For the majority of my training life I have heard, preached, and attempted to practice the principle that “less is more”. My first introduction to this concept was through Charlie Francis’ book, Speed Trap. Charlie titled a chapter “Less is More” and it had a strong impact on me. My memory of the basic premise for that chapter was that Charlie had spoken to the coaches (primarily from the Eastern Bloc countries) who had the most success about their methods and through applying them he found what worked and what didn’t. The other part of the story, in my memory, is that Charlie noticed what was happening to his athletes and who was succeeding and who was not.
What Charlie noticed was that his first “star” athlete, Angella Issajenko, would often do everything that she was told to do, she loved to work hard, and she would often become stale or injured. Angella would take the workouts as they were written and do the whole thing to the last rep regardless of the reactions of her body (Charlie stopped writing workouts on paper specifically because of this). Ben Johnson, his second and more well known “star” athlete, would often back out of workouts he didn’t like with the refrain “foot hurt” (foot being a general patois term for any part of the body from the hip down to the floor). Ben also negotiated with Charlie to remove any runs over 200 metres from his training as he felt they took too much out of him. Ben was not “lazy”, but he would not do more than he had to. As history has shown us, under the same coach and (because some readers may point to this as the primary factor in the success of both athletes) the same doping protocol, the athlete who found ways to do less work and would not forcibly do more than was necessary had more success and less injuries (I am referring to Ben Johnson here). Charlie noticed this and began adjusting Angella’s(and other athletes) training accordingly. Through anecdotal experience, Charlie proved that less is more. In applying the “less is more” philosophy, Charlie would regularly stop training sessions if an athlete achieved a personal best or showed a considerable drop in performance. The other point I would like to make about Charlie’s influence on me, before I move on, is that he told my training partner that whatever had provided him with the most success is what he should continue doing (in this case it was hill sprints). This is an important point to remember as not everyone will respond to the ‘”perfect protocol” and a good coach/teacher is often required for the guidance they can provide to help a given individual make the “perfect plan” work for them. (if you would like to read a bit more about Charlie and the distillation of some of his principles click here and here)
In my current, exploding, exploration of effective training methods brings the principle of “less is more” up again and again. I am reading Tim Ferriss’ book, The Four Hour Body and the major premise of his book is optimizing results. He invokes the Pareto Principle that suggests that you will get 80% of your results from 20% of your work (this is likely an over-simplification of the principle). Ferriss also uses the principle of the Minimum Effective Dose (MED). The basic idea is that the MED is the smallest amount of input that can be made for the desired output/result. In terms of training, the MED is the smallest amount of work that can be done to produce the desired performance outcome. While reading Ferriss’ blog, I came across a post written by Pavel Tsatsouline.
Mr. Tsatsouline provides a wonderful explanation of his father’s training program that highlights anecdotal proof that “less is more”.
I am finding proof from various locations that reaching a goal often requires less work then we are conditioned to think. The idea of doing a 1 hour workout as the gold standard often creates a situation where people are guided to do a lot of extraneous work that has no direct impact on their outcome goals. I perceive my socio-cultural surroundings to be providing a large amount of pressure to do work by the hour instead of by the outcome (it is ingrained in jobs and in services). This pressure to perform tasks on the clock in a standardized way (think Taylorism) leads to standardized protocols and provides little motivation for people to develop the skills or the means to reach goals outside of the commonly prescribed models (one could argue that standardization may be creating a society that trains people for mediocrity). I have seen this in my education, in the realm of training, even in the clinical setting (that’s right folks, people that work in clinics are often not trained to look past what they are accustomed to or forced to provide generalized care as the time constraints placed on them through business protocols does not allow them to truly determine the cause of an issue or an effective treatment plan…as well as the fact that the longer a patient is in a clinic the more money they pay, your desired results are often slowed by the business model of the clinic you are in). I guess the point I am trying to make is that the current and, I would say, dominant mode of socio-cultural thinking provides a strong impetus for people to find ways to justify being paid for time by adding extraneous work (I am concerned primarily with physical training here, but this comment is likely applicable to many other areas) that has nothing to do with reaching a goal and everything to do with making things take longer (think Parkinson’s Law).
I am toying with some ideas in relation to focusing on the results with clients instead of time. Based on my clinical experience (a time based model and one that exists within a gym setting) I can see the possibility for people to be resistant to the idea of doing less work for more results as many people show the penchant for believing that the more time spent in the gym the closer they will get to their results. I have seen this idea fail over and over and have had a very hard time convincing people that they should stop their exercise before they are exhausted. I aim to advise people to stop their exercise based on the fact that being zapped at the end of a workout means you have quite a bit of recovering to do. It is physiologically expensive to recover (it takes a lot of work for your body to get back to”normal”/homeostasis after kicking your own butt) from hard work. If you are looking to change something you are best to use the least amount of energy so that you have the most resources available to perform the physiological (internal) processes that will allow your body to change and adapt in the direction that you desire. I am hoping that if you read this post you will be receptive to the idea of doing as little as possible to achieve your goals! I am in the process of investigating more methods to help people transform their bodies in more efficient ways and plan to help as many people as I am able improve their musculo-skeletal and physiological health through as little exercise as possible. I am very averse to wasting people’s time with unnecessary work (including my own – I do everything I can to avoid extra training volume, I have developed a keen sense for when my performance will drop off and I avoid work beyond that point like the plague). I hope to maximize results and time for as many people as I am able to help!