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How Much Does Muscle Growth Differ Between Lifters?

Reference to the Study:

Hubal et. al. (2005). Variability in Muscle Size and Strength Gain After Unilateral Resistance Training. MED SPORTS EXERC.

 

 

Details of the Study:

 

  • 585 untrained adults performed the same arm training routine for 12 weeks.

 

  • Most lifters experienced around a 10-20% increase in cross-sectional area, but there was extreme responses on either end of the spectrum.

 

  • A small number of individuals experienced no detectable muscle growth (with some even seeing losses in muscle size).

 

  • On the other hand, a small number of individuals saw increases in biceps cross-sectional area of greater than 50%.

 

  • As with most biological traits, the response to resistance training generally follows a bell-curve relationship. This means that most people see an ‘average’ muscle growth response, but a small percentage of people experience extremely more/less growth than average.

 

 

Applications to training:

 

  • This study supports the idea of the importance of an individualised plan in order to optimise muscle growth in each person.

 

  • Furthermore, it is unavoidable that some people will find it significantly easier to add muscle more than others, rendering comparison between peers futile. If you want to progress, then track your progression against yourself.

 

  • Ultimately having a personal coach who has the skills to guide you on how to execute your exercises correctly to get the most out of each exercise will put you in the best position to see results with your hypertrophy goals from your training in the gym.

Pre-Fatigue Training vs Traditional Sets on muscle growth

 

 

Reference of the Study: Trinidade et. al. (2019). Effects of Pre-Exhaustion Versus Traditional Resistance Training on Training Volume, Maximal Strength and Quadriceps Hypertrophy FRONT PHYSIOL

 

 

Details of the Study:

 

  • Trainees performed 3 sets of leg press to failure 75% 1RM, 2x per week, for 9 weeks in total.

 

  • One group performed 1 set of leg extensions before the leg press (pre-fatigue group), while another group performed the leg press training in a non-fatigued state (traditional training group).

 

  • It was found that both groups saw significant muscle growth of all quad muscles, with no notable differences between groups.

 

  • This study suggests that when taking each set close to failure, pre-fatiguing a muscle can achieve similar muscle growth compared with traditional training, with no additional benefit.

 

  • This is despite the fact that lifting performance (load lifted), on the leg press for the pre-fatigue group was significantly affected.

 

 

Real World Application:

 

  • Pre-Fatiguing the muscles provides an opportunity to gain the same muscle growth as traditional training, with lighter loads and less repetitions, thereby minimising joint stress.

 

  • Therefore, this could be particularly useful for people returning to the gym after rehabilitating certain joint injuries.

Load vs Rep Progression

 

 

Reference:

Plotkin et. al. (2022) Progressive Overload Without Progressing the Load? The Effects of Load or Repetition Progression on Muscular Adaptations. PERJ.

 

Details of the Study:

 

  • Trainees performed the same lower-body workout 2x per week for 8 weeks, taking all sets to failure.

 

  • One group lifted within the 8-12 rep range and attempted to increase the load over time, still sticking to this rep range.

 

  • The other group also lifted within the 8-12 rep range initially. However they aimed to perform more reps overtime whilst maintaining the same load.

 

Results:

 

  • It was found that both groups saw increases in muscle thickness of all muscles measured, with no notable trends favouring either condition.

 

  • Furthermore, changes in lean mass of the legs were similar between groups.

 

  • This supports the main know drivers of hypertrophy are mechanical tension and metabolic stress are both great for hypertrophy.

 

Real World Application:

  • This study suggests that progression via load or reps results in similar outcomes, as long as the set is taken to failure. Therefore, if muscle growth is the aim then proximity to failure should be prioritized.

 

  • Once you know you can train to failure successfully and it comes the decision to either up the weight or increase reps. Exercise execution is vital for all lifts and movements it would be useful to hire a personal trainer to coach you on exercise execution.

 

  • A useful strategy would be to perform your compound more mid range movements with the progression of load and your isolation movements towards the shortened and lengthened ranges of the muscle towards higher rep ranges.

Does Strength Training Potentiate Hypertrophy?

Study Reference: Carvalho et. al. (2021) is stronger better? Influence of a strength phase followed by a hypertrophy phase on muscular adaptations in resistance trained men. RES SPORTS MED

 

Study Details:

 

  • Men with an average training age of 4-5 years in the gym performed 4 sets of squats and leg press training 3x per week for 8 weeks

 

  • One group lifted in the 8-12 rep range throughout the entire 8 week programme (hypertrophy only training)

 

  • The other group lifted in the 1-3 rep range for the first 3 weeks, before lifting in the 8-12 rep range for the remaining 5 weeks (strength and hypertrophy training)

 

  • After 3 weeks, the hypertrophy group saw greater quad growth compared to the strength + hypertrophy group- as expected.

