Most us acquire information about bodybuilding from books, magazines and personal contacts. We filter all the information through our experiences and keep what we approve of. Over years of training we acquire much information, most of which we come by the hard way, by sweating in gyms. In the past 50 years we’ve seen a proliferation of theories, all of which their proponents insist are the right way to train. Progressive resistance is now quite a complex subject. Occasionally someone comes along and proposes something new. The last major paradigm shift occurred when Arthur Jones wrote about his ideas and theories in Iron Man in the 1970s. Over several years he proposed quite amazing theories that promised to reduce training times and increase results. He built Nautilus machines to do what his theories promised. He also conducted many experiments.
Jones felt that bodybuilders could increase growth rates by two to four times. All they had to do was follow his advice, and the results were guaranteed. He promised that instead of taking 10 years to build a Mr. Universe physique, people could do it using Nautilus machines and his theories in a half to a quarter of the time. We all scoffed at that idea.
A few men did make amazing results using the Nautilus principles. Ray and Mike Mentzer claim to have succeeded with Jones’ high-intensity programs. Sergio Oliva and Casey Viator enlarged their physiques under Arthur’s supervision. Yet, despite those successes, where are the legions of champions who build their bodies using brief training schedules? The vast majority of champs train conventionally; that is, they do multiple sets of different exercises for each bodypart. While it’s probably true that no two bodybuilders train the same, most follow the training that has been handed down through the gyms in California and elsewhere. John Grimek, Steve Reeves, Reg Park, Leroy Colbert, Clarence Ross, Bill Pearl, Larry Scott and many others all followed the same routines and theories. In the 1960s and later, Vince Gironda was the main advocate of what we now think of as conventional training methods. Arnold trained conventionally as well, and it seems that more than 90 percent of bodybuilders follow conventional programs.
Why didn’t the high-intensity system become the dominant training method? Surely the best result-getting methods have been passed on to others in the gyms. Anyone can visit the Venice, California, gyms and watch the champs train. There are few secrets, just hard work. Most observers may not be able to discriminate among the various systems and theories. We can make judgments about effort and count the reps and sets. We can also document the programs and compare them to see if there are any common elements; however, we cannot enter the minds of trainees to examine their thoughts and feelings and how well they’re concentrating.
There must be a correlation between what most bodybuilders do and the results they get. No matter what else we might say about the programs that various bodybuilders followed, it’s obvious that they all worked. How is that possible? Mike Mentzer believes that only his methods bring great results’or is it that the other theories are merely inefficient? I should think that high-intensity proponents have the duty to explain how their system is superior and not just why the other systems are inferior. If we accept that both conventional and high-intensity systems build Mr. Olympia physiques, then they are both valid methods of training. Dorian Yates has put himself in the high-intensity camp. That means we have one believer among the Mr. Olympia winners and the rest them used conventional training.
There’s also the belief that Mike Mentzer and many other so-called high-intensity advocates don’t follow their own principles. Many feel that they cheat somewhat by doing several warmup sets and in reality do conventional training. High-intensity training can be dangerous. Most of us know what happens when we attempt heavy lifts without warming up properly, and the stronger we get, the more we have to be extra careful. That may be the reason injuries cut Dorian’s career short. Were the injuries the result of accidents or his following high-intensity methods?
It doesn’t take a genius to predict that anyone who uses really heavy resistances will eventually suffer an injury. The truth is that the percentage of maximum effort needed to grow may be as low as 75 percent. There’s no need to attempt 90 percent or higher intensities, as the high-intensity proponents advocate. The vast majority of bodybuilders use multiple sets in their protocols. Most do six to 20 sets per bodypart. It may well be that muscles respond to set after set of heavy but submaximum lifts. If that’s true, then perhaps muscular endurance is more important than strength in bodybuilding’in which case it becomes difficult to explain how brief workouts can make muscles grow.
In ‘DOMS and Muscle Growth,’ which appeared in the August ’00 IRONMAN, I suggested that it doesn’t matter which stimulus you use to make muscles grow. As long as the muscle gets sore the next day due to delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, the workout stimulated growth. We can argue about the most efficient and effective methods, but it really doesn’t matter to the body.
