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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

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The Forest & The Trees

Don't get bogged down in  the details of reps and sets

My father always said, "The person who knows how works for the person who knows why."  That saying came to mind recently as I talked to a good-natured but serious young man who had flown in for a weekend consultation.  His local sponsor had told him that a contract with a well-known New York modeling agency would be in the bag if he could lose a few inches off his waist and add a few to this chest.  It made sense, too, because he definitely had the lean-cut, all-American look.

A year earlier he'd lost 40 pounds.  He burned himself out in the process, however, and, as so often happens, he gained back about half of the weight.  He was determined not to let that happen again.  Boy, was he ever determined!

"I have 200 questions for you."  Those were the first words out of his mouth when I met him at the airport.  I thought he was joking.  He wasn't.  The next morning when we sat down to talk he pulled out a legal pad with page after page of handwritten questions - 230 in all!

Fortunately, it took only a few of those questions to uncover his basic problem.  He had read all of my books.  In fact, he'd practically memorized them.  He could recite what I had said in great detail.  That was flattering, but it was also symptomatic of his difficulty.  He was so immersed in the minute details that he often missed the main point.  He didn't know how to extract the key principles of a program and apply them to his own situation.

He later told me that his mother also tended to focus on unimportant details.  This recent consultation and some of the questions we receive lead me to believe that this is a common error.  That being the case, I think it might be helpful to discuss a few of my friend's 230 questions.


One question was about warm-up.  Noting that in one routine I included two warm-up sets on the squat, he asked if he should always do two warm-up sets.  In other words, he wanted a precise number of warm-up sets and reps for all exercises.  I suggested that he stop looking for a fixed formula and focus instead on the reason for warm-up sets:  to prepare your muscles and joints for the heavy sets, the sets that produce the results.  "If you understand the reason," I told him, "you'll know that you should do as many warm-up sets as necessary, but no more."  I warned him not to go overboard on warm-up, because that impairs your ability to do the sets that really count, the work sets.

End-Phase Push

In one of my books I illustrated an end-of-phase, heavy workout by having an imaginary lifter make a personal record in the squat by two reps.  My friend wanted to know if he should always do two extra reps at the end of a phase.  I told him that I thought he was missing the point, that the important thing is to overload the muscles in the final week of each phase.  I explained that muscles grow bigger and stronger when new demands are placed on them.  I told him that breaking new ground at the end of each phase will make his muscles keep growing cycle after cycle.

Then I asked him to consider again whether there was anything magical in doing precisely two extra reps.  He shook his head and agreed that the key is to push to the maximum at the end of the phase.  That, of course, might mean on extra rep, or three, or doing 5-10 pounds more than ever before.  He was finally getting the idea that he should look beyond the reps to the reason for the reps.


Let's look at one final question.  My friend observed that in one of my books I laid out a periodization routine that divides the training year into three parts a three-month high-rep phase, a six-month medium-rep phase and a three-month low-rep phase.  This confused him because in a later book I described a different periodization routine.  Have I changed? he asked.  Which way is best?

I explained that my books contain several versions of periodization.  I added that there are many different ways to structure a periodization routine.  I suggested that more important than the specific details of any one periodization routine is the basic principle of following a routine until you reach a sticking point; then you switch to a new repetition range and performance mode, and your progress takes off again!  It's beautiful!  The planned variation in this system keeps you gaining workout after workout.

I ended by suggesting that in the future he focus less on the how of periodization and more on the why.  

I hope he takes this suggestion to heart, because it will allow him to get more out of anything he reads.  He should stop taking everything so literally and try to understand the underlying idea.

No Blind Adherence

A famous track coach offered essentially the same advice some years ago in The Runner magazine.  "I think it's a mistake to copy someone else's training program.  Each athlete has different needs and abilities.  The important thing is the principles of the program," he counseled.

That's great advice.  One shouldn't blindly follow the advice in any book, including mine.  Weigh and analyze what the author has to say.  If common sense tells you it's good advice, adapt it to your special situation.  And above all, don't get so bogged down in the details that you miss the forest for the trees. 

I hope my advice helps my friend get his modeling contract, but even more, I hope he's now better prepared to analyze and solver future problems.  I'll know I succeeded if he shows up the next time with a list of two or three vital questions.


This article was taken from my book The Lean Advantage 3. It's still as timely as the day it was written. I know from the e-mails we receive every day that many people are searching for answers to questions about diet, exercise, health and longevity. They need the kind of sound and practical advice given in this article - and found in The Lean Advantage question-and-answer series. For more examples of the articles found in The Lean Advantage I, 2 & 3, see articles 26 a, b and c above. 

To encourage people to discover the veritable treasure chest of valuable information in the The Lean Advantage series, we offer a special on all three books: $30 + $8 shipping ($38.00 total) - for foreign postage check ordering page. If the books were purchased separately they would cost $53.85, including shipping, so the savings is almost $16. To order your set call (505) 266-5858 during normal business hours (8-5 M-F) or fax your credit card order to (505) 266-9123 (24 hours). If you've ordered recently and we have your credit card information (including correct expiration date), just send us an email. (For more information on The Lean Advantage series, click on "Products" below.)

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