Avoid Pattern Seeking in Lifting

Humans look for patterns. We organize facts into systems to better predict consequences. This contributed to our ascent as the dominant animals and shows our great intelligence.

Unfortunately, we may still craft models when presented with random information. We try to create order and meaning where none may exist.

Consider that many religions espouse the concept of the trinity or have three major deities. The number three has importance and appears often throughout myths, fairy tales, and legends. It influences design through the rule of thirds, providing a methodical way to arrange groupings of objects.

Beyond the number 3, different numbers and proportions seem special. The golden ratio has an aesthetic appeal, valued by artists, architects, and anyone appreciating beauty. Certain constants in science allow us to invent life-changing technology and understand our world more fully.

These figures have value in the right context. Many people though misapply patterns within man-made systems. They may use numbers relevant to physics to guess stock prices or to gamble. This mindset has affected fitness as well.

Common features such as 3 full-body workouts per week, 3 sets of 10, 3 exercises each workout, and so on adhere to a pattern for its own sake. The classic 5 X 5 routine is the ultimate paradigm based around the numbers 5 and 3. Although this system has some good qualities, trainees that swear by it despite achieving poor results persist due to the allure of these numbers.

Using patterns in the wrong context, and often irrelevant to any realm, occurs because most are arbitrary and subjective. You can distort data to make everything fit with your vision. Many proponents of the 5 X 5 system shun moderate and high reps yet ignore that countless trainees have achieved results with them.

You must avoid any system that looks elegant but fails to give the best results. The perfect program does not exist. Properly choosing and tinkering with variables comes from an understanding of them by research and experience, whether they conform to a theory or not. Many of these factors can change somewhat depending on personal preferences too.

We can find endless possibilities of this phenomenon, so cannot address them all here. Consider these examples for why to avoid pattern seeking in lifting. The lessons here address the numbers 3 and 5 most often but apply for all others as well.


A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.

– Plato

  • You must have 3 full-body workouts per week.

For all but the most budding of trainees, this frequency will quickly overtrain you.

As a beginner, you lack the ability to push yourself to your limits. You have achieved little along the path of progressive overload. Your body has not felt the burden of maintaining an artificial state from lifting heavier and heavier weights.

As you advance, you actually have to reduce the amount of exercise to recover. You need to do this yet continue to work with heavier weights and the same high efforts.

Those with the right genetics and drugs will climb higher before stagnation. Regardless of your status, training this often eventually forces some form of periodization. This has you teeter between undertraining and overtraining instead of striking the right balance of a stimulus each workout.

Most will thrive with 1-2 workouts per week. You could consider three times in 2 weeks as well. In the long run, trainees will likely achieve their peak fitness for strength and size only by reducing their frequency per exercise to once a week.

  • 3-5 reps work best.

As long as the load remains heavy enough to prevent too much fatigue unrelated to creating tension, the main stimulus for strength and size, effort will matter the most.

Motor unit recruitment explains that the fast-twitch muscle fibers will come into play if you work hard, with this process just taking longer for sets of greater duration. Giving your best effort also slows down the final reps of an exercise enough to maximize tension according to the force-velocity relationship.

Many beginners and intermediates risk their safety with sets of 5 reps. This relatively heavy weight leaves little room for error. 8-12 provides a more reasonable guideline.

5 reps can certainly work well though. A typical duration lasts between 15-30 seconds, right when the ATP-PC system has finished contributing most of the energy and just before lactate starts to build. For the advanced, this rep goal may allow the utmost tension to develop. Nonetheless, it matters little in the long run versus applying enough effort.

  • Three exercises each workout are special.

A push, pull, and a squat address all the major muscles of the body. This occurs by coincidence though. You have to choose the right exercises.

Consider that workouts revolving around bench presses, squats, and dead-lifts, from the influence of powerlifting, are incomplete. The dead-lift fails to address the elbow flexors and front of the core. A row addresses these muscles and others included in the dead-lift more safely as well.

Consider this scenario. If you performed an interval at the end of your lifting session, would you count that as the 4th exercise or would you choose to view it as 3 exercises plus cardio? You can manipulate your perception to make everything adhere to a system.

Many will take more drastic action, perhaps never performing cardio because it interferes with the supreme organization of their training, to their loss.

  • Use at least 3 warm-up and working sets.

Any set beyond what you need increases the risk of overtraining. You delay effort and get less clear feedback with multiple sets. A single working set completed properly will start and finish the job.

Many will use 3-5 warm-up sets even though most of them feel unneeded. This fatigues them before it counts. They ignore that a single higher rep warm-up set may work better than multiple sets of the same low reps.

  • Always increase by 5 pounds.

As you get stronger, in time, a 5 pound jump can feel like too much. You may benefit from adding fractional plates weighing between 1 and 5 pounds. This will allow you to sustain progress as you fight against diminishing returns.

Avoid Pattern Seeking in Lifting

Some in fitness choose to see themselves as intellectuals. They polish and preach their beliefs yet show little for their results. They then blame their genes and bash all criticism to their system.

Pattern seeking can trap you insidiously. If you find yourself sticking to specific numbers for no good reason, make sure to judge your success through lifting progress. This summarizes everything that matters.

I generally recommend training with one full-body workout per week, for three exercises per week, and personally like sets of 5 reps. Did I develop this system objectively or has the appeal of the numbers overcome me? You need to decide for yourself.

You should feel no shame in adhering to a system if you make progress. Inclinations play a role in making training an art and not just a science. If the numbers work and they so happen to charm you, why change them?

Avoid pattern seeking in lifting, at least for its own sake.

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