Saturday, May 2, 2015

Hypertrophy and Strength regarding frequency, volume, and intensity

I've been meaning to write this for a while and just haven't gotten around to it.  But Brad Schoenfeld just released this study regarding hypertrophy and strength in relation to bodypart frequency, so it sort of sparked me getting this done.

Like any study, there are lots of factors that could be debated to make it more robust and give more insight, but it's a decent look.


Results showed significantly greater increases in forearm flexor muscle thickness for TOTAL compared to SPLIT. No significant differences were noted in maximal strength measures. The findings suggest a potentially superior hypertrophic benefit to higher weekly resistance training frequencies.

What they found was that training a muscle group more times a week resulted in a higher degree of growth, where multiple times a week did not result in significant strength increases. 

This really is of no surprise to me.  

From my own experience with my own training and training others I've never noticed some marked improvement from training the competitive lifts multiple times a week.  I think that beginners/novice lifters will, and often do.  However noobs can do pretty much anything and show fast improvement.  So let's leave those types out of this because there really is no reason to talk about "what worked great for me as a noob."  Noobs need to be quiet with their opinions on what works and what doesn't.  

From a hypertrophy standpoint, I think this makes sense on a lot of levels to train with more frequency, than worrying as much about volume or intensity.  I will get to that.

I always factor in three important training variables to meet to single most important variable in regards to what is efficient.

I call this the sliding scale of frequency/volume/intensity to meet the recovery variable.  

Frequency - How often you train a lift or bodypart 
Volume - How much total work you do for a bodypart or movement or in a given training session
Intensity - The percentage of 1 rep max you are using or RPE (rate of perceived exertion)

The single variable that cannot be violated here when managing these three, is of course recovery.

If all three variables are too high, then recovery will generally not be met.  Two of the variables can be high, but the third variable needs to be lowered in relation to those two.  

So if you want to train many times a week, with a high intensity level, then you need to lower the amount of volume you will be using in said programming.  

If you don't/can't train many times a week, then you can train heavier with more volume.  

So forth and so on.  

For example, in Sheiko, you train only three times a week.  But you bench twice, squat two times, and deadlift once.  This is the usual practice with that programming.  

But the intensity used in each session is often pretty low.  In fact, it's between 68 and 72 percent on average.  

This is smart.  

If you're going to train with an insane amount of volume for a lift, and do that lift multiple times a week, you will not be able to train it with a high degree of intensity and still meet the recovery factor.

The interesting part of the study for me, which backs my thoughts about training for both hypertrophy or strength, is that if you want to grow larger, hitting bodyparts a little more often works very well.  But if your goal is strength, then hitting the lifts once per week works just fine in comparison to doing them many times a week.

The latter there is what will probably get debated more severely.  

Right now there's been an influx of the suggestion that you need to squat, bench, deadlift 1,234,954 times a week in order to really improve on the big 3.  I don't agree with that.  Especially with more advanced/qualified lifters. 

The idea behind this of course, is "practice".  The more practice you have with the lifts, the more efficient you are at performing them, thus because maximal strength has a neural capacity, you'll see results there.  

But there is, in my opinion, some flaws here.  

First off, I believe this "multiple times a week" thing has its roots in Olympic lifting.  Olympic lifters do their competition lifts, or some form of it many times a week.  And because some of the world's greatest lifters and coaches created their programming this way, it bled into powerlifting circles.  

However there is a problem with this in relation to training for developing maximal strength in the powerlifts. 

For the Olympic lifts, there is no eccentric portion of the movement.  And the eccentric portion of the movement causes a great deal more of damage at the cellular level than concentric only training (which is what Olympic lifters mainly do).  

This throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the sliding scale of F/V/I because one can more easily recover from concentric only training, than training that involves both eccentric and concentric.  Thus a high degree of F/V/I can be met and still meet the recovery factor.  

When the eccentric portion of the movement is added into this equation, then the sliding scale needs to be adhered to in my opinion, lest recovery not be met.  

Remember, recovery is both at a system level and localized, i.e. you need to recovery as a whole and the musculature trained needs to recover as well.  Fatigue will mask fitness.  So while training a sore muscle will often cause a decrease in soreness the following day, that muscle group will not be able to perform at it's zenith if it is sore from a previous training session.

