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The Risks Of Instinctive Training.

There are few things more manly than lifting weights. Possible exceptions might include living off the land with nothing but a bowie knife. Or perhaps being a warrior or some sort.

There are few things more manly than lifting weights. Possible exceptions might include living off the land with nothing but a bowie knife. Or perhaps being a warrior or some sort. I think one prominent politician we have today put it something like this; he said that the best things in life were, "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!"

Now, aside from crushing your enemies and hunting grizzly with a knife, we have lifting weights. It is one of the most accessible ways to increase your manliness. Anybody can do it and at least look as if they are acting manly.

Unfortunately, there comes along with the assumption that lifting weights makes you manly, that if you are a man, you instinctively know how to lift weights. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Instinctive Training...

The notion of "instinctive training" comes from bodybuilding magazines that have run out of made-up routines to publish. Once you have promoted every possible workout ever to enter into the frenzied minds of the editors, you have nothing left but to promote make-it-up-as-you-go, or "instinctive training". This is the ultimate one size fits all poorly workout.

Instinctive training dictates that you simply do what you feel like doing each time you go into the gym. If your so-called instincts tell you to do curls while that cute girl from the aerobics class is looking, the by all means listen to those instincts and start curling something!

Just remember to keep your arms squashed into your rib cage. It will make your arms look bigger from the side. On the other hand, if its leg day and your instincts tell you that you don't feel like doing squats today, you can always do curls instead. Heck, you can never do too many curls right?

On a more serious note, if you really believe you are training instinctively, and you finish your scheduled work load for that day but your feelings tell you that you will never be as big as "Big Ronnie" if you leave the gym without sacrificing every ounce of energy and might you have within your 195 lb frame to the gods of bodybuilding, then you better get back in there and do three or four more sets or exercises or something until you know without a doubt that you couldn't lift another weight if your life depended on it.

Just be sure NOT to keep a training journal. If you do, you are likely to experience the disheartening realization that you were this same size last year and have not received any massive endowment for your daily gut wrenching sacrifices.

Let me make this clear, my fellow bodybuilders, there is no bodybuilding instinct. There is no weight training instinct, and there is no instinct that tells a person what he or she must do on any given day to produce the fastest gains in muscle mass.

From the dictionary we read that an instinct is "a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason." "Instincts are actions that are mediated by reactions below the conscious level".

Clearly, we do not find ourselves in a gym lifting weights without having had a conscious thought about it or having reasoned it out in some manner. So clearly lifting weights and the decisions about what, when and how to do it is not instinctual.

More often than not, fatigue is misinterpreted as some instinctual signal of what the body requires to make muscle grow. I don't think I need to explain why fatigue is not an instinct. However, a brief explanation about why fatigue is not an accurate indicator of muscle growth might be in order.

Fatigue And Exercise!
Fatigue is a part of life and we're all familiar with it. But it can be difficult to describe and people express it in a variety of ways, using terms such as tired, weak, exhausted, weary, worn-out, fatigued, burnt out, wiped, etc...
[ Click here to learn more. ]

Fatigue, outside of temporary metabolic pathways, is largely a neurological phenomenon. It originates in the nervous system itself and is thus an indicator of the current state of the nervous system.

The nervous system has a predictable curve of fatigue and recuperation that occurs with or without muscle growth (see figure 1). (1) If you exhaust yourself during a workout, and then try to repeat it too soon, you will have the feeling that you are too tired to do as much as you did last time. This is not instinct; it is a normal reaction to fatigue.

Figure 1 (Adapted from Busso et al 2002).

Should You Train When Your Muscles Are Still Sore?

Muscle tissue is different from nervous tissue. Muscle tissue is very resilient and is constructed in such a way that it can repair itself even while being trained repeatedly within a short period. (4,5,6,7,8) Muscle tissue will continue to respond to training before reparations are complete.

In fact, those reparations will continue unabated despite continued workouts. (8) A recent study done looking at the effects of frequent eccentric training bouts produced the following conclusions, "performing a second bout of eccentric exercise with damaged muscles 3 days after the initial bout does not produce further damage or retard recovery, even when the second bout of exercise is more strenuous."(2)

Another myth often perpetuated in bodybuilding magazines as part of the instinctive training philosophy is that muscle soreness is an indicator that you must not train again because the muscle hasn't "recovered" from the last bout.

