Gather around my fellow ectomorphs. I have something to say about weight training. My belief is that our goals got mixed up when we started following the bad advice of genetically gifted mesomorphic fitness trainers. We forgot why we started lifting weights.
I’m going to speak for myself, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. The reason I started lifting weights was to gain muscle. I wanted to be bigger. I did not like having scrawny arms and legs. I wanted muscle. Back then the scrawny hipster look didn’t exist. Back then being a Stick Boy sucked.
Like many other lanky males, I joined a gym to get muscle and size. The first 10 pounds of muscle came effortlessly. Using the machines was a great introduction to strength training. But then like other ectomorphs I got impatient and made the classic false assumption made by so many.
If the big guys in the gym are lifting free weights and not using machines, then free weights must be better for size. And the guys who lift the most weight tend to be the biggest, therefore to get bigger I needed to lift heavier free weights.
I could spend paragraphs going through all the false assumptions, but instead, I want to focus on how the goal of “getting bigger” got replaced with “getting stronger” and that “getting stronger” became defined as lifting more pounds using the classic bodybuilding exercises of barbell squat, bench press, and the deadlift.
Now I have come to believe that the quest to get stronger using classic definitions of strength is a major factor in limiting the muscular potential of ectomorphs. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Come for the Muscle, Stay For “the Strength”
I fell for it. At a certain point, I found gaining muscle difficult. I was doing squats, deadlifts, and benching. I read everything. Pavel, Bill Pearl, T-Nation, and hundreds if not thousands of articles and posts on getting stronger. I assumed that I needed to get a lot stronger to get bigger and getting stronger meant lifting heavier weights and training more frequently.
There is nothing wrong with getting stronger, but that wasn’t the original goal. Which brings us to the question – what is strength? I found this definition of muscular strength by Paige Waehner on About.com:
Strength refers to a muscle’s ability to generate force against physical objects. In the fitness world, this typically refers to how much weight you can lift for different strength training exercises.
If strength is measured in how much weight we can lift, then how can we lift more weight? By making the movement as EASY as possible. The way you do that is by executing a perfect form where the weight moves quickly through each repetition. You want the amount of time the weight spends on the targeted muscles minimized. If the weight spends too much time on the targeted muscles, fatigue will set in and the repetition will be aborted.
When you watch a weight-class powerlifter, there is fluidity in the movement. Almost like a dance. Certainly, they are strong, but the grace of the movement is equally as impressive. They are using momentum to get their numbers up. In the interview with High Intensity Trainer Luke Carlson on Conditioning Research, Luke said:
If the weight actually moves fast during strength training, momentum is introduced and muscle tension is reduced (as the musculature is essentially unloaded); this is the exact opposite of the goal of strength training and the requirement for muscle fiber recruitment.
In one sentence, he said exactly why you shouldn’t be chasing the classic definition of strength if your goal is building muscle. We need to recruit more muscle fibers and we need to do it safely. That means slowing down the movement and using machines. It means using less weight and not unloading the tension on the muscle with each repetition. In other words, Reps, Sets and the Weight Aren’t that Important.
The Original Goal: Just Build Muscle
You don’t need to bench or squat to build muscle. The fact that most guys use those exercises to do so, doesn’t mean it is necessary. Just fatigue the muscle in a safe manner using machines or static holds like those described in the e-book Hillfit. Then eat to a caloric surplus. I like foods with saturated fat, protein, sugars, and cholesterol, such as dairy kefir or ice cream. Then rest. Rest a lot. Stop chasing strength and start chasing muscle.
May 10, 2013 — 10:37 am
Good post. I think strength gains can and should be pursued but in a microloaded/secondary component to strong contractions and mind/muscle connection. Example: say you’d doing a slow weighted chin; adding 1/4lb/week wouldn’t cause any temporal anxiety (“Can I lift this?”), would not be felt, and would get out of the way of the goal (mind/muscle connection leading to as much tissue isolation as possible). 12lbs per year without that suffering or weight anxiety.
May 10, 2013 — 11:16 am
excellent post: just a couple of comments: I think a lot of people mix up the difference between measuring performance and performing exercise:
What you do to see how much you can lift is different than what you should be doing to grow better at lifting. ie: using momentum to lift more won’t make you stronger in the long term, but will help you get a PR. To me, the goal of exercise is to force some adaptive change to your body, rather than measuring how much performance you can get out of it.
Also, when you’re dealing with power lifting.. their lifts are measuring power, not strength. ie; the ability to not only move a weight but to accelerate it quickly. This involves a great deal of skill as well as strength and is what makes it a sport rather than exercise.
May 11, 2013 — 4:35 am
I think it is even simpler. What physical activities do you want to improve on? Hiking? Riding motorcycles? Keeping up with your (grand)kids? Even working at a desk is a legitimate goal. Identify these and then exercise to be able to do them better.
Lifting, in and of itself, can also be a worthy activity to get into. Nothing wrong with that if it suits you.
I reckon the problem (if there is one) is one of unrealistic expectations… it is unlikely we are going to miraculously turn into Adonis or Atlas.
Apologies if my comments go off on a tangent or come across as confrontational.
May 11, 2013 — 8:15 am
@DancinPete – Absolutely correct. It is the skill of the movement that both allows the lifter to move heavy weights and make the movement safer.
