So there’s a war brewin’. Or rather a war going on. The war over volume versus intensity/tension. So over the past three weeks I wrote a series of articles examining the issue of muscular tension, it’s importance in initiating growth (it is the primary factor in growth no matter how anybody wants to cut it) and, among other topics discussed the idea of effective reps.
The idea here is that the repetitions that actually turn on the FAK/PA/mTOR pathway are the repetitions done under maximum recruitment (said recruitment being reachable in multiple ways). With some currently unknown number of “effective reps” being optimal for turning on growth (nobody including me has EVER said there isn’t a volume component to growth. Only that it isn’t the primary driver.)
I’d mention that I am by no means the first to write about or conceptualize this idea, I might add. I believe Blade (Borge Fagerli) calls them “hypertrophic reps” and Chris Beardsley has probably written about them the most extensively. Mind you, I don’t agree with all his conclusions (hell, I don’t always agree with all of my own conclusions on any given day) but I agree with far more than not. And certainly more than a lot of the bullshit being written about training currently.
Of course, not everyone agrees with this concept. Big shocker. I suspect some of them aren’t quit clear on the implications or recommendations that come out of it but no matter. There is and will always be disagreement in the field. But hey, they can be wrong just like everybody else can be wrong with them (he said smugly).
Anyhow, over the weekend I was made aware of an Infographic (always the easiest way to push information in a simple/simplistic, meaning wrong, way to the masses) involving the study I want to examine today. It seems to be being interpreted in several ways not the least of which is that it argues AGAINST idea of the effective repetition concept.
And in a sense it might. And in another sense, it’s set up so badly to test the concept that I wonder about the people interpreting in that fashion in terms of their overall understanding of some rather basic training concepts. I’ll come back to that. First, the abstract.
Carroll KM et. al Skeletal Muscle fiber Adaptations Following Resistance Training Using Repetition Maximums or Relative Intensity. Sports (Basel). 2019 Jul 11;7(7).
The purpose of the study was to compare the physiological responses of skeletal muscle to a resistance training (RT) program using repetition maximum (RM) or relative intensity (RISR). Fifteen well-trained males underwent RT 3 d·wk-1 for 10 weeks in either an RM group (n = 8) or RISR group (n = 7).
The RM group achieved a relative maximum each day, while the RISR group trained based on percentages. The RM group exercised until muscular failure on each exercise, while the RISR group did not reach muscular failure throughout the intervention. Percutaneous needle biopsies of the vastus lateralis were obtained pre-post the training intervention, along with ultrasonography measures.
Dependent variables were: fiber type-specific cross-sectional area (CSA); anatomical CSA (ACSA); muscle thickness (MT); mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR); adenosine monophosphate protein kinase (AMPK); and myosin heavy chains (MHC) specific for type I (MHC1), type IIA (MHC2A), and type IIX (MHC2X). Mixed-design analysis of variance and effect size using Hedge’s g were used to assess within- and between-group alterations. RISR statistically increased type I CSA (p = 0.018, g = 0.56), type II CSA (p = 0.012, g = 0.81), ACSA (p = 0.002, g = 0.53), and MT (p < 0.001, g = 1.47).
RISR also yielded a significant mTOR reduction (p = 0.031, g = -1.40). Conversely, RM statistically increased only MT (p = 0.003, g = 0.80). Between-group effect sizes supported RISR for type I CSA (g = 0.48), type II CSA (g = 0.50), ACSA (g = 1.03), MT (g = 0.72), MHC2X (g = 0.31), MHC2A (g = 0.87), and MHC1 (g = 0.59); with all other effects being of trivial magnitude (g < 0.20). Our results demonstrated greater adaptations in fiber size, whole-muscle size, and several key contractile proteins when using RISR compared to RM loading paradigms.
So there’s a lot going on here. As I stated in the actual introduction, the paper in question is being used (at least in some circles) to argue against the effective rep concepts (or possibly a more specific interpretation). I’ll explain how that conclusion is being reached in a moment.
But there is another semi-related concept that has to do with the idea of training to failure and whether it is good, bad, indifferent, required, optimum or something else. And the answer, as always is that it depends. This isn’t the place for that entire discussion and I’ll only “briefly” talk about it here.
The idea of training to failure, to the point where another full range repetition cannot be completed regardless of effort, has come and gone in the training world. I think it was probably most popularized by Arthur Jones and it got taken further (and stupider) with things like Heavy Duty by Mike Mentzer and the eventual HIT cult (including spinoffs such as Superslow/Slow Burn which took the dumb to an entirely new level since nobody behind that understood even basic physics).
