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March 29, 2014

The Best Muscle Building Workout!?

Admit it. You’ve probably been lured into reading a magazine article with headline such as the one above. These types of claims are the norm rather than the exception in the muscle rags and fitness websites. And for good reason: the promise of a holy grail of workouts that will maximize your muscle development is an enticing prospect to say the least.

Problem is, no such routine exists.

It’s essential to realize that the response to resistance exercise is highly individual. Remember that research simply reports the means (i.e. averages). So if a study reports muscular growth after a given protocol as say 10%, you can bank on the fact that some subjects grew a lot more and some a lot less than 10%. Thus, you can’t simply extrapolate that you, or a client of yours, will achieve similar results to the reported mean.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a recent cluster analysis study by Bamman et al.. Sixty-six men and women performed supervised lower body exercise (squats, leg presses, and leg extensions) 3 days a week for 16 weeks. Training was carried out in typical bodybuilding-type fashion that included 3 sets of 8-12 reps for each exercise. At the end of the study, subjects were grouped by their hypertrophic response: The top 17 subjects were considered extreme responders. Their muscular gains averaged ~58%. Pretty awesome, right? The middle 32 subjects were considered moderate responders, with muscular gains averaging ~28%. Still pretty good, although well below the extreme responders. Here’s the kicker: the bottom 17 subjects saw, get this, NO significant gains after 16 weeks or consistent training. Zilch! Again, all subjects performed the exact same program but, as noted, saw widely disparate results. Based on the research, genetic factors are highly responsible for these differences, including the expression of various proteins (such as IGF-1) as well as satellite cell population. Lifestyle factors undoubtedly play a role as well.

Now the fact that people respond differently doesn’t discount that there are certain principles that should be inherent in any routine designed to maximize muscle-building. These include:
Vary the loading strategies: Using different rep ranges (i.e. heavy, moderate and light) will ensure that you stimulate the full spectrum of muscle fiber types in a fashion that produces maximal growth. Recent work from my lab shows that light loads are suboptimal for fully activating the highest threshold motor units, but they may be superior for targeting the type I (endurance-related) fibers.
Train with high volumes: There is compelling evidence that a dose-response relationship exists between volume and hypertrophy. Although a single set to failure can produce substantial increases in muscle growth, multiple sets are needed for maximal gains.
Perform a variety of exercises: Muscles frequently have varying attachments and individual fibers are often compartmentalized so that they are innervated by different nerves. Research shows that a single exercise is not sufficient for maximizing whole muscle growth. To ensure complete muscle development, you need to have sufficient variety of exercise selection that takes into account basic applied kinesiological principles as outlined in my recent T-Nation article.
Employ some sort of periodization scheme: This simply means that you need to manipulate variables over time. In particular, volume and training frequency should be varied over the course of training to prevent plateau. Ideally, volume/frequency should culminate with a relatively short training cycle designed to produce functional overreaching followed immediately by a period of deloading/active recovery. This will help promote a supercompensatory response that maximizes muscular gains. The process doesn’t have to be complicated; there are endless ways to go about periodizing a routine as long as you proceed in a logical fashion.

Given these basic tenets, it is essential that you take individual differences into account when designing training programs. There are no cookie-cutter prescriptions for getting big. For those familiar with my book, The M.A.X. Muscle Plan, you’ll know that I reinforce this concept repeatedly throughout the text. That’s why I refer to the book as a “template” for success; optimal benefits can only be achieved by customizing the program to your own personal needs and abilities.

Bottom line: There is no “best” muscle-building program; only a best program for a given individual.

Exercise, Hypertrophy

March 8, 2014

Does Blood Flow Restriction Increase Muscle When Combined With Traditional Resistance Training?

Blood flow restriction (BFR) training is an emerging technique that consistently has been shown to improve muscle strength and size in a variety of populations. If you are not familiar with BFR, you can read my recent T-Nation article that details the hows and why’s of the topic. If you’re interested in the research, you can read the review that I co-authored here.

A new BFR study by Luebbers et al. has been creating a lot of buzz. A number of people have emailed me to ask my opinion on the paper, so I figured it was worthy of a blog post.

Briefly, the study was a follow up to a previous study by Yamanaka et al. , who reported significant increases in chest girth, as well as 1RM bench press and squat performance when BFR was combined with heavy resistance training in a group of well-trained college football players. Here are the particulars of the new study followed by my commentary and take home points.

