Why you shouldn't be spot training anymore.

Megan Dahlman
March 14, 2022

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What do your strength training workouts look like? When you walk into a gym, what is your strategy for lifting weights?

You may not realize it, but most people train like bodybuilders.

For years, the most popular strategy of weight training has been to focus on a specific area of your body and work it with several different exercises in order to build every single aspect of each muscle. This strategy has led to having back days, bis/tris/pecs days, shoulder days, and leg days.

For example, Monday might be a shoulder day, so you do as many shoulder exercises that you can think of, like military presses, reverse flyes, deltoid raises, pullovers, etc. Your shoulders will be jello and the thought of just putting on your seat belt to drive home from the gym is scary. But that’s ok, because tomorrow is leg day.

​Does this sound familiar?

This style of training was popularized by bodybuilders. A bodybuilder’s goal is to create maximum hypertrophy in every single muscle fiber that can be seen. Hypertrophy is muscle fiber growth. Having big muscles that pop is the endgame. So they spend many hours training individual muscles like the rhomboids, then the traps, then the upper traps, then the lats, then the erector spinae, etc. (This would be a back day.)

This type of training is quite tedious and exhausting. It could take you an hour or two to spot train all of these individual muscles. On a back day like this, your legs and core would get minimal work and your cardiovascular system would most certainly be ignored. So you would have to do separate ab workouts, separate cardio workouts, and on and on.

So much work!

But why is this popular? Most likely it's because we like being able to do an exercise for one specific muscle, especially that “problem area”, and make it burn, baby. Oh, that makes us feel so accomplished!! We feel like we're sculpting and changing that area on our body that we don't like. But, there are several problems with this style of training.

Are you a bodybuilder? This type of training should be left for actual bodybuilders whose only goal is to have big muscles, not strong muscles. To be truly strong, you must train your body how it’s designed to function and move. You need to work many muscles at the same time and in conjunction with each other. You need to think about being strong for certain movements, and not just that muscle by itself.

Cardio. Training like a bodybuilder doesn’t even touch your heart and lungs. When you slowly and methodically spot train muscles, your heart rate barely gets elevated and your breathing rate stays pretty low. In order to improve your “conditioning” you would have to do extra cardio workouts. Why not do it at the same time as your strength training?

Injuries. You greatly risk injury and overtraining certain muscles when you focus so hard on them individually. People don’t realize that bench presses, flyes, push-ups, chest presses, and deltoid raises all train the pectorals and anterior deltoids. If you did 3 sets of 8 reps of each of these exercises in a workout, that would be 120 loaded reps for just these muscles…and that’s a conservative estimate. Ouch!

Plus, injuries can occur when the opposing muscle groups aren’t equally trained. I’m sure you’ve noticed the beefy guys walking around the gym with their shoulders hunched forward. They spend hours upon hours bench pressing and working their pecs without much thought to their backside. I bet if you asked any of them, they experience some sort of shoulder pain.

Waste of time. It’s terribly inefficient on multiple levels. Not only do you have to train your other body parts and systems separately, but you have to take so many breaks in between sets of exercises for that muscle to recover enough to do it again. We end up with people hogging squat racks and weight machines because they’re sitting there waiting to go again. A workout may last a solid hour or longer and consume five or more days of your week. That sounds horrible, even for someone who truly enjoys working out.

How fit are you, really? Even if you incorporate a “cardio” day, you miss out on some other MAJOR aspects of fitness. Are you working on your balance? How about coordination? What about agility, power and speed? And flexibility? When you train like a bodybuilder, you might look muscular, but you sure don’t become very fit overall. Most people start weight training to simply look better, but when you train correctly you realize how awesome it feels to also move like an athlete.

Tsk, tsk, ladies! Girls are guilty, too. If you’re a woman, you might be thinking that you definitely DO NOT train like this. “I don’t have back days or biceps days…that’s just my husband/boyfriend!” But if you’ve ever chosen a list of strengthening or toning exercises based on how much they’ll firm your butt or whittle your abs, then you’re guilty of spot training, too. If you head into the gym and spend 20 minutes doing 8 different ab exercises, then 15 minutes doing a bunch of butt and thigh exercises, then a few arm exercises, finished up with 20 minutes on a cardio machine, you’re training like a bodybuilder…you just don’t realize it. In all my years training, I have never had a woman ask me to help them look like a bodybuilder. They usually adamantly say the opposite!! But, you might already be training like one.

Bodybuilding is a sport that requires a very specific style of weight training. Somehow, we’ve been convinced that training like a bodybuilder (spot training) will make us become fitter, leaner versions of ourselves. This is not true. It’s tedious, inefficient, and completely misses the boat if your goal is to feel strong, and move and look like an athlete.

If you don’t want to be a bodybuilder, you need to rethink your training.

When you go to the gym, you should have a total body routine that hits every area of your body. It should target large muscle groups with movements that push, pull, squat, lunge, rotate, and stabilize. If you’re an intermediate or advanced trainee, you should incorporate some power and plyometric movements. You should work on your stamina and cardio with strength circuits or supersets…exercises done back to back using different muscle groups with minimal to no rest. You should push your flexibility and balance.

And don’t worry, this style of weight training combined with proper nutrition will build your muscle mass and get rid of body fat much more effectively than the spot training style of bodybuilding.

Unless you’re signed up for the next bodybuilding competition, stop thinking and training like the next Miss Universe! Train like an athlete…you’ll enjoy the difference.

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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