The question as to how much strength training volume is needed to maximize muscular gains has been an ongoing source of debate, both in scientific circles as well as the realm of social media. Some claim that a very low volume approach is all that's required while others subscribe to the b...
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July 25, 2016
The question as to how much strength training volume is needed to maximize muscular gains has been an ongoing source of debate, both in scientific circles as well as the realm of social media. Some claim that a very low volume approach is all that’s required while others subscribe to the belief that marathon training sessions are an absolute necessity.
Who’s right? Well…
Back in 2010, my colleague James Krieger carried out a meta-analysis to provide evidence-based clarity on the topic. In case you’re not aware, a meta-analysis pools data from all relevant studies on a given subject to provide greater statistical power and thus enhance the ability to draw practical inferences from the literature. In short, the analysis showed that performance of multiple sets was associated with a 40% greater hypertrophy-related effect size (a statistical measure of the meaningfulness of results) compared to single-set training.
While this paper provided good evidence in support of higher training volumes, there were some issues with the analysis. For one, James only looked at sets per muscle per workout; a potentially more important marker in determining the hypertrophic response is the weekly volume per muscle group. Moreover, only 8 studies qualified for inclusion in James’ analysis at the time, and only 3 of these studies used direct site-specific measures of muscle growth (i.e. MRI, ultrasound, etc).
Since publication of James’ meta-analysis, a number of additional studies have been published in the peer-reviewed literature. Given this info and in an attempt to resolve previous issues, James and I decided it was appropriate to carry out a follow-up meta-analysis that encompassed all the evidence to date. We recruited our colleague Dan Ogborn to collaborate on the project, and centered our focus on the effects of weekly sets per muscle group on changes in muscle mass. I’m happy to report the paper was recently published in the Journal of Sport Sciences.
Here’s the lowdown:
What We Did
A literature search was conducted to locate all studies that directly compared measures of hypertrophy between higher versus lower resistance training volumes with all other variables equated between conditions. Only human studies with healthy subjects that had a minimum duration of six weeks were considered for inclusion.
What We Found
A total of 15 studies were identified that met inclusion criteria. We ran multiple comparisons to assess the topic from different perspectives. First we evaluated the effects of volume within each study and found that higher volumes were associated with a 3.9% greater average increase compared to lower volumes; the findings were statistically significant (i.e. high probability that they weren’t due to chance alone). As shown in the accompanying forest plot, only 1 of the 15 studies showed a favorable effect for lower volume training, emphasizing the high probability that greater volumes produce greater increases in muscle growth.
We next looked at the effects of volume on a two-level categorical basis, splitting the data into performing less than 9 sets versus 9 sets or more. In this model, the lower volume condition was associated with a gain of 5.8% while the higher volume condition produced a gain of 8.2%. Although the results did not reach statistical significance in this model, the probability of an effect was nevertheless very high (p = 0.076).
Finally, we employed a three-level categorical analysis whereby volume was stratified into less than 5 weekly sets per muscle, 5 to 9 weekly sets per muscle, and 10+ sets per muscle. Here we found a graded dose response whereby gains in muscle progressively increased across each category from 5.4% to 6.6% to 9.8%, respectively. As with the two-level model, results did not quite reach significance, but a high level of confidence can be inferred that results were not due to chance alone (p = 0.074).
What are the Practical Implications
There are several important take-aways from our meta-analysis. First off, a low volume approach can build appreciable muscle. Performing less than 5 weekly sets per muscle produced an average hypertrophic gain of 5.4%. Not too shabby. So if you are time-pressed and not concerned about achieving the upper limits of your muscular potential, it should be heartening to know that you can build an impressive physique without spending a lot of time in the gym.
That said, there is a clear dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy. In the three way categorical model, performing 10+ sets produced almost twice the gains as performing less than 5 weekly sets per muscle (9.8% vs 5.4%). Performing 10+ weekly sets per muscle was also associated with a markedly greater increase in muscle mass compared to 5-9 sets (9.8% vs 6.6%). Thus, a higher volume approach is clearly necessary if you want to maximize muscular gains.
So how many sets should you perform to maximize hypertrophy? That remains to be determined. While 10+ weekly sets per muscle was established as a minimum threshold, we were not able to determine an upper threshold where optimal muscle growth is achieved. The effects of volume on hypertrophy undoubtedly follows an inverted-U curve, whereby results progressively increase up to a certain point, then level off, and then ultimately decrease at exceedingly high volumes due to the negative consequences of overtraining. Moreover, the adaptive response to volume will be specific to the individual, with some lifters able to benefit from higher volumes more so than others. Thus, experimentation is needed to tweak the number of sets you perform based on how you respond.
It may well be that periodized approach is best here. Given that repeatedly training with high volumes can lead to an overtrained state, cycling from lower to higher volume blocks that culminate in a brief period of functional overreaching would hypothetically allow for sustained muscular gains over time while staving off the potential for overtraining. It’s a strategy that I’ve employed with good success when working with clients.
