Under-Training Is The Secret To Building Muscle

World championships don't lie...

No pain, no gain. Wimps don’t win. No goal was ever met without a little sweat. What’s life without a dash of masochism?

We’ve all heard the expressions, on plaques dominating the walls of your gym, yelled by your unhinged PT; rattling round your skull as you complete the last rep of a painful set.

After years of soaking up this “it doesn’t count as a work out if you don’t smash yourself” mentality, HIIT classes and loud grunts have become the norm, and—apart from an elite few—most of us (especially those that are trying to build muscle) kill ourselves three times a week, and are forced to spend half the week recovering.

But according to Firas Zahibi, trainer of Georges St Pierre, a former UFC welterweight and middleweight world champion, this is a flawed approach—not just for people who are fit but, “For every human being.” On the renowned Joe Rogan podcast, he explained that this is due to your perceived rate of exertion, and how this affects your ability to grow muscle and learn new skills—essential for everyone from fighters like St Pierre, to your more aesthetic focussed Bondi bro.

“Let’s say the maximum amount of pull ups you can do is ten. If I pointed a gun at you you couldn’t do eleven. Should I make you do ten pull ups on our workout? No, I’m going to make you do five. Why? Because I’m setting you up to work the next day. And the next day we’re going to do five. And then the next day we’re going to do six. And then when six is really easy we’re going to do seven.”

Using the example of two gym goers keen to increase their strength over time, Firas unpacks his “consistency over intensity” philosophy: “If you did ten pull ups on Monday, you’re going to be sore ’til Thursday—if it is really your max. So between Monday and Thursday you’ve only done ten pull ups. Me? I’ve been doing five pull ups every day, so I’m at 20/25 pull ups already; I have more volume than you.”

“Now if you add up at the end of the year, who trained more, I’ve trained way more than you.”

According to him, success in the weight room (or the Octagon) comes down to, “How much training can we pack into the week (without getting sore), and how much volume can you expose your athlete to.” And under-training, or training consistently below your max, he says, has another benefit: “Exercise can produce energy.”

“Let’s say I’m feeling a seven out of ten. If I get up and I do the right amount of exercise, I can feel like an eight point five—exercise can give me a tonic effect. But once you get that high: shut it down. Don’t go into that phase where your body is beat up, tight and broken up; don’t redline the body—that’s only for training camps for a small period of time.”

At this point Firas admits that it is useful to push yourself to your max occasionally, “Because you get a little bit more from the system,” but maintains that, in the long run you get less, if you over-tax your bodily systems: “If you do that regularly, by the time you actually get good you’ll be broken up. Thats why I do a lot of flow training.”

Given the phenomenal success of Firas’ athletes, and the fact that most gym memberships these days cost a bomb, we’d say make the most of the facilities. Go every day, have “fun” if you can, and please report back. In the meantime we’ll be eating ice cream with neither intensity nor consistency…

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