Categories of Weight Training: Part 6

Ok, time to wrap up.  On Tuesday, in Categories of Weight Training: Part 5 I clarified some things regarding volume and then looked briefly at the issue of both training frequency and a bit at exercise selection.  Today I really want to wrap-up on hypertrophy so I can talk about maximum strength next week (and then hopefully have a good race report the week after that).   Today is going to be sort of a grab-bag of topics, some of which will hopefully answer some of the questions I’ve seen in the comments, some of which will probably leave you with more questions than answers.

To Fail or Not to Fail

If there is a single most contentious issue in the field of strength training and bodybuilding, I’d probably argue that it is the decades long argument about whether or not training should be taken to failure.  Now, this is another topic that could potentially require an article or two to fully address and I’ll try to keep my comments a bit more focused here.

Simplistically speaking, the idea of training to failure is that a set should be taken to the point that another full repetition cannot be completed.  Even there there can be different definitions or types of failure including low and high-volume failure (a concept I’m not going to define just to tease you) and that of concentric, isometric and even absolute/eccentric failure.  Some define technical failure and others just let the trainee go until they can’t move anymore.

Here I’m going to use the simplest definition of failure, that is taking the set to the point that another positive/concentric repetition cannot be completed.  Usually that entails at least trying to do the repetition and either being unable to start the weight or getting stuck somewhere during the repetition.

Some have argued that only by training to failure can you know how hard you’re working.  I consider this idea patently false, and discuss some of the reasons why in What Is Training Intensity? With practice and coaching, most trainees can know within a rep or two how close they are too failure; I’d note that figuring this out often entails training to true failure.  Many people vastly underestimate what they are capable of; only by training to their actual limits for a while can they get a feel for them.

But what about failure and hypertrophy, does it help, hurt, no difference.  And the answer here is…it depends (you knew that was coming).  There are some reasons that training to limits (or at least close to them) might have benefits, my friend Blade has commented on potential benefits regarding fiber recruitment and rate coding and such that may be involved in the hypertrophic response.  I’d not that this tends to be most relevant for higher repetition sets; once the load is heavy enough (about 80% of maximum or about an 8 repetition maximum), you get full recruitment from the get go.

However, there are potential drawbacks to training to failure and this has a huge interaction with the goal training volume.   As a generality, the more sets you want to do of an exercise, the further from failure you need to stay at least on the initial sets.  However, even that is variable and depends on the trainee.

Some (certainly not all) trainees find that going to the point of concentric failure simply burns them out.  Often it’s only in the longer term that constant failure training burns them up but I have seen *some* trainees for whom a single set taken to true failure can basically ruin them for the remaining sets of that exercise.  I’ve seen the occasional trainee for whom a set taken to true limits can ruin them for the rest of the workout.  It’s arguably a neural response and something bad happens to their nervous systems.

For those trainees, failure training needs to be used in a very limited fashion if at all, especially if they plan to do more than one set of a given exercise.  So if they have a goal of 4 sets of 8 repetitions, they’ll need to stop the sets 1-2 reps short of failure until perhaps the final set.  From time to time, I’ll often have them rep out the final set to get a better idea of when it’s time to increase the load.  So if they are doing sets of 8 and on that final set get to 12 or 15 or something, I know they are sandbagging and need to be working heavier across the load.

At the same time, some trainees have no problem going to failure on their first work set, dropping the weight for the next set and continuing and then doing it for however many sets they want to do.  I’d point you to Martin Berkhan’s excellent article on Reverse Pyramid Training for a look at this.  Again, it’s just an individual thing and trainees need to experiment a bit to see what camp they are in (the ones who can or cannot handle training to failure acutely).

Ultimately, over the decades of folks seeking bigger muscles, despite logical arguments about the topic, the fact is this: people have made progress both training to failure and not training to failure.  If it were required, this wouldn’t be the case.  For many people, failure training simply burns them out; for others it’s no problem.  I’ll leave it at that.

