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.
A 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.