Friday, February 17, 2012

"80-85% 1RM, 6-10 Reps"? Changes in Muscle Fiber-Type in Response to Classic, Super Slow and Light Training Confirm "Old School Training" Rules and Will Always Prevail!

Image 1: If you don't want to be strong and look good naked, you better not train like "old school" like Arnold, Franco Columbu (img), Dave Draper, Frank Zane & Co.
Although, I do assume that you just dropped everything, went home from work early, or simply did not leave the house at all to be able to listen to my appearance on Carl Lanore's Super Human Radio, yesterday, I know that sometimes more important things (whatever that may be) get into one's way and will thusly give you a second chance, today (click here to download the podcast)... well, so far for the humorous part of this post. Assuming that by now, you did listen to the podcast you should remember that I promised to have something about exercise and strength training in the news, today. And as Carl will probably assert, Super Humans usually stick to their promises, although - and I did mention that yesterday, as well - the number of significant studies, i.e. studies that do not involve frail elderly or morbidly obese people, is relatively scarce.

Bro, you know the revolutionary new "GHRWZAR-642421 training principle"?

Image 2: If you are looking for a collection of proven routines, instead of bunch of old hats with funky new names, the Blueprint would be a good choice.
Beside the fact that our interest in improving our health and the way we look by diet and nutrition is not getting all too much love in the major scientific publications, another factor, which in all fairness should not be forgotten is that we do actually know what works, don't we? Sleep, eat, train... with the "common wisdom" with respect to "what is the best diet" being in constant flux, I guess, we are simply expecting to see similarly paradigm changes in the realms of exercise physiology, but aside from the occasional letter salad people are trying to sell you as the latest and greatest new training technique, which then turns out to be the 1001 iteration of what the fathers of physical culture have been doing for ... I guess, centuries, would be correct... the basics, which are to pick up a heavy weight move it through time and space for about 6-10 reps and rack it, never change - for a good reason as the pretty detailed results of a freshly published (actually still ahead of print) study from Mark D. Schuenke and his colleagues just confirmed anew (Schuenke. 2012). 

Lifting heavy objects makes women ... dunno, but not bulky, to say the least ;-)

I guess, I better mention it right away in order to avoid that you get all to psyched out and are disappointed in the end: The study participants were 34 untrained young women (21.1 § 2.7 years). And just to make sure there are no misunderstandings, here - the downside for physical culturists is that these women were untrained not that they were women! The latter, is, as the scientists point out, actually an advantage, because "in pre-vious studies, it has been easy to find eager, untrained female subjects with excellent compliance to protocols", which by the way is another thing, Carl and I talked about in yesterday's installment of Super Human Radio ;-)

The reason that the subjects training status ("untrained") is somewhat of a downside, is yet that the early adaption which occur once you first pick up the weights, are fundamentally different from the painfully slow gains of an advanced trainee or elite athlete. In the end, the latter is yet also part of the reason that scientists don't recruit athletes for studies like this, after all the gains" (both strength- as well as muscle-wise) these subjects would have made over the course of the 6-week study period, in which the ladies in this study performed a total of 17 training sessions (two in the first week, three per week in the subsequent 5 weeks), would have been hardly "significant" - and in this case we are talking about both, statistical, as well as real-world significance.
Figure 1: Graphical illustration of the three experimental conditions / training regimen in the study.
Figure 1 should give you the general idea of the three different training regimen the women were randomly assigned to. With the first one being heavy + fast (TUT was in fact 1-2s for both concentric and eccentric part of the movement; verbal count was provided to make sure the tempo was correct) representing what has worked pretty well for generations of strength athletes, the second one being a variety of the Super Slow principle and the third one representing the "I don't want to build muscle"-approach to weight lifting that is unfortunately still very popular among women, we have the whole spectrum from tried and proven to tried and worthless in here ;-) I guess, it should be mentioned that the number of sets (3 sets, to failure) and the exercises, which were leg presses, squats and knee extensions (I suppose the latter is identical to "leg extensions", but I thought I rather stick to what Schuenke et al. wrote) were identical so that the effective parameters which influenced the study outcome were time-under-tension (TUT + reps) and intensity (% of 1RM) - or to make a long story short: Lift heavy and fast, give yourself a hard time by lifting slow or just pump away with lousy weights to "shape your body" (I hope you see the irony wrt to the last point).

