40 Minutes a Week to Buff Part 1
Here is my workout on April 6, 2018:
- Leg press: 1165 lbs for 7 reps and 1 assisted
- Dumbbell press on ball: 105 lbs for 8 reps and 1 assisted
- Lat Pull-down: 195 lbs for 5 reps and 1 assisted (I need to lower the weight on this to 190 lbs)
- Push up/run 1/5/25 lbs for 6 series: (A functional exercise)
- Lunge/pull: 75 lbs for 20 reps (A functional exercise)
- Wood chop: 30 lbs for 20 reps each side, left and right (A functional exercise)
- Hip flexion/plank: 10 reps (A core exercise)
- Fifer scissors: 5 seconds holds for 10 reps (A core exercise)
- Triceps extensions: 90 lbs for 10 reps
I did a total of nine exercises, and it took me less than 25 minutes to do. I exercised all of the major muscle groups, and I added a couple of functional and core exercises as well. In essence, I trained my whole body in one day. No need for a split routine to hit each body part. No need for two hour workouts four or five times a week. As a matter of fact, I won't workout again for three days because I do not need to.
Oh, and did I mention that I am 54 years old?
Tired of Marathon Workouts
I remember all too well when I first became interested in building a strong, muscular body. I was a senior in high school (the bug hit me later than many of my friends), and I started working out with my friend who's been lifting weights since junior high. He had a well developed chest and arms, but he had skinny legs and a not so well developed upper back to keep pace with his chest. I didn't think much of it because I still thought he looked good. Anyway, the workout consisted of 5 to 10 sets of bench press, followed by 3 sets of incline dumbbell presses, then followed by another 3 sets of decline dumbbell presses. After that we would do 3 sets of dumbbell flys to "shape" the pecs (whatever that means). When we were finally done with the chest (!), we would work our biceps and triceps. Again, doing many sets for each part.
It would take one and a half to two hours per workout, and we would do this three times a week. Years later, when I would start adding more body parts like the legs and more focus on my upper back, I would similarly do many sets and I had to add more days just to get through all of my "parts". At that point I was working out four to five times a week, still spending about one and a half to two hours per workout.
This was not unusual. All of the gym rats I hung out with back in the day said I needed to train like this to get very muscular...and all of the bodybuilding magazines said the same thing....and they still do twenty years later.
So, if I spent that much time training, did my muscle gains reflect that? Not really. I weighed 155 lbs when I started training, and five years later I weighed maybe 160 lbs. I got stronger, but not by much, nor did my body really look any different.
Frankly, I was burning out. The return on investment just wasn't worth it.
A More Efficient Approach To Build Muscle: Brief But Intense
Needless to say, I was open to a new approach to strength training. I was not intentionally searching for a new way, but I stumbled on a book for bodybuilders called , written by Dr. Ellington Darden. If you click on the link, you will see that Dr Darden has written several books on the subject of strength training for over 40 years. He worked with Arthur Jones at Nautilus Sports/Medical Industries. They had a very different approach to strength training than just about everybody else out there. Instead of figuring out how much exercise we need for maximum muscle gains, they asked the opposite question...how little do we need? Super High Intensity Bodybuilding
The answer was surprising. The general recommendations in the book were as follows:
- Train the whole body the same day (do not split body parts).
- Do no more than three sets per body part total. In many cases, one set is enough.
- Spend no more than 45 minutes per workout.
- Get out of the gym and rest at least 48 hours before you do another workout, and maybe even longer if you are in peak shape.
- Otherwise you will over train and slow down your progress.
This was news to me. So I bought the book.
The Hystrength Exercise Program
I have been in the fitness industry for quite some time now, and I have logged over 45,000 hours teaching and training people on how to get fit. In doing so, I streamlined my training approach to get the most benefit for the least amount of time, and to do it as injury free as possible. I named my approach the Hystrength(sm) exercise program. It has four components that I feel should be in every exercise program:
- Functional exercise, which I describe here.
- Core training, described here and here.
- Balance and stability work.
- Strength Training.