Now Art Jones original writings were actually not insane. His idea was that the current ideas of training at the time (mostly super high volume stuff ala Arnold) was nuts, that intensity was more important with lower volume but harder work being superior to more but lower intensity work.
His early workout ideas were fairly reasonable in terms of their overall volumes (~9 sets to true failure per week from memory) even if some of it was probably linked to selling his machine line. And it went off the rails when the extremists got ahold of it with the volumes going down and down, the intensity going up and up and the suggested frequencies getting idiotic. At the end Mentzer was recommending like one set to failure per muscle group every 2 weeks which is just asinine.
Among other logical arguments endemic to HIT was the idea that “If you don’t train to failure, you can’t gauge the intensity of the set.” Seemingly logical but wrong. We have RPE, Reps in Reserve (RIR) and Reps to Failure (RTF) which with practice let people estimate per set or per workout intensity reasonably well.
Ol’ers and PL’ers used percentages for ages. But it’s usually a bad idea to try to “logic” training since your “logic” just ends up supporting what you already believe. It’s like philosophy where your initial assumptions invariably contain your conclusion.
Mind you, using those metrics takes training and practice. To know how many reps you have to failure, you have to know where failure is. Most do not have a clue what true failure is, a topic of a later article. I’ll only say this: if nothing else, spending some time training to true failure is the only way to really know how far away from it you might be. Whether you should do it all the time, some of the time or whatever is a different issue. But if you don’t know where X is you cant’ know where X minus 3-4 is.
Side-note: One of the HIT logical arguments was that “If you’re going to do more than one set, why not 10, or 20, or 100.” Not only is this a logical fallacy of excluding the middle (the options are not 1 or 100 and you can do like 6-8 and it’s ok) I have recently opined that what was meant as an argument against high volumes has seems to have been taken as a recommendation by a certain number of current training experts ( I dislike the passive aggressive approach of putting the word experts in quotes). As usual, I digress.
But there are other questions regarding whether failure is good, bad, etc. It depends on context. What is ideal for hypertrophy might not be the same as for training the big three for a powerlifter or training for athletic performance. Hypertrophy is about stressing the muscle to turn on a biochemical pathway and little else. The powerlifter, Ol’er or strength/power athlete has to worry about technical consistency and here technique often falls apart under heavy loads to failure.
3 sets of 5 (15 reps) to failure will not give the same technical goodness as 5 sets of 3 (15 reps) or 8 sets of 2 (16 reps) with the same load. The quality of training is better with the latter two choices. Bar speed stays higher, etc. Some coaches, including myself, train the deadlift with singles only. And this matters especially for complex activities. Power cleans to failure are a bad idea. For a bodybuilder on a Hammer incline machine, who cares?
There are other issues. Often doing a few sets to failure exhausts the person so much that their total per workout volume suffers. One truly limit set early in the workout can wreck people for the entire workout. They lose a ton of reps on the next set or have to cut weight enormously to maintain rep range. Keeping one or two reps in the tank early on and saving failure for the last set often prevents this.
Concepts of auto-regulation or even old school percentage training often has a more important for athletes to get high quality training with good bar speed, etc. Again, this doesn’t matter for pure hypertrophy by and large.
Which brings me to the paper which looked at muscular adaptations to athletes training either with repetition maximum load (RM, the number of repetitions that can be done prior to failure. So a 12RM is the heaviest weight you can lift 12 but not 12 times) to sets done using a relative intensity (percentage of best load for a given repetition range I think). Which in a sense is comparing failure to non-failure training.
And by extension, sort of the idea of effective reps in the sense that failure training is argued to provide more effective reps per set. But not exactly for reasons I’ll come back to below (the confusion is that only sets to failure can generate effective reps and this isn’t true as I pointed out in my article series).
More specifically, I think, people seem to be arguing with something Chris Beardsley has written regarding “the last 5 sets of a set to failure being the important ones.” And this happens to be a place I disagree with him as well since I don’t follow or agree with his logic to derive the 5 reps of a set number to begin with.
As I showed in my series, a set to failure, depending on the load on the bar might generate anywhere from 3-8 effective reps. Fine, 5 is an average but I don’t think it’s an absolute number and I still don’t get how he’s getting to it despite numerous attempts in my group to explain it to me. No matter.
And I suppose whether or not this study is for or against the effective rep concept depends on which part you’re arguing against: effective reps in general or the “5 final reps of a set to failure” idea. Honestly, for reasons I’ll explain, I’m not sure this paper appropriately addresses either of them. Onward and upward.