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Rest Periods

Ah, I almost forgot this one and I know people are going to ask.  Another contentious issue, folks have argued for both long rest periods (2-3 minutes) to allow the heaviest weights to be used) and short rest periods (1 minute or less) usually based on energetic, pump or hormonal considerations.  The hormonal considerations are basically irrelevant but certainly short rest periods tends to provide more of a fatigue/metabolic stress while longer rest periods allow heavier weights and a greater tension/damage stimulus.  As a generality, lower rep sets use longer rest periods (so sets of 5-8 with 2-3 minutes) and higher rep sets use shorter rest periods (so sets of 12-15 with 60 seconds).

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Number of Exercises Per Body Part

Traditionally, as part of the high-volume approach that came out of steroid fueled bodybuilding, there has been a long-standing belief of needing a ton of different exercises to ‘bomb’ and ‘blitz’ a given muscle group. For the most part, for the natural trainee, this is a mistake.

In my opinion and experience, few body parts need more than 1-2 exercises at any given workout (unless you only do 1 set of each exercise and want to do a bunch of different ones) with back potentially needing the most because it has so many different functions.

Chest can be adequately hit with a flat and an incline movement and many do just fine with one or the other when they are working hard enough.  Arms usually need at most 1 exercise (you might throw in a set of reverse curls for brachalis). Delts can get a touch complicated but even legs don’t need a ton of exercises.  Most bodybuilders would kill for the legs a lot of Olympic lifters have and you know what they do: back and front squats and not a lot else for the most part.

So at any given workout, usually 1-2 exercises per muscle group is more than sufficient (again see my comments about exercise selection in Categories of Weight Training: Part 5).  Maybe three in the rare case of specialization cycles.

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Summing Things Up

Ok, don’t freak out, I’m not done yet, I just want to make sure that everyone is on the same page before I make some final comments.  Here are the basic loading parameters for hypertrophy training:

  • Intensity (%1RM): 60-85%
  • Rep Range: 20-5 repetitions per set
  • Rest between sets: Anywhere from 30-60 seconds to 2-3 minutes
  • Total volume per workout: 30-60 repetitions per muscle group (pay attention to overlap)
  • Frequency: Twice per week or once every fifth day under some situations
  • Exercise selection: Exceedingly variable
  • Exercises per muscle group: 1-2 per muscle group per workout is generally sufficient
  • Failure or not: Depends

So we’ve got a pretty broad range of loading parameters which could range from something like 3-4X15-20 reps at 60% of maximum (fatigue training) to 8 sets of 5 at 80-85% of maximum (tension training) to massive mixtures of repetition ranges and sequencing (e.g. 4X6-8 + 2-3X12-15).

With multiple overlapping molecular pathways of growth and potentially different contributes to the overall size response, hypertrophy training simply has the largest range of loading parameters that can conceivably ‘work’ depending on goals and all the rest.   So how do you put all this together?  I’m glad you asked.

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Putting it All Together: A Brief Look

This is another topic that could (and should) take either another series of articles or perhaps an entire book.  Today I’m just going to look at some general approaches that have been proven over the years to work for a majority of trainees.  As you’ll see, most of the approaches I’m going to look at share certain commonalities; the only real difference is how they go about applying them.  Which is better?  It depends.  Below I’m just going to sketch some of the system I’m familiar with or have used with people and look at how they approach putting together everything I’ve talked about.

Hypertrophy Specific Training
The brainchild of uber-smart guy Bryan Haycock, HST is based around the idea of continuous progressive overload although it typically uses a bit more distributed approach to training with three workouts per week.  Starting with sets of 15 (towards the fatigue end of the continuum), it progresses in load at more or less each workout and drops the repetition range every 2 weeks reaching it’s heaviest with 2 weeks of 5′s followed by 2 weeks of heavy negatives.  So you can see that it works from the fatigue end of things down to the tension end of things and ends up by focusing on damage (maximal eccentrics).

