Bodybuilding possesses a rich history featuring a variety of traditions that have been passed down for generations. Many of the customary practices from the very early days of the sport continue to be taken as gospel to this day.
In comparison to other sciences, nutrition and exercise are underdeveloped areas of research. This is especially true when considering the niche population of physique athletes. In these respected fields, we have only just begun to scratch the surface in the dig to uncover the best practices to optimize muscle hypertrophy and fat loss.
With a lingering absence of randomized controlled trials, bodybuilders have had to rely on personal experience and the anecdotes of their peers to drive their decision making. Through good ole trial and error, many of the earliest iron fanatics came to similar conclusions on the best ways to eat and train to get the most jacked. The culmination of these ideas became what is now known as “bro science” or training and nutritional strategies without rigorous scientific data to back their efficacy.
As the adolescent sciences of nutrition and exercise continue to grow, there has been an uprising of “evidence-based” practitioners. These individuals denote the strategies of bodybuilders as bro science in an attempt to undermine and discourage their application. Within this culture, it’s perceived that without a validated study to support the utility of a method, it is not worthy of being implemented.
A primary issue with this assertion is that an absence of evidence is not indicative of misguided practice. It may simply mean that science has yet to catch-up. This is likely more often the case than not. On a global scale, we are currently in the midst of an obesity crisis. As such, it’s much more likely to receive funding for research that examines how to improve the health of the metabolically deranged rather than how to make the fit and active look better.
There is power in experience and success. Rather than turning a blind eye to methods that don’t have a randomized controlled trial to demonstrate their utility, it’s important to consider what the best of the best in their respective fields are doing.
Many of the strategies developed and implemented by the bodybuilders of the mid to late 1900s have just recently become supported by science. Let’s take a look at a handful of these.
The Mind-Muscle Connection
Since the very beginning, bodybuilders have stressed the importance of feeling the muscle you are trying to target with an exercise. This is known as the mind-muscle connection. The idea is that if you make a conscious effort to focus on a specific muscle while performing an exercise, you will be able to selectively increase activation in this muscle, thus, leading to greater muscle hypertrophy.
In more recent years, many of the spartans of science have pushed back against this idea. They report that the level of muscle activation during an exercise is solely driven by the muscle action being performed and not dependent on whether or not you “feel the muscle working.” To provide a concrete example of this biomechanics centered approach, one might state “it does not matter if the lifter feels their quadriceps (quads) working in the squat, as a product of the concentric muscle action being largely driven by knee extension (the main function of the quads), the quads will achieve maximal activation.”
This leads to two questions. First, can you selectively increase the activation of a certain muscle while performing an exercise? Second, if you can, does this actually impact hypertrophic outcomes in the long-term?
In terms of selectively increasing muscle activation, this has not only been demonstrated in multiple studies but for multiple muscle groups as well. In a trial looking at muscle activation in the bench press at 50% and 80% of 1RM, the researchers found that subjects could alter muscle activation by utilizing an internal cue.
For this intervention, the cue was “use only your chest muscles and not your arm muscles. To do this, attempt to push your hands together, while still maintaining your grip on the bar.” Following this verbal instruction, EMG activity for the pectoralis major increased by 22% at 50% 1RM and 13.3% at 80% 1RM from baseline (bench press performed without any verbal instruction).
In another study looking at muscle activation in the knee extension exercise, subjects completed ten reps to failure utilizing either an internal or external cue.
In the external cue intervention, subjects were told to exert maximal force while focusing on pushing against the pad. In the internal cue intervention, subjects were told to exert maximal force while focusing on contracting the vastus medialis.
It was found that when utilizing an internal cue, muscle activation in the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and rectus femoris was higher than when utilizing an external cue.
It’s clear that establishing a mind-muscle connection can increase activation in the targeted muscle, but does this matter in the grand scheme of things? Some recent research suggests that it might.
During an eight-week training program, subjects were randomized to perform the knee extension and biceps curl with either an internal focus or an external focus. Participants in the internal focus group were told to “squeeze the muscle” while completing the exercises. Participants in the external focus group were told to “get the weight up” while completing the exercises.
