Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Chicken and the Egg Dilemma: One Last Time (Part 1)

Development. That is the goal of modern bodybuilding and cosmetic physique enhancement. I think I know a little bit about this. At my first contest I weighed in at 154lbs in 1983. By 1987, I won the Great Lakes Classic at a bodyweight of 235lbs (unheard of back then; in fact my closest “heavyweight” competitor back then barely cracked 200 lbs). And at my last ever appearance on stage, guest posing at the Toronto Pro Show in 2004, I weighed just under 260 lbs. And yes; I have a secret. (Deliberate use of industry buzzword as “sarcasm” here.)

The secret is my main tenets of Innervation Training that took me away from the common accepted knowledge of the time. And my physique soared as a result. And this approach is even more important today; as the same arguments of how to build a physique continue. I find it boring and monotonous, to be honest, which is why I seldom address it (except in my book, The Abel Approach). And it’s ironic that these arguments seem to be divided among two different camps. One camp seems to represent the “Science of Strength” while the other camp seems to represent the “Experience of Tradition.” So what is the debate?

Well the debate is as alive now as it has been since the early dawn of the strength industry. And here it is: "Train for strength and development will come, or train for development and strength will come." I’m here to tell you one of these is correct, and the other is, well, not. As I will show there has been a misinterpretation and misapplication of the science involved. And I will get to that in Part 2. But first some relevant points.

Where most people seem to sit on one side of the debate or another usually has to do with their own training biases. For the sake of objectivity, that includes me. But here’s the thing. The capacity for low rep strength is pretty much genetic. Bone length, tendon insertions, tendon thickness, ligament structure and ligament laxity, even gene expression; all have a profound influence on someone’s genetic capacity to “be strong.” Read that again X 10! But this reality is seldom addressed and it becomes very misleading. (And this doesn’t even begin to cover the basics of the energy systems contribution.) The reality is that individuals with a capacity to be quite strong would still garner great development by training for development first and not low rep strength, limit strength expression; what we label as 1RM strength. And for the record what I mean here by the loose use of the term strength, is “load” strength, as in how much you lift.

However, the reverse is NOT true. People without a genetic capacity for low rep strength will not garner much development by training for max strength in the hopes of acquiring size and shape. In fact, if you are like I am, then training for low rep strength usually only yields two guaranteed results; injury and frustration. The one main tenet of Innervation Training which is now (and always has been) supported by research, and the real world of training is that intensity is more important than strength. Now, read that sentence again X 10. Or, put another way, max efforts are far more important in training application than are max reps. Or yet another way, intensity produces strength, intensity and max strength are NOT the same.

Not only in myself, but as a coach beginning my 4th decade of relevant experience, I can tell you I have been around the best of the best. And at the Olympian level of development I can tell you emphatically that while most physiques were comparable development-wise; they varied tremendously in strength capacity and expression. This in and of itself defeats the argument that “heavier is better” in terms of training poundages.

Strength researchers tend to see strength in far too tiny a box. Indeed, their position has always been strength and intensity are both tissue-related variables, and that low rep strength expression was of “higher intensity.” And while this is true, it is only true within that very narrow framework. It is not true as an absolute. Therefore the conclusion that as intensity goes up, volume must go down, is a faulty one based on a narrow and incorrect view of strength and intensity as connected in 1RM expressions.

