Putting the Size Principle to Work
Time for a Change
By Richard Winnett
Ever since I began weight training as a 13-year old, the goal was always to lift heavy weights. This has been true through every training incarnation that has spanned almost a half century. It was even true in more recent years when I have used much better form and longer duration repetitions.
The reasons I’ve changed my goal and approach to training involve injuries. However, I believe the approach that I am using now is beneficial for anyone.
The Impetus to Change: Reaching an Impasse
Several years ago, my joints became inflamed when I used a high level of resistance in certain movements. There seemed to be a threshold of force that my joints could no longer accommodate. I was smart enough to stay below that level of force.
In the last two years, I sustained a number of major muscle strains and tears in my quadriceps and hamstrings. In each instance, I was not doing anything unusual. I simply seemed to exceed a level of force for a given range of motion. It was apparent that continuing to train in the same manner inevitably would lead to more and more injuries.
I also realized that there were other aspects of my training that didn’t make physiological sense. It really doesn’t make sense to split the upper body, as I’ve done for decades. To split the upper body muscle groups means we believe that exercises are so specific that they do not target many muscle groups at the same time.
Physiologically, there also is no basis for training lower body exercises at a lower frequency than upper body exercises. I do not believe that anyone has demonstrated that the quadriceps recover more slowly than the pectorals, for example. I think that training routines have evolved this way for one simple reason. Lower body exercises are generally harder than many upper body exercises.
I also was obvious that continuing to train with a high level of resistance was creating a situation, aside from injuries, that wasn’t very healthful. Because it had become harder to recover from training, more recovery days seemed required. This meant that both training frequency and volume are decreased. A good case can be made that positively affecting a number of health-related mechanisms requires training at a reasonable frequency.
Finally, more recently I became fully aware (see Master Trainer, October, 2006) that there was no real greater benefit that is derived from using very heavy resistance. The size principle indicates that it is the degree of effort (intensity) and not the amount of external force (resistance) that determines the optimization of motor unit recruitment.
This means that as long as a set for a given exercise ends with a high degree of effort, then more moderate resistance and a longer time under tension produces about the same strength outcomes and muscular hypertrophy as using a heavier resistance and a shorter time under tension.
A Different Approach
I developed a lower body, upper body split routine and train four or even five days per week. In the five days per week routine, I simply only take one day off after each the lower, upper body sequence of workouts.
I’ve always enjoyed performing a wide variety of movements. I’ve also always liked training at a good pace with about a minute between most exercise sets. So, for each major muscle group, I perform several exercises for one set each, alternating some exercises between workouts and often changing the order of exercises for a muscle group.
Most exercises are performed for 60-75 seconds time under tension. I most often use a 4 seconds concentric, 4 seconds eccentric repetition duration but sometimes, an 8 seconds concentric, 4 seconds eccentric repetition duration, or even a 10 seconds concentric, 5 seconds eccentric repetition duration.
I generally stay away from very heavy resistance in any movement. I simply no longer have the primary goal of using lots of resistance. The goal is now to perform each repetition in each exercise in the best way I can and perform the best workout I possibly can on any given day.
It’s important to make a distinction. All the exercises are performed with a high degree of intensity. That is, the last repetition in a set is at the point, or close to the point, of concentric failure. But the resistance isn’t very heavy. So, the approach is high intensity with more moderate force, an approach consistent with the correct interpretation of the size principle.
Try Something Different
After almost 50 years of training I found out something that is quite interesting. At least for improving a physique, I seem more responsive to my revised type of training than the training I did for so many years.
Perhaps there is some equally simple change in your training that you’ve been reluctant to try. Give it a reasonable trial. A worst case scenario is that you will see that the new way of training isn’t any better than your former way of training or your former way of training was better. You can then return to your prior way of training. A best case scenario is that you will find that you are more responsive or simply enjoy training in a somewhat different way.
Note 1: I am not training with just light or moderate resistance. In all movements I am using about 90% of the resistance I used previously and about 10-20 seconds greater time under tension. It is just enough of a difference to apparently reduce unnecessary stress on my joints and prevent muscle strains and tears.
Note 2: This approach works very well. Here’s one indicator. After taking a shower and eating, 20 minutes after a workout I feel Ôperfectly normal’. I do not feel drained and I feel that I could repeat the entire workout.
Note 3: It required about a month to adapt to training more frequently. Because I do not suffer from inflamed joints, recovery is not a problem. And, because each workout is not exhausting and I can recover well, I am able to make some discernible progress on a number of movements. Progress, however, isn’t necessarily defined as lifting much heavier resistance. That would undermine the overall approach. Rather progress is evidenced by the ability to add a repetition or two and increase the time under tension while maintaining the same form. Progress also is shown by keeping the same repetition and time under tension while adding a small amount of resistance to a movement. Most importantly, once I adjusted to this different approach, here is the best outcome. I look forward to and enjoy each workout.
Note 4: While this is a Ôcase study’ with one subject, there is enough interesting data to at least raise some questions. How can a person who has trained for many years suddenly be considered someone with very good recovery ability? After all, anyone who can train four and often five days per week with many high intensity sets and moderately heavy resistance must have very good recovery ability. But, this is the same person, of course, who five months ago was struggling to recover from his workouts and had a string of injuries. The only thing that has changed is the nature of the stimulus.
Is it possible that training with very heavy resistance is for most people a not very effective way to train? Was the move toward less and less volume and frequency of training and heavier and heavier resistance advocated by any number of overlapping approaches steps in exactly the wrong direction?
The point is that the inability to recover that some people have from training in certain ways may have far more to do with the stimulus and much less to do with Ôdefects’ in the organism.
You also have to wonder if people who claim that they (or most people) need many days to recover from routines with 6-8 work-sets are using too much resistance, training inappropriately in a totally exhausting way, have never allowed themselves time to adapt to anything else, perhaps are not really in top physical condition, or some combination of all of these factors.