@Txomin – This post was inspired my a recent comment to an older post. Too many young ectomorphs are stuck in the more weight equals more strength equals more muscle. This is old info for daily readers and HIT people.
May 11, 2013 — 9:14 am
I am with you on what you say in this piece. A great article. I used to follow the Hardgainer philosophy, inspired by the magazine of the same name, edited by Stuart McRobert. He set out goals for the typical hardgainer of 300, 400 and 500 pounds in the bench, squat and deadlift respectively ( or totals that were equivalent, based on bodyweight). I now see that slaving to surpass these totals in these exercises was a backwards step for my body type, as various niggling aches remind me each morning.
Inspired by people like Richard Winett, Bill DeSimone and yourself, my training is very different these days.
I did stick on to one idea from those old days however, the notion that variety in training is overrated, and that you should stick with a program for as long as you see strength gains via microloading, which Skyler has mentioned above, and which I still use. However over on Dr Dardens site, several threads on the forum have been hijacked by one issue, the debate that varying training in some form, fairly frequently, helps hypertrophy ( probably more than strength gains ) as the muscles have to work harder due to new neurological connections being made. The chief protaganist for this over there is Brian Johnston, who is insistent that his recent, significant, hypertrophy gains were due to him employing this concept. The insinuation being that some variable in the program ( weight, sets, reps, exercises etc ) needs to be altered to create a fresh challenge, and fairly frequently.
Inspired by the old HardGainer philosophy, I have stuck with a program for months on end, seeing strength progress, via microloading, but not much in the way of size gains. Recently due to circumstances my program has had to alter much more frequently, and I have noticed what appears to be more muscle. This may be purely subjective however.
I’m just wondering what you and others think about this “debate”. In the past I thought that “Trainers” talking about changing things up frequently and muscle confusion, were just trying to keep themselves in employment, by making the whole thing sound more complicated than it is, and that the need to change things was more due to the psychological ( ie boredom ) rather than any physiological reason. Now I’m not so sure. How often do you and your readers change your programs? And when you do, what is the impetus for that change?
here are a couple of quotes on the issue from over on Dr Darden’s board….
” variation and confusion of training application is a big step forward, since the nature of contraction is more diverse than simply ‘origin to insertion’ and any exercise will do. Anyone, and I mean anyone, with balanced development (that 3D effect) applies multi-angle training. There needs to be enough stimulus from all directions… and if muscles do contract in ‘sections’ at a time, it would suggest that both Zone Training and other rep methods/patterns(e.g., Matrix Training) are tools to optimize fiber recruitment and hypertrophy optimization. There are some on this board who know that… direct experience is required… otherwise, you become a Zombie and await others to tell you what to do and what to think about it. But don’t take my word for it… I just spent the past 8 years experimenting and applying widely, while others conclude “you don’t need variation” because they don’t see a need for it. And how many years has Matrix Training been in the works and studied? But I guess all that rep patterning is mumbo jumbo, lol. ”
” Brunstrom’s Clinical Kinesiology is pretty clear. The first time you do a physical task, the body works much harder than it has to, recruiting muscles unnecessary to the task. Once it masters the task, the recruitment is more refined, leading to a smoother execution. But the refinement isn’t just in the gross movement but also in the fiber recruitment. So you may improve at the task, but the improvement is on the “neuro-” side, not necessarily the “muscular” side.
Changing exercise does trick the muscle into working harder, in that it sets the nm system back on the learning curve.
Anecdotally, do Olympic weight lifters and power lifters increase their size as their totals go up? (I don’t actually know, that’s a question.)
I saw one Superslow guy use the stack in a gripless curl machine for perfect reps, prompting a female onlooker to say, “wow, pretty good, considering how small your arms are”.
So if that’s your thing, great, but let’s stop pretending there’s no basis for other approaches. ”
” muscles must work harder when a new set of skills and demands are presented (think of any person in any sport picking up a completely new sport). It’s when you keep doing the same things over and over that it actually becomes easier on the neuromuscular system, even when you’re busting a nut. But don’t take my word for it, … investigate the literature and research on skill performance, strength development (and the role of the nervous and muscular systems)”
” What I’m saying is (WHAT SCIENCE IS SAYING IS) that the more skilled and better you get at doing something, the less the need for hypertrophy. The nervous system is plastic and can and will re-arrange itself in the brain and throughout the spinal column in order to ACCOMMODATE actions progressively better as the demands of those actions (more load) increase. The body does NOT want to add more muscle, and it the process must be forced. In retaliation the nervous system work work with the muscles to optimize lifting ability and intr-muscular and extra-muscular coordination will increase accordingly”
….and something for the opposite argument….
“Brian Johnston wrote:
What I’m saying is (WHAT SCIENCE IS SAYING IS) that the more skilled and better you get at doing something, the less the need for hypertrophy.
Brian, I might increase my skill in the bench press, but if I do I can just put more weight on the bar. “
May 11, 2013 — 10:06 am
@StuartG – To answer your question:
I no longer stress about program variations. Although I stick to some core exercises, I might vary my HIT approach workout to workout. I might vary my rep speed on every rep. I might go to total failure to hold back and perform 2 almost to failure sets.
For me the #1 factor in making that change is the temperature of the gym. If it cool and the fans are going (rarely), I’ll go much higher in the Intensity. SuperSlow – 1 set – with a static hold at the end. If the temp is higher, I’ll back off on the intensity and slightly increase the volume with longer breaks.