The Crossover Confusion

One of the many things that create confusion in terms of this debate is what is known as the “crossover” effect of athletic prowess. For example we see all the time in high level college athletics, athletes who are draft-eligible for more than one sport. There are many athletes who are genetically far superior and play baseball, football, basketball and track. This is a crossover athlete. Addressing their superior skills is a viable study, but usually would leave no clues for the rest of us, in terms of trying to be just as athletically prolific. And the same is true in our industry. To focus on the exceptions does not upset the rule. It only adds confusion to the argument. So those who focus on max strength as a narrow external cue of 1RM will always shout the name Ronnie Coleman, or Johnnie Jackson as proof that a person should train for max low rep strength and then development will follow. This is faulty logic. By the same notion, if we took Jay Cutler or Dexter Jackson, both Mr Olympia winners, they would fail miserably at their bodyweights if either one of them tried to succeed as a 1RM specialist in either Powerlifting or Weightlifting. So crossover athletes in our industry are not proof of anything other than their own genetic proclivities. In fact, when Jay Cutler was asked about training with Ronnie Coleman and keeping up to him weight-wise, his reply was “are you crazy?” What Jay was really saying within that remark was “What Ronnie 'can' lift, has nothing to do with how much Jay 'should' lift." Again, how much you "can" lift, has little bearing on how much you "should" lift in training.

Hope for the Rest of Us

So just what are the operating principles then of training for development, if 1RM is not part of that equation? Well the most important thing is the notion of developing intensity. Intensity, as I indicated in my book The Abel Approach, is not a training variable; as delineated in the text books. It is instead a training principle. This means that increasing workload capacity is one of the most important aspects of improving development. Strength is secondary to that, and 1RM strength is not even part of the equation. In fact beginning four decades now of working with champions, I have never known a single one of them to employ 1RM formulas as a part of a viable training strategy. And myself, in creating more than 300 champions, and training thousands of people to achieve their results, I have never used such formulas either. So something is wrong between the textbooks and the experience base. Let me be blunt: your training should not require a calculator!

This also leads to a reinterpretation of how you look at your workout variants. From an Innervation Training perspective, contrary to the 1RM strength theorists, it’s not the weight that works the muscles, it’s the muscles that work the weights. Again, read this over 10X’s. This is an important part of biofeedback and internal cues that is a departure from a focus on how much is on the bar lifted for how many reps. The emphasis switches then to internal aspects of performance like a perceived sense of exertion and affect; angle of contraction, muscle shortening, muscle activation potential etc. It is, as I say, an emphasis on how much stress a muscle is under; not how much weight is being lifted. This is the beginning of training maturity not measured in numbers, but felt in experience. The focus then becomes, as I said, not how much a trainee “can” lift, but rather how much a trainee "should" lift for the desired effects. Properly stated in Innervation Training Methodology, a set of 10 is twice as hard as a set of 5, once adaptation to higher intensity has occurred over time. And this is backed up by research as well; as we will see in Part 2.

Once focus gets away from low rep strength, other observations become just as obvious. For example, certain exercises lend themselves better to specific rep ranges outside of the low rep, max strength emphasis. The strength theorists would not accept such an assertion and yet it is obvious that, say, pulldowns for sets of 2-3 reps, or leg extensions for sets of 2-3 reps, would produce more harm than good, specifically because of joint position and external forces acting on the joints from such angles. Furthermore, this "truth" allows for a more objective assessment of performance beyond mere 1RM concerns. Body-typing assessments become useful here as well in terms of individual biomechanics and leverage systems.

For instance, body "types" suited for bodybuilding, weight lifting, and powerlifting are much more distinct than people realize. However each can use a viable Hybrid form of training, borrowing from each other to enhance any of the goals relevant to each pursuit. So of course bodybuilders still squat etc, as do weightlifters and powerlifters. But the mode of training would be better determined by the body type of the trainee and the specific goals. The one dimensional “strength first” approach tends to negate the individuality which also requires evaluation. The bone structure of the weight lifter is easy to separate from that of the powerlifter, and both are distinct again from that of the bodybuilder. By example, a wide hip structure denotes a better base of power for weightlifters and powerlifters, usually allowing for greater strength expression for them in say, the squat. But the narrow waist and hips of the bodybuilder would not give him the same power base from which to develop raw max low rep strength.

