Training Frequency for Mass Gains

In recent years, bodybuilding/hypertrophy training has divided itself into a number of different ‘camps’ with quite a bit of argument and debate going on over what the optimal training frequency for muscle growth is.

In this article, I want to look at the three most common training frequencies (in terms of how often a given muscle group is hit each week, I’m not talking about overall training frequency) and some of their pros and cons.  First I’m going to look at the two opposite extremes of training each muscle group before giving my own preferred training frequency.

I want to make it clear that I’m looking only at training frequency as it applies to explicit mass gains and hypertrophy type goals.  I’m not talking about athletes or strength per se (although the recommendations end up being fairly similar) but focusing only on muscle growth as an explicit end goal of training.

 

Three Times Per Week for Each Muscle Group

It’s often claimed that historically, bodybuilders trained every bodypart three times per week and there is certainly some indication that that is the case (especially in the pre-steroid era).  Training systems that look a lot like the heavy/light/medium systems first advocated by Bill Starr and re-popularized in recent years by coaches such as Mark Rippetoe and Glenn Pendlay (as discussed in my article The 5X5 Program) seem to crop up fairly commonly when you look at the workouts of old time lifters.

It’s worth noting that many lifters of that era trained primarily for strength with size gains being more of a ‘side-effect’ of the training, rather than being such an explicit goal.  Still, there is a point to be made that training for strength gains (plus sufficient food) tends to result in size gains.  Whether or not they are a ‘side-effect’ or however you want to look at it doesn’t change the overall success of that approach: grow stronger and eat and you will grow.

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Cardio and Mass Gains

Among the numerous never-ending debates in the field is the question of whether or not cardio/aerobic type activity should be performed when the explicit goal is maximum gains in muscle mass.  And as is usually the case, there are a variety of extreme standpoints in this debate.

At one extreme is the idea that trainees should perform an hour of low intensity cardio daily during their mass gaining phase.  This is usually suggested as a way of staying lean during the period of overfeeding needed to maximize muscle gain.  At the other extreme is the idea that any activity outside of lifting weights, and especially cardio, will do nothing but harm gains in muscle mass (and strength).

As usual, I think that the truth lies somewhere in the middle and I’d like to look at some of the various pros and cons of keeping some form of cardio in the overall program when the explicit goal is muscle mass gains.  As usual, whether cardio is good, bad or neutral depends on the situation along with how it’s performed.

For context, the main type of cardio activity I’ll be focusing on in this article is low to moderate intensity steady state cardio which is usually where the big arguments erupt.  For the most part, unless dealing with an athlete who must be performing interval training for their sport, I don’t recommend interval training when the goals are maximal muscle mass gains.

Yes, you can always find someone who makes it work (and there have been various theories thrown around how sprinting might enhance muscle gain which never seem to have really panned out) but for the most part I don’t think high intensity cardio training of any sort (interval or otherwise) is optimal when the goal is maximal muscle gain.  So I’ll be focusing on low- to moderate-intensity steady state type cardio here.

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Reps Per Set for Optimal Growth

I’m going to throw out a weird hypothetical question that I want readers to consider before continuing with this article.

If you had to pick a single repetition range to train in for growth, what would it be?

That is, imagine some very strange situation where you could only train within a certain range (and let’s make that range something a little less vague then ‘Between 1-20 reps’ by limiting it to a 3 rep range) for the rest of your lifting career, what would it be?

I used to ask this of friends of mine in the field and, almost with exception, the answer was pretty much the same.  This was true regardless of whether or not they had arrived at that value from experimentation and experience or just looking at the research.

I’m going to take a quick look at the research (including a bunch of seemingly disparate topics) to tell you what I’d pick.

 

What Makes Muscle Grow?

I asked a job supervisor that question once once; he was a smart-ass like me and told me “It needs lots of sunlight and water.”  Close but not quite.

The mechanism of muscle growth has been under heavy scrutiny for years and a lot of theories and ideas have come and gone in terms of both the mechanism of growth as well as what stimulates it.  Semi-amusingly, about 98% of the actual answer was known back in the 70’s.

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Warming Up for the Weight Room Part 2

In Warming up for the Weight Room Part 1, I took a look at some general warm up concepts along with examining the roles of cardio, stretching and foam rolling as part of the general warm up.  In Part 2, I want to look at the specific warm up and how to structure it.  I’ll be looking first at the issue of activation exercises (a current trend/fad in the training world) along with specific warm up recommendations for lifting.  I’ll also look at a few ‘advanced warm up’ techniques that people may wish to play with after they have their ‘normal’ warm up dialed in.