I think focusing on the micro-detail of the workout is misspent effort. My worst HIT workout was probably still 75% as effective as the 2 workouts I had with legendary trainer Greg Anderson (RIP).
My belief is that much more effort needs to be directed at the recovery period. What are we eating? How are we relaxing? Are we recovered before returning to the gym? Because the great HIT protocol isn’t going to help nearly as much if we aren’t recovered.
May 11, 2013 — 5:02 pm
Great post – thanks.
I also wanted to gain size, but little by little as I settled down in life, got happily married, had kids, I slowly realized that, for me, being fast and strong was more beneficial than being big.
This is all ancestral stuff. First the young adult male needs to attract a mate. Then procreate and protect.
Believe it or not I did actually have to carry my kids out of a burning house once and I was very thankful for the strength and speed I built up… even if nobody will ever confuse me for Schwarzeneger…
Now I have a 16 year-old who has started weight training. Alas, he’s a mesomorphy – lucky &^%$$£! And, yes, I notice girls look at him in a way they never looked at me. Still, he’s got a long way to go before he has three healthy children…
May 11, 2013 — 5:25 pm
Your conclusion is: Stop chasing strength and start chasing muscle.
I’ve had to think about this for a while. At first I felt that I completely disagreed. From reading the Body by Science website, I’ve always framed it as “stop chasing hypertrophy and start chasing strength”.
I started using the hip belt squat in a static hold Max Pyramid protocol just over a year ago (as I described in comments in one of your “I hate to squat” posts — or maybe “I hate to bench press”). The starting weight was 75 pounds, adding 10 pounds 3 times and then back down for a total of 7 holds (plus going below starting weight for 5 more holds after that). In the beginning I could barely get thru it, it really killed my quads, a measly 75 pounds.
After one year, my starting weight is now 190 pounds. And I’m excited — how far can I go? I know that progress will continue asymptotically up to my genetic potential, but what is that potential? Will I be able to start at 300 pounds in a year? 2 years? 5 years? Never?
So I’ve definitely made progress in the strength department, and yet my legs are still slim, just a bit fuller and more muscular. What will they look like if I can reach the 300 pound mark? Probably just a bit bigger than they are now.
But that’s exactly what I want! Not size, but everyday functional strength and health. Climbing the stairs with a couple bags of groceries. Picking up grandchildren – and great-grandchildren! The strength to score a perfect 5 with an unassisted stand from the floor that Chris Highcock talked about. (As long as I’m not wearing tight jeans, my wife will usually award me a 5.)
So after reading your post more carefully, I think I see that what you mean by strength is “total weight lifted” – more of a powerlifter’s idea of strength. A better display of strength, to which various shortcuts can be applied to improve results. And since this isn’t my definition, it looks like we’re still on the same page.
May 12, 2013 — 11:44 am
Nice post MAS,
John Barban mentioned a related idea a while back.
May 13, 2013 — 7:38 am
@All – I did have trouble with this post. I wanted to keep as brief as possible to get my opinion across. I have seen how the power lifter goal of pounds lifted has infected all forms of strength training, which I see as a limiting factor to physique development and road to injury for many.
Being humbled by lifting lighter weights slowly on machines was not a fun transition at first, but it was ultimately the best fitness decision I ever did.
May 13, 2013 — 9:59 am
Hey MAS, I think there’s a slight mischaracterization of the physics. In order to get a 500 lb bar moving with momentum you need to apply > 500 lb of force. The amount of momentum you get is effectively how much force in excess of 500 lb that you apply. Once the bar is moving you must continue applying at least 500 lb of force to keep the bar moving at the same speed.
Thus if powerlifter are using momentum it mean they are generating way in excess of 500 lb of force for at least some period of time.
As a measure of peak force applied power lifters will win hands down. Doing lower, slower reps will fatigue you, but I doubt it will give you the same peak force generation that a full rep squat or dead lift will.
Also measure how long it takes pros to do a good squat or deadlift, close to their 1 rep max. It’s much closer to 3 – 5 seconds, which is only twice as fast as the super slow 10. There’s no locking out at the bottom of the squat, you must reverse the weight, get stuck or drop it. You get to lock out at the end of a dead lift, but the lift is already over.
May 13, 2013 — 11:03 am
Great article! I wish I had understood this 5 years ago when i started on my paleo journey. I ended up a lot stronger and healthier on the journey but the ideal of powerlifting has probably hindered some muscle gains.
I recently started lifting in the 12 rep range after an injury and to my suprise i gained muscle in a way that has not been happening these last 3 years. This made me rethink the Body by Science book i read (and discarded) when i started weight training.
I realised the actual similarity between my new more effective rep range and the Body by Science method was that i was trying to minimize momentum.
Does it all mainly depend on 4 rules ?
1.) Strive for progression
2.) Minimize momentum
3.) Strive for intensity
4.) Maximize recovery
Number 4 on the list is also something I have found very important after reading 180 degree health and Danny Roddy’s site with their more “anabolism focused” food philosophy. However eating lots of sugar does have a tendency to trigger my food reward circuits in the wrong way.
I think one problem with the powerlifting ideal is that it gives the illusion of faster gains, yes they are gains in terms of weight lifted but alot of this is coming from improved technique. This is all well but one should not confuse these two effects.
