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’ll wrap up the discussion of hypertrophy training, summarizing all of this mess and looking at some popular programs and how they do (or don’t) match the information I’ve presented at the very end.
This will allow me to talk about maximal strength in the next part of the series and then either look at Brad Schoenfeld’s new paper (comparing low and high repetition ranges on growth) or power training methods. I haven’t decided what order to write in.
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. Thus is the balance of the universe is maintained. Let’s just jump right in with one of the long-standing debates.
Training to Failure: Part 1
.There are many never-ending debates in the field of weight training but one of the biggest may be over whether or not you should train to the point of momentary muscular failure (defined in just a second). Now, to truly cover this entire topic would probably take another full article series and I’ll try to keep my comments a bit more focused here.
The general concept of training to failure is that a given set should be taken to the point where another full range repetition cannot be completed. You might get part way through the repetition, or halfway through but the point is that you can’t complete the full repetition. This is the most common definition of the concept.
There are others such as form failure which means continuing the set until form breakdown occurs. Depending on the exercise and the trainee’s level, form failure may occur far before true muscular failure or be identical to it. So a relative beginner on squats may see form break down far from muscular failure. A more advanced trainee doing leg presses should true muscular failure since there’s not much “form” to break down.
You can actually get more specific than this in terms of defining when failure occurs. Some people define failure as when form can no longer be maintained (sometimes called technical failure). So you’re doing your perfect squats and even though you might get another repetition by breaking form, you stop the set when you can no longer maintain proper technique. Others (Dr. Ken Leistner comes to mind) pretty much let anything go technique wise and you just keep getting reps until you can’t physically move the bar. It can get pretty ugly and I don’t advocate continuing the set long past the point of technical correctness just to get another rep.
What Happens at Failure?
One factor that most don’t ever seem to consider is what the trainee does when failure occurs and we might define low- and high-volume failure. I’m going to use low-volume failure to refer to the situation where the trainee, once stuck, fairly quickly stops the set (the bar is dropped or a spotter takes it or whatever). So the trainee starts the rep, get stuck for a second and that’s it; the set is over.
If you watch Olympic lifting workouts, you’ll see this a lot, a lifter gets stuck in the middle of a squat recovery and just dumps the bar (a powerlifter or general trainee might keep grinding on it for an extended period as they might still make the lift if they can get it to a place where their mechanical advantage improves). In contrast, high-volume failure would refer to a situation, sometimes recommended where the trainee, upon hitting the failure point pushes into what amounts to a hard isometric for 5-10 seconds before putting the bar away.
You can go further than that and some have defined a difference between concentric failure (the bar can’t be lifted for another full repetition), isometric failure (the bar can’t be held in the same position) or even full eccentric failure (reps are continued until the trainee can’t even control the lowering of the weight).
Going forwards with this discussion, I’m going to ignore all of that and use the simplest definition of momentary muscular failure: performing repetitions until another full concentric (lifting the weight) repetition cannot be performed in good form. 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 (generally at the sticking point).
Training to Failure: Part 2
.Now, ever since Arthur Jones created the concept of High Intensity Training (HIT, not to be confused with High-Intensity Interval Training or HIIT), it’s been often asserted that only by training to failure can you actually know how hard you’re working (basically if you don’t go to 100% you can’t know how hard you worked on the set). With that comes the (completely unproven) further assumption that you can only know that you’ve generated a growth response by working to this point.
I think the idea that you can only know how hard you’re working if you go to 100% to be completely nonsense 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 to failure. Recent research has applied rating of perceived exertion (RPE), reps in reserve (RIR) and reps to failure (RTF) and shown that, with practice, trainees can estimate fairly accurately how far they are from their true limits.
There are changes in bar speed, perceived effort that let a skilled lifter know where they are in the set. Lately there are a number of systems such as Mike Tuscherer’s Reactive Training System that use Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) to determine the relative intensity of the set and this works great although it does take practice.
In that vein I would note that, for most trainees, at least spending some of their early training time going to failure is a good way to get a better idea of where that point actually is. It’s not at all uncommon for trainees to think they are working far harder than they are.