Interestingly, a previous study indicated that higher volumes were beneficial for the lower but not upper body musculature. A follow-up study by the same research group similarly found that satellite cell activation was dependent on volume only in the lower body musculature. However, our pooled analysis did not support these findings. Rather, volume was equally important irrespective of body region, with higher volumes translating into greater increases in size.
A limitation of the analysis is that the findings are largely specific to the muscles of the upper arms and frontal thighs; there simply isn’t enough evidence to generalize results to other body regions (i.e. muscles of the back, shoulders, chest, calves, etc). What’s more, the vast majority of studies were carried out in untrained subjects; only two studies used resistance-trained individuals. It has been speculated that increasingly higher volumes are necessary as one gains lifting experience, but more research is needed to support such a conclusion. My lab currently has a large scale study in development to investigate the topic in well-trained men that should help to fill in the gaps in the current literature. Stay tuned…
July 23, 2016
A long-held belief in bodybuilding circles is that your body can only absorb a fairly small amount of protein in a single feeding. The exact dosage varies depending on who you listen to, but it’s generally purported to be somewhere around 20-30 grams of protein per meal.
While the claim is often taken as gospel, let’s take a close look at the research to draw evidence-based conclusions on the topic.
First and foremost, it’s important to note that from a nutritional standpoint the term “absorption” refers to the passage of nutrients from the gut into circulation – and in this context, there is virtually no limit to protein absorption. Once digested, the constituent amino acids of a given protein are transported through the intestinal cells (enterocytes) and then enter the bloodstream – pretty much all the amino acids consumed become available for use by tissues. The only potential issue with absorption is when you ingest individual free-form amino acids, as this can cause competition at the enterocytes whereby the amino acids present in the highest concentrations are absorbed at the expense of those that are less concentrated (6).
The more relevant question here is whether there’s in an upper limit to how much protein your body can use for muscle-building purposes. This question is a lot more complex and an evidence-based answer requires a good deal of extrapolation based on the limitations of current research.
Some researchers have proposed that muscle protein synthesis tops out at approximately 20-25 grams of protein per serving for young adults. Protein consumed above this dosage is thought to be oxidized for energy rather than used for tissue-building purposes – a phenomenon called the “muscle-full” effect (11). In what is often cited as the definitive support for this contention, Areta et al (1) investigated the effect of different protein boluses on resistance-trained men. All subjects performed a bout of resistance training and were then confined to rest where they consumed 80 grams of protein over a 12 hour recovery period in one of the following three conditions: 8 servings of 10 grams every 1.5 hours; 4 servings of 20 grams every 3 hours; or 2 servings of 40 grams every 6 hours. Over the course of the recovery period, the greatest effect on stimulation of muscle protein synthesis was seen in the group consuming 4 servings of 20 grams of protein. This would seem to indicate that there was no added benefit to consuming the higher dosage (40 grams), and that the additional amino acids were indeed oxidized for energy.
Case closed, right?
Not so fast.
Several variables influence the metabolism of protein and amino acids including the composition of the given protein source, the composition of the meal, and the dose of the protein or amino acids consumed (4). Individual factors such as age, training status, and the amount of lean body mass also come into play. The subjects in the Areta et al study consumed only whey protein during the post-workout period. Whey is a fast-acting protein, with an absorption rate estimated to be up to 10 grams an hour (4). A 20 gram whey bolus therefore would be completely absorbed in a two hour period. Although this rapid assimilation can transiently spike rates of muscle protein synthesis, it also causes a greater oxidation of the constituent amino acids and thus can result in a lower net protein accretion compared to a slow-absorbing protein source (5). On the other hand, cooked egg protein is absorbed at a rate of approximately 3 grams an hour (4). Thus, the same 20 gram protein bolus consumed as an omelet would take over 7 hours for full absorption, potentially allowing for a greater per-meal dosage without causing undue amino acid oxidation. Moreover, in real life you’ll generally be consuming whole foods that contain a combination of carbs and fats along with the protein component. This substantially slows down digestion, resulting in a much more time-released effect on amino acids into the body. In addition, the study only provided only 80 grams of protein over the course of the day to a group of resistance-trained men. This amounts to less than ½ gram per pound of body mass – well below the amount needed to maximize post-workout muscle protein synthesis (9).
A recent study by Kim et al (7) provides contrary evidence on the topic. Subjects came to the lab on two separate occasions: during one session they consumed 40 grams of beef protein and in the other session they consumed 70 grams of the same protein source. One group consumed the protein after a total-body resistance training bout while another did so in the absence of exercise. Results showed that while both conditions promoted increases in whole body nitrogen balance – a marker of anabolism – the higher protein intake resulted in a significantly greater anabolic response, which was largely attributed to a greater reduction in protein breakdown. A major difference between this study and that of Areta et al (1) is that subjects consumed mixed meals containing not only protein, but carbohydrates and dietary fats as well. Thus, the transit time of protein release would necessarily be much slower in this study, potentially accounting for dose-dependent differences in anabolism.
