Your Hypertrophy Training Sucks!
I'm bored as hell. Why am I bored? Because of today's hypertrophy (size) training methods. Virtually all "modern" methods fall short of what I'd consider optimal for fast and efficient results.
Indeed, no one has seemed to devise a training methodology that effectively challenges our full adaptive capabilities in an intelligent manner. Sure, 5 x 5 and 10 x 3 parameters work well, but there's gotta be someone who "pushes" this hypertrophy training steamroller along.
I'd venture to say that today's modern hypertrophy methods are no more efficacious than the methods from decades past. Hell, if slow eccentric actions, 8-10 reps, 3-4 sets, and five days of recovery are what's best, then why do very few trainees build muscle at an appreciable rate? I mean, come on, are we going to sit around for the next five years and rehash the same old tired training methods?
Okay, so now some of you are pissed. You're pissed because either:
A. That's the way you train, and you're dogmatic.
B. That's what methods you write about or that's how you train your clients... and you're dogmatic.
Fine. If that's the case, I've got a little experiment for you. Spend eight weeks training your lats with all your favorite back exercises by using the slow eccentric, 8-10 reps, 3-4 sets, and five days of recovery shtick. Analyze your result.
Then, spend eight weeks training to be a gymnast on the rings. Hire a rings coach and let him do his thing. He'll probably have you hanging from those rings almost everyday and for hours each week. Compare the results to your "traditional" weight-training parameters.
Luckily, I've witnessed such a phenomenon. Let me tell you, there's no comparison between the results of these two drastically different training methods. A trainee who spends eight weeks training on the rings will absolutely annihilate the results that the traditional lat program induced.
So why are we still using the same old traditional parameters? Obviously, it's not an issue of short-term, adaptive hypertrophy limitations (since significant lat hypertrophy can be achieved by spending eight weeks on the rings); it's an issue of suboptimal parameters that don't seem to get buried deep where they should be.
Where should they be buried? Next to Jimmy Hoffa. That seems to be the perfect place.
Are You a Tempo Junkie?
We're currently inundated with enough additional parameters to complicate and delude you into thinking that the results of modern methods must be better than days of old. Counting the muscle action phases comes to mind. Honestly, has counting the concentric and eccentric phases of your exercises enhanced your results? If it has, you're one of the few.
Sure, counting rep tempos has probably forced you into different time under tension set lengths, but that could've been easily accomplished with dramatic swings in repetition parameters. Instead, the cerebral act of counting muscle action phases does nothing more than clog up your neural tracts so there's less descending neural input onto your precious motor neurons.
That, my friend, reduces your strength, plain and simple. And anything that reduces your neural drive is disastrous for hypertrophy.
Now, I'm not here to tell you that all the modern hypertrophy programs are bunk. Nope, I wouldn't even think it. If I pointed one finger at someone else, three fingers would be pointed right back at me. But I will say that trainees aren't being pushed far enough after their initial levels of strength and size have been built.
Let me pick on myself as an example. Let's say you're new to training and you follow my Anti-Bodybuilding Hypertrophy Program. The results were good so you stuck with the Waterbury thing. As such, you might've followed my Total-Body Training and Waterbury Method programs. Then, once you wiped those programs off the slate, you moved on to my Quattro Dynamo program.
Great! So you can take pride in the fact that you built up the frequency of stimulating each body part from two sessions per week to four sessions per week. But what's next? Do you switch to another program and repeat the cycle? Not if you're looking for the most hypertrophy in the shortest time-frame. It's time to bump up the frequency even higher!
Why Little Johnny Can't Train Like Arnold
Unfortunately, merely increasing your frequency of training each body part to, say, six days per week, has fallen flat. Except for the few genetic anomalies (Schwarzenegger, Columbu, and Haney come to mind), such high-frequency plans have left trainees burned out, befuddled, and bemused.
Lee Haney training hard.
Why didn't the genetically average excel on such training programs? You know the programs I'm referring to – we're all guilty of it. I'm talking about the programs in trash newsstand muscle mags that mirrored one of the routines from a champion bodybuilder (whether or not they actually trained in such a manner is another debate).
The novice trainee ripped open the magazine and was giddy as a schoolgirl when he read through the routine. "This is what's going to make me huge and powerful," he thought. But it didn't. I mean, it really didn't. Why?
Why Average Joe Can't Train Like Arnold
1) Excessive Initial System Shock
If you've been training each body part a few times per week with 3 sets of 8-12 reps, you're going to be in über calamity when you start annihilating your muscles for six sessions each week. Even though our skeletal muscle system is incredibly malleable, we don't respond especially well to a prodigious burst of concurrent volume and intensity.
Crippling levels of soreness and fatigue are sure to follow. Such a technique will often leave you wishing that Weider dude never came knockin' at your scrawny door with his ostentatious pics of Muscle Beach.
Bottom Line: You must build up your capacity to withstand high-frequency training sessions.