While engaging in "instinctive training" people will often site muscle soreness to justify their "instinct" not to train a given muscle group. While using muscle soreness to decide whether to train a given muscle group or not is far from instinctive, it is also inaccurate insomuch that muscle soreness does not accurately reflect muscle damage. (3)

Studies looking at the relationship between muscle damage and muscle soreness have come to the conclusion that, although they often occur at the same time, there is no causal relationship. Nosaka et al demonstrated that the degree of DOMS does not indicate the magnitude of muscle damage shown by ultrasound images. It was concluded that their findings further support the concept that "the magnitude of DOMS does not reflect the magnitude of muscle damage." And finally, "the use of DOMS to judge the magnitude of muscle damage should be avoided,?"(3)

So where does that leave us? Well, for one it leaves us with the notion that "instinctive training" is a false notion and is really just another way of saying, "we've run out of ideas about how you should plan your training." With that said, we still need some way of knowing what to do, when to do it, and for how long.

We can't really use fatigue as an indicator of how effective our workout was at stimulating growth. After all, getting tired is easy, and if it really made muscle grow, any set with any amount of weight would make us grow as long as it made us tired.

We all know that just because you are tired does not mean you are growing. Nor can we use muscle soreness. Research has demonstrated that muscle soreness is physiologically disconnected from muscle microtrauma, which we know is required on some level for size gains beyond normal "fitness". We are left only with what we know for certain, namely, what we exposed our muscles too last time.

The effectiveness of any given workout is dependant on the condition of the tissue at the time the work is performed. In other words, whether or not a given amount of weight and reps will produce growth depends on what the muscle tissue has been conditioned to from previous workouts. There is no human instinct to tell you this, regardless of how many hours you've logged under the bar. Thus, the most accurate indicator of what needs to be done to stimulate growth is what was last done to the muscle tissue.

Do not rely on guesswork in the gym. Make a plan. Schedule what weight loads you will use on specific workouts several weeks into the future. Schedule adequate frequency of training for each major muscle group to ensure consistent growth. Then stick to your plan whether you are tired, sore, or whatever. The only reason not to train with progressive load, consistent volume and frequency is injury.

In closing, it should be said that there are a few more details that might be addressed when it comes to planning your training specifically for growth. Nevertheless, if what has been said helps someone make faster progress, I have accomplished something.

About The Author

Bryan Haycock, author and founder of the Hypertrophy-Specific Training (HST) method and Hypertrophy-Specific Nutrition (HSN), began lifting weights in 1978. Over the last 23 years he has incorporated his passion for bodybuilding into his education as a physiologist and career as a writer and consultant for the sport supplement industry.


  1. Busso T, Benoit H, Bonnefoy R, Feasson L, Lacour JR. Effects of training frequency on the dynamics of performance response to a single training bout. J Appl Physiol. 2002 Feb;92(2):572-80.

  2. Chen TC. Effects of a second bout of maximal eccentric exercise on muscle damage and electromyographic activity. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2003 Apr;89(2):115-21. Epub 2003 Mar 04.

  3. Nosaka K, Newton M, Sacco P. Delayed-onset muscle soreness does not reflect the magnitude of eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2002 Dec;12(6):337-46.

  4. Chen TC, Hsieh SS. Effects of a 7-day eccentric training period on muscle damage and inflammation. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Oct;33(10):1732-8.

  5. Chen TC, Hsieh SS. The effects of repeated maximal voluntary isokinetic eccentric exercise on recovery from muscle damage. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2000 Sep;71(3):260-6.

  6. Nosaka K, Sakamoto K, Newton M, Sacco P. The repeated bout effect of reduced-load eccentric exercise on elbow flexor muscle damage. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2001 Jul;85(1-2):34-40.

  7. Paddon-Jones D, Muthalib M, Jenkins D. The effects of a repeated bout of eccentric exercise on indices of muscle damage and delayed onset muscle soreness. J Sci Med Sport. 2000 Mar;3(1):35-43.

  8. Nosaka K, Newton M. Repeated eccentric exercise bouts do not exacerbate muscle damage and repair. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Feb;16(1):117-22.