The Battle of Biology: Laying the Foundation

I ended the overview for this series by briefly touching on the initiation of my contest prep diet. For this installment, I’ll get more into the weeds of my plan, with a special focus on my training. I’ll go over my training program, including how it changes when I diet, and my most recent nutrition adjustments.

Training Background

I’ve experimented with a lot of different training strategies over the years in search of what’s theoretically optimal. As the scientific literature evolves and I learn more about myself, I’ve tried manipulating volume, frequency, intensity (% of 1RM), relative intensity (effort), exercise selection, exercise order, and tempo in an assortment of ways to find what works best for making gains.

There have been periods of time where I trained every muscle group 1x per week. There have been others where I trained every muscle group 4-5x per week. I have purposefully increased volume over the course of a mesocycle through adding sets each week. I’ve tried adding 2 sets per muscle group per week, 1 set per muscle group per week, and adding a set here and there based on my recovery status. I’ve also tested out training blocks where my set count remains stagnant and the focus was put solely on driving up load each week. 

In addition, I have spent stretches of time utilizing different relative intensities. I have attempted to take every set to muscular failure. In other phases, I have only taken the last set to failure. Most recently, I have increased my effort over the course of the mesocycle. This means keeping roughly 3 reps in the tank for each set during week 1, staying 1-2 reps away from failure for most of the training block, and training to failure for the majority of sets in the last week prior to taking a deload. 

As evidenced by my lab rat shenanigans, there is a smorgasbord of ways you can adjust multiple variables to create a program that best suits your goals, genetics, lifestyle, and preferences. Unfortunately, the “best set-up to maximize muscle hypertrophy” has not been elucidated in the scientific literature yet and it probably never will be, but the picture has become clearer and its resolution will continue to improve over time (hopefully). 

While the current picture looks like it was taken with a flip phone, we do have some basic tenets available which can help guide us towards the path to getting the most jacked. Individuals should probably perform at least 10 sets per muscle group per week and train each muscle group at least twice per week. A more recent review concluded that training frequency does not matter when volume is equated between conditions, but as I’ll get into, there appears to be a per-session limit for effective training volume. This means that after a certain number of hard sets, any further work will not be very conducive towards muscle hypertrophy (junk volume) and it would, therefore, be better to move that work to another training session. 

My Training Program

I would say my bread and butter training program is a 6-day per week split which features two lower-body sessions, two upper-body sessions, one push session, and one pull session. This is something that I know works for me based on my strengths and weaknesses and it’s a style I always revert back to when I’m not hankering to try out something new. I started off my contest prep with this layout, but I ended up reverting back to something I did during my pre-contest diet.

During times of caloric restriction, I have found it beneficial to increase my training frequency. This results in my quads being trained 3x per week instead of 2x and most upper body muscles being trained 4x instead of 3x. The one muscle group which I don’t increase frequency for is my hamstrings. My hamstrings have a low tolerance for training volume. I literally couldn’t tell you the last time I did more than 10 sets for hamstrings in a training week. I typically perform about 7-8 sets for hamstrings per week. Much more than this, and I find that my hamstrings are still sore when I go in to train them again.

Here is an example week of training from my last mesocycle:

As an interesting aside relating to a low maximum recoverable volume for my hamstrings, they are probably my strongest muscle group, both in size and performance. I have a pretty mean Romanian deadlift, and while I was powerlifting, deadlift was my best lift (I pulled 562 lbs @ 181 lbs). Theoretically, this likely means my hamstrings are predominantly composed of fast-twitch fibers. Fast-twitch fibers are easily damaged, can generate high amounts of force, and possess the most potential for growth.

Theoretical Underpinnings

If you were expecting my training changes to be more along the lines of performing shredz workouts with high reps, limited rest periods, and unique exercises to target the outer, middle cross striations of my pecs, then I’m sorry to disappoint you, but training while you’re massing and while you’re dieting should look pretty darn similar. 

So, why do I increase frequency while I’m dieting? I’ve noticed that during a calorie deficit, for any given muscle group, I tend to bonk much more quickly during my training sessions. For me, it appears my sweet spot for hard sets per muscle group per session is around 4-6 sets. Anything more and my performance starts to quickly decline. I even notice that my pump starts to become dull and fade with more work. While cell swelling is not upheld with the highest degree of scientific rigor, there is some theoretical rationale for its importance. Dr. Mike Israetel has also spoken numerous times about why a pump probably matters and how it may relay useful information about your training.

To give some more objective anecdote, I have found that I am able to accumulate more volume load (sets x reps x load) for a given amount of work when I increase my training frequency. While hard sets, rather than volume load, seems to be the best metric to track hypertrophic stimulus, I think it’s quite plausible that whichever frequency allows you to accumulate the most volume load for a given amount of sets/reps is probably the best training frequency for a muscle group. In my opinion, this may even be why higher training frequencies could be slightly better for hypertrophy, though there are other speculations laid out by Greg Nuckols in his meta-analysis. This includes the ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis more times throughout the week. 

