2016 Back Issues
A Working Hypothesis:
Recent articles in Master Trainer and other periodicals and www sites have questioned the relationships
between strength as demonstrated by some specific free weight or machine exercises and hypertrophy (increasing muscle
mass) and a number of other health related benefits of resistance training.
The point is not that strength is unimportant or that there is no relationship between strength and hypertrophy. Rather, it is conjectured that the relationship is complex and some of the processes in building strength and hypertrophy overlap and some appear to be different.
The same points pertain to the various health benefits associated with resistance training. Strength may be important to some of these benefits such as preventing falls as one gets older but not as much for others.
Although at best there's only anecdotal data to support some of the points that will be made in this piece, there is an interesting hypothesis that can be advanced where we all seem to have a gut believe that it's essentially correct and where both individually and in groups we can actually test out some of the propositions.
Keep in mind that throughout this piece, I am referring to the average woman or man, a person with average ability to respond to resistance training. It's undoubtedly true that some people have gotten extremely strong with very abbreviated training focused on a small number of compound movements and correspondingly very large. However, we do not know if these are people who characteristically respond to increases in strength with increases in mass (not true of everyone) or whether there are some people who can respond well (i.e., hypertrophy) following almost any training protocol.
The hypothesis is basically this one: Strength is best produced and demonstrated by doing
a limited number of movements where the performance of the movements is unvaried and where the training is infrequent to allow for total physical recovery and the right psychological factors to produce maximum efforts. By way of contrast, hypertrophy may depend more upon some (as yet, undefined) greater volume and frequency of training with a greater variety of movements or variation of basic movements. In fact, what scientific evidence exists concerning hypertrophy points toward training muscle groups two or even three times per week as effective, with less frequent training as less effective. Hypertrophy and increases in bone mineral density also are relatively specific to the targeted musculoskeletal structures.
The notion is that a good deal of strength increases involves neural factors including learning, expectation, and motivation. For example, in the squat, a movement that requires some skill, if you want to be able to demonstrate a high degree of strength in this movement (use a lot of weight) than the best approach is to find one absolutely best position and stay grooved to that position (thus maximizing neuromuscular learning), squat within a certain repetition range and cadence (again, maximizing learning), and only squat when you know you have set the occasion to maximize your motivation and expectations for success. Not surprisingly, such a great session in the squat may occur once per week or even less frequently given how the rest of our life can "intrude" on training.
Doing squats in one very specific way can lead to good lower body development for those with good potential but it isn't clear if adding more and more weight and/or more and more repetitions will lead to continuous muscular growth in anyone let alone the majority of people without the genetic potential for large muscles in the lower body. Moreover, it isn't even clear if such an approach directly leads to great strength in other lower body movements that aren't practiced. And, finally, it's quite possible that including other lower body movements such as leg extensions, calf raises, leg curls, and even leg presses because they target specific muscles in the legs may contribute to greater hypertrophy than just squatting alone.
Yet another problem with the singular reliance on strength and progressions in basic movements is that inevitably it becomes impossible to add more resistance or repetitions while still adhering to good form. Granted this can take years and people seem to be able to get stronger, albeit very marginally, well into middle age.
Nevertheless, while a strength gain of 1% in a year may be an accomplishment for a long time trainee, it may not be very motivating (some people may quit seeing that they can't continue to increase strength) for continuing hard training and it may not be a good stimulus for any other valued outcome of training.
Moreover, the focus on a small core of movements, while having its benefits, can blind a person to the fact that once you plateau in one movement there are many other movements to do for the same muscle groups including just varying how the original movement is done. Trying to push more and more weight in the same few movements may not only get frustrating (see later) but lead to joint problems and muscle tears from too much stress. Just how much force were your muscles and knees, elbows, wrists, and shoulders, let alone your spine supposed to withstand? And, doesn't it make sense that one reason that many people seem to need so much time to recover from such training is because of the enormous force involved in that approach to training.
The main point then is that infrequent training that features doing a very limited number of movements in the same way over and over again is a great way to demonstrate strength but may not be the best way to focus on hypertrophy and other health benefits. Hypertrophy and other health benefits may depend more on some greater threshold (undefined) of frequency, volume, and variety in training - if not to the extent of bodybuilder's traditional high volume training than to some greater degree than limited volume and frequency high intensity training.
What can be entertained then is a continuum of protocols that are likely to produce great strength and less hypertrophy and some protocols that may produce somewhat less strength and greater hypertrophy.
