In this article, you will learn more about:
- Using myo-reps to reactivate mechanisms for muscle growth
- Using higher training frequency to make better progress
- Using both light and heavy days in your program
For those of you who don’t know me (and that is probably most of you), I've been working as a coach for the last fifteen years or so. I've worked with clients ranging from “average Joes” to elite athletes, and in the past, I even coached a Mr. Universe and a top five finisher in the Mr. Olympia. I've also published hundreds of articles, and during periods when I’ve had that pesky virus called “writers block-itis,” I've worked behind the scenes with new training methods and diet strategies (to the delight of all my clients who get to be my personal lab rats). The results have been formidable, if I may say so myself, and this article is a brief overview of some of my latest ideas.
For the few of you who are able to get through one of my articles without having to resort to several double espressos and an oxygen mask, bear with me. My head sometimes feels too big for my body, and when I feel the need to empty it of some of my thoughts, it won't be small drips of information…it will be more like a tsunami. Bathroom breaks along the way are not only acceptable—they are also an utter necessity.
In recent years, there have been several paradigm shifts in training theory as new research is published. Of particular interest is occlusion training, where subjects with what looks like a large blood pressure cuff on the arm or leg have induced significant muscle growth—even in trained elite lifters—using ridiculously low weights at 20–30 percent of one’s one rep max. Yes, whole body occlusion by tightening the cuff around your neck is still a funny notion, and I know a few who have tried it (a friend of my cousin’s distant relative’s brother, not me).
Later studies have shown that you can achieve a similar effect without occlusion cuffs simply by exercising to the point of failure. The criterion to get a training effect appears to be a high muscle fiber activation, and this is obtained from the very first rep of heavier weights (in the range of 1RM to 8RM). With lighter loads (12RM or more), however, you need to work closer to failure and will only reach the effective range on the last reps of the set
The metabolic consequence of the lack of oxygen, known as hypoxia, increases muscle fiber activation earlier in the set. It also seems to amplify the effect of the mechanical tension applied. If you want to obtain “natural” occlusion, you need to choose exercises and a rep execution that keep the muscle under constant tension. This makes isolation exercises especially suitable whereas compound or complex lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts are not. Go CrossFit (sorry, couldn’t help it) and you risk running out of breath and compromising technique way before reaching the failure point .
When doing a Pub Med search on occlusion, the name Mathias Wernbom shows up quite often. Mathias is a Swedish scientist and researcher who is passionate about hypertrophy, and I'm fortunate enough to know him. Several long discussions and email conversations where he eagerly shared research results and insights (many of which is unpublished—the peer review process has its pros and cons) have contributed to the development of myo-reps. The myo-rep protocol is basically a rest-pause method with some similarities to DC training, but it also has some important differences.
A brief synopsis of myo-reps
After warm ups and a few minutes of rest, unrack the chosen load and do reps until you hit the failure point (leaving one rep in the tank can be a good idea). This is the “activation set.” Re-rack the weight, count three to five deep breaths, unrack, and do a set of three to five reps. (That’s about a quarter of your first set. For example, complete five reps when you did 20 reps on the first set.) Now re-rack, rest, and repeat until you hit another failure point. This is the autoregulation aspect. On some days and on some exercises, you may only get something like 20 + 5 + 4 reps, but on other days/exercises, you may get 20 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 (or more). The point is to achieve high muscle fiber activation on the activation set and extend this effect by balancing on the verge of fatigue to perform more “effective” reps, taking advantage of all the hypertrophic signaling effects of occlusion training.
For those of you who are imagining a scientist as a skinny geek with a white lab coat and binocular glasses (as I did), I can tell you right now that Mathias blew that image out of the proverbial water the very first time I met him. He truly is one who both talks the talk and walks the walk. The man is as big as a house—a bulldozer in the heavyweight category. Oh, and Mathias is no stranger to sticking giant biopsy needles into his quads after a brink of death, 50-rep set of leg presses and then limping over to the electron microscope to see how the piece of meat (which was part of his muscle just a few seconds ago) responded to the onslaught. Anyway, the point is he has observed that myo-reps with weights from around 50 percent of a 1RM can be equally effective to occlusion training with 20–30 percent of a 1RM. The myo-rep protocol that I recommend for replacing occlusion training is 20 to 25 + 5X or even up to 25 to 30 + 6X if you want to be really bold and have a high pain threshold.
