“It is having and maintaining a muscle mass that is far outside the realms of normal for your specific height that is causally linked to disease.” –Brad Pilon
So, I have some bad news for all the meatheads out there.
Once you’ve been training for a while, the amount of muscle you are able to gain diminishes. When you reach a certain point, no matter how much you lift, your muscles will not continue to grow. This explains why people can undergo major transformations the very first time they start lifting, but people who have been lifting their entire adult lives have looked the same for decades. I experienced this myself when my friends got me into the gym in college. I had never lifted before prior to that and put on a lot of muscle in a very short period of time (despite not knowing about time under tension and other tips I’m about to share). For the last several years, though, my muscle mass has not dramatically increased despite regular training. My take on this is: no big deal. If I’ve reached a normal amount of muscle for my frame, why fight it? I’ve noticed that my physique, instead, has been highly dependent on my body fat. This is why I propose focusing primarily on fat loss and how to improve muscular strength once you have a decent foundation of muscle mass.
Eventually, I came to realize something important.
I could spend about one hour of total time per week on strength training and maintain essentially the same build as I would if I were to spend four hours per week on it. Once strength training becomes an activity of muscle maintenance, you can spend surprisingly little time on it if you do it right. When you reach this point, instead of pushing harder for more mass, you can focus more on building relative strength, which does not require hours in the gym (and in my opinion is way more impressive). You can be fat and bench press a lot, but you can’t be fat and do a lot of pull ups. If you want to look more ripped, work on increasing relative strength while dieting down to a low enough body fat level. Focus on relative strength and the ideal amount of muscle mass for your frame will take care of itself. You won’t look unnatural like the hulk or too skinny either. Let me repeat. I believe that once you attain the ideal amount of muscle for your frame, how good you look will be based about 80% on your diet, then about 10-15% on maintaining muscle mass, then the rest on other factors such as recovery and stress.
This article is about getting that 10-15% done quickly and effectively.
Ready to save a ton of time working out? If so, then you need to know how to make your short workouts count. Here are two minimalist strength training tips I use:
Tip 1: Get mentally engaged before and during your routine.
Go in knowing exactly what you are going to do. Have a defined number of sets and targeted reps in mind before you start. This way, you don’t waste time trying to figure out what to do when you get there. The mental focus should not be limited to pre-workout. It should also carry over into your routine. When I perform a set, I actually visualize a human anatomy chart with the muscles I’m intending to work highlighted in red. I know this sounds weird, but try it. It really enhances the mind to muscle link which has been proven to have a significant impact on the effectiveness of your strength training routine. My regular readers should know by now that I am generally against the big and bulky bodybuilder type look, but ironically, I found a very good article (featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger of all people) on the mind muscle connection here – skip down to number 2. This is extremely important and key to shortening your workouts while getting the most out of them. When your mind is engaged, training becomes as much a mental activity as a physical one.
Tip 2: Focus on time under tension and a full range of motion.
If you are doing a limited number of sets and taking more rest between sets (which you can still do with short workouts, just don’t take too much rest), then really try to maximize your time under tension. For example, in a Visual Impact Phase 2 workout, which is my go-to for muscle maintenance, I do sets of about five reps to emphasize myofibrillar hypertrophy. Within each rep, I take about five seconds to lift the weight, then pause, and five seconds again to lower it (a technique I learned from The 4-Hour Body). No quick, jerky movements. Everything is slow and deliberate. If it’s a bodyweight exercise, about five seconds of contraction and five seconds of controlled release. Most people just focus on the lifting or contraction part and ignore the lowering or release part. If you do this, you are essentially completing only half of a rep. Remember five seconds up, pause, and five seconds down keeping your mind engaged the entire time. This will effectively double your time under tension. Rusty Moore has an excellent article about time under tension and how it may ultimately be the defining factor in your workout.
If you are doing an intense bodyweight circuit training workout with no rest in between sets, make sure you still do a full range of motion on each rep. This might mean you don’t get through as many reps, but that’s okay because you’re fully engaging your muscles which will better help you accomplish your goal of maintaining muscle and improving strength. Try doing a rushed set of ten pushups where you only go halfway down each rep. Now, try doing a slower, concentrated set of five pushups where you incorporate full range of motion and have your chest hit the ground before coming up and then extend your arms fully at the top while at the same time visualizing and feeling the contraction in your chest and arms. Makes a difference doesn’t it? If you workout the first way like most people, you are essentially doing a glorified cardio workout which is okay if that is your goal, but you’re not doing much to build strength.
Don’t ignore technique, it is important.
If you start implementing these two tips, you can make a 15 minute workout as effective as an hour spent lollygagging around the gym between the same number of sets. When you get mentally engaged in your workout and focus on time under tension and range of motion, you will see firsthand how to improve muscular strength in a fraction of the time. Lately, I’ve been doing four 15 minute strength training sessions per week during lunch (in addition to my regular cardio routine) and I’m loving all the time it frees up for me to do other things. This is particularly useful during the holidays when you’ll want to spend more time with family and friends and less time in the gym. Another benefit for all of you Eat Stop Eaters out there is that abbreviated focused strength training sessions are much easier to handle while fasting than long, exhaustive lifting sessions. Give these tips a try and let me know what you think!