At the end of the eight weeks, it was found that elbow flexor thickness increased significantly more in the internal focus group, while there were no significant differences in quad thickness measurements between conditions.
From these findings, you might be wondering, why would focusing on the mind-muscle connection enhance hypertrophy in the biceps but not the quads? I have a couple of ideas.
This study utilized subjects who had not performed regimented resistance exercise for at least the past year. With this in mind, my hunch is that these individuals struggled to create a true mind-muscle connection with their quads during the knee extension exercise.
Creating a mind-muscle connection is not a simple task. I’ve heard many advanced bodybuilders talk about the difficulty they have creating a mind-muscle connection with certain muscle groups. Interestingly enough, these statements are typically made in the context of a discussion about their weakest body parts.
If individuals with 10+ years of bodybuilding training experience find an inability to connect with particular muscles, how can we expect people with very little training experience to be able to establish a genuine mind-muscle connection over eight weeks?
In comparison to the quads, I hypothesize many individuals would have an easier time mentally connecting with their biceps. I mean, how many times have you seen someone jokingly flex their biceps or hit a front double biceps pose? How many times have you seen someone do that with their quads? With that being said, I think these results could be explained by the subjects having more experience contracting their biceps and as such, a higher baseline mind-muscle connection.
Bodybuilding training is typically associated with the performance of many different exercises, with a particular emphasis on isolation movements, or exercises where a single-joint is moving through space. The rationale behind utilizing multiple exercises is that different angles stimulate different regions of a muscle, thus, multiple angles are required to promote complete development.
I’ve most commonly heard these ideas cited for back training due to the complexity of this large muscle group. The back is composed of a wide variety of muscles including the trapezius (which has multiple sections), latissimus dorsi, teres major and minor, rhomboids, rear deltoids, and erector spinae. When it comes to proper training for this area, Arnold Schwarzenegger has stated that “you need the width and you need the thickness, so, you’ve got to train and find exercises for all of those different things.”
Many have proposed that this concept of regional hypertrophy is nonsensical and a variety of movements for each muscle group is redundant. In the context of back training, this simplified position suggests picking one vertical pulling movement (i.e. lat pulldown) to primarily target the latissimus dorsi muscle and one horizontal pulling movement to preferentially stimulate the muscles of the middle and upper back (i.e. barbell row).
Furthermore, many holding this stance would state that isolation movements are unnecessary, and maximal hypertrophy for a muscle can be achieved through solely performing multi-joint movements. For example, it might be claimed that the triceps receive a sufficient stimulus from bench pressing and as a result, isolation movements like tricep extensions will not produce further significant increases in size. Let’s see what the research has to say about these claims.
To begin, it appears that there are differences in muscle activation with different exercises, even for relatively simple muscles like the biceps. In a study looking at biceps curls, participants performed either nine sets of curls with a neutral shoulder position (0°) or three sets with their shoulder at 30°, three sets with their shoulder at 0°, and three sets with their shoulder at 90°.
The researchers found that the group performing a variety of curls achieved a greater overall session EMG amplitude. This finding of greater total muscle activation suggests that utilizing a variety of exercises may be necessary to maximize hypertrophy for a given muscle.
With that being said, this was only an acute training study and its results will not necessarily transfer to greater gains in the long-term. The question remains, is there a benefit to utilizing a variety of exercises for each muscle group?
In this study, researchers assessed hypertrophy in all four heads of the quads after twelve weeks of training with either the back squat only or the back squat plus the leg press, deadlift, and lunge.
Some evidence-based practitioners might predict that for the quads, specifically, muscle hypertrophy would be similar between groups because the leg press and lunge are very similar movement patterns to the squat.
In contrast to this hypothesis, the researchers found that the varied exercise group presented hypertrophy in all four heads of the quads, while the squat only group did not present hypertrophy in the vastus medialis and rectus femoris.
Moving on to the upper body, and the role of single-joint exercises, in this study, researchers assessed muscle hypertrophy in the pecs and triceps between four different conditions.
