Monday 29 October 2018

Why less can really be more

Less Is More scales from

The inspiration for this post came from a discussion I had yesterday with an acquaintance about the gym. Basically it shows how important it is to know what exactly you are doing in the gym rather than just doing a specific routine as that is what you have seen others do or think that is what you need to do.

Having asked was I still working out, I replied that I had just started back to upper body workouts after 6-7 weeks following a shoulder joint injury. He responded saying that he hadn't been in a while due to severe tendonitis in his forearms and it got to the stage he couldn't lift weights. This fella hadn't been going to gym for a long period and I was surprised how he ended up in such a situation so soon.

To get tendonitis you generally need to be over-working the muscle doing repeated motions over and over again with little change. It is why it so common in those who play sports such as tennis. It can also be a case of doing too much too quick for your tendons to recover leading to overload and their deterioration.

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Finding the root of the problem

Curious to figure out how they ended up in this state I asked them what were they doing in the gym. Simply just one day a week of arm work, and by arm work he meant just the biceps. This arm work consisted of around 3 to 4 sets of 3 to 4 exercises with about a minute rest in between.

That is quite a lot for a muscle especially for people with less than one years gym experience. It is more akin to the demands needed by bodybuilders to force the body into hypertrophy to get big. They also said they would have soreness (delayed onset of muscular soreness, aka DOMS) for maybe three days afterwards.

Whilst a lot especially for a beginner, a weeks rest between arm sessions would help you recover from such intensity or so you would think. Still curious I asked how often do they train altogether and they said about 4 to 5 times a week. The other sessions primarily focused on doing about the same amount of sets of so many exercises for a specific muscle group: the chest, triceps, shoulders, and legs. I was like "Wow! No wonder you got tendonitis in your forearms!"

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Progressive or regressive overload?

Whilst this chap had it in his head he was only doing one "arm" session a week, he was in fact doing four arm sessions a week! And on a routine more akin to a bodybuilders at that as well. He also wasn't eating the kind of diet you would need to recover and sustain such amount of work as well as to grow.

What he didn't realise was that every exercise that targets the muscles of your upper torso such as the chest, upper back, shoulders and arms etc. also targets your forearms to various degrees as you have to grip a weight. The fact he was suffering DOMS for up to three days after his "arm" workout meant he was still hitting his forearms at a stage when they had not recovered.

What was worse was that he thought that he could simply work past the pain and that it would eventually go away. This I have heard from ones before but it is a serious misconception that can make it worse and potentially cause long-term damage. There is a reason why your body feels pain and when it comes to exercise it means stop!

It is a key facet of strength training that you perform progressive overloading of your muscles to force changes whether it be strength, hypertrophy or power. It is how the body adapts. The problem is when you are doing too much to force this change without adequate rest, diet or planning. In this case it becomes regressive overload.

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What they should have started with

I informed him that he had no need to do be doing such high demand sessions, each focused on one single muscle. I showed him my workout journal and what I did after deciding to go back to the first phase of my periodisation program, which focuses not just on strengthening the muscles but also the ligaments and tendons. This phase is where all beginners should start regardless of ultimate goals.

He couldn't believe it when I showed him that once roughly every five days I was doing an upper body workout that targeted all the major muscles involving only two sets total per muscle. I did the same for the lower body on a different day.

Yes two sets per muscle on a schedule that meant I worked them out once or twice a week and each session I progressed either in terms of reps or weight or both. It helped build a strong foundation for more demanding workout methodologies such as hypertrophy and maximum strength etc. It also meant that I was consolidating all of the exercises that hit your forearms into one day rather than taking up most of the week. This last point does depend on if you do deadlifts and where you put them as they can seriously work out your forearms.

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So just how many sets do you need?

Most people have it in their heads that they need to be performing as many sets of as many exercises as possible for each muscle to make progress. Indeed the most common format in the fitness world seems to be the three sets per exercise, three exercises per muscle routine. This is absolute nonsense.

Of course the number of sets is largely dictated by what exactly you are aiming for, but did you know that a beginner performing one set per muscle a week can still make progress? This one set a week can also allow for experienced athletes to maintain what they have worked hard to achieve.

The only people who need to be doing so many sets and exercises per muscle group are bodybuilders who need such volume. Unless this is you, sometimes less really is more. A more thought out planned routine, such as that in phase one of my periodisation program also helps make more efficient and effective use of your time when exercising meaning more time for recuperation and other things.

Hopefully this has inspired you to think more about what you are doing in the gym. If you have any questions feel free to comment below or send me some feedback!

Lyle Richardson,
Gym Pal - Your Friend In Fitness


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