Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Up & Down The Rack: Study Compares Strength & Size Gains from Good Old Double-Pyramid and Reverse Loading

Image 1: Persian Wrestling Champions, Tehran, Persia (Iran), September 1949
Everyone who is following me on Facebook, will be aware that I am currently spending the little free time I have devouring Randy Roach's Muscle Smoke & Mirrors Volume 1 & 2. Aside from the fact that the two volumes are simply amazing (and can come handy, whenever you need some weights and have no dumbbell at hand ;-), they are - contrary to what you would expect from a historical approach to physical culture - full of practical training and nutrition tips. Stuff that - contrary to the results from the latest rodent studies - has worked for generations of bodybuilders and strength athletes, and exercise regimen, real foods and supplements of which scientists are still trying to figure out how they actually work.

The "Great Pyramids" - Ancient, Yet Still Around

And while our understanding of the "muscle building magic" of protein powders and individual amino acids is ever-advancing, my latest investigations (for the "Step by Step Guide to Your Own Workout Routine") into relevant (i.e. neither sports-specific, nor rehabilitative) research on strength training regimen for building size, gaining strength and losing fat did only confirm what I have been stating numerous times before: as far as training techniques are concerned, bro-science and the practical experience of generations of trainees is still way more valuable than the sum of all hitherto published studies (which are not too many, anyways ;-).
Figure 1: I don't know if the rest was literally "lost in translation", but the information on the exact workout (exercises, sets and frequency) is missing - all we have are the details on the loading pattern ( adapted from Mirzaei. 2012)
With the bad rep the testosterone driven urge of building muscle and getting stronger appears to have within the Western medical science community, it is actually no wonder that - just as with the "Strength, Cardio or Both" study from April, 4, 2012 - it is once more a group Iranian scientists (allegedly with one American aboard ;-) who conducted an 8-week controlled training intervention that was intended to elucidate the differential effects of a double-pyramid loading pattern (figure 1, left) and a reverse step loading pattern (figure 1, right) on the muscle strength and size of 22 trained wrestlers (again: I won't grow tired of pointing at the importance of having trained athletes, not obese sedentary couch potatoes as subjects, when you want to know something about your potential response to different training regimen... well, unless you consider yourself an obese sedentary couch potato ;-).

Double Pyramid vs. Reverse Step Loading - Round 1: Wrestle!

In view of what I have stated before, i.e. the superiority of broscience, or, in this case I should say anecdotal evidence vs. proscience, it is interesting to note that Mirazei et al. resort to the same experiential resources, when they comment on the purported advantages and disadvantages of these training techniques:
The  double  pyramid  consists  of  two  pyramids,  one  inverted  on  top  of  the  other.  Most  proponents  of  this  pattern suggest  that  the  last  sets, are  meant  to  improve  power.  On  the  contrary,  because  the  fatigue  may  impair rapid recruitment  of  the  fast-twitch  fibers,  the  outcome  of  the  last  sets  of  this  loading  pattern  will  be  development  of muscle hypertrophy rather than power. In the reverse step loading, the load decreases rather than increases from step  to step.  Performance improvements  are  possible  only  when  training  capabilities  have  increased.  Endurance improvements are much better achieved by step loading.
And as it turned out, the growth and strength response of the young male wrestlers (age, 17.30 ± 2.42 yrs, height, 170.41 ± 6.14 cm, weight, 72.29 ± 13.18 kg, BF%, 12.36  ±  7.39  %) in the pyramid and reverse loading groups seem to actually support the notion that the good old pyramid, technique - performed in the Schwarzenegger'esque "up and down the rack" way - makes a very valuable strength and hypertrophy workout.
Figure 1: Change in bench press and leg press strength, as well as changes in cross sectional area of the arms and thighs after 6 weeks of strength training using a double-pyramid or reverse loading scheme; note: there is no detailed information on the exercise selection and workout frequency available (data adapted from Mirzaei. 2012)
Upon closer scrutiny of the data, I plotted in figure 1 it does yet become evident that the initially impressive +2% greater increase in thigh size (if we make the hilariously unrealistic assumption that this continued over the course of a year, this would result in roughly ~20% more muscle mass!) is statistically non-significant and the increase in leg press strength (1-RM) goes at the cost of a reduced increase in leg press endurance (as measured by the maximal amount of repetitions that could be performed at 60% of the 1-RM).

Training for strength involves heavy weights, training for endurance higher reps

If we put these results into perspective, there are two distinct take home messages, none of which should actually surprise you:
  1. The heavier weights used in the double-pyramid method elicit a favorable strength response.
  2. The higher reps in the reverse loading protocol allow for greater increases in muscular endurance.
If we take both of these results and try to formulate an even more simplistic take home message, that would be: "Train sport-specific! As long as you are using heavy weights, hypertrophy will follow!"

Don't play soccer, if you want to become an NBA star!

Image 2: Do You want to take advantage of both high(er) and low(er) rep work in your routine, but have no idea of how to incorporate that into your workouts? In this case you should go back to the last installment of the "Step By Step Guide to Your Own Workout Routine" for a few tips on how periodization can help you make continuous progress - strenght- and size-wise.
This may sound stupid, but in the end, it should remind you of a common fallacy of many (if not all of these studies). I mean, would you expect to become a top basketball player if you trained with the local soccer team? I don't think so. In the same vein, you cannot actually expect to make great progress with respect to your one-repetition-max, when you never get even close to it in your training. If you wanted to take an objective measure of the strength gains you get from say a 5x3 vs. a 3x12 regimen, it would appear prudent to determine the 7-8RM max... if we do now take this a step further and simply add another gem from our treasure chest full of broscientific wisdom, namely that the 6-8rep range is where the greatest hypertrophy response occurs - what does this tell us about periodization? Well, right! It confirms what I have suggested in the last installment of the "Step By Step Guide to Your Own Workout Routine": For skeletal muscle hypertrophy it appears imperative to train in both the lower and the higher rep ranges.