Less is More

Earlier today I received an email from a reader mentioning an article I wrote for Cyberpump back in 1998 called “Less is More”. He wrote,

“…I have an article in front of me now I printed on 4/4/98 titled ’Less is More‘ by Andrew M Baye. That article was a turning point for me in my approach to weight training. I made the best gains of my life using HIT.”

After reading the e-mail I decided to repost the article here with minor edits to improve readability.

Drew Baye performing weighted chin ups on the UXSA concept people unfamiliar with proper exercise principles find difficult to understand is that exercise, to be productive, must be brief and infrequent. It is unfortunate people have been led to believe that more is better, that performing more sets of more exercises more often is the key to increased muscular strength and size, as this has resulted in hundreds and thousands of wasted hours for such people, and the frustration of having achieved little or no meaningful progress to show for it. The three biggest mistakes people make with their exercise programs are doing too much, too often, and not nearly as hard as they should. Doing more exercise will not produce better results, can actually prevent results from being produced, and, if taken far enough, will cause a loss of muscular strength and size. The erroneous belief that more is better is primarily based on a misunderstanding of what exercise is, and what it can do.

Exercise does not directly produce any improvements in one’s overall physical condition. It merely acts as a stimulus which causes the body to produce the improvements. People who fail to make this distinction, who believe that the very act of performing exercise produces improvements in their body, naturally assume that more exercise equals a greater degree of improvement. People who have blindly accepted the word of the bodybuilding media and of certain self-proclaimed “experts” and “scientific” organizations may find it difficult to believe it is not necessary to perform a minimum of  twenty sets per body part, and train at least five days a week to achieve a meaningful results. This is not the way the body sees it, however.

The reason the body responds to exercise by producing improvements in it’s physical condition, or functional ability, is that exercise is a negative thing, a tremendous stress on the body’s ability to perform a function vital to it’s survival: movement. The adaptations produced by the body in response to exercise are a protective measure against possible future exposures to that stress.

This is extremely important, so it deserves repeating; the reason the body produces an adaptive response to exercise is because it is something negative.

To stimulate the body to produce an improvement in its physical condition, or functional ability, it is necessary that the demand placed upon the its ability to produce movement (primarily the force producing capacity of the muscles and secondly the efficiency of all the supporting systems) exceeds the level it is currently capable of meeting. No amount of work which does not demand the body to perform at a level which exceeds its current capabilities will do anything to stimulate the body to improve those capabilities. It may maintain the current physical condition of the body, but it will do nothing to improve it.

Muscle is a very highly metabolically expensive tissue, the production and maintenance of which is costly in terms of energy and resources. Your body will not maintain any more than is perceived to be minimally necessary for survival. You need to give your body a very good reason to produce an increase in a tissue which uses up such a large amount of valuable resources. When you perform proper high intensity strength training, you are sending a message to your body that its current physical condition is inadequate to meet some demands the environment is making upon it, and that its survival requires an improvement in its ability to meet those demands. To be effective, exercise must be incredibly intense.

The amount of energy and resources used increases in proportion to the intensity, or percentage of momentary effort. The process of recovery from and adaptation to exercise is also very metabolically expensive, requiring significant energy and resources. Thus, it is necessary to limit the volume of exercise to the minimal amount required to stimulate the desired improvements, lest you waste energy and resources which the body could have otherwise used for recovery and adaptation. For this reason, any more exercise than is minimally necessary to stimulate the body to produce the desired response is counterproductive. As Arthur Jones has stated, “It is only logical to use that which exists in limited supply as economically as possible.”

What is the minimal amount of exercise necessary to stimulate the body to produce an improvement in the strength and size of a particular muscle or group of muscles? One properly performed set per exercise, of one exercise for each major muscle or group of muscles. Any more than that is a waste of energy at best. What about warm-up sets? If you are exercising properly, using a slow speed of movement to minimize force (approximately ten seconds lifting, ten seconds lowering), additional warm-up sets are an unnecessary waste of time and energy. (Exceptions to this exist in certain cases of physical rehabilitation.)

If you perform an exercise correctly the first time, you will not be capable of performing a second set, much less a third or fourth. If one is capable of performing a high volume of work, it is because they are not training with a meaningful level of intensity, in which case they are not stimulating their body to produce any significant improvements. Even if the body was stimulated to produce some slight improvement, it would be left with very little adaptive energy and resources to do so. Unless one goes to the gym for the sake of entertaining themselves, and has no interest in improving their physical condition, this is a complete waste of time. Such people are not exercising, they are merely playing with the equipment.

