In strength training, there are different aspects that have various effects on results.  The main aspect and the one, unfortunately that is completely out of our control is genetics.  Since we can’t go back and choose different parents, we are left with the genetic hand that we were dealt at birth.  This single factor has likely caused more confusion due to the logical fallacy where people assume that elite athletes and/or bodybuilders must be more knowledgeable and/or be using superior methodology as their results are so phenomenal.

In Canada, 1 in 361 adult men are over 6 feet, 5 inches tall.   1 in 7 adult men are over 6 feet tall.  1 in 11 men are shorter than 5 feet, 5 inches tall.  This is beyond all these men’s respective control.  The ability to build abnormally large muscles, (the kind that will turn heads like the person who is over 6 feet 5 inches tall) has to do with a multitude of genetic factors such as testosterone, muscle belly size, myostatin gene just to name a few, all of which we have no control over.  Those genetic traits may actually be even rarer than being over 6 feet 5 inches tall, otherwise, you would see far more men with amazing physiques, and it wouldn’t be nearly as “head turning”.

However, engaging in resistance training will contribute to improvements in muscle hypertrophy for the overwhelming majority of people (there are non responders, but the jury is out, as to whether, even these folks would not respond better by manipulating certain factors of the protocol).  Whatever hypertrophy, your genetics will allow,  resistance training will help you to “look better naked” but, depending on your priorities, more importantly there are a myriad of other benefits to engaging in resistance training.

So what factors are within our control?  I will suggest that it comes down to volume (how many sets and reps), frequency (how often do you exercise) and intensity (what degree of effort do you put into your sets and reps).

The last one, intensity, merits clarification, because it is commonly defined differently depending on the source.  A common definition of intensity is a given  percentage of the weight that an individual can lift one time, usually expressed as % of 1RM.  Less common is how much effort goes into an exercise,  in terms of carrying a set of an exercise until an additional repetition is not possible, know as momentary muscular failure or momentary muscular fatigue, regardless of % of 1RM.

The problem with the % of 1RM definition, is that, without specifying whether one is training to “momentary muscular failure”  or not(I will simply refer to “failure” going forward), it becomes almost meaningless in terms of a measure of intensity.   One person utilizing 70% of 1RM for 6 reps, as an example, may be hard pressed to complete the last rep, or even be unable to do more than 4 or 5, but for another individual, they may easily double that number of repetitions without reaching failure.

But getting back to volume, frequency and intensity, I would suggest that an increase in any or all of these has been shown to improve results, however, beyond a certain point, specifically, beyond the point of diminishing returns, too much can actually be detrimental.  Particularly, if one attempts to increase all three simultaneously,  the body’s ability to adapt will soon be exceeded, and exercise can actually become toxic.

So, since, you are extremely unlikely to be able to increase all three, and still recover, which of,  volume, frequency or intensity will give you the best return on investment?

But wait, some will say, what about “load?”  Haven’t you left out a vital component?  As the picture on this post suggests, it is a common belief that “heavy loads with low reps builds strength, while light loads with high reps builds endurance”.   (which is why the % of 1RM is a better measure of “load” than intensity)

However, this 25 minute video by Stuart Phillips does a very good job of dispelling this belief (among others).  Certainly, if your goal is to “demonstrate” strength or compete in Olympic weightlifting or Powerlifting, where the goal is to lift X weight for one repetition, then you need to “practice” doing so with heavy loads.  It is true that the demonstration of strength as shown by a one rep max will be more successfully achieved with heavier loads, but evidence shows that this is attributable to skill practice (neurological efficiency) rather than actual superior strength results.  When actual torque or hypertrophy is the goal, then what has been shown, is that the carrying of a set to “failure” almost regardless of load is actually as effective or even slightly better than heavier loads with lower reps.

If heavier loads don’t actually give you better results, but increase the chances of injury (acute or chronic)  (more weight means more force on joints, ligaments and tendons) then it is safer to use somewhat lighter loads (particularly as we get older).  The main reason to use somewhat heavier loads than really becomes to ensure a set doesn’t go on to the point of being tediously long from the subjective standpoint of the person exercising.

Some of my clients, prefer a lighter load with a set duration of up to 3 minutes or more, as they don’t like the feeling that a weight is hard to move from the very outset, and feel that the early “easier” reps, set them up better mentally to really put in maximum effort towards the end of the set.  Personally, I find a 3 minute set to be torture, and prefer to use a heavier load that enables me to reach failure between 50 seconds and less than 2 minutes.  In other words, I like to get it over with!  Of course, the older and/or the more vulnerable a client may be due to previous injuries for example, the more I would lean towards lighter loads and longer sets, but NOT to elicit a different result, but rather to minimize the chance of injury.

Now interestingly, and what motivated me to write this post, is that Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus, and a person who never went to high school, but popularized if not actually invented the concept of “training to failure” at least as early as 1972, was saying this all along.  It is remarkable to see him vindicated in 2020.

From my point of view, with my goal of making exercise Sustainable for my clients’ lifetimes, while I will acknowledge that volume and frequency can play a part in improving results, I believe that emphasizing intensity more than frequency or volume will make this possible for my clients.  The smaller the time commitment and the greater the safety component, the more likely this will be.

On my next post, I’m excited to talk about research showing that previous beliefs that results would be greater for younger than older populations are not supported by evidence, which is great news for us aging baby boomers.

To find out more about getting maximum results, with maximum safety and minimum time, please contact me in any of the following ways:

Email:  richard@sustainablesuccess.ca

Work Phone:  613-215-0531 ext 2

Text or Cell:  613-218-6420