Are You Wrecking Your Body With Too Many Sets and Reps?

incline-dumbell-pressAs everyone who’s hooked on fitness knows; one of the primary reasons many gym goers don’t see the desired results from their training is that they don’t push themselves hard enough and/or do too little actual work. We’ve all seen the lazy guy sitting on the leg press machine reading the newspaper between some light sets, right? However, on the other end of the spectrum there’s a group of lifters who believe in the “more is usually better” approach – and often take resistance training to the extreme. I’m talking abut the scrawny 17 year-old kid doing 18 sets for chest, lifters who push themselves to the limit using various exhaustion techniques every workout, and guys/girls who adopt a resistance training regime that falls far outside the range of what we’re “adapted for”. I think more people than you’d think fall into this category – and I definitely feel it’s something that deserves more attention…

Those of you who are familiar with my fitness journey know that what initially led me to really delve into the whole health & fitness thing was the lack of results and declining health I experienced from doing things the “conventional” way. In retrospect I understand why the grain-based, starch heavy diet I was taking in wasn’t doing my any good and why the high volume, bodybuilding-type training split I was following wrecked my body – but at the time, I was completely oblivious to the fallacies of conventional wisdom. I planned my diet according to what was accepted as healthy (low in fat, plenty of grains, etc.) and followed a typical resistance training program that is recommended on many of the major strength training sites. Although my training split didn’t stay constant throughout these years, I always kept the key features that supposedly characterises a good resistance training program. I did high volume training (e.g., 15-20 sets for large muscle groups) for each body part once or twice a week, incorporated several strategies such as drop-sets and super-sets, and did most (if not all) sets to failure. Clearly not a smart and balanced training program, but one that is surprisingly common among many gym goers. “The only sets that don’t count are the ones you aren’t doing”, right? (Quote Greg Plitt)

The great thing about discovering paleo, evolutionary biology, and ancestral health principles – as I eventually did – is that it triggers you to open your eyes and look at things in a broader perspective. In today’s “muscle and strength community”, high-volume strength training, protein shakes, and 7 sets to complete failure in the chest press machine at the end of each monday’s workout are just a natural part of many gym junkies’ routine, but in an evolutionary perspective, these things are clearly novel. Instead of looking at the latest training information at the most popular fitness blog and listening to dietary dogma, I should have turned my attention towards what evolution and science could tell me about optimal training. As you know, I eventually did – but it was definitely a long and rocky road before I came to that point.

What are we adapted for?

In the ancestral health community there’s a lot of talk about chronic cardio, and it’s become a general notion among many paleo advocates that performing high-intensity endurance training for prolonged periods of time is inconsistent with the types of activities we’re best adapted for. Although I mostly agree with this premise, I think the whole “chronic cardio” thing is often taken out of proportions. I’m not a fan of a lot of high-intensity prolonged endurance training myself, but there’s no doubt that running – often for prolonged periods – has been one of the key things that “made us human” (1, 2). Those who argue against “chronic cardio” tend to downplay the fact that the human body clearly has many adaptations that make it well suited for endurance training, such as our long legs, large gluteus maximus muscle, superior ability to thermoregulate compared to other animals, and enlarged sensory organs in the ear (1, 3). Again, I’m not a big fan of sweating away for hours on the treadmill, but we can’t ignore these adaptations or the fact that some (many?) indigenous tribes performed persistence hunting, where wild game is chased at relatively high speed for hours.

I’d like to shift some of the attention from endurance exercise over to resistance training. Crossfit has received a lot of bad press because of its very high intensity, exhausting nature, and high injury risk, but less attention is often given to traditional resistance training. In other words, those guys and girls who get into the weight room 4-5 times a week to build muscle. Clearly, as mentioned in the beginning, one of the major reasons many lifters don’t get good results is that they aren’t training hard enough; they simply get into the weight room – often without a plan or training journal – and do some random exercises. However, for those who are serious about their goals and training regime, the opposite can sometimes be true.

I’ve been there – for several years. The drive to train harder, heavier, and more often – and the desire to get stronger and bigger. Often, the belief is that doing more will lead to better result, and for those who’ve been watching videos of bodybuilders and fitness models training, the impression can often be that isolating and completely fatiguing each muscle is the key to maximum muscle growth.

