Want muscle? STOP the quessing game

People who engage in very repetitive tasks such as long distance running, labor or swimming show very little or no improvement in the size and strength of their muscles. Long distance events are by nature very low in intensity.

Compare a marathon runner to a 100 meter sprinter. Marathon runners who train for very long periods at a very low intensity are emaciated looking having less than normal muscle mass and carry on average 14 ? 16% body fat. Sprinters, on the other hand, who train for short periods at a high level of intensity are very muscular and have half the body fat levels than marathoners. If cardio is the key to getting lean, as many people presume, why do marathoners have a higher body fat than sprinters? The reason is, a specific stimulus is required for a specific outcome.

The specific stimulus needed to stimulate muscle and strength is high intensity training. This is a universal training principle that affects everyone without exception. This is due to the fact that we are anatomically and physiologically the same. If this were not true doctors could not perform surgery and prescribe medicine. Consequently, the stimulus needed to induce biochemical changes that build muscle and strength in humans is the same.

Intensity, when referring to training, is the percentage of physical exertion that one is capable of. Training with one hundred percent intensity is the best way, the only way, to stimulate muscular size and strength in the shortest amount of time. How does one gauge the intensity of their workouts? By taking your working sets to positive or concentric failure.

Taking a set to the point of failure, where you cannot possibly perform another rep despite your maximum effort is one of, and perhaps the most important of several factors in your success. There are many who disagree and advocate high volume training with 60%, 72%, 95%, or whatever percentage of intensity they decide is the best. Some even claim training all out, with one hundred percent intensity is not only unnecessary, but detrimental. Over the years I’ve seen so called strength coach specialists, and personal trainers with 15 letters after their last names, concoct the most ridiculous routines, using almost every percentage, that have yet to show any effectiveness in real world application.

The main problem with these bogus routines is that there are only two accurate measures of intensity. Zero, when you are at rest; and 100%, when you?re training to the point of failure. How do you measure anything less than 100% intensity? If I can do 10 repetitions to complete failure with 100 pounds on the leg extension machine, where do I go for 80% intensity? Do I perform 10 reps with 80 pounds? Or do I use 100 pounds and only perform 8 reps? Is 80% the optimum percentage, or is it 65%? There is no evidence that suggests, let alone proves, anything less than 100% effort is equally or more effective. Are you starting to see the ridiculousness and inaccuracy of such training prescriptions?

Intensity cannot be measured accurately with reps or weight. While performing a set, intensity increases exponentially with each successive rep. Performing the first 5 reps on the leg extension is not equivalent in intensity to performing the last 5 reps. Hence, 5 reps is not the equivalent of 50% intensity.

The only way to train that is completely accurate is with all out intensity to failure. This will give you a concrete view of how you?re performing. If you train with 100% intensity during every workout and you do not progress, you know you are not recovering. There will never be a question whether you are providing a strong enough stimulus for progress. However, if you follow the percentage of intensity or the percentage of max rep principles, how will you know you are training intensely enough to stimulate muscular size and strength? If you plateau, are you training too hard or too long? Do you lower the percentage or raise it? Do you need more rest, or do you need to train at a higher intensity? There is no need for this guessing game.

Your goal is to bring about the largest, most rapid outcome for your individual genetic potential. In order for this to occur, the body requires 100% intensity every working set of every exercise. This is the only truly accurate way to gauge the efficacy of your training program. Nothing less than 100% will do. The body needs a reason to adapt. Give it!


Free weight bench press VS smith machine bench press

Measuring upper body strength is common in high school, college and professional level sports. Arguments have been made for and against this practice, but that’s for another day. The prime movers in the bench press are the pectoralis major, triceps brachii, anterior deltoid and medial deltoid. However the medial deltoid acts more like a stabilizer than a prime mover. Just for the record, the deltoid is one muscle; Anterior, medial and posterior simply describe areas, they aren’t separate heads.

Two of many ways one can perform a bench press is with a free weight barbell or a smith machine. The free weight bench forces the lifter to balance while exerting force to lift the weight. This higher level of instability is essential for a lifter who wants to engage the stabilizing muscles while training. A smith machine guides the bar in a fixed path and requires almost no balance by the lifter. The almost total lack of instability is thought by many to allow for increased force production of the prime movers. If this were true, bodybuilders or powerlifters who want to concentrate on the development of the prime movers, would be able to accomplish this with the smith machine. More-over, a lifter involved in rehab, novice lifters and elderly lifters may find the smith machine fits there needs because of the lack of instability.

A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the muscle activation between the free weight bench and the smith machine. The purpose of the study was to compare the muscle activation of the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid and medial deltoid during both exercises.

14 experienced and 12 inexperienced subjects were used in the study. Testing took place in two visits one week apart from each other, each consisting of either smith machine or free weight benching. Electromyography was used during the concentric phase of each lift at a lower intensity (2 reps at 70% of 1 rep max) and higher intensity (2 reps at 90% of 1 rep max) to compare muscle activation.