Myonuclei and muscle size
Ingrid Marie Egner at the University of Oslo has contributed to a paradigm shift in hypertrophy research in recent years. I’ll try to explain this in short and simple terms because this is the fairly advanced stuff. See, there exists a certain ratio between the size of a muscle cell and the number of nuclei that it has. Generally speaking, the more nuclei, the bigger the muscle…or at least the potential for a bigger muscle.
One of several mechanisms of hypertrophy is the activation of satellite cells—dormant stem cells located in the vicinity of muscle cells. These satellite cells merge with muscle cells and donate their nuclei when conditions demand it. For this to happen, the muscles must be subjected to mechanical overload. Occlusion research has shown that the metabolic effects of high rep training also activates satellite cells, even in the presence of low mechanical tension. This, in turn, explains how occlusion and metabolic stress are believed to “amplify” mechanical loading.
Ingrid and her team found that even when a muscle is subjected to deloading, or to resting and consequently shrinking (atrophies), the number of nuclei is maintained. This is probably the reason for the muscle memory effect. When you start training again after a hiatus or longer period of rest, you will quickly return to your previous muscle size and strength. The muscle is simply seeking to maintain the relationship between the number of nuclei and its size and it responds quickly to stimuli. You all know that it takes less time to recover lost muscle mass than it takes to surpass your previous bests in muscle mass, but to know the underlying reason is valuable both in the name of exercise science and in order to stimulate further research. Ingrid and her group recently made headlines with their research showing how anabolic steroid use/abuse leads to a higher number of myonuclei than what can be achieved naturally.
If you can’t increase the number of nuclei, there will be a limit to how large the muscle can be, and the more advanced you are, the harder it is to stimulate this mechanism. Studies into the “repeated bout effect” show that whereas moderately advanced lifters can see a muscle protein synthesis (MPS) anabolic response for 24-48 hours after a workout before returning to baseline, advanced lifters may see the same MPS peak but the duration is shorter, on the order of 12–16 hours. Extreme eccentric protocols utilizing loads heavier than a concentric 1RM have been shown to reactivate satellite cells. Alas, this type of training can also cause microtrauma, inflammation, and brutal soreness, which require several days of recovery. A low training frequency with extreme training protocols requires a long time to make a noticeable impact on the myonuclei pool.
Wernbom has seen that you can achieve satellite cell activation even in elite and well trained athletes with occlusion and light weights. See the following illustration and note that “free flow” is without occlusion.
The free flow group was only a few repetitions away from failure on the first set and probably had very high levels of muscle fiber activation (as per the aforementioned criteria). Blood flow restriction (BFR) equals occlusion. Take particular note of the response at its peak only 24 hours after the workout for the free flow group (MRF positive is activated satellite cells).
Sparing the nervous system, joints, and connective tissue from excessive mechanical tension, the inflammation that arises from this type of training is usually transient and the muscle can be trained with a high frequency. Wernbom showed me research where they observed dramatic increases in muscle cross-sections over a four-week period with twice daily occlusion training of the quads. These were advanced lifters without any measurable increases in muscle size for many months beforehand. This is to be expected. If you already spend several hours at the gym with high loads, it is difficult to increase volume or loading significantly over a certain time span. The elite spend several years building up volume, so don’t think that you can get away with haphazardly jumping straight into a high volume routine if you come from a HIT background. The recovery capacity is also trainable but unfortunately doesn't increase proportionally to training volume. So the myonuclei count, and muscle size remains unchanged until you do something drastic (or smart).
Train more often
In my opinion, frequency is the most underrated training variable. Most lifters are all too eager to increase volume by doing more sets and more exercises. Honestly, do you really believe that you need four different biceps exercises to get bigger arms? I think there isn't anything that stagnates progress more or faster than training volume, especially combined with excessive failure training and intensity techniques such as forced reps and super/triple/giant sets.