 

  • However, at the end of the 8 weeks, the strength + hypertrophy group saw superior growth compared to the hypertrophy only group.

 

Real world Applications:

 

  • The study supports the idea that, if you want to maximise muscle growth, then including a short strength phase prior to a hypertrophy phase may be beneficial.

 

  • However, there are plenty of other studies that show that a strength phase prior to a hypertrophy block shows no additional benefits. Therefore, it’s important to note that more research is required before this becomes reliable.

 

Are Eccentrics more important for Hypertrophy?

Reference to Study: Sato et. al. (2022). Comparison between concentric-only, eccentric-only and concentric-eccentric resistance training of the elbow flexors for their effects on muscle strength and hypertrophy. EUR J APPL PHYSIOL

 

Details of the Study:

 

  • Trainees performed 3×10 bicep curls 2x per week for 5 weeks

 

  • 1 group only performed the concentric portion, another group only performed the eccentric portion and the last group performed both concentric and eccentric portions of the bicep curl.

 

  • Note: The total volume load (weight x number of contractions) was double for the concentric+eccentric group.

 

  • Despite this difference in load, it was found that biceps growth was similar between the concentric+eccentric group & the eccentric only group, whilst the concentric only group saw significantly less group.

 

  • Therefore, the study supports the idea that the eccentric portion of the contraction is more important for growth

 

 

Real world application:

  • Many people chasing muscle growth often rush the eccentric portion of lifts, allowing gravity to take the weight down instead of keeping the muscle under as much tension as they could to control the weight. Therefore, this study is part of the growing evidence why this is highly suboptimal for their training goal.

Short vs Long rest periods for Muscle Growth

Reference: Schoenfield et. al. (2016) Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance Trained Men.

 

Information on the study:

 

  • Trainees with at least 6 months resistance training experience were split into 2 groups

 

  • Both groups performed 7 compound lifts, for 3 sets of 8-12 reps, 3x per week, for 8 weeks

 

  • 1 group rested for 1 minute between sets, while the other rested for 3 minutes between sets

 

 

  • It was found that the longer rest group saw superior gains in all muscle groups when compared to the shorter rest group.

 

  • This supports the idea that longer rest periods are superior for hypertrophy

 

 

Application to real world:

  • With longer rest periods come longer overall sessions durations, unless you cut overall volume.
  • Overall volume has been shown to be a significant factor in muscle hypertrophy
  • Therefore, it may be worth only applying these long rest periods if you have the extra time free in your schedule to allow you to do so.

Is scale weight an accurate way to track progress?

When people embark on a fitness journey, whether that be to lose body fat or gain muscle mass, the common tool to track their progress people use is how much the number on the scales changes over time. However, is this the most accurate way to track progress towards body composition goals? Just like most questions relating to health and fitness, the answer is- it depends.

 

The first thing to remember is that scale weight is the total weight of all the tissues in your body and not just muscle and fat. Therefore, it is not the most accurate measurement when it comes to measuring body composition. Other methods include skin fold callipers, a cheap tool which measures body fat percentage. However, despite its low cost, the skill needed to take an accurate measurement makes this a fairly inaccessible method of measuring body composition. The gold standard of body composition measurement in a DEXA Scanner. Although, this is a very expensive piece of equipment, only really seen in medical facilities due to its use in also identifying bone density and helping diagnose patients with osteoporosis. Due to other methods being inaccessible, scales are by far the most common tool used by the general population to assess progress in their body composition goals, so what can be done to ensure you are getting the most reliable and accurate changes to body fat and muscle as you can with scales?

 

Any tool is only effective when you know how to use it and scales are no different. Weighing yourself on Monday at 7am and then again on Sunday at 8pm will not give an accurate measurement for how your weight has changed over the course of the week, due to factors that will be discussed in this article. Therefore, if you are to use scales accurately, I would recommend taking daily measurements, first thing in the morning each day and then calculating the mean average each week and compare each week’s average from the last, to get a more accurate measurement of how much your weight is changing due to changes to fat or muscle tissue.

 

So, what factors can influence the weight on the scales besides from muscle and fat tissue? Firstly, there’s water retention. The amount of water our bodies hold will hold will change throughout the day, as well as day by day. Reasons for this include carbohydrate and sodium intake, which cause our bodies to hold more water- not add on fat tissue (a common misconception in, the case of carbohydrates, spread by the misinformed and keto zealots). Therefore, if your diet is more heavily carbohydrate based for a few days, then you may add some weight. However, this will be due to the added water retention from an increased intake of carbohydrates, not an added amount of fat tissue.

