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The No-Nonsense Way to Build Strength

If you enjoy complex, time-consuming muscle building routines, this piece is not for you. If you want to know the simple, research-based, no-nonsense way to lift weights, read on.

Dr. Ralph N. Carpinelli, Human Performance Laboratory, Adelphi University, Garden City, NY, has done a critical analysis of a review of strength training in the military. His findings and conclusions are reported in the April, 2013, Journal of Exercise Physiology.

My book Take Charge is dedicated to Ralph Carpinelli. As I wrote there, he leaves no rock unturned. Carpinelli is a take-no-prisoners exercise physiologist and researcher. He doesn't beat around the bush. He calls things as he sees them. If claims and recommendation are not supported by evidence-based research, he reports it, logically and completely, and then relates what is supported by research.

The review critiqued by Dr. Carpinelli is described in his report. More important, for our purposes, is his bottom line: “There is very little evidence to suggest that the very heavy, time consuming, complex protocols, and voluminous amount of strength training recommended [by the review] are any more effective than simple, moderate resistance, low volume guidelines such as those recommended for any healthy demographic—civilian or military personnel.”

Science places the burden of proof on the claimant and all claims should be supported by strength training studies, Carpinelli states emphatically. In the case of the review under his microscope, he found that “the majority of the claims and recommendations” are unsupported. “They have consistently misinterpreted the size principle of motor unit recruitment throughout their review, which has resulted in the recommendations for unnecessarily heavy, complex, high volume strength training in the military,” Carpinelli asserted.

The size principle says that recruitment of muscle fibers begins with the smallest, most easily excitable fibers. As more effort is required, activation progresses to the larger, more difficult to excite muscle fibers. The key point is that effort, not load, drives muscle fiber activation. For more details, see “Forget Heavy, Think Effort” on this website; http://www.cbass.com/Carpinelli.htm  

Based on his own research and that of many others, Dr. Carpinelli lists seven straightforward guidelines which have been shown to work. These recommendations make sense for just about everyone, civilian or military. The simple, research based, no-nonsense guidelines provided by Carpinelli follow: (Parenthetical comments are clarifications.)

1) Select one or two free weight or machine exercises for each muscle group. (Exercises may be changed from time to time.)

2) Lifting duration should be consistent with good form throughout each repetition. (Not too slow or too fast)

3) Range of repetitions can be from 3 to 20, which may vary from exercise to exercise or workout to workout.

4) Continue each set until it becomes difficult to maintain good form. (The level of effort required for optimal strength gains is unknown.)

5) Do one set of each exercise. (There is very little evidence to suggest that multiple sets of each exercise are superior to a single set for strength gains.)

6) Rest long enough between exercises to allow proper form for each exercise. (Don’t rush or rest longer than necessary.)

7) Train each muscle group 1 to 3 times a week, depending on individual recuperation and response.

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With minor variations, I’ve had good success over many years following these guidelines. I have tried other methods from time to time, but always come back to this basic form of training. Resistance training is not rocket science; simple is almost always best.

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