How often should one exercise? Only as frequently as allows the body adequate time to fully recover and produce the desired adaptations between consecutive workouts. How frequently is this? It varies from person to person, and within a particular person it will vary depending on a wide variety of factors. If a person is training intensely, but not making significant progress in their training on a workout to workout basis, it is usually because they are not allowing their body adequate time between workouts to produce the improvements stimulated during the workout.

The amount of time required for the body to fully recover from and produce the maximal amount of adaptation stimulated by proper exercise is probably far more than most people suspect. In some people, as much as two weeks of rest between workouts may be necessary for the body to complete this process. However, many people are hesitant to reduce their training frequency because they believe that if they wait too long between workouts, they may lose muscle tissue. This is highly unlikely. Why would the body go through the tremendous expense of producing such a metabolically active tissue such as muscle, only to allow it to atrophy after a couple of days? Answer: it wouldn’t. Unless you’re exposing your body to some other stress which would cause a loss of muscle tissue, it would take weeks before decompensation would occur after training ceased.

If in doubt of the amount of time your body requires to completely recover and adapt between workouts, it is better to allow for more time than to train too soon and interrupt the recovery process, preventing the body from producing the fullest possible response. You are not going to lose any muscle by taking an extra couple of days off between workouts, and may even gain more. If you train too frequently, you will constantly interrupt the recovery process and prevent the production of the improvements stimulated by the workout. Don’t underestimate the importance of allowing adequate time for recovery.

An illuminating analogy is the process of stimulating the formation of a callous. A major function of your skin is to protect your body’s internal environment from harmful factors in the external environment. Your body will respond to any stresses upon the skins ability to perform this function, such as producing a thickness in the skin, a callous, in areas which are exposed to frequent abrasion or friction, if an adequate stimulus exists, and the body is allowed adequate time for recovery and response.

Suppose we desire to produce a callous on the skin of the back of your hand. No amount of light stroking with a feather is going to produce any significant amount of friction or abrasion, hardly enough to warrant an increase in the thickness of the skin in that area. However, if we use a more abrasive object, such as a metal file, very little hard rubbing is required to cause a significant amount of abrasion. Realize that the act of rubbing the skin with the file does not directly produce any thickness in the skin, it merely stimulates the body to do so. Any amount of filing past the minimal amount necessary to significantly abrade the skin will significantly damage it, and if done long enough, it is possible to actually saw through the skin, tendons, muscle, and bones in your hand, and literally cut it in half. This is hardly necessary to stimulate the body to produce a callous though. Once the skin has been abraded, it must be left alone to respond to the stimulus.

Now that the body has been stimulated to produce the callous, it is necessary to allow it adequate time to do so. If the file is applied again before the skin has fully recovered from the first application, the skin will only be further abraded, and damaged. If adequate time is allowed for recovery, but the file is applied before the body has produced the adaptation, an increase in the thickness of the skin, then the maximal increase in skin thickness stimulated by the original filing may not be produced. If the body is to produce the adaptation to the stimulus, it is essential that the body be allowed adequate time to do so between exposures to the stimulus. Anything less, and the full response will not be produced.

The same principles apply to exercise. Rather than try to find out how much exercise you can tolerate, try to find the minimal volume and frequency necessary to stimulate your body to improve. You’ll most likely discover it to be far less than you think.

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24 Responses to Less is More

  1. Steven.turner June 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Is this the same as homeostasis negative and positive feedback loops. Negative feedback loop reduces the original stimulus maintains “normal” body functioning. Positive feedback mechanisims increase the original stimulus – positive feedback mechanisms occur “infrequently” forces the body to make adaptations above “normal”. Positive feedback only occurs when the stimulus is higher than normal. In effect negative feedback produces no changes but wastes a lot of energy.

    • Drew Baye June 14, 2012 at 11:22 am #

      Steven,

      Homeostasis is involved in the body’s acute and chronic responses to exercise but I don’t think it works as an analogy.

  2. Tommy June 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    Hi Baye,

    Awesome article – I stumbled across your website serendipitously.
    I first came into contact with High Intensity Principles through the work of Mike Mentzer – I am so glad to see you are flying the flag – taking these concepts to higher levels.

    Taken my several months to assimilate the rudiments of H.I.T – before even picking up any Iron!

    I have been training now solidly to failure with a cadence of 7/1/7 -
    (resting 5 days in between workouts)

    Altho I have gained an inch around my arms (in 3 months) I seem to have reached a plateau in regards to my lifting ability -

    Your above article states/stresses very clearly the need for adequate recuperation time –

    However do I not owe it to myself to see if I at least have the genetic potential/possibility of being able to recover, with maybe only 2/3 days rest in-between workouts? . . . Or would it be more prudent to increase my cadence and stick with a 5 day rest?

