Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Resistance training is not rocket science; simple is almost always best

The title of this post is a simple quote straight from an article by Clarence Bass.  He is someone that I have referred to on this blog before, someone who has long been an inspiration and an education, since I first read his book Ripped in 1986.    He has informed my thoughts about training and diet as much as anyone has.

This article says a lot about what i think about training.


Ondřej Tureček said...

We may debate ad nauseam whether such simple rules are also optimal for hypertrophy or not. I'd say they actually are for 90% of fitness enthusiasts taking into account the need of consistency and patience, also the fact that satisfaction from training is hugely affected by the amount of time invested vs results. One may also need to truly dig deep why he wants to maximize hypertrophy in the first place, whether it's for himself, to impress ladies or to gain respect among men. The last two goals are actually accomplished by simple strength training as well, because you feel like god if you train consistently, and everybody feels it, especially women. One can just not imagine how profound change it is until he trains for some time. At the same time those external motives simply aren't enough to motivate you for higher volume routines.
Another huge advantage of simple training is that it's super easy to track. You know you're getting stronger. This is very important, because even if multi set protocols might give you 10-20% better results for huge increase of time investment, if you don't have much experience you won't maximize the gains even on "optimal" programme. These "optimal" routines also require perfect diet and recuperation to see any difference over minimalist routines I guess.
The problem is people simply don't believe such little time spent training could do anything for them. And at that moment they are probably right because the intensity of their training won't be enough at first.
I recently watched a video of a pick up artist inspired by Arnold to finally work on his fitness and get serious. He ran several miles at 2 AM as a part of his routine... no excuses! was his motto...when I mentioned HIT as a possible choice, he said "it sounds like a fad". I am a fan of people who do ACSM-style multi set routines, count calories or whatever, but it's clear most people would benefit tremendously from simple training.

John Sifferman said...

I've given some thought to trying an approach like this myself for a few months. What I'm wondering is does this approach continue to work over the long term? Or, does there come a point when more volume/frequency/intensity/etc. is required to make further strength gains, and if so, how much progress can the average Joe make before that happens?

Chris said...

Hi John

I suppose the proof is in terms of the long term is Clarence himself. He is in his late 70s now and is doing well. He trains hard a couple of times a week and walks a lot.

Chris said...

Hi Ondrej

good to hear from you again. As you say, for the majority who are seeking health and function I think limited routines like this are optimal. More volume might help hypertrophy but there is a trade off.

Craig in CT said...

Clarence has always been a great source of information - rational, reasonable, calm, willing to change his position when confronted with new information. I have, over time, ended up doing things that are pretty similar to what he currently recommends.

About the only point listed that I'm ambivalent about is the issue of one versus multiple sets, or more generally, volume. I think that for most people who are interested in general fitness for health purposes, one set is good enough, if done with enough (but not too much) effort and intensity. However, I suspect that the dose response relationship between stimulus and growth is such that people who are seeking exceptional results (muscle mass, strength, athletic performance) can benefit from some extra volume, if it is approached in the proper way. Of course, this extra margin of performance comes with high price: such routines take more time, and they can get awfully complex if you become really caught up with periodization.

Of course, the perceived need for complexity can be profitable for those who are selling advice. It seems that the latest trend is monthly subscriptions for advice, forums, and newsletters. I suppose if you can get a following, it provides a more stable steam of income than you might get from occasionally publishing a book.

Unknown said...

I agree with him regarding the number of times you train in a week, and the value of simplicity. But when I am at the gym I do a ridiculous amount of volume, on account of I just enjoy lifting weights. I'm getting older and my years of being able to go into the gym and just lift until I am spent are probably in the single digits. I think there is a lot to be said for the joy of lifting the **** out of some weights, maximum hypertrophy be damned. It just feels good. Maybe I'm not getting optimum results but when I leave the gym I think "I kicked the **** out of those weights!"

PeterScott said...

I agree with most of it, except about single sets. They never worked for me, and just about every study I have read shows better results from multiple sets.

The most recent one I remember was even 8 sets was better than 4:

Ben said...

It's so simple it's hard to believe....

So, take pullups for example - he is saying that I should do those 1-3 times a week, and each time only do 1 set...max out at good form and if I exercise more it should be a different muscle group (like squats).

Or with an overhead press - only do 3-20 and pick a weight that I can do that many reps with and then that is all for that day. yes?

Ondřej Tureček said...

Check out newer articles on baye.com, they include more info on the routines and performance specifics which will help a lot. You want to avoid painting by numbers...

Chris said...


It is not complicated, or at least doesn't need to be.

Pick a push move, a pull, a squat and a hinge/bend. So maybe pushup, row, wall sit or squat and hip bridge. Do a set slowly and deliberately so that it takes effort and you get to ,or at least towards, a point of failure. Do 1 set of each with between 3 and 20 reps in that set. Progress by adding weight or reps as you get stronger. Recover for a few days and then do it again.