Subjects were randomized to either a tricep extension only group, a bench press only group, a group performing the bench press followed by the triceps extension, and a group performing the triceps extension followed by the bench press.
After ten weeks, it was found that the bench only group had the smallest increase in triceps muscle size.
Furthermore, the triceps extension only group had a significantly smaller increase in cross-sectional area of the lateral head of the triceps compared to the other groups, while the bench press only group tended to have significantly smaller increases in the long-head of the triceps compared to the other groups.
In total, it seems that a variety of exercises are required to promote complete development of a muscle group and single-joint exercises can be particularly useful for targeting specific regions of a muscle.
Connecting with the Calves
In conjunction with these ideas that what you feel during an exercise provides crucial information about its effects, and that you can target certain aspects of a muscle through changing the position or angle of execution, let’s analyze some bro science on how to best train the calf muscles.
In the advanced calf training program he outlines in The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger mentions the benefits of hitting the calf muscles from different angles in order to maximize development.
He states that you should do calf raises with the toes turned outward to emphasize the inside of the calves and you should do calf raises with the toes turned inward to emphasize the outside of the calves. This strategy has also been used by Kai Greene and up until extremely recently, was consistently cast aside as bro science.
Simply put, these bodybuilders noticed when they utilized a different foot position, they experienced a different sensation in their calves. This led them to believe that various foot positions could maximize calf development by targeting distinct regions of the musculature.
This notion has been rejected by the vast majority of evidence-based disciples. A common retort being something like “plantar flexion is plantar flexion.” The theory being, the primary muscle action is not changing with the foot position, so utilizing different foot positions would not result in differences in hypertrophy compared to solely using a neutral foot position.
Depending on which side of the fence you fall on, you may or may not find the results of this new trial shocking. Over nine weeks, subjects were randomized to one of three groups, calf raises with the foot pointed forward, foot pointed inward, or foot pointed outward.
The researchers found that when calf raises were performed with the foot pointed inward, there were greater increases in muscle thickness in the lateral gastrocnemius. In contrast, when the foot was pointed outward, there were greater increases in muscle thickness in the medial gastrocnemius. Lastly, there were similar relative gains for both heads with the foot pointed forward.
As I’m sure it’s becoming increasingly clear, when it comes to maximizing muscle hypertrophy outcomes, how an exercise feels is of the utmost importance. Continuing down this path, let’s take a look at another resistance training strategy promoted by old-school bodybuilders due to the distinct feeling it elicited: agonist-antagonist paired sets.
Follow the Feels: Agonist-Antagonist Paired Sets
During the early stages of the iron game, bodybuilders had to largely rely on subjective markers to determine the efficacy of their methods. This proved to be quite useful for figuring out the benefits of the mind-muscle connection and exercise variety. As it turns out, this not-so-scientific-method was useful for making another unique discovery: the benefits of agonist-antagonist paired sets.
Supersets are a programming strategy that involves going immediately from one exercise to another with minimal rest. This method is commonly incorporated with two exercises that train the same muscle group. In contrast, the agonist-antagonist paired set combines two exercises that train opposing muscle groups. For example the chest and back or hamstrings and quads.
The origins of the agonist-antagonist paired set goes all the way back to the 1950s. Indeed, Steve Reeves was famously known for utilizing agonist-antagonist paired sets during his full-body training sessions. As reported by John Grimek, Reeves “seldom if ever sat around talking between exercises but shifted from exercise to exercise.” This programming strategy allowed Reeves to pursue his training sessions with sheer tenacity without sacrificing his lifting performance, a potential downfall of agonist supersets (supersets which utilize two exercises for the same muscle group).
A fascination with utilizing agonist-antagonist paired sets even transcends into the golden-era of bodybuilding. Dave Draper is a passionate advocate of this type of superset. He reports consistently using supersets in his training for more than forty years. Some of his favorite combinations include seated barbell overhead press with wide grip lat pulldowns, dumbbell bench press with seated cable rows, alternating dumbbell curls with lying triceps extensions, and leg extensions with leg curls.