They think that they are close to failure at repetition 10 when they really have 5 or 6 more in the tank if someone would just push them a little bit. Only by actually working to failure do they get a better feel for when and where failure happens in a set. Basically until a trainee knows where the actual failure point is, it’s kind of meaningless to set anything relative to it.
Training to Failure: Part 3
.So with that background, what about the question “Does training to muscular failure help, hurt or make no difference in skeletal muscle growth). The answer, as always, is that it depends and, as always, I find it better to look at the pros and cons of the issue than to talk in absolutes.
As it turns out there’s actually a shockingly small amount of research on the topic of failure as it pertains to hypertrophy. The studies that do exist tend to suffer from a bunch of problems, not the least of which being that they typically compare 1 set to failure to multiple sets not to failure; and it’s hard to draw conclusions when volume is so different.
Certainly there is some reason to think that training to limits (or at least close to them) might have benefits for muscle hypertrophy. Borge Fagerli has commented on potential benefits regarding fiber recruitment and rate coding (effectively how many signals are sent to the muscle from the brain) and such that may be involved in the hypertrophic response with both approaching maximal levels as you get closer to failure.
I’d note that this tends to be most relevant for higher repetition sets (and there is some weird recent research that very low-intensity lifting taken to exhaustion generates the same amount of growth as heavier lifting). Once the load is heavy enough (about 80-85% of maximum or about a 5-8 repetition maximum), you get more or less full muscular recruitment from the get go and I don’t consider this a big issue.
But there are also drawbacks to going to failure. One of those is fairly systemic. For a lot of trainees constantly grinding themselves into dust by going to failure just burns them out over the length of the training cycle. So over 6-8 weeks, they just get worn out and start overtraining. That’s on top of the psychological difficulty in being expected to set a PR at every single workout (nothing that any other athlete in any other activity would ever try to do).
Even on a workout to workout basis, many find that pushing deep into failure (especially the high-volume failure I alluded to above) caused them to require extended periods between workouts involving the same bodyparts, on the order of 7 days or more before they felt able to train again.
Years ago, I can recall a group of rather rabid HIT-ers who started alternating workouts to failure with workouts not to failure. Not shockingly (in that we all told them to do this for years), hey found that they could train more frequently, recovered far better and grew better as well. If the goal is to hit each muscle group roughly twice per week, this means ensuring that you can recover in that time frame. For many that means avoiding excessive training to failure.
Finally there is a huge interaction during individual workouts with training to failure and training volume. As a generality there is an inverse relationship between intensity (of effort, defined here as how close you get to failure) and volume. The less sets you do the closer you need to be to limits and the more sets you do the further away you need to stay from your limits (the idea of doing a high-volume bodybuilding workout and taking every set to failure is fairly nonsensical although it makes for great bodybuilding magazine cover text; you always hold something back effort wise when you know you have 15 more sets to do).
Now, 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. So if the goal is 4 sets of 8 and that first set is to failure they’ll see these massive repetition drop offs with each subsequent set. Going to failure early on prevents them from getting in the desired workout volume.
At the very extreme, I’ve even seen the occasional trainee for whom a single set taken to true limits can ruin them for the remainder of the workout. It’s certainly a neural response and something bad happens to their nervous systems when they hit that point. They just can’t accomplish crap after that one set. This isn’t common but I have seen it.
For those types of trainees, going to the point of muscular failure needs to be used in a fairly limited fashion if it’s used at all, especially if they plan to do more than one set of a given exercise. So if they have that 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 to have any chance of actually getting the work in.
With trainees like this, I’ll let often have them go ahead and rep out the last set of an exercise to failure from time to time (not every workout), although this is really more of a way of seeing if they’re sandbagging or need to go up in weight. So if the goal is 4 sets of 8 and they’ve done 3 sets of 8 and on the final set they only get 9 or 10 reps, I’ll know that the weight is where it needs to be. If they crank out 12 or more, it’s time to move up the weight.
Again, this isn’t an every exercise or every workout kind of thing. I might do this every 3-4 weeks. Alternately I’ll just watch things like bar speed and make a judgement call on when it’s time to up the weight.
Mind you this is not universal and I’m not saying it is. 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. So they might warm up to their heaviest set and take it to failure and then lower the weight over subsequent sets to keep the repetitions from falling too much..
