Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"Just One More Set" (2/2): Three Sets of Three Exercises Three Times Per Week - High Volume Can Work. With Appropriate Rest Also to Build Strength & Power

High , not insane (!) volume training can be productive.
I hope that you have already being waiting for this post, so I'll try to cut myself short and get right to the facts. In yesterday's first part of "Just One More Rep" it turned out that a higher training volume sucks, when it comes to what is often thought would be its prerogative, i.e. using strength training to induce excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) and lean out.

In view of these results you could argue that it would be totally logical that a higher training volume cannot be ideal for muscle gains either. After all those require energy and if the RMR does not go up, this would suggest that there was little to repair and supercompensate. A recent study (Naclerio. 2012) does yet refute this already intrinsically non-stringent considerations.

High volume can work! As long as it's high, and not simply insane.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Greenwich, the College of New Jersey, the European University of Madrid and the Appalachian State University and it has one caveat I don't want to hold back to the discussion of the results at the end of this post (although it will reappear and be addressed there): Though we are dealing with college athletes (20 male soccer and 12 female volleyball college players)  none of them had previous strength training experience. This may not be exactly representative of a dumb- & barbell god like you are *rofl*, but is at least better than taking totally untrained participants, where you never know if the the higher volume was too demanding for their musculature or their overall conditioning.

Moreover, the separate analysis of upper and lower body strength gains could shed some more light on whether or not legs do in fact need some more hammering to adapt than the smaller musculature of the upper body (cf. "Three is more than one").

Who and at which intensity for how many sets and reps?

The 32 athletes (age = 23.1± 1.57 yrs, injury free) with at least 3 years of experience as regular team sports practitioner were randomly assigned to one of four groups (all performed 8 reps at 75% of their 1-RM max per set!):
  • low volume(LV), 1 set per exercise and 3 sets per muscle group per session;
  • moderate volume (MV), 2 sets per exercise and 6 sets per muscle group per session;   
  • high volume (HV), 3 sets per exercise and 9 sets per muscle group; 
and of course, the obligatory non-exercise control group (this leaves us with only 8 subjects per group, so don't expect all too meaningful p-values). Before and after the 6 week each subject underwent a progressive resistance test aimed to determine the 1RM and the maximal average power produced from light to heavy weights on two upper body exercises (bench press (BP) and upright row (UR)) and one lower body exercise (parallel squat (SQ)). The individual tests, were structured as follows:
"After a standardized warm up, each subject started the PRT  which consisted of 8 sets of 2 repetitions performed with maximal acceleration, alternating with rest periods between 2 min for the light load, 3 to 4 min for the moderate load and 5 minutes for the higher load. The 1st and 2nd sets were performed with a light weight (~25 to 45% of estimated 1RM), the 3rd and 4th sets with a medium weight (~50% to 65% of estimated 1RM), the 5th and 6th sets with a medium to heavy weight (~ 70% to 80% of estimated 1RM), and the 7th and 8th sets with a maximum or near maximum weight (~85% to 100% of estimated 1RM)." (Naclerio. 2012)
For the subsequent analysis the scientists picked those sets and reps, on which the subjects had lifted with the greatest average power (no sure whether this was the best idea, but alas).

The workouts - chest, shoulders, biceps + legs, back, triceps

It stands to reason that the exercises that were part of the testing procedure, i.e. bench presses (BP) and upright rows (UR), which were performed using Olympic bars and plates, as well as the classic back squat (till thighs were parallel to the floor, SQ), which was performed on a Smith machine, "in order to standardize exercise", were also the core exercises of the  actual workouts, the participants performed during the 6-week training phase.
Day 1 (chest, shoulders, biceps)Day 2 (legs, back, triceps)
Bench press
Incline Bench press
Dumbbell Fly
Upright Row
Lateral Raise
Posterior Lateral Raise
Barbell Biceps Curl
Dumbbell Biceps Curl
Machine Biceps Curl
Smith Machine Parallel Squat
Leg Press
Knee Extension
Lat Pull down
Seated Row
1 Arm Dumbbell Row
Machine Triceps Extension
Standing Triceps Pushdown
1 Arm Triceps Extension
Table 1: Workout schedule, for set and rep scheme see text above .
Overall each subject took part in 18 training session, i.e. 3 per week. The training sessions were scheduled on non-consecutive days in a day 1 v.s day 2 fashion, with day 1 being 'chest + shoulder + biceps day ' and day 2 being 'legs + back  + triceps day'. Given the aforementioned volume prescriptions you see that the actual routines were actually more or less representative of what you will see the relatively sane part of the trainees actually do at the gym.
Figure 1: Relative change (in % of baseline) in 1RM and maximal average power during the 6-week intervention period (Naclerio. 2012)
If you take into account that these were the first real lifting sessions for most of the study participants, the same can be said of the strength gains I plotted relative to the respective baseline levels in figure 1. In fact, the multivariate analysis the scientists conducted showed that all training protocols yielded statistically significant increases in strength.

