Pavel’s Quick & Dead vs HIT

Greg left an interesting comment on the post Notes on Pavel’s – The Quick and the Dead that I felt deserved its own post. I might need some help from the HIT experts as I have not kept up with the topic fully in recent years.

Pavel’s anti-glycolytic training protocol attempts to minimize glycolysis since, he says, it releases acid, ammonia, and other metabolites that induce cellular damage and create other hormonal problems (such as increased cortisol). Slow lifting seems to *embrace* the glycolytic state. Any thoughts on the divergent philosophies of the two approaches?

Way back in June of 2011, I did a 2-part post titled Training to Failure or Training to Quit. In that post, I explained that Pavel’s audience is made up of people in fields that can’t afford to have down days.

If you are a firefighter, cop, soldier, or in-season athlete, you probably should not be doing exercise routines that leave you wiped out the next day or longer. Imagine storming into a fire to save a kid three flights up the day after doing a HIT Leg Press to negative failure. Yikes.

But you still need to develop the strength, so Pavel in the Q&D and some of his other work builds programs that increase strength but not at the expense of being wiped out for your task the next day.

This was my MS Paint explanation. HIT has fewer workouts, so you can go deeper below your baseline. It is the workout efficient route, but you pay for it with longer recoveries. 

Both are valid paths to get stronger. Once you solve for safety, finding the path that captures your interest the most (until it doesn’t) is probably the best plan.

For me I drifted away from HIT to failure for a few reasons:

  1. I like going to the gym, especially in the Seattle winter when the sun rarely makes an appearance. More workouts are better for me now.
  2. Like Greg, I am a 6 ‘2 ectomorph. Everything I’ve read (including Body By Science) suggests we do better with more volume and not one-set to failure. This is still a debated point, but I’ll side with more volume for now.
  3. Glitter Gyms are too hot for HIT. “Glitter Gym” is a term I invented in the late 1990s to describe the gym business model that eventually took over and won. Dance music, bright lights, mirrors, and never telling anyone to rack their own weights. These gyms are kept in the 68-70 F range for the comfort of their staff, whereas true HIT gyms are set at 61 F. You can crank out MUCH MORE intensity at 61 than 70.
  4. I got tired of feeling run down for days after a workout. So either consciously or subconsciously started reducing my interpretation of “intensity”. If you hire a HIT trainer in a true HIT gym, you pay for them to keep you in check and progressing. If you are on your own and you can’t control your environment, it can be challenging.

Pavel Captured My Interest

There were 3 things in The Quick & The Dead routine that interested me.

  1. The exercise choices seemed safe to me. (The 2-handed kettlebell more than the 1-handed, as it has a lower skill component.)
  2. Short sets with longer rest to greatly reduce soreness, which would allow for faster recovery and more trips to the gym.
  3. A sneaky way to get volume. 10 sets of 10 reps = 100 reps. Because they are space out with longer rests, the volume doesn’t crush you. Remember the old 20-rep squat routines? Imagine attempting 5 sets of 20-reps. You couldn’t sit the next day. With the Q&D, I’m dialing up the volume without the soreness.

I know there are some readers of this site that know more of the under-the-hood details of HIT that might be able to defend it against Pavel’s characterization, but it rings true to me.

HIT – when I followed it to the letter – left me feeling like I’d been run over by a car. And I liked it back then. It was novel. But like every other training plan, it loses its shine, and you look for something else. Q&D is the new shiny tool right now.

19 Comments

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  1. “Body by Science” and “Quick and the Dead” both use the same basic model of muscle biochemistry, yet make radically different hypotheses about the best way to train. I’m suspicious of both. Authors of both books claim extensive application of and experimentation with their protocols. But I can find little empirical data published in peer-reviewed journals validating either hypothesis.

    For “Body by Science” style HIT, I searched on Google Scholar with search terms “Body by Science” (only 10 citations of the book, none are scientific studies), and several author searches: “author:’jr little'”, “author:’d mcguff’, “author:’md mcguff'”. I could find no scientific studies, just scattered blog posts.

