Monday, October 26, 2015

Supercompensation: More muscle, less fat...all of the fatigue

Over a year ago I made the decision to shift my training and my entire training mentality in a new direction.  

I wanted to get leaner again, and put strength as a primary factor to the side for a while.  However the idea of doing a bunch of cardio was not very appealing to me as my wheels were spinning about how I would lay this new plan out.

Let me be clear, I think conditioning is important.  And if you really desire to get down to single digit bodyfat levels I think it's very difficult to do that without conditioning of some sort, unless you're very genetically gifted. 

Luckily, as I was beginning the process of all of this I was in Australia with John Meadows, and John said something one day in passing about cardio and getting lean that made a light bulb go off.

He talked about the fact that so many guys do so much cardio before a show that by the time the show comes around, they are stringy and flat.  His exact quote at the time was "do you want to look like a guy that does a lot of cardio, or a guy that lifts weights a lot?"  

I already knew the answer to that question, and thus the answer to how I would go about my body recomposition revealed itself.  

I would simply increase my training volume and frequency.  

If you've paid attention to my other articles, one of the principles I adhere to about growing and meeting the demands for recovery is that your frequency, volume, and intensity can't all be maximal at the same time.  You pick two of the three, then downregulate the third.  

Seeing as how I knew I would be training more often, with a high degree of volume, I knew I would be scaling back the amount of weight I would be slapping on the bar.  

This did not mean that I would be training "easy" or "light".  You don't have to train "heavy" (which is a relative term for everyone) in order to train hard.  You don't even need to train heavy in order to grow.  You need the maximum amount of tension generated in every rep, set, and session that you can create, with the appropriate amount of weight.  

So make no mistake, you cannot train "light" and grow.  If you can curl 100 pounds for 10 easy reps, no matter how hard you contract your biceps on those 10 reps, if you never add weight to impose new demands that stimulate the fibers to grow via exertion, then your biceps aren't going to grow.  So at the end of the day, tension and resistance work hand in hand to compliment each other for maximum muscle growth.  

But there comes a point where weight on the bar isn't always as important as a lot of people make it out to be, when it comes to growing muscle.  

The breakover point - 

Which brings me to talking about something I ended up calling "the breakover point".  This is a term I use to describe where you go from using the absolute maximal amount of weight you can, while keeping the highest degree of tension on a specific area, to using more than that, and lose maximal tension for the muscle you are trying to target.  What happens in this instance is that other muscle groups must now kick in and become more involved/active in order to perform the movement, thus actually taking away tension from the targeted area.

I will give you an example of this -

Let's say you are doing side laterals with the 30 pound dumbbells, and you feel all of the tension in the medial deltoids.  Your form is perfect, and every rep feels spot on.  For the next set, you jump to the 40's.  Now suddenly, you have to flex your traps to start the rep, and bend forward at the waist to use some momentum to get the movement started.  Now your concentration has gone from feeling the medial delts working, to moving the weight from point A to point B.  Despite the fact that you are using more weight, there is actually less tension in the area you are trying to target.  

This means once you picked up the 40's, you crossed the breakover point.

The breakover point is what you want to avoid when you want to use maximal weights for maximal tension.  If we want tension to be maximized in a particular area, then it means we want to minimize the amount of activation by the other muscles involved in the movement.  

It is true that you cannot totally isolate off a muscle.  Other muscles will always be involved, but the degree to which that happens depends on how you execute the movement, and the amount of weight you use for your working sets.

This is why training for maximum muscle growth, and maximal strength aren't as related as people think they are.  

Training to move maximal poundages means whole body synergy.  You want as much whole body tension as possible, so that as much muscle as possible is engaged in moving the weight.  This way, the tension is dispersed across a greater amount of muscle, thus allowing you to lift more.

If you are trying to grow maximum muscle mass, and are trying to target specific areas with certain movements, then you need the greatest amount of tension from that movement going into that particular area.  And this will actually mean less weight on the bar than if you are trying to involve the whole body in the movement.  

So this downregulates "intensity" (weight on the bar) in a natural fashion.  

However this does not mean that your perceived intensity has to go down.  You still need to train hard, but with a combination of the greatest amount of weight you can use to create maximal tension, without crossing the breakover point.  

Since weight on the bar would be lowered, that left me with upping the frequency, and volume.