The study recruited 18 males of which 15 actually completed the study, who had an average of 7+-4.2 years of training experience at least 3 days per week. Based on their mid-thigh high pull peak force they were deemed as well trained based on other research. I’ll have to take their word for it but already I think we can already question what relevance this has to bodybuilders. How many of you reading this know what a mid-thigh high pull is much less do them? Only the Oler’s and Crossfitters have a clue.
Neither pre- nor post-study anthropometrics were given which is one of those weird exclusions I never quite understand. They clearly had the data since they mention measuring bodyweight at the end. But it wasn’t presented outside of stating that there were no differences between the two. Maybe, this journal, unlike others I could mention DOES have a word limit. Dunno. But it’s weird.
I’d note that in reading and re-reading the paper I realized that a lot of the information left out of this paper was included in a previously published paper (link below) analyzing the same data set. It still didn’t list pre and post-study anthropometrics.
The subjects were randomized to either a relative intensity group or a rep max group which took the final set of each exercise to failure. But the subject numbers were small, 7 and 8 respectively but the groups were equally matched in terms of training age, strength, etc. This is altogether too common in exercise physiology research.
Subjects trained three times per week for 10 weeks which is decently long at least. Some think 12 weeks is the minimum training study length to have a chance of measuring differences but this is what happens when you’re subject group is limited to college or grad students on a quarter system. Even on semesters by the time you recruit, set up and do the study, they are ready for spring break. So you best end the study before then.
The relative intensity (RI) group had their intensity set relative to “estimated set-rep maxes” So if they were given 10 reps at 80%, that was 80% of their best estimated 10 RM load. Now, I already have concerns with the estimation of RM loads since those equations get funky sometimes. Anybody who has even tried to estimate an XRM from a YRM has already found this out the hard way.
I am also unable to find what data they even based those set-rep values on (i.e. how did they estimate 10RM). It might be there and I’m missing it. I don’t know. It’s not in this paper, it’s not in the other paper. At least I can’t find it.
In contrast, the RM group were described as taking the last set of each exercise to failure and had the load adjusted at the next workout based on their actual performance on that set. If they got less reps then the target, it was decreased by at least 2.5%, if more, it went up by at least 2.5%.
Exactly zero other information is about the rest of the sets. So as you’ll see in one week they do 3X8-12 reps with the last set to failure. Ok, well how was intensity or load set in the first two sets? It wasn’t described anywhere I can find in either paper.
Oh yeah, in a throwaway sentence I almost missed, the subjects were described as “Additionally, sprint training was conducted 2 d·wk−1 throughout the intervention on Tuesdays and Thursdays and was identical for both groups.” This was meant to mimick the types of real world training that would occur in an athletic setting which is what this paper was actually testing.
This actually led me to track back to an earlier paper that did an analysis of the same data set. Which contains slightly more information about the study protocol including a discussion of measurements of training monotony and strain, which I’ll come back to below.
Although it still doesn’t say how the RI group’s weights were estimated or what was done on the non-failure sets in the RM group. This seems like important information to me. Maybe I am truly missing it in the methods.
The researchers hypothesis was that the relative intensity group would show superior results to the RM load group and several measurements were made.
Vertical jump and isometric mid thigh pull (seriously?) were measured every few weeks during the study to gauge performance. Not bench, not squat. Mid thigh isometric pull and vertical jump. Ok.
A variety of muscular measurements were made. This included a muscle biopsy of the vastus lateralis (VL) only for typing and size. A number of molecular measurements were also made including mTOR activity.
VL muscle thickness was measured by Ultrasound before the intervention and 48-72 hours after the last workout. Body water was measured in an attempt to control for hydration. I’ll go ahead and address this now: the researchers mention that they did not control for edema but make the standard claim that it should be gone by the time point (still debatable but no matter).
However, since both groups did the same effective volumes in terms of sets and reps, I see zero reason that there would be any sort of systematic difference as there might be when you are comparing three fold differences in volume.
Basically, I don’t think it’s an issue here as it is in studies comparing varying volumes of training (where we don’t know if higher volumes generate more edema than lower and where you can not infer from a study using 9 sets/week to a group doing 5 times that). If there was edema still present, I’d expect it to be the same in both groups and I think it can be ignored.
As I will be doing from now on (so a certain researcher can’t whine that “Lyle has never worried about blinding before” as another pathetic deflection), I checked to see if it was. I always will going forwards. ALWAYS.