A limitation of the Kim et al study is that measures of anabolism were not specific to muscle but rather taken at the whole-body level. It is likely that much of the superior anabolic response noted with the higher protein intake was from tissues other than muscle, most notably the gut. However, protein turnover in the gut can allow these additional amino acids to be released into the bloodstream and subsequently used for muscle protein synthesis. The extent to which this phenomenon affects muscle-building is not clear, but it conceivably provides the potential for enhanced muscular gains.
While the results of the aforementioned studies provide a sound basis for speculation, it is important to note that measures of acute muscle protein synthesis do not necessarily correlate with muscular gains achieved from consistent lifting (10). To get a true grasp on the upper limit to protein intake in a single sitting, we need to look at long-term training studies that measure actual changes in lean mass.
Several studies have endeavored to investigate the effects of per-meal protein dosage on body composition over time. Arnal et al (2) found that feeding elderly women the bulk of their daily protein (79%) in a single meal (skewed condition) promoted greater retention of lean body mass versus spreading out consumption evenly over four daily meals (spread condition). A follow-up study by the same lab found no differences between skewed and spread protein feedings in a cohort of young women (3). The combined findings suggest that at the very least, consuming the majority of daily protein as a large bolus is not detrimental to lean mass accretion. Unfortunately, total protein intake in these studies was on the low side (~1 g/kg/day), and none employed a resistance training program. Thus, it is difficult to generalize findings to resistance-trained individuals seeking to maximize muscle mass.
Studies on intermittent fasting shed additional light on the topic. These protocols generally involve consumption of nutrients in a very limited time-frame – usually less than 8 hours – followed by a prolonged fast. A recent systematic review found that the majority of intermittent fasting protocols had similar effects on lean body mass compared to traditional eating patterns (12). But again, the studies involve suboptimal protein intakes without a resistance training component – and here the subjects were all in a caloric deficit. Not very applicable to the hard-training lifter.
Considering the limitations of the body of literature, here’s the take-home message based on current evidence: While certainly a threshold exists beyond which protein will be oxidized for energy rather than used for tissue-building purposes, the amount appears to be well above the often cited 20-30 gram limit provided that nutrients are obtained from whole-food based mixed meals. Given that the anabolic effect of a protein-rich meal lasts approximately 5-6 hours (8), a good rule-of-thumb for maximizing muscle growth would is to consume a minimum of 3-4 evenly distributed daily meals containing at least 30 grams of a high quality protein. Within these boundaries, it probably doesn’t matter how you allocate the rest of your protein consumption on a per-meal basis – just make sure you take in close to a gram per pound of body weight per day.
1. Areta, JL, Burke, LM, Ross, ML, Camera, DM, West, DW, Broad, EM, Jeacocke, NA, Moore, DR, Stellingwerff, T, Phillips, SM, Hawley, JA, and Coffey, VG. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. J. Physiol. 591: 2319-2331, 2013.
2. Arnal, MA, Mosoni, L, Boirie, Y, Houlier, ML, Morin, L, Verdier, E, Ritz, P, Antoine, JM, Prugnaud, J, Beaufrere, B, and Mirand, PP. Protein pulse feeding improves protein retention in elderly women. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 69: 1202-1208, 1999.
3. Arnal, MA, Mosoni, L, Boirie, Y, Houlier, ML, Morin, L, Verdier, E, Ritz, P, Antoine, JM, Prugnaud, J, Beaufrere, B, and Mirand, PP. Protein feeding pattern does not affect protein retention in young women. J. Nutr. 130: 1700-1704, 2000.
4. Bilsborough, S, and Mann, N. A review of issues of dietary protein intake in humans. Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 16: 129-152, 2006.
5. Dangin, M, Boirie, Y, Guillet, C, and Beaufrere, B. Influence of the protein digestion rate on protein turnover in young and elderly subjects. J. Nutr. 132: 3228S-33S, 2002.
6. Gropper, SS, Smith, JL, and Groff, JL. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. Belmont, CA; Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.
7. Kim, IY, Schutzler, S, Schrader, A, Spencer, HJ, Azhar, G, Ferrando, AA, and Wolfe, RR. The anabolic response to a meal containing different amounts of protein is not limited by the maximal stimulation of protein synthesis in healthy young adults. Am. J. Physiol. Endocrinol. Metab. 310: E73-80, 2016.
8. Layman, DK. Protein quantity and quality at levels above the RDA improves adult weight loss. J. Am. Coll. Nutr. 23: 631S-636S, 2004.
9. Lemon, PW, Tarnopolsky, MA, MacDougall, JD, and Atkinson, SA. Protein requirements and muscle mass/strength changes during intensive training in novice bodybuilders. J. Appl. Physiol. 73: 767-775, 1992.