Doggcrapp Training
DC training is the brain child of Dante Trudell.  Using an average training frequency of each muscle group every fifth day it focuses more on intensity at each session (as opposed to Bryan’s primary focus on frequency).  A given workout might entail a set of an exercise first taken to concentric failure (within some repetition range of 6-12 reps) followed by rest-pause repetitions to a total of 20-30 repetitions.  That is typically followed by what Dante called extreme stretching, really a heavily loaded eccentric held for up to 60 seconds.

The first rest-pause set provides a combination of tension and metabolic fatigue, the loaded stretching provides both an eccentric damage stimulus and might even trigger something via hypoxia.  The goal of every workout is to ‘beat the previous workout’ by going up in weight so progression is built into the system.  Typically the trainee pushes very hard for about 6 weeks followed by 2 weeks at lower intensity. I’d note that while people who do well on DC training thrive on it, it does burn some people out.

Myo-Reps
One of Borge Fagerli’s (Blade’s) many training approaches, Myo-Reps is another rest-pause system.  A typical Myo-Reps set is an ‘activation’ set of 6-8 repetitions stopped when the trainee starts to slow down considerably during repetitions. This is followed by rest-pause reps (mini-sets of 2-4 reps) to a total of 20-30 reps.  The activation sets are progressed over the length of the cycle. So again we see progressive overload, a combination of tension/damage and metabolic fatigue.

I’d note that Blade also uses a variety of other approaches with his trainees.  One of these is a Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP) model which entails training different repetitions ranges at each workout. So you might see sets of 15 (fatigue) on Monday, sets of  (tension + fatigue) on Wed and heavy sets of 5 (tension + damage) on Friday.  This looks kind of like the training in my own Ultimate Diet 2.0.

Finally, yet another approach Blade has used (and I’ve drawn up advanced cycles for trainees like this) might entail

  • 2 weeks of continuous tension/pump style training (fatigue focus)
  • 4-6 weeks of more or less traditional heavy training/Myo-reps (tension+fatigue focus)
  • 2 weeks of heavy power training (tension/damage focus)

This is based on the idea that certain factors (e.g. energetic storage) might be limiting for growth, the two week initial phase is not only a deload but helps bump up things like glycogen storage and perhaps mitochondrial density to support the heavier training down the road.  But again you can see that all the different pathways are targeted, similar to HST sort-of.

My Generic Bulking Routine

This is a routine that you can find on the support forum.  It’s based around straight sets and simply uses the combination of a series of lower repetition sets, perhaps 4X6-8 (focus is tension/fatigue and damage) coupled with higher repetition sets (perhaps 2-3X12-15) to get a fatigue stimulus.  I suggest alternating 2 weeks of submaximal loading as a ‘ramp-up’ and then pushing things hard for 4-6 weeks trying to add weight (in good form) wherever possible.

So again a combination of tension/damage/fatigue and progressive overload.  I simply use straight sets to achieve the goal volume.  This is meant to be an intermediate training approach, I’d note.  More advanced trainee often find that doing all of the heavy work on one day and the pump work on another day (e.g. heavy work Monday, pump work Thursday) works better so their joints don’t fall off.

I’ve also mentioned workouts such as what I put in the Periodization for Bodybuilders series for advanced trainees a combination of 3 different repetition ranges to stress all of the aspects of growth.  Fred Hatfield used to call this Holistic training and it might entail

  • Back squat: 2-3 sets of 5 (tension/damage focus)
  • Leg press: 2-3 sets of 12 (tension + fatigue focus)
  • Leg extension: 1-2 sets of 20 (fatigue focus)

Some of my specialization routines are similar but I’m saving that topic for a full article.

And I’m sure folks can come up with even more variations on this theme.  In the big scheme, consistency and hard work tends to outweigh the rest of it; find a scheme that allows you to progress over time and eat appropriately and you’ll grow.

And, ignoring the zillion questions I’m sure will come from this, that wraps up hypertrophy.  On Tuesday I’ll move onto maximum strength training which, shockingly, shouldn’t take very long at all to talk about.

Read Categories of Weight Training: Part 7.