A word search on “Blind” found 0 instances of the word so I take the Ultrasound to be unblinded. raising the risk of bias. Perhaps the lead researcher studied with Brad because this shit is unacceptable in 2019. Mike Stone, the last author has been doing research for like 40+ years. He should know better. Then again, so should Brad after 10 years and he still can’t get it right.
They did what a I presume to be a fairly standard set of statistical analysis and I won’t bore readers with it because I’ll get it wrong and they actually adhered to the results.
And given that their results matched their hypothesis, well this is a problem. Mind you it’s a problem even if the results don’t match. It’s just shitty methodology. WE BLIND TO REDUCE THE RISK OF BIAS. This shouldn’t be difficult.
Ok, so I’ve shown the results below for biopsy and Ultrasound measurements. This is what was shared on Instagram. And without the other information about the study looks pretty damning against the effective rep/5 effective rep concept. Because overall the RM group had POORER growth than the RI group. With the presumptive logic being that the RI group got less effective reps yet grew better.
Ok so A is Type I fibers and B is Type II fibers, upper graphs are biopsy and lower graphs are Ultrasound. By all measures, the RI group in both fibers by both measurement methods. In contrast, only Ulstrasound showed a significant increase in Type II fiber in the RM group.
That’s what the asterisks mean in all 4 panels, it’s pre- vs. post-study data for the RI group. In contrast, you can only see the one cross in the lower right panel indicating significance in Type II fibers by Ultrasound in the RM group.
Now, it’s a little weird that Ultrasound showed growth in Type II fibers in the RM group but biopsy didn’t. It could be a statistical anomaly, it could simply be a difference in the measurement methods with one but not the other being able to pick up changes. But beyond that, the result is the result and the statistics are the statistics and I won’t try to dance around them (I’ll leave that to others). This is what it found which is what it found. So I’ll go from there.
The researchers note that effect size analysis also favored the relative intensity group, being small-large versus small-moderate.
I’ll be honest that I’m not the guy to parse the molecular level data but I’m not sure it matters that much. With one exception, a slightly larger decrease in resting mTOR in the relative intensity group, there were no statistical differences in the other measures. And I don’t have the first clue what that decrease even means physiologically. Neither does my mTOR expert buddy. Go ask a a molecular biologist.
The researchers address other issues, notably limitations. One was not controlling for edema, I addressed that above and wouldn’t expect a systematic difference between groups. Also, diet wasn’t controlled but it never is. As there was no statistically significant difference in bodyweight changes over the study (this was the only mention of it I could find), this is unlikely to have been an issue of one group undereating.
Ok, so boom, there ya’ have it. Slightly better growth in a singular lower body muscle was seen for a group training with relative intensity versus failure. Aha, effective reps are bullshit and it’s just volume/RI is better and, blah, blah.
But wait. Because while Instagram Infographics are nice and simple (and hence wrong), the devil is usually in the details. So let’s look at them.
Now let me address the workout. Because if you think some previous studies had weird workout designs, this one was absolutely nutso. Probably not through any inherent design choice but because Mike Stone has been around since the 70’s and came out of the NSCA Olympic lifting crew. I refer to the NSCA’s approach to training as the Three P’s: plyometrics, powercleans and periodization which they apply to athletes and the general public alike. Stone always sets up studies like this.
I mean, C’mon, Isometric Mid Thigh Pull as a strength measure instead of bench and squat? That should tell you where this study is focused. It’s an old school Ol’ing biased guy drawing up “athletic” training programs. Which is all fine and well but not really that relevant to pure hypertrophy training. Unless you have and Ol’ing background, you won’t recognize many of the movements.
First here are the loading parameters
Ok, some explanations. You can see the set and rep schemes which were consistent for both groups. They changed every few weeks which went from strength-endurance (sets of 10, ok), to max strength (3 sets of 5) to a one week ‘overreach (a whopping 5 sets of 5, for a single week which is hardly overreaching in my opinion), and then a speed strength block.
Just curious but does anybody consider a speed-strength block relevant for hypertrophy or to bodybuilders? Yeah, me neither.
They called setup this block training but I’d question that based on most current definitions (i.e. Issurin). This is a stock-standard linear approach so far as I’m concerned: anatomical adaptation/strength endurance, hypertrophy, max strength, speed strength. Block training implies a primary focus with maintenance for other capacities which this didn’t have.
The relative intensity group was set by percentage which I take to be the percentage of their best RM. So 3X10@80% is with a weight of 80% of their estimated 10RM. Again, there is no indication I can find of how they estimated the RM’s for the RI group.