    Also at some stage I am wishing to incorporate a chin/pull up regime and as this work out, will be immensely taxing on the body; – how can this be reconciled/fitted into an HIT work out each week?

    Look forward to picking up your new book :)

    Keep up the good work Dude !:)!

    Tom

    • Drew Baye June 14, 2012 at 11:18 am #

      Tommy,

      If you have reached a plateau and you have already addressed any other potential limiting factors like nutrition and sleep then I don’t recommend increasing your training frequency. Instead, add another day or two between workouts for a few weeks and see if your progress improves.

      There is no need for an entire program built around chin ups or pull ups. Just incorporate them into your existing workouts.

  3. Brendan June 14, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    Hi Drew,

    One question that this post prompted me to ask concerns the statement “If a person is training intensely, but not making significant progress in their training on a workout to workout basis” How do you define significant progress, is it being able to perform one extra rep at the same weight from last workout? or the same number of reps as last workout, but with a heavier weight?

    • Drew Baye June 14, 2012 at 11:14 am #

      Brendan,

      I would have thought so at the time, but there is a lot more to progress than weight and reps. Improvements in form, a reduction in rest between exercises, quicker recovery afterwords, etc. can all be considered progress. Also, progress needs to be considered over a period of weeks rather than on a workout to workout basis since everybody will have a bad workout occasionally.

      • Karthik June 15, 2012 at 5:04 am #

        This is spot on. Most trainees actually get depressed at the thought of not making linear progression and have to understand that its not just about the extra rep or the added weight. Everybody will have a bad day. Even when you standardize all other factors involved in a workout like exercise performance, rest between exercises, etc, external factors could play their part in determining the outcome. More reason to standardize performance than changing routines often seeking to break plateaus.

        Karthik

        • BRendan June 17, 2012 at 8:30 am #

          Thank you for the follow up comments to my question. I am currently performing a Big 5 program (BB Row, Chest Press, Pulldown, OH Press, Leg Press) with 4 days rest, and am tracking my time under load, total workout time, average rest time, number of reps, weight and energy expenditure for each exercise. Looking at the graphs of energy expenditure, it goes up and down as either reps or weight (or both) increases on a workout to workout basis. However, if I were to plot a regression line between the points it would be an incline demonstrating ‘significant progress’, total workout time and average rest are constant. Once the regression line becomes flat, then I need to start adding more rest days.

  4. Arnan June 14, 2012 at 8:07 pm #

    Hey drew,

    I’ve been using the HIT protocol for about two months or so ,and im really seeing good results in my strength. The real question I have here is regarding HIT training and its usefullness in rehabilitation. Im a pre PT student, and i’ve contemplated using somewhat of a HIT protocol in my own future outpatient Physical Thearpy clinic. Do you think I could apply the HIT prinicipals and be successful in this setting?

    Thanks,

    Arnan

    • Drew Baye June 15, 2012 at 8:26 am #

      Arnan,

      High intensity training is not just useful for physical rehabilitation, it is the only method of exercise I would recommend for it. Much of what passes for exercise in physical therapy clinics is a waste of patients’ time and money and often even counterproductive and they would get much better results, faster and more safely with the proper application of high intensity training principles.

  5. Thomas June 29, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    Greetings

    by chance I fell over your’s and Doug’s talks at 21convention (2009) and I was very interested in it, since I always try to find new views on hypertrophy workouts/nutrition/rest etc.

    Now I feel very tentative to apply your principles, which would significantly change the volume of exercises I would use.

    It is especially the claim about the “stimulus” we can make to our brain, to efficiently super compensate and improve strength and size of our muscle, with as little as 1 or maybe 2 sets per muscle group, that interests me.

    Until I saw what you and Doug McGuff had to say about it, I was a firm believer that several sets (6+) would be needed to get satisfying progress when rest time was as long as e.g 7 days, as I usually use for each muscle group.

    What theory or test or investigation do you have to back up these claims about a sufficient “stimulus” to the brain being achieved after 1 or 2 sets, and that more sets can be damaging to progress?