Draper believes there are both psychological and physiological benefits to utilizing agonist-antagonist paired sets. In regards to the psychological aspect, he reports “I instinctively gravitated toward a non-stop training style to maintain enthusiasm and momentum. Without the downtime between sets, I become more involved in my training. There’s no time for daydreaming, wishing I was somewhere else, or for boredom.”
On the physiological end, he feels that the skin-splitting muscle pumps induced by this strategy cause greater muscle growth. This is an idea Arnold aligns with as well. He states “I have always liked to use supersets to train opposing muscle groups because of the tremendous pump you get, which can make you feel you have the body of King Kong.”
If you have experimented with agonist-antagonist paired sets, I’m sure you can relate to some of these ideas. I can personally attest to the glorious pumps this sequence provides but does this set configuration actually impact muscle growth?
In the scientific community, the efficacy of agonist-antagonist paired sets was an untouched topic until the last decade or so. Let’s see what the research has to say about this set configuration.
In this study, subjects completed two different interventions in order to investigate differences in volume load (reps x sets x load) when bench press and bench pulls (i.e a row) were performed as a paired set or as traditional sets. Three sets were completed for both exercises. Each set was performed to muscular failure utilizing a 4RM.
The traditional set protocol was designed to reflect the common practice of stressing one muscle group via multiple sets, before moving on to another muscle group. In this intervention, two-minute rest intervals were taken between sets. In contrast, the paired set protocol resulted in four-minute rest intervals between like movements. Otherwise stated, subjects performed the bench pull, followed by the bench press, and then rested. By the time they would perform another set of bench pulls, four minutes had elapsed.
The results of this experiment displayed the paired set condition led to the completion of significantly more reps for both bench pulls and bench press over three sets.
In a similar study on recreationally trained males, subjects completed two different interventions. In the traditional straight set protocol, subjects performed three sets of bench press with two minutes of rest between sets. They then moved on to seated machine rows with the same scheme. In the paired set condition, a set of bench presses was immediately followed by a set of rows and then a recovery period was taken.
In the end, it was also found that there was a performance advantage to completing the exercises as an agonist-antagonist paired set. Indeed, more total volume load was performed for both exercises in the paired set condition.
In this trial, male rugby players completed four different exercise sessions in a randomized order. The control intervention called for one set of barbell bench press followed by a five-minute recovery period. This was followed by three more sets of barbell bench press with a two-minute recovery period between sets.
The three experimental conditions were as follows (each protocol utilized a two-minute recovery period between sets), three supersets of the bent over row and the barbell bench press (agonist-antagonist paired set), three supersets of the back squat and the barbell bench press, and three supersets of the dumbbell bench press and the barbell bench press.
The researchers found that the control condition resulted in the least decrements in velocity, power, and peak force from set to set. This was closely followed by the agonist-antagonist paired set, then the squat/bench condition, and lastly by the dumbbell bench press/bench condition which resulted in significant drop-offs in performance from set to set.
In addition to having the least drop-off in performance, it was also found that out of the three experimental protocols, the agonist-antagonist paired set intervention resulted in the lowest recorded session RPE.
Together, these findings have important implications for long-term hypertrophic outcomes.
Volume load as a standalone metric for assessing the hypertrophic stimulus fails because due to the way it’s calculated, high-rep sets are pretty much always going to result in more volume load than low-rep sets, but this does not mean that high-rep sets are more stimulative than low-rep sets. Whether you perform six reps or 20+, as long as the relative effort (proximity to failure) is matched, the hypertrophy stimulus is virtually equivalent. This is why tracking hard sets works so well.
There are situations when calculating volume load can be useful, though. When variables such as the number of sets and intensity (% 1RM) are controlled for, it seems rational to conclude that whatever training strategy allows you to accumulate the most volume load would lead to the most muscle growth. This hypothesis is supported by the documented dose-response relationship between resistance training volume and hypertrophy.