10. Mitchell, CJ, Churchward-Venne, TA, Parise, G, Bellamy, L, Baker, SK, Smith, K, Atherton, PJ, and Phillips, SM. Acute post-exercise myofibrillar protein synthesis is not correlated with resistance training-induced muscle hypertrophy in young men. PLoS One 9: e89431, 2014.
11. Morton, RW, McGlory, C, and Phillips, SM. Nutritional interventions to augment resistance training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Front. Physiol. 6: 245, 2015.
12. Seimon, RV, Roekenes, JA, Zibellini, J, Zhu, B, Gibson, AA, Hills, AP, Wood, RE, King, NA, Byrne, NM, and Sainsbury, A. Do intermittent diets provide physiological benefits over continuous diets for weight loss? A systematic review of clinical trials. Mol. Cell. Endocrinol. 418 Pt 2: 153-172, 2015.
June 7, 2016
Wanted to keep you updated on all that is going on at the moment. So much to share!
In case you haven’t heard, my newest consumer book called Strong and Sculpted, was released a few weeks ago. Happy to report it’s been the top-selling new book in Amazon.com’s “weight training” category and has gotten stellar reviews from consumers and pros alike. It’s a scientifically-based handbook for optimizing muscle development, providing step-by-step guidelines for program design. Check it out! In addition, my upcoming textbook called, Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy, is scheduled to be released at the end of the month. It will be the first text to provide an evidence-based perspective on muscle growth, covering all the research and its practical implications. If you’d like to be amongst the first to receive the book, it’s now available for pre-order on Amazon.com at a 20% discount.
I have a number of speaking engagements schedule for this summer. First up is Bropocalypse 2016 taking place on June 11th and 12th in Sydney, Australia. I’ll be speaking with uber-colleagues Alan Aragon, Bret Contreras, and James Krieger on what will be a terrific weekend of evidence-based learning. Next up is the NSCA National Conference in New Orleans this July, where I’ll speak on loading strategies for maximizing muscular gains. Then comes the CanFitPro World Expo in Toronto, Canada where I’ll be speaking on a number of fitness- and nutrition-related topics, as well as doing a book sign at the expo. Finally, at the end of August I’ll be in Oslo, Norway at the AFPT Fitness Convention along with some of the best and brightest minds in fitness. Last year’s event was a sell-out so if you’re planning to attend book early!
May 29, 2016
Training frequency is one of the most hotly debated topics in the field of resistance training. While traditionally the term frequency has been associated with how many days a week you work out, a potentially more important variable is the number of times a given muscle group is trained per week.
The internet is littered with varying opinions as to optimal training frequency for maximizing muscle hypertrophy. Some preach the typical bodybuilding “bro-split” which involves training each muscle group once a week with high volumes per session, whereas others propose training each muscle as many as 6 days a week with lower per-session volumes is the best way to get jacked. Problem is, all these opinions are largely anecdotal with limited scientific support. Seems hard to believe, but there hasn’t been a whole lot of research on the topic, and the studies that have been carried out have employed a variety of methodological designs that makes it difficult to sort out a conclusion at face value.
In an attempt to achieve better clarity on the effects of frequency on muscle growth, I recently collaborated on a meta-analysis with colleagues James Krieger and Dan Ogborn. In case you’re not aware, a meta-analysis pools data from all studies on a given subject to provide greater statistical power and thus enhance the ability to draw practical inferences.
Here’s the lowdown:
What We Did
A literature search was conducted to locate all studies that directly compared measures of hypertrophy for different weekly lifting frequencies using traditional resistance training programs. Only human studies with healthy subjects were considered, and study duration had to last a minimum of four weeks.
A total of 10 studies were identified that met inclusion criteria. 7 of the studies, comprising a total of 200 subjects, investigated muscle group frequency while the other 3 studies assessed training session frequency when the number of weekly times working a muscle group was matched.
What We Found
We first looked at the effects of frequency as a binary predictor. Simply stated, this means that the higher frequency condition in a study was compared to the lower frequency condition, irrespective of how many days a week the muscle group was trained. Thus, a 2 day-a-week vs 1 day-a-week was treated the same as a 3 day-a-week vs 1 day-a-week. In this model, there was a clear benefit for higher frequency training of a muscle group. The effect size – a measure of the meaningfulness of results – was 48% greater for the higher frequency conditions (0.49 vs 0.30, respectively), translating into an average hypertrophy increase of 6.8% versus 3.7% for higher vs lower frequencies, respectively. Moreover, as shown in the accompanying chart, every study on the topic showed a benefit to training with higher frequencies.
Due to an insufficient number of studies looking at training 1, 2, or 3 days per week, we were unable to produce reliable estimates on the hypertrophic effects of specific lifting frequencies. Similarly, with only 3 studies looking at training session frequency when groups were matched for frequency of training per muscle group, data was insufficient to produce reliable estimates for effects on hypertrophy.
