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Nature, to Be Commanded, Must Be Obeyed

June 23, 2014

More Or Less?

Let’s talk about archery. The fact of this post being about bodybuilding or that I don’t know anything about archery won’t stop me.[1] I will go ahead and give you advice about archery. You’re welcome.

“The mind is the limit. As long as the mind can envision the fact that you can do something, you can do it, as long as you really believe 100 percent.”

—Arnold Schwarzenegger

Let’s say we want to be good at archery. We have all our gear; bow, arrows, target board, etc… We have a nice, safe, quiet place to practice. We have the time. We are all set.

How about we practice two hours every day? This is totally doable, no? I am sure we would become good enough to compete one day, if we kept training like this. Maybe in a year. Or two. Or five.

What if we practiced 4 hours? It is still a very reasonable length of time. We should be advancing almost twice as fast as if we practiced 2 hours.

If we doubled the duration of our practice sessions, up to 8 hours we can expect to reach that level of proficiency sooner. Of course we can’t possibly practice 24 hours a day for more than a day or two. But within reasonable limits this theory holds: the more the better. The more we practice, the faster we build your archery skill.[2]

More Is Better

The whole point of archery is to strike your arrow right in the middle of the target, isn’t it? I see bows, arrows, target boards and when the arrow hits the target perfectly in the center the crowds cheer. Assured by my complete lack of knowledge, I don’t even consider that I need to exercise proper breathing, train for flexibility etc. Shoot the arrow, hit the target. Case is closed. I have said all that can be said about archery. No more archery in this post.

Since we’re done with all that, we can talk about bodybuilding now. If we go to the gym, or pick up a muscle magazine what do we see? We would see barbells, dumbbells, exercise machines, men and women with shiny big muscles, men and women with shiny big muscles lifting weights, men and women with shiny big muscles checking out their muscles in the mirror and men and women with shiny big muscles lifting more weights. There must be a causal relationship between lifting weights and having shiny big muscles.

“Are you tired of sand being kicked in your face? I promise you new muscles in days!”

—Charles Atlas

Many gym-goers successfully make the deduction that lifting weights builds muscle and then apply the philosophy of more is better to their training. Most of them fail to reap significant benefits from weight training. Making up theories based on superficial observations is as daring as it is futile. The muscleheads lifting those heavy weights, shiny muscles bulging and all, might be too much of a distraction to realize that they are in fact utilizing their minds as well.[3] Especially if you are young and not well built.

To make matters worse media[4] reinforces that kind of shallow thinking. They present genetically gifted, heavily juiced, full-time athletes as role models and subtly suggest readers to compare themselves to these pros. Setting goals high, so high they’re impossible to reach. But keep trying. Keep buying our magazines and supplements. And here’s a workout routine for you[5]:

Incline Sit Ups, 3-4 x 15-20
Incline Barbell Presses, 6 x 15-5*
Weighted Dips, 4 x 12-6*
Seated Pulley Rows, 6 x 15-5*
Front Lat Pulldowns, 4 x 12-6*
Seated Machine Front Presses, 5 x 12-5*
Barbell Upright Rows, 3 x 10-6*
Seated Calf Raises, 6 x 15-6*
Barbell Reverse Curls, 4 x 10-5*
Barbell Wrist Curls, 4 x 10-15

If you are not familiar with this kind of thing, let me break it down for you a little bit. Don’t worry I know a little more about this stuff than archery.

This is the workout routine suggested to someone who’s been lifting weights for 3 months. And it’s aptly named Advanced Level Mass Building Routine. Because 3 months is plenty of time to become advanced. This workout is suggested to be performed twice a week. There’s another, complementary routine to be performed twice a week as well. So we train every body part twice a week and train 4 days a week. Even though we are not hitting the same set of muscles, we have approximately 2 days to fully recuperate. That is, to repair the damage the previous workout has done and overcompensate (i.e. muscle growth) and be ready for the next punishing workout.

Let’s stick to the numbers. This particular workout trains pecs, lats, delts, calves and forearms. That’s 5 muscle groups in a single workout. We would do a total of 45 sets in this workout. If we assume each set takes 90 seconds (including the rests between sets), the whole workout would take 68 minutes. That is, if we would work like a machine.

I used to train like this. You either sacrifice intensity or you end up overtrained. And the sad thing is the fatigue can easily be confused as progress. No pain no gain!

This program was endorsed by Joe Wieder, who is considered the father of bodybuilding by many. Let’s take a look at another program, by none other than legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger[6]:

Barbell Squat 5 8
Front Squat 5 8-10
Leg Press 5 10
Leg Extension 5 10
Lying Leg Curl 8 10

This is a leg program, works quadriceps and hamstrings. Even though they are two separate muscle groups movements that primarily utilize one taxes the other as well. This program contains 28 sets in total. Assuming the first few sets you use lighter weights, if you take your training seriously and do each set with good form and a respectable weight you’d be hitting your legs for ~15 sets and ~100 repetitions. If you have ever lifted weights you should know how devastating this is. I wouldn’t expect to be able to walk out of the gym afterwards. I mean it.