Professional powerlifters are probably the genotype that easiest gain muscle, so its logical for them to train for power and technique. But for someone with less genetic propensity to gain muscle the training should probably be different.
May 13, 2013 — 5:53 pm
Fatiguing a muscle in a safe manner is the entire point. What do I care about quantifying the force? Force = Mass * Acceleration, right? So moving a high weight at a high speed generates more force. OK. Great.
I need to fatigue muscle fibers in the safest possible manner, then eat to caloric surplus and rest. Nothing more. Chasing force is about developing a skill, which means nothing to muscle fibers and increases injury risk.
I gained more muscle in the last year by using lighter weights moved very slowly than I did in the past decade chasing “strength” or force.
@Woodwose – Perfectly said.
May 14, 2013 — 3:58 pm
Powerlifting is not cheating by generating momentum, generating momentum is actually really hard and requires incredible strength applied over short period of time. I am not arguing that powerlifting is better for building muscle. The implication I see with these posts regarding HIT vs powerlifting is powerlifters and olympics lifters use momentum to make lifting weight “easier”.
Generating momentum is actually really hard and requires ridiculous amounts of peak force. Momentum is mass * velocity, where velocity is acceleration * time. Momentum is conserved (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momentum) and combined with the fact that to reach a given amount of momentum within a certain time period, the integral of your force over that time period must equal that amount. Thus in order for lifters, particularly olympic powerlifters to successfully complete a lift, they are applying significantly greater force than the weight of the bar.
An example with numbers let’s say we have a 225 kg weight. A powerlifter applies 2904 kg m / s^2 (N) of force to the bar for 2 seconds, it would now have 735 kg m / s of momentum. Under gravity the bar would stop rising in .333 seconds. 2904 kg ~ 300kg * 9.8 m / s ^2
To get an idea of what this means is that in order to be able to unload the muscles for .333 seconds a lifter doing a 500 lb squat would have to accelerate upwards with amount of force necessary to lift 661 lbs off the ground for 2 seconds.
In order to build momentum you must constantly fight the force of gravity, the fluidity you are seeing comes from the ability to generate ridiculous peak forces — this is probably why the injury rate is so high.
Think about the force required in excess of 500 lb for someone squatting to stand up in 2 seconds. If you could stand up 500 lbs in less than 2 seconds, the bar would probably bounce and hurt your spine ( I know from seeing how fast I could stand up with 315).
Machines that angle you away from the ground are actually making lifting significantly easier, because you aren’t fighting gravity. For example a 45 degree leg press reduces the amount of load vs a squat by 29.3% (not even counting the fact you’ve taken your body out).
May 14, 2013 — 6:15 pm
@Mathew – Going back to the start of this post, it was directed at ectomorphs wishing to gain muscle. Power lifters are never ectomorphs. I am suggesting that modeling workouts as power lifters is a mistake if the goal is to gain muscle.
Back to the movement. Compound movements like the squat, dead lift, clean ,etc are about loading and unloading the muscles in the optimal time frame to make the movement as easy as possible – so the lifter can add more weight. I’m not saying it is easy. It requires tremendous skill and strength to pull it off. This has a few implications:
The lifter is limited to a weight that the weakest muscle in the chain can support unless the lifter uses momentum or “cheats” with form. Granted this will be hard to do if the weight is extreme as in your example. But it happens all the time in traditional weight training be it 8*3 or 5*2. Even old timers using machines are moving the weight too fast. Arthur Jones uses the term “throwing weights”.
Since the weight is limited by the weakest link in the chain of the compound movement, the strongest muscle likely isn’t being fully recruited. Since my goal is recruiting muscle fiber, this is important.
Power lifting is a skill sport. The skill is timing the lift to quickly load and unload muscles in a fluid manner. Taking fast twitch to failure, which can benefit the ectomorph trying to gain muscle, would be disastrous for strength sports.
Machines are easier. I agree.
The big mistake – and I used to make it as well – is equating the machine version with the free weight version. They are separate. What do I care if a leg press is 29% easier than a back squat? I can slow the movement down to make it as hard as I want and I am not loading a weight on spine. Only a fool would do a 10 second descent with a barbell squat, but I do it all the time with the leg press. I have more leg mass now using a light leg press (150-200 pounds) down SLOWLY than I did when I was squatting 300 on my back. And I feel a lot better.
May 14, 2013 — 6:50 pm
I completely agree with MAS above. I’m amazed at how willing some people are to expose themselves to the possibility of injury when vastly safer alternatives exist.
May 15, 2013 — 1:49 am
I totally agree with this post. The question for me in the gym at the moment isn’t really a trade off between high weight/low weight or going fast/slow on your repetitions.
Its more what weight can I reasonably control the weight and continually load my muscles with meaningfully. I start out at half of the highest weight I lifted last time and take it upwards from there – till I’m able to do 7-8 reps of the highest weight I can lift on that day.