In contrast, the RM group was given RM loads with a repetition range (so 3X8-12 for the 3X10 relative intensity block), described above as the last set of the series taken to failure and loads adjusted as needed within the workout. As I said, zero information was given about how the previous sets done in terms of the weight or intensity. I won’t even attempt to guess but it’s another of those baffling exclusions (unless I’m truly missing it in the paper which is not outside of the realm of possibility).
The relative intensity group also had two heavy (Mon/Fri) and one lighter (Wed) workout while the RM group trained to “failure” all 3 days.
But now look at the workouts themselves and at least think about them within the context of hypertrophy training and the loading parameter set-up. And don’t forget that sprint training was done on Tuesday and Thursday.
And it’s kind of all over the map. Many of the exercises change block to block but it is a consistent change between groups so that’s no issue. But there are others. Consider the Wednesday workout which contains one or two Ol’ing movements. The clean grip mid thigh pull, or clean pull in the first block of training (again, I bet a lot of people reading this don’t even know what those movements are without Googling).
The strength endurance block was 3X10/3X8-12. Do you know who does clean pulls for sets of 10? Nobody. And certainly nobody does them to failure. Ok, maybe Crossfitters. Ol’ers might do clean pulls for sets of 3-5 (one very annoying Ironmind video I watched had guys doing 4’s and that’s just wrong). Nobody does 10’s in those movements and nobody goes to failure on them.
At least in the max strength phase it’s only 5’s and that’s more realistic as a rep range. But a 4-6 RM in the movement? Nobody does that as it’s not a movement that lends itself to failure anymore than powercleans or snatches do. Which makes the workout setup fail the reality check: people don’t really train like this in the real world.
Beyond that can anybody look at this and consider it even remotely relevant to hypertrophy training of any sort? The change in sets and reps, the exercise selection? C’mon, no way. It’s an “athletic” program the kind Stone has been writing since the 1970’s (go look at all of his older papers) but I question the relevance to the topic of effective reps or hypertrophy at hand except indirectly.
Fine, you say, but that doesn’t change the results that growth was better in the one muscle measured for the relative intensity group. Fair enough and certainly this paper was aimed at examining muscular adaptations.
But I think there is another issue, the place I mentioned above where a basic tenet of training design got left out or ignored. Both by the researchers and seemingly the folks reporting on this. Time for one of my major digressions.
The FITT Equation
The FITT equation is one of the oldest ideas out there although a couple of new letters I forget at the moment have been added to it. It stands for Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type of activity.
Frequency is how often, intensity is how hard (measured differently by different people) and time is how long. Time is a little difficult for weight training since we might define it at sets, reps, training volume or workout length (for endurance activities, it’s time). Let’s just call it “how much” for now and let that vaguely refer to volume measured in some form or fashion (I’ll more or less use sets). Type is weight training and the only use of that component is to distinguish one sort of exercise from another.
And what’s important is that these factors interact. It’s the old “You have three variables, pick two.” And not only do they interact but they are usually inversely related. That is, if you increase one, you have to decrease one or both of the others. And this is basic knowledge. Or should be.
If you want to increase training intensity (i.e. working closer to failure) you have to reduce the volume (total sets per workout or per week) or frequency (how often you train) or both. If you want to increase training frequency and train more often, you have to reduce the per workout volume (i.e. distribute your sets) or intensity or both.
The Norwegian PL’ing program everybody used to talk about was aimed at this even if many really mis-reported/misinterpreted what it dd. They wanted to lower the overall intensity of training (the average was something like 73% for the week) and train more frequently to get their lifters away from the lower frequency/volume and higher intensity training they had been doing. I don’t know if weekly volume changed (I think it was just distributed more evenly) but to raise frequency, intensity had to be reduced.
If you want to increase your volume, you have to reduce intensity per workout and possibly reduce frequency. If you want to go from 10 to 20 sets in a workout for some reason, you have to cut intensity because, muscle media claims to the contrary, nobody can maintain true quality across that volume of training. The idea of high intensity AND high volume is simply nonsensical muscle magazine crap. Intensity or volume, pick one.
Type of activity can actually play a role here. Most people can ride a bike more often and at a higher relative intensity than they can run because running breaks people. Swimmers may train the most frequently at the highest volume and intensity for that same reason.
It’s low impact, the athletes don’t break into little pieces and they suck so much in the water that even maximal intensity is survivable. You can snatch to maximum more than you can clean and jerk to maximum, etc. You can bench heavier more often than you can squat or deadlift. And you can Ol to maximum more often than you can (or should) do the powerlifts to maximum.
Does that make sense, how the factors interact? If you alter one, you have to alter one or more of the others to compensate.
