by Bret Contreras March 19, 2014
Over the past few years, I’ve witnessed several popular strength coaches mention that nothing in the research ever drives what they do in the gym. Not to be a dick, but this makes perfect sense, since these guys don’t read research. I’ve delved into the research pretty heavily over the past several years, hell, I even started up Strength and Conditioning Research Review with my incredibly talented colleague Chris Beardsley, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much I’ve learned. When you regularly scan through over 100 journals every month, you glean a lot of information, and you see trends and identify commonalities in the research. Without listing a bunch of references, here are five things I’ve learned through research; not through training.
Before I learned about bloodflow restriction (BFR) training, I assumed it was stupid and possibly dangerous. You might have heard of Katsuu training or occlusion training – same principle – basically you wrap something tight such as a knee wrap around your arms or legs and lift light weights for high reps. When I started learning about cell swelling through Brad Schoenfeld, then I started hearing Layne Norton and Jeremy Loenneke (this dude is the world’s expert on BFR), I decided to start paying attention to articles pertaining to BFR. At this point, I think I’ve seen at least 30 published articles in support of BFR training. It’s not dangerous for the heart or vessels, it leads to high levels of muscle activation, it’s very good at inducing hypertrophy, and I believe it has potential in many different settings (deloading, rehab, elderly, bodybuilding, etc.).
We’ve been experimenting with BFR at The Glute Lab and will post a blog and video on this shortly. Don’t be like me and write this form of training off – there’s definitely a time and place for it.
I grew up reading bodybuilding magazines, and the old bro wisdom was that cycling would diminish leg hypertrophy. While it is true that jogging can interfere with leg hypertrophy due to the repetitive eccentric pounding, and while it’s true that any endurance work interferes with building leg power, if hypertrophy is the goal, cycling will actually increase quad growth. I’ve seen probably half a dozen studies on this, and they show that a variety of cycling protocols can enhance quad size when used in conjunction with strength training. So don’t be afraid to pedal away if you’re a physique athlete. You can do high-intensity interval sprints on the stationary bicycle, or perform longer steady state training.
The debates over the internet have raged on for many years regarding the perfect rep range. Is it multiple sets of heavy triples? Is it 4 sets of 10? Is it 1 set of 20 a la Super Squats? Or is it 3 sets of 30? Though you might have a strong opinion on this matter, you may be surprised to find that the research shows that sound levels of hypertrophy are achievable through a variety of rep ranges, so long as effort is high. Brad Schoenfeld and I believe that you should be employing a variety of rep ranges in the gym for various reasons, but suffice to say, push it hard in the gym and perform the right exercises and you will see results.
Now, when considering the entire body of research, it appears that heavier weights slightly outperform lighter weights for hypertrophy, but it’s not a landslide. Moreover, the vast majority of studies examine inexperienced lifters, so more research is needed. Nevertheless, at this point, we must be honest and admit that performing a set of 30 reps to failure is hard as hell and is just as daunting as a maximum triple for many lifters. It’s certainly not a walk in the park. I’ve squatted 225 x 30 (breathing style), deadlifted 315 x 30, barbell lunged 225 x 20, and hip thrusted 245 x 20. These feats absolutely sucked! Don’t be bullheaded and insist that a lifter has to lift maximal weight to see results – it’s not true.
I always wondered what was better for muscle growth – doing lighter, full range movements, or going heavier and performing partials. While I still feel that both should be employed in one’s training, there are now a handful of studies indicating that full range trumps partials for hypertrophy, even though lighter weights are used. I learned this through reading research, where scientists control the variables, unlike in the gym, where we tend to change ten variables every week.
You might remember a time when everybody thought that lifting made you bulky, slow, and inflexible. This was the old school of thought, but then bodybuilders emerged who could bust out the splits while sporting 35″ thighs.
It turns out that resistance training builds flexibility just as good as stretching does, and this has been shown in around 5 different studies, but it does so through different mechanisms. Stretching works more on the psychoneural side of the flexibility equation by increasing stretch tolerance and decreasing the stretch-related pain associated with reaching a particular muscle length. Resistance training, on the other hand, increases flexibility more so through the mechanical side of the flexibility equation. It actually lengthens the muscles by increasing the number of sarcomeres in series, and this effect is more pronounced when performing negatives (eccentric actions – think Nordic ham curls for the hammies) and/or exercises that stress long muscle lengths (think RDLs for the hammies). I couldn’t have learned this if it weren’t for research.
Being the best lifter you can be, the best athlete you can be, the best personal trainer you can be, the best strength coach you can be, or the best physical therapist you can be requires that you work hard on all fronts. You need to hit the weights and the books. You need to learn through training yourself, training others, and delving into the science – only then can you reach your fullest potential.
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