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.


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.


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.


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

I’d also note that Trueprotein is one of the few places that I trust to provide quality supplements and I personally get all of my protein powder from them. If you choose to order, you can get a 5% discount by using the coupon code “Lyle”.

A Quick Look at Some Popular Hypertrophy Programs

Although I tend to get shoe-horned into ‘nutritionist’ (or worse-yet, ‘the keto guy’), I actually started life with a passion for exercise physiology. Still have it and looking at the physiology of muscle growth, along with real-world programs that ‘work’ has long-been an interest in mine.

In this article, I want to look at three of the more popular hypertrophy programs that are out there on the internet. The first is Doggcrapp (or DC) training which is the brainchild of Dante Trudeau (he also runs The second is Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training or HST. Finally, of course, I have my own approach to muscle mass gains which I’ll talk about a bit too.

As you’ll see, while each program shares certain commonalities (as all programs that ‘work’ will), they also have a lot of differences. This simply reflects the realities of training, every program out there has to make some concession depending on the overall philosophy and approach of the designer. The variables of interest here are intensity, frequency and volume and, as you’ll see, each program has to concede one aspect in order to emphasize another.

If this reads a little bit roughly, it’s because I originally made it as a post to a forum, basically pointing out that they simply approach the main issues of training (frequency, intensity, volume) from slightly different places. Here’s what I wrote:

IMO, a lot of it depend on where you fall philosophically in terms of training, physiologically you can argue for various approaches a lot of different ways. Looking at three approaches to hypertrophy training, for example: a lot of it comes down to the interactions between frequency, intensity and volume.

1. Bryan’s Hypertrophy Specific training: looking mainly at gene expression, Bryan trades intensity and volume for a higher frequency. You train 3X/week but only max out about once every 2 weeks or so. This would be similar to Pavel’s Grease the Groove approach approach.

2. Doggcrapp trades intensity for volume and frequency and focuses primarily on progressive overload (the goal is to beat your previous workout poundages at every workout) in addition to trying to stimulate that maximum amount of growth with the minimum volume (DC uses rest pause training to accomplish this). Volume is lower, frequency is cut to about once/fifth day but the intensity is very very high with the rest pause and loaded stretches. Many people burn out badly on DC but the guys who thrive on it grow very well.

3. My generic bulking program is stock in the middle because I’m a middle of the road kind of guy. I generically like to see a bodypart hit about 2X/week with slightly lowered intensity (relative to DC) although higher than Bryan’s HST. I recommend about a rep short of failure so that the volume (which is higher per workout than either DC or HST) can be accomplished. I’m trying to strike a volume between the issues of frequency (for gene expression and protein synthesis), recovery (failure training can burn people out) and progression (I want to see the poundages going up consistently over the cycle).

Is one ‘better’ than the other? In the long run, I doubt it. If, at the end of 2 years of training, each trainee has hit roughly the same place in terms of absolute strength (weight on the bar), I bet size will be the same.

So a lot of the choice then becomes which approach to hypertrophy training:

a. Fits the trainee’s psychologically. Fore example, someone who ONLY feels good about training if they blow themselves out will hate HST and absolutely LOVE DC. Someone who hates training a given lift as infrequency as DC might prefer HST (you train a lift 3X/week) or my approach. etc. Someone who wants to be in the gym more often than 3x/week might prefer mine (or one of Bryan’s HST modifications that lets you train very distributed volume 6X/week, very much like Pavel’s GTG stuff)

b. Fits their individual recovery pattern . I’ve seen a lot of people say that DC just blew them out. And I’m NOT saying this is a drug thing. A lot of DC’s guys are juiced and a lot are not. But no everyone seems able to train that intensely and recover. In which case, HST or my approach might be a better ‘fit’ physiologically.

And I’m sure there are other considerations. If you’re a cellar dwellar (someone who trains in the basement), you might not be able to rotate exercises like DC recommends (he usually says pick 3 movements per bodypart and rotate them, switching out whole exercises wen they stall). If you train at home and have limited equipment, that’s not workable and a program centered around the same lift for any given cycle might work better.

I’m sure I’ve left out many many other considerations (injuries, individual biomechanics) but that’s just a quick look at some of the things that might go into deciding which approach to hypertrophy is best.