Because you can examine several hypertrophy systems within that context. The old school once/week training approach relies on a huge volume at that one workout. Fifteen to twenty sets or so. But they can’t all be to failure since nobody can maintain that intensity for that many sets (despite the bullshit written in muscle magazines or the Internet). Go find videos of Arnold and folks of that time training that way. It’s done at a pretty decent intensity (and heavy) but usually sets aren’t to true limits.
Even then you often have to consider the pyramid nature of how they often trained. 15, 12, 10, one very hard set of 8. It’s 4 sets and the volume adds up but only one is even close to limits. Dorian, who often gets claimed by the HIT guys for “only doing 1 set to failure” did more than one set PER EXERCISE since he pyramided up to that singular all out set. Which isn’t the same as saying go do a single set on each exercise and go home.
Then we have the Barbalho studies that suggested in both women and men, if you go to true failure, more volume not only doesn’t help but may hurt because it rapidly becomes non-recoverable. No human could do 14 sets of 5RM in a single workout and survive much less adapt to it. I do still want to see replication of those papers with the volumes split across two weekly workouts though.
In contrast we can look at Dante Trudell’s Doggcrapp training system. It is based around taking a set to voluntary failure and either stopping (during the cruise) or adding several mini-sets (during the blast) for a rest-pause effect. And it’s also low volume, 2-3 total sets depending on how you count it up (and the loaded stretching is a heavy eccentric set in my opinion) every 5th day or so.
Basically DC training trades volume and frequency for intensity (and progressive tension overload by beating the training book, cough cough). It’s maximum intensity with a reduced volume and frequency and Dante’s goal was to generate the maximal stimulus with the lowest possible training volume (since more volume just cuts into recovery).
Or look at Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST). It is based around three workouts per week per muscle. The volume is admittedly somewhat low (or was back in the day, it’s been years since I read anything about it) but the intensity also gradually builds from submaximal to a single maximal workout at the end of every 2 week blocks. It trades intensity and volume for a higher frequency of training.
My Generic Bulking Routine is more less the middle ground on all of them. For most, I program each muscle twice/week (once every 5 days for old farts with poor recovery) with about 6-8 sets and 40-70 total reps per muscle group. You start a bit submaximally in the first 2 weeks and then try to add weight as often as possible for the next 6 weeks but should be hanging out in the 2-3 RIR range at least on the first set of any given movements.
Since rest intervals are set to not give full recovery (but still allow a high quality of training) so you will get closer to failure with each set. On the last you might hit failure but then you move on to another movement. It’s a happy balance between frequency (2X/week), intensity (heavy but not maximal), per-workout volume (6-8ish sets) and per-week volume. (12-16 ish sets/muscle group per week).
Or look at the Haun study I continue to pick on. Done at a piss-ass intensity (sets of 10 with 14RM) and absurd rest interval (8-10′ between sets for a given exercise) with a 3X/week training frequency and volumes increasing from reasonable to insane (10 to 32 sets per week). It trades intensity for frequency and excessive volume along with trading effective training for sheer pointlessness.
Does this make sense? Volume, frequency and intensity interact and if you increase one you MUST cut another. Sometimes you must cut both.
Because what you cannot do is keep two variables the same and just change the third. For example, you can’t set up two identical workouts in terms of frequency and volume and then have one group work at a much higher intensity than the first. Well you can but you shouldn’t.
Back to the Paper
And that is exactly what this paper did. Same workout frequency, same set and rep volume but one group was at failure and the other wasn’t. And it’s NO SHOCK to me that the failure group did worse in this case. You might counterargue that the failure group only took one set to failure. True. But without more information no more can be gleaned from that about what in the hell they actually did.
And this interaction that seems to have been ignored by folks is important. Because if you bump intensity and don’t cut volume or frequency, it’s very possible to overwhelm folks recovery. They overtrain.
And as many reporting their little infographics seem to have missed, the researchers brought this up in the discussion:
This is possibly due to a lack of recovery allowed by virtue of consistently training to failure in the RM group, rather than insufficient stimuli. In support of this, Moran-Navarro et al.  recently demonstrated that performing bench press and back squats to failure delays recovery of neuromuscular performance by up to 24–48 h post-exercise .
Basically, it wasn’t that the training load was too little…IT WAS TOO MUCH.
And I’d say it’s more than possible. It’s probable. If training to failure requires 3 days to fully recover and the next failure workout is in 2 days, well what happens? People can’t recover and either their performance drops or they can’t adapt to it. Not so much over the short-term but definitely over the long-term.