When extrapolating the results of the studies on agonist-antagonist paired sets to the advanced trainee, I’m skeptical that these individuals would experience widespread improvements in their performance with this approach, but I think it’s safe to conclude that there isn’t a detriment to performance through the incorporation of this style of superset.
In terms of the definitive benefits, at the very least, you should save time during your training sessions. In addition, as Dave Draper reports, you may find this strategy allows you to stay more mentally engaged during your training sessions. You will also achieve a sick pump, and while the research doesn’t support this resulting in superior hypertrophic adaptations in the long-term, my own research supports that this results in superior swolfies.
The Interplay Between Volume and Frequency
As we have established, bodybuilders have long known that the way training feels is extremely important for determining its effectiveness. Intuitively, this makes sense for exercise selection and execution, but it would seem difficult to optimize other aspects of hypertrophy training through this approach.
Consider variables like training volume and frequency, could a bodybuilder really determine the “right” way to design a training program simply through their intuition and in the trenches experience? As It turns out, they indeed could, or at least get pretty damn close.
Going all the way back to the late 1940s, full-body training was all the rage. The most notorious bodybuilders from this era were well-known for utilizing a three-day full-body split each week. Otherwise put, each muscle group was trained with a frequency of three times per week. This included the likes of John Grimek, Steve Reeves, George Eiferman, Bill Pearl, and Jack Delinger, some of the most impressive physiques in the history of the iron game.
Moving on to the Golden Era, from the 60’s to the 70’s, the average training frequency seemed to decrease from training each muscle group three times per week to two times per week on average. In The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold reports that there are two common ways to divide up training.
There’s the two-day split, which alternates days of chest, back, thighs, and calves with days of shoulders, lower back, arms, and forearms. The other option is the three-day split, which cycles through days of chest and back, shoulders and arms, and thighs, calves, and lower back. Mind you, these approaches were based on the presumption that you were training six days per week (or at least should be).
Within these frequency recommendations of hitting each muscle group two to three times per week, Arnold also provides advice on the optimal number of sets to perform per week. He differentiates his recommendations depending on the lifter’s level of experience and whether or not they respond better to a “low-volume” or “high-volume” routine.
He suggests that for the chest, back, thighs, and shoulders, a low-volume routine should feature 16-20 sets per week. For a frequency of twice per week, this works out to eight to ten sets per session. For a frequency of three times per week, this amounts to about five to seven sets per session.
In comparison, a high-volume routine should consist of 20-26 sets per week for the previously mentioned muscle groups. When hitting each muscle group twice per week, this equates to ten to thirteen sets per session. For three times per week, this would be about seven to nine sets per session.
Another phenom from this period of time, Dave Draper, utilized a very similar strategy. In his book, Brother Iron Sister Steel, the Blonde Bomber outlines his all-time favorite training routine. In this program, Draper utilizes the following five-day split: chest, shoulders, and back, legs, arms, off, upper body, legs, off. This results in a training frequency of twice per week for each muscle group.
In terms of volume, Draper’s all-time favorite routine works out to about ~12 sets of chest (I’m counting half of the pullover sets in this calculation), ~20 sets of back (again, counting half of the pullover sets), and ~20 sets of quads per week.
Following perhaps the most historic period of bodybuilding, we come to a transitional phase. Succeeding the days of the Austrian Oak, the average training frequency yet again decreased.
Bodybuilders started training each muscle group once per week during the 1980s and this has persisted as the most popular training frequency currently (at least in the enhanced side of the sport). An exception to this rule is perhaps the greatest bodybuilder of all-time, Lee Haney.
Lee Haney traditionally used a three-on one-off split. Haney’s routine featured a chest and arm day, a back and shoulders day, and a leg day followed by a day of rest. This equates to a training frequency of roughly twice per week for each muscle group.
To this day, Haney defends his style of training as being closer to optimal than what the modern generation of bodybuilders are doing. Haney reports that training one muscle group in a workout is “ridiculous.” He also feels this training style is responsible for the “immature muscle” he has consistently observed in today’s bodybuilders.
