How Low Can You Go?

When I was in graduate school, I was a pretty busy guy. I was teaching high school mathematics during the day and attending grad school at night. I started reducing my training frequency, volume, and duration and noticed that it didn’t impact my strength levels too much. This caused me to experiment to see “how low I could go” in terms of training frequency, volume, and duration while maintaining my strength levels. Some of the readers may be old enough to remember the preachings of the late Ayn Rand-obsessed Mike Mentzer and his Heavy Duty Training (HDT) philosophy, or perhaps HIT Training espoused by Stuart McRobert who wrote the book Brawn.

Mike Mentzer espoused doing just 1 hard set to failure of 1-2 exercises per bodypart every 10 days or so.

At first I cut down to three thirty minute sessions per week. When I found that my strength levels didn’t suffer, I cut down to two twenty-five minute sessions per week and again found that my strength did not suffer. I then cut down to one thirty-minute session per week. It turned out that this was too low and caused me to lose strength. Finally, I switched to one thirty-minute session per five days and found that I could indeed hold onto my strength and size. I stuck with this methodology for around 4 months and saw no strength or hypertrophy decrements.

Gaining strength is very tough and requires hard work and determination. However, if you ever find yourself overwhelmed and are considering giving up on strength training for a period of time, before you quit please consider switching to a low-volume, low frequency, high-intensity routine. Although as humans our physiologies differ and our “ideal routine” may differ, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the maintenance-results you can achieve through this type of routine.

I should mention that this routine was very difficult for me to stick to due to the fact that I love to train! One of the many reasons why I work out is to reduce stress and feel productive. I prefer to train more frequently and I believe that if you’re trying to gain muscle or strength then you need to train more frequently than the HIT/HDT crowds suggest. However, as many know I enjoy “experimenting” in order to learn more about strength training (which requires that we get out of our comfort zones from time to time).

In case you’re wondering, here’s the routine I performed (it was around eight years ago):

warm-up (5 minutes)

full squat – 45 x 5, 135 x 5, 225 x 3
bench press – 45 x 5, 135 x 5, 225 x 3

strength training portion (around 25 minutes) – do one superset and then rest around 3 minutes before doing the next superset

A1: full squat – one set to failure with 275 lbs (around 10 reps)
A2: bench press – one set to failure with 245 lbs (around 8 reps)
B1: deadlift – one set to failure with 405 lbs (around 10 reps)
B2: chin up – one set to failure with 70 lbs (around 3 reps)
C1: military press – one set to failure with 175 lbs (around 6 reps)
C2: one arm row – one set to failure with 160 lbs (around 10 reps)
D1: barbell walking lunge – one set to failure with 225 lbs (around 16 steps)
D2: hanging leg raise – one set to failure with bodyweight (around 30 reps

* I hadn’t thought up barbell hip thrusts yet, otherwise I’d definitely have thrown those into the mix for increased end-range hip extension strength and glute gains. Knowing what I know now, I’d have paired hip thrusts with military press and walking lunges with one arm rows and ditched the hanging leg raises.

This routine was damn brutal! It would take several days to be able to muster up the energy and motivation to want to give it another go but I found that I could consistently repeat or beat the previous performance from month to month. In truth I probably gained in “high rep strength” but I bet that my “limit strength” or 1-RM on the various lifts decreased a little as I didn’t train super heavy while on this program. I wonder if my performance would have eventually peaked but I’ll probably never know because truthfully this program made me hate high reps for lower body lifts because trying to tie or beat your record on subsequent performances is brutal. So I’ll probably never go back to a focus on higher reps. The HIT crowd recommends alternating “cycles” and choosing new exercises or backing off and “starting over,” but I never went that route. Their route probably would have been more effective but again, I was experimenting and trying to control as many variables as possible.

The point of this blogpost is not to get you to switch over to HIT or HDT, it’s to make you realize that if you ever find yourself overworked or simply drained of working out 3-6 days per week, there’s a viable alternative that can allow you to maintain (or even improve upon) your performance while only training once every five days or so. Many people are accustomed to multiple sets and can’t “get a lot” out of one set. As your physiology and coordination adapts, you get really good at doing one set to failure on this type of program. *Disclaimer: Obviously beginners respond best to more volume and frequency as they are weak and uncoordinated/neurally inefficient and don’t get taxed as much from a metabolic, muscular, neural, endocrine, and immune system perspective.

So next time you feel overwhelmed and find yourself wanting to quit training, just remember that you can keep your hard earned gains by training very infrequently (albeit extremely intensively).

