I recently received a question from a client who asked:

“Question. I’m going to specialize in people over 50. Do you think a mini EDT PR Zone like five minutes is appropriate for older people? I know some people would just want to do one set to almost failure and that’s OK, but I do really believe that if a person wants to gain muscle mass EDT is a great way to develop muscle.

As you have written, there is no one best way to get stronger and build muscle. When I started lifting in 1955 I gained 35 pounds of weight, mostly muscle, just doing one set of about eight exercises. Alternating 8, 10 and 12 reps. This was the old Joe Weider routine. I was in college and had not seen my parents for four months and I had grown from 135 pounds to 170 pounds. When I knocked at the door my mom answered and said, ‘Is that you George?’

After that the gains were much slower and eventually by lifting very heavy (Olympic and power lifting) and stuffing myself I gained to 255 pounds of muscle and a lot of fat. I was strong but not fit at all. Now I’m 178 pounds at 6′ and strong for my age (70) and size and very fit. I’m wearing the same size pants I did in 1957 when I was in the army. I still want to gain more muscle on my legs.”


In my response to this question, I pointed out that the amount of total work you do determines fitness gain, not how difficult or how easy (or how painful) that work happens to feel. In seminars, I often ask, “Do you burn more calories walking a mile, or running a mile?”

The answer is, it’s the same – the amount of work you do (in this case, one mile) that determines the energy expenditure, not the level of effort. Now it’s true that running the mile burns more calories per unit of time, but then again, you finish faster, so it’s a wash.

That being the case, I’m concerned about how much work is accomplished during each training session.

You can perform more work if you manage pain/fatigue by breaking the workload into several manageable chunks, rather than trying to accomplish it all in one all-out sprint. This is why I argue for many sets of low reps, as opposed to the reverse. It’s also why I advocate accelerative performances with moderate weights as opposed to grinding efforts with close to maximal weights (for whatever reps are being used). These tactics favor performance over pain, which results in a higher work output with less pain and discomfort.

Way back when the Soviet Ministry of Sport was still in business, the training of Olympic weightlifters was managed by tracking and manipulating total workloads over 50% of 1RM. Daily workouts were measured by total reps for each exercise, and longer-term cycles were organized and monitored according to tonnage.

I’m not as familiar with how the Soviets managed athletes in other sports, but I strongly suspect that the training of rowers was planned based on total yardage (or kilometers for longer-duration athletes). The principle is universal and infinitely scaleable: production = profit. If I’m a writer, a successful day is defined as one where I end up with more pages at the end of the day than at the beginning of that day. Sure – producing those pages might have been fatiguing or even painful, but pain isn’t the goal, it’s the (usually unavoidable) consequence of performing work.

Operating from an “exerciser” mentality is inefficient because it leads one to prioritize pain over performance.
In this paradigm, pain becomes the goal, rather than the consequence of performing work. Think about the practice of performing forced reps. You manage to get 8 reps on your own, and then, just when you’re on the brink of failure, your training partner helps you squeeze out 3 more. On those last 3 reps – the ones that really hurt – are you doing more work, or less? The answer is less – “X” amount of work requires “X” amount of energy. When you do forced reps, your partner simply contributes his energy when yours has been depleted.

In other words, the work is now shared between two people as opposed to one. More pain, less gain.

Call me crazy, but I’d rather have less pain and more gain. But that’s just me. By the way, if you only have one set to get the job done, I’d recommend taking it to momentary muscular failure. That said, why is everyone so focused on what happens during a single set? Why do people always operate from the assumption that you only have one set to get the job done? Anyone who’s ever run a marathon can tell you that it’s what happens over the course of 26.2 miles that matters, not what happens between miles 12 and 14.

Understanding this truth is what separates athletes from exercisers. Your practices spring from your paradigms. Your view of the World determines how you operate in the World. Think about that the next time you see your local gym gorilla on the leg press loaded with every 45 in sight (plus his training partner sitting on top) doing ¼ reps with his knees wrapped with 20-ply titanium powerlifting wraps.

