Skip to content

4 contentious issues ...

4 Streitthemen ...

Here is a brief summary:

  1. Free weights and machines both have their pros and cons.
  2. Free weights can shine by forcing you to use more stabilizing muscles to control the weight. However, they are generally unable to maintain consistent tension throughout the entire range of motion.
  3. When it comes to nutrition, both quality and quantity of food play a role, but if you focus on quality, you will automatically consume fewer calories without having to count calories at all.
  4. Men and women show a wide range of responses to resistance training. In one study, gains in upper arm strength ranged from 0% to 250%. Genetics play a role.
  5. Your specific genetics may respond better to a different program. Or you may simply not be training hard enough.
  6. Daily variations of intensity and volume (sets/reps) are often more effective than weekly volume variations when it comes to increasing maximal strength.

4 Dichomoties of fitness

A dichotomy, also known as a false dilemma, is a fallacy that occurs when only two choices are presented when in reality other possible alternatives exist. These dilemmas reflect oversimplified thinking and are usually characterized by a "black or white", "this or that" presentation. Let's take a look at four common training and nutrition dichotomies.

1 - Machines vs. free weights

The whole idea of pitting free weights against machines is kind of like pitting fruits against vegetables. Both training modalities offer unique benefits that the other lacks. That's why it makes sense to use both to make your workouts more comprehensive - just like eating fruits and vegetables will make your diet more nutritious.

Free weights can shine by forcing you to use stabilizing muscles, allowing you to move a weight naturally as you not only have to control the movement of the weight, but also the path of the movement.

Free weights fail when it comes to maintaining consistent tension on the working muscles throughout the range of motion. And this is the area where machines can shine and are superior to free weights.

In other words, there is one disadvantage that all free weight exercises and all cable exercises have in common that machines do not have - gravity!

Example: During any variation of bicep curls, the point at which your biceps are maximally loaded (stimulated) is the point in the range of motion where your forearm forms a 90 degree angle with the load vector. If you are using free weights, gravity is your load vector. The point of maximum load would be the point at which your elbow reaches 90 degrees of flexion or when your forearm is parallel to the floor.

If you are doing bicep curls on a cable machine, the cable is the load vector. The point of maximum load on your biceps is the point at which your forearms form a 90 degree angle with the cable.

And here's the trick: the further you move away from a 90 degree angle with the load vector, the shorter the lever arm becomes and the less work your biceps have to do. This is the reason why the closer you get to the highest or lowest point of the range of motion, the less work your biceps have to do.

And this is also the reason why exercisers tend to pause between repetitions at the highest or lowest position of the movement when performing barbell or dumbbell curls. This is true for any exercise with free weights - they are all determined by a single load vector (gravity or the cable).

However, machines have an eccentric system that is not dependent on a single load vector like free weights or cables. Instead, the eccentric system is designed to give you a much more consistent resistance across the entire range of motion.

It also gives you much more time under tension, as your working muscles don't have the same opportunity to pause at the highest or lowest point of the movement as they do with free weights.

Even if you can only build muscle mass by using free weights, there is no reason to avoid machines. If you are looking to build strength and muscle, then you should use machines in combination with free weights.

2 - Fat loss and calories: Quantity vs. quality

Every time someone says that the ratio of the amount of calories you consume to the number of calories you burn per day is by far the most important factor when it comes to determining whether you will lose fat or not, someone else will try to refute this by highlighting the fact that the quality of the calories you eat matters. These people present the whole thing as an "either or" statement.

Scientific studies that have examined the potential benefits of diets that emphasize protein, fat or carbohydrates have found that calorie-restricted diets result in clinically meaningful fat loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize, and that it doesn't matter that some calories are more nutrient dense than others. After all, we've all heard the term "empty calories." It's easy to show that a healthy diet can also make you fat.