And then give it a rest and maybe repeat half of this cycle till the muscle is 80-90% fatigued but I don’t really go for full failure. At this level if the highest weight I can lift goes up it goes up else nevermind. At my level (I’m relatively new to this) aiming for full failure I find is more about learning the skill of lifting higher weight or using cheats
I had also read somewhere that a bigger muscle generally implies higher strength generation capability. My measure of progress come from the weight I’m gaining and ensuring that this weight is not all fat by looking more muscular in the mirror! 🙂
In terms of whether machines are better or free weights – I would suggest machines over free weights as long as good machines are available. A lot of local gyms use ‘2nd tier’ machine brands that might be inferior to using free weights because of a poorly defined user path or uneven loading etc. Nautilus machines (lat pulldown, row, chest press etc) generally seem to provide me with a brilliant workout while minimizing wear and tear. My previous gym had BodySolid machines which weren’t as good..
More than exercise, diet seems to be the limiting factor for me at the moment. I have an ectomorphic build and I switched out of Paleo pretty quickly within 3 weeks or so as I wasn’t gaining any mass on that!
So, I’m now going with my own version of evolutionary logic on this one and have seen some gains recently. Provide the body with all types of nutrients like carbs (both complex and simple) including lots of fruits (bananas, mangoes), white rice, brown rice, rice cakes, oats, green vegetables and moderate amounts of naturally occuring fats to make yourself feel full in terms of energy. And then pile on the proteins in terms of chicken, eggs, fish, lamb, pork etc…which should be used exclusively in building and repairing muscle rather than sustaining your body with energy.
I’m also going without any supplements (not even whey) or any vitamin supplements as I’m not sure I can trust current science so much that I’d experiment with my body if not required. However from my reading whey does have its merits as its a fast digesting protein which also causes some amount of insulin spikes and goes quickly to the muscles. I think on pure primal/paleo, without having some carbs along with protein post work out, all that protein goes into maintaining your energy levels rather than into muscles…
May 15, 2013 — 8:14 am
@Cartman – My guess is even the worst machines have merit if one does just static holds.
May 15, 2013 — 2:20 pm
This is interesting to me as I’m an “ectomorph” (not sure I trust the concepts propping up somatypes) about to embark on a high-intensity fitness training program of my own, with all sorts of positive effects imagined but one actually required: I’m about to move up the hill to a farm I’ll be working on for the summer, and since I have always traveled extensively by bicycle I’ve never bothered getting a car or even license (though I plan to have both by the end of the summer).
Now, by “up the hill” I really mean UP the HILL. It seems no one had ever heard of switchbacks when they built the roads around here. Now, when I was a young chap, riding in these hills provided my first realization that I was not strictly consigned to nonmuscularity. My legs and rear got huge enough to leg press more than was reasonable for some 120 pound kid , in the range of kids nearly twice my size. I attribute this to the fact that Lance would say I was “doing it wrong,” I didn’t shift down because my bike wouldn’t cooperate and I hadn’t learned to fix it yet, I just pushed it hard all the way every time. Those were the glory days. Years later I lost that muscular ass to a really bad bout of stomach trouble while traveling in the andes and I’ve never bothered to get it back.
Well, it’s time. I want to thank you for that Kefir-anabolic concept as I’m sure that’ll be helping me as I intentionally go out and slowly, repeatedly grind up these hills in top gear every afternoon. I aim to regain that senior-year-of-highschool level of quad-glute strength, and hopefully more, within a couple weeks. It sounds crazy so I hope it works.
What I’m curious about is whether I’ll see more progress in strength or more in hypertrophy. While I like having thick legs I have more practical use for more strength in less mass. I don’t know which this will net me. It sounds somewhat more like what you’re perscribing for mass.
May 15, 2013 — 6:54 pm
@Erik – I like the idea of using HIT or weight training in general to build a foundation of strength. The mass part comes from the calorie surplus and sufficient rest. If mass isn’t your goal, then keeping your calories at baseline might be wise. The skill portion of cycling is something I know nothing about, however I can relay what John Little (co author of Body By Science) said in a podcast regarding in-season athletes. He doesn’t advise them to train to failure, because it will hurt performance.
I did a post on training to failure that ties in.
May 15, 2013 — 8:23 pm
I have a hard time achieving a caloric surplus seeming to need 4000+ per day. I never get to sit. That said, I don’t think maintaining baseline would be a good idea for this experiment as I’m adding a good bit more intensity than I’m used to getting per day and some hypertrophy is inevitable.
My plan is to move slow up steep hills in high gear, emulating what I did when younger but more focused and eventually harder. This pretty well removes any skill aspects (which for cycling relate to where in a rapid cycle to apply force to the pedal, rather than the slow cycle here) to simplify the movement to the legs just pushing hard and steady against a loaded pedal. I’m not likely to train to failure as I have to keep moving once I get to the top of the hill, though it’s not really something I had thought about. I’ve sort of thrown this regimen together based largely on intuition, to be quantified when results are in.
Sufficient rest is my biggest question mark, really. Getting enough sleep. I think I’ll just make sure to eat a LOT of foods I respond well to to make sure any repair and maintenance processes are well-fueled.
May 16, 2013 — 7:50 am
Fellow ectomorph here. I’ve always heard that compound movements like squats, deadlifts, etc elicit a higher release of testosterone, HGH, and other anabolic hormones in the body and in turn causing the body to grow at a faster rate. Am I mistaken? Maybe it’s just “bro science.”
May 16, 2013 — 8:09 am
@Mike – I don’t know if it is true of not, but I would think any load bearing exercise, be in compound or isolated, would have similar effects. My guess is a low force leg press taken to failure would be hormonally as anabolic as a squat, but I don’t know for certain.