In this article, I will focus just on the strength training aspect of the Hystrength(sm) program. Quite frankly, what I learned from reading about High Intensity Strength Training fascinated me so much, I just talked about it with anybody who had a receptive ear (and no doubt many who did not...), and eventually I started training my friends. I remember one day in particular where I had four of my co-workers over to my apartment where I had a small gym set-up, and we spent the whole day training and talking strength training concepts. To this day I am still just as fascinated about how effective one properly performed set of exercise can reap big rewards, and just as enthusiastic about teaching it.
Intensity: The Key to Growth
The message that I received loud and clear from the writings of Dr. Darden is that getting stronger is not a matter of a high volume of exercise, it is from the intensity of the exercise. Moreover, the harder someone trains, the less overall volume he can handle. This is counter intuitive to what is preached, but it does make sense.
To better understand how so little exercise can produce big results, we need to delve into some basic physiology. There are three things we need to understand:
- The difference between the fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers
- The size order of recruitment
- The all-or-none principle
Slow Twitch and Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers.
Slow twitch muscle fibers do not produce very much force when they are called on. However, they can last a long time. They are better known as the endurance fibers. In other words, if you go on a long bike ride or maybe a 2 mile jog, you are using the slow twitch fibers.
Fast twitch fibers, on the other hand, will produce large amounts of force and do it in a short period of time. When recruited to perform a task, they place a great demand on the resources of the body. Not only is the energy system taxed, but the hormonal and nervous system are taxed too, and it takes the body quite a while to fully recover from that. It is the reason why the body, if it can, will avoid recruiting the fast twitch fibers unless it absolutely has to.
I must also mention that the body has another set of muscle fibers that are called the intermediate fibers. They have some of the characteristics of both the fast twitch and slow twitch fibers, and they will take on more of the characteristics of either the slow twitch or fast twitch fibers depending on the dominant form of exercise engaged by the trainee.
Here is the main point I want to make about the difference between the fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers: the slow twitch fibers do not change shape very much, nor do they really get stronger. If you want to see more tone, shape, and definition in your muscles, you have to work the fast twitch fibers. Endurance training of any kind does not cut it. So, for example, a strength training program that does a lot of sets with a lower weight and a high repetition range will work more of the slow twitch fibers, and maybe the intermediate fibers, but they will not work the fast twitch fibers. That also goes for all of the cardio exercise programs that are popular for weight loss (which does not really work. That is a topic for another day).
The take home message is this: we need to work the fast twitch fibers if we want to both get stronger and reshape the muscles.
Size Order of Recruitment
The size order of recruitment means that whenever a given muscle is called on to contract, it will recruit the small muscle fibers first, then it will call on the larger muscle fibers as it needs more force production. Yes, the small fibers are the slow twitch fibers, and the larger muscle fibers are the fast twitch fibers. Let me use an analogy from my initial consultation to make my point. Assume that you are sipping on a glass of wine, which weighs about 8 ounces or so. Very light. Every time you lift it to your mouth, you are using some of the small, slow twitch fibers in your biceps. Now understand that your biceps (and all muscle groups for that matter) have many of both fast and slow twitch fibers. In this case, lifting and lowering the glass of wine does not need much force production, so those slow twitch fibers can do the task all day long. Now let's say that you are lifting a 20 lb weight. The small muscle fibers cannot produce enough force to lift the weight, so now your body must recruit some of the larger, fast twitch fibers. The bicep muscle now has to recruit maybe 20 fast twitch fibers to lift the weight. This is how the size order of recruitment works.
The main message is this. When we do a properly performed set, we do not by pass the slow twitch fibers to get to the fast twitch fibers. We recruit both types, and as we need more force production during the set, we recruit more of the bigger, fast twitch fibers.
The All or None Principle
The all or none principle means that whenever a muscle fiber is called on to contract (recruited), it is giving a 100% effort. It is not "kind of" on, say, giving a 50% effort contracting. It is either 100% on or 100% off. This actually applies to the motor unit and the muscle fibers that are connected to it, but for purpose of simplicity, I will keep it down to a single muscle fiber.