And that’s exactly what this study did. Because on top of the other goofiness (NOBODY does mid thigh clean pulls for hypertrophy and certainly not for sets of 10 and certainly not for 8-12RM), the workout didn’t modify frequency or volume to account for the differences in intensity between the groups.
But more importantly, you simply can’t keep volume and frequency the same and take one group to limits and the other not. Nobody doing DC would attempt to hit a muscle group every other day, they’d never recover. And nobody wanting to train a muscle group three times per week would go to failure unless maybe volume was very very low per workout.
And there is another factor adding even more to this.
The Sprint Training
Now add to this the sprint training on Tuesday and Thursday. The RM group would have been doing not only three weekly workouts to failure (at least on the one set) which is challenging enough but now add high intensity work on the “off days” as sprint training.
So the legs are getting hit at maximum intensity FIVE DAYS PER WEEK. And we know from the concurrent training data that this would be a huge problem. Certainly weights and HIT/sprint training may be somewhat more compatible than weights and long-duration aerobic training but not when one group is training at maximum intensity 5 days per week. Nobody can recover from that. It’s a ludicrous training load with poor sequencing and a poor logical setup.
Which is far different than the structure for the RI group which had a distinct light day (allowing recovery between the 2 harder days and wasn’t to limits on the other days. Going further to this, in the first study on this data set, they mention that training monotony and strain was higher in the RM group.
Training monotony has to do with how overall training loads occur over the week. Weeks with a low training monotony have a higher variance in intensities (i.e. heavy/light/heavy/light) while weeks with a high training monotony do not. Training strain is just an estimate of the total, well, training strain. High monotony and high strain are associated with overtraining in the long-term.
So despite “similar external loading” they were being exposed to a MUCH higher internal training load. The high monotony means they were doing high intensity all week in the RM group while the RI group had more variation. High training strain was just a higher overall training load.
Of course the RM group did worse. They were being trained much harder despite the workouts looking similar. And nobody in the real world would train that way, just adding intensity to one group without adjusting the rest of the training. Their conclusions aren’t surprising but so what?
Let’s further consider that the only muscle that was measured was the quadriceps. Which just happens to be the muscle being trained 4-5 at maximum intensity five times per week in the RM group. We know full well that concurrent training tends to impact lower body more than upper for this reason (i.e. most aerobic/HIIT modalities are lower body so there’s more overlap with leg training). So what would a measure of the triceps or biceps have shown? Well we don’t know. But I suspect it would have been different. I could be wrong but I bet I’m not.
By measuring the quads only, they may have gotten a skewed picture of things due to the workout structure. Is it any shock that 3 RM days for legs and 2 sprint days in-between were too much? It’s not to me. Measuring the upper body would have parsed this out. So would not having used an idiotic workout design that we could predict ahead of time wouldn’t have worked well for the RM group.
Back to the Failure Issue
I just think the workout fails the real-world reality check on every level not to mention having to fit within the broader base of literature. Much of which is, unfortunately, equally stupid because of the irrelevant comparisons being made.
I previously mentioned that 3/7 study which did a series of 3,4,5,6,7 reps at 70% of max with 15″ rest twice compared to 8X6 at the same weight. 70% of max is at least 12 reps for most people so 8 sets of 6 is a bunch of warm-up sets. So yeah it worked less well than a weird ladder that got at least a bit challenging at the end due to some cumulative fatigue.
Several studies have gone the route of comparing some amount of failure reps to the same amount of work (usually equated reps) at 50% of those reps per set. Two from the same group, likely representing different data from the same study compared three sets to failure and then, 2 weeks later did the same total reps in 6 sets on various parameters such as strength, soreness and hormones.
So if the failure group got 3X12 to failure (36 total reps) they would have done 6 sets of 6 at the same weight, or a series of warm-up sets. They concluded that the sets to failure were more stressful. Well, yeah because training to failure is more stressful than warming up a bunch. Shocking.
A third compared a bunch of different set rep counts but it came down to either working to limits for a few sets or double the sets at half the rep count. So sets of 12 at 12RM or sets of 6 at 12RM, sets of 10RM or sets of 5 at the 10RM, etc. Shockingly, not shockingly, the failure group showed slower recovery, indicative of more stress. But against it’s limit sets compared to sets at 50% of maximum capacity which are warm-up sets. Would you expect a different result?
The most recent compared 4 sets of 10 to failure to 8 sets of 5 at the same load done twice per week (it called these both high-volume protocols which, ok). The failure group got size gains in the quad and triceps while the failure group didn’t although both showed increase in the anterior deltoid (?). Well yeah, again we’re comparing limit sets to a bunch of warm-ups so no shock the growth was better for failure. Though lord knows what was going on with the deltoid.