What are the Practical Implications
The primary take-away from the meta-analysis is that there appears to be a pretty clear benefit to training muscle groups with higher weekly frequencies. At the very least, the study shows that training a minimum of 2 days a week is needed to maximize muscle growth. Unfortunately there simply aren’t enough studies to make more concrete determinations as to the precise number of times that a muscle should be trained each week for optimal growth. Nevertheless, training a muscle just once a week was shown to promote substantial muscle growth. So the claims made by some that the typical bro-split only works for juiced-up bodybuilders are patently false.
It’s important to realize that research studies are relatively short-term, usually lasting 6 to 12 weeks. Problem is, you can’t necessarily extrapolate that results found would continue over time. This is particularly true of a variable such as frequency, as high training frequencies may ultimately lead to an overtrained state and thus have a negative impact on muscle development. Given such a possibility, it may be prudent to periodize training frequency, varying the number of times a muscle is trained each week in a systematic fashion. It also indicates a potential benefit to instituting regular deload periods, where a week of reduced frequency, volume, and/or intensity is strategically integrated into your program every month or so to facilitate recuperation and regeneration.
Importantly, remember that research reports the average responses, but there are generally large inter-individual differences in results. Some may respond best to higher frequencies while others might do better with lower frequencies. Use research to guide your programming, then experiment to see what works best for you.
April 16, 2016
I was recently interviewed for an article by Men’s Health Magazine on how to target the lower aspect of the abdomninals. As discussed in the article, there is evidence that you can increase activation of the lower abdominal region by initiating a posterior pelvic tilt during performance of exercises such as the reverse crunch and hanging knee raise. Here is a video depicting proper performance:
Now what isn’t clear is whether the increased activation of the lower abs translates into greater muscle development over time. There is emerging research that muscle growth is correlated to the region of greatest activation, but the evidence is far from conclusive at this point. Taking all things into account, there is a potential benefit to performing targeted lower abdominal exercise for those seeking to maximize development in this region. It probably won’t make much of a meaningful difference for the average gym-goer, but for those who aspire to develop their physique to the utmost (i.e. bodybuilders) it may well provide a tangible benefit.
April 6, 2016
If you follow my work you’ll undoubtedly know that our lab has carried out a number of studies seeking to determine the effects of training in different repetition ranges on muscle strength and growth. The overall findings from these studies showed similar increases in hypertrophy between both heavy and moderate rep ranges, as well as moderate and high rep ranges.
However, the choice of rep ranges is not necessarily an either-or proposition; you can in fact combine strategies to potentially achieve greater hypertrophic benefits. Daily undulating periodization (DUP) routines are specifically designed for this purpose. However, no study to date had compared a varied rep approach to traditional constant-rep training using site-specific measures of muscle growth.
Our study, just published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, set out to investigate if muscular adaptations would differ between DUP-style routine and a traditional hypertrophy-style protocol. Here’s the scoop.
What We Did
Nineteen young men with over four years average resistance-training experience were randomly assigned to 1 of 2 experimental groups that trained 3 days per week: a constant-rep protocol (CONSTANT) that trained using a standard bodybuilding rep range of 8-12 RM per set, or a DUP-style varied-rep protocol (VARIED) that trained with 2-4 RM per set on Day 1, 8-12 RM per set on Day 2, and 20-30 RM on Day 3. All subjects performed a total-body routine consisting of the following seven exercises per session: flat barbell press, barbell military press, wide grip lat pulldown, seated cable row, barbell back squat, machine leg press, and machine knee extension. We tested subjects for changes in hypertrophy of the arm flexors, elbow flexors and quads, as well as maximal strength in the squat and bench press, and upper body muscle endurance. Training was carried out over an 8-week period, with testing done pre- and post-study.
What We Found
Both groups significantly increased markers of muscle strength, muscle thickness, and local muscular endurance. No statistically significant differences were found between conditions in any of the outcomes studied. Sounds like it really doesn’t matter which option you choose, right?
Well, not so fast…
It’s important to understand that the term “statistically significant” simply refers to the probability of results being due to chance at a predetermined level of 5%. This binary method of determining probability has been widely criticized by those in the know about statistics, who proclaim that practical conclusions cannot be drawn merely on the basis of whether a p-value passes a specific threshold. Rather, probability exists on a continuum, and in this regard the p-values (a measure of probability) in our study favored the VARIED condition in several outcome measures. Moreover, magnitude-based statistics (i.e. effect sizes) indicated a benefit to the VARIED condition for upper body hypertrophy, strength, and muscular endurance; no effect size differences were noted for lower body outcomes.
What are the Practical Implications
The study showed a potential benefit – albeit small – to varying repetitions across a spectrum of ranges for increasing upper body muscle strength and hypertrophy. Whether the differences between the varied versus constant rep approach seen in our study would amount to practically meaningful improvements is specific to the individual. For the average gym-goer it probably wouldn’t be of much consequence; alternatively, to a bodybuilder or competitive athlete it very well may. It’s not clear why these findings did not translate into similar differences in lower body muscular adaptions, but based on our findings either approach would seem to be an equally viable choice for leg training.