As Ondrej says, check out Baye.com and certainly check http://youtu.be/-mLtiTp5WNY

(Check your email by the way)

JamesSteeleII said...

@John Sifferman

No reason to think that it doesn't. The only decent study examining whether differential effects occur between sticking to a simple single set routine, as opposed to switching to a more complex multiple set routine, after 1yr initial training show no difference for strength/endurance or LBM.


And as Chris said, Clarence is a great example of long term efficacy. Would he have got better results with more complex routines over the long term? Who knows.

John Sifferman said...

Thanks Chris and James. I think I'm convinced enough to try it for a cycle and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

At 63 I do a routine similar to Clarence Bass's, which is about 3 very brief workouts a week alternating intervals and strength training. I do 2-4 hard sets per muscle group, because I have gotten stronger this way in the past. I rarely do any single joint exercises, and do only 10-12 sets per workout. I experimented for years with much more volume and it didn't work and left me hammered between workouts. I have tried single sets per muscle group and lost some strength. At my age, I'm trying to keep my strength and there is evidence that older people should probably train with a bit more frequency and volume, in addition to my own experience.
I guess my point is that Carpinellis's simple guidelines can be tailored to your needs, and are not carved in stone, just great general rules. I like that, and the big exercise certification outfits probably hate it.

Chris said...


I'd also note that Clarence is also pretty active on top of all this. He walks a lot and does some sprint type training too.

Ondřej Tureček said...

Clarence Bass does 3 workouts, alternating hard and easy variant of each. Weights, upper body weights plus lower body/whole body intervals, and intervals. Then walking during the day, morning motion routine. So he has either 2 hard or 1 hard workout a week.

So I guess one could achieve similar results with 2 hard weight workouts a week, walking on off days for 30-60 min., and a decent whole food diet.

Ondřej Tureček said...

Single or multiple sets? http://baye.com/relative-volume-of-single-multiset-workouts/

PeterScott said...

Yes working out like Clarence Bass might work for you too, if you have his total dedication, focus and genetics. IOW if you are Clarence Bass.

There is always a problem of pointing to exceptional individuals and saying do what they do.

My grandmother lived to 91 years old while smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for about 70 of those years, and her mind was sharp right up to the end. Perhaps you to can live to be 91, with a sharp mind, if only you would smoke a pack of cigarettes a day? Recognize the problem now?

BTW, even Clarence Bass built most of his mass doing higher volume training.

Another link for muli-set:

A number of meta-analysis showing better results from multiple sets.

There is going to be bias among fitness centers/trainers in favor of single set, because it is helps their bottom line, by getting clients through much faster, and servicing more clients, equals more money.

Pesky Blubber said...

Mr. Bass's physique is not a useful way of evaluating his workout advice. Human beings are complex and responses to training programs vary widely. (Just looking at Mr. Bass in that picture tells me that he's a few standard deviations away from the rest of us.)

Human beings are pattern recognizers and can't help but be persuaded that correlation = causation. So it's really important to remind yourself as often as possible that a program that "works" for the guru pimping it, and his or her self-selected, survivorship-biased followers, may only "work" given their genetic and epigenetic make-up. You have to track progress, experiment, and train intelligently to figure out what works best for you. But that's a lot of work.

That said, Chris has done a great job, and Mr. Bass too, of laying out general principles that should do 90% of the trick for 90% of people. It's the remaining 10%, that takes tracking, patience, and dedication to max out (which is why gyms are full of PED users, which enable one to max out a genetic phenotype without those steps).

Doug McGuff recent summarized this fact really well while discussing hypertrophy:

"The situation is complex beyond imagination and David Landau is right about having to find your own way through the science which can, at times, only muddy the water. This is especially true as we compare notes as our equipment and protocol is highly variable. RenEx is concentrating the exercise stimulus so effectively that trying to extrapolate a volume of exercise done that way to a commercial gym may be very difficult. The greatest difficulty as we discuss this amongst ourselves is the variability between individuals. In the study listed below these researchers identified over 8,000 genes expressed differentially between extreme responders and poor responders to strength exercise. Strength increases in response to proper strength exercise are easily generated. A cosmetically desirable hypertrophy response is a highly variable component of that adaptation. Optimizing that component when the cards are stacked against you is the adventure of a lifetime…one that most of us are living."

John Sifferman said...

I appreciate the thoughts, Chris (and everyone else!). I won't be changing my whole physical regimen to try this protocol - just going to try it with one exercise and see what kind of results I get. If it's promising, I might try a 4-week cycle of strength training using the Carpinelli/Bass ideas (plus my other physical activity, too - walking, running, MovNat, etc.). If it works out, I'll be sure to let you know.

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