Use Intuition and Directional Accuracy to Build Your Workouts

This week was an exciting one if you like to watch the drama in the fitness community. On Facebook, there was some heated disagreement on the role volume has on hypertrophy between Lyle McDonald, Brad Schoenfeld, and James Krieger.

All three of these gents are at least 10x smarter than me on topics of lifting and they disagree. So how do I resolve issues when my mentors don’t agree with each other? Two methods.

#1 Use Intuition

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. And that truth will vary from lifter to lifter. Our training age, our biological age, our somatype, and our general approach to lifting will be factors in determining what is best for us at any given stage on our fitness journey.

For me, I need to find a balance that allows me to improve, keeps me interested, allows time for me to recover, and most importantly is safe. There is no single recipe that fits my needs. There are many paths to achieve my goals. I need to find that path for myself. The gym is the place I go to get feedback. My workouts will tell me in due time if I’m slacking off or pushing it too hard.

Developing your own intuition on lifting is as important as lifting itself, especially as you age. Staying in the game and knowing what is best you on any given week is the key to staying fit. Other voices – evening dissenting voices – can be useful, but your intuition needs to be on point.

#2 Directionally Accurate

A lot of the debate on the role of volume comes down to specific ranges of numbers. Those numbers are unimportant to me. I’m measuring the tone and direction of serious voices. On the volume topic, I see the case for more volume getting stronger. How strong? That is not important. Just stronger than before.

I developed a lower training volume habit first via HIT and then during the years when my knee was in worse shape. I would be a fool to jump directly up to the high volumes being discussed online. (I think it was 30 sets per week). But I do believe the directionally accurate path is adding more volume.

New studies are always coming out and the volume case could get weaker or stronger. We will see. I can’t wait for new studies though, I’m heading to the gym tomorrow.

Connecting Intuition With Directionally Accuracy

My plan is starting this week to add a few more sets a week to my chest, back, and legs. Then periodically, I’ll add a few more sets as soon as I feel my recovery is solid. It might be a week or a month or longer. There is no rush. I’m not going anywhere.

I’ll listen to my intuition to guide me as I add on the volume. I’ll be checking my weight and using a tape measure as well. I’ve been undereating recently and I know I’ll need to correct that problem as I reach for more hypertrophy gains via increased volume. If I can’t fix the calories right away, I’ll pause on the volume until I can.

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Heavier Weight, Greater Volume, and Going to Failure

This is a follow-up to the previous post The Case For High Intensity Training Seems to be Getting Weaker.

Heavier Weight or More Volume?

Chris shared this article by Lyle McDonald, which was published a day after my blog post, suggests the case for higher volume, may not be well supported.

Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy – Research Review

I thought about this for a while and I don’t think it will change my decision to increase volume. My reasons:

  1. I see the choice between Heavier Weight or More Volume as 2 paths that will both lead to gains. Some will respond better to Heavy and some better to Volume. My intuition tells me that I need Volume now. Not a lot, just more. I’ve very likely been untraining for years as I’ve danced around knee injuries.
  2. Going Heavier, unless you are super careful with exercise selection, form, and recovery times, may lead to increased risk of injury. Certainly in the compound movements. Being sidelined is the worst path for long-term gains.
  3. I can’t prove this, but I suspect that recovery time is less for Volume workouts than going Heavy. So I could likely do 3 Volume workouts a week or 2 Heavy. If I was still 24, those numbers might be the same. And I’m guessing that I’ll benefit a bit more from the 3 Volume path. For now.

Measurement Problem

Whenever these sort of topics come up and the articles are discussing sets and reps, I’m always feeling like I don’t belong in the conversation. Or any of us that do slower lifts.

A HIT rep is nothing like the reps that are used in these debates. We use lower weights, slower movements, and we don’t pause at the endpoints either. We purposely make our reps inefficient from a work standpoint to make them more efficient at keeping the load on the muscle. We try to keep under tension throughout the set.

How do you measure that in terms or “high weight” or even volume? Also, there are numerous HIT rep speeds. Some are 3 seconds in each direction. 10 seconds is common. Or even 30-second reps. To my knowledge, there isn’t a “currency converter” type of calculation to help us speak the same language.

This is why I try and develop my own intuition. All the talk of sets and reps doesn’t make sense in my world of slower lifting.

Going to Failure

Carl of Super Human Radio said something about training to failure that I found interesting. He recently turned 60 and said that when he trains to failure his muscles might recovery a day or so before his neural system does.

Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of the body having two different recovery pathways. I suspected age would be a factor, but I wasn’t clear how it would be. So, I am going to piggyback on Carl’s wisdom here. Carl likes volume and not training to failure at this stage in his life. Sounds good to me. It is worth a try.