It’s important to note that this was a relatively short-term study, lasting a total of 8 weeks. When factoring in missed sessions, this means subjects in VARIED trained in each loading zone for a total of only 7-8 sessions over the course of the study period. If the differences in upper body outcomes favoring VARIED would persist over time – highly speculative but certainly possible – the magnitude of results could widen and thus be potentially meaningful for a wide array of fitness enthusiasts.
Another important point is that volume load was consistently lower across all conditions (pushing exercises, pulling exercises, leg exercises, and total volume of all exercises) in VARIED as compared to CONSTANT. This indicates that training in a varied fashion provides comparable or better results with less volume load than training at a constant 8-12 RM repetition range. It also suggests that if volume load were equated between conditions, there might have been even better results for the varied approach.
In sum, our study shows that both varied and constant loading schemes are viable strategies to increase strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. The data suggest a potential modest benefit to varying loading ranges over time, at least for maximizing upper body muscular adaptations. Importantly, findings clearly indicate that contrary to what many believe, training in the “hypertrophy zone” (6-12 RM) is not superior for building muscle. When considering the practical implications of the findings, remember that exercise prescription is always a function of the needs/abilities/goals of the individual.
February 14, 2016
Proper manipulation of program variables is essential for maximizing the hypertrophic response to resistance training. Variations in volume, loading and rest intervals all have been shown to impact muscular adaptations.
One variable that hasn’t received as much attention is lifting tempo – i.e. how fast you perform a repetition. When you’re using very heavy loads this is moot; although you’ll necessarily need to try to move the weight quickly, the actual concentric speed will be fairly slow. To illustrate this point, a study by Mookerjee and Ratamess found that the first concentric repetition of a 5RM bench press took 1.2 seconds to complete while the fourth and fifth repetitions took 2.5 and 3.3 seconds, respectively. These findings occurred despite subjects being instructed to perform the reps explosively.
When the loads are lightened, however, you have a lot more control over lifting cadence. A wide range of volitional tempos are possible depending on the magnitude of load. Recommendations on the topic are highly disparate depending on who you listen to. Some fitness pros advocate explosive lifts while others recommend slowing tempo down to where a single repetition takes 45 seconds to complete as seen in this video
In an effort to synthesize the evidence and gain clarity on the issue, I collaborated on a meta-analysis with uber-pros James Krieger and Dan Ogborn. The study titled, Effect of repetition duration during resistance training on muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis was recently published in the journal, Sports Medicine. In case you’re not aware, a meta-analysis pools data from all studies on a given topic and then statistically quantifies the results to provide a gauge of how meaningful the differences are between conditions.
Here’s the scoop.
What We Did
An extensive search of the literature was carried out for randomized controlled trials that directly compared the effects of different training tempos on muscle hypertrophy in healthy individuals. Studies had to last a minimum of 6 weeks and both groups had to perform reps to the point of momentary concentric muscle failure. A total of 8 studies comprising 204 total subjects ultimately met inclusion criteria – a surprisingly low number for such an important topic.
What We Found
There was no difference in hypertrophy between lifting durations of 2 to 6 seconds when using dynamic constant external resistance (typical free weights and machines). A single study using isokinetic dynamometry showed that durations of a half-second up to 8 seconds produced similar hypertrophy, although the generalizability of this study to traditional training methods is somewhat questionable.
There does seem to be a threshold as to how slow you can go, as evidence suggests that “superslow” lifting (i.e. durations above 10 seconds) is suboptimal for hypertrophy. The research on this topic is limited thereby making it difficult to draw firm conclusions, but a recent study found that a traditional speed group increased muscle cross sectional area by 39% compared to only 11% in a group performing reps at a tempo of 10 seconds up, 4 seconds down. These results held true despite an almost five-fold greater time-under-tension for the superslow group. A follow-up study by the same lab showed satellite cell content and myonuclear domain – important components in the ability to increase muscle mass over time – were substantially greater with traditional compared to superslow training. These findings are consistent with research showing that muscle activation is reduced up to 36% when training at very slow speeds (5 seconds concentric and eccentric). And since maximal hypertrophy is predicated on recruiting the full spectrum of muscle fibers and keeping them stimulated for a sufficient period of time, it is logical to speculate that training in a superslow fashion is inferior if your goal is to optimize muscular gains.