On the absolute far end of the continuum, a very controlled, very slow repetition routine with the same 3 to 5 movements in the same machines with the same cadence and same TUL and very low frequency (i.e., once every 7 to 10 days) and volume is likely a great protocol to develop and demonstrate enormous strength within the designated movements. Although there are no data to substantiate this point, this kind of protocol may be the worst protocol for hypertrophy or many other health benefit because of the same dimensions that define it as a great strength building protocol. Notice that this has nothing to do with repetition cadence but everything to do with the insistence on a very limited number of movements, very low frequency of training, and unvarying training protocol.
Next on the same continuum are very abbreviated free weight compound movement routines for much the same reason. Keep in mind again that some people have claimed to have gained a lot of muscle mass using these routines while some people may have gained a lot of weight but not necessarily a lot of muscle mass. "Bulking up" is not the same as gaining muscle mass.
A distinct step in the wrong direction is still more consolidated routines. For example, you can get strong doing one set of squats and one set of dips one week and one set of deadlifts and one set of a pulldowns the next week. But, there's no data to suggest that this is the way to get more muscle mass and the infrequency and brevity of the training will do little to enhance your health. In fact, if that's all the physical activity and exercise you do with the presumed goal of maximizing strength and muscle mass, then it will likely undermine your health in the long run.
Other people have either drug-assisted or drug-free demonstrated great strength increases and hypertrophy on high intensity training protocols. But even casting aside the notion that some people are very responsive to training, the kind of bodybuilding high intensity training these folks have done is quite different in volume, frequency, and variety than very abbreviated and infrequent high intensity training and is a large step up the continuum.
For example, these routines often have featured several different movements per muscle group with more variety introduced through alternating movements workout by workout, repetition range and speed, and so on. It's simply not the same as how high intensity training has evolved in some quarters. These bodybuilder may have done in their primes a fraction of the volume of training that other bodybuilders did. However, the volume they did for each workout for two muscle groups was often greater than what people using very abbreviated routines do in two weeks and these bodybuilders trained at least several times per week.
Further, the original Jones/Darden high intensity protocols that produced good strength and may have produced good hypertrophy were also a very far cry from what many people are doing today. The Jones/Darden routines featured up to 20 sets in whole body workouts done three times per week. There was lots of volume and many different movements and a high frequency for working different muscle groups. Again, this too is a big step up the continuum from a few movements done once per week.
There is nothing wrong with doing routines that feature few movements, pushing to the limit, maximum demonstrations of strength and one may add, demonstrations of incredible motivation and resistance to pain. Few people have the desire or guts or the physical constitution to consistently train that way. However, if a person's goals do not entirely focus on maximizing and then demonstrating strength, than there are some logical alternatives that will be described shortly.
But, quite possibly at this point, you may have two intruding thoughts.
First, you have to cast aside the idea that if you just can continually get stronger, albeit in very small increments, than you will get bigger. As has been suggested here, strength increases and hypertrophy have some overlap but it's only overlap.
Second, you have to cast aside another idea where once again there simply is limited data to support the idea. The basic idea is that most everyone who does not demonstrate considerable muscle mass in response to training is exercise "intolerant" and therefore can only do a very limited volume and frequency of training. Sure, this notion holds for some people but exercise tolerance and exercise responsiveness are again likely somewhat overlapping but not one and the same. Quite simply, a person can be very exercise tolerant but a poor responder to resistance training (witness some people who can resistance train a couple of hours a day but show little hypertrophy) and some hugely muscular people who may not be all that exercise tolerant.
It isn't the case that everyone who is not very responsive to training has to train in a similar way, i.e., low volume, focused on few movements. Indeed, given the hypothesis advanced in this piece, it may be the more extreme versions of such low volume, high intensity training that are preventing whatever hypertrophy is possible for a given person to be evident.
That's right. Just because it's obvious that you do not have the genetic capability of adding huge amounts of muscle mass does not mean you have to or should train in a very abbreviated way. Training with very abbreviated routines does make sense if that's what you like to do and/or if after some serious experimentation, the very abbreviated training lets whatever potential you have best shine through in a very cost-effective way and, further, some other health-related outcomes of training are not that that important to you.
At the outset, it was noted that most of what is in this article is at best based on anecdotal evidence. But, some of that evidence to support the ideas in this piece is definitely "out there" right before our eyes, albeit not in a very organized state.
For example, are there really numerous documented cases of people who were training with more traditional high volume routines, switched to very brief, infrequent training and not only became much stronger (as we've seen, a very likely outcome of such a change in training) but added great amounts of muscle mass? Notice once again, I did not say bodyweight but rather a large gain in muscle mass with minimal gains in body fat. The answer is likely "Not many ".