Training to Failure: Part 4
Ultimately this is sort of the bottom line: over the decades of folks seeking bigger muscles, despite logical and other arguments about the topic, the fact is this: people have made plenty of progress both training to failure and not training to failure (and some would argue, perhaps correctly that more have made more progress by not constantly grinding themselves into dirt by going to failure).
Clearly training to failure is not required for increased muscle growth or strength gains (by the definition of the word, if something is required, you can’t get anywhere without it). Whether or not going to failure is optimal or beneficial is a different question and just depends on the situation and hopefully I addressed some of the issues above.
Practically speaking, failure training simply burns them out either acutely (during the workout) or in the long-term (they should use failure sparingly if at all); for others it’s no problem. Until I can write something more comprehensive, I’ll leave it at that.
Loading Parameter 5: Rest Between Sets
.Ah, I almost forgot this one and I know people are going to ask: is there an optimal rest period for hypertrophy training? It’s another contentious issue and folks have argued for both long rest periods (2-3 or more minutes) to allow for the heaviest weights to be used as well as short rest periods (1 minute or less) usually based on energetic, fatigue, pump or hormonal considerations.
The hormonal considerations are basically irrelevant so far as I’m concerned 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 I noted earlier in this series, both seem to be relevant for the overall growth stimulus which means that both can be used to one degree or another.
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 30-60 seconds). Basically keep it longer when your primary goal is a tension stimulus and keep rests shorter when the goal is fatigue.
There is also an interaction with exercise choice here. More systemically taxing movements (squats, deadlift, bench press) tend to require longer rest intervals than smaller muscle group (biceps, triceps, delts) or isolation stuff (squats need more rest than leg extensions). Mind you that tends to be taken care of with the interaction of exercise selection and rep range anyhow as I talked about in Part 5.
Loading Parameter 6: Number of Exercises Per Bodypart
.To finish this up I want to look a bit about number of exercises per body part which, obviously, has an interaction with both total volume and the exercise selection issue I’ve talked about in an earlier part of this series.
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 and “hit all the angles”. For the most part I feel that this is a mistake for the natural trainee as it tends to make people do too many sets per muscle group.
As well, most people’s approach to exercise selection is fairly idiotic since they end up picking multiple exercises that work a given muscle in essentially the same way. They’ll do barbell flat bench, DB flat bench and machine flat bench and all three of those are basically the same. They’d be better off doing a heavy compound movement, a movement where the stretch is emphasize (i.e. DB flye) and one where peak contraction is emphasized (i.e. crossover/pec deck). This approach was described ages ago in the underrated Positions of Flexion approach.
For the most part, I think 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 (3-4 total movements) because it has so many different functions and is comprised of so many different muscle groups (Traps I-IV, midback, lats, low-back are all semi-distinct areas although there is always overlap).
Chest can be adequately hit with a flat and an incline movement (you may want to do flyes or a pec deck if your triceps are trashed from the heavy compound movement) and many do just fine with one or the other when they are working hard enough.
Most people tend to do an excessive amount of arm work with multiple exercises that all do exactly the same damn thing (barbell curl, DB curl, cable curl, machine curl). One to two properly selected exercises for biceps or triceps are usually sufficient, especially after heavy compound work.
Delts are often the most complicated (just like with volume) due to the different heads having different functions. Front delts usually don’t need much direct work if you’re doing compound pushing, side delts often benefit from both a press and some type of lateral raise and rear delts are honestly best trained with back usually only needing a single movement (some type of rear delt raise or machine or face pulls).
Even legs in my opinion don’t need a ton of exercises unless you want to get obsessive about working your sartorius or gracilis (look it up). 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 hell of a lot else for the most part. Certainly leg presses and isolation work can have it’s place but you don’t need a billion leg exercises if you’re working hard enough. Squat + RDL + leg press plus leg curl will get it done and then some.
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 (or see Dante’s DC approach to exercise selection below) or back.
Related to this is the issue of how frequently to change exercises; it’s another topic that deserves a lot more detail but this is not the time. I’ll only say this now: I know people like to mix it up all the time but, over a given training cycle, I think sticking with the same set of exercises makes it easier to track progress (in terms of weight on bar or reps done).
