Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Minimalist vs Maximalist

Everything in lifting, bodybuilding, fitness, etc eventually comes full circle.  Mainly because there's nothing new under the sun in the ways of lifting and hasn't been in quite some time.  But as humans we get bored rather easily and need to constantly drum up topics to create discourse about.  Our little world of lifting weights is no exception to that rule.

Younger lifters who weren't around in the 80's or that weren't lifting in the 90's probably don't realize that all of the studies and debates and arguments they get into on the net, have already been hashed out a multitude of times in the past.

All of the "unique" and new training programs that pop up are just recycled versions of routines and programs that existed 20, 30, even 40 years ago.  And all of the arguments and debates you see raging today were already raged many years ago.

Yet the arguing continues.  SERENITY NOW!

Lately, the argument against "minimalist training" has popped back up, which of course can't happen unless "minimalist training" is being used, and used effectively.  Because anytime something works, it has to be torn down and shown to be largely ineffective.  Even if it's effective.

One of the issues I have with the entire debate is...what is minimalist training?  

Is it limiting the number of movements you perform?

Is it limiting the number of days you train?

Is it related to volume, i.e. how much you do or how little you do?

Is it training that means one is not doing enough to obtain results?

Is it simple all of the above?

And what about "maximalist" (I totally just made that word up) training?  What the hell is that?

Is it doing more than you need to do?

Is it going above and beyond the requirements for growth and strength?

Is it training 5 days a week?  10 times a week?

Is it doing volume within a particular range?

Because a training program or method has several moving parts (the principles that define it), I think it's hard to completely nail down a specific property in a program that wholly defines what minimalist or maximalist training is.

For example, in Base Building, on bench day you generally bench, perform a pulling movement, then some support work (though not a lot).

The lifters that follow a method that has them doing two, three, or even four compound pressing movements in a single session might call that minimalist training.  Even though, depending on what model you are using in Base Building, you could be doing upwards of 10 sets of bench press.

To the guy that does 1 or 2 working sets of bench press, he might call that "maximalist" training.

I could go on and on and on all day about this and offer examples then counter examples, but the fact is, one mans maximalist training is another mans minimalist training, and vice versa.  

So we'd really have to define it from a principles perspective.

From my friend and ultra-freak Alex Viada...

"See, to me, minimalist training is really just doing what's effective. Honestly, doing the minimum needed for the intended result - targeting a specific training effect in each workout, and ending once that effect is reached. Not simply doing additional work for the sake of work."

The key word there is "effective".  I think at the heart of the matter, the principles behind "minimalist" training for many, is to do the least amount of work to achieve the greatest degree of effectiveness.

On the flip side, I believe the people that espouse maximalist training believe that they too are looking for what is most effective.

So who is right?  

It appears to me, they both are.  

The people who oppose doing the minimal amount to reach a desired result might throw out words like "lazy" or draw some kind of unsubstantiated parallel like "great workers don't show up for a job and just do the minimal amount.  They go above and beyond."

The problem there is that going above and beyond at Office Max doesn't have physiological factors that are part of the training equation.

"Johnny, can you scan these documents for one of our customers?"

"Sorry Boss.  I've done all the copying I can for the day.  If I scan one more document my CNS is going to be fried, and I doubt I'd be able to scan effectively tomorrow."  

"I understand, Johnny.  You're doing a bang up job.  Get some rest and food in you, maybe some BCAA's, and come back hard in the paint tomorrow.  Be looking for a sit down next week to talk about that promotion."  

I feel like that's just not a conversation that is ever going to happen in a work setting.  So let's cut the ridiculous comparisons and bullshit.

A better non-lifting comparison would be akin to that of someone trying to climb a mountain.  If the goal is to reach the pinnacle of the mountain, my guess is (and I'm only guessing because I've never climbed a mountain) the mountain climbers plot the most effective and efficient way to climb the mountain.  I assume they didn't try to figure out the most difficult way to get to the top, i.e. the path that took the greatest amount of energy, supplies, effort, and time, and offered the greatest amount of resistance.

Training should mirror that mode of thinking.  If you have a goal, then your entire plan should be focused on reaching that goal with the least amount of energy, effort, and time spent.  This does not mean there isn't great effort applied, or very little energy spent.  It means, you do what it takes to get from point A to point B, without traveling to point C and D first.