The ceiling effect for per session effective training volume justifies this frequency finding as well. Chris Beardsley has deduced that 5 sets to failure is the per session limit for effective training volume for a muscle group. This figure is mostly grounded in recent work from Barbalho and colleagues who found that when training each muscle group 1x per week, 5 sets generally outperformed 10 sets, 15 sets, and 20 sets for muscle growth. They followed this up with a replication study that found the same results

I would hypothesize that if you’re not training to failure, the ceiling is more like 6-8 sets per session. It’s also likely that this figure may be slightly higher or lower depending on the muscle group in question and which nutritional phase you are in. For example, during the off-season when I’m thiccer than a bowl of oatmeal and eating a see-food diet, I find it very manageable to crush ~8 hard sets per muscle group per session and I’m even able to increase the magnitude of my pump while doing so. In a deficit, I’m good for about 5 hard sets at most per muscle group per session. 

To wrap this training discussion up, I’d like to revert back to the paragraph where I questioned the findings of a review which concluded that training frequency does not matter when volume is equated. Based on the information I provided above, I think this statement is probably true up to around 10 sets per muscle group per week. I think 10 sets is probably the absolute most amount of volume any single muscle group could benefit from in a training session. If you perform more than 10 sets for a muscle group per week, then the role of frequency becomes much more important. For example, if you perform 14 sets of chest per week, I’m confident it would be superior to perform 7 sets in two separate sessions rather than performing 14 sets in one. 

Recent Nutrition Adjustments

Coming back to where I left off last blog post, here is how the first 3-weeks of my contest prep diet went:

From here, I made calorie and cardio adjustments, but I also made some changes to my intake of specific nutrients.

You may be thinking “that looks like 3 weeks of solid progress, why would you change anything?” And I would 100% agree with that sentiment. In fact, if I saw this data from a client, there would be a 9.9/10 chance that I would leave the plan as is, but for myself, it’s a bit of a different story. I know my personality (obsessive/neurotic) and what I’m capable of. When I do something, I’m all in. As such, I really wanted to get things moving out of the gate. 

In further justification of this motive, it does make sense to be a bit more aggressive at the beginning of prep. As I discussed last time, muscle loss isn’t as much of a concern while body fat is higher. Also, if I can cover more ground now while things aren’t too difficult, I’ll have more time to slow things down and/or potentially weave in more frequent diet breaks when I’m looking like a malnourished giraffe and really hurting. Extra time will also come in handy if I experience some sort of setback such as getting sick, which is quite likely as the clinical rotation of my dietetic internship approaches.  

This leads to the small changes I made to my energy intake and expenditure. I moved my calories down from ~2,500 to ~2,250 and increased my cardio from two 30-min LISS sessions to four. I also decreased my protein and fiber intake. 

The scientific literature supports increasing protein intake during periods of caloric restriction to preserve muscle mass. Recommendations include up to 2.4 g/kg of total body weight or 3.1 g/kg of fat-free mass. In the introductory phase of my contest prep, my protein intake tended to range from 230-240 grams per day. Let’s say I’m 10% body fat (I don’t know what my body fat percentage is and I don’t care) @ ~170 lbs. Using the figures I just mentioned, I should be consuming about 185-208 grams of protein per day to reduce the risk of losing muscle mass while dieting. 

Some people may prefer to consume more protein than the aforementioned recommendations while dieting because protein is, relatively speaking, the most satiating macronutrient. As such, a higher intake may improve an individual’s ability to adhere to a calorie deficit. But that potential benefit must be weighed against the cost of having to reduce the consumption of other nutrients. For this very reason, I decided to lower my protein intake to 200-210 grams per day so I could increase my carbohydrate intake. I can’t say an extra 20-30 grams of protein was having any additional impact on my satiety, but any increase in carbohydrate has a direct impact on my training performance and recovery. At the very least, it has been documented that bodybuilders who placed in competition consumed significantly more carbohydrates than those who did not, though this finding could easily be confounded by the fact that those who placed possessed higher levels of muscle mass and as such, could diet on more carbohydrates. 

In regards to fiber, before I actually started paying attention to my intake, you can see I had a series of days where I consumed > 65 grams (a large reason for this was that Emily got me a free loaf of 647 bread at FNCE). This very high fiber intake led to less frequent bowel movements, horrific farts (just ask Emily lol), and had me feeling excessively bloated to the point where it was compromising my training sessions (bracing when you’re full of shit is not fun). Fiber possesses a variety of benefits for health and it promotes satiety, but too much of anything can be a bad thing. I now try to cap my fiber intake at roughly 50-55 grams per day. I also eliminated vegetables from my pre-workout meal. Together, these adjustments alleviated the issues I was experiencing. 

In general, it’s pretty common to report less frequent bowel movements and even symptoms of constipation as food volume goes down on a serious diet. Common strategies to mitigate these issues include eating enough total fiber, having a proper ratio of soluble to insoluble fiber, drinking enough fluid (hot fluid specifically may help), and exercise. If you are unable to consume enough fiber from whole food sources, it may be worth trialing a psyllium husk supplement. For myself, I’ve noticed that oatmeal, in particular, has played a key role in keeping me regular during this period of time. 

Summary

To sum up my current plan, I’m training 6-days per week on a “full-body split.” I train everything 3-4x per week, except for hamstrings. In terms of nutrition, I’m eating approximately ~2,250 calories per day with rough limits set for protein (210 grams) and fiber (55 grams). For cardio, I’m completing four 30-minute LISS sessions per week.

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