Within some reasonable set of parameters, people who are responsive to training as defined by the potential for hypertrophy will add muscle mass on whatever routine they may be doing. People who do not have that great propensity will not add very appreciable muscle mass simply by changing training routines.
However, it's quite possible that moving away from a very abbreviated training program - if the points in this piece have any validity - to some protocol with somewhat more variety, volume and frequency of training may result in some additional hypertrophy. It may not be the case that "more is definitely better", but perhaps somewhat (yet undefined) more of the right stimulus may be better.
And, here's another point that further illustrates - though doesn't prove - the propositions in this piece. Very high volume and very frequent training is not required to produce hypertrophy. That is, a large tolerance of exercise is not a distinguishing factor for producing hypertrophy. In fact, as stated by quite a few people, doing a huge volume of work probably prevented some of the greatest examples of human's hypertrophy ability to becoming even more incredible. So, once again, it's not the case that somehow because we can not or choose not to do a large volume of training that we more average people do not show huge muscle mass. It's just that we can't show huge muscles no matter what we do.
However, and this is a big however, as suggested above many of us more average endowed people probably could be doing better with hypertrophy and other health benefits of training by going down a road suggested more by exercise science and that's a different road from the one many of us have been on for a long time and that frankly seems to be leading us nowhere.
That is, as noted, there appears to be some undefined degree of volume and frequency of training that sets a threshold (Dr. Ralph Carpinelli's idea) for maximizing whatever potential we have for hypertrophy and for delivering the myriad of health benefits from resistance training. While it's not yet possible to prescribe that threshold point and that point may vary across individuals, it's fairly easy to do some self-experimentation and simply see what happens.
Experimentation doesn't have to be drastic and you don't have to abandon some favorite ways of training or for that matter, the infatuation with strength.
For example, a common way to train is to do a main compound free weight or machine movement for each major muscle group and to do that movement in a very extrinsic way. That is, while keeping to good and relatively unvarying form, the idea is to focus on progressions in resistance and repetitions. Keep in mind that over time, not everyone as noted above, can continue to train this way because of the high force requirements and because over time gains in strength plateau and adding more resistance can create serious problems. But, some people can productively train this way over a long career and enjoy this emphasis.
In this revised plan that focuses on strength and hypertrophy, the compound movement is then followed by one to several more isolation movements for the same muscle group or other compound movements that work a muscle group in a different way (e.g., deadlifts, pullover, chins, rows for upper back) done in a much more intrinsic way. That is, the goal is "simply" to maximally work the targeted muscle group in a variety of ways with much less concerns about resistance and repetitions.
The choice of isolation and other movements following the compound movement can be varied workout-to-workout or month-to-month. If each movement is done for one work set, the volume of training per session and across a routine is higher than with very abbreviated routines but much lower than the routines depicted in bodybuilding magazines. Also, keep in mind that if intensity is not extreme, and there's no evidence to suggest that it has to be to produce great results, then doing some more movements for muscle groups should not be very difficult.
Does anyone really believe, for example, that if you did one good set of an overhead press - not a "killer" set - that doing a set of side and then rear lateral raises will so compromise your recovery ability that you will be down for the count? Or, does anyone really believe that after doing a handful of sets for shoulders and arms that a week is required for recovery? Does any of this really make sense in the light of day?
Many people after reading this may realize that they never had great interest in maximizing strength but only tried to do so because they thought that it was the royal road to hypertrophy.
Besides introducing the kind of variety suggested above, then another idea is to do all movements in a very intrinsic way. For example, as suggested throughout this piece, there are ways to maximize the demonstration of strength in the squat and there may be ways to maximize hypertrophy with the squat. Varying the type of squat, cadence and repetitions may be one way, but simply squatting intrinsically may be another. You may not be able to use a great deal of weight using slow nonlock and nonpause repetitions in the squat but it may be a style of training for maximizing hypertrophy to whatever degree is possible for you. Likewise, preexhaustion (e.g, leg extension before squats or leg press) is a way to do compound movements but without huge resistance, and hence, force.
Are there reams of data to support all the points in this piece? No, not yet. I do think that we can see that some of the basic premises we've had about training, particularly the close association of strength and hypertrophy, may not be true. If we have training goals that are not just focused on demonstrating strength, it's probably time for a change.
Thanks to Maren Henle, Karin Nelson, Arty Conliffe and Ralph Carpinelli for their ideas on these points and feedback on drafts.