Why Less is More

and other basic truths of resistance training.

Most people start some form of weight training with the goal of increased strength, and often size, or at least to “tone up”. The basic advice of start easy and build up holds good throughout training, the basic difference being the point at which more weight is added: for pure strength gain use low repetitions (5-8) and explosive movement, increasing every time 8 reps are achieved. On the other hand to keep light, toned and enhance cardiovascular fitness sets of 15-20 make sense; whilst to increase lean body mass sets of 8-12 are preferred. 

However, as things progress you’ll hear phrases like Less is More, Good is Good and Leave your ego at the door. They all refer to good technique, and can be called the basic truths of weight training. We’ll take them one at a time.

Less is more

Less is more refers to the combination of weight used and distance moved, and is basic physics.

Work done, and therefore energy used, is a factor of weight (force)  x distance. The key point here is that to gain strength and muscle you need to be increasing the work done by the muscle concerned. It is very easy to deceive yourself into thinking you are working as hard as possible, because you’re using the heaviest weight you can manage, it certainly feels like hard work and you ache afterwards. 

Some exercises are more deceptive than others- it’s easy to see when someone is trying to do too heavy a biceps curl: they struggle to get their arm bent to about 90 degrees, then lean back sharply to jerk the weight up further before actually shortening the biceps muscle. On the other hand, a heavy quadriceps squat or leg press, with the knee bent to 90 degrees seems like a well-executed exercise, despite the fact that there is much more range of movement to use (as shown in competition, when the hip must come below knee level). Here are three examples:

Assume a squat of 80kg, moved through 30cm to achieve a knee at 90 degrees. Work done can be expressed as  80 x 30 = 2400 units. Now let’s say you reduce the weight to 70kg to manage the full range of movement, probably 40cm. Work now = 70 x 40 = 2800 units. 

Or a mid-weight example might be a shoulder shrug (actually another deceptive exercise as some people say “well it is just a shrug”). Moving 25kg through 5 cm = 125 units of work; reduce to 20kg and only move half as much again (20 x 7.5) and you have 150 units, and as you’ll probably manage 10cm work actually goes up to 200, getting on for double. Even going from 30kg x 5cm to 20kg x 10cm is still an improvement in work done.

What about that biceps curl? An overloaded biceps, moving from 80 degrees to vertical  might move 30kg through 35cm, = 1050 units (and that’s assuming the kick from 80 to 90 degrees was not done by back extension, which it usually is). Compare that with a good quality curl from full extension to full flexion, but with only 20kg. Distance is now double or a bit less if we ignore the back extension, say 60cm. 20 x 60 = 1200, more work done again.

Don’t get confused about power either. The relationship between energy used, work done and power is complicated by the time factor, but for our purposes the work done remains the same irrespective of the time taken to do it- kinetic energy has been used to increase the potential energy of the lifted object. In fact, more power may well be involved accelerating a light object rapidly, rather than moving a heavy object slowly, and in any case speed of muscle movement is important for other reasons. 

Good is good

Which brings us to Good is Good. This refers to the fact that a well-executed, controlled movement will do more for muscle and strength gain than a poorly coordinated grab. This moves us into the realm of physiology, which is quite complex.

As a start, we all notice that it is possible to get stronger without any increase in musculature. This is due to  better nerve and muscle fibre  recruitment and firing. That is to say, the brain, nerves and muscle end-plates (nerve receptors) all adapt so that more nerves fire in the necessary part of the muscle at any point in its movement, with a higher rate of firing. Coordination and stimulation are both increased. But if you only do a part-movement, or cheat by using another muscle group to help out, then that adaptation is limited. This is important, because muscle growth occurs in response to these stimuli.

Furthermore, the muscle needs to be worked in its weaker areas to both get stronger, and encourage development. A muscle is able to develop the most force (and power) in the mid-range of its movement because this corresponds to the middle part of the muscle’s length, which has the greatest overlap of contracting fibres. So development of new fibres and growth of existing ones in this area represents only a small fractional increase overall. 

By using less weight, allowing a full range of motion, the full length of the muscle is used and development of the weaker areas nearer the ends can occur, which often leads to rapid gains for a while. This overall gain increases the total strength of that muscle or group because it makes a bigger contribution to the torque which the muscle develops. Torque is the rotational force developed, which is a true measure of the potential work done, or strength. This factor is used in some multigym equipment which has eccentric cams for the weights, in an attempt to make the muscle develop maximum torque at all points of shortening, eg our free-standing quads and hamstring stations have this feature. 

Of course, this is complicated by the need for explosive movement in some sports, and for these situations different training regimes are appropriate which (if intense) may alter the ratio of fast to slow twitch muscle fibres; but to purely increase strength and bulk a steady, controlled, full range of movement is best. Even where explosive power is required, a more disciplined approach is typically used between specific maximum lift sessions, not least because it reduces the likelihood of injury- both in the muscle being trained and in ancillary groups, especially where they are used incorrectly. 

A further reason for controlled movements is that a muscle is much stronger in eccentric contraction- that is, when lengthening. We all know that whilst you may not be able to lift a heavy weight onto a box, you may well be able to lower it down under control. This is simply because the muscle is actually stronger when getting longer, and reflects the way the overlapping fibres work and use energy. 

To get the maximum benefit from an exercise session you want to do the most work possible, and whilst there are ways of concentrating on eccentric (muscle lengthening) rather than concentric (shortening) exercises, it is simplest to just do it for longer. (Strictly the work done is unaltered, but the force is applied for longer). So if a weight is lifted up in 1 second, but lowered over 3-4 seconds the energy used is increased, and the effective training work done is about double. On the other hand, if too much weight is being tackled, as well as the concentric phase being compromised as explained, the eccentric part is much reduced with the weight being virtually dropped under relaxation, then stopped suddenly. That sudden deceleration does use the muscle, but much of the energy is dissipated into the tendons (and specialised internal parts of the muscle itself), which act as shock absorbers. 

Leave your ego at the door

Obviously, leave your ego at the door follows on from all the above. If you are worried about being seen to lift big weights, or believe that just lifting as much as possible must be best then you are wasting some of your effort. What’s more, for some exercises especially, everyone else can see that despite your grimaces and grunts you are both cheating yourself (maybe using your back) and not actually moving the weight that far. 

Regular and knowledgeable users will be much more impressed with someone using apparently quite small weights in a controlled way, and making gains. Using that biceps curl example again, compare the difference between someone struggling with a heavy weight, back extending and elbows flailing with another person who keeps their back still and elbows tucked in. It looks better because it is better, a purer exercise for arm contraction which is actually harder, and therefore requires the use of a lesser weight.  Take it a step further, and use the preacher curl bench which really isolates the upper arm, and it’s harder again. 

Finally, please consider that if you are over- reaching yourself you are more likely to have an accident- whether failing a lift and getting injured, tearing a muscle, developing tendinitis or losing control such that someone else gets hurt. And if you are too busy admiring your own performance you won’t be aware of what is going on around you, so this is also about courtesy and Health & Safety for others.