This was the first key component in regards to me setting up my new training. 

Build volume and frequency slowly - 

If there is one major mistake I see novice or inexperienced lifters make when they decide to make changes to their routines, it's that they overhaul everything at one time.  Always starting on a Monday of course, because that's when we start new diets, routines, and dating new people.  

On Monday.

Even if today is Monday, it will start next Monday.  That's just how this works.

But I knew I couldn't go from training on average 3 days a week, to 7 days a week (which was the goal) starting on "Monday".  

So I made it very simple.  For the first two weeks I trained four days a week.  Then the next two weeks I trained 5 days a week.  The next two weeks I added in a sixth day, then finally by the last two weeks of the second month, I was training seven days a week.

So starting at week 1 for the first two months, my frequency looked like so - 

Weeks 1 and 2 -  4 days a week
Weeks 3 and 4 - 5 days a week
Weeks 5 and 6 - 6 days a week
Weeks 7 and 8 - 7 days a week

My volume on a session by session basis did not change much during this time.  The first two weeks I did one bodypart a day.  I would do four to six movements per session, for between 4-6 sets for approximately 8-12 reps after warm ups.  My movements varied quite often because I didn't want to go stale doing the same exercises every week.  I also knew this would be an important factor once the other parts of my plan started getting put into place.

Generally my split was like so - 

Day 1 - Legs
Day 2 - Chest
Day 3 - Off
Day 4 - Back
Day 5 - Off
Day 6 - Shoulders
Day 7 - Off

The only difference I made, starting in week 3, was that I added an arm day.  That was it.  The sets and reps protocol remained the same.  4-6 movements for 4-6 sets of 8-12 reps.  

Day 1 - Legs
Day 2 - Chest
Day 3 - Off
Day 4 - Back
Day 5 - Off
Day 6 - Shoulders
Day 7 - Arms

Starting in week five, I made a change with an additional training day.  I started doing legs twice a week, arms twice a week, with chest, back, and shoulders each getting a day.  One of the reasons I did it this way is because arm workouts, even the most brutal ones, have less of a systematic taxation than other bodyparts.  I wanted as little workout "hangover" as possible.  Meaning, after big training days, I tend to feel very tired and worn out.  Since I was going to be training six days a week, I wanted to minimize that feeling as much as possible....for now.  

And the two areas I also felt I needed to bring up the most at this point, were my arms and legs.  

So by that point my split usually looked like this - 

Day 1 - Legs
Day 2 - Arms
Day 3 - Back
Day 4 - Chest
Day 5 - Arms
Day 6 - Shoulders
Day 7 - Off

Starting in week 7, I went to seven days a week.  At this point, I was pretty acclimated to this type of frequency, so I went into a rotation of giving each bodypart a day, and just kept it that way.

Day 1 - Legs
Day 2 - Arms
Day 3 - Chest
Day 4 - Back
Day 5 - Shoulders
Day 6 - repeat starting from day 1

Bring on the insanity - 

At this point, I was seeing pretty steady changes in my body composition.  My diet was very tight, as in, I ate "clean" (I know, some people hate that term, but deal with it) probably 95% of the time.  I carb loaded when I felt flat, but the rest of the time I usually kept the majority of my carbs to the two meals following my training session.  If it was a big day, like back or legs, I would eat around 0.8 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight covering those two meals.  

Seeing how at about this point I was down to around 235 pounds, that meant give or take between 185-200 grams of carbs covering those two meals.  No, that's not a lot for most people but I actually eat less than most guys my size.  So for me, that worked out pretty well.  On days where I only did arms, I might only have carbs at the post workout meal (which is almost always cereal and milk), and that was about it.  Again, instead of being super rigid about my macros, I let how I looked and felt tell me what I needed to do.  If I was tired and flat, I would carb load for up to six hours post training, usually over three meals (every 2 hours).  Why six hours?  Because that's the window post training when glycogen resynthesis is the most accelerated.  So I wanted to take advantage of that window to stuff the majority of my carbs into it.

Body composition changes during this period

All of this was going along fairly well, and I was losing fat and retaining muscle (my strength was pretty steady throughout) at a slow but steady pace.  