    For the “Quick and the Dead,” I also found nothing.

    The most interesting blog post on BBS-style HIT is by Alex Fergus (“Body by Science High Intensity Training Review: My 9 Month Experiment”). Alex built an impressive physique using conventional weight lifting, then switched to HIT for 9 months. He managed to maintain strength–not too surprising since strength requires very little volume (see Schoenfeld’s paper “Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men”).

    But Fergus “lost about 4kgs of mass” in those 9 months (not clear if he’s referring to lean body mass, though the context suggests this). Yet he still considers his HIT experiment a successful validation (blaming his diet for the lost mass). However, he switched back to conventional weight training at the end (“I would question whether I could continue doing HIT for a long period.”). Most interesting is his response to a reader who asked “im underweight,skinny my goal is to gain muscle mass 10kg, is this training right for me.?” He replied “Na, just eat lots more, and do a starting strength or 5×5 strong lift type workout.”

    I also tried BBS-style HIT a few years ago and got stronger (though not bigger), but hated being wiped out for days after a workout. “Quick and the Dead” is appealing because of the higher volume, which I need, and easy recovery. But it’s an experiment. I’m looking forward to reading how it works for you after 12 weeks.

    Also, if anyone knows of any research on BBS HIT, I’d appreciate some pointers.

  2. @Greg – From a non-science view, I think about when people tell me they lift “1-rep short of failure”, but never to failure. How does one know where failure is unless they experience it occasionally? HIT to me was a great learning tool. Safety plus adjusting the speed of a movement to increase or decrease the intensity. I use what I learned from HIT across other forms of lifting.

  3. @MAS — I agree, it was a good learning experience for me too.

  4. @MAS — “Body by Science” was dogmatic that its ultra high intensity exercise protocol “represents about as perfect an exercise program as could be desired” (p. 116). That always struck as a little out of character for Doug McGuff, at least in the videos I’ve seen of him, so I did a little more research.

    McGuff no longer believes that. Perhaps he never did. Maybe the “perfect” line came from his co-author, John Little. It’s certainly not the way he got as muscular as he is today. In his youtube videos, he says that he trained multiple sets to failure three days a week for *20 years*.

    In his “Volume and Frequency” video, McGuff says “It’s absolutely fine to go up in volume and frequency.” Making trade-offs between intensity, volume, and frequency might yield a routine that works better for you. Experiment. Sub-maximal, non-failure training can be very effective. He described a simple auto-adaptive protocol for terminating a set: when your reps slow down, stop. Chad Waterbury’s strategy, which I’ve used for years, is similar: stop when either (a) form breaks down, (b) range of motion decreases, or (c) a rep is noticeably slower than the one before it.

    McGuff’s youtube video “Doug McGuff: Resistance Training” seems to suggest that glycolysis is not to be avoided but embraced, since it’s the primary driver of muscular adaptation. A very different viewpoint than Pavel’s. Who’s right? I have no idea. But it has given me second thoughts about the “Quick and the Dead” workout.

  5. @Greg – I was hoping one of my smart HIT readers would have joined in the comments. Not yet.

    I’m not overthinking this. There are many roads to get strength. For me, I needed the break. If 12 weeks of Q&D turns out to not benefit me much, then I’ll still appreciate the lesson.

    I will say my focus is greater due to the novelty. I’m not following the same old recipe mindlessly. Which is a good thing.

  6. @MAS The Pavel posts have been very interesting to me. I am a big fan of his Program Minimum as an easy “practice” on days I don’t get to the gym. I’m curious though: Safety’s always been a big priority for you, and in the past it seemed you avoided ballistic lifts like the swing. What changed to make you think the risk/reward proposition of the swing was worth it?