    Why should I believe these claims?

    kind regards
    Thomas

  6. Simon July 27, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    Hi Drew, I’ve been a fan of your training style for about six months now and have noticed some great gains. Like most I want results as fast as possable. I tend to keep changing my routine but have found that total body 3 times a week seem to give me the best results. I was doing 2 sets of each exercise but am thinking of going down to 1 set after reading this. I did a routine this eve and noticed that when I geared up to do only one set I found I could push myself harder and do more than when I was doing 2 sets.I know its not supposed to mean anything but because I’m not as sore and tierd I feel like I’m cheating myself from the full effects of a workout is there anyway to tell Lif you’ve done enough” I train ti complete failure as if someone had a gun to my head but somehow one set doesn’t “feel” enough although I am delighted if it is as my schedule doesn’t allow long hours in a gym and so the less I can do to grow the better.Thanks for a great article and info you provide

    • Drew Baye July 28, 2012 at 10:01 am #

      Simon,

      It can be difficult to cut back your volume if you’ve been training that way for a long time and getting results doing it but all you need is one set if you do it hard enough.

    • Thomas July 28, 2012 at 11:27 am #

      Hi Simon.

      I had a very similar experience.

      I felt I could give myself and motivate myself in a much stronger way to every workout, but at the same time, in the first week or 2, I felt had so much rest time for so little training. (personally I have 6-7 rest days between working a muscle).

      All I can say is “look at the results”, I have done this for 1 month and I progress every time I hit the gym. I am stronger every time I hit the gym the next time.

      I will continue to “test” this workout mehtod on my own body for around 5 more months and then make my conclusions on how well it works for me.

      I would only encourage you to try this for a longer time span. chart your progress, and see yourself beat your own expectations every time! :)

      regards, thomas

      • Simon July 30, 2012 at 2:56 am #

        Thanks for the encouragement and reply ill stick to it :)

  7. JD July 30, 2012 at 11:20 am #

    So true. I always had a minimalistic approach (looking how little sets I could do instead of how much), but until recently did not understand that this was still too much. I had already progressed from 3 times a week, to 2 times a week to once a week, always full body. Less than that seemed to little, but that changed for me after reading Mentzer carefully and after experimentation.

    Now instead of not being able to wait to go to the gym I’m careful about returning too soon. My reasoning is: why return to the gym as long as I’m growing. I only return to give a new growing stimulus. To me this works out to once every 7-10 days on an upper body / lower body split. This can lead to training a body part once in three weeks. By the way: in periods where I have grown the most, my recovery period was longest. I do not know whether there is a relation, but still experimenting.

    • Drew Baye July 30, 2012 at 11:39 am #

      JD,

      You hit the nail on the head when you wrote “…why return to the gym as long as I’m growing?”

      The workout doesn’t produce growth, it stimulates your body to produce it and that takes time. Working out again too soon can get in the way of that process, and working out too often for a long enough time can halt gains altogether.

  8. Joe September 11, 2012 at 9:21 am #

    Have been doing HIT for a few months based on reading Darden/Mentzer in a home setting. The biggest challenge I think is staying mentally focused on the last several reps to not only maintain good form but complete the last hardest rep. Not having a trainer or partner pushing me I am always wondering if I’m really getting there. That being said, reading this post I honed in on this statement: “If you perform an exercise correctly the first time, you will not be capable of performing a second set, much less a third or fourth.” Do you mean that you could not immediately (or after 30s or so reps) do another set of the same exercise? I feel like if I were to perform a superset that I would at least be able to complete a few reps on a second set. Does this mean I am not adequately reaching failure?

    Cheers,
    Joe

    • Drew Baye September 12, 2012 at 9:20 am #

      Joe,

      While there are some exceptions (people with high percentages of slow twitch motor units) most people will not be able to match their performance even with fifteen to thirty minutes rest if they perform an exercise hard enough. It isn’t uncommon for more advanced subjects to be unable to stand up out of the leg press machine for a short period of time or to have difficulty raising their arms after overhead pressing when they work hard enough. If you’re really going all-out it can take a lot out of you.

      • Joe September 12, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

        Thanks for the quick response. By no means could I perform another equal set, perhaps only 1-2 reps after a few moments. I think I get the idea.

  9. jobe September 24, 2012 at 8:01 am #

    Hi Drew

    I have been doing HIT training for the past 5 months. I do the Chest & Back/Shoulders & Arms/Legs & Trunk Routine, go to the gym twice a week(each lasts about 25 min). You mention ‘One properly performed set per exercise, of one exercise for each major muscle or group of muscles.’ Doesn’t that make the training session extremely short?

    Cheers
    Jobe

    • Drew Baye September 24, 2012 at 8:09 am #

      Jobe,

      Yes, it does make the training session extremely short. If you’re training very intensely all you need is a very short workout.

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