Muscle isn’t just a passive resource that can be called upon if we need to climb a flight of stairs or move furniture. Muscle is proactive, benefiting every tissue in the body whenever it engages with some meaningful intensity—and those benefits increase as the intensity increases.
There are many wonderful approaches to fitness on offer out there, and the bottom line is that if you are moving and enjoying it, you are doing something positive for your health. But your muscle mass is the bedrock on which your metabolic health rests, and many forms of exercise do little to progressively build its overall strength. If you don’t take care of it, the bedrock will erode. If you strengthen it, the bedrock will deepen to support every aspect of your well-being.
That is the goal of deep fitness. Deep fitness isn’t about developing an isolated subsection of fitness. Deep fitness is about creating a resource that will support your overall well-being, including aerobic fitness, flexibility, psychological fitness, mental fitness, and, of course, strength. Deep fitness is about building and maintaining a reserve of metabolic power in your body that will strengthen every aspect of your health.
Deep fitness holds out this possibility, then: if we can take advantage of the most recent advances in two related fields—our understanding of metabolic health and the science of exercise—we can liberate ourselves from the narrow concerns of aerobic fitness and capitalize on the most effective means of increasing our overall fitness. We can actually get stronger over the years, reversing the ravages of sarcopenia and rewriting the narrative of what it means to grow older.
You are to bring about a new paradigm in well-being, one in which you grow stronger in mind, body, spirit, and presence. That is a transformation that each of us is born to follow, and that our society at large deeply needs. And that new paradigm, ultimately, is what Deep Fitness stands for and hopes to help usher into the world. The means by which you can experience that new paradigm for yourself is the method at the core of this book: Mindful Strength Training to Failure, or MSTF.
Principles 1 and 2: Lange and Milo of Croton
The popular pursuit of health was for a long time governed by hunches and driven by hopes and fads. In many ways it still is. But there have been a few outstanding pioneers in the specialized field of strength training who have elucidated clear, research-based principles to make strength training as efficient as possible. Six such principles helped to form the basis of MSTF.
Perhaps the first principle to be discovered and clearly stated is what is known as the overload principle. It grew out of a theory proposed in 1905 by Wilhelm Roux called the ‘aktivitats hypertrophie’ theory. It stated that the size, strength, and endurance achieved by muscles were not simply traits that were inherited; they were an effect of exertion over time. In 1917 a student of Roux’s, Willi G. Lange, articulated the overload principle: that a muscle would strengthen only when it was required to perform work of an intensity that exceeded what it was accustomed to. This remains a fundamental principle in strength training.
The overload principle led to the second principle: progressive resistance. This states that as a muscle grows stronger over time in response to a resistance that exceeds what it is accustomed to, the resistance has to be made progressively greater in order to stimulate further strengthening. The classic example of progressive resistance training is Milo of Croton, who lived in the sixth century BCE. He was famously given a newborn calf, which he lifted and carried around every day until it was a full-grown ox. His regimen of ‘progressive overload training’ was so successful that, as legend tells us, Milo won the ancient Greek Olympics six times.
Principle 3: Momentary muscle failure
In the 20th century, innumerable academics studied fitness and muscle strength—but no academic did as much to reshape our understanding and formulate solid principles around strength training as a high school dropout, Arthur Jones. He was almost the definition of an eccentric genius—driven, supremely confident, at times irascible.
Jones introduced his training protocol in the 1970s, and its effectiveness has been widely tested and resoundingly confirmed. Given its pedigree and success rate, you might think that HIT would be the most common workout to be found in gyms around the world—but casual observation suggests otherwise. Philip travels extensively to run workshops and retreats, and while on the road seeks out gyms where he can do an MSTF routine. Arthur Jones understood the purpose of strength training very specifically: to stimulate an adaptive response from muscles that will make them stronger.
Lange articulated the ‘overload principle’, which says that a muscle will grow stronger only when the demand that is placed on it exceeds what it is used to. Jones went one step further: he realized that when a muscle works to failure—when it lifts a weight repeatedly to the point that it is unable to lift it even one more inch—the stimulus for adaptation is as strong as it can get. Jones called that point ‘momentary muscle failure’—and it need not be a drawn-out process: you can take a muscle to momentary failure in less than two minutes. When you do, you precipitate a cascade of responses in the body that, among other effects, promote a strengthening of the muscle.