The idea of training more however, started creeping into my head.  And I wondered, if I started training even more, what would happen?  I was handling the frequency and volume pretty well at this point.  In fact, on some days it was higher than what I listed earlier.  I had plenty of leg days where I started with between 400-600 lunges.  Yes, to start.  Then I would go do leg curls, leg extensions, and front squats.  The crazy part was, training with this much volume and frequency, my work capacity had gone through the roof.  That's amazing right?  By letting my body acclimate to the work, it actually dealt with a tremendous amount of it just fine.  

For now, anyway.  

But what would happen if I started training twice a day?  

Well, there was only one way to find out. 

Metabolic stress sessions - 

When I decided to start training twice a day, I went ahead and added it to my whole schedule.  This sort of defies my initial rule of adding shit in slowly, but the way I did it meant rearranging so that all of my "big" work came in the first training session, then I would do "small" workouts in the evening that were more metabolic stress type sessions.  

I went back to my original split of doing legs, chest, back, and shoulders and constantly repeating that schedule.  In the evenings, I would do extra sessions of ultra high rep sets for arms, shoulders, calves, etc.  

Weeks 9 - 10 - 7 days a week / twice a day 

Day 1 - Legs a.m. / arms, shoulders, calves p.m.
Day 2 - Chest / arms, shoulders, calves p.m.
Day 3 - Back / arms shoulders calves p.m.
Day 4 - Shoulders / arms shoulders calves pm.
Day 5 - repeat starting from day 1

I did this for about two weeks, until I decided to start adding in more "big sessions" in the evenings as well.

Let me be clear here, I did not always train arms, shoulders, and calves every evening.  I let my mood dictate a bit of that.  Sometimes I would do 300 reps (total) of a curl variation, and then 300 reps of a triceps variation.  Or do 500 total reps of side laterals then calves.  

For those that can't get to the gym that are interested in doing this, I will make this very simple for you.

I brought the 15 and 20 pound dumbbells up from my basement, and just left them in the living room.  Sometimes these workouts would take half an hour.  Other times, it was another hour long training session.  I did not up carbs during this time other than once again, based on how flat I looked, or how lethargic I felt.  I wanted to let my body let me know rather than being dogmatic about macros.  

In week 11, I decided I would go ahead and add in a third training session to some days.  Not only that, I would do two big workouts some days as well.  So legs sometimes got trained twice in a day, with the same metabolic stress training session throw in at the end.  Same for chest, shoulders, back, etc.  

So a chest day might mean I did my usual chest work at the gym, consisting of incline press, db bench press, hammer strength presses, and cable crossovers.  Then I would eat two meals, train at home doing various flyes.  Eat two meals, and a short metabolic stress session.

Starting at about week 12, I began noticing systems of what I would actually call overtraining.  I personally think it's very hard for a lifter to "overtrain".  This is something that is usually seen more in endurance athletes.  But I would say at this point, I had to be pretty close.

Both of my eyes twitched nonstop all day long.  I was beyond irritable all the time, and my sleep was horrendous.  And this is coming from a lifetime insomniac.  I could barely get to sleep, couldn't stay asleep for very long once I did, and I felt like a zombie pretty much 24/7.  My training sessions really went into the shitter about this time, and I had to literally talk myself into every single one of them.  I mean like in the mirror "you lazy piece of shit, ride this out!" kind of talks.  My previous warm ups, started turning into near work set weight.  

I dealt with about two weeks of this before I knew I had pushed things about as far as I could go.  Mentally and physically, I was gassed.  

I was definitely "overreached" at this point.  I didn't see any more benefit in regards to body composition changes happening at this point, and in fact I felt smaller, weaker, and flat pretty much all the time regardless of increasing carbs.

It was time to take advantage of this.

The return to my roots and high intensity training - 

The common thought in regards to overreaching to accomplish supercompensation is that one needs to "deload" then take advantage of the temporary rebound you get from that.  However, the context this is usually used in, is for strength peaking.

I didn't care about strength at this point.  My goal was maximizing fat loss with muscle retention.  Or, possibly...just possibly, even reducing bodyfat while gaining even a little bit of mass.  Because the last many months of researching net protein balance, nutrient timing, and some other factors left me believing that even advanced guys could lose bodyfat and gain muscle, even though the ratio would be small.  Still, losing fat and gaining muscle even in small ratios is the most supreme of options for advanced lifters.  So I'd take whatever I could get.  