With a brief history of the training of our well-muscled forefathers, let’s take a look at the current state of science. In terms of training frequency, it appears the earlier bodybuilders largely had it right. When comparing a frequency of twice per week to once, it seems the former has an advantage for hypertrophy.
In a fantastic meta-analysis conducted by Greg Nuckols, he found that a frequency of once per week was inferior to higher training frequencies. Further, he found an association between higher frequency training with greater hypertrophic outcomes. This suggests that a frequency of three times per week probably possesses a slight advantage over two times per week and a significant advantage over once per week.
Part of the reason for these results is likely explained by the recent reported phenomenon of a “ceiling” for per session effective training volume. In other words, there are diminishing returns after performing a certain number of sets within a training session.
Recent research suggests that about five to ten sets is sufficient to maximize the anabolic response for a single training session. Moreso, performing volume above this theoretical ceiling can lead to performance decrements and thus, may result in worse muscle hypertrophy outcomes over the course of a training cycle.
In terms of training volume over the course of a week, most experts have currently succumbed to the recommendation of 10-20 sets per muscle group. For reference, here is a really nice breakdown of the most relevant scientific literature on training volume by Dr. Eric Helms in the MASS research review.
Based on these findings, it turns out that the bros were fairly on point with their recommendations.
In order to maximize muscle hypertrophy, most individuals should opt to perform roughly 10-20 hard sets per muscle group per week and split this volume up over a frequency of two to three times per week. The exact specifics to optimize this set-up will ultimately be dictated by the unique genetics, lifestyle, and preferences of the athlete.
While that takes care of the big rocks for program design, there are other important variables to consider which can affect recovery and thus, an individual’s ability to successfully apply the aforementioned recommendations. One of these variables is effort.
Training to Failure: Is it Necessary?
There’s no denying that bodybuilding as an industry has a masochistic undertone. As a product of this, many feel they have to train and eat in a way which is conducive to significant suffering in order to earn their stripes and gain the respect of their peers.
In terms of nutritional strategies for competitive bodybuilding, regardless of the approach taken, suffering is inescapable due to the extremely low body-fat levels required for the endeavor. When it comes to training styles, however, the discussion is a little more open-ended. Within the large pool of popular training paradigms, there is great disparity in the level of effort utilized on each set, and as such, variations in the perceived difficulty of each protocol.
This is primarily evidenced by the stark contrast seen in the training of Dorian Yates and Mike Mentzer with the likes of Serge Nubret. Mike Mentzer was known for utilizing a “high-intensity” approach. As a quick side note, many use the word intensity interchangeably with effort, but in exercise science, intensity refers to the percentage of 1RM. As such, I would categorize Mentzer’s “heavy duty” system as high-effort. With this training strategy, Mentzer would utilize one working set per exercise and go beyond failure with techniques like forced reps.
Dorian Yates mirrored a similar training style. In his “Blood and Guts” approach, he would commonly perform one working set per exercise, or a heavier top-set followed by a lighter back-off set, with both sets taken to muscular failure.
On the opposite end of the spectrum were athletes like Serge Nubret. Serge reportedly trained for very long durations and commonly did six or more sets per exercise. This alludes to a relatively lower amount of effort per set as compared to the formerly described methods. Otherwise, it would seem nearly impossible to consistently complete such high volumes of training.
Training to failure has become a contentious topic in recent years, but it is certainly more common than not for bodybuilders to train to failure. Taking every set to its breaking point takes a particularly distraught psychology to achieve. Most people are unable to tolerate the pain that coincides with taking a set to true muscular failure. As such, many bodybuilders have identified with this training style simply because it fits within the culture.
Besides fitting the common psychology of bodybuilders, surely training to failure is “harder” than keeping a couple of reps in the tank. At the most basic level, it’s assumed that working harder leads to better long-term outcomes. This applies to many other facets of life, why wouldn’t it apply to muscle hypertrophy? Let’s see where science stands on the matter.
In a study on well-trained subjects (average of 7.7 years of resistance training experience) with a very high isometric mid-thigh pull strength (average of 991 lbs), participants were randomized to either a resistance training protocol using relative intensity (assigned sets and reps) or repetition maximums for ten weeks.