Scientists try to find answers to questions about muscular growth in laboratories. They seldom use humans as experimental subjects because you cannot do invasive dissections to examine the muscle samples under a microscope. Thus, cats, rats and even chickens have been used in experiments, with the results extrapolated to determine what would happen in human tissues.
In a study of chickens, a weight was suspended from one wing and the chickens were allowed to move about the yard as the weight stretched their pectoral muscles on one side. Every couple of days the weights were increased. After about a month the chickens were sacrificed and the right and left pectoral muscles were compared. The stretched wings had larger pectoral muscles. The researchers concluded that stretching is one way to increase muscular size.
Another experiment used cats. A resistance was placed against their paws and thus the cats had to lift progressively heavier weights in order to get food. The researchers found that some cats got much larger arm muscles and perhaps even hyperplasia, or fiber splitting. The conclusions were not definite, but there was no doubt about muscular growth following progressive resistance.
Long ago a couple of German scientists proposed that exerting force against static objects could result in larger muscles. They called those forces isometric contractions, iso meaning equal, and metric meaning measure. Thus, there’s no movement. Various people experimented with static contractions, and it was clear that you could induce growth with that system. Bill March and others at the York Barbell Company did a modified version back in 1965, in which they held weights against pins for three sets of 10 seconds each. They used the method three times a week, and each time the angle was different. On one day you started near the bottom, on another day you started near the top, and on the third day you began in the center. The technique definitely produces sweat and muscle ache. I did it for a week, and my arms grew half an inch. I weighed 165 pounds, and I managed to use 175 pounds on a strict standing curl at the end of the week. I didn’t continue with the method because I didn’t have access to a training rack with moveable pins. It also might have been because I just didn’t believe the technique worked!
Advertisements claim that putting electrodes on the muscles and passing currents through them causes contractions and, therefore, growth. The more you increase the current, the harder the contractions. I have no doubt that it works. I also have no doubt that it will be excruciatingly painful as you turn up the current. The fact is, however, that electrical current can make muscles grow.
Some experiments have been done with isokinetic devices, meaning that the subjects trained with fast movements. As it turned out, mild but definite growth occurred there too. Athletes had hopes of using the method to increase their performance, but hardly any bodybuilders use isokinetics. Last, but definitely not least, is weight training in the gym. Free weights and progressive-resistance machines definitely build muscle. Individually, thousands of successful bodybuilders might constitute anecdotal evidence, but the results of their methods prove their success.
Isotonic training, as it’s called, involves two main types of contractions: concentric and eccentric. Arthur Jones’ research made him conclude that eccentric, or negative, contractions were more important for growth. He reasoned that you could contract with more force while lowering a resistance than lifting it. As you may know, muscle fibers are believed to work on the the sliding-filament theory: They slide between each other. It’s also believed that may cause microtrauma in the fibers while they’re stretching the muscles. In other words, the muscles tear. Maybe those theorists in the ’50s got it partly right when they said that training tore down muscles, which caused the muscles to grow through rebuilding.
I had an experience with concentric-only training in 1969. Doug Hepburn, of Vancouver, had been a world weightlifting champion in 1953 and was one of the strongest men of all time. He had invented a special heavy-duty home-training device, and he invited me to train on it. Essentially, the resistance was caused by wooden blocks pressing down on oiled leather, which had a polished steel bar rotating between them. It worked very well and could create plenty of resistance, but only in one direction’concentric. A spring mechanism returned the cable to the starting position, much like mechanisms in window blinds.
I elected to train arms, which have always been hard for me to build. Doug gave me a pretty crazy routine’20 sets of five reps with as much resistance I could handle! I did standing barbell curls for biceps and standing overhead extensions for triceps. I can tell you my arms almost fell off after each workout. Until then I’d never done more than seven sets for a bodypart. The low reps and high resistance made huge demands on my system. I can’t remember exactly, but I think I trained twice a week.
I kept it up for two weeks and put half an inch on my arms. That was excellent progress for someone who’d been training for about 10 years. Most of you know how difficult it is to hit 17-inch biceps. The experiment ended because Doug had to take the machine somewhere to demonstrate it. I’ve always regretted that I wasn’t able to let Doug help me get bigger. He’s highly intelligent and very innovative. Based on my experience, I concluded that concentric contractions do build muscle.
