The Tortoise Protocol for Strength Training

Back in grade school they used to tell us this story of the tortoise and the hare. I assume you know it—you can look it up otherwise. I could have recited the story to you from heart, but I never got it, not until I was on the verge of middle age and looked back at a long list of projects I had started with great enthusiasm and great investment of time, and sometimes sustained for a while, but let drop eventually.

Now more than ever we live in a society of hares. The only gratification is immediate gratification. The 160-year-old technology of Morse code is faster than text messaging (do a search on Morse code vs text messaging for a demonstration), but nobody does Morse code any more, because it takes time and effort to master (what a wild concept, huh?).

Yes, I know, I'm just an old curmudgeon.

When it comes to pursuing an exercise program, there's another way the hare can get tripped up besides mere laziness or distraction, and that's by getting injured. The more enthusiasm the hare starts out with, the more likely this is to happen. An injury can set you back weeks or even years while you wait for it to heal. I myself first got seriously into weight training during a time that I had to give up running because of a foot injury. Since then, I've had my share of injuries from weight training. This is due to the following inconvenient fact of nature:

Your own muscles can exert enough force to damage your own joints.

This is as good an argument as I know against the theory of intelligent design. There is also the related glass-half-full principle:

Your joints can adapt to increasing load, but maybe not as fast as your muscles.

The Tortoise Protocol is a system I developed to make strength gains while minimizing the possibility of injury. Now, pay attention: I make


as to what will happen to you if you try this. However, I can report, based on my unscientific sample size of one, that I have used this approach to avoid injury while making strength gains (which is a nontrivial matter for someone, like myself, who has been weight training for over ten years)—not in some dramatic overnight transformation, but not at some painfully slow incremental rate, either. (The Japanese have the perfect expression dondon which refers to modest, but measured, steady progress [not to be confused with dandan, which means gradual]. )

Trust me, two years from now you won't care whether you made your gains in three months or six months or nine months. You'll care whether you were able to sustain the gains that you did make.

This system was heavily influenced by Bill Phillips' Body for Life method, which I have used in the past, and which I recommend you check out. The Tortoise Protocol is a little simpler, more detailed, and harder to get injured with.

Here's what I'm going to explain: How many sets to do, how many reps on each set, how to decide how much weight to use on each set, how long to rest between sets, how to decide when to increase the weight and by how much, how long a workout should be, how often to work out.

Here's what I'm not going to explain: what exercises to do (beyond some general principles—there are a hundred books and other resources out there for that) and what to do with your diet (which is very important—but there are even more resources for that).

In the following I want you to picture a dial in your head showing your effort level on a given exercise on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the legitimate utmost that you can put forth. This is approximate, but there are other elements of the system that will help you pin it down.


For each exercise you do six consecutive sets. We'll number these I through VI, and discuss them in order.

Set I: 10 reps. Choose a weight that lets you complete the whole set with a perceived effort level of about 5. Essentially this should amount to a mild warm-up.

Set II: 9 reps. Increase the weight 10% to 20% from Set I. The exact increase is likely to be dictated by circumstances. For example, suppose you completed Set I of whatever exercise with a dumbbell that weighs 70 pounds. 10% increase from 70 pounds is 77 pounds. 20% increase from 70 pounds is 84 pounds. Most likely your gym has neither a 77-pound dumbbell nor an 84-pound dumbbell, but perhaps it does have an 80-pound dumbbell—and that's the one you'll use. The same principle applies elsewhere when we talk about 10% to 20% increases or decreases.

Target perceived effort level for this set is 6.

Set III: 8 reps. Increase the weight 10% to 20% from Set II. Target perceived effort level for this set is 7.

Note well: this is the maximum weight you are going to use for this exercise, and you should be able to complete 8 reps with an effort level of 7 out of 10. In some special circumstances (described below) you might push the effort level to 8 or 8.5 but no more at this point. We are not talking go-for-broke, eyeball-bulging, vein-popping effort here.

Set IV: 12 reps. Reduce the weight to what it was for Set II and aim for a perceived effort level of 8.

Set V: 16 reps. Reduce the weight to what it was for Set I and aim for a perceived effort level of 9.

Set VI: 20 reps. Reduce the weight 10% to 20% from Set V and aim for a perceived effort level of 10. This is the time to go all-out. Ideally toward the end of Set VI and possibly Set V you should be feeling some serious burn.

I like this combination because it saves the strongest effort for the lightest weight, which minimizes your chance of injuring your joints; the high number of reps helps develop stamina, while still not neglecting some heavier weights for strength.

The "perceived effort level" is an approximate guideline. The pattern of increasing and decreasing weight provides a more precise guideline.


1. Aim for a one-minute rest between sets of the same exercise—but if you need a little longer to catch your breath, that's OK. The point is that muscle strength should be the limiting factor rather than wind.

2. Aim for a two-minute rest between one exercise and the next—but ditto ditto.

3. Total time for one exercise is therefore 8 to 10 minutes. Four or five different exercises chosen to work different muscle groups make for a respectable workout. I typically intersperse a couple of one-off sets like crunches, so my total workout time is about an hour.

4. Two or maybe three strength workouts per week suffices. On other days I run or mix it up with a different exercise. I have tried more frequent strength training but in this case more is not more—I found I could make faster progress with two days of rest (one, at least) between strength workouts.

5. If you never fail, you're not aiming high enough. If you find you are able to complete all six sets without undue strain, or even if you can reliably complete all reps of all sets for a given exercise, it's time to up the weight. Increase the weight for Set I (and therefore all the following sets) by the smallest increment your equipment allows.

Now one of two things will happen. Either you can complete all reps of all sets at the higher weight, or not. In the first case, great. Stay at this level for a few workouts and then increase the weight again. The second case—you can't complete all reps at all levels—is also fine. In this case, stay at the higher weight and make it your goal to successfully complete all reps of all sets. You might be working at a higher perceived effort level, but don't push too hard on Sets III and IV.

Once you manage to complete all sets at the higher level, you will know that you have become stronger.

6. When first starting out, use a weight level low enough to complete all sets with no sweat. Focus on getting the routine down, and then incrementally increase the weight level according to the guidelines in #5.

I think that's pretty much it. Any questions, ask me in the comments.

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