Study Design:
The study used a protocol similar to the investigation carried out by Yamanaka et al. Sixty-two Division 2 football players took part in the study during their off-season from competition. Subjects were randomized into 1 of 4 groups:
• H/S/R Group. This group performed high-intensity training (H) consisting of traditional strength training exercises (bench press, overhead press, power cleans, squats, etc) and auxiliary lifts (bicep curls, triceps extensions, calf raises, and abdominal work). In addition, they performed supplemental lifts (S) at the end of each workout consisting of 4 additional sets of bench press on upper body day and 4 additional sets of squats on lower body day. The supplemental work was carried out under blood flow restriction (R).
• H/S Group. This group performed the exact workout as H/S/R except no BFR was used for the supplemental exercises.
• H Group: This group completed only the basic high-intensity training routine (H). They performed no supplemental exercise with or without BFR.
• M/S/R Group. This group performed only the auxiliary exercises but not the traditional strength training exercises. They also performed supplemental work with BFR at the end of each workout.

The BFR was a “practical” protocol that employed ~3 inch elastic wraps to occlude flow. The load for these exercises was set at 20% 1RM with the first set consisting of 30 reps followed by 3 sets of 20 reps separated by 45 seconds rest. For all groups, the training program employed an upper/lower body split performed 4 days per week for 7 weeks. The split followed a 2-on/1 off, 2-on/2-off format with workouts taking place Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.

The Results
At the end of the 7 week study period, the group performing the traditional strength training protocol supplemented with BFR (H/S/R) showed significantly greater increases in 1RM squat compared to the other groups but there were no differences in 1 RM bench press between groups nor were there any differences in thigh, chest, or arm girth.

The researchers should be commended for an ambitious study design. They had a fairly large sample size (over 60 subjects) and the 4 groups provided diverse info on a variety of possible program applications. Moreover, the subjects were all well-trained lifters (average of over 7 years resistance training experience), which rules out any confounding issues associated with an initial learning curve and inflated gains from sedentarism.

That said, the study had a number of substantial limitations that cloud the ability to draw relevant conclusions. First and foremost, the use of circumference measurements as a proxy for muscular gains is highly suspect as the technique does not specifically measure muscle tissue in isolated areas of the body. Indeed, imaging techniques such as ultrasound have been shown to detect increases in muscle hypertrophy not seen by measures of girth. Compounding matters, the researchers made no attempt to control for nutrition. Remember, the subjects were college football players in the offseason from competition. To put it mildly, it’s highly unlikely they weighed their food and adhered to a balanced nutritional regimen. Since girth measurements cannot discern between muscle tissue and subcutaneous fat, this certainly could have confounded results.

Another thing that jumped out at me when reading the methodology was the following statement: “All sessions were supervised by the same two primary researchers in order to ensure compliance.” The study had over 60 subjects who trained at one of three times during each training day. That means that there were over 20 subjects training at a given time. How can two researchers adequately supervise all these subjects and ensure that they are training as per protocol? In my lab, I have a dedicated research assistant work with each subject in a training study. They supervise every aspect of the workout protocol – from using proper technique, to exerting sufficient intensity of effort, to making sure that the rest intervals are rigidly upheld. If research assistants did not in fact help out with supervision here, I’d have to question how well subjects actually complied with the protocol.

Finally and importantly, the results don’t make a whole lot of sense. Specifically, how could lower body strength show greater increases with BFR without concomitantly greater increases in hypertrophy? There are two primary mechanisms for strength improvements: an increase in muscle size (there is a direct relationship between muscle cross sectional area and the ability to produce force) and/or an enhancement in neural response. Research indicates that neural enhancement is primarily achieved through the use of heavy loads, particularly in a well-trained population who have transitioned past the initial motor learning stage. Thus, I find it difficult to believe that BFR — which uses very light loads — had a significant impact on neural aspects such as rate coding or synchronization. If strength was significantly increased in the BFR group compared to the non-BFR groups, it would seem that these improvements would have to be due to greater gains in muscle mass.