 

Next, there’s the amount of food you are currently digesting. First thing in the morning, is when you have the least food in your digestive system as it will have been 9-10 hours since your last meal. Therefore, food being digested cannot influence your scale weight, unlike if you weighed yourself shortly after a meal.

 

Besides from keeping these variables at bay, what else can be done to improve the reliability and accuracy of scales measuring body composition? Firstly, you could also use a measuring tape and measure your Hip to Waist Ratio. This is productive because most people hold the majority of fat around their Waist area. Therefore, if you are trying to gain muscle mass and you put yourself in a calorie surplus and put on weight, you may believe you are getting closer to your goal. However, if you take measurements are realise your Waist measurement is increasing at a faster rate than your Hips, then this indicates you are putting on fat faster than muscle mass. This information can then lead to you making productive changes to your training and/or nutrition.

 

Next, it’s important to ensure you are setting yourself up for success. One way to do this is to ensure you are consuming enough protein and tracking it. Ensuring adequate protein intake with a suitable resistance training programme and sleep will ensure that any weight loss will not be due to loss of muscle mass. Alternatively, when gaining muscle, will ensure you are adding as much muscle mass as you can in the calorie surplus you are in.

 

In conclusion, scales are far from perfect when it comes to measuring body composition goals. However, with the correct information, it can be a very useful tool to help you stay on track when pursuing your goals.

 

Fast Bulk vs Slow Bulk

The Study: Garthe et. al. (2013), Effect of Nutritional Intervention on Body Composition And Performance In Elite Athletics. EUR J SPORT SCI

 

 

  • 39 elite athletes recruited for the study and split into 2 groups.

 

  • For 8-12 weeks (dependant on length of their off-season) One group completed a fast bulk (high calorie surplus) and the another completed a slow bulk with a much more moderate calorie surplus. Both groups had adequate protein in their diets to facilitate hypertrophy.

 

  • The higher calorie group gained weight at a rate of 0.4% of Bodyweight per week whilst the moderate calorie group gained weight at a rate of 0.2% of bodyweight per week.

 

  • Unsurprisingly, the fast bulk group gained more than twice the amount of bodyweight than the slow bulk group

 

  • However, there was only a small difference in lean mass (High calorie group averaged 1.7kg lean mass gained whilst moderate calorie group 1.2kg)

 

  • Also, the fast bulk group put on 5 times as much body fat (1.1kg vs 0.2kg) compared to the slower bulk group.

 

  • This study supports the idea that a smaller calorie surplus is better for maintaining a low body fat percentage in a bulk. However, if muscle gain is the sole goal, like open weight category powerlifters, then a faster bulk may be more beneficial.

Principles of Training – Individualisation

Each and every one of us is physically and mentally different. This is why, when it comes to training, everyone’s approach needs to be bespoke to them, if it’s going to be optimal.

 

One of these factors will be their starting point, in terms of ability, in their fitness journey. For example, if two people come to a personal trainer saying they wish to build better whole-body strength, then both will be assessed to see where their starting point is at. If it becomes clear one athlete has a proportionately stronger upper body than their lower body, and the other person vice versa then despite the same goal, their programmes will look different. The first person will need a more lower body focussed approach whereas the other person would need the opposite, this is an example of applying the principle of individualisation.

 

Another key factor to consider is lifestyle variations. Everyone has a life outside of the gym, all of which will include factors which influence their performance inside the gym. Therefore, this needs to be considered when programming. To give another example, imagine someone wants to become generally fitter all round. If they’re a labourer then you need to consider that their job is very taxing, therefore workload needs to be managed more carefully as to avoid overtraining and injury.

 

 

Next, there’s anatomical variants between each individual which can affect performance in the gym. For example, someone with a larger rib cage convexity, steeper sternum angle and short limbs is going to have a better chance at being better at the Bench Press compared to someone with a smaller ribcage, flatter sternum angle and long limbs, due to the first person having a shorter range of motion to achieve a full repetition and the line of pull on the pecs from insertion to origin. Another way in which anatomical differences influence training, can be down to active range. Everyone’s active range for a given movement is different. A common example would be overhead mobility. If someone cannot lift their hands directly above their heads (180 degrees of shoulder flexion) then trying to perform an overhead press is going to take them out of their active range and they will lean back to achieve the overhead position. This person will be putting a lot of stress on joint structures outside of this range and also increase the risk of injury when lifting outside of it. Therefore, consider this individual difference and give them an exercise that challenges them in their active range, for instance an incline press, set to a height whereby they are working in the active range that they can achieve.

