Train less to grow more?

written by Philip Stefanov  |  AUGUST 1, 2023

In my time as a coach and fitness content creator, I’ve come to recognize two primary categories of people:

  1. The people looking to do everything optimally and make as much progress as possible. They often dedicate their life to the gym and aspire to compete in bodybuilding, powerlifting, etc.
  2. The people who work, study, or simply don’t want to dedicate as much time or energy to the gym. They prefer to do just enough to make progress or maintain their results and don’t care if they gain two pounds of muscle in a year instead of 3.5.

This week’s newsletter will mostly target the latter group, though there is also value for those seeking to do things optimally.

A Common Misconception

We all know that doing more work leads to better results, which makes sense. You get out what you put in. However, many people have an incorrect view of how work translates to progress.

Suppose we can determine the ideal number of sets you must do weekly to build up your chest. Let’s say that number is 15 sets for the sake of this example.

Doing the full 15 sets close enough to failure should net you 100 percent of the growth you can experience. However, doing fewer than that doesn’t mean you will see dramatically worse results.

For instance, doing 8 to 10 sets likely won’t lead to 50-55 percent of the total growth you can experience. If anything, you need surprisingly little work to progress, and each set on top of that leads to marginal benefits.

Perhaps you can do just 8 sets to get 80 percent of the growth, with each following set contributing less and less.

The idea is demonstrated in this paper by Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues. The authors analyzed 34 groups from 15 studies and found that ten weekly sets produced most of the results. However, five or fewer weekly sets didn’t lead to half the progress. Instead, the subjects still made great gains, close to what someone might consider optimal.

Can you get somewhat better results by doing more sets? Probably. But is it worth the extra time and effort? Well, you must answer that for yourself.

What Does That Mean For You?

  1. Determine what’s important for you. Your fitness goals should determine your approach to the gym. Are you striving for optimal progress and aspiring to compete in bodybuilding or powerlifting, where even the smallest details can make a difference? Or do you simply want to lead a healthier and fitter lifestyle without spending several hours in the gym each week?

  2. Understand the work-to-progress ratio. Doing more work generally brings better results, but it’s not as straightforward as it seems. You don’t necessarily need the maximum number of sets to see positive results. According to the paper discussed above, you can get most of your gains from even half the sets.

  3. Focus on efficiency over quantity. Aside from the number of sets you do, you must consider other factors like effort (how hard you push yourself), technique (training with good form), mind-muscle connection (feeling the correct muscles working), and progressive overload (increasing the difficulty of your training over time).

  4. Don’t forget about diminishing returns. Doing extra sets beyond a certain point appears to offer marginal benefits. For many people, the extra work might not be worth the time and effort, especially if you lead a busy life.

  5. Consider making changes. Given the information we’ve discussed above, it might be helpful to evaluate your routine and consider spending a bit less time at the gym to see how your body responds. You might continue to make good progress or even overcome a plateau by having more time to recover.

Thanks for sticking around. I'll catch you next week!


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