And while it would be super easy to use all of this data to say “See, see, intensity, not volume is the driver” since the volumes are equivalent, even I wouldn’t go that far because I think these study designs are pointlessly stupid and mostly irrelevant.
Comparing a few sets to failure to a bunch of warm-up sets at 50% of capacity isn’t a reasonable comparison (even if a lot of people in the gym sure seem to train at about 50% of maximum). Of course failure works better but only because sets at 50% of max aren’t challenging the muscle no matter how many of them you do unless the rest interval is like 15-30 seconds and the last 2 sets are difficult.
So how about we compare 3 sets to failure to 5 sets at a 2RIR or something? Equate the volume load or reps or whatever measure of volume you want to use and make it a reasonable real-world comparison of differences in meaningful intensity. Or do 3 sets to failure one week and come back the next week and do however many sets at 2 reps less than failure with the same weight on the bar that gets you the same volume load.
And so far as I can tell, there’s almost no literature of that sort out there (some seems to look at strength gains but strength and hypertrophy aren’t identical due to technical and neural factors in the first). I actually get why this is done in a research sense since the issue is setting actual intensities that accurately or specifically. Then again this one seems to have used a percentage of estimated RM without explaining how they derived the RM.
Studies often use failure as an end-point since it’s at least semi-objective (I say semi as this is predicated on the subjects being able to go to TRUE failure) as an end point for the set. Trying to guesstimate 3RIR/RTF is a lot more problematic because only well trained folks can do it very well and most people wouldn’t know what true failure was if their lives depended on it. In that vein, I’d love for researchers to shoot video of some of these supposed “to failure” workouts. I’d just be curious to see how close anybody actually is.
But that doesn’t make the comparisons or conclusions any less meaningless. Yes, failure is better than warm-up sets. And?
But by the same token, too much failure is clearly worse than the IDENTICAL VOLUME AND FREQUENCY at a lower intensity. And?
Back to Effective Reps
So what does this say about effective reps? Well, there are two issues here since there seem to be two debates going on. In a general sense, I’m not sure it says anything about them per se. I think the structure of the workout, maximal intensity 5 days/week for the RM group basically made it so that they couldn’t adapt fully.
Which is no shock. Nobody can survive that and with a longer study, I bet they would have cratered completely. The training monotony and training strain values certain suggest that. They survived it for 10 weeks but weren’t able to maximally adapt.
You’ve also got the issue of there being no real indication of a lot of the training structure. How were the RM loads estimated for the RI group, what did the RM groups do in the non-failure sets. We don’t know. It’s possible that one group got more effective reps than the other depending.
I mean doing 3X10 at 90% of 10RM is doing 10 reps at about an 11RM. That gets some effective reps through sheer volume alone. Failure isn’t required for effective reps by any stretch and I went out of my way to point this out in part 1 of my series. It’s a matter of being close enough to reach full recruitment for some number of repetitions in the set. But you can make up for less than a maximal number of effective reps with more work sets.
Given how little information they gave on how the training was set up (i.e. how they estimated the RM loads or what was done in the first two sets in the RM group), it’d be a guess in either direction.
The other issue, and possibly the larger point of contention is Chris Beardsley’s suggestion that it is the “last 5 reps of the set to failure which are the effective ones.” I already said I don’t necessarily agree with this and still don’t follow his logic for deriving that value. I’m sure he’ll have a response to the criticism of his work that is better than my trying to guess at it.
And I suppose this study, inasmuch as it shows that too much work is too much when you don’t make any adjustment to the training for intensity, doesn’t support that 5 value. And?
Anybody who can look at this study, the weird design, the lack of available information about what was actually done, the fact that the RM group trained 5X/week at a maximal intensity, and the fact that only the quads (which we’d expect to be hit the worst by this) were measured and conclude much of anything about training for hypertrophy is perplexing.
So far as I’m concerned the study says nothing about effective reps one way or another. In my mind it, says that overtraining one group is worse than not overtraining the other by actually setting up a non-batshit training week. Which hasn’t stopped other conclusions from being reached.
I think if there’s a singular conclusion to be reached it’s this: It’s a lot easier to defend those conclusions when all you do is present a single paper figure in a short Infographic and ignore the details when you present it.
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 4
- Examining Some Popular Hypertrophy Programs
- What is Training Intensity?
- Low Load Training and Videos of Workouts
- Lifting Six Days a Week