Bottom Line
While this study (as well as the previous study by Yamanka et al.) provides interesting data on the potential use of BFR as an adjunct to traditional resistance training, the aforementioned limitations make it difficult to draw an practical conclusions. Similar studies should be carried out using a validated imaging technique (i.e. MRI, CT, ultrasound, etc) under well-supervised conditions to determine if there are in fact any benefits to combining BFR with heavy loads.

Exercise, Hypertrophy

February 3, 2014

New Study: Bodybuilding-Type Training Increases Intracellular Water Content

I recently co-authored a new study that investigated increases in intracellular hydration following performance of 16 weeks of bodybuilding-type resistance training. I am pleased to say that the study — a collaboration with colleagues at Londrina State University in Brazil — has just been published in the European Journal of Sports Science. Here is a summary and what to take home from the findings.

The Background:
It has been well-established that regimented resistance training results in increases in muscle hypertrophy (i.e. growth). The mechanical forces associated with lifting cause an adaptive response that results in increases in the contractile elements (actin and myosin) as well as structural proteins of muscle. These adaptations ultimately facilitate the muscle to be able to exert greater amounts of force. It’s a basic adaptive response to a stress (i.e. a survival mechanism) that makes us stronger so we can handle similar future events if and when needed.

There has been extensive debate as to whether resistance training also increases non-contractile (sarcoplasmic) hypertrophy. Non-contractile elements include things such as collagen, organelles, and fluid. The fluid component is one of the more intriguing areas of discussion. It’s no secret that resistance training can have an effect on altering intramuscular water — the “pump” is a well-known phenomenon in bodybuilding-type training. But what remains unclear is whether resistance training can increase intracellular water chronically over time. Our study sought to shed light on this topic.

What We Did:
A total of 64 college-aged subjects (30 men and 34 women) participated in the study. Subjects engaged in a supervised progressive resistance training program carried out 3 non-consecutive days a week over 16 weeks. Training consisted of a bodybuilding-type routine whereby 3 sets of 8-12 reps were performed with 60-90 seconds rest between sets. A total of 11 exercises were performed per session using a combination of free weights, cables, and machines. All sets were taken to the point of momentary muscular failure.

Bioelectrical impedance spectroscopy (BIS) was used to measure total body water, intracellular water and extracellular water content. BIS is a validated tool for measuring body water and its various sub-fractions. Assessments were made at baseline, the mid-point of the study, and at study’s end.

The Results:
Intracellular water was significantly increased following training in both men and women. The effect size — in simple terms, a measure of the magnitude of results that takes into account variance between subjects — was considered moderate, indicating the results are meaningful. Both men and women showed approximately equal responses as to increases in intracellular water over the course of the study.

Practical Implications:
As noted, this study provides compelling evidence that regular bodybuilding-type resistance training leads to a chronic increase in intracellular fluid status. Why should anyone care about increasing the water content of muscle? Well, there is a large body of research showing that cell swelling via increased intracellular hydration results in marked increases in protein synthesis and reductions in protein degradation; a hypertrophy homerun. These findings have been shown in a wide variety of cell types, implying that keeping muscle fibers hydrated may actually increase contractile hypertrophy and thus enhance strength.

Now it’s important to note that these observations are from in vitro (i.e. test tube) data. Whether similar results play out in practice in hard-training lifters is still unknown and need further study. That said, the aforementioned findings certainly suggest that there may well be an anabolic effect (and in fact one of the hypotheses for hypertrophic effects of creatine is its role as an osmolyte).

What remains unclear is whether the increased intracellular hydration is specific to bodybuilding-type training or inherent with all types of lifting. We speculated that results of the current study may have been due to increased glycogen storage. Bodybuilding-type training relies primarily on fast glycolysis to fuel performance, whereby carbohydrate is the primary energy source (as opposed to powerlifting-type training, which relies primarily on the phosphagen system). As such, the body adapts by increasing its capacity to store glycogen. Since glycogen attracts 3 grams of water for every glycogen granule, it stands to reason that this was responsible for the increased hydration status.

What’s Next:
We are currently designing a study that will compare chronic changes in water sub-fractions following bodybuilding- versus powerlifting-type training. The hope is to begin data collection before the year is out. Stay tuned.

Ribeiro AS, Avelar A, Schoenfeld BJ, Ritti Dias RM, Altimari LR, Cyrino ES. Resistance training promotes increase in intracellular hydration in men and women. Eur J Sport Sci. 2014 Jan 28. [Epub ahead of print]