Ultimately, both quality and quantity of food are important factors to consider because even though it is important for overall health to consume high quality foods with a high nutrient density, you can also build fat through a healthy diet if you consume more calories than you expend.

My general recommendation is to start by focusing on the quality of the foods you eat - emphasizing fruits, vegetables, high-quality protein sources (meat, eggs, fish, etc.) and whole grains, while limiting your consumption of highly processed foods, simple sugars, hydrogenated fats and alcohol. You'll likely end up eating fewer calories without having to count calories.

3 - Genetics vs. hard work

The big problem with statements like "hard work beats talent" is that these statements always assume that "hard work" is the answer.

However, the undeniable fact is that even though hard training makes a difference to everyone - put in more time and effort and you'll get better results - some people benefit more from the same type and amount of hard work than others.

In other words, some people are more "trainable" based on their genetic predispositions when it comes to getting results from the same given exercise program. Some people put in the time and work and achieve poor results, while others do the same amount of work and achieve (much) better results.

The scientific research in this area shows that there is a strong individual, genetically influenced variance in training response to both aerobic and strength training.

One study examining the different genetic responses to aerobic exercise had 99 two-generation families perform exercise programs on a cycle ergometer to improve aerobic fitness. All families performed the same training program, which consisted of three training sessions per week with increasing intensity over a period of 20 weeks. THEN samples were taken from all 481 subjects.

The results showed clear individual differences. The range of improvement in VO2 max, for example, ranged from 0% to 100% depending on familial genetic predisposition. About 15% of the subjects showed little or no improvement, while another 15% were able to improve their VO2 max by 50% or more.

Additionally, it should be noted that variation in aerobic training response from person to person has been observed not only in studies conducted with families, but also in other studies with different populations.

In terms of different genetic responses to strength training, two studies have shown that individual differences in genes and satellite cell activity are crucial in differentiating how people respond to weight training.

The 2007 study had 66 subjects of different ages perform a four-month lower body strength training program consisting of three exercises: squats, leg presses and leg extensions. The exercise intensity for each subject was determined as a percentage of 1RM weight. A typical set consisted of 11 repetitions at 75% of the 1RM weight.

At the end of the training phase, the subjects fell into three groups: Subjects whose muscle fibers had increased in size by 50%, subjects whose muscle fibers had increased in size by 25%, and subjects who had no increase in muscle fiber size at all.

Despite identical training, the improvements ranged from 0% to 50%. David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance described this as follows:

"...differences and trainability were immense. Seventeen subjects responded extremely well to training and built enormous amounts of muscle, 32 subjects responded moderately to training and were able to make useful gains, and 17 subjects did not respond to training at all and were unable to grow muscle. It appears that some people's bodies are better prepared to benefit from training with weights, as the subjects who experienced the most extreme muscle growth had the most satellite cells in their quadriceps just waiting to be activated and build muscle."

Other studies have confirmed these results and have shown that men and women show a wide range of responses to resistance training, with some subjects making little or no gains, while others show large changes. In a study conducted with 585 subjects, changes in upper arm strength after 12 weeks of a training program ranged from 0% to 250%!

Of course, you could argue that the harder a person trains, the more likely they are to show a positive response. I certainly wouldn't dispute this. But we can't ignore the fact that some people respond poorly to certain training programs, while others respond very well to the same training programs. So if you're in the first group, it's likely that you'll achieve lower results than other people following the same training program.

The reality is this: Both hard work and genetics play a role and both influence your training results. Therefore, both factors need to be taken into account when it comes to finding the right training program and evaluating your current results.

If a person doesn't seem to respond particularly well to a training program, it may be because they are simply not training hard enough or with enough dedication.

However, there is also the possibility that this person is putting in enough dedication and work, but is simply not responding well to the training because the training program does not fit their genetic profile.

Just because someone does not respond well to one program does not mean that person will not respond well to another training program. It is therefore best to experiment with different types of training programs to look for programs to which you have a better genetic response.