Second, the Olympic lifts are far more technical than the powerlifts, and need to be practiced more often for the motor cortex to be patterned more efficiently.  This should make sense as there is another variable in Olympic lifting than doesn't play as big of a role in powerlifting.  


Speed plays a significantly larger role in making lifts in Olympic lifting than powerlifting.  No one makes it into the highest levels of Olympic lifting by being slow.  In powerlifting, some people are indeed explosive lifters, but lots of elite level guys are "grinders", and make maximal attempts for them, despite what looks like slow bar speed.  In fact, when you see a maximal lift made in powerlifting it often is slow, and grinding.  

What this comes back to is strength vs power.  

Power is largely unimportant when it comes to testing maximal strength.  I don't want to say it's unimportant, as a lack of speed will still cause someone in powerlifting to miss a lift if enough speed isn't generated to make it through the transition point in the movement.  But it's far more important in Olympic lifting.  

Maximal strength is about maximal weight moved.    

Power is about how fast one can move it.  

So as you can see, in powerlifting strength is more important than power, and in Olympic lifting, power is more important than strength.  Of course, they are important in both areas but the degree of importance varies between the two (I have to add that because without fail some asshat will try to disagree by saying you need both....yes you do.  But not to the same extent in each sport).

Where was I?

Oh yeah, so the other reason that Olympic lifting needs to be practiced more is because the competitive lifts are more complex because of the power/speed factor.  In powerlifting, the big three are not overly technical lifts compared to the Olympic lifts, and over time, once the technique is dialed in it's all about just getting stronger.  A guy in powerlifting can get a lift out of position, but be strong enough to finish making the lift.  I don't believe there are any such corrections in Olympic lifting as if the bar is out of the desired path it ends up just being a missed lift most of the time (I have to add so many caveats to articles now because people will add an exception to everything you write).

So to sum this way-too-long part up....

1.  Olympic lifters can violate the F/V/I scale because of a lack of eccentric portion in their movements.  The F/V/I should still be adhered to in regards to training for strength or mass. 
2.  Olympic lifting needs to be practiced more often because the competitive lifts are more complex because of the power/speed factor.  It has less of a factor in training for powerlifting and bodybuilding (it has zero factor in bodybuilding).

The two above parts are in my opinion very big factors in why powerlifters shouldn't pattern their programming after Olympic lifting programs to reach maximal results.  These are two very big factors and need to be taken into account.

From a powerlifting perspective, in order to meet the single factor of recovery, once someone becomes efficient at performing the lifts, doing them once a week should work just fine for achieving maximal strength.  Of course there is a caveat there too.  I've often seen guys benefit more from benching twice a week than once a week.  But I believe there is a reason for this.  And it has to do with what else we saw in the study above, and what I've seen with my own training and training my clients.

Hypertrophy - 

This article is getting long and I only wanted to sort of blurb it so I will get to the point here.

Because there is generally less musculature in the torso than the lower body, there is less overall taxation on the system as a whole, and localized as well, so recovery is doesn't take as long.  I believe for MOST guys, this is why big pressing tends to be a maturity lift.  It takes longer to really hypertrophy the chest, shoulders, triceps, etc in order to be able to push big weights.  This is why you will often see a very young kid squatting and deadlifting pretty significant weights (sometimes almost at elite levels) but not bench pressing anywhere near elite levels.  That is something that generally takes much longer to develop because the muscle mass to move elite level weights just have not been developed yet.  

Since the recovery factor tends to be quicker for torso muscle, especially pressing muscles, then one can train those muscles with more frequency, volume, and intensity, without violating the recovery factor as easily as lower body movements like squats, deadlifts, etc.  Thus, pressing twice a week tends to work well for people who have lagging bench presses.

This is why I believe that over time a lot of guys settled on a split that looks similar to this...

Day 1 - Squat
Day 2 - Bench
Day 3 - Deadlift
Day 4 - Light bench - Heavy Shoulders

Or something to that effect.

This leads us back into the hypertrophy part of things.  

So why does frequency look like it plays a much larger role in developing hypertrophy at a faster rate?