May 16, 2013 — 8:11 am
@Erik – Ice cream is the best friend of the dairy tolerant hard-gaining ectomorph. Just look for the clean labels. No corn syrup, gluten, carageenan.
May 16, 2013 — 12:58 pm
Sadly the only ice cream around here by that description is Hagen Dasz and that gets very expensive very quickly. Making a quart of kefir a day is considerably less expensive. I plan to start blending in a bit of honey, an egg or two and some potato starch for my post-ride kefiring.
May 19, 2013 — 7:56 am
I’d like to comment on few points. Variety: I thought it was counterproductive, that it’s all about progressive poundages on basic exercises. But recently I read Max Muscle Plan by Brad Schoenfeld, who is a hypertrophy researcher and specialist, and variety is apparently very important for hypertrophy. his training is periodised and more complicated than HIT, but the book is excellent, top class writing.
He also talks about “momentum”. In short, yes, momentum is involved, but even smooth 1/1 cadence isn’t influenced by it very much, an it’s very safe already, and SuperSlow is actually counterproductive, because it doesn’t allow for enough weight during the negative portion of the lift. The theory behind SuperSlow is not backed by science, it’s not safer…the author respects HIT though, as an efficient training for those pressed for time.
I actually use HIT, but I strongly recommend this book as an alternative for consideration if your primary goal is hypertrophy. But the programme requires more from you than HIT.
May 19, 2013 — 6:41 pm
@Ondrej – I have not read Brad’s book, but I respectful disagree.
Do a single pushup or chinup using a 1/1 cadence. Now do a second pushup or chinup with a 5/5 cadence. The second one was much harder. The first one absolutely used momentum. Faster movements are easier. Faster movements use heavier weights and the muscles are loaded and unloaded faster. Introducing speed creates more force which is not only directed at your muscles, but your joints. If I plan to lift weights till I’m 100, I need to figure out a way to target my muscles and preserve my joints. Slow HIT does that.
I like SuperSlow as one flavor of HIT. There are many variations of HIT. I’m not an expert, but to say that SuperSlow is counterproductive on the negative lift baffles me. The productive goal of any weight training is to fatigue muscle fibers and hopefully do it in a safe manner. SuperSlow does that. The fact the weight is lower is a benefit. Failure is failure. If I resist against a weight and I can’t move it, the amount of the weight is irrelevant.
Before I came into the HIT world, I did it the other way for 15 years. I frequently was hurt. Since going to lighter weights and moving the weight slower, my results are greater and I NEVER get injured. So HIT meets my productive goal.
Again, I am not a trainer, just a fitness hobbyist with a background in finance. I look for patterns of failure. In another post I mentioned Seeking Alpha and applying it to fitness.
May 19, 2013 — 6:49 pm
@Ondrej – I have added Brad’s book to my reading list.
May 20, 2013 — 5:01 am
Yes, absolutely, I do HIT too, although I use more of 4/3/4 cadence. I don’t have the book here right now, so maybe I didn’t interpret it exactly. It’s just a good book with different view, because the science is kind of inadequate at the moment to draw firm conclusions. I’d like to try training the way it describes, but it’s not possible at the moment.
BTW, this is my conversation with the author:
Hello Brad, I read your latest book. You say HIT may be effective for those pressed for time. Do you think it’s possible to incorporate all those three main factors of hypetrophy you talk about, muslce tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress, into two 30-minute workouts a week? I think so, because, to quote Drew Baye, “Most exercise research on single versus multiple sets doesn’t specify or standardize repetition cadence, and when it does it is usually not supervised and timed to ensure strict compliance. Instead, subjects are often self-supervised and most people without proper instruction will use relatively poor form, moving in a fast and sloppy manner not representative of what is often recommended for high intensity training. I have trained bodybuilders and professional athletes who were convinced they had already been training with a high level of intensity comment after a workout with me how much harder it was, so I am also highly skeptical of the average subject’s ability or willingness to push themselves to train as intensely as is often recommended for high intensity training.
The majority of published research and an even larger amount of unpublished research shows little or no difference in results between performing one or more sets of an exercise (research showing no difference in the effect of independent variables tends not to be published). Considering the above, what this really means is there is little or no difference in results between performing one or more sets of an exercise with crappy form.
If we were to compare either a single or multiple set protocol performed in typically sloppy, quick fashion with a single set protocol performed in strict, slow, fashion I suspect the results would still be similar assuming both were done with a high intensity of effort. However, in the long run the group performing a single set of strict, slow reps would suffer less wear and tear and fewer training related injuries.” http://baye.com/relative-volume-of-single-multiset-workouts/ So can moderate rep range to failure, with cadence of about 4/4 – controlled but not superslow, with TUL of about 60-120 s (6-12 reps) ande overall volume of about 10 (different exercise) sets to failure twice a week be effective and what are the downsides?
Did you experiment with HIT and how would your optimal, but minimalist training in terms of equipment and time look like if you had just dumbbells/bench? I am talking mainly about dropping the “vary exercises as much as possible” aspect. Could you generally talk about some real downsides of reasonable HIT? Because as much as I find your programme well thought, I can’t help but thing lot of the things make very little difference abnd can be worked around while using the same, let’s say, 20 exercises for full body, and double linear progression. Are the results really different in the real world for most people when they apply the 3hour/week, varying exercises, intelligent periodisation” style like outlined in the book? Thanks.