If you want to switch out exercises, do it at the end of a given training block but keep them consistent during that training block (remember this is a recommendation for hypertrophy per se). So pick your exercises, work them hard for a 6-8 week training cycle and then switch them out with a decrease in training intensity (a backcycle/deload) as you relearn the movements. Then push hard on those, rinse and repeat.
A Summary of Loading Parameters for Hypertrophy Training
.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 on hypetrophy training. Here’s a quick summary of all of the loading parameters I’ve discussed so far.
- Intensity (%1RM): 60-85% (with potentially some lighter and heavier work)
- Rep Range: 20-5 repetitions per set (this is reversed to match the intensity range)
- Rest between sets: Anywhere from 30-60 seconds to 2-3 minutes depending on exercise and rep range
- Total volume per workout: 30-60 repetitions per muscle group (pay attention to overlap)
- Frequency: Each muscle group twice per week or once every fifth day under some situations
- Exercise selection: Exceedingly variable, interacts with repetition range
- Exercises per muscle group: 1-2 per muscle group per workout is generally sufficient
- Failure or not: Depends but generally used sparingly for the volume recommendations made here.
As I’ve noted throughout the series, the nature of hypertrophy training lends itself to a massively broad set of recommendations and that alone may be part of why so many different approaches seem to “work” for growth. To achieve the above values, you can go anywhere from 3-4X15-20 reps at 60% of maximum in a non-lock style (fatigue/pump training) to 8 sets of 5 at 80-85% of maximum (heavy tension training) to almost any combination of sets and reps you can come up within those extremes (5×5 + 2X20, 4X6-8+3X10-12, etc, etc).
A Look at Some Specific Hypertrophy Programs
.The final section of the discussion of hypertrophy training could be it’s own full set of articles or (ahem) perhaps an entire book. And here what I want to do is look at some commonly popular (and effective) hypertrophy programs, mainly to look at how they do or do not adhere to all of the information I’ve provided so far.
As you’ll see, despite the variations between them, all of the programs I’m going to look at share certain commonalities. That is, they all apply the principles I’ve discussed (in terms of intensity of loading, volume, etc.) to one degree or another; the only real difference is in the specific way they go about applying them.
Which program is better? That’s hard to say. Each has it’s own pros and cons, they are probably more or less appropriate for a given level or type of trainee but that’s sort of beyond what I can discuss here. The real point is that all of the systems apply the same principles in one way or another; by extension I’d note that training systems that don’t apply those same principles are, kind of by definition, inferior.
Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST)
The brainchild of 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 (as I mentioned in a previous article, HST trades off a bit of intensity/volume for a higher frequency of training).
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 (Note: I’m fairly sure that the overall system has been modified since I originally wrote this piece in 2010).
HST does seem to be on the lower end of the volume recommendations I talked about (only the 2 sets of 15 hit even 30 repetitions per muscle group) before but some of this is offset by the higher frequency (and again HST may have been modified in recent years, there was a very active forum at one point).
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) with intensity ranging from perhaps 65% (the 15’s) all the way down to 85% (the 5’s) and higher with the negatives. I haven’t looked at HST recently enough to comment on exercise selection but I imagine a combination of compound and isolation work is used.
Doggcrapp (DC) Training
DC training is the brain child of Dante Trudell. Using an average training frequency of training each muscle group every fifth day it focuses more on intensity at each session and, as a consequence, reduces training intensity slightly.
As I mentioned before 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 (2-3 repetitions done every 10-15 seconds or so) to a total of 20-30 repetitions per muscle group; there is a focus on a slow eccentric on each repetition. That is typically followed by what Dante called extreme stretching, really a heavily loaded eccentric held for up to 60 seconds which both contributes to muscle damage and adds to the fairly low volume of the workout itself.
The first rest-pause set provides a combination of tension (heavy weights to failure) and metabolic fatigue (the rest-pause reps), the loaded stretching provides both an eccentric damage stimulus and might even trigger something molecularly via hypoxia (decreased oxygen availability).
As I mentioned previously, DC training does tend to be towards the lower end of the “optimal” volume recommendations but the rest-pause nature of the system (along with the extreme stretching) seems to counteract that. Essentially the rest-pause sets end up being the equivalent of a greater number of traditional sets. Dante has actually stated that his explicit goal is to provide the maximal training stimulus in the lowest training volume to avoid cutting too deeply into recovery with endless sets.
