still drawn to the “science”, pragmaticism, and time efficiency of HIT.  We’re talkin’ the poster child for left-brain dominance, here.  That said (and with my reservations toward straight-up HIT), I suggested this very simple — though rather long-ranging — plan of action:

(1) get a full-blown DEXA scan 

(2) give straight-up, Body by Science-like HIT a legitimate test run; i.e., 8 to 12 months

(3) get another DEXA

(4) go on a full bore 5 or 6 days per week, old school bodybuilding split.  What kind of split?  Who cares; pick a late 1960’s era program and run with it.  Hell, go 5 x 5 and really keep it simple.  Follow this program of choice for another 8 months or so.  Then,

(5) get yet another DEXA

(6) now make your determination.  Is the added time investment worth whatever additional body composition gains were realized?

And here’s the thing: am I confident a better body composition would follow the additional time investment required of the old school bodybuilding or 5 x 5 method?  Absolutely.  I’m an evidence-based guy, and I’ve been in this game too long to think otherwise.  And this gets back to the way the original “what’s best” question is framed.  N=1 context matters; goals matter.  And, of course, n=1 Five Ts matter; a lot.  I’ll bet the farm on increased body composition following the greater “time and toil investment”.  But the determination of “is it worth the time and toil investment” is completely left to the individual.  It has to be.  What’s “worth it” to one is a complete waste of time for another.

So would one really need this long a run to find out what “works”?  Well, in this n=1 instance at least, yes.  If you’re going to run the test, run it correctly.  And here’s the thing: this won’t be settled by surfing the interwebs and listening to the idle chatter of others.  To truly find out what works for you, you’re going to have to go out and perform and intelligent test run.  And it’s going to take some time, sacrifice, and hard-ass work.  Simple as that.

And the downside is this: you may find, after all of that work, that the added time and toil it’s not worth it.  And that’s cool; at least you know.  You can then better adjust you’re time vs expectations from the iron game.  But then again, you just might get bitten by the iron bug, and be perfectly fine with spending an hour a day in the gym..  Worse things could happen, brother ;)

I find the above discussion rather ironic, as I’ve otherwise been fully immersed in Cal Dietz and Ben Peterson’s work, Triphasic Training.  Highly, highly recommended reading.  This is the best, S&C geek-fest work I’ve poured over in a hell of a long time.  And believe me, I’ve just about read ‘em all.  And, (irony within an irony), I’ve also been re-reading quite a bit of Vince Gironda’s old stuff.  Talk about two totally different ends of the iron game spectrum!  But this is exactly the mix of art and science that makes this iron game endeavor so tantalizing to me.

And finally, a self-serving promotion: be sure to catch my Efficient Exercise partner Mark Alexander and I discussing ARXFit technology with none other than Athlete io’s John Kiefer, here.  In the second half of the interview, Michelle and I talk about the upcoming Paleo f(x) symposium.  Good stuff for sure!  So be sure to check it out.

In health, fitness, and ancestral wellness -




  1. says


    Your own presuppositions are built into your experiment. If this guy’s parents truly did him no favors, then he is not similar to you.

    As someone with a genotype more similar to your beer-buying buddy’s, I would suggest performing the experiment in the reverse (first old school split, then the HIT approach).

    You assume that the old school split will give somewhat better results (and one must simply decide if the improvement is worth the time investment), but for someone of a different genetic expression, the opposite may be true. I have done this experiment in both directions, and for me (as with Skyler) HIT won out.

    Your own personal experience and survivorship bias may mean that this guy needs to buy Skyler a few brewskies.

    Keep up the great work of exploring the art and the science.

    • theorytopractice says

      Totally agreed. The experiment for sure could be run in reverse. What I should have added above, but didn’t, was this: I really like this guy, and *want* him to stay engaged in the iron game. Hell, I want everybody to, but that’s another story for another day. That said, my gut feeling is that I can “set the hook” in him (especially given his leaning already) by showing some decent gains with HIT, before the “wholly shit” disillusionment of “all that extra toil and trouble for this?” sets in. I’ve seen this happen a few times at EE, where a client will show great progress, “graduate” (in his mind, at least) to a more “time and toil intensive” routine….only to return to me a short time later with the “yeah, you were right” hat in their hands.

      But embedded here is another interesting question. When you and I talk of “training”, we generally take that to mean multiple-joint, compound movements vs bodybuilder-like, multiple-angle, higher rep/volume, isolation exercises. The former being work that has more of a propensity to drive someone with limited recovery ability into over-reaching and stalled gains…or even regression. I think that’s far less likely to occur with a bodybuilding-like, isolation-ladden routine. But that leads us right back around to the start of the argument ;)

  2. Craig says

    Good perspective, as usual. I was strongly attracted to the HIT approach for it’s simplicity, efficiency, and it’s supposed foundation in science. And it did produce results. Just not as good as when I experimented, added volume and variety.