Eccentric contractions cause most of the soreness after training. Research verifies that, but the trouble with doing only eccentric contractions is that you have to get the resistance back to the starting position. You have to have either training partners or a special apparatus. LifeFitness has a wonderful line of electric-resistance machines that allow you to select up to 125 percent eccentric/concentric resistances. Bill Pearl recommends them, and I like them too. Unfortunately, they’re a bit too expensive for most of us. At the moment it hasn’t been established that eccentric training is superior to concentric movements, but we all do both in the gym anyway.
The big question is, How can all of those different methods cause muscles to grow? There must be a common factor’and that factor is mechanical tension. They all cause the muscles to contract under tension. In fact, you can actually measure the amount of tension in the muscles.
If mechanical tension is the common factor in all those stimuli, why not employ it directly instead of inefficiently and ineffectively, as so often happens in gyms? Why not simply calculate the degree of tension and length of time required under contraction? That would simplify things. Can all training methods be reduced to X amount of tension for Y seconds? I think they can. In my experience you need about one to two minutes of severe mechanical tension to achieve a training stimulus. That’s all it takes’but that’s the good news.
The bad news is that it takes maybe 20 to 40 minutes to get the two minutes of severe tension. Of course, Mike Mentzer will claim that he can do it in less than five minutes’and no doubt he can’but the time is gained at the risk of injury. You just cannot lift heavy resistances with safety unless you warm up for about 15 minutes. In other words, you should do about three to five sets, working up to the training stimulus resistance.
It all comes down to the funnel concept. No matter where you’re coming from about training, you must pass through the narrow part of the funnel. How do you know if you’ve passed through the funnel? You’ll be sweating profusely, shaking a bit, pumped to the maximum and totally exhausted.
At every workout you have the same goal: To put severe mechanical tension on your target muscle for about two minutes. It makes no difference what methods you use to achieve that tension. It’s possible to use many methods.
There’s also the consideration that the size increases may be partly due to increased blood capillaries and other components of flesh. It’s my belief that much of the huge mass we see on champion bodybuilders is composed of noncontracting tissue. Otherwise, they’d be the strongest men alive. We all know that powerlifters and weightlifters can outlift bodybuilders. Bodybuilders aren’t weak; they’re just not the strongest athletes. Reg Park had to choose between strength and size when he was training in the early 1950s. He soon realized that you cannot be both the biggest and strongest around. Perhaps Greg Kovaks is an exception.
In my opinion, you can achieve the stimulus for growth with one exercise per bodypart. There’s no need to use multiple exercises. If the muscle is under severe tension for the required length of time, it will grow. All you need to do is wait for the next day and see if DOMS occurs. If it doesn’t, then little or no growth will take place and you’ll have to do something different the next time around. Otherwise your growth will stagnate and you’ll eventually give up and conclude you don’t have the genetics to get bigger. The fact is, you can grow larger muscles.
Please be aware that I don’t advocate trying to get all your muscles sore every week. That would be painful indeed. You might even put too many demands on your compensation system. I suggest that you target back and triceps at one workout and perhaps chest and biceps several days later. You can do legs on the day in between. You can work out on a five-, six- or seven-day cycle, depending on what’s effective for you. It’s probably best to allow the muscle to heal before attempting to make it sore again. The muscles can heal in a short time but not the connective tissues. Ligaments and tendons need perhaps a week to recover from stimulus-inducing workouts.
The optimal training protocols don’t differ much from what everyone is already doing. I do believe that most trainees work too many bodyparts per week and end up overstressing their arms, shoulders, abdominals and lower back. When you do parallel-hand close-grip lat pulldowns to the front, you don’t need additional exercises for your back. I recommend working up to your target resistance and performing about five sets at that weight. No need to decrease resistances, just take more time between sets. Your shoulders will get a workout, as will your arms, pectorals and abdominals. It makes no sense to train back on one day and work the other muscles used in conjunction with your back exercises the next. I recommend training legs the next day.
There are literally millions of ways to train’and they’ll produce results if you achieve the proper stimulus. If the body is stimulated to grow, it will do so as long as it also gets sufficient rest and nutrients. So many trainees do too many exercises too often. As a result, they simply cannot grow! Is it any wonder that so many look for shortcuts? IM