1) Train for low rep strength and size and development will come; or
2) Train for size and development and low rep strength takes care of itself.
I think everyone knows where I stand on the issue; but an opinion is not enough. And it seems neither is decades of real-world results in the industry. So in Part II I want to look a little closer at the science involved and what the research actually tells us. And don’t worry; the goal here is not to bore everyone with meaningless science and big words. But it is important that people understand why they should train a certain way to accomplish specific goals. And once the "why" is grasped then the "how" makes more and more sense. So I will not bog people down with a lot of mumbo jumbo. The point is, if the actual principles involved have been misapplied by the experts for decades, then there is no reason you should be expected to understand the deeper aspects of the principle either. And to be sure Ralph Carpinelli’s 2008 review of the literature led him to an obvious conclusion that “the misapplication of the Size Principle is an error in reasoning.” I have been saying this exact thing for decades as well.
So while many or most strength experts understand the Size Principle of Fiber Recruitment they make mistakes in extrapolating from it, and in their attempted application of the Principle. It’s amazing to me to continue to witness--after all these decades--that people can comprehend a principle in theory or on paper, but have no real idea how to apply it. I want to address this now in Part II.
The Size Principle Made Simple
What is important for you to know is that the Size Principle of Motor Unit Recruitment (motor units control muscle action) states that motor units are recruited in an orderly manner from the smaller lower threshold fatigue resistant fibers (like the ones that allow me to type this article) to the larger higher threshold quick-to-fatigue motor units that we associate with Type 2 muscle fiber employed to gain strength and build muscle. Now the one element that is specified about the Size Principle is that recruitment is dependent on the degree of efforts demanded. This is what I call intensity, and this is where the common mistake seems to be made in the strength industry. Unfortunately experts in our industry tend to filter this principle through musculoskeletal aspects of strength. This can lead to very faulty conclusions, as we will see. The Size Principle of neurophysiology is a neural event; not a muscular one. And this is where all the mistakes about “heavy is better” training come from. It also leads to the illusion that lighter means “easier” and heavier means “harder”; both of which are relative and not absolute, and, more importantly just as often not true at all.
The Size Principle is quite clear that it is maximal or near maximal efforts which recruit the higher threshold motor units. The mistake occurs among strength researchers who make the error of equating tissue-intensity in muscle and low-rep strength as the same thing. And this is not what the size principle dictates. So if we follow the incorrect logic in strengthdom, the experts note that since near maximal efforts appear at the last few reps of a set, then maximum resistance is all that is needed for maximum fiber recruitment. Hence the theory, train with heavy low rep external resistance and size and development will follow. This seems logical on the surface. But like many theories logic is not always correct.
Let’s examine this in more detail by example. If you bench press, say, 200 lbs for 10 reps; for you, the set may not get difficult till about (for example) rep number 7. The strength theorists want to believe that any stimulus up to that point is irrelevant so why not just employ heavier resistance from the beginning? But here’s the point. During that set of 10 the force of contraction does not change. And the resistance through the whole set remains 200 lbs. So the trainee is not “lifting more” as the set continues because that 200 lbs resistance stays constant. But motor unit activity increases; and this is a learned adaptive response of applied intensity that is missed by those who view the size principle by filtering it through very one-dimensional perceptions of strength. This element is addressed in the neural response know as Total Activation Potential (TAP). And like many advanced concepts, while it cannot be measured it can certainly be “observed.” It is indeed an advanced or progression in terms of the neural component.
The fact that is missed here is that recruitment of higher threshold motor units is a developed and refined skill, not an absolute. Doing low rep, high external resistance training before this skill is developed is illogical. And we can see the obviousness of this in other examples. (This would be akin to thinking you can train an infant to run first and bypass learning to walk and stand up without falling down.)
Another example is that calligraphers or painters who rely on low threshold motor unit recruitment and control, still have to develop and refine that skill to use pen or brush strokes within a finely controlled space. It is an acquired skill. Or to see it another way, it is a “neural event,” not a muscular one. As another example, we know that running demands recruitment of larger motor units than does walking. But we can’t just advise a baby to run instead of learning to walk first.
