I will attempt to keep it short(ish) today after the three-part, poorly organized series I just finished. Today I want to address, again, the issue of squats and whole body growth. There’s no specific impetus for this, just something I’ve been meaning to get ‘written’ down. I was tempted to make this the start of a series titled “Dumb Things People in the Fitness Industry Say” but that’s too long, bad for SEO and too negative even for me. But consider the following two statements:
- You have to squat (or more generally train lower body) to get big.
- What’s up with all those guys in the gym with big upper bodies and no legs?
I’ve seen the same person make both statements without realizing that they inherently contradict one another. If you need to train legs to get big overall, you can’t have guys with big upper bodies who don’t train legs. It’s not difficult to see why this is wrong.
Squats Hormones and Growth: Part 1
Now, the general argument for the whole squats/lower body training and growth has to do with the hormonal effect. This was an idea that came around in the 80’s and has kept going since then. And not only did it provide what I consider a red herring for training for the past 4 decades but showed how not to do science. Researchers had observed that, generally speaking, bodybuilders of the day were bigger than powerlifters. We might debate this but let’s roll with it.
Thus it was assumed that the different types of training played a role. Ok, not bad so far. And this is where it went wrong: having decided that the training was the primary impetus for the differences, researchers wanted to see why it worked that way. Effectively they started with a preset conclusion and then worked backwards to the data to support it. That’s not how you even science and yes I linked out to Maddox.
So they did the studies. They set up what they considered stereotypical power or bodybuilding training and most studies compared something like 3X5RM (repetition maximum) with a 3′ rest to 3X10RM with a 1′ rest (at the time most bodybuilders trained in a fairly fast paced pump style). And they measured the hormonal respnose. Invariably the power training caused a spike in testosterone and the bodybuilding training caused a spike in Growth Hormone (GH).
A variety of studies were done on this theme with different movements and such; big movements worked better than smaller muscle mass movements and there were just endless variations on a theme here. Without getting into details, let me just focus on the general hormonal response picture. Now, maybe they didn’t know it then (which I doubt) but we sure know now that testosterone is far more anabolic than GH which, by itself at least, does less than jack squat for growth unless you’re correcting a GH deficiency in children or something. Yes, great for connective tissue, may help with fat loss. For growth, unless stacked with other drugs, it does 3/5ths of squat and possibly less than that. Testosterone on the other hand is hugely anabolic, building muscle even without training. So already the researchers were off the rails and their observations actually contradicted their starting concept.
If bodybuilders are bigger than powerlifters but powerlifters get an increase in the actually primary anabolic hormone in the first place while bodybuillders get a bump in an irrelevant hormone, then the whole idea simply fails: by their own logic the powerlifters should be more muscular. They seemed to have ignored that (they also either ignored or were unaware that on top of differences in training of elite bodybuilders and powerlifters, there were already differences in the types of drugs being used). Hell, perhaps irrelevantly, consider that women have higher GH levels than men (and a greater GH response to training) but 1/10th to 1/30th the testosterone levels. Do they grow better? Exactly. Because GH is meaningless by itself.
But people continued to focus on this for a while, I remember having arguments ages ago with people about this. A favorite argument made to me “Lyle, if anabolic steroids work so well, why is the transient increase in testosterone so irrelevant in your opinion?” Hell, that’s easy. “Because raising a hormone to supraphysiological levels all day every day is obviously not the same as a small spike that lasts like 15-30 minutes.” Also not terribly difficult to understand.
Squats Hormones and Growth: Part 2
I have written about this topic before, looking at a couple of individual studies showing that training legs either did or did not seem to improve arm growth. They did use different protocols, one trained legs before and the other after but the effect even in the study that did find an effect was small overall. Here I’ll fall back on Brad Schoenfeld’s excellent review of the topic where he looked at not only the proposed mechanisms behind this effect. And concluded:
What seems relatively clear from the literature is that if a relationship does in fact exist between acute systemic factors and muscle growth, the overall magnitude of the effect would be fairly modest. The ~8% figure reported by West and Phillips (95) would seem to be a reasonable upper estimate as to a potential contribution from transient hormonal elevations, but further research is required to quantify any potential impact.
Basically, if there’s an effect it’s very small (and in my opinion certainly not worth chasing if it means changing your workout from something effective to something contrivedd). We know that growth is primarily a local effect a combination of tension, fatigue, maybe damage and there is absolutely a local hormonal response that is crucially important. Researchers years ago identified an IGF-1 (Insulin Like Growth factor-1) analog in muscle called Mechano Growth Factor (MGF) that was crucial to the anabolic response. Tangentially, I think they missed a trick with this one: Muscle Growth Factor, Massive Growth Factor, Motherf*****huge Growth Factor would have been far awesomer. But I digress and this was before scientists thought that they should be comedians by naming stuff with silly names (there are genes like Sonic the Hedgehog, Clark Kent and Superman).
Squats Hormones and Growth: Part 3
Now despite my comments at the start of this piece regarding guys with big upper bodies and no legs (which you can see in every gym), it is generally true that guys who squat/train legs hard are usually pretty big. So if it’s not the hormonal response driving this, what is? I’d offer the following suggestion:
It’s very common to see guys who train the upper body hard but ignore legs. And since growth is primarily a local response, they get big upper bodies. You can’t even argue with this, you can see it in every gym on any day of the week, and it completely contradicts the base idea that you have to train legs to get big. Yes, the hardheads argue, but how much bigger would they be if they trained legs? Stop. Just stop.
But have you ever seen a guy who trained legs hard, I mean hard, I don’t mean pansy-assing through a few sets of half squats and leg curls, I mean training legs hard…have you ever really seen that guy not training EVERYTHING hard including the upper body? No, you really never have. I’m sure they exist; but it’s rare. Anybody willing to put the energy into really training legs hard will put the energy into really training everything hard. And thus everything grows. Because training things hard makes them grow.
But the presence of heavy squats are correlational here, not causal so far as I’m concerned.
Guys who train legs hard train everything hard. And everything gets big because that’s how growth works.
They happen to squat since most guys who train legs hard train squats but it’s in no way causing the growth.
Guys who train upper body hard but not legs only get a big upper body because growth is local and the hormonal response is basically irrelevant.
Two More Comments
Years ago, debating this with my mentor (you don’t know him, he went to a different school in Canada), he pointed out that he had seen arm growth in folks he trained with nothing but 20-rep squats. No direct upper body work. That would seem to put me in my place but I’d ask the following question: what holds the bar? Squats aren’t just a leg exercise, the upper back, torso and yes arms are involved to keep the bar on your back. They get at least an indirect training effect here.
And if you want me to really kick of a shit-storm, I’d suggest that if someone only wants a big upper body, it’s better NOT to train legs. Training legs is draining and leaves less energy to train upper body effectively. If you want a big chest and arms, train your chest and arms and don’t futz around training legs at all. Specialists in any sport make better progress than folks who are spread thinner (consider the best performance in any individual sport vs. decathletes or bench press numbers for bench specialists vs. three lift lifters) and the less energy you put into one thing, the more energy you can put into your focus. That should cause a lovely argument in the comments.
- Casein Hydrolysate and Anabolic Hormones and Growth – Research Review
- Squat vs. Leg Press for Big Legs
- Physiological Elevation of Endogenous Hormones Results in Superior Strength Training Adaptations – Research Review
- Combining Metabolic and Tension Training – Q&A
- Growth Hormone (GH) Release and Fat Loss – Q&A