A Very Simple Mathematical Truth For Successful Strength Training

Few things could be simpler: use a few exercises that work as much of the body at one time as possible, find out how strong you are now on these exercises, and next time you train, lift a little heavier weight. Just a little. It’s the same process you used to learn to read, to play the guitar, to get a suntan, and to finish your master’s thesis. It’s the same process used to build an airplane or to evolve a more complex organism. It’s the accumulation of adaptation – the enemy of entropy – and it can be done by quite literally everybody.

The ability to adapt to stress is a trait common to all living things. A physical stress is a change in the physical conditions under which an organism, like you, lives. If the conditions stay the same, you stay the same. If the conditions change, you have two choices: adapt, so that the new conditions aren’t a stress anymore, or fail to adapt, and perhaps die.

It is also important to understand that adaptation is specific to the stress that causes it.

The calluses on your hands from the shovel grow on the palms, where the shovel handle rubs, not on your face. You don’t learn to play the piano by playing the clarinet.

At its most elemental reduction, this is the situation. The ability to adapt to physical stress is built into our DNA, and it’s kept us alive for a long time. Training is the systematic and intentional application of progressively increasing specific stress – enough to make you adapt, not enough to kill you. It’s just simple arithmetic.

So what’s the problem? If this process is so simple, both logistically and philosophically, then why in the hell is there so much pointless confusion about what, how, and why?

I’ll tell you: because it suits the purposes of lots of people to make you think it’s complicated. Ever heard the term “muscle confusion”? It was popularized decades ago by the Weider organization, publishers of Muscle Builder magazine, as one of the famous “Weider Principles” of bodybuilding. Along with several other fabulously screwed-up ideas, such as the “Retro-Gravity Principle,” the “Partial Reps Principle,” and the “Triple Split Principle,” the idea that things have to be complicated to be effective was planted in millions of young minds. Trainee confusion, actually.

We grew up, some of us got into the business ourselves, and many of us clung to the idea that effectiveness requires complexity. Sometimes it does, usually it doesn’t. If you are playing the piano at the level of Glenn Gould, and you want to get even a little better, the process will be complex. It will involve a high level of tortuosity, relying on constantly-varying tempo, difficulty, precision, and musical style.