17 Comments

  • jaime says:

    This is a great blog especially for trainers themselves who work a ton of hours and have very little time to train them selves. Some people just decide not to work out at all. I always say if you can get in 30 minutes a day of training whether lifting or conditioning, it is better than not training at all. You may not have gains during that time but it is possible to maintain your numbers. I usually choose 5 exercises 2 sets each and let it rip. Of course I do exercise pairs that make me want to lift hard. 2 hard exercises and three functional exercises that give me a good pump. Thanks for the post bret.

  • joe says:

    Good point Bret. It’s very easy to get caught up in believing more is always better.

    I’ve been reading your blog and articles and this is probably the first time you set down a program in writing.

    It would be nice if you could provide some sample routines and explain the whys and hows of the routine some time in the future to show how to build a solid lower body, seeing that your lower body is just as well built as your upper body in good proportion, unlike most people involved in weight training including many trainers, who are often top heavy.

    Keep up the great posts.

  • Israel says:

    interesting timing.. i urge you to take a look at this article and give your opinion.

    http://www.optimalhealthpartner.com/A_Archive/Smith_StrengthTrainingArthurJones.pdf

    i

    • Israel, thank you very much for the link. I have another paper from those same researchers discussing rep speed. I just skimmed the article because I know all about Jone’s methods and I’ve done a ton of research involving optimal number of sets. I really need to write an entire article on this topic but to give you a quick synopsis of my beliefs, more recent research including review studies have shown multiple sets to be superior to single set protocals. My opinion is that we do too many sets and then peter out toward the end of our workouts. If we saved up more juice we could devote more energy to the latter half of our workouts and might see better total body strength gains. However, in athletics, it’s often all about explosion; not just strength. Many of the drills that teach explosion (sprints, plyos, ballistics, Oly lifts, etc.) require multiple sets and lower rep ranges for optimal nervous system priming and adaptations. Many NFL teams used HIT in the past with good success because it’s a pretty good way to get in a full body workout very quickly. I use HIT principles and am very greatful for the teachings. But I use principles from every system, which makes me a methods whore I guess…

  • Good post Bret. Mike Mentzer knew how to train, but maybe it had to do with his psychosis and led to his early death. Or maybe he wasn’t psychotic and we all are. Who am I to judge?

    Infrequent works, but it takes the rare quality of supreme intensiveness… not difficult training, but ferocious vehemence. None of that pussy sh… stuff. Hahahaha!!!! I’m laughing but I am not.

    • I agree! Ferocious vehemence! Mike was definitely a little psychotic but it certainly helped popularize and spread his methods. Start acting all philosophical and throwing out Ayn Rand quotes and you’re bound to look more “esoteric” than Johnny Guru who’s pedaling the same old stuff. I’m either laughing or crying right now; it’s hard to tell.

  • Matt Stranberg says:

    Awesome post! Hopefully my life will never get to the point where I can train only once or 2x a week…but ya never know…but I think Id be pretty pleased if I looked like Mentzer haha just goes to show though….practically “everything” works…to a point

  • Howard Gray says:

    Intensity is the key here for maintenance. Great post Bret and especially applicable for people working with team sports in-season. Keep/raise the intensity, and drop the volume.

  • Ronald Berkamp says:

    Bret,

    While this doesn’t stick entirely to the “how low can we go” theme, it does trend towards the minimalist side of the scales, so I will throw it out there…..

    Two-a-day training usually gets thrown out there with sessions for the same movements or muscle groups, but for people who find themselves in a situation where training time is severely limited or non-existent on most days of the week but tend to have two non-consecutive days where more time may be available, would it be possible to use two-a-days on those 2 days where each session is for different areas of the body or different movement patterns?

  • Sam says:

    Bret,
    When implementing HIT training do you use slower speed of movement, as recommended by Arthur Jones, Ellington Darden, Mike Mentzer, etc. I have see a lot of “HIT” experts that recommend a 2 second concentric and 4 second eccentric phase. Also, what are your thoughts on using a slower movement speed in general in any workout program for non-explosive/olympic exercises ? I have read a lot of Jones’ and Darden’s work, and the idea of using a slow and controlled movement speed makes sense to me, as it helps keep tension on the muscles and minimizes momentum. Thanks!

    Sam

Leave a Reply

SIGN UP FOR THE FREE NEWSLETTER

and receive my FREE Lower Body Progressions eBook!

You have Successfully Subscribed!