Activation Exercises

So what are activation exercises?  Basically, in modern training, due to the often dysfunctional demands of the modern world (e.g. sitting at a computer for 8 hours per day), coaches are finding trainees for whom specific muscles don’t fire well; this can also be caused by injuries (which often cause compensatory changes in muscle firing patterns which, if anything, tend to worsen things).

A few common ones are the glutes (which often become inhibited by tight hip flexors), the vastus medialis  (the teardrop muscle), or the rotator cuff complex.  Others such as serratus can often become inactivated from injury (this is common in a lot of shoulder problems and serratus malfunction leads to the scapula not moving right which causes bigger problems up in the shoulder girdle).

This has led to a whole host of activation movements which have as their goal getting these muscles firing better prior to lifting.  Not only is this important for injury prevention, over time this will help reintegrate those muscles into more complex movements.

Some examples of activation movements would be lying glute bridges or X-walks for the glutes, scap push-ups/push-up plus for serratus, or the YWTL complex for the rotator cuff and lower trap complex.   For the vastus medialis, various quad setting and lunge movements (e.g. Petersen lunge) can be used.

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Dante Trudell’s DC Training – Product Review

In A Look at Some Popular Hypertrophy Programs, I made mention of something called Doggcrapp (DC) training in terms of being one of several excellent approaches to hypertrophy training. The brainchild of Dante Trudell (who uses the screen name Doggcrapp, hence the name), DC represents an excellent synthesis of a lot of very good ideas applied to bodybuilding.

As mentioned in the article above, I don’t think that DC training is right for everyone, and not everyone does well on it. For those that do, they grow and grow well. Now, I’ve wished for a while that Dante would write a book on DC training as I think the ideas need to get wider exposure. Apparently he’s just not interested.

Thankfully, two of Dante’s ‘students’ (for lack of a better word), Jason Wojo and Franco Ditillo, put together a DVD to both explain and demonstrate the ideas that make up the DC approach.

Overall appearance: The DVD is professional in terms of packaging and appearance (e.g. the outside of the DVD). The audio is good (this isn’t the case for many products) and the video is nicely shot; it’s not professionally done, nor is it a guy with a handycam. Most of it is simply the guys talking at the camera but the training footage is well shot and it’s easy to see what’s going on.

The DVD itself: The DVD is divided into 4 segments which are Introduction, Workout 1, Workout 2, and Special features. I want to look at each in sequence.

Introduction: The first segment of the DVD is about 20 minutes long and consists of Jason Wojo explaining the guts of the DC system. Starting with who DC training is for (advanced guys who are able to push), it also covers who it isn’t for (beginners and wimps). There’s a refreshing element of honesty to this attitude, recognizing that the system that you personally think highly of just isn’t for everyone.

In a nutshell, DC is similar to high intensity training (HIT) in that it attempts to get maximal growth stimulation in the least volume required. In most cases this represents a single set but with a twist: after reaching failure once, two rest-pause sets are typically done with 10-15 breaths between ‘mini-sets’ so that a total of 11-15 reps per set is done.

For many exercises this is followed by an isometric hold and most movement are then followed by something DC calls loaded or extreme stretching. DC training rests on the concept of making progress at every workout (if possible). There is always an attempt to beat your previous best and make strength gains in a medium repetiton range. Coupled with sufficient food, that equals growth.

As well, for any given training cycle, multiple exercises are chosen and rotated each workout with the idea being that you will make better overall strength gains returning to the same exercise a bit less frequently.

In contrast to some HIT systems, DC calls for training each muscle group every 5th day so that growth is stimulated more often than with lower frequency training approaches. The basic approach is three days/week alternating between two different splits. Within that, as noted, exercises are rotated in and out within each workout.

As well, DC training follows an approach of ‘blasts’ and ‘cruises’ (essentially varying intensity) lasting roughly 4-6 weeks and 2 weeks respectively. So you cruise (training relatively less intensely) for 2 weeks and then blast (going for major gains) for 4-6 weeks. This is basically identical to how I recommend folks cycle my generic approach to hypertrophy training, 2 weeks of relatively easier work followed by 4-6 weeks pushing things hard before backing off and then building back up again.