Also, I’m not giving up training to failure completely. I think the best path here is to time the failure workouts before you know you’ll be taking a break. Maybe just before a trip or a busy holiday schedule.

The Case For High Intensity Training Seems to be Getting Weaker

This post is what I hope to be the start of a conversation. I haven’t made up my mind on this topic yet.

Before I share some things I’ve learned recently, I’ll give a little background on the topic. I first experienced true High-Intensity Training in February 2011 at Ideal Exercise here in Seattle. You can read that post if you want to know how HIT differs from other forms of strength training.

I quickly became a convert to this style of lifting. You can see that from the numerous posts and comments I have on this blog. For me, HIT offered a path to strength that greatly reduced the risk of injury. There are many ways to get strong, but up until this point, the standard advice was to just use proper form and you won’t get injured. I knew this advice was nonsense as form suffers under fatigue. Also, we as humans can use less than perfect judgment when we lift.

My love for HIT wasn’t that it was superior to other forms of training on a week-to-week basis, but that on a long time horizon (years and decades), other forms of training that were less safe would “thin the herd” via injuries. Those injuries would become more pronounced as the weight got heavier and the lifter got older.

My Understanding of HIT Principles

Before I go further into this post, I want to outline what HIT means to me. I’m not a trainer. I’m just a fitness enthusiast.

  1. Use of safe exercises that allow the user to go to failure without injury risk.
  2. Use of slower more controlled movements to reduce the role of momentum in assisting the exercise.
  3. Exercises that are taken to failure for deeper levels of fatigue, which should result in more efficient muscular gains.
  4. Fewer and shorter workouts due to the efficient programs used to quickly take the lifter to failure.

Those four principles help guide the design of a HIT workout.

I Drifted Away From HIT By Accident

When I worked out at Ideal Exercise in 2011, the gym was a crisp 61 F. This is the same temperature that Doug McGuff, author of Body By Science, keeps his gym at. My guess is Ellington Darden does as well. The reason for this crisp temperature is the body can direct all its energy onto the intensity of the lift and not to cool the body.

For an understanding of this topic, think about city marathons. Most cities schedule their marathon when they think the weather will be in the 50s F. At this temperature, the elite runners don’t need to slow their pace to avoid overheating. The goal of the city is not to hold the race for the comfort of the spectators or the middle-of-the-pack runners, but to increase the probability that a speed record is set on the course.

Well, weightlifting generates heat also. I stopped going to failure, not because I didn’t believe in the principle, but because the commercial gyms (aka Glitter Gyms) I go to keep temperature too high for me. Around 68-70 F. I get exertion headaches and then have to leave the gym. That sucks.

So I backed off the intensity and increased the volume. So instead of 1 set to failure done every  5-7 days, I opted for 2 sets not taken to failure done every 3 days, but still using the controlled movements that I learned from HIT.

Is Muscle Damage Needed For Hypertrophy?

Since Day 1 of lifting, we are taught the lesson that muscle grows bigger as a response to the damage incurred during lifting. It is an assumption we all carry. And it may not be true. In fact, after listening to this podcast, I don’t believe it is necessary.

SNR #239: Carl Juneau, PhD – Does Muscle Damage Actually Cause Hypertrophy?

The show discusses the article Training for Hypertrophy: The Case Against Muscle Damage. It is a fascinating topic for anyone that lifts weights. Listen to the show and read the article. The short version is mechanical tension and metabolic stress are likely more important than muscle damage for hypertrophy.

If this is true, the HIT case for going to failure just got a lot weaker.

Is Volume the Key?

Another great show that I listened to recently pairs nicely with this topic was James Krieger on Super Human Radio.

Super Human Radio 2222 The Exertion Load Theory

My take away from this hour is that if I want to gain more muscle, 1-2 sets isn’t optimal. I need more. Granted a HIT set can’t really be measured the same as a traditional set, because the movements are more controlled and tension remains focused on the muscle. Still, I have already started adding sets slowly, as I ease into a more volume approach.

Merging HIT Lessons With Recent Science

If we go back to the 4 principles I outlined above, I still see tremendous value in picking exercises that have a lower skill component where movement can be controlled in a slower manner.

However, if I know I’m going to be doing more volume, I can reduce the weight of some free-weight moves and perform them at a normal tempo. Although for safety reasons, I’m still not interested in barbell back squats or doing any max lifts.

I am doing benches with medium light dumbbells and trap-bar deadlifts with a more-than-safe weight. I can use a slower movement for the dumbbells to increase tension and more reps for that deadlift to shoot for volume.

Your thoughts?

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