This was expressed in my own case as well. At my strongest I could squat 5 plates per side for 5 sets of 5. Not bad, but certainly not “strong” for a guy my size at the time. However, I used biofeedback to realize I wasn’t getting much from squatting for “max strength.” When I dropped the weight and increased the reps and sets for more time under tension, my legs exploded in growth. This led to the above conclusion as well. Not only are some rep ranges better for specific effect, but I was never going to be “low rep strong” in the squat, because I had a very small waist and narrow hips. And this led to another conclusion. The training methods of low rep strength for someone who already has the wide hips for that power base only further enhances that effect. In other words, show me someone who regularly squats more than twice their bodyweight in training for very low reps, and I’ll show you a lack of results in terms of development and big hips and a wide waist (genetic freaks and steroid abusers excepted of course).

So while strength athletes and athletes of all kinds may indeed implement the same types of moves or exercises, doing so with the same mentality in terms of max strength, while having different goals, and different body types, is an obvious mistake. We see in the real world of training for development that the “max strength” approach is not appropriate and may indeed be applicable only to those people born with a certain genetic profile. However, the research also bears out the fact that while training for max strength may not yield much development for us regular folk; training for development does indeed lead eventually to increased max strength improvement. Read that statement 10 X’s over!

It seems, in fact, that how much you lift is not nearly as important as how hard you lift. The “heavier is better” argument is actually a myth that prevents many of us from getting results in terms of physique enhancements. Researcher Atha, in 1981 concluded from a review of research, “from these studies, one begins to believe that the importance of load magnitude may have been exaggerated.

And in 1995, David Behm’s research was more direct. His research article “Neuromuscular Implications and Applications of Resistance Training” came to the following sound conclusion so important to those of you interested in developing a better physique: “Maximum strength training methods with their high intensity resistance but low volume of work do NOT elicit substantial muscle hypertrophy.” His research some 10 years later served to reinforce this conclusion as well.

Now if you think you are doing something right because you do more sets with low reps, and lots of weight, this is still a mistake. Your 10 sets of 3, is still only 30 reps, just like 3 sets of 10. As Behm further concludes, “Therefore a higher volume of work, (greater than 6 reps, with multiple sets) [emphasis and references are his] is needed to ensure a critical concentration of intracellular amino acids to stimulate protein synthesis” (Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1995: p271) (see also Tesch and Larson, “Muscle Hypertrophy in Bodybuilders” 1982; and Tesch, in Komi 1992).

In my seminars I always like to use the example of Tom Platz and "Dr. Squat" Fred Hatfield. Tom Platz had the first set of truly freaky legs at the Olympia level. Fred Hatfield was the first man to ever squat 1,000 lbs. Fred Hatfield’s legs development couldn’t win a local bodybuilding contest at the time. And Tom Platz was never, ever going to be able to squat 1,000 lbs. Clearly a contradiction of prevailing theory. See Tom used squats for leg training, Fred trained for squat limit strength of 1RM. (Tom’s focus was to train the muscles, not the movement; Fred trained for the execution of the movement solely.) And the funny thing here is that Fred Hatfield himself, at the time said, “there is never a reason to do single rep 1RM lifts in training.” He also told me, “the legs are relatively inactive in the Powerlifting squat.” Now coming from the first man to squat 1,000 lbs, Fred truly understood the principles at work. If anyone would ever have a paradigm blindness toward limit strength training expression, it should have been Fred. But he understood the principles on a deeper level. And these statements are correct for 90% of trainees, 90% of the time. And as a coach, that 90 percentile is my wheelhouse for application.

So how is this confusion possible when so many of you are told to train to get “strong” with low reps, and development will come? Well the answer lies in a misapplication of what is known as “the size principle” of muscle recruitment. And I will look at that in Part 2.

And for those of you who still want to stick to a faulty premise for ego training of more weight with low reps, I guess Warren Buffet said it best when he said, “You can’t teach a young dog old tricks!” Stay tuned for Part 2, and a deeper explanation of this age-old debate. (Or, if you want to jump to the head of the line, listen to my MP3, The Truth About Training.)

Meanwhile, as usual, I’m sure "some of you will get it, some of you will not."