So I did not deload, per say.  I scaled training back to four days a week, lowered my volume, but stayed with my ideas of not crossing the breakover point in regards to weight on the bar.

My new split ended up looking like this - 

Day 1 - Legs
Day 2 - Off
Day 3 - Shoulders
Day 4 - Back
Day 5 - Off
Day 6 - Chest and arms
Day 7 - Off

My sets were brought down to 1-2 "top" working sets.  However I did add in lots of set extending techniques like rest/pause, drop sets, strips sets, etc to every movement.  I used extended set techniques the preceding months as well, but not always on every movement and almost never taking sets to failure.  This time, I was taking that 1 or 2 sets to complete failure, then with forced reps, then with extended set techniques as far out as possible.  So sometimes, there would be rest/pause sets to failure, with forced reps, followed by a few strip sets as well.  I wanted to milk as much effort and tension out of those 1-2 big sets as possible.  

The biggest change here was that after a few weeks my lifts jumped back up dramatically.  My sleep improved, my eyes stopped twitching, and my irritability went away.  I did actually add in two days of intervals because I had gotten so used to training everyday that having a complete "off" day felt kind of...weird.  And it also felt good to do some shit to just get back into "conditioning" shape.  Suddenly I didn't hate cardio anymore.

In retrospect - 

Did it suck? 

By the end, very much so.  Looking back, I probably had things dialed in about right when I was training 6-7 days a week, with the small workouts thrown in, in the evenings.  I feel like this is something that could be done for an extended period before transitioning into a potential deload, or downregulating volume and frequency.  

From here, I will run the HIT stuff for a while, then slowly transition back into volume and frequency again.  

The rebound, or the supercompensation from overreaching paid off very nicely.

How nice?

My bodyweight went from around 235 on my flat days, and 242 post carb load days, to around 245 on my flat days, and 251 post carb load days.

And while I can't be certain if I lost fat, I absolutely did not gain any.  So at worst, I gained muscle while not gain any fat at all.  This all happened when I felt like I had everything dialed in perfectly.  

What was the imperfect parts?

From my experience with this, I would not use the last few weeks of training three times a day.  I didn't see any improvement in body composition from this, and if anything it may have declined slightly during that time.  When I was at my heaviest and leanest, it was during the last few weeks before I transitioned into that phase of training.

Some disclaimers here - There were times when I would take a random day off.  Either due to flat out being exhausted or because of life in general that made training take a backseat.  I also rearranged my program at times based on other factors, but this is pretty spot on in regards to what I did.

Other factors - Nutrition wise, I did something else I wanted to prove.  I lowered my protein a bit.  Yes, I lowered it.  I've read study after study that showed even in hard training athletes, that as little as 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight was still enough to elevate muscle protein synthesis.

Just to be on the safe side, I stayed at 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, rather than the 1.25 grams per pound I was usually at.  Funny enough, lowering my protein seemed to actually make me feel better.  I have no idea if that makes sense, but only eating 4 ounces of chicken rather than 8 was far easier on my stomach and digestion (naturally), and I had a lot less bloating.  This made for a far more comfortable "life".

All in all, this was a very successful phase of training in my life, and one I will repeat again.  It played a huge role in helping to further along my body composition improvement, and now that I understand where the pitfalls are, can plan for a more efficient run with it again in the future.


Get my new manual "Inception:  The beginners manual for mass and strength" at ejunkie.


  1. Thanks for the detailed write-up. I really appreciate it!

  2. Jamie Lewis espoused (still espouses?) a high volume/high frequency setup on his blog. Sounds like a good topic for new Chaos and Bang Your Earballs!!!! Aw hell yeah!

  3. Really nice write up. Inspired me to 'experiment' more with my training and keep a log of what does/doesn't work.

  4. Great write-up and methodic approach.

    Very minor question:
    - When going to two-a-days you didn't increase overall carbs. Did you move them up closer to your morning sessions or still delay until the evening?

    Crazy minor. Just curious.

    1. DIdn't change a thing in my diet. I wanted to get leaner so I didn't up any calories.

    2. Paul - Thanks. I'm running through Inception now. I buy all your stuff, even what doesn't apply to me, since you give so much up for free to the community.

    3. Thank you for your support man!

  5. "The breakover point". Perfect way to describe it and I swear to god, it's always when I switch to 40's on side laterals lol.

  6. Nice write up, Jamie would definitely approve