[–]bradschoenfeld[S] 7 bodů 1 měsíc před
Lots of stuff to delve into here. First off, I’d disagree that the majority of studies show little to no difference between single vs. multi-set protocols. To the contrary, the majority show a clear hypertrophic advantage for multi-set training. James Krieger did an excellent meta-analysis of the topic a couple of years back that you can read here:
The cadence issue is one that has not been well-studied. I’ve not seen convincing evidence that a slower cadence is beneficial, and the reduction in load associated with slow tempos may be at least somewhat detrimental. Tanimoto et al. conducted a study that looked at a 3/3 tempo vs traditional tempo (1/1) and found no significant differences between groups. However, the faster tempo actually produced a 34% greater increase in hypertrophy–the fact that results did not rise to statistical significance was likely a result from it being underpowered from a small sample size. Thus, at best I think it’s reach to use slower tempos as a basis for hypertrophy.
The point about less wear and tear on the joints is a reasonable contention. Training is always about risk/reward and cost/benefit. I’d contend that in healthy individuals the impact of increased volume, at least within reasonable limits, should not be detrimental provided the person trains with proper form. If someone has an injury or joint-related condition, then certainly reducing volume may be a viable strategy.
I did experiment with HIT quite a lot back in the mid- to late-90’s. I’d read several of Ellington Darden’s and Mike Mentzer’s books and had a chance to speak with Mentzer in person for a lengthy conversation on the topic. I used the approach personally as well as experimenting with a large number of clients during this time. Certainly it produced results, but they were not as robust as with multi-set protocols. The compelling body of research indicates that a positive correlation exists between volume and hypertrophy. Now high volumes ultimately hasten the onset of overtraining, which is why I’ve found it best to periodize the variable so that volume is progressively increased over the course of training cycle.
In sum, I think HIT is a viable strategy for those who are time-pressed or simply want a good physique. It will accomplish these goals. But as far as maximizing muscle, I would contend based on both research and experience that higher volumes of training are needed.
May 20, 2013 — 7:02 am
@Ondrej – Thanks for sharing! That is awesome the author responded to you with such detail.
Although I have issues with fitness studies, I’ll save that for a future blog post, I guess this debate comes down to what is the definition of HIT? For me my cadence is varied. Although never fast, I alter the speed every few reps. Sometimes 4 seconds, sometimes 10. Sometimes I just use static holds.
I also use higher volume, but I still use the machines and avoid the skill momentum movements. For me, I discovered that room temperature is the best predictor of how much intensity I can generate over a given set. The higher the gym temp, the less intensity I generate, the more volume I’ll use. I’m sure that isn’t modeled in any study.
The way Brad views fitness is like other trainers, which is different than myself. He looks for what patterns develop the most results in a certain period of time. I’m not. I’m looking for the highest percentage results over an infinite period of time, which means I recognize that injury is a possibility when you go chasing the upper boundary looking for optimal.
The #1 way to increase hypertrophy is don’t get sidelined with injuries. If backing off on the volume and speed of the repetitions results in falling behind my optimal potential in the short run, that is OK with me.
One last point about HIT. It took me about 2 months to really understand what intensity was and I needed a certified HIT trainer to help me discover it. Had you measured my first 2 months the results would have been poor. Plus I was bored. Just like Olympic lifts need weeks or months of form practice, I believe that HIT requires that attention to developing intensity.
May 20, 2013 — 7:20 am
This is turning into quite a comment string with lots of interesting observations!
Question for you MAS – My 16 year-old son is suddenly very into weight training and probably would benefit from reading a good general book about it. Keeping in mind that – unlike me – he’s a mesomorph – what *one* book would you recommend he read? He is particularly interested – like most 16 year-olds – in looking buff, but he also needs to train for power-endurance sports like lacrosse and rugby.
May 20, 2013 — 7:30 am
@Glenn – As a reflex, I was about to say Body By Science, but if I were 16 years old, I’d probably be more inspired by Darden’s book, just tell him to ignore the nutrition chapter.
May 20, 2013 — 7:36 am
Many thanks MAS
May 21, 2013 — 12:53 pm
I’d wait for the Elements of Form by Drew Baye. I expect this to be a bigh HIT:-) Easily ma favourite HIT author.
What I realized is that in search for that simple alternative, we sometimes accept it and don’t really test it. What do I mean? We try to support HIT with “Evidence Based RT Recommendations”, but is this analysis really unbiased and comprehensive? I fell into this trap with low carb. They cherry pick and present nice, simple solutions. Yet today I think Alan Aragon is the man for nutrition. And his advice is kind of moderate, even boring…just like the “official” NSCA/ACSM training recommendations.
Is it really a coincidence that people like Alan Aragon, Brad Schoenfeld and Layne Norton all support the “official” way? Obviously Brad and Alan are friends, so are Doug McGuff and Skyler Tanner…I guess we could accuse both groups of some cherry-picking, it’s inevitable.
My current position is that the official way of training with more sets and more volume is more effective on paper and may be more effective if you have the time for 3-4 hours a week periodised training and you master the method but for most it’s not worth the chase.
I train 25 minutes twice a week HIT and people comment that I am bigger than I used to be, after some 4 months of progressive training. Will I plateau and test something else in the future? Maybe.