In the relative intensity group, load was assigned based on the heaviest weight the subjects could do for a given volume protocol. For example, a relative load of 80% for three sets of five, was not 80% of their 1RM, rather, it was 80% of the most amount of weight they could lift for three sets of five. In comparison, the repetition maximum group would use the maximum weight they could complete three sets of five with.
In the end, despite leaving multiple reps in the tank on the vast majority of sets, the results trended (not statistically significant) towards greater increases in muscle cross-sectional area in the relative intensity group.
Another trial assessed two different squat protocols differing in velocity drop-off for eight weeks. Subjects were randomized to one of two conditions. They either stopped their sets when they reached a velocity drop-off of 40% or 20%. Resistance exercise was performed twice per week.
It was found that squatting with a within set velocity reduction of 40% (which resulted in most sets being close to failure, and some sets being taken to failure) or 20% (which resulted in fewer total reps and stopping sets with multiple reps in reserve) caused similar increases in both fiber cross-sectional area and quad muscle volume.
In our third and final study we’ll be looking at, subjects trained twice per week for six weeks. In protocol A, subjects performed four sets of ten at 75% 1RM to failure for all exercises. In protocol B, subjects performed eight sets of five at 75% 1RM for all exercises (thus staying far away from failure on all sets).
The researchers found that vastus medialis thickness increased significantly more in the failure group, but increases in elbow flexor thickness and anterior delt thickness were similar between groups.
Here’s the rub, I’m not in love with this research. Sure, we could conclude from this data that training to failure is not necessary for maximizing muscle hypertrophy and can even be detrimental (more on this in a bit), but I think it’s a bit far-fetched to directly extrapolate the results of these studies to advanced bodybuilders.
While the subjects in study one appear to be pretty well-trained, they didn’t exactly follow a bodybuilding program. Their training was separated into a strength-endurance phase (more or less bodybuilding-style training), a max strength phase, and a speed strength phase. Moreso, the subjects performed basic sprint training two days per week.
For studies two and three, the subjects were poorly trained, at least in my opinion. In study two, the subjects had 1.5-4 years of resistance training experience. Their average body weight was 167 lbs and their average squat 1RM was 233 lbs.
In study three, the subjects had 2-5 years of resistance training experience. Their average body weight was 170 lbs. Their average squat 1RM was 208 lbs and their average bench 1RM was 177 lbs.
With these details in mind, I’m more than willing to accept the position of something to the tune of “training to failure might not matter for the recreational lifter, but for the advanced bodybuilder, it is absolutely essential to maximize muscle hypertrophy.” While this statement may very well be refuted by the best available evidence, I would like to see some more research on truly well-trained lifters before objecting to the former.
Something else worth considering is that Lee Haney was a proponent of not training to failure. This is evidenced by perhaps his most famous quote “stimulate don’t annihilate.” More specifically, Haney has stated that he didn’t want to push to failure because it increased his chance of injury. He also felt that if he did enough to simulate the area, rather than going to failure, he could better recover.
While this isn’t a position commonly echoed by his brothers in iron, when one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time speaks, you listen. To this effect, Let’s examine some acute research which may generate some pause on the idea of training to failure.
In general, the research does tend to report a greater recovery toll when training to muscular failure. In a study assessing the impact of eight sets of bench press to muscular failure with a two-minute rest interval between sets, it was found that total work of the shoulder horizontal adductors (assessed through an isokinetic dynamometer) did not return to baseline after 96 hours of rest. In addition, delayed onset muscle soreness did not return to baseline until 96 hours post-training.
In another trial, researchers analyzed the effects of 12 sets of pressing (all sets taken to failure) on different metrics of recovery. Recovery was monitored by having the lifters complete the same workout 24, 48, and 72 hours after the initial session. It was found that after 48 hours, only 3/16 subjects were back to baseline performance or better as measured by total reps performed. At 72 hours, 10/16 participants still hadn’t fully recovered.