The bottom line is this: While it's important to encourage everyone to train hard, it's also dangerous not to inform everyone that hard work isn't everything - it's more about your genetic response to training.

4 - Hypertrophy: high volume vs. high load

As stated in Brad Schoenfeld's seminal paper, muscle tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage are the three primary mechanisms for increasing muscle hypertrophy.

This means that both moving heavier weights at a lower volume and moving lighter weights at a higher volume can induce muscle tension and thereby generate a stimulus for muscle growth.

Not to mention that muscle damage is not simply caused mechanically by an eccentric lengthening of muscle fibers that results in actin and myosin being forcibly torn apart. Muscle damage can also occur chemically. During repeated efforts, such as those that occur during sets with a high number of repetitions, you consume more oxygen and more reactive oxygen species (ROS) or free radicals are produced. These reactive oxygen species can also cause muscle damage.

In addition, a 2002 study compared linear periodization (LP) and daily undulating periodization (ULP) for strength gains. The training consisted of 3 sets of bench presses and leg presses 3 days per week.

The LP group performed sets of 8 repetitions during weeks 1 through 4, sets of 6 repetitions during weeks 5 through 8, and sets of 4 repetitions during weeks 9 through 12. The ULP group modified their training on a daily basis (8 repetitions on Mondays, 6 repetitions on Wednesdays and 4 repetitions on Fridays).

The authors of the study concluded that program changes on a daily basis were more effective in achieving strength gains than changes every 4 weeks.

More recent studies have not only found that daily intensity and volume changes were more effective than weekly volume variations when it came to increasing maximal strength, but also that the use of undulating daily periodization could lead to greater gains in muscle thickness (mass).

What the scientific evidence tells us is that the high load vs. high volume debate is another debate we shouldn't be having, as training with heavy weights and low volume combined with training with lighter weights and higher volume in the form of undulating periodization seems to be the best approach.


  1. An P, Pérusse L, et al. Familial aggregation of exercise heart rate and blood pressure in response to 20 weeks of endurance training: the HERITAGE family study. Int J Sports Med. 2003 Jan;24(1):57-62.
  2. Hautala AJ, Mäkikallio TH, et al. Cardiovascular autonomic function correlates with the response to aerobic training in healthy sedentary subjects. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol. 2003 Oct;285(4):H1747-52.
  3. Kohrt WM1, Malley MT, et al. Effects of gender, age, and fitness level on response of VO2max to training in 60-71 yr olds. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1991 Nov;71(5):2004-11.
  4. Bamman MM, Petrella JK, et al. Cluster analysis tests the importance of myogenic gene expression during myofiber hypertrophy in humans. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2007 Jun;102(6):2232-9. Epub 2007 Mar 29.
  5. Petrella JK1, Kim JS, et al. Potent myofiber hypertrophy during resistance training in humans is associated with satellite cell-mediated myonuclear addition: a cluster analysis. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2008 Jun;104(6):1736-42.
  6. Hubal MJ, Gordish-Dressman H, et al. Variability in muscle size and strength gain after unilateral resistance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005 Jun;37(6):964-72.
  7. Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2857-72.
  8. Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Contreras, Bret. Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations? Strength & Conditioning Journal: October 2013 - Volume 35 - Issue 5 - p 16-21.
  9. Rhea MR, Ball SD, et al. A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 May;16(2):250-5.
  10. Prestes J, Frollini AB, et al. Comparison between linear and daily undulating periodized resistance training to increase strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Dec;23(9):2437-42.
  11. Miranda F, Simão R, et al. Effects of linear vs. daily undulatory periodized resistance training on maximal and submaximal strength gains. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jul;25(7):1824-30.
  12. Simão R, Spineti J, et al. Comparison between nonlinear and linear periodized resistance training: hypertrophic and strength effects. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 May;26(5):1389-95.

By Nick Tumminello


Previous article The definitive guide to preventing muscle loss