By Adam M. Gonzalez, PhD, CSCS
There’s a way to train for muscle growth, and a way to train for strength. But they’re not the same thing…right? A PhD put the old way of doing things to the test and gives you the insider’s perspective!
Prior to becoming a researcher, I was just another diehard lifter strictly adhering to the deeply ingrained rules of bodybuilding. But over the years, the academic in me has grown to question even the most fundamental principles of training.
For instance, let’s say someone tells you they want you to help them build muscle or design a “hypertrophy phase.” You’d probably make it look a lot like this:
Sets of 8-12 reps, 60-80% 1RM, rest 30-90 seconds.
On other hand, if that person wanted to build strength, you’d clearly have them train like this:
Sets of less than 6 reps, at least 85% 1RM, rest 3-5 minutes.
Textbook stuff, right? While these training philosophies are typical of bodybuilders and powerlifters, there is actually surprisingly little evidence to support such distinctions.1 So a team of researchers and I decided to put them to the test. Here’s what we found, along with the exact protocol we used, so you can try it for yourself!
WHY EXPERIENCE MATTERS
Numerous scientific studies have investigated the effects of different exercise intensities on muscular adaptation over the years, and the results have been somewhat inconclusive. In most cases, studies were conducted using untrained subjects, and let’s be honest, untrained individuals will adapt and grow following just about any form of resistance training.2 Even initial strength gains are simply a neurological adaptation resulting in a more efficient muscle-activation pattern.
EXPERIENCED LIFTERS’ BODIES RESPOND UNIQUELY TO TRAINING. KNOW A STUDY’S POPULATION BEFORE YOU DRAW ANY CONCLUSIONS!
We know that individuals with more training experience simply will not respond as positively as a newbie. This is often referred to as the “principle of diminishing returns.” Specifically, resistance training does not spark the same anabolic response or promote the same rise in muscle protein synthesis as compared to when you first started lifting.
Therefore, when comparing different resistance exercise protocols, much of the previous research cannot be generalized to a trained population. In other words, it’s time for us to start over and perform our research differently—and some recent studies have done just that.
THE HORMONE QUESTION
Much of the support for the hypertrophy style of training has been based on the conclusion that these workouts elicit the greatest post-workout increases in anabolic hormones. And yes, the research bears that point out. But…does it matter?
It’s beginning to look like it doesn’t. Recent research suggests that these short-lived elevations in circulating hormones actually don’t serve to enhance the muscle-building effect of a workout.5 My team also recently put this to the test and analyzed the anabolic activity within the muscle following a hypertrophy-style and a strength-style workout.
Despite differences in post-workout hormone concentrations, the overall anabolic response was similar following both protocols. But that still begs the question: Which training style maximizes muscle size and strength ?
CLINICALLY DOSED NEXT GENERATION POST-WORKOUT
THE PROTOCOL AND THE RESULTS
There have only been a few studies comparing bodybuilding to powerlifting training programs in resistance-trained men. In the first study, the researchers compared eight weeks of a standard hypertrophy-protocol versus a strength protocol.7 However, the protocols were “volume equated,” meaning that one group was performing 10 sets of 3, while the other group was performing 3 sets of 10.
Following the training programs, both groups ended up with similar growth in their biceps. However, the group who followed the strength protocol had better improvements in their 1RM bench press and squat. This study concluded that bodybuilding and powerlifting styles of training promoted similar increases in muscle size, but the powerlifting style of training was superior for enhancing maximal strength.
SUBJECTS WHO LIFTED HEAVY WEIGHTS EXPERIENCED THE SAME MUSCLE GROWTH AS THOSE FOLLOWING A BODYBUILDING PROTOCOL. BUT THEY ALSO GOT STRONGER.
So what would happen if we dropped the volume for a strength group and really put the focus on intensity? That’s what our research team recently investigated.
We used a population of college-aged men who had been regularly strength training for at least two years. Just to level the playing field, we put them all through a two-week “preparatory phase” to instruct proper lifting technique and give everyone a comparable training base. It was the same program listed below, but with these parameters:
All exercises: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, 80-85% 1RM, rest 1-2 minutes.
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