2) Immutable Parameters
It's no surprise to me that those traditional competitive bodybuilding parameters never worked for the average trainee, especially when you consider the lack of variance in their training parameters. Oftentimes, these bodybuilders would perform six flat barbell bench press sessions in the same week. That's not good. The central nervous system and skeletal muscle systems respond well to varying levels of intensity and volume (activity, in general).
In fact, it's pretty safe to postulate that our huge activity variances through evolution has made this so. While we're adept at chopping down a tree one day; walking ten miles the next; and sprinting from predators on the third day, we're not well-suited to chop down a tree three days in a row. Our bodies like constant change. Therefore, anyone who seeks to train with a high frequency should keep this evolutionary fact in mind.
Bottom Line: You must constantly vary your training parameters (sets, reps, loading, rest periods, and exercises) throughout the week to avoid burnout.
3) Excessive Training Intensity
You can't train with mind-blowing levels of intensity for any appreciable length of time. Your nervous system just isn't capable of withstanding the stress. Why? Who knows for sure, but I'd guess that it has to do, once again, with our evolutionary demands. Do you think our ancestors were constantly screaming with effort and intensity on a daily basis? I doubt it.
Instead, it's probably more likely that they only encountered high-intensity, high-stress situations on an infrequent basis. Therefore, if you're training with incredibly high intensities on a near-daily basis, you can assume that you're training in a manner that the nervous and muscular systems aren't well-suited for, especially in the long-term. Research – both in the lab and gym – demonstrate that our systems are more efficient at recovering from wide variances in training intensities, not just high-intensity training alone.
Bottom Line: Limit the amount of high-intensity work during each microcycle (i.e., avoid continuously training to failure with large loads).
4) Lack of Recovery Modalities
If modern hypertrophy training info has an advantage over old-school methods, it's evident within recovery modalities. Many old-school bodybuilders did nothing more than chug a few beers and masticate a few fowl in an effort to recovery from their workouts. Why such a shitty post-workout ceremony? Because their genetic predisposition negated any need to do otherwise.
We could only be so lucky. Now, we have a prodigious number of recovery aids, both nutritional and therapeutic. Indeed, the incorporation of active recovery sessions, ice massage, stretching, salt baths, electro stimulation, etc. will give you a lifetime worth of recovery aids. When you consider high-quality protein powders, recovery drinks such as Surge, creatine, and an overall increase in nutritional knowledge, it's easy to see that we're definitely better off than our predecessors (in the recovery department).
Bottom Line: Both nutritional and therapeutic modalities are important for recovery during high-frequency training.
The points above help explain why traditional, high-frequency bodybuilding programs weren't effective for most trainees. But that's not the end of the story. There are a number of other obstacles that must be conquered in order for virtually anyone to reap the benefits of high-frequency training.
I've determined that a well-designed, high-frequency training plan is the most efficacious route to maximum hypertrophy. I devised this maxim based on my personal observations; my work with trainees on all levels of the fitness spectrum; and an overall vision of the evolution of hypertrophy training based on skeletal muscle research.
Indeed, the lats of Olympic gymnasts, the thighs of speed skaters, the calves of soccer players, the upper backs of lumberjacks, and the forearms of mechanics have effectively demonstrated that the key to accelerated hypertrophy fits within high-frequency plans. In case you didn't thoroughly understand my examples, all of the aforementioned people train the respective musculature with a very high frequency – a frequency that few trainers, coaches, and writers dare recommend.
So where does that leave us? We've determined that the old bodybuilding magazines have led us astray since the published programs were often excessive and poorly structured. Furthermore, the issues of genetics and drugs played an important role. As such, those who weren't created from a superior gene pool (or those who didn't want to spend their weekends in Tijuana) were left with excessive room in their shirt sleeves. So, how do we design a high-frequency plan that actually works for trainees from all walks of life?
The answer is evident when we consider the superior muscular development of the aforementioned ring gymnasts, speed skaters, etc. These people all have the following in common with respect to the mentioned musculature:
1. They built up their capacity to withstand high-frequency training by training through soreness.
2. They don't reach high levels of intensity (failure) on a frequent basis.
3. Their high-frequency training was limited to a few, specific body parts.
4. Their movement patterns constantly changed.
All four of these examples are important, but I'd venture to say that point #4 is most important. The fact that these people are performing a prodigious number of movement patterns that are rarely repeated is probably the reason why they're able to train with such a high frequency. And it's probably the reason why hypertrophy of the trained muscle group is higher with these individuals.
Let's use soccer players as an example. Think about a two-hour practice session for a soccer player. How many different movement/contraction patterns are achieved within a two-hour practice that consists of running around a playing field? Hell, I don't know either, but I can tell you it's a huge number!
