I always get excited when I discover new research about muscle-building. I can’t help myself, especially when brand new research is published. I’m like a kid in a candy store, or maybe better yet like a bodybuilder in a supplement store. The thing I love about muscle science is it’s never-ending and you can bet for as long as we all live there will always be new discoveries to help us optimize our results.
I don’t know about you but I’m not interested in being right. I’m interested in finding the best ways to reach my goals and help others reach theirs. That’s really what it’s all about. If you aren’t stuck in your ways and you’re never attached to an idea there is no need to take offense if someone or something goes against what you say. Just look at the research and find what you believe makes the most sense based on valid data. If something comes along that makes more sense, it wouldn’t be very wise to continue doing something in a less than optimal way just because that’s what you always believed in. Just like at the gym, leave your ego at the door.
Now that I have my little life lesson out-of-the-way we can get started with what I’m really here to talk about and that as you probably guessed is some new research recently published. So recent it just came out this month. When I stumbled upon it looking for something else the name of the study intrigued me because it went along with something both Matt and I have talked about earlier this year and that is it seems like volume is the major factor for building muscle and not necessarily as rep ranges and other factors. The title of this research was “Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men.” That definitely caught my eye.
This research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at the difference in strength and hypertrophy based on a training design using equal volume but went about the sets in a different fashions. One group performed 3 sets of 10 rep max (RM) with 90 seconds rest while the other group performed 7 sets of 3RM with 3 minutes rest. The results showed after 8 weeks there was no significant difference in muscle thickness between the groups but there was a significant difference in favor of the 3RM group in strength for the 1RM bench press as well as a smaller trend for greater increases in 1RM squat. (1)
So what’s the significance of this? Well, it falls in line with the thought that volume seems to be key in a muscle-building routine. This is likely why a typical bodybuilding routine builds more muscle mass than a powerlifting routine, because of the higher reps and thus total volume, as well as time under tension. This research is good support that when volume is held equal, heavy strength training can hold up with higher rep bodybuilding training.
I’m not by any means suggesting you go out and train your 3RM for 7 sets with max rest all the time instead of 3×10, that’s one of the downfalls of training for strength. It takes a lot of time where you can do the high rep / low rest work a heck of a lot faster. What this really does, however, is give great support for undulating periodization and training for both power and size together. If you don’t care about strength and all you want is size then why bother spending the extra time building strength? Well, if we can use the best of both worlds and build more strength then you eventually will be using more weight for your high rep work and in turn will build more muscle than you would have with no max strength training.
To further illustrate this point I’d like to point to research published in 2002, while not new it is new to me and it helps prove a similar point. In this study researchers took untrained men and split them into four groups. One group did 3-5RM with 3 minutes rest, another 9-11RM with 2 minutes rest, another 20-28RM with 1 minute rest and a control group. Not surprisingly the low rep group gained the most strength and the high rep group improved maximal aerobic power and time to exhaustion the most. There was hypertrophy for both the low and mid rep groups with no significant difference in the high rep group. (2)
This goes to show what we already should know but is important to point out. All rep ranges have their advantages and putting them all together in a training program will help improve all areas of your lifting and the results that come with. More strength, longer time to exhaustion, it all adds up when put together. The problem is most people put these training strategies into longer blocked periodization when there is a better way to use it all at once for faster progress.
Thankfully, there is no need to wait for another article or series to explain this because I’ve already done this for you. If you never read my 3 part series on undulating periodization I highly recommend you take the time to go through it. That series explains how to put together a program utilizing all the points I’ve mentioned for great results for building muscle. The fun part of that program is you get the best of both worlds. You get to reap the benefits of the size you want while also watching your bench, squat and deadlift numbers steadily climb. No more deciding which is more important, size or strength. You can have your cake and eat it too. This new research only further supports what I already thought and pointed out in that series.
Sure I know what you are thinking, I told you it’s not about being right or wrong, it’s about finding the most optimal way to do things. Well sometimes it just happens to be both.