There exists a certain threshold of work that you have to exceed in order to stimulate an adaptation (i.e. strength and muscle growth). This threshold increases with training age and experience. However, a common misconception is that if you double the training volume, you also double the stimulus. Sorry, but if it were that easy, we would all be massive just from copying the high volume routines of Arnold or Ronnie. Anyone who idolized Arnold back in the 80s or Ronnie back in the late 90s knows for a fact that this line of logic didn’t turn out as well as we hoped.
Meta-reviews (Rhea, Wernbom, and Fry) indicate the training variables, which will provide maximum effect, based on a cross-section of available research and observations. Look at the following graph as a model loosely based on this where the lower part of each set range applies to beginners. The upper part of the range applies to advanced lifters.
As you can see, the dose-response curve increases sharply at first but then flattens out until it eventually drops. Excessive volume will require more recovery time obviously. At best, you create low grade inflammation and that soreness we all secretly fall in love with. At worst, you get injured or fall into the spiral of overtraining. Doubling the volume from one to two sets for a novice and from two to four sets for an advanced lifter could potentially increase the training effect from about 50 percent to about 80–90 percent. Doubling the number of sets again for the advanced lifter from four to eight sets only increases the effect from 80–90 percent to (a hypothetical) 100 percent. Double it again to sixteen sets and you'll be way over to the left where you find yourself sliding down the steep slope of the curve, acutely leading to overreaching and accumulating into overtraining or even repetitive strain injury over the long term.
In some cases, it is absolutely worth doing those extra sets to potentially squeeze out 10 percent extra gains, but it is easy to forget that this will also increase recovery requirements. We can safely and logically assume that a high volume requires a lower frequency to work over the long haul.
Now, do a little thought experiment for me—what if you could be satisfied with an 80 percent training effect at a more conservative volume if it allowed you to recover faster and train more often? Let’s say that you can achieve a hypothetical 100 percent training effect by doing eight sets, but you need four days of recovery enabling you to hit that muscle group once every five days. Over fifty days, this is ten workouts, so let’s give it a theoretical value of 10 X 100(%) = 1000. If you can get 80 percent training effect with four sets and it allows you to train every other day or even every day, over fifty days, this is 25–50 training sessions and by the same logic 25–50 X 80(%) = 2000–4000. That is two to four times more gains, bro! Yes, I know that this is a purely theoretical calculation, but if we look at some anecdotal stuff coming up next, it may very well be a valid assumption.
The Frequency Project
Let me tell you about the Frequency Project from 2009, a collaboration between the Norwegian Powerlifting Association, the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, and Olympiatoppen.
Advanced and elite powerlifters were divided into two groups. One group trained the classical power lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift, or variations of these) three days a week with a program developed by national head coach Dietmar Wolf. The second group divided the same weekly training volume over six days (i.e. half as many sets each training day as the three times a week group). Average intensity/load was equalized between groups.
Twenty-three-year-old Carl Yngvar Christensen, a multiple world record holder and a genetic freak of nature but also a product of high frequency training
The results haven't been published in peer-reviewed journals nor have they received the attention they deserve. It kind of looks like the NSF would rather keep it a closely guarded secret and dominate internationally with their lifters instead of share what they have learned with the rest of the world. As a powerlifting nation, Norway is actually a force to be reckoned with. A handful of lifters dominate their respective classes, perhaps not in total medals, but Norway is a country with a population half that of New York where most of the adolescents are either partying or doing CrossFit and not easily swayed into moving heavy slabs of iron through space in a misty fog of chalk and bromance with Rammstein playing at full volume. Compare that to the giant locomotive that is Russia, where boys are recruited when they're barely out of kindergarten and then selected based on those who have the genetics and work ethics to survive brutal training regimes over a decade or more. And lest we forget, I doubt that the WADA shows up at their doorstep at 4:00 a.m. to make them pee in a cup for a drug test. Just sayin’. Norwegian lifters have to expect and accept this as a regular occurrence if they want to avoid being shut out of the organization and society in general with “cheater” tattooed on their foreheads. But let’s look at the study results:
As you can see, there was a pretty dramatic difference in both strength gains and muscle mass after the twelve-week study period with a clear advantage to the group training six days per week. In fact, the total strength gains in the six times a week group were double those of the three times a week group. Even if this was a classical “strength training program,” muscle cross sectional area (CSA) increased by an incredible 5–10 percent in the six times a week group with no change (and even some regression) in the three times a week group. Oh, and look at that freak who gained 30 percent in his vastus lateralis…everyone knows a guy like that. And we all envy him or whisper “steroids” when he isn't within hearing distance.