Let's delve further. If, for example, that a trainee is performing a set of dumbbell curls with 20 lbs, and to accomplish that task, the bicep muscle needs to recruit 20 muscle fibers to produce enough force to overcome that resistance for the first rep. Those 20 muscle fibers are giving everything they got to lift the weight. They are 100% "on". Understand that there are thousands of muscle fibers in any given muscle group, and on any given task, the body will recruit only the amount of fibers needed to get the job done, whatever it may be.
Now on to the second repetition. The original 20 muscle fibers are still contracting giving 100% effort (make note of this point. I'll get back to it in a minute), but they are a little fatigued. So instead of 100% force production, even though they are giving 100% effort, they may be able to produce only about 70% of the force they were able to on the first repetition. Thus, the body needs to recruit more fresh muscle fibers to finish the second repetition. On the third rep, the same thing applies. The first 20 fibers are able to produce maybe 50% force production, the second set of fibers, say, 70% force production, so now the body needs to call into play another 20 fresh fibers to perform the third rep. From a strength training perspective, this is our goal. Every repetition we do, we should strive to recruit more and more of the fast twitch fibers in the given muscle group we are concentrating on. The more recruitment, the more strength and muscle reshaping we can see.
Where Just About Everybody Who Lifts Weights Go Wrong
I have witnessed the workouts of countless bodybuilding wanna-be's and amateur weight lifters who simply want to get buff, and I can confidently say this: 90% percent of the time they spend in the gym to reach their goals are simply a waste of time. Why? Because they do not understand the all-or-none principle. Recall that I mentioned that even though a muscle fiber can be giving 100% effort, but maybe only able to produce 50% or 70% of the amount of force it could do on the previous repetition? This is true...unless the trainee cheats. Maybe his form breaks down a little. Maybe he hoists or swings the weight on the next repetition. Maybe he will rest the weight at the top of the top (for example, he will lock out his elbows on the bench press for a few seconds). Anytime the trainee does any of these things (and they usually do a combination of them), the muscle fibers under load get a chance to rest and get some blood and oxygen back in. This allows the muscle fiber to regain some strength, and by doing so, the body does not need to recruit the deeper fibers to do the next repetition. Most trainees will hit a plateau in strength gains because they do not understand this basic principle. In an attempt to overcome this, they then will add more sets and overall volume to their training programs to try to make up for this deficit.
The main message is this: We want to recruit as many of the fast twitch fibers while we do during our set, and in doing so, we must not allow the muscle fibers already firing to rest, even a little bit. If we do, they will get recharged and able to give more force on the next rep, thus lessening the need for the body to recruit the deeper fibers.
Inroading: The Goal of any Good Strength Training Program
The final point I want to clarify before I wrap up part one of forty minutes a week to buff is the importance of inroading. Inroading, in it's simplicity, is the level of fatigue that a muscle experiences on any given muscular contraction. Take a look at a trainee performing a bench press, for example. Every repetition he is doing with good form is fatiguing his chest muscles a little bit more than the previous rep. So every rep that he does, he should feel a more of a burning sensation in the targeted muscle group. By doing so, the muscle has to call into play the deeper, fast twitch fibers to continue the lift. The stronger the inroad...the more muscle fibers are used. The more fibers used, the more stimulus the muscle receives to get stronger during the recovery phase. Whenever the trainee starts to swing the weight up, maybe lock out at the top, or does not control the weight on the negative part of the repetition, he is outroading. The more outroading he does, the less effective the set. The trainee will usually add more sets and increase more overall volume to try to make up for this shortfall, and he would usually have sub par results.
A good strength training routine can be very efficient in producing a fit, buff body. Research has shown that remarkable results can be achieved in as little as fifteen minutes a week! Personally, I have found my "sweet spot" to be roughly 20 to 25 minutes per workout with two workouts a week. I have been very successful with formula for my clients as well.
It is important to understand some basic physiological processes of the muscular system to fully capitalize on an abbreviated strength training program. The difference the fast twitch/slow twitch fibers, the all-or-none principle, and the size order of recruitment principle. A good grasp of these concepts go a long way to make a strength training more efficient.
In part 2, I will get more into specifics so you can employ them into your own strength training program.