Principle 4: One set is enough
A rule of thumb was born out of modern exercise science: ‘intensity is more important than duration’. When it comes to stimulating positive adaptations, how hard you go is more important than how long you go for. This applies whether you are doing aerobic exercise—high-intensity interval training exemplifies the rule of thumb—or strength training. Jones realized that if the goal of strength training was to stimulate an adaptation in the muscle, then the intensity of taking a muscle to failure gets the job done. By the same token, you could do three sets of 12 reps each without activating any real adaptation if the sets didn’t overload the muscles beyond what they were used to. But Jones also realized that if you go to failure in a set, there is no need to do another set, let alone another two or three sets. As Jones put it, the stimulus has been provided—there is no point in turning that light switch on again.
Doing one set to failure means there’s no need to count reps. The number of reps just doesn’t matter. What matters instead is how long it takes you to get to failure, because that tells you how long your muscles have been working to move the weight. As you progress and get stronger, you last longer and longer before hitting failure. Pretty soon you find yourself increasing the weight, and so shortening the duration of the set again.
And just to be clear, it’s not that you won’t get stronger counting reps and sets—of course you will, if the intensity is there. But why take twelve minutes to do what can be achieved in one and a half? If the term had existed, Jones would have been dubbed a ‘biohacker’.
Principle 5: Slower is better
In the 1970s, conventional wisdom said that to maximize the benefits of strength training you had to push against the resistance as explosively as possible with every repetition. This led to a speed, or cadence, that typically took one second to lift the weight and one second to let it down. It was a protocol that made sense intuitively, but there was no research to back it up. Arthur Jones challenged that convention with what is known as the ‘Nautilus protocol’, which he recommended for all kinds of resistance training. He stipulated taking a full 2 seconds to push a weight through its range of motion, and 4 seconds to let it down again. He claimed that this slower cadence would not only lead to greater improvements in strength, but would reduce injuries as well.
It turns out that Jones was on the right track. Research shows that to explosively throw the weight gives it an initial momentum that reduces muscle engagement through the rest of the movement. As one review of the literature reported, when subjects attempted “to move the load explosively, forces increased by as much as 45% initially—but then decreased by 85% for the majority of the repetition.”
The diminished recruitment of muscles through most of the range of motion undercuts the stimulus that promotes adaptation in the muscles, which is the goal of strength training. From a safety perspective, a slower cadence of at least four seconds lifting and lowering is desirable. It is in sudden movements that the forces on joints, tendons, muscles, and bones peak. When the movement is slow, those forces are minimized. This fact was really brought home by a study funded by Nautilus and run by Ken Hutchins in the early ’80s.
Principle 6: Strengthening happens after a workout
There is an inclination to imagine that as you are exercising you are getting stronger. The truth is more complicated: as you are exercising you are actually getting weaker. You are doing damage to muscle fibers, especially as the intensity of your set increases. Eventually the targeted muscles grow so weak that they fail. Some types of muscle recover very quickly—for instance, those that produce less power but are great at endurance. There is another type of muscle, though—the powerhouse muscles, the ones that can put out a tremendous amount of force for just a short period—that recovers far more slowly. When this type goes to failure, it experiences microtrauma at the cellular level. Microtrauma is the body’s signal to adapt—not just to repair the damage, but to remodel the muscle so that it is stronger than before. It is in that process of remodeling that the muscle actually gets stronger—and those adaptations occur during recovery.
As McGuff and Little explain in Body by Science, “providing a sufficiently intense stimulus is 50 percent of the adaptation equation, with sufficient recovery time being the other 50 percent.” The recovery process goes through several stages. First, there’s an inflammatory response that brings white blood cells to the muscle and produces enzymes to clean up and recycle damaged tissue. Once the inflammation stage is complete (which in some instances can take several days), the remodeling can begin—the process of making the muscle bigger and stronger.
It would be helpful to be able to say exactly how long muscles take to fully recover. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. Two main factors play a role: genetics and intensity. The first we can’t do much about—some people simply recover more quickly than others. But it’s very helpful to understand the relationship between intensity and recovery time. It can be stated like this: the greater the intensity of a contraction, the greater the stimulus to adapt will be; but also, the greater the intensity, the more damage there will be at a cellular level, and the longer the recovery will take.
That completes our review of the six principles that are basic to any high-intensity training program, including Mindful Strength Training to Failure. In summary, those founding principles are:
- the overload principle
- the principle of progressive resistance
- the principle of momentary muscle failure
- the ‘one set only’ principle
- the ‘slow is better’ principle
- the principle of sufficient recovery time
The effectiveness of those principles has been put to the test over the decades and has not only been confirmed—it has yielded some surprising results.