Sparing Principle

This is a principle, created by the famous 3 times Mr. Olympia – Frank Zane.

It is a principle, that is best used by middle aged/older trainees. However, the ideas of the principle can be applied by beginners, advanced and elite athletes.

The main idea of the sparing principle, is reducing and removing everything that’s not needed in our workout.

If we accept that the bodybuilding success is achieved mainly by using a correct training approach, logically, this principle would imply achieving maximized morpho-functional development with a minimum number of workouts.

The aspects of this simple formula, can successfully be applied to the separate training parameters, nutrition, recovery, etc.

Mind-to-Muscle connection

It’s well known that a workout, where you’re active and concentrated for 45-60 minutes, using the optimal intensity of 70~85%, would have a much better stimulus for the musculature, compared to a messy, volume-rich workout.

One set where you’re completely focused is a hundred times better than 3 sets where you were distracted by something and couldn’t focus completely. In order to achieve this perfect ‘mind-to-muscle’ connection however, you need to prepare yourself beforehand.

One of the good ways to prepare yourself towards a successful, optimally focused workout, is meditating before you step into the gym.

Even a short meditation before physical activity, will accumulate the mental energy that you need, in order to be as efficient as possible during the workout.

As we said, you can not just lay down on the bench and go through the motion, rep after rep. You need to focus and feel how the muscle works.

Other tips

Something else that can help you focus during your workout, is avoiding the useless conversations in between your sets, even if those conversations are on the topics of bodybuilding. Simply because, that does not create the needed mobilization and hinders the optimal recovery time windows.

This, of course, leads to a set, during which you are distracted by the bunch of topics you covered with another gym rat during your precious 2-3 minutes of rest. We should rather focus on preparing ourselves towards the next set during the couple of minutes in between.

How do top athletes achieve focus?

According to 8-time Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney, a trainee has achieved the perfect focus, once they don’t even notice their friends talking to them, during a set.

A psyching method, used by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is self-inducing, “life or death” fear, while working out. Instilling the fear in his mind, he imagined being under critical circumstances, fighting unknown enemies or wild animals.

So, for example, when Arnold did wide grip lat pull-downs, he pictured grabbing a bull by the horns and fighting it.

Such motivation is completely appropriate, due to the fact, that during critical stress situations, the survival instincts of the body, boost a number of hormone mechanisms in the organism. This leads to a maximum mobilization of the musculature, as a protective reaction.

Frank Zane was not so extreme when it came to maintaining focus during the workout. He preferred simple means of concentration, like stretching in between sets. This allowed him to keep his muscles warmed up, flexible and pumped.

This way, he also managed to avoid the distracting questions of other trainees in the gym. According to Zane, we should avoid discussions about training, while in the gym, and rather find a place and time outside of the training room.

Here, we can say that the sparing principle’s main idea, is training less frequently, but harder. Of course, as we mentioned, we are gonna need to exclude some useless things, as well as apply certain mental qualities that we have, in order to achieve optimal focus and motivation.

However, we should not reach extremes and copy paste the training approaches of top-level bodybuilders, like Dorian Yates’ ‘one working set per exercise’ (Which, in fact, he considers the last, most intense set in the pyramid, and that, is something very, very different.)


The sparing principle can be applied to our nutrition in a couple of aspects.

The main thing to note, is taking in less animal fats, while we have a balanced intake of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fluids. Doing that, we reach our “golden state”, during which we are leaner, more separated and closer to our top shape.

The surplus of energy will force the trainee to increase the training load.

At the same time however, the deficit of nutrients, especially carbohydrates and proteins, will force the organism to use the already synthesized muscle protein.

This leads to a catabolic state of degradation, which is not our goal. At all.

It’s well known that during the first 6-12 months of training, the trainee should follow the given principles and methods for beginner athletes. However, after this period, the trainee needs to define his goals, individual characteristics, motivation levels and tailor his/hers training and nutrition regimen, according to their individuality.

Unfortunately, there are no pre-written individual regimens, which means we need to conduct rational experiments while working out, to find out what’s best for us.


Practically, this principle is best applied, once we have the fundamental, specialized knowledge, that will help us efficiently reach the most appropriate, individual methodologies, as well as nutrition and recovery approaches.

As we already mentioned, Frank Zane addressed the sparing principle mainly to trainees in their middle/advanced age. In connection to that, we should know that after the age of 40, there’s a certain disruption in the functions of the muscle-energetic processes.

All of this, combined with the decrease in functionality of the cardio-respiratory system, as well as the progressive endocrine system disruption, leads to an overall lower level of muscle functionality.

These degenerative, but inevitable processes, hinder the mechanisms, that cause the body to use fat as energy. Additionally, the fact that the growth hormone secretion (the hormone that engages the body to use fat as energy) decreases with age, puts us at a risk of cardio-vascular issues, in case we have a higher amount of fatty acids in our blood.

Fortunately, the good news here is that the functional physical training, for people in middle and advanced age, sharpens the adaptational and functional capabilities of the skeletal musculature. This, therefore, increases the ability of the organism to utilize the fatty acids, which boosts the metabolism and oxygen consumption.

From a methodical point of view, all of this leads to a decrease of the lactic acid, if we are consistent with our training. This is very important to note, as the lactic acid, in big quantities, has a bad, degrading effect on the aged organism.

All of the things regarding optimal nutrition, mentioned to young athletes, apply even more to adults.

Compensating for the needless, excessive amounts of calories by prolonging your physical activity, is impeded by the quick exhaustion of the natural antioxidants, like vitamin E.

While for young trainees, such compensations are not rational, for an adult it would be merely impossible. In other words, the non-acceptance of these objective, aging processes means that the sparing principle is dangerously ignored.

It’s good to know that the involutive (aging) processes, lead to changes that lower the cerebral blood flow, as well as the oxygen and nutrient consumption in the brain tissue. This, in the end of the day, causes the respective changes, leading to a weakly pronounced mental resistance and power of the individual.

As we have mentioned before, the overall higher levels of physical activity, have a positive effect on the synchronization of the brain rhythmic, via an improved blood flow and nerve cell trophy, in the following order:

  1. Dynamic exercises for the upper body limbs
  2. Dynamic exercises for the lower body limbs
  3. Aerobic workout
  4. Isometric exercises

We can note that the more we age, the more we observe a loss of elasticity in our lower body blood vessels, compared to the upper body.

Additionally, for adults, the blood pressure, in both the small and big circles of blood circulation, is higher, compared to younger athletes. All of this, looked at through the prism of our sparing principle, imposes an even more individual and differentiated methodology for the lower body of old athletes.

That certain approach is highlighted by the lower levels of intensity, higher volume and the fact that extreme exhaustion is not reached.


As a conclusion, we can say that this principle is the optimal balance in the overall preparation, that grants a prolonged bodybuilding prosperity, that is based on science.

The sparing principle, as well as the instinctive principle, are not only linked to our training, but can also be applied for all-round prosperity.

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