  7. I believe all these differing views are right. But I follow Chris Highcock in his Medium article: My Philosophy Of Resistance Training
    The first three points are as follows:
    1. Everything works
    2. Choose safety
    3. Have fun

    Personally I enjoy exercising, therefore I am more inclined towards more volume or more days working out. Also as long as what you are doing is safe and you are having fun, that’s more than anything I can ask for:)

  8. @Geoff – I got instruction a while back from a coach on perfect KB swings. I practiced with a lower weight to get the form perfect. The reason I am adopting it in the Q&D is that the reps and the weight are both limited. Plus the long rest periods. Each of those elements, I believe will prevent a breakdown in form.

    My guess is people get injured with the KB when they haven’t mastered the form at a lower weight. Do too many reps or use too much weight. Q&D keeps those in check.

    The real question will be is the KB swing enough? I’ll find that out in the coming weeks.

    @Amos – Well said. Agreed.

  9. @MAS – Thanks. That was the approach I adopted too. I find KB swings to have value but only in the range Pavel describes (~10 reps) and with a weight that is heavy but still makes the last swing of the set “pop”.

    Apart from being smart with programming and the science, Pavel’s also a marketing genius. If you told the typical “gym bro” “You can get strong only doing 2 lifts,” you’d probably be scoffed at. As corny as it is the “Super Soviet Secrets” style he had in PttP and EtK added a mystique to the programming that made it more accessible.

    All that said, I’ve never understood Pavel to mean that any of his minimal programs are “All you ever need to do.” Rather, I understood it as “If this is all you have time for you can still make gains doing just this.”

    When I needed to workout at home and had limited time, I found that alternating 12 week cycles of regular PttP (not “the Bear”) using a DL/military press combo and “Program Minimum” was effective and allowed me to make good progress.

  10. I think HIT is a great starting point program. Especially for those not inclined to lift. My g/f hates the weights, but 1x per week and done in 20 mins is a commitment she is willing to make. And she continues to make strength gains (adding reps/weight).

  11. Over the last 12-15 years, I spent a lot of my free time in search of the optimal way to strength train. After many years of experimentation, I concluded that, at least for me, the results are about the same regardless of how I approach it. If I train mostly barbell lifts (like a power lifter), I get better at those lifts (i.e., stronger), but I do not pack on slabs of muscle. And when I switch back to HIT style, I don’t feel like I lose a lot of muscle, but my ability to perform the barbell lifts does diminish. So I’ve concluded that, from a health perspective, I don’t need to do a lot, and I have a lot of options available to me.

    But when deciding what to do going forward, I was torn between HIT and barbell work. I like and appreciate each for different reasons. I finally decided to do both, sort of a hybrid training program. Basically, I strength train twice a week, rotating through 3 basic workouts:

    A: Full body machine circuit, HIT style, one set to failure.

    B: Traditional style, barbell focused, three working sets: deadlifts, chest press or bench press, row.

    C: Traditional style, barbell focused, three working sets: barbell back squats, standing overhead press, pullups.

    It seems to be working great. I enjoy training twice a week, and don’t get burned out by it. I only beat myself down with a HIT workout once every 10 days or so. And I only squat heavy, or deadlift heavy every 10 days, so my joints get plenty of time to recover. Plus, I think there is something beneficial to getting a decent amount of variety in the exercises that I am using. I feel more “balanced” than I did when only doing one kind of workout over and over again.

  12. @Craig – Thanks for sharing. I like cycling between different strategies myself. Get the benefits of each plan without burning out on the other.

    I’m already feeling my shoulders are getting over worked on the Q&D, whereas my back and legs are under worked. I’ll be making adjustments soon.