Here’s something closer to real-world strength development by example:
A difficult series of moves for a gymnast may be executing a triple somersault with double flip. We cannot just tell a gymnast since that is so, execute those moves instead of learning all the other moves leading up to that. No. The recruitment and strength involved is a developed and refined skill set! A gymnast is a good example here, since they have enormous strength, great physical development, and yet never apply maximum external resistance in terms of heavy implements. The gymnast does not employ low rep external resistance to increase force demands on his muscles. But instead, learning moves that demand strength expression, and then stringing them together as a series of execution of moves produces greater force demands and therefore maximum recruitment of the larger motor units. They also develop their physiques this way. So this aspect of neural learning cannot be accurately explained by the theorists who advocate a “heavier is better” philosophy; since no such things exists in these examples. The point is made more clearly by examining the Training Efficiency Percentage of strength performance and execution (TEP).
Training Efficiency Percentage
Training Efficiency Percentage (TEP) is defined as the number or percentage of reps in a given set that elicit an adaptive response. If you observe a very advanced trainee and an intermediate trainee perform a set of 10 you'll notice a difference in how the muscle fatigues. As stated above, for the average person, doing a set of 10, may not show difficulty in performance of that set until the last few reps. But in the advanced trainee, you'll notice the first and last rep appear to be of equal intensity. In other words, there is a greater TEP in the advanced trainee than there is in the intermediate lifter; for the beginning or intermediate lifter difficulty only comes near the end of a set. This is a learned response/adaptation sequence that takes place over time. Or to put it another way: learning to recruit larger motor units for strength performance is a skill set developed and refined over time. Advising someone to train very low reps with a lot of external resistance is a mistake because their systems, nervous systems have not adapted to that level of quick and sustained motor unit recruitment.
It is a misinterpretation of the Size Principle to advise that low rep, high resistance training is superior. And it is a mistake because the assumption combines perceptions of strength into an equation that is neural, not muscular; just like with the baby learning to walk.
And there are neural principles at work here, which supersede the musculoskeletal strength principles. For instance, Total Activation Potential (TAP) mentioned above and Maximum Voluntary Neural Activation (MVNA) are neural events going on in the adaptation of the trainee to training stimulus over time.
Let’s look at just a few of the research findings over time that back up my premise.
In 1962 Berger compared strength results of 2RM, 10RM, and 12RM bench press. Then also in 1962, he compared 2RM and 10RM bench press results. As a follow up again in 1963, he compared the results of 2RM training in the free weight bench press with 6RM and 10RM again. In 1966, O’Shea compared strength results in 2-3RM, 5-6 RM, and 9-10RM free weight squats. Shortly after in 1970, Withers compared strength results by testing 3RM, 5RM, and 7RM for three upper and lower body free-weight exercises. In 1996, Hisaeda et al, looked at the difference of strength gained at 4-6RM, and 15-20RM respectively for the leg extension movement. In 1999, Graves et al did a similar study at 7-10RM and 15-20RM leg extensions as well. Also in 1999, Weiss looked at strength results for training at 3-5RM compared to 13-15RM in the barbell squat. In 2000, Bemben et al examined strength training results at 4RM, and 10RM for seven upper-body exercises. In 2004, Harris et al compared strength results of training at 6RM, 9RM, and 15RM upper body and lower body free-weight and machine exercises.
So we have here a collection of studies over time chronologically that employed different movements and varied forms of tension against the low rep theory of strength.
The result for every single one of the above studies is that they all reported no significant difference in the strength gains among the various groups using different amounts of resistance (RM’s) for training (see as well Carpinelli 2008, Table 2). These are only a few of the studies I have chosen in chronological order to show that the research has been both available and consistent over time.
I mentioned research from 1995 by David Behm in Part 1 as well. Well in 2002 Behm concluded from another relevant study of his that “the commonly repeated suggestion that maximal strength methods (resistance heavier than 6 RM) produce greater neural adaptations or increase in neural drive was NOT substantiated in this study” (Behm 2002 pp. 13).
In fact, this study of Behm’s unequivocally illustrated a direct relationship between intensity of applied effort over increased externally applied resistance. Read that again ten times. This is just like we see in gymnasts, and this once again remains in adherence to the size principle of motor unit activation and muscle recruitment.
So the take away lessons here are many. First and foremost:
Intensity trumps strength.