And here's how we arrive at the problem.  The two words there that people end up arguing about are, "least amount."

The "least amount" could be a LOT of work.  It could mean training six times a week, or more.  It could mean doing an inordinate amount of volume.  It could mean training twice a day at times.  Depending on the goal, it might require an enormous amount of work and effort.  Yet at the heart of it all, that enormous amount might have been the minimal amount required in order to reach said goal.  Less than that might not have yielded the desired effect the trainee was wanting.

So aren't both camps simply asking what is the most efficient and optimal way to train to reach results as quickly as possible?

I believe they are.

You see, I don't think the maximalist camp is saying you need to find the most difficult way up the mountain. I don't believe they are espousing that you need to go to point C and D in order to get from A to B.  I believe they want you to ask yourself how much you can do in order to become the very best you can be.

At the heart of the matter, it's really semantics.

"Do the least amount to achieve the most efficient results."

"Do the maximal amount you can withstand to achieve the most efficient results."

But what if the same conclusion can be arrived at from answering both statements?  

For example, when Stan Efferding broke the powerlifting total in the 275 class he said he trained twice a week.  He deadlifted one week, and squatted the next week.  At his age, and level of strength and muscular development, he couldn't train more often than that.

Was he doing the minimal amount required for success?

Was he doing the maximal amount he could take?

The answer to both questions appears to be..."yes."

My thinking is, there's not always a disconnect between these ideologies.  Where the disconnect comes into play is when someone under performs because they didn't train enough, or trained too much.

At that point, the minimalist training zealots scream "see, you overtrainined!"

And the maximalist training zealots scream, "you didn't train enough!"

What both sides are missing is that the athlete simple didn't train efficiently.  He or she could have trained too much or too little.  Or there could be a myriad of other factors that caused the person to under perform, or not progress.

Let's find the common ground both sides can agree upon.

You can train so little that results or progress is null, or negligible.

You can train so much that results or progress is null, of negligible.

Stating the obvious, neither are desirable.  More is not always better, and less isn't always better either.  Efficiency won't always be defined by quantity, or lack of it.  It is defined by the results produced.  At times, that will require more work, and at other times, less work.

Finding what is most efficient, and the most optimal is really what both sides are looking for.  So how do we arrive at that conclusion?

There are a few factors we need to look at in regards to how to structure our training.  

Trial and error - The only way to really find out how effective or ineffective something is, is to try it.  And it must be given a fair period of time in order for you to give a truly fair opinion about it.  There's nothing worse than reading that someone tried a particular routine or program for three weeks and that it sucked.

Any program or routine you plan on trying has to be given a fair chance to succeed or fail.  A legitimate time frame in my opinion is a minimum of six weeks.  Ten to twelve weeks is probably more ideal but most guys these days can't even read an article half the time without writing "tl;dr".

Sustainability and duration -  Any training program or method should be done with specific goals in mind.  When deciding on those goals, a time frame should be part of making that determination.  The sustainability will often dictate the time frame in which you can stay dedicated to a particular training method.

For example, if the training method you decide upon is skull fucking brutal, then you might not be able to stay dedicated to it for a lengthy period of time without needing to take more time off here and there.

If you are running a peaking cycle that lasts for 5-8 weeks, then you may be training with more volume and intensity than usual.  If you're planning a cycle that is much longer, you may need to adjust the frequency, intensity, and volume of the program so that it will be more result producing.

If your routine is filled with tons of perceived intensity techniques such as forced reps, drop sets, giant sets, and rest/pause then you'll probably need to deload from it more often than a routine with straight sets that leave a few reps in the tank.

Either way, sets specific goals and then base your training around reaching those goals within a specific time frame.  This should give you a far better idea of what training should look like, or how it should be phased.  This is a great first step in creating an efficient training model.

Drive/Desire/Buy in - No matter what, if you don't believe that a training method will be effective, it won't be.  Call it placebo effect if you want, but there's clearly some evidence to support the notion that if you believe something will work, then it will.

I've seen the training programs of some dudes that looked like total shit on paper that they made great gains from.  Because they BELIEVED it would work.  Their desire and drive to make it work was very strong.  So guess what?  It did.