  1. Gustavo 15 years ago

    Hi Charles,
    I’m a little confused by your article. I always read that when you work-out you are actually damaging your muscle tissues and the gain (in size or strength) comes from recovering from the work-out. Under such a premise I assume that as more damage (not beyond the recovering capacity of your body, which would mean injury) you do to your muscle as more gain you get. This said, a mile sprinting is presumably more damaging than a mile walking and so more profitable.
    Another issue left behind, which I constantly read about, is post-training metabolic work. In this particular case every single one of the authors say that as hard and concentrated as better.
    Look, I’m not trying to be mr.-smart-ass here, just trying to solve what seems to be a paradox for me.

  2. Author
    Charles Staley 15 years ago

    Hi Gustavo, thanks for posting.
    Regarding the running VS walking a mile, you might be missing my point: Running consumes more calories per unit of time, however, running a mile requires less time than walking a mile, so the end result is the same. However, even with that being said, I’m trying to make a larger point with this example: fitness is the result of the work you perform, not how it feels to perform that work.
    Regarding your second point about post-training metabolic work: I’m sorry, I’m not understanding the point you’re trying to make.

  3. Gustavo 15 years ago

    Hi Charles,
    ok, I wasn’t clear about what I meant. What I wanted to say is: according to Tom Venuto (it is in his eBook BFFM), Ellington Darden (New Hit), and Thomas Incledon (Maximum Muscle Plan) — just to cite some — you most definitely have to go beyond your comfort zone to have some gain and according to them high intensity not only gets the work done as also give an “extra” that is accelerated metabolism (which leads to leanness). This is not the case (again, according to them) for low impact/low intensity workout/exercises.
    Which brings us to the running/walking problem, being running = high intensity and walking = low intensity. According to them doing the same work in the exercise phase (crossing the one mile) does not lead to the same result. This is specially emphasised by Darden regarding weight training. Another example, which I tried, is the Tabata Protocol for cardio training or the HIIT (mentioned, for instance by Venuto).
    So, my point is: low intensity can keep you motivated by it does lead to the same results as obtained by high intensity training.
    Best regards,

  4. Sultan17 14 years ago

    This is an interesting perspective, Charles. Thanks for sharing!
    I’m all for simplification for the goal of understanding, but I feel that your viewpoint simplifies to a fault. Sometimes I wish the equation is as simple as the amount of work one does determines fitness gain, but simplifying to this level negates the benefits of other fitness cornerstones including exercise form, genetic tendencies, nutrition and nutrient timing, training variability and timing, periodization, avoiding overtraining, etc.
    Production = profit is only universally and infinitely over-simplistic. Keeping with the journalistic example, there are many prolific writers in history who have produced thousands of pages of text. But why was “To Kill A Mockingbird” so critically acclaimed, best-selling, and Pulitzer Prize-winning although it was Harper Lee’s first and only novel she ever wrote? Not because of volume of pages, and maybe not even because of quality. Perhaps the timing and subject matter were the most important variables here, what with a novel about racial issues in America released in 1960.
    I agree that, at its very essence, fitness training is not sustainable if it is consistently a painful experience-especially for a beginner. Although there may be pain associated with physical activity from time to time, most committed fitness enthusiasts seem to fuel their drive by striving for a higher-level goal: the endorphins released through physical activity, an increased quality and duration of life, and/or the realization of a sport-specific goal.
    I personally place so much scrutiny on the content of a single set for several reasons. First, workout time is finite; I only have approximately one hour a day to dedicate to my fitness goals, so maximizing the productivity in that finite time determines the degree of success that I can realize. Second, a single set is the DNA-level of a fitness athlete’s preparation. I would argue that a marathon is not synonymous with a set as much as a single stride is…and any running magazine that you might read most likely contains an in-depth analysis of getting the stride right to get the marathon right. Likewise, the marathon is the end-result of the preparation; I doubt that many world-class athletes run a full marathon in preparation for the event itself.
    Thanks to you and Will for all the provocative articles! Brink Zone is definitely on the cutting edge of modern fitness! Keep up the great work!

  5. rachat crédit 14 years ago

    I like browsing your site because you can constantly bring us fresh and cool stuff, I feel that I ought to at least say thanks for your hard work.
    – Henry

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