 

Next, there’s two factors that link together. These are tolerance to training loads and responsiveness to training load. One’s tolerance to training load is going to help you in the initial phase of deciding things like how frequently they should train and how demanding each session should be. Their responsiveness to training will link closely with progressive overload. So, someone who responds very quickly to training will need to increase their training load more frequently than a slow responder. It’s important however that progressive overload is applied correctly to both people to prevent any from overtraining or undertraining.

 

Finally, the psychology behind training must also be taken into consideration. As with most things, intrinsic motivation is the key to long term adherence and this is achieved when someone feels competent, so the training programme must not feel too difficult for the participant. They also need relatedness, this comes from good relationships attached with the activity. Therefore, having great rapport with your PT, or attending the gym with a friend is a great idea. It’s also a reason why exercise groups with a more ‘community feel’ are more popular, the biggest example of this being the rapid growth of CrossFit over the past 10-15 years. Also, the participant must feel like they have autonomy, this can come via a number of ways such as having the freedom to train when they want, as well as being able to have a say in what they do during sessions (if they want that).

 

Overall, there’s many factors here to consider, it’s important to manage them all carefully, in order to ensure you are getting the most out of your training.

Principles of Training – Progressive Overload

The principles of training are factors that should be applied to any training programme to ensure optimal adaptations. These principles include: Progressive Overload, Reversibility, Specificity, Individualisation and Periodization. To delve deeper into each of these, I will be writing an in-depth article on each, with this one discussing Progressive Overload.

 

When people start going to the gym, many start by feeling lost. Some will then look for guidance on what exercises to do, perhaps by going online, or to a friend to write them a few sessions to complete. For a number of weeks this plan may produce very good results with the trainee becoming stronger and possibly adding more muscle and/or reducing fat if following the correct nutritional protocol. However, if the programme doesn’t change over time then the progress it provides the trainee with will plateau.

 

This is where progressive overload needs to be applied. Progressive overload can be defined as the gradual increase in stress placed on the musculoskeletal system and nervous system over a period of time.

 

So how can a programme be appropriately changed in order to continue to bring about desired adaptations? There’s 4 variables we want to look at changing in order to continue progressing. These are: Volume, Intensity, Frequency and Interval Duration. Which variable you look to increase will differ depending on someone’s goals, which will be discussed below.

 

Firstly, volume= (sets x reps). Therefore, to increase volume, the sets or reps you perform for a given exercise will need to increase. Increases in volume have been shown to be a significant factor for increased hypertrophy. Therefore, anyone who has hypertrophy as their goal may find their time is most productively spent when choosing volume as the variable to progress in their plan. The amount of volume to increase will differ between individuals but as a rule of them, small increases such as 1 set per exercise every 2-4 weeks will provide an adequate increase in stimulus. However, everyone’s time is limited and even if you do have all day free, no one wants to be in the gym for hours. Therefore, that is when it is time to look at other variables such as intensity.

 

Intensity can be defined as the percentage value of maximal functional capacity. In the terms of weight training, this would be how close to your 1 rep max you are. With cardiovascular training, this would be how close you are to maximal exertion over a given distance, e.g. 30 seconds per km slower than 5k race pace. Increasing intensity is a great way to progress your training without adding any time to the sessions, which will be productive for anyone stuck for time in their day. However, as with every principle, people’s goals matter. For instance, if someone’s goal is to run a faster marathon, then increasing intensity of most of their runs will not provide beneficial adaptations.

 

Thirdly, you can increase the frequency of how often you train. This is as simple as training from 3 times per week to 4 times per week. By doing this, you are also increasing volume. It is worth considering though, that by increasing number of sessions, it may be productive to change your training split. For example, if your 3 sessions originally consisted of 3 whole body sessions, if you increase to 4 sessions it may be better for you to have two lower body days and two upper body days, in order to give certain muscle groups adequate time to recover before being trained again.

 

Next, we can change interval/ rest duration. The easiest way to make a session more difficult whether it’s resistance training or cardiovascular training, is to reduce the duration of rest periods between sets of lifting. However, once again, this is context dependant. For instance, to progress a training programme where increasing maximal strength is the goal, reducing rest will not be beneficial. This is because in order to increase max. strength, lifting weights close to 1RM makes up a lot of the session. This is not achievable if rest periods are short, therefore it would be more productive to keep interval duration the same and increase intensity.

 

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that only changing one variable at a time is probably wise, as increasing multiple variables at once increases the risk of overtraining. Furthermore, keeping the exercises the same can be useful as they act as the control variable. If they change to often then how can you be sure you are actually progressing certain variables when different exercises provide different stressors to our bodies.