The goal of every workout is to “beat the previous workout” by going up in weight so progressive tension overload is built into the system. Dante has also made a comment to the effect that growth is best stimulated by “making strength gains in a moderate repetition range” and I that couldn’t be more accurate or to the point in my opinion; attempting to beat the record book at every workout ensures that trainees focus on progression.
In terms of exercise selection, DC recommends a mix of traditional training movements with some of his own invention and for each cycle trainees are supposed to pick three exercises per bodypart/muscle group and rotate them from workout to workout (so you only work the same exercise every 4th workout).
Typically the trainee pushes very hard for about 6 weeks followed by 2 weeks at lower intensity (what Dante calls blasting and cruising). I’d note that while people who do well on DC training thrive on it, it does burn some people out, probably as a function of going to failure at every workout. For those folks who do burn out but like the time-efficient approach of rest-pause, I give you the next system.
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 separates it from DC training in that the first set is NOT taken to failure). The loading of the activation set is typically progressed throughout the cycle, moving from higher to lower repetitions.
This is followed by rest-pause reps (mini-sets of 2-4 reps with a 10-15 second break) to a total of 20-30 reps and I believe Blade has added some concepts of RPE and fatigue stops borrowed from other systems in terms of deciding when to end the set.
The activation sets are progressed over the length of the cycle with reps starting higher and progressing downwards; this ensures progressive overload on top of the fact that weights are increased when certain rep counts are hit during the set. Regardless, we once again have a combination of progressive tension overload, tension/damage and fatigue stimuli for growth. I’d note that Blade also uses other approaches in specific situations, I won’t detail them here but sufficed to say they all adhere to the same principles of stimulating growth I’ve been discussing.
My Own Generic Bulking Routine (GBR)
My Generic Bulking Routine
I’ll finish up by mentioning my own generic bulking routine which basically splits the middle of all of the other approaches and is meant to adhere to the loading parameters I discussed earlier.
I typically recommend either an upper/lower or some sort of push/pull+legs split (upper/lower is my preference for reasons I won’t get into here) with 4 workouts per week so everything is hit twice/week (you can also use a lower frequency so that everything is hit every 5th day).
It’s based around straight sets and simply uses the combination of a series of lower repetition sets, perhaps 4X6-8 with a 3′ rest interval (where the focus is tension/fatigue and damage) coupled with higher repetition sets (perhaps 2-3X12-15 with a 60 second rest) to get a primarily fatigue stimulus.
When you add it up, volume per bodypart ends up being right in the 40-60/70 repetition range with about half of that being used for smaller muscle groups/muscles hit by heavy compounds. I recommend a mixture of compound movements (generally for the heavier/lower repetition work) and isolation movement (for the higher repetition work)
I suggest alternating 2 weeks of submaximal loading as a “ramp-up” and then pushing things hard (ideally adding weight at each workout) for 4-6 weeks trying to add weight (in good form) wherever possible. As mentioned above, I like to have people use the same exercises for the full training cycle, only changing (if desired) during the submaximal run-up. However, so long as exercise selection isn’t idiotic, you can make each of the upper/lower workouts different to get a better mix of exercises.
So again a combination of tension/damage/fatigue and progressive overload coupled with moderate volumes, decent frequency, etc. I simply use straight sets to achieve the goal volume although you could easily mix it up with some Myo-Reps to shorten the workouts.
I’d note that this is meant as an intermediate training approach (see the Beginning Weight Training; series for beginner training ideas) probably for years 1-3 of proper training. As I mentioned above, by the time you get to year 3 of proper training, strength is often so high as to make working both low and high repetition ranges in the same workout problematic.
Hopefully you noticed that despite the specifics of a given training system, all of the above approaches to muscle growth apply the same fundamental principles in one way or another. And that’s really the key to this whole mess (people invariably get so wound up worrying about the minor detail differences that they miss the forest for the trees). Certainly there are differences in how those principles are applied specifically (and a given approach might be relatively better or worse depending on the specific trainee) but all of the same principles are present.
And, ignoring the zillion questions I’m sure will come from this, that wraps up hypertrophy. Next time I’ll move to talking about maximum strength training and start to wrap up the entire series as a whole.