Then, let's say the next day consists of another practice. This two-hour practice session would undoubtedly consist of different movement patterns, levels of intensity, and overall volume. As such, it's much more difficult for soccer players to burn out a specific movement pattern compared to a bodybuilder training an exercise such as leg press calf raises. Any machine will mandate a movement pattern that's relatively fixed.
Any time you're dealing with a fixed, or pseudo-fixed movement pattern, overuse injuries are common – and that's not good for hypertrophy. Pair that with the fact that running, jumping, stopping, and sprinting mandate many different contraction patterns, levels of motor unit recruitment, and specific muscle recruitment.
Movement Variations are the Key
Okay, so what does this mean to a guy who's trying to build bigger pecs? It means that you should make a diligent effort to "unfix" as many different chest exercises as possible. Merely performing six flat-bench barbell bench-press sessions in a given week is a poor attempt at high-frequency training. Such a relatively constant movement pattern will induce a stimulus that's too similar to avoiding burnout and overuse injuries.
Instead, you should strive to create your own exercises that are anything but traditional in nature. That's exactly what I've done with my clients, and that's why my clients reach their goals. How'd I do it?
Here's an example that illustrates my point. Let's say you're standing inside a cable crossover machine. The pulleys are set on the highest position and you're gripping the handles with your arms extended out toward the cable stacks with your palms down (as if you're performing a crucifix). Now, with the arms kept relatively straight (soft lockout) pull the handles down in front of you so your hands stop at a position that's two inches away from your upper thighs.
Return to the starting position and pull down the handles so your hands stop at a position three inches away from your upper thighs. Return to the starting position and pull down the handles so your hands stop at a position four inches away from your upper thighs. Continue with this technique until your hands stop at a position where you no longer feel tension in your pectoral muscles. You should be able to get at least ten different movement patterns out of this simple exercise!
Now, place the pulleys in the lowest position. Grip the handles and place your arms in the original "crucifix" position. With your palms facing up and your elbows slightly unlocked, pull your arms together and overhead so your hands stop at a position that's approximately 75º relative to the floor. Return to the starting position and pull the arms together so your hands end at a position that's approximately 70º relative to the floor (even less would be better).
Continue this exercise until you no longer feel tension in your pectoral muscles. Once again, you should be able to get at least ten different contraction patterns out of this exercise.
Between both cable crossover exercises, you have twenty different contraction patterns – that's twenty different chest exercises from this simple exercise alone! Now do you see what I mean when I say that a little ingenuity goes a long way? Even though each phase of pectoral adduction is similar, its variance is sufficient to provide a slightly different stimulus to the muscles. That's how you excel with high frequency training, and that's the trickiest part of all (i.e., sufficient variances in movement patterns).
Note: The cable crossover example wasn't given to imply that such an exercise is all that's needed for pectoral hypertrophy, nor was it meant to be considered a "new" exercise. It was an example to show how many different movement patterns can be obtained from one simple exercise.
What About Biomechanics?
Most trainers would say that the line of resistance (the cable) should accurately match-up with the muscle fiber arrangement. Therefore, a cynical biomechanics graduate would say that only a few of the ten movements accurately match-up with the fiber arrangement of the pecs.
Even though it's true that matching up the line of resistance with the line of muscle pull will recruit the most fibers, it's not necessary when you're training with a high-frequency plan. In fact, it should be avoided.
Alterations in movement patterns are absolutely mandatory for the fastest rate of hypertrophy. Think back to the soccer player example. How many of the reps (steps) are performed when the resistance perfectly matches the contraction pattern of the calf muscles? The only way the two could perfectly match is if the player was standing straight up with the entire load (his body) pushing straight down. The fact that this doesn't happen throughout most of a soccer game is clearly evident.
In other words, the key to inducing new levels of hypertrophy requires large amounts of training frequency on a weekly basis. If you limit your exercise selections to the few movements that simply match-up with the line of muscle pull, you'll incur overuse injuries and local muscle overtraining. Variety is the spice!
High Frequency Training and You
Up to this point, I've focused on only one of the four elements that have helped soccer players, gymnasts, speed skaters, and mechanics reap muscle specific hypertrophy through high-frequency training. I focused on "variations in movement patterns" because I feel that's primarily where the answer to this puzzle lies. Even if a trainee used a relatively constant intensity (load) for each exercise, the variance in movements alone would probably allow for high-frequency, hypertrophy success.
So now some of you are probably developing a clearer idea of my vision for the future of hypertrophy training. I encourage all of you to first follow my Perfect 10 Training program for your lagging muscle group(s). Once it's finished, you'll better understand how powerful high-frequency training can be for hypertrophy.
But I've got a little homework for you. After the Perfect 10 Training program is finished, start thinking of unconventional ways to train your underdeveloped body parts. Put some rings up in your garage to hang from in order to build your lats, climb a rope everyday to build your biceps and forearms, or practice soccer drills to build your calves.
If you do any of these, you'll be well-suited to reap the benefits of my future programs. Now, get at it!