Basically, both groups are honest. One prefers maximum results for still doable routines, other prefers fantastic results for minimum time. But in real world, I am more interested in the latter, as I know that to get the advantage, my sleep and diet would have to be perfect. That said, you really have to be spot-on with HIT training, there is less space for any errors.
I kind of like the approach of Keith Norris. Two 30 minute HIIRT sessions a week – if it’s too much, you are probably underrecovered, not overtrained.
What I also realised is that girls don’t want super muscular guys. And HIT also brings huge improvements for cardiovascular fitness to the table, for almost no time investment. It might not be the best for hypertrophy, but who cares? I’d love to be huge, but when I think about it twice, I don’t want training to be so important…I’d much rather take a beatuiful lady to Florence for a weekend and skip a workout…or two.
May 21, 2013 — 1:37 pm
Ondrej, on taking the beautiful lady to Florence, couldn’t you… er, incorporate the workouts? Um, workout via in-corp-oration?
Anyways. Kefir PLUS cheap carageenan-laden ice cream plus some gluten, beer and a massive quantity of venison, goat, fruit and starchy roots, and I feel like my legs have made faster progress than they should, which suddenly made a lot of sense when you linked to the post on Ferriss gaining back muscle. After all, this is muscle I had before. The hills are now mine to ascend with impunity.
In the meantime, though, there have been some upper-body gains that are not based on previous muscle. Despite bigger legs, I can hold a planche for around 15 seconds, whereas my previous best was under 5 seconds. My arms are no bigger and it’s only been 5 days since I began- I wonder if it has more to do with the combination of more exercise and more calories stimulating my body to “work better?” Significant muscle or nerve growth does not, to my knowledge, happen within the span of 5 days.
May 21, 2013 — 1:42 pm
I’m on the road now. Short response:
1: I have been testing numerous protocols, hit works best for me. I strongly suspect other ectomorphs will also. That was the genesis of this post.
2: Mesomorphic trainers with perfect genetics that train elite athletes are delusional when they extend their protocols to mere mortals. If these trainers were so wise, I probably wouldn’t have a blog.
3: I disagree that you have to get hit just right. Not getting injured is the key
Jul 4, 2013 — 8:27 am
It’s great to accept slower gain in exchange for safety, but I don’t think this is just about speed of gain. It’s about overall gain, that may be limited by not using exercise variety, multiple rep ranges, faster speeds, periodisation and overreaching, and more.
Plus, you won’t live forever. You even won’t have optimal hormonal levels forever. The number of diseases waiting for you regardless of diet and exercise is ridiculous. And if you are in your 20’s wanting to maximize hypertrophy, I guess a little risk may help you to accomplish this goal. You’ll lose your health and strength anyway, and being overly cautious may lead to mediocre results. Obviously one needs to have time and desire etc. as well to pursue that goal, because to get those last 20% you’ll need to invest 3-6 hours a week.
Sep 16, 2014 — 5:03 pm
Lol. I’m 74yr old been there “done it”. The debate goes on. Great site and forum. Love it.
Maybe I can win geriatric puniverse??
I did ok in my time, tho I never knew it then. shame the “drug” steroids etc killed a perfect way to strength and health.
Good thing is various other means of “NEW” fitness concepts incorporate bodybuilding principles.
Sep 18, 2014 — 4:41 pm
74yr old grandpa 5′ 7″ inch tall – wrist 6 1/2″ inch 8 1/4″ inch ankle. –> I guess I’m ectomorph range.
I would like to say PLEASE don’t laugh at my statement I NEVER tried steroids. Many of my training friends did and achieved above average results. Mr. Australia etc That was their choice.
As a clean skin I had results I NEVER appreciated WHEN I was young.
I tend to agree with MAS on –> NOT needing to “GO” for the big weights etc. for muscular development.
My youth experience was go heavy etc. Most of it worked ok for 5 years, until I TORE my pectoral BENCHING.
Not heavy BUT heavy for me. 7th set 230lb personal REP Best. 4reps easy? Then BAR stops? NO!? push harder BANG.
THAT’S ok part of training hard. –> lol–I trained around my injury– next day squats np. Press light db nah? LIGHT Tricep pulley press down YES. –> Recovery took some time.
HERE IS the CLINCHER –> During my recovery I trained alone. NO “EGO” involved.
My First BENCH press was conservative AFTER warm up I THOUGHT 200lbs np. NO pain I did weight easy. BUT IT felt WEIRD? UNCOMFORTABLE–> blah blah. ME? uncomfortable? EXERCISING> hmmm?
THE END result was WITH some thinking and TESTING lighter “progressive” weights IN ALL my exercises. I recovered faster, put on muscle and stronger. FASTER than EVER??? ME?? –> small 5lb curl 10lb bench.
PATIENCE with reps and weight increases.
“I” TOOK part in a weightlifting competition to achieve a MODEST standing press of 200lbs “I” the big I was rapped.
I had put on weight, muscle and? Some fat . EASIEST weight and strength GAINS.–> KEY factor?
SENSIBLE weight increases and MODERATE pump. FOR NORMAL people who don’t use steroids.
PUMPING muscle feels good? YOU better believe it. –>TOO much?? DEFLATED ego MINUS muscles.
Sep 18, 2014 — 5:21 pm
@Paul M – Thanks for sharing your experience.