Concerning the previous recommendations for weekly training volume and frequency, it could be worthwhile to avoid training to failure on every single set if doing so prevents you from being able to adhere to these general landmarks.
This isn’t a universal recommendation, some individuals may very well respond best to failure training, but it may be worth considering leaving a couple of reps in the tank (at least for the first set) for those whose progress has seemingly come to a halt.
That covers the training portion of this article. Before wrapping things up, it’s essential that we at least touch on nutrition. Let’s talk about the most notorious bodybuilding macronutrient: protein.
It turns out that bodybuilders can create a more or less optimal training program simply through relying on their instincts, but does this apply to nutrition as well?
Surprise, surprise, it does, especially when it comes to the most beloved macronutrient. We can’t have an entire article on the bros without mentioning protein at least once, right?
As the building block of skeletal muscle, bodybuilders have long supported a high-protein intake for maximizing muscle hypertrophy. For example, Dave Draper has generally advised following a diet with a macronutrient breakdown of 40% protein, 30% carbohydrate, and 30% fat. For an individual with a large daily calorie allotment (most bodybuilders) this is a significant amount of protein.
More notably, Arnold has suggested consuming one gram of protein per pound of body weight (1 g/lb). Since this recommendation, many bodybuilders have continued to preach the 1 g/lb rule. A prime example is Dorian Yates, who has even suggested that bumping up to 1.5 g/lb is a good idea, but is this really necessary?
When evaluating the current science on protein intake, I think it’s first most important to address any potential concerns about the impact of a high-protein diet on overall health. As I laid out in my first ever article, a high protein intake is completely safe, and an upper limit has yet to be determined. The majority of this work has been spearheaded by Dr. Jose Antonio who found that up to 3.3 g/kg of protein per day has no negative effect on various markers of health.
Now, In terms of maximizing muscle hypertrophy, the research does indeed seem to support that consuming 1 g/lb of protein is prudent to ensure maximal skeletal muscle adaptations. Other research has concluded that an intake of 1.6 g/kg (~0.7 g/lb) is more than sufficient when consuming a sufficient amount of total calories, but in terms of leaving no stone unturned, the safe bet is to consume 1 g/lb or 2.2 g/kg. In addition, this amount can help prevent excessive fat gain in the off-season period, providing further support for the sacred rule.
In regards to protein intakes above 1 g/lb, this also seems to be an evidence-based recommendation. During contest preparation, where the goal is to achieve a very low level of body-fat while minimizing losses in fat-free mass, protein intakes as high 2.7 g/kg (~1.2 g/lb) appear to be a beneficial strategy. Not only is this amount conducive towards preserving muscle, but also for managing hunger.
Rather than bro science, it’s likely more appropriate to coin many of the approaches utilized by old-school bodybuilders as “pre-science,” at least until proven otherwise. The wisdom of the bros tends to get a bad rap because these individuals typically aren’t well educated in the fundamental sciences. To this effect, they’re unable to eloquently explain the mechanistic rationale underlying why their strategies work and for many, advice solely backed by anecdotes is insufficient.
This is understandable. Results with a given nutrition or training protocol could simply be due to an individual’s superior genetics or even drug use, but as evidenced by the above points, it turns out bodybuilders are pretty adept at figuring out what works through their own trial and error.
As it currently stands, seeking out the biggest guy at the gym for advice has become a taboo practice, but for most of the history of bodybuilding, this was the most evidence-based source of information available. There were no studies on physique athletes to read. You couldn’t watch exercise physiology and nutrition lectures from industry experts on YouTube.
The biggest guy in the gym may not know why his approach works. He might even use a completely inaccurate description to justify it, but his advice shouldn’t be completely disregarded. Of course, It should be critically analyzed and poked with holes if necessary, but ultimately, success leaves clues. There may very well be a method to the madness.
The strategies utilized by some of the best in the sport should be carefully considered. While these anecdotes may currently appear to be bro science, it’s more than likely pre-science, a strategy which has yet to be backed by a randomized controlled trial, but when that study eventually gets funded, there’s a really good chance the results will show the bros had it right all along.