The study found no difference in the activation of the pectoralis major and the anterior deltoid between exercises regardless of load or experience. If the lack of instability of the smith machine allows the lifter to create more force production in the prime movers compared to the free weight bench press, it was not supported in this study. The authors surmise this may be due to the unnatural bar path of the smith machine in contrast to the free weight bench. Also, activation of the medial deltoid was significantly greater during the free weight bench regardless of load and experience. The instability of the free weight bench causes a greater activation of the medial deltoid as a force producer and stabilizer.

(J Strength Cond Res 24(3): 779-784,2010)

From a practical standpoint, according to the findings of this study, the free weight bench press may lead to a greater requirement of stabilization of the glenohumeral joint (shoulder). Increased shoulder stabilization is not only important for athletes but anyone involved in weight training, which requires strength and stability about the glenohumeral joint.

Do the findings of this study suggest dropping the smith machine from your training program and concentrating on free weight bench pressing? Absolutely not. The best thing one can do in regards to exercise choice, is mix things up. There are many exercises one can use in order to build their chest and shoulders. Don’t get caught in a rut using the same exercise over and over.


The optimum time to train

there are many biological factors that are important for muscular hypertrophy like hormone levels, age, sex, muscle fiber type, diet, among others. These factors have been recognized as extremely important for the hypertrophic adaption to strength training. Many of these factors, however, are known to vary throughout the day. Can the daily differences in the above factors like hormone levels, affect the adaptive response to strength training? What time of day is the best time to train?

A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research set out to examine the effects of time-of-day-specific strength training on muscle hypertrophy maximal strength in men. The training group underwent a 10 week preparatory training regimen. Afterwards, the subjects were randomized to either a morning training group or an afternoon training group. The groups trained for another 10 weeks with training times between 07:00 and 09:00 hours and 17:00 and 19:00 hours in the morning group and the afternoon group respectively. Cross-sectional areas and volume of the quadriceps femoris were obtained by magnetic resonance imaging at weeks 0, 10, and 20. Maximum voluntary isometric strength during unilateral knee extensions and the half squat one repetition maximum were tested at weeks 0, 10, and 20.

The entire 20-week training period resulted in significant increases in maximum voluntary contraction and 1RM in both training groups. In this study, the magnitude of muscular hypertrophy and strength did not statistically differ between the morning or afternoon group. However, this study was of short duration and like most research concerning physical improvement through exercise, there needs to be more subjects over longer periods of time.
(J Strength Cond Res 23(9):2451-2457)


Exercise induced hormone changes do not promote muscular gains

Exercise induced endogenous hormone levels have been studied extensively. Researchers have examined how the different components of training including sets, repetitions, load and rest intervals affect serum levels of hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone and cortisol. Many studies have demonstrated there is an acute increase in serum levels of anabolic hormones after intense resistance exercise.

To be more specific, high intensity exercise coupled with short rest intervals that is performed with large muscle groups are associated with large rises in these hormones when compared to other training methods. Conversely, training small muscle groups like the biceps has been shown to have no effect on serum hormone levels. Because of the findings in many studies, training programs have been constructed to maximize the post-exercise rise in these hormones based on the assertion that exercise-induced increases in hormones like testosterone and GH will enhance muscle size and strength. But, considering the fact that these increases in hormone levels are very small and of short duration, will they produce muscular gains.

A study from the Kinesiology Dept. of McMaster University in Canada found that exercise induced hormone levels had no effect on muscle size or strength after 15 weeks of resistance training.

There is evidence that a minimal basal level of testosterone is required to support strength and hypertrophy gains, which are otherwise attenuated. Therefore, the hormone-sensitive processes that underpin muscle anabolism at hypo- and supra-physiological hormone levels are not being activated appreciably by exercise-induced increases in hormone availability or at least do not result in any measurable enhancement of strength or hypertrophy.

(J Appl Physiol 108(1); 2010)


A no-nonsense guide to designing your workouts

In my recently rewritten article “A no-nonsense guide to design your workouts“, which is a three-part series, I offer no BS ways for beginners and veterans alike to keep their workouts fresh while consistently making gains.

Everywhere you turn these days, weight training seems to be the focus. And why shouldn’t it be? A proper weight training program produces many positive effects, including: increased muscle mass; reduced body fat; increased bone density; improved insulin sensitivity; improved self-esteem; and overall well-being. The list goes on. Yet with all the information available, why is it so hard for people to make progress? Because most of what is out there is BULLSHIT!!

Helping people is what being a trainer and a coach is all about. Most publishers and editors are so hell-bent on selling magazines, they print things like this: “Put 2 inches on your arms in 21 days;” “Have a chest like Arnold’s in just 6 weeks.” People, just like you, purchase this type of trash in the hopes that it might work. These writers and editors rely on your ignorance.

Having the knowledge and ability to help somebody achieve their goals goes far beyond writing an article about workouts. Writing workouts is actually a pretty easy thing to do. Just about anyone with a little bit of knowledge can do it, and many ? unfortunately — do. The barriers to entry to become a personal trainer are so low, most certificates aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. In contrast, look at the barriers to entry to become a nurse. Several years of school filled with prerequisites, in which you need a 78 percent just to pass, coupled with many hours of hands-on clinicals. What education does a trainer need? Send away for some study guides, take a test, and “Bam!” you’re a certified trainer.


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