When gains are the goal: Volume (or stimulus?) does count!

In contrast to the EPOC values, of which we have learned yesterday that they do by no means benefit from increases in total workout volume, Naclerio et al. did actually observe a clear trend toward greater improvement in strength and power with the high vs. the low and even the medium volume protocol (at a similar overall volume, though with different exercises in a classic split routine). Thte most evident downsides to the lower volume programs, were
  • no significant increases in the 1-RM squat in both the low and medium volume group, and
  • no significant increases in the average power during the bench press,
where both, the medium (MV) and high volume (HV) protocols achieved significant before vs. after differences of 10% and 16%, respectively.

If you look at the overall pattern in figure 1 once more, there is still no clearcut picture emerging. While it does in fact appear as if the high volume routine appears to be in front in the majority of 1-to-1 comparisons, this is mainly based on an analysis of the improvements in maximum strength. With respect to the average power measurements, on the other hand, the authors are (partly) right to point out that you could argue in favor of both the low and medium volume protocols as being "better strategies for enhancing lower body or upper body average power performance." (Naclerio. 2012)

So is high volume the way to go - or no?

For the subjects who participated in this study (and maybe some of you), the last mentioned equivalence, if not superiority of the low(er) volume routines (1-2 sets per exercise) the low and medium volume training do in fact appear to be superior to support their regular sports specific training program. After all, mere strength is not so much of an issue in either soccer or volleyball; and given the fact that at least for soccer the lower limb power is what really counts, a low volume strength training approach would, aside from obviously being highly economic, also yield the most pronounced sport specific performance increases.

It stands to reason: If neither brute strength nor tons of muscle are your goal and strength training is just an adjunct to your sports-specific training, high volume sucks!
Whether the surprising superiority of the low volume routine as a 'average strength builder'  for soccer and volleyball players does mean that legs need less, rather than more work than the chest, which appears to like the constant hammering, is however highly questionable. In fact, this is where the bias of previous training comes into play. For both volleyball and soccer players, the latter does obviously include a hell lot of 'leg work' and while you do push-ups in soccer (and I guess volleyball as well), there is no training component that would correspond to the sprinting and HIIT exercises that involve the legs only. Now, of the latter you know that they can in fact have 'anabolic' effects on skeletal muscle. These may not be so immediate as they would be for someone doing a BB-like hypertrophy training, but they accumulate over time; and with three years of more or less 'professional' training in their respective sports, we may savely assume that all participants had their share of muscular hypertrophy in the quads, glutes and hams.

Moroever, skeletal muscle hypertrophy and strength gains require a certain degree of overload. Allegedly, when the training induced or the overall stress becomes too much, your training won't yield the desired results either. For someone whose main goals are skeletal muscle hypertrophy and strength gains, and who does not compete in any other sports that requires separate training,  the data from the study at hand would yet still support Arnold's way of doing "just one more set " - as long, as this is done in conjunction with adequate rest not just in-between sets, but in-between workouts, as well!

I can however guarantee you that doing 27 sets today and another 27 tomorrow, just to follow that up by some HIIT on day 3, in order to have a "day off" without a guilty conscience and to be "recovered" to do chest shoulders and biceps, your day 1 on day 4 again (thus starting another "cycle"), will yield neither muscle, nor strength gains. It will simply burn you out and pave your way right into the Athletes' Triad.

  • Naclerio F, Faigenbaum AD, Larumbe-Zabala E, Perez-Bibao T, Kang J, Ratamess NA, Triplett NT. Effects of different resistance training volumes on strength and power in team sport athletes: a pilot study. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Oct 5.