Overall, I found the part of the DVD to be an excellent introduction to the concepts of the DC system. Frankly, it’s not a complex system but training doesn’t have to be complicated to be hellishly effective.

I would say that I think the introduction went a little bit wrong when Jason tried to get into some of the deep scientific reasons that loaded stretching might work (personally I think they are just a heavy loaded eccentric). Going from talking about progressive overload and beating your logbook to a discussion of hyperplasia and PGF2a seemed a bit out of place to me. Then again, in one of the bonus sections he mentions having a degree in immunology. So he’s just another labcoat; a big labcoat mind you, but a labcoat nonetheless.

As well, the camera guy thought it would be cute to move from a straight ahead shot to this sort of 45 degree angle shot (thank you MTV) so part of the time Jason is sort of looking off to the side of the screen and not talking directly to you. This is a pretty minor quibble on my part.

Workout 1: The first workout demonstrated consisted of chest, delts, triceps, back width and back thickness. Frankly, I usually find watching training videos boring as dirt and this wasn’t much different, it took me several viewings to get through it. Basically, we got to watch the guys explain and then warmup prior to doing a rest pause set for incline bench, DB shoulder presses, reverse grip bench presses and a sort of modified rack chinning movement (DB held in the lap), static holds were done after several movements although neither lifter got even close to 30 seconds on any of them.

For reasons that went unexplained, rack pulls for back thickness were done for 2 straight sets (note: the reason is that rest pausing deads is a good way to kill yourself when your form breaks down). Both Jason and Franco are big strong boys and they moved some serious weight (IMO, Jason had the better form on everything).

Possibly the most interesting bit of watching the workout was seeing the loaded/extreme stretches themselves. Those never lent themselves to verbal descriptions and seeing what is actually being done for them will be informative for anybody interested in the system. Since the lifters did slightly different stretches (sometimes), it also gives viewers some options for their own training should they pursue the methodology.

Each set is accompanied by loud heavy metal and the guys joke with one another between sets. The segment ends with each lifter explaining how they personally log their workouts. I found it kind of useless but, then again, when 99% of gym goers don’t record a thing, seeing that a couple of big boys record their workouts to keep track of their progress is a good thing.

Workout 2: Workout 2 consisted of biceps, forearms, calves, hamstrings and finally, quads. Biceps were hit with incline DB curls, forearms (really brachialis) with a cross body curl that they called pinwheel curls. This was followed by a loaded/extreme stretch. Calves were a single LONG set consisting of calf raises with an incorporated extreme stretch, it hurt to watch. Hamstrings were leg curls, for some reason the hamstring stretch was not shown but only described via text. Finally quads were hit by leg press, two straight sets (no reason was given for not using rest-pause). Frankly, I was a bit disappointed here, DC’s guys tend to talk about 20 rep ‘widomaker’ squats as if they are the key to the system, I was hoping to see a good set of 20 reppers done on the DVD.

As with Workout 1, some good poundages were moved and the guys goofed off between sets. It was funny seeing the look on a couple of the other gym-goer’s face as Jason and Franco loaded up the leg press with just about every plate in the gym.

Special features: The DVD had a number of special features which I’ll describe briefly.

DC nutrition: A basic look at DC nutrition concepts including protein, carbs, fat, intake, how much to eat, etc.

Alternative exercises: Shows a bunch of alternative training movements (with an overemphasis on arm training in my opinion) some of which you’ve probably seen and some of which you haven’t. I’m still disappointed that the DVD showed no squatting.

Wojo’s Wisdom: One of the dudes on the DVD shares some of his experiences with training over the years, he makes some good points regarding getting injured, not being ego driven and taking rest if your body is telling you to and other things most gym rats simply don’t do (but should).

Interview: A very informal interview with Franco and Jason, I had trouble staying focused and paying attention to this.

Big Larry: I zoned out completely on this, it was something with 4 DC guys eating at Texas Roadhouse talking about something or another but I had completely lost interest by that point in the DVD. If I missed THE SECRET to DC training by skipping this, please let me know exactly what time point on the DVD it occurs and I’ll go back and watch it.

And that’s that. Overall, I think this is a good DVD and anybody interested in an excellent introduction to the DC system (and seeing how actual workouts play out) would be advised to purchase it. I usually find training videos to be painfully generic (watching a big dude blast his guns is boring as hell) but this one is actually pretty informative for folks who have heard about DC training and want to learn more.

Learn more about the DC Training DVD

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