The point I am trying to make is that there is deception at work here[7]. You are presented with role models who lift weights professionally. And you are given their high-volume workouts. Do you want to be like your heroes? Then you should do what they do. They can recover after those workouts because they take their vitamins (i.e. steroids and other stuff). Do you?

Less is Better

Arthur Jones is the inventor of the famous nautilus exercise machines. He also formulated an alternative and contrary (to Weider’s) training method called High Intensity Training. He recognized that the ability of recovery is the limiting factor in bodybuilding. Note that professional bodybuilders take anabolic steroids to increase the capacity of protein synthesis. This in turn allows them to recover faster and overcompensate. Gaining muscle mass can happen only after existing muscle tissue is repaired. This is important, we’ll come back to this later.

From High Intensity Training article of Wikipedia:

The fundamental principles of High Intensity Training (HIT) are that exercise should be brief, infrequent, and intense.

The key point is, as I said above, to make the best use of training with the limitations in recovery. You can endure longer, more frequent workouts if you are using anabolic steroids. Not just that, you can lift heavier weights[8] and ultimately increase the total amount of muscle your body can retain[9].

A natural athlete can only get so big. But it still takes a lot of work to realize your full potential. Most people follow more is better approach and end up perpetually overtrained. Overtraining doesn’t not only mean an absence of overcompensation but it means muscle breakdown (muscle loss) and sometimes even psychological damage. A smart, optimized approach would provide greater benefits, especially for natural athletes.

This might have been an easy lesson for you, but I have learned the ambiguous, or rather imprecise nature of verbal communication later than I’d like. But now it’s second nature to me to ask for a definition, especially when I’m given some adjectives. Exercise should be brief, infrequent, and intense. But what exactly do we mean by brief? How often is infrequent? And how do you define, clearly and precisely, intense?

Precise is Best

Mike Mentzer is one of my heroes. He was not just a legendary bodybuilder, he was also an objectivist. He improved upon High Intensity Training and created his own Heavy Duty Training system.

“Jones’ theory, recall from above, stated that - to be productive, exercise must be intense, brief and infrequent. However, what does brief and infrequent mean exactly? Jones equivocated, and left his legion of devoted followers - many of whom seemed to regard him as omniscient and infallible - bereft of rational training guidance.”

—Mike Mentzer

This is not just nitpicking. Mike Mentzer questioned just because faux principles of bodybuilding. He had no tolerance for ambiguity. He said “Since science is an exact discipline, a proper science of bodybuilding should tell bodybuilders precisely what to do.” He applied reason rigorously, instead of giving people false hope by saying that they can accomplish anything they wish.

If you take less is better to its logical extreme, the best is not to train at all. Because there is nothing less than none. If we start with the goal in mind instead, which is to increase muscle mass we see that it’s an optimization problem. And we can’t optimize what we don’t measure. And, no, measuring the circumference of our bodyparts is not good enough. It’s not a good enough measurement because there’s too much delay between workout and overcompensation. By the time we measure our body has already adapted. If we want to control these responses we need to measure strength.

Mike Mentzer emphasized the correlation between strength and muscle size. If you gain strength you ought to gain muscle. And converself if you gained muscle your strength ought to increase. Too obvious? Tell that to those who endorse strength programs and mass programs as if one can occur without the other.

So we measure strength[10], what now? Every time we repeat a workout, there are three things that can happen. If we do worse than the last time, it means we’re doing something wrong. Unless there is an injury, sickness or something else that affects our performance, it means we haven’t allowed our bodies to recuperate. The solution is to increase the rest period. Second possibility is that we perform exactly as we did before. If it was an easy lift, we wouldn’t have bothered to get under it, right? Intensity requires challening ourselves. So we keep pushing until we improve. That is the third possibility; we may surpass our previous workout. This is the goal. This is precise. We know we have done better because our strength has increased. And we know, because our strength has increased we have gained muscle. It either works, or it doesn’t. There is no ambiguity. We don’t need to believe in anything, we just need to learn the principles and then put them into practice.

“The principle that I am advocating, the one that makes it possible for the bodybuilder to actualize his potential in a very short time, is that neither “more is better” nor “less is better,” but “precise is best.”

—Mike Mentzer

[1]…because I believe 100 percent, LOL.
[2]I actually did a bit of googling and it seems they actually do 2 ~ 3 hours of shooting each day. My confidence in how little I know about archery is boosted by this discovery.
[3]I would be the first one to acknowledge that even an idiot can be taught to lift weights. But make no mistake; there are a lot of intricacies to the art/science of training. If the athlete is not smart, there is someone behind him/her with the brains.
[4]It used to be bodybuilding magazines. But I guess nobody reads magazines anymore. I suppose people read the websites now. I stopped paying attention to that sort of garbase long ago but every now and them I find myself there, ushered by Google.
[7]I am a reverse-hanlonist.
[8]Not just anabolic steroids, there are all kinds of performance enhancing drugs. And there are all kinds crazy people who’d take them even when they are fully aware of the risks involved.
[9]There is no human being, genetic freak or not, who weights 110 kgs with a 5% bodyfat. That is, naturally, without the help of anabolic, androgenic drugs.
[10]I’ll get into more detail in another post. Not just measuring strength, I have been following this system for a while and I want to share all my findings and results.

If you have any questions, suggestions or corrections feel free to drop me a line.