Today we’re going to talk about weight training. You might be surprised to learn I don’t really enjoy weight training, at least not in the way you might think. I’ve never been a “spend hours in the gym” kind of guy. However, like all of you, I have always enjoyed the effects of training. The sense of accomplishment, the rush of endorphins, the other physiological effects of training, and of course the change in appearance always captivated me with sheer fascination.
It may also be hard to believe but it’s also no more than twenty years since I picked up my first dumbbell as a, scrawny (legitimate) 98 pound kid. Through my years of training and as a physique athlete I added more than 100 lbs to my frame at my heaviest, and through dieting and growing phases have personally gained and lost more than 1000lbs.
If you’ve ever spent any time weight training you’ve likely fallen into some of the oldest traditions. 3 sets per exercise, a rep range of 8-12 or some variation based on the simple logic of best for gaining muscle, best for toning, best for getting stronger or something of the sort. Today I’m going to share with you why I feel less is more, or at least why it’s been so right for me.
When it comes to weight training in consideration of raw muscular performance first understand your brain and efficiency of your nervous system are quite possibly the primary or most vital components. Without the ability to focus specifically on a particular movement or small group of muscles you could never achieve your best performance. Additionally the ability of the signal sent by the brain to reach it’s intended destination as quickly and efficiently as possible might be compared to the likes of travel time on an eight lane freeway with no other cars; versus being trapped in a downtown core at rush hour only to find a detour ahead.
When you first perform any movement your body recruits about 80% of the muscle fibers associated with any of the muscles required to complete that movement. As your ability to perform any movement at exactly the same level of performance declines (as you tire or become fatigued) the body boosts the nervous signal in an effort to recruit a few more muscle fibers. When you stop and take a rest and then resume this movement again the body doesn’t pick up where it left off and recruit new fibers, it actually first reactivates the fibers used previously and only recruits further new fibers when you again can’t sustain your performance. This in part is why you feel the muscle burn and soreness in the days that follow a challenging workout. A muscle contraction is a chemical reaction and the burning sensation is the accumulation of waste products but also serves another purpose, which is to give you a signal that you must stop before you reach injury or have exhausted every single muscle fiber. If we could recruit ever single muscle fiber you would literally be paralyzed upon exhaustion and be able to move. The soreness you feel in the days that follow is again a signal; a signal that the affected muscles are actually damaged and need to be repaired. As horrible as this sounds it’s exactly what we’re going for as our amazingly adaptive and efficient body quickly repairs the muscles but not as they were before instead they are made better with a slight improvement over the last repair.
So here is here is my secret to training less for the best progress and adaptive response. Because the nervous system and the efficiency of the signal is the most vital component I suggest you begin each exercise with a preparation set of the exact movement you will perform at only 50-60% of the weight you intend to work with. I suggest completing only 3-5 repetitions. Because you now know even in this set we will recruit about 80% of our muscle fibers relating to that muscle group; the point is to improve the signal but not exhaust the mechanism.
Next increase your weight for your first work set; this should be the heaviest resistance you will use for that exercise on that day. In all physiological practicality completing any exercise once after a preparation set as described will yield more than enough trauma to the muscle to encourage adequate growth and adaptation, however the unknown variables are our mind and environment. If anything distracts you even in the slightest your nervous system will be compromised and you will have not have performed to your total potential. The same is true with any stir of emotion. It’s for this reason alone I feel a second set is of value.
I almost always stop at two sets because of how our mind works. Subconsciously your body knows how much work you intend to do long before you complete it. Whether it’s your intention or not if you are completing multiple sets your body will prevent you from overexerting yourself in the early sets and will ensure you can physically complete however much work you intend to do. By completing less volume the opposite is also true, your body will adapt allowing you to expend more energy in each set. So it’s entirely true when we say you can get the same results in half the time when you understand how to create greater efficiency in your training.
This is a very limited description of one of the efficiency mechanisms of weight training but I do hope it get’s you thinking. On a final note I leave you with one more item for thought, in consideration of the above you must also acknowledge that the more volume of work you complete the greater to the trauma to the fibers that are constantly being reworked. This means a longer recovery time with greater resources but the measure of adaptation or improvement doesn’t scale accordingly. After more than 20 years I can tell you definitively less is truly more.