Let’s for a moment move our attention away from the latest bodybuilding split in Flex Magazine and turn the clock back and look at resistance training is in an evolutionary context. For hunter-gatherers, heavy squats, deadlifts, and presses clearly weren’t a part of daily life. They did lift things, climb, squat down, and carry plants and animals back to camp – but they didn’t lift in the sense like us gym goers do today. For neolithic populations, farming often entailed more resistance-type exercise, but still nothing like today’s muscle building. Although there are clearly examples of heavy strength training dating back thousands of years (We’ve all heard of the ancient greeks, haven’t we?), weight lifting, bodybuilding-type training, and “lifting” really only started to become common very recently.

It’s important to note that this is not to say that you shouldn’t get into the gym and train heavy. As you know, I’m a big fan of resistance exercise and heavy training of the big lifts (e.g., squat, deadlift) in particular. However, this evolutionary outlook does give us an indication of what types of physical activity patterns we’re best adapted for. In the paleolithic, squatting was normal during gathering of plants, and the squat position also functioned as a default resting position, but clearly, no one performed squats with 400 lbs on their back. In other words, heavy, bodybuilding-type training has not been a part of ancestral human activity patterns, and there’s no doubt that this type of training provides a stimuli that is very different than anything our prehistoric ancestors experienced over the millions of years we evolved in an ancestral environment.

Resistance training taken to the extreme involves stimuli that are “too much and too new” for our bodies to handle

As everyone who’s been reading this blog for some time knows: Although we’re walking around in suits and dresses, eating pizza and hamburgers, and spending most of our time sitting down, we’re still largely stone agers from a genetic perspective. Over millions of years, natural selection forged bodies that we’re adapted to a hunter-gatherer existence and the types of stimuli that way of life entails. We’re adapted to handle certain types of physical activity patterns, and if we suddenly encounter stimuli that is either too new, too much, or too little, problems occur (4, 5).

When it comes to activities of relatively low intensity – such as walking, climbing, carrying things, and running (at least at lower intensities) – humans are able to handle a very high volume. Clearly, this is largely a result of these activities not being very taxing on the body, but it also goes back to our long history with these types of movements. However, when we take the step up to high intensity, prolonged endurance training (“chronic cardio”) and high volume, high intensity resistance training, the stimuli can often fall beoynd the range we’re adapted to handle. This comes back to the fact that these activities are very taxing on our body and that it’s only very recently that these types of activities became common. Both “chronic cardio” and high-volume, high-intensity resistance training can quickly fall in the too new and too much category and therefore negatively impact gene expression and health (6, 7). Also, as many people (including myself) have experienced, too much of these activities quickly lead to “burnout” and fatigue.

It could be argued that the ability to run long distances at high speeds would have conferred a survival advantage in an ancestral environment  – but for strength training the story is very different. Although a strong paleolithic man would have an advantage compared to someone who was very weak, very high levels of strength/muscle and the ability to perform heavy resistance exercise were clearly not required for survival.

The key is to find the sweet spot between doing too much and too little

All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t perform heavy resistance training. However, what we have to realise is that heavy strength training – the way many people perform it today – does provide a stimuli that is unheard of in evolutionary terms – and it can be very taxing on the body. This is especially true for machine exercises, which often isolates individual muscle groups and get you into unnatural movement patterns, and “bodybuilding-type training”, which often means completely destroying each muscle group once a week.

The results from what is probably the most comprehensive review on the influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans are consistent with we glean from this evolutionary perspective and with my experiences as a personal trainer and lifter (8). More isn’t necessarily better. Leave something in the tank when you exit the gym. As I’ve discussed on several occasions in the past, the data show that for most people, going from the typical bodybuilding-type training routine, that’s based on high volume training for each muscle group once a week, to a training program that is based on more frequent training of each muscle group, with a lower volume per workout, will lead to enhanced muscle growth and better strength gains. Smarter training leads to better gains…


  1. Good article!

  2. You always make me think and you break things down to the lowest common denominator. Finding a balance is key and easier said then done 🙂

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