My own thoughts and experience from it...

More chances for muscle protein synthesis/repair from the training stimulus (this is what growth is, after all) without violating the recovery principle.  

Of course, once again the F/V/I scale has to be adhered to in order for recovery to be met (again, that's where growth happens).  So the more often you can tap into that stimulus and recover from it properly, the more instances you get to repair damage, thus the more chances you have for growth.

So why doesn't this apply to strength?

Because to reach maximal strength levels, as in a powerlifting peak, there tends to be a greater system recovery factor than localized one (I believe this is related to the neural factor).  

Again, muscle growth can be done by training at a very high volume, with great frequency, but the intensity factor is lowered (training with much lighter weights and more res).  My personal belief (again, an opinion) is that the intensity scale (going heavy - 90+%) causes more of a longer recovery period, thus must be managed more conservatively than frequency and volume.  

This is why bodybuilders can and often do train often, with a lot of volume, but don't always need to go super heavy in order to get very massive (tension is another factor here as well).  Where lots and lots of powerlifters can train the big three once per week, but use higher intensity ranges, and manage their volume appropriately, and get very strong.

Getting big and getting strong have overlapping factors, but they aren't always completely related to each other in regards to a training ideology, i.e. certain things can be used to get bigger but not stronger, and certain things can be used to get stronger but not bigger.  Or let me say this, not as efficiently as the other.

"What about Sheiko, Paul?  You referenced Shieko above!"

I did.  My point about that was that even for powerlifting, Sheiko takes into account the F/V/I factor by making sure not to maximize all three, so that recovery can be met at the neural/system/whole body level.  

But guess what?

When you look at the peaking cycle in Sheiko, what happens?

The volume gets lowered as the intensity rises.  Again, this is smart and what has to happen to make sure that recovery at the system level is met.

Conclusion - 

This should give an idea about how to plan both offseason or hypertrophy cycles, and then of course strength cycles.  This is exactly how I plan things from offseason, to pre-meet work, to peaking for competition.  

Working the sliding scale of F/V/I to meet recovery is a huge factor regardless of whether you are training for strength or mass.  If you don't recover, progress will be slow coming or not at all.  It's up to you to balance these factors into your training or find yourself stuck in a plateau.  

There's lot of opinion/anecdotal stuff in here.  I'm sure that will make someone go out and research lots of pubmed to "prove" me wrong.  Just take this article as an "insight" piece to my thoughts on the factors written about above.

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  1. The point about the pressing movements being "maturity" lifts is an interesting one. A PL fed president here in Oz was commenting we have plenty of good squatters and deadlifters, up there with world numbers - but few good benchers. The fact that the sports has exploded over the last 10 years from national meets of 8-24 equipped to to 80-240 raw lifters will have something to do with this - there are lots of lifters with just 1-3 years of experience. Not enough time to have become really good pressers.

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  3. Good stuff there! ^^^

  4. Amazing post Paul - the info about regulating volume, frequency and intensity is gold.

    BTW care to write a post about your time in Oz?Places you went to, stories, cool (or not so cool) experiences etc. As an Aussie I would love to read it.

  5. Great stuff, Paul.

    One minor thing I partially disagree with but understand what you're getting at is that lack of eccentric movements in the Olympic lifts. The receiving position for any one of them (catch in the snatch, catch in the clean and even a push jerk or split jerk) is a brief, but intense eccentric movement. Plus, much of the training involves a ton of squatting and concentric-eccentric based movements.
    Regardless - I agree with your main point vs the powerlifts which are done much slower, often with pauses and are much more taxing in that regard.

    Recovery is often overlooked or ignored and people can and will bury themselves quickly. Then it will take much longer to dig yourself out of that hole. What you're talking about is sadly not common knowledge. Simple but amazing principles. Perhaps its time to think about prepping an ebook for mass gains...

    Do you know anyone thats good with graphic design? Your sliding scale information would make a great infographic that would be easier to convey this wonderful information to those who can't read past a buzzfeed article.

    1. Right. And Oly lifters often have very developed legs. ;)

  6. This was very well written mister! I understood everything pretty well. Its unfortunate though that you have to list all the exceptions lest you get called a blasphemer.