Junior female lifter Erle Engmark followed an autoregulated high frequency program under my tutelage. After only nine months of specific training for powerlifting (including suit and shirt work), she beat the national records in all three lifts as well as the total. She later won the national championships and is now on the national team receiving full support and individual programming from their expert trainers. And yes, she's still on a high frequency approach that the NSF adopted and further developed in the wake of the Frequency Project.
It’s kind of sad to see how many fitness enthusiasts cling to the prevailing and dogmatic notion from the bodybuilding world where it is believed that you will blow up from overtraining if you do squats more than once every full moon. If you even publicly entertain the twisted and ludicrous concept of combining squats and deadlifts in the same workout, baby Jesus will cry and you will be submitted to exorcism and restrained in a straitjacket.
An important caveat of the Frequency Project is that in order to achieve a high volume and frequency, intensity measured as a percentage of the 1RM was relatively low—an average of 73.1 percent. See the graph below, showing weekly number of reps per exercise (of the bench, deadlift, and squat) as well as intensity expressed percentages of the 1RM.
Seventy-three percent is a load that most people can lift for 10–12 reps. Looking at the training logs, lifts were usually performed in the three- to eight-rep range. In fact, they never grind or train to failure in training; maxing only happens in competition. Reduce neural stress and improve recovery and the power lifts can be very successfully trained 4–6 days per week. This is in stark contrast to the local hero at the gym who, on every Monday—international bench press day—keeps grinding out twenty sets of bench presses to failure with forced reps aided by a spotter who happens to have a set of enormous biceps from repeatedly saving his bench buddy from a crushed rib cavity every time the barbell hits a sticking point and free falls down to his underdeveloped, overtrained chest, obviously with the same load on the bar as has been employed the previous 2–3 years of benching. His Gainer2000 shake is gulped down with a good conscience even though he's so fatigued that he can barely hold his camera phone steady to post shirtless selfies on Instagram and Facebook. #hardcorebro #nopainnogain #nobrainnopain
If you are interested in some further reading of the ins and outs of high frequency training, read Matthew Perryman's excellent book Squat Every Day (I happen to have a couple honorable mentions in it). Google legendary Bob Peoples and his training philosophy or even renowned weightlifting coach John Broz, who some of you might have heard of. The Glute Guy Bret Contreras also had great success with his daily squatting experiment and has published some stuff on it. There lots of reading material out there if you care to look.
Summary – how can this be set up in a training program?
OK, so we've covered a lot of ground, and I hope you've made it this far.
The main points are:
- Reactivate satellite cells and myonuclei additions by using high rep myo-reps instead of, or in addition to, occlusion training. I recommend protocols of 15–20 + 4X and 20–25 + 5X, but start conservatively with only one set and one exercise and increase only when you see that you can survive and thrive on it. Aim for a total of 35–50 reps per muscle group. This will “prime” you for the heavier loading in the 70–85 percent range as early as 24–48 hours later.
- Use a higher frequency approach, training each muscle group at least three times per week and even more productively four to seven times a week. I know that some of you, especially those who have a functioning social life outside of the internet and Facebook, will cringe at the thought of spending every day in the gym. Just remember that the above high rep, myo-reps protocol can be improvised at home with body weight exercises and elastic bands or even sandbags or other light to moderate weight implements.
- Use a higher weekly volume, but remember that if you double or triple the frequency, that in itself increases volume. Simple math shows that if you previously did eight sets twice a week for a total of sixteen sets, doing three sets on a six times a week program yields a weekly volume of eighteen sets. Also go back and review the dose-response curve, where a conservative bout of volume combined with a high training frequency will ensure a sufficient stimulus that you can easily recover from.
