Q: For the past year and a half I've been training for about an hour a workout, six days a week. Unfortunately, I've made little progress in that time. Some of the other bodybuilders in the gym say I need to exercise longer to make better progress, but I'm already tired most of the time. What do you think?
A: Your advisers are misleading you. The principle "more is better" is often applied to economics, i.e., more money is always better than less money. However, you must avoid taking principles from one context, like economics, and blindly applying them to another context, such as bodybuilding. This mistake in thinking is called "context-switching" and is responsible for mistakes in many areas besides exercise. People make the same mistake when it comes to nutrition, thinking that if a little protein is good, then more must be better. This is not true, however.
The training element that stimulates muscular size and strength increases is known as intensity, which is defined as the percentage of momentary muscular effort. The closer one carries a set of an exercise to a point of momentary failure, the closer he or she is to 100% intensity of effort, and the greater the likelihood of results. If you can curl 100 pounds for a maximum of 10 reps, the tenth rep being the last possible one you can complete despite your greatest effort, the first rep will obviously be the easiest, require the least effort and hence, be the least productive. Each successive rep becomes harder, requiring a higher percentage of your greatest possible effort. The tenth, or last rep, demands an allout, "maximum intensity" effort and will thus be the most productive one of the set.
High-intensity effort is very demanding, and uses up more of the body's limited reserve of resources than any other type of training. It is this demanding nature of high-intensity training that makes it the most productive. You must be careful, however, as the body's reserves are limited. Performing one set more than the least number required to stimulate growth will result in overtraining and a reduction in results.
To discover the least amount of exercise required for you to stimulate growth, I suggest you start with the least amount possible, which is one set per muscle. Reduce your training frequency to twice and no more than three times a week. After a brief warm-up, do one exercise and no more than two for each bodypart. If you decide to work out twice a week (and I recommend this in the beginning), train your entire body each workout with no more than one set of six to 10 reps for each muscle, with the last rep being the last possible one you can perform despite your greatest effort.
Each workout should take no more than 30 minutes. If you eventually want to try three times a week, split the body in half for the first two workouts. For instance, do legs, back and biceps on Monday, chest, shoulders and triceps on Wednesday, and a full body workout on Friday, taking each weekend off for full recuperation. Stick to basic exercises such as squats, rows, incline benches, curls and dips, etc. Perform each set in perfectly strict form and resist the temptation to add more sets.
Your progress should be immediate and significant. If not, you're either not training hard enough, overtraining, or both. Good luck!