Can less be more? – Weekly Newsletter – 307

Can less be more?

Peak Performance

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Issue number: 307 June 19, 2017

Although it was a long time ago, I still remember my early days in the fitness industry, which were divided between triathlon training and working as a gym instructor and personal trainer. One of the most vivid memories during that period was of a rather arrogant and mouthy bodybuilder who came to train at our (in his words) "crappy" Nautilus machine-equipped gym.

He mocked the notion that these machines were efficient enough to produce a really intense workout with just one set of repetitions per body part, so my colleague and good friend Steve cruelly offered him a complimentary supervised workout on the house as his "warm up". Steve then duly proceeded to work him flat out, and within 12 minutes, this hulk of a man was reduced to a pale-skinned, quivering mass of jelly, and who was clearly on the verge of vomiting. Needless to say, we never saw him again – ever!


More isn't always better

What this tale underlines is that while it's part of the human condition to assume that "if some is good then more must better", sometimes less can actually be more. And that's particularly true when it comes to strength training, which now increasingly being recognised by scientists as an essential part of the overall training recipe for a successful endurance athlete.

Of course, you can't escape the basic laws of exercise physiology; specifically, if you want to improve muscle strength and function, you need to generate an "overload" stimulus in that muscle, and then allow the process of rest and recovery to take place. But new research is demonstrating that what really counts is creating the right amount of the kind of strength-training overload for the outcome you desire.

Get your copy of Strength Training for Runners

That unfortunate bodybuilder who frequented our gym all those years ago was only interested in accumulating muscle growth and mass. This is typically achieved by performing 6-8 reps of an exercise, with the resistance/weight adjusted so that the point of complete failure is achieved at the end of the set – ie it's not possible to squeeze out another rep at the end of the set.

Endurance athletes in the other hand will be seeking strength gains to enhance endurance performance – and to help prevent injury. The traditional recommendation to endurance athletes has been to train in an "endurance-like" manner – i.e. lots of reps using comparatively light weights. However, over the past 5-10 years, a plethora of studies have been published showing that this is absolutely NOT the right way to train. But if this approach is wrong, what's the right way?

The right strength approach

This is a topic that US researcher and coach Tom Whipple tackles in depth in his forthcoming article in Peak Performance, which appears at the end of the month. Tom has looked at the very latest research, which shows that if your current strength training programme involves some or all of these features, you should consider making a change:

  • Programmes that involve light weights
  • Programmes that divide the body into isolated parts
  • Programmes that involve training to the point of failure (exhaustion)

The reason is simple – none of these programme types will develop the type of strength that is associated with improved performance! Instead, what is needed is a programme that will develop peak strength, as it's this aspect of strength that is associated with improved endurance performance.

Get your copy of Strength Training for Runners

With that in mind, Tom goes on to outline the kind of strength training that IS effective for developing peak strength (and thus endurance performance):

  • Using resistance to facilitate movement patterns rather than isolating single muscle groups
  • Limiting the number of exercises you perform to a few basics
  • Using resistance loads that are high but keeping repetitions low
  • Challenging your strength boundaries – but never training to failure

Remarkably, it turns out that most endurance athletes can experience great gains in peak strength and therefore endurance by performing just two or three key exercises, with as few as a total of 30 reps per workout! This of course means less time in the gym, and more time for endurance training.

You can read more about the "peak strength" approach to endurance, and what this means in terms of the exercises needed, along with the best combination of sets and reps in issue 366 of Peak Performance, which appears later this month. In the meantime, beware of gym instructors offering you complimentary one-to-one workouts at your local gym!

Yours in fitness,

Andrew Hamilton signature

Andrew Hamilton,
Editor, Peak Performance

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About Andrew Hamilton

I am the editor of Peak Performance Weekly Newsletter and commissioning editor of and contributor for Peak Performance.

I am a sports science writer and researcher, specialising in sports nutrition and I’ve worked in the field of fitness and sports performance for over 30 years, helping athletes to reach their true potential. I am also a lifelong endurance athlete myself.

Andrew Hamilton
Andrew Hamilton
I’m dedicated to helping you improve your performance by unravelling the latest sports science and translating it into plain English and by giving you practical training recommendations that you can start using straight away.

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