Personally, I like the sequence high rep myo-reps, potentiating high load, low rep “powerlifting” in the three- to six-rep range the next day followed by higher volume and moderate intensity the third day. By higher volume, remember that 6–12 reps are already double the time under tension as 3–6 reps, so either limit it to 3–4 sets or do a cluster rep set up of 6–8 sets of 2–4 reps with short rest between sets using elastic bands or chains for maximum explosiveness (also known as accommodating resistance training). Follow this rotation with either a rest day (in my experience, high volume requires more recovery than high intensity) or go right into high rep myo-reps on day four.
If you want to implement this on all muscle groups, it will obviously end up being a full body program, but consider picking a few select muscle groups that you want to focus on and just add high rep myo-reps the day prior to your main workouts. This way you can keep using your preferred 5/3/1 or 5 X 5 routine, the 2- or 3-way DC splits, the Westside program, or the upper body/leg or push/pull splits. The possibilities are endless.
I do prefer to keep the signal for the training effect that I'm after as “clean” as possible for a muscle group in each workout. So I recommend that you stay within a given loading and rep range (e.g. 3–6, 6–9, 9–12, 12–15, etc). You may use different rep ranges and loads for different muscle groups, though, so adding high rep myo-reps training for the upper body to your heavy leg workouts will potentiate the heavy upper body work in the next session where you may add in high rep myo-reps for the legs.
If you want to ask questions in the comment section, remember that it is hard to give you a definitive answer. When I’m designing training programs for my clients, it is based on a comprehensive evaluation of training history, goals, and individual response. Results so far have been amazing. One guy with seven years of training experience did six reps with his previous 1RM in the bench press after only two weeks, and another guy added 20 kg to his 5RM squat in the same time frame. It's too soon to tell about hypertrophy obviously, except for reports of visual improvements in fullness and density, but I have no doubt that the increased strength will translate into more muscle mass in a few weeks time.
A final reminder—don’t think that you're one of those special snowflakes who these guidelines don’t apply to. Start conservatively with a low volume of only 2–3 sets and see how you do with a higher frequency first. Only after 2–3 weeks when you're absolutely certain you can recover from the frequency should you consider increasing the number of sets. And that's only if you're absolutely certain that the gains you're already seeing can be improved. It is all too easy to become overzealous and burn out too fast, so enjoy continuous progress instead of adding in that extra set or exercise here and there and eventually slipping down the slippery overtraining slope on the right-hand side of the dose-response curve.
Here are some selected references. Unfortunately, I couldn't find all the references that I wanted to include and much of the content is based on unpublished work.
- Adams GR, Bamman MM (2012) Characterization and regulation of mechanical loading-induced compensatory muscle hypertrophy. Compr Physiol 2(4):2829–70.
- Bruusgaard JC, Johansen IB, Egner IM, Rana ZA, Gundersen K (2010) Myonuclei acquired by overload exercise precede hypertrophy and are not lost on detraining. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 24;107(34):15111–6.
- Bruusgaard JC, Egner IM, Larsen TK, Dupre-Aucouturier S, Desplanches D, Gundersen K (1985) No change in myonuclear number during muscle unloading and reloading. J Appl Physiol 113(2):290–6.
- Burd NA, West DW, Staples AW, Atherton PJ, Baker JM, Moore DR, Holwerda AM, Parise G, Rennie MJ, Baker SK, Phillips SM (2010) Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS One 5(8).
- Burd NA, Andrews RJ, West DW, Little JP, Cochran AJ, Hector AJ, Cashaback JG, Gibala MJ, Potvin JR, Baker SK, Phillips SM (2012) Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. J Physiol 590(Pt2):351–62.
- Raastad T, Kirketeig, A, Wolf, D, Paulsen G (2012) Powerlifters improved strength and muscular adaptations to a greater extent when equal total training volume was divided into 6 compared to 3 training sessions per week (abstract). Book of abstracts, 17th annual conference of the ECSS, Brugge, 4–7 July, 2012.
- Wernbom M, Apro W, Paulsen G, Nilsen TS, Blomstrand E, Raastad T (2013) Acute low-load resistance exercise with and without blood flow restriction increased protein signalling and number of satellite cells in human skeletal muscle. Eur J Appl Physiol 2013 Sep 28 [Epub ahead of print]