What are the Practical Implications
Current research indicates that a wide range of lifting durations can be used to maximize hypertrophy. Given the limited number of studies and their diverse methodology, however, the topic is far from settled. Based on the evidence it would seem prudent to take no more than about 3 seconds on the concentric portion of the movement. Beyond this cadence, you’d need to reduce the load to a point where it could negatively impact the ability to fully stimulate the highest threshold motor units. Eccentric actions should be performed so that the load is controlled against the forces of gravity; simply letting the weight drop fails to provide sufficient muscular tension for the majority of the action (and it also increases the risk of joint-related injury). As with concentric actions, there does not seem to be any advantage to slowing the movement down to more than about 3 seconds and it is possible that doing so might actually be detrimental to growth. I’d add that the reps should be carried out with sufficient control so that a mind-muscle connection can be established with the target musculature – the current body of evidence suggests that such a strategy is beneficial for maximizing muscle activation, which may in turn lead to greater gains.
I’ll note that the above recommendations are rather liberal, giving the benefit of doubt to somewhat slower tempos. My general feeling is that the concentric portion of a rep should be around 1-2 seconds – the most important thing here is to control of the weight by using an internal focus to visualize the target muscle as you lift. Although results of our meta-analysis showed no “statistically significant” differences in tempos up to 3 secs concentric, data from Tanimoto et al show a substantially greater effect size (a measure of the “meaningfulness” of results) for muscle growth favoring traditional (1 sec on concentric and eccentric – effect size 1.08) vs slower (3 secs concentric and eccentric – effect size 0.74) lifting cadences. It therefore would seem a slightly faster tempo is warranted, at least on multi-joint exercises
Could combining different repetition durations potentially enhance the hypertrophic response to training? It’s impossible to say as no study to date has investigated this possibility. As such, the best advice therefore is to experiment for yourself and see if this may spur additional growth. Remember: the best research often comes from what is learned in the trenches!
February 12, 2016
Wanted to keep you updated on all that is going on at the moment. So much to share!
First and foremost, I’m excited to announce that I have two soon-to-be-released books. One is a consumer book, called Strong and Sculpted, that’s targeted to women who want to optimize muscle development. The book details a complete periodized program to achieve this goal, combining the latest scientific evidence with time-tested experience from the field. The other is a textbook called, Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy. This book is the culmination of my professional life to date. It is the first text solely devoted to exploring the science of maximizing muscle growth through regimented exercise. I cover the molecular basis of hypertrophy, the mechanisms, the practical application of resistance training variables, and the different periodization models that can be used to optimize results. There are chapters on the effects of aerobic exercise and nutrition, as well. No stone is left unturned. I couldn’t be more proud of this effort. Both books are available for pre-order by clicking on the highlighted links.
Here’s a vid of the cross cable reverse fly exercise. It’s one of my favorite exercises for targeting the posterior delt. Notice the control throughout both the eccentric and concentric actions, making sure to keep constant tension on the target muscle.
I have numerous speaking engagements scheduled for this year that will take me around the globe. I’m particularly excited about a couple of upcoming events where I’ll share the stage with my esteemed colleagues Alan Aragon, Bret Contreras, and James Krieger. We’ll be speaking at the inaugural Personal Training Collective Annual Conference to be held at the University of Bath in England on April 23 and 24. We next will be speaking in Sydney, Australia at Bropocalypse 2016 taking place on June 11th and 12th. These events are sure to sell out so get your tix early! My travels will also include engagements in Denmark, Norway, Brazil, and New Orleans, with others currently in discussion. I’ll keep you all posted over the coming weeks.
I recently co-authored a paper with Bret Contreras on the “mind-muscle connection” that was published in the current issue of the NSCA Strength and Conditioning Journal. In the paper we lay out evidence that suggests a potential benefit to the approach for maximizing muscle growth. It’s a really interesting topic that needs more research; as such, I have a study planned for later this year that will hopefully shed more light on its efficacy. You can read the full text of the paper, as well as most of my other published works, on my Researchgate page
February 5, 2016
Current resistance training guidelines recommend long rest intervals (i.e. 3 minutes) to maximize muscle strength. Alternatively, short rest intervals of around 1 minute are generally recommended for maximizing muscle growth. This is based on the premise that higher metabolic stress associated with limiting rest between sets will promote a greater muscle-building stimulus. Some have specifically pointed to acute post-exercise increases in anabolic hormones as a primary driving factor in the process.
Back in 2014, I co-authored a review paper on the topic with my colleague Menno Henselmans that was published in the journal Sports Medicine. After a thorough scrutiny of the literature, we determined that there was little basis for the claim that shorter rest intervals was beneficial to hypertrophy. As I discussed in this blog post, It would appear from current evidence that you can self-select a rest period that allows you to exert the needed effort into your next set without compromising muscular gains. That said, our recommendations were limited by a dearth of controlled studies on the topic. Moreover, no study had investigated the generally accepted guidelines of taking 3 minutes rest for strength gains and 1 minute for hypertrophy in resistance-trained individuals.
I recently collaborated on a just-published study that investigated the effect of rest intervals on strength and hypertrophy. Here’s the scoop:
What We Did
A cohort of 21 young men were randomly assigned to either a group that performed a lifting routine with 1- or 3-minute rest intervals. All other resistance training variables were held constant. Subjects performed a typical bodybuilding-style routine that comprised 7 different exercises working the major muscle groups of both upper and lower body. Three sets of 8-12RM were performed per exercise. Training was carried out 3 days a week for 8 weeks.
