Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Alternate vs. Classic Resistance Training: Can You Bench in Between Your Squat Sets & Still Make Fabulous Gains?

What now? Wait 3 minutes or off to the bench for an alternate set of bench presses or pulls ?
Traditional strength training with 80% of one-repetition maximum (1RM) utilizes 2- to 5-minute rest periods between sets. These long rest periods minimize decreases in volume and intensity, but result in long workouts. Performing upper-body exercises during lower-body rest intervals may decrease workout duration, but may affect workout performance.

The above is how Anthony B. Ciccone, Lee E. Brown, Jared W. Coburn, Andrew J. Galpin kick off their latest paper in the venerable Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Publish Ahead of Print).
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The purpose of the corresponding study was to compare the effects of traditional to those of alternating whole body strength training on squat performance. To this ends, Ciccone et al. recruites 20 youn men, who had to perform two workouts:
  • The traditional set workout (TS) consisted of four sets of squats at 80% of 1RM on a force plate with 3-minutes rest between sets. 
  • The alternating set workout (AS) also consisted of four sets of squats at 80% of 1RM but with bench press, and bench pull exercises performed between squat sets 1, 2 & 3 with between-exercise rest of 50 seconds, resulting in approximately 3-minutes rest between squat sets. 
For both workouts, sets 1-3 were performed for four repetitions, while set four was performed to concentric failure. The total number of completed repetitions, the peak ground reaction force (GRF), peak power, (PP), and average power (AP) of every squat repetition were recorded and averaged for each set.
Figure 1: Maximal # of reps on last set and average power in the classic vs. alternating condition (Ciccone. 2014)
Interestingly, there was no significant interaction for GRF, PP, or AP. Only, the volume-equated AP was ca. 5% greater during the TS condition (989 ± 183) than the AS condition (937 ± 176). A more pronounced difference which was yet still within the margin of one standard deviation (in this case 2.2. reps) was observed for the fourth squat set to failure, where the TS condition resulted in 15% more reps to failure (7.5 ± 2.2) than the AS condition (6.5 ± 2.2). Reason enough for Ciccone et al. to suggest that:
  1. Individuals who aim to optimize squat AP should refrain from performing more than three AS sets per exercise.
  2. Those who aim to maximize squat repetitions to failure should refrain from performing upper body multi-joint exercises during squat rest intervals.
Certainly a sound advice, but in the end, we all live in a world where time is a precious gem and some people give a fuck about average power and the number of reps until they fail.
Bottom line: The number of trainees I know whose interest in (1) average power and (2) maximal repetitions to failure exceeds their drive to improve their physiques is... well, let's say it's not exactly high. In view of the fact that the study at hand does not provide any relevant information about a potential decrement in muscle gains due to alternate training and considering the fact that I don't need a study to tell you that the shorter rest times in-between sets and the incorporation of bench press and bench pull is going to help you shed that belly of yours, the majority of trainees, I know will still be better off training according to AS, i.e. with alternate exercises in-between the sets and 50s instead of 3 minutes rest between sets.

Figure 2: Changes in right leg 1RM during the experimental 6-month strength-training period in both groups and the relative changes after the short rest (SR) and long rest (LR) training periods (Ahtianen. 2005).
Ah, I almost forget, four of the subjects actually increased the number of reps they performed in the alternate condition - and the standard deviation for the average power is larger than the difference between the two conditions. If you still insist that 3-min of rest are necessary you may be interested to hear that shorter rest periods are (a) consistently associated with increased GH release (de Salles. 2009) and (b) previous studies comparing short (2 min) vs. long (5 min) rest times have shown increased size gains (Figure 2) even in a non-alternating scenario (Ahtianen. 2005) - the conclusion that longer rest times lead to higher gains, 'cause you can lift more weight / do more reps is thus obviously unwarranted.
  • Ahtianen, Juha P., et al. "Short vs. long rest period between the sets in hypertrophic resistance training: influence on muscle strength, size, and hormonal adaptations in trained men." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 19.3 (2005): 572-582.
  • Ciccone AB, et al. "Effects of Traditional Versus Alternating Whole-body Strength Training on Squat Performance." J Strength Cond Res. (2014) Jun 17. Ahead of print.
  • de Salles, Belmiro Freitas, et al. "Rest interval between sets in strength training." Sports Medicine 39.9 (2009): 765-777.