A few weeks ago I heard an interview with a bodybuilder and personal trainer who discussed a unique training method to quickly add some size and strength. He claimed, get this, you could add 1/2 inch to your biceps in one day.
He might have gotten the idea from Charles Poliquin's One Day Arm Cure.
Even so, I'm about as skeptical as they come when people start to sound like infomercials, but he wasn't selling anything. No product pitch; no service pitch; nothing. This was also the second time I'd heard this claim that month, from two unrelated sources. I thought it would be worth looking into, so I set up the ultimate research experiment, using my favorite guinea pig: me.
The protocol was simple. Do 8-10 reps with a weight that forces failure within that rep range every 30 minutes for the entire day. I have very little interest in adding a 1/2 inch to my biceps (sacrilegious, I know). I also don't have weights in my apartment, so I changed the nature of the protocol a bit and went with push-ups instead of biceps curls. I weighed in at 167 that Sunday morning (the heaviest I've been all year).
I spared myself the first 30 minutes I was awake so I could get some breakfast, and the last hour before bed so I could unwind a bit. Instead of adding some weight to my book bag to attempt to reach exhaustion within 8-10 reps, I just ignored the rep range recommendation and did standard body weight push-ups until I reached failure. I did the first few hours with my feet on the ground, the next few hours with my feet raised about 6 inches, and the last few hours with my feet raised about two feet.
In an attempt to maximize intramuscular tension, I kept all the involved musculature as tense as possible throughout the entire range of motion. In other words, I didn't just go through the motions to reach as many reps as possible. I couldn't care less about how many reps I performed. I was more concerned with maximizing the stress to the muscles, so I squeezed them as hard as possible through every rep.
250+ Push-Ups Later
I weighed in the next morning at 172. I didn't believe it. I weighed in every morning for the next week to satisfy my skepticism, always between 170.5 and 172.5. Three weeks later, I'm 172.
I told a fellow scholar about my experience, and she laughed at me. "You know that isn't muscle!" As much as I'd love to start claiming I can add 5 pounds of muscle to a well-trained frame in a little over 12 hours, I knew she was right. The time course of protein anabolism wouldn't allow for such a rapid gain. While I didn't measure my body fat, I did use the ocular approach (a quick look in the mirror), and didn't appear to have put on any fat. I'm currently around 8% body fat, so I think I would notice five new pounds of fat.
So what was this mystery meat I had acquired? I have no idea, and frankly, I don't care. While I was pretty debilitated for the three days that followed, I was noticeably stronger during my upper body lift that Friday. I was noticeably stronger on ALL of my lifts the next week. That's why I didn't and still don't care about the composition of the weight gain. If it looks like muscle, feels like muscle, and acts like muscle, I'll take it.
There's another possible explanation that I've purposely left out until now. I started taking creatine monohydrate a few days earlier. The first few times I used creatine, I put on a few pounds of water weight in the first few days. In the last few years, that hasn't been the case. Actually, the last few times I've used creatine I haven't noticed any benefit at all, but I still give it a try sometimes when I'm starting a completely different program.
It's possible that much of the added weight came from water, and that the improved strength was also a byproduct of the creatine. If that's the case, I'm still elated. Why? Because I haven't been responding to creatine supplementation. If this one-day event can be used to jumpstart my body into responding to creatine again, then great! The Sunday I did my experiment was the third day after I started taking creatine.
I believe the debate on whether or not you need to load creatine (take 25g/day for the first 5-7 days then just 5g everyday after that) is ongoing. I typically don't load, and didn't this time. However, just as one should consume simple sugars and rapidly-digesting protein immediately after your workout, this is also a great time to take creatine. Because I was doing some sort of exercise every 30 minutes, I decided to throw back 5g of creatine immediately after a set every few hours, meaning I took a total of 25g that day.
I told a friend of mine about it, and he gave it a shot. He's a competitive bodybuilder, so this idea appealed a lot to him. He tried it with push-ups and gained 2 pounds. He said he ate and drank less than normal the few days preceding that weigh-in too so he could've potentially put on more weight. He wasn't experimenting with creatine loading strategies, so his results aren't confounded by supplementation.
You're probably wondering how often this strategy can be used. The answer is that I don't know. I don't know whether I'd get the same results if I did it again that weekend, or the next, or if I do it again in a year. I only know that I did it once and it worked. I will definitely try it again, but I wouldn't recommend doing it more frequently than every 8 weeks or so for two reasons.
First, doing something every 30 minutes, even if it's only for a minute, really consumes the day. My whole day revolved around being back in my room to bang out another set of push-ups. In my experience, it's rare that someone will have a schedule that will allow for lifting every 30 minutes.
Second, I was extremely sore for about three or four days. As a result, my regularly scheduled lifts in that time period were almost completely ruined. My tank was on empty. Interrupting a program like that on a regular basis would not be beneficial, for physique or morale.
I learned a lot from this experiment:
1. It's one more strategy to help break through a plateau.
2. It's a way to rapidly increase size/strength in a lagging area. I used push-ups for the experiment mostly out of convenience. Since many training programs focus heavily on the anterior side of the body, I will probably use this with clients and athletes in the future to help improve upper back strength using chin-ups till failure.
3. At the very least, I found a new potential loading strategy for creatine use.
At this point, you probably think I'm full of shit. That's good. I want you to be skeptical. I wouldn't trust anyone who said he put on 5 pounds in less than 12 hours either. It's ridiculous. It's illogical. It verges on blasphemy.
But it happened.
Before you file this technique away as bullshit, at least give it a try.
Instead of listing all the reasons why textbooks say you shouldn't train this way, try it for yourself. I think the majority of people will see the greatest benefit from doing chin-ups or inverted rows. But if the temptation of putting a few pounds on your chest, shoulders, and arms is too great, just do the push-ups. Drink a ton of water, and cancel all your appointments for the next day.