We tested subjects immediately before and after the study period. Tests for muscle strength included 1RM for the bench press and back squat. Muscle-specific growth was assessed by b-mode ultrasound for the elbow flexors, triceps brachii, and quadriceps femoris.
What We Found
Maximal strength was significantly greater for both 1RM squat and bench press for the group taking longer rest. No big surprise here. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, muscle thickness tended to be greater when taking longer rest intervals as well. Although we can’t be sure of the underlying mechanisms, we speculated that results may be attributed a reduction in total volume load (i.e. reps /x/ load) over the course of the study. There is a well-established dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy, whereby higher volumes correlate with greater muscle growth. Thus, very short rest periods may compromise growth by reducing the amount of weight you can use on subsequent sets. This would indicate that if there are synergistic benefits to heightened metabolic stress, they are overshadowed by the associated decreased volume.
What are the Practical Implications
The obvious take-home here would seem to be that resting 1 minute between sets compromises gains in muscle size. But if 1 minute is in fact too short a rest period, how long should you then rest when maximal hypertrophy is the goal? Well, based on previous work in well-trained individuals, it would seem that 2 minutes provides sufficient recovery so as not to undermine growth.
That said, it’s important to take these results in proper context. Realize that we looked only at effects of the two respective conditions (i.e. 1- versus 3-minutes rest) on muscular adaptations. But rest interval length does not have to be a binary either-or choice. There is no reason you can’t combine different rest periods to potentially maximize hypertrophy.
A viable strategy is to take longer rest intervals on your large-muscle compound exercises such as squats, presses and rows. These movements generate very high levels of metabolic disturbance, particularly when performed with moderate rep ranges (i.e. 8-15 reps). Thus, longer recovery periods are needed to fully regenerate energy levels for your next set so that volume load is maintained across sessions.
On the other hand, single joint movements are not as metabolically taxing and thus you’re able to recover more quickly from set to set. Exercises like biceps curls, triceps pressdowns, and leg extensions therefore could conceivably benefit from shorter rest periods. In this way, you can heighten metabolic stress and its potential hypertrophic benefits without negatively impacting volume load. In this scenario, it’s best to keep the short-rest sets at the end of your workout to ensure they don’t interfere with recovery of compound exercise performance.
A final word: Research is still emerging on this topic. Each study is simply a piece in a puzzle. As more studies are carried out we’ll hopefully develop a better understanding of how programming can be tweaked to maximize the growth-related response. Stay tuned.
August 23, 2015
In a recent interview for The Fitcast, the host asked whether there was anything I’d change about my book The MAX Muscle Plan. A fair question, no doubt. After all, the book was written over four years ago and our understanding of the science and practice of training continues to evolve. So naturally there were several things that I mentioned in retrospect, most pertinently my views on nutrient timing.
But afterward, it occurred to me that I neglected to bring up an important topic of concern; namely, my use of the ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) scale to gauge training intensity of effort. Now don’t get me wrong; the RPE is a viable tool in this regard. Research shows that It provides a reasonably accurate means to predict 1-RM from submaximal lifting intensities. Fitness professionals have used it extensively for years.
The literature backs up my personal experience on the topic. Since publication of my book, I’ve received a number of emails from readers saying they were confused about the use of the scale. Some stated they found it awkward to integrate into practice. Others felt that terms such as ‘moderate’ ‘hard’ and ‘extremely hard’ were too ambiguous with respect to exercise intensity of effort.
Fortunately, I’ve since come to learn that a more intuitive scale called Reps-to-Failure (RTF) exists. As the name implies, the RTF is based on how many reps you perceive you have left in the tank after completing a set. If you went to all-out failure, the value would be ‘O’ (no reps left in the tank). If you feel you could have gotten an additional rep, the value would be 1; if you could have gotten 2 additional reps you’d be at a ‘2’, etc. I limit the range from 0-4; anything above a 4 is basically a warm-up set. Below is a chart that outlines the particulars of the scale.
The RTF scale has been validated by research. A recent study of competitive male bodybuilders showed a high positive association between estimated RTF and the actual number of repetitions-to-failure achieved. Accuracy was found to improve during the later sets of exercise performance, indicating a rapid learning curve the more the scale is used.
So my recommendation here is to use the RTF scale for gauging lifting intensity; IMO, it’s easier to employ and more accurate than the RPE. If you’re currently using The MAX Muscle Plan simply substitute the RTF value for the RPE in reverse order. Thus, an RTF of ‘0’ corresponds to an RPE of ’10’; an RTF of ‘1’ corresponds to an RPE of ‘9’, etc. It shouldn’t take you more than a few sessions experimenting with the RTF to be thoroughly proficient in its use.