  13. Ondřej Tureček

    Feb 17, 2020 — 2:32 pm

    HIT science: I know about James Steele, James Fisher, Jurgen Giessing…

    McGuff and his belief in Body by Science: Doug typically trains in a three way split once every 5 days. He uses various techniques like J-reps, I think he believes there is value to certain amount of reps – coupling and decoupling of actin/myosin. He treats all those as speculative though. You can find relatively recent videos where he says Body by Science is as good as anything else and that he doesn’t like to hear stuff like “It will give you 80% of results.” or it’s only good for “recreational lifters” etc.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuPW7PXGtq4&t=407s

    He views it as three movable sliders – volume, frequency, effort – and he moved those variables in BBS to make it practical. So yes, he encourages anyone to experiment, specifically mentioning that if you dial back the intensity a bit – like dropping trying to “beat failure” for another 10 seconds – you can move from once a week 5 exercises to twice a week 8 exercises.

    John Little is no HIT zealot either. In his new book, there isn’t classic HIT protocol, instead there is 3×10 Delorme/Walkins, Max Pyramid, and One and Done (one slooooow rep, that’s it). But he subscribes to the idea of glycogen dumping/inroad. He even seems to consider it the main hypertrophy mechanism – muscle stores more glycogen as supercompensation.

  14. Ondřej Tureček

    Feb 17, 2020 — 2:35 pm

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TVtDLkQOaE
    J. Fisher – Evidence based recommendations for hypertrophy…

  15. Ondřej Tureček

    Feb 17, 2020 — 2:48 pm

    Some short sweet videos on HIT:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhYfG2_jSA8
    Steele – template for 2019
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Je3SZRdOGe4
    Fisher – Single vs. multiple sets
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWDIgOu9hmk
    Fisher – frequency
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2PwNs5Nh6w
    Fisher – high vs low loads

    Anyway, there are many more on HITUNI channel by Steele/Fisher who have in my opinion the most accurate science backed info in HIT sphere.

  16. @Ondřej – Thanks for the links.

    HIT will always have a place in my workouts. It works and I enjoy it. And unlike Pavel’s Q&D, I didn’t find issues with it after just 4 weeks.

  17. Ondřej Tureček

    Feb 18, 2020 — 9:48 am

    @MAS Yeah, I will probably never leave HIT, sometimes there will be long stretches of once a week training (or no training at all) with a condensed routine, sometimes more bodybuilding attempts – twice a week, more variety – possibly A/B, more volume…but I haven’t seen other methods that would be practical for me to try.

  18. On the topic of HIT research, Fisher, Steele, et al released a paper in 2018 investigating the “super slow” protocol advocated in Body by Science. Here’s a link:

    https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/93128/1/apnm-2018-0376.pdf

    They investigated three different cadences: 2s concentric:4s eccentric; 10s:10s; and “super slow,” 30s:30s:30s (see paper). All used the one-set-to-failure protocol. Their conclusion was that cadence, including “super slow,” doesn’t matter:

    “Repetition duration does not affect the increases in strength in trained participants where exercise is performed to momentary failure.”

    Their other interesting result was about hypertrophy:

    “Body composition changes in participants from all groups were minimal, and likely within the margin of error for the measurement used.”

    No hypertrophy? At this point they seem to be deviating from the one-set-to-failure philosophy:

    “Whilst the use of a low-volume (single set) protocol represents considerable time efficiency for strength increases, it might not be sufficient to produce meaningful increases in muscle mass in trained participants.”

    Mike Israetel has an interesting video that provides a high-level summary of research on HIT for muscle gain:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1reYKpJ0Wk

    Presumably Mike’s bias is minimal since, in the comment section, he says he trained HIT “religiously for years.” He also says “When you don’t have a lot of time, HIT can be a great tool.”

    Mike maintains that the one-set-to-failure conclusion was based on early research on beginners, where that is indeed the case. But for intermediates and beyond, multiple sets are better for hypertrophy. Fisher and Steele seem to concede that point, or at least the possibility of it, in their 2018 paper.

  19. @Greg – Thanks for the links.

    I have my own update. I did a solid Q&D workout on Friday. Then Saturday, I twisted my back getting up from a seated position. I’ve been in pain ever since.

    I guess 100 explosive KB swings isn’t good for my old bones.

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