Everyone who believes in "shaping your body with high reps and light weights" raise your hand!

I guess, for most of you it won't  come as a surprise, when I am telling you that there were no changes in total body mass in the course of this 6-week training intervention, but what I guess will be surprising is that the body composition of the women did not change either (cf. figure 2)!
Figure 2: Fat mass (in kg) and fat free mass (in kg) before and after 6 weeks with a total 17 leg training sessions (data adapted from Schuenke. 2012)
If you scrutinize the data in figure 2 you could make a point that there was a 0.1% increase here and a 0.025% decrease there, but I guess, even if you have no clue how those p-values, which indicate if the change in a measured parameter could be mere coincidence are calculated, it is quite obvious that none of these changes reached statistical, let alone real-world significance.

If we take a closer look at what happened "inside" the vastus lateralis muscle from which the scientists took muscle biopsies before and at the end of the study period, it does yet become obvious that our "conventional exercise wisdom" is in fact much more reliable than its nutritional counterpart.
Figure 3: Changes in relative fiber composition in vastus lateralis muscle in response to 6 weeks of leg training with different loading / TUT / rep schemes (data adapted from Schuenke. 2012)
As you would expect, the muscle fiber-types shifted according to the load and the TUT / reps that were used with a generally more pronounced increase in the still highly glycolytic type IIA and type IIAX fibers in the classic standard RT group and a shift towards a more oxidative type II fiber type (type IIC) in the super slow group. As those of you who have read the Intermittent Thoughts on Building Muscle will know, the former precipitates both strength and size gains, while the latter would be something a "strength-oriented endurance athlete", as maybe a rower, could be interested in. What all three training regimen have in common though, is the decrease in the exclusively glycolytic type IIX fibers, of which those of you who have followed the aforementioned series will know that they are quasi-nonexistent in elite bodybuilders.

Training light does work, but does not really do the job

What is also noteworthy, is that the light, yet fast training with high reps, induced what you may call a "transition status", with initial changes in the type IIX fibers (becoming type IIAX), but without the a complete switch from the "unflexible" glucose guzzling type IIX fibers to the cornerstones of strong and big muscles - the type IIA fibers. In view of the fact that the scientists did not quantify the strength gains and that the "higher growth propensity" of type IIA fibers is somewhat of an urban myth, the study outcome with the greatest real-world significance is unquestionable the increase in fiber size, which, as the data in figure 4 goes to show was maximal in all three major fiber types in response to the classic training protocol.
Figure 4: Changes in cross sectional area of the different fiber types (data adapted from Schuenke. 2012)
If that is not enough to convince at least the male part in the audience that there is good reason that the good old "6-10 reps in the 80-85% 1RM range" is still around, I guess they must be beyond help... and as far as the ladies are concerned: I know you don't "wanna get big", but let me tell you this - "strong is the better sexy", and as Carl Lenore would probably add "muscle is metabolic currency". So, if you want to stay mobile into your old days, do your joints and bones a favor by strengthening them in time. Moreover, with the mitochondrial powerhouses in full-gear, a few fixes to your diet should suffice to make those "problem areas" not magically, but gradually disappear.

Apropos diet, while the subjects did not have to log their calorie let alone macronutrient intake, I would bet that with a simple protein shake after their training and some general tweaks to their diets, those favorable changes in body composition, i.e. decreases in fat and increases in lean mass, which are at the heart of "looking good naked" would have come about... with the "I love my pasta and red-meat gives you cancer"-diet from the latest cosmopolitan, on the other hand, you better stick to baggy jeans and huge sweaters instead of bikinis and speedos, ladies and gentlemen ;-)