You do not have to be 1RM “strong” in terms of how much you can lift, to develop a body or develop strength; but you do need to apply max efforts consistently (my career is also testimony to this statement). How much you lift is secondary to how hard you lift. Intensity is beyond a tissue-dependent, reductionist equation. And of course proper programming always comes into play, especially for hard gainers.
Next, since there is no greater benefit by training with very low reps and higher resistance loads, then maybe a long-term consideration for protecting joint wear and tear would be forgoing the low reps protocols altogether. This is one reason traditional bodybuilders are still training hard in their 50s, 60s, and 70s (Bill Pearl and Lou Ferrigno come to mind) while former strength specialists joints are so arthritic and limited as they age that they can no longer train at all. So this is an important consideration for those of us who love to train and workout.
Also many new age experts commonly attack the 3 sets of 10 as archaic and infantile in terms of application. Yet, we see from the actual research regarding the size principle that in truth 3 sets of 10 is as viable or perhaps more so, than say sets of doubles or triples, providing the intensity of applied effort for the 10 reps is near maximal.
As Carpinelli concluded in his review of the prevailing literature on “heavier is better,” that “the pervasive and faulty assumption that maximal or near maximal force, as in very heavy resistance, is required for recruitment of the higher threshold motor units and optimal strength gains is not supported by the size principle, motor unit activation studies, or resistance training studies. This flawed premise has resulted in the unsubstantiated heavier-is-better recommendation for resistance training” (Carpinelli 2008; my emphasis).
Re-read that sentence ten times and send it to all your friends as well!
To me, it has always struck me funny that I am the one labelled as radical and unconventional in my approach to training, where in fact, I seem to be truthfully in accordance with following the actual principles in application. Once again, what the size principle dictates and what has been my own applied experience for decades is that for size and development, “train for development and strength will come.” And in harmony with my Innervation Training Methodology for physique enhancement at any level, the truth is that it is not maximum or near maximum externally applied resistance that yields the best results for development, but rather maximum or near maximum internally focused efforts that matter most (i.e., biofeedback).
So it’s not about “lifting more” it is about “lifting better.” The mind muscle connection is at the heart of the notion that the muscles work the weights; the weights don’t work the muscles. This is, of course, an advanced mode of training in attitude and application. It goes beyond being macho and training your ego to being mature and accomplishing a training goal.
We need to get away from using the genetic elite representatives of any sport as the model for “how to” for the genetically average individual. I know what that is like because I was genetically average and buying into the “load’ emphasis got me nowhere. I got to the top of the physique enhancement game by thinking outside the box, and properly applying the actual principles, instead of relying on other expert’s faulty interpretation of those principles. I offer you the same here.
Often times in any industry the lines of fact and fiction, bias and objectivity, get crossed and confused. And it’s not always intentional. Well-meaning researchers or enthusiasts want to make a name for themselves by establishing something new or different. But often in their zeal to do so, they misinterpret or incorrectly apply the principles. Too often, experts are trying to reinvent the wheel.
Me, I’m just trying to make a more efficient wheel. Or as comedian Sid Caesar put it, “the guy who invented the wheel was an idiot; the guy who added the other three, now he was a genius!” And for me, my Innervation Training and MET Methodology and Hybrid approaches to protocol, are my attempts at adding the other three wheels, while still remaining true to the actual principles.
Moreover, new elements of the modern training environment cloud the issue further. The use of insulin by bodybuilders and power lifters leads to huge tissue leverage and an enhanced capacity to “lift more.” This doesn’t necessarily mean better. And it certainly doesn’t translate into better training for the rest of trainees either. The use of “partials” is the same kind of misguided thinking. But this is another separate article which I will address and “prove” in the near future. So let’s not just trust and follow “trends,” and let's not just trust and follow “opinion.” Let’s learn to trust and follow “informed opinion.” I hope this article serves as a means for you to do so.
So now that you know better, go out, and “lift hard!” ...And just know that lifting hard may or may not have anything to do with lifting heavy. They can indeed be mutually inclusive, depending on a program. But they need not be, as well. The difference for me in establishing a very long career in the physique game is that I learned while many people could out lift me; in my prime, no one could out-work me!
Some of you will get it, some of you will not.
For more in-depth discussion on the 1RM myth of training, listen to my MP3 “The Truth About Training” or check out any of my DVD programs to see the application of these principles in action.