    • theorytopractice says

      Right on. So was the added time investment worth the increased results, Craig? Just curious as to your n=1 take on things. Also, would you consider yourself genetically gifted? Average? Somewhere in between?

      • Craig says

        If the proof is in the practice, then I suppose so, for I continue to train in my new, less efficient manner.

        Basically, at the height of my enthusiasm for HIT, I thought it was all about what happened at the end – taking a single set to the point of failure, then fighting the weight for as long as possible, maybe adding in some negatives. I also tried to rush between exercises for the extra metabolic stress. That eventually left me feeling beat up, not enjoying the workouts.

        These days, I stop a set when I feel like I can’t do another rep in good form, and use multiple sets. In the interest of time, I vary the weight and don’t rest a long time between these sets, just long enough to get my wind back. Depending on the exercise, I will either use ascending weights (with a fixed rep count) or descending sets just shy of failure.

        Despite the extra volume, I no longer feel beat up and I feel like I recover from the workout faster. I now enjoy the workouts and look forward to to them. An added benefit was that I gained some muscle from doing the extra work. That was a pleasant surprise.

        Because I’m not trying to push for metabolic effect in the weight routine, I do add some sprint intervals (or Dan John style fat burning circuits) into my weekly routine.

        In terms of time, it is one weight lifting session a week at a commercial gym, about 60-70 minutes, and one 20 minute session of intervals (at home), plus what ever the heck else I might feel like doing at home with my dumbbells and other exercise gear.

        I know one of the big pluses of HIT is supposed to be the short workouts. But I’ve discovered that if I’m going to take the time to change and drive to the gym, I don’t want to leave after 20 or 30 minutes. I’d rather do one longish workout once a week, than 2 shorter workouts. That approach just fits my life better.

        As for genetics – strictly average at best. As a kid in high school, I was short, slow, not explosive. Not even close to being an average athlete. But I wanted to be fit, so I jogged (after reading Coopers aerobics) and pumped concrete with my 110 lb weight set from Montgomery Ward. I figured out pretty early on that I was not Muscle Beach material. So for most of my life, I’ve happily settled for just being fit while trying to avoid ‘beat up runner/weight lifter’ kinds of outcomes.

  3. Ondrej says

    I am always a bit puzzled about this: When something produces less hypertrophy, does it mean it will take me longer to get near my limits? From what I’ve read Skyler seems to believe it would take longer, but as long as you trained consistently and well, you’d be very close to your limits in hypertrophy AND strength after several years.

    Many doubt the existence of plateaus, the plateau might be just being very effective at particular lift and having no room for neural improvements, plus boredom.

    • theorytopractice says

      And one thing we need to keep in mind, too, is the difference between hypertrophy and performance; two totally different goals (though sometimes with significant overlap) which happen to use the same “tools”. Now this is very interesting, indeed. Casey Butts wrote a book a while back that was an awesome study of hypertrophy maximums based on some basic measurements (ankles, wrists, etc.) and an estimation of muscle belly insertion points that just about nails the Fat Free Mass Index (FFMI) limits of non drug taking individuals. Here’s a link to Casey’s work. My current FFMI is very close to my expected limits given my measurements….even though I rarely train for hypertrophy, per se. My contention is that if I did shovel more time at this and train in the more “time consuming”, higher volume style that would elicit more sarcoplasmic (vs fiber thickness…and hyperplasia?) hypertrophy, I could nail those expected maximums.

      But is the time investment worth it to me?

      And here’s a link to another interesting article along the same lines.

      I plan on writing a longer post about this in the near future.

  4. Ondrej says

    Also, what I do at the moment is 9 sets to failure twice a week. Now does that even qualify as low volume? Sure, you might get 20-25 sets 4 times a week in typical split hypertrophy routine, but time under load could be pretty similar in each session, my training would have much higher density, higher intensiveness, which would necessitate lower frequency. Now, it’s marketed as one set to failure but every muscle group is hit multiple times in a workout. So lot of this stuff is drastically different just on paper.

    • theorytopractice says

      The question of “does it even qualify as low volume” can only be answered when viewed through the contextual lense of your particular circumstance. There are no black/white, yes/no answers here. Kinda like asking if rice is “Paleo”. The idea is to take a methodology (HIT, if you are drawn to it), and tweak it to fit your goals and “Five Ts”.

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