I don't know why someone would be running a training program they didn't think would work, but it does happen.  I also don't know why someone would have a crazy hard on for a training program that wasn't based in sound principles, but that happens as well.  I mean Zumba classes are filled up all across the country with women who want that "long, lean muscle look." who fail to understand that shit is obtained out in that weight room area.

Regardless of those factors, you need to fully believe in your training program or routine, and pour yourself into it.  If not, then it's going to be difficult to understand if the training program itself had flaws that made it ineffective, or if it was just your lack of effort and desire that was the problem.

Experience, age, injury history, and ability of the athlete - One of the biggest factors in determining how much or little someone needs, is the qualification of the athlete.  Novice lifters with little strength can usually train far more often, with far more volume in a higher intensity range than very experienced lifters that efficient in their movements.  In other words, less qualified lifters need more time "practicing" the movements, where very strong people may need less time in that area.

A very novice lifter may be able to do a lot of work in the 90+% range of his max, multiple times a week.  Where a guy that is squatting over 800 probably isn't going to be able to do that.  And no, exceptions do not count.

The age of a lifter is going to come into play as well.  There were methods of training in my 20's that were highly productive that I could not use today.  Likewise, the way I train today probably isn't what I needed the most during my early 20's.

Injuries will also play a significant role in regards to training efficiency.  At this stage in my training I cannot press heavy multiple times a week because of my geriatric elbows.  Yet my pressing is stronger than it has ever been.  My guess is, having to train in a way that keeps my elbows from hurting hasn't kept my press down, but actually helped it.  When I was younger, I needed to train my press more often for it to progress.  Now that I'm approaching 40, with 90 year old elbows, that's not "right" for me.

This comes back to the old adage that we all need different things at different times.  The guy chasing his first 405 squat is going to need very different things than the guy chasing his first 800 pound squat.  Trying to apply the same principles to both lifters doesn't make a great deal of sense.

You as a lifter have to be introspective and honest enough with yourself to understand where you are at in your training ability, and make sound decisions based on that in order to program effectively.  If you're trying to go from squatting 350 to 400, then mirroring the training style of a guy that is trying to go from 800 to 850 is probably not what you need.  Just because it's 50 pounds for each of you doesn't mean it requires the same training model.

Asking the right questions to get the right answers - You can't end up with the correct answers if you aren't asking yourself the right questions.

For example, if you ask yourself why you are front squatting, and the answer is "well so-n-so does, and he squats a zillion." then that's not a great answer.  You are not so-n-so, and as I addressed, modeling your own training after that of someone else, who is in a very different stage of training is not a great idea.

You need to have an individualized answer for all of the right questions.

"Why am I doing front squats?  Because I need more quad development."

"Why do I need more quad development?  Because strong legs help the deadlift off the floor, and of course, helps you squat more."

Have a solid reason for why you are doing everything you are doing.  Sets, reps, movements, volume, frequency, and intensity.  Everything in your training should exist for a specific reason.  Not because you picked it out of a hat, or just arbitrarily put something down on paper.

The most important question is "am I training efficiently, and optimally?"

That may mean at times you need to do less, and at other times you need to do more.  There is no cookie cutter answer here.  Sometimes optimal training could require you to do very little.  And at other times, you may have to do more than you've ever done before.  But all of that revolves around the things I wrote about above.  Your age, ability, experience level, injury history, recovery ability, and a host of other factors.

Conclusion - 

Everyone is looking for the same thing.  Which is the best way to train to reach their goals in the fastest manner possible.  The problem is, the answer to that question is going to vary throughout the course of training life.  What you need today, may not be what you need next year, or five years from now.

Don't get caught up in the mode of thinking that you have to constantly do more work, because that may not be what you need.  And don't think that doing less is always the proper answer either.  Those are moving targets that on the surface, offer baseless answers.  You should really be in search of the quickest way to reach the small goals that add up to the big ones.  Along the way, training will evolve and change.  No one has an answer locked down here, and anyone that tells you they do is being terribly disingenuous.

1 comment:

  1. Good article, I could actually make a correlation to work and lifting for me as far what you said about the efficiency aspect. Working in a kitchen you have to find an efficient way to get things done with out sacrificing the quality of the food which may take more or less work depending on what your doing