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Muscle-Building Science

ironmanmagazine.comSomeone once wrote that “bodybuilding isn’t rocket science,” which implies that bodybuilding training is simplistic and requires no thinking or analysis. Anyone who has been involved in bodybuilding for any length of time, however, knows that it’s not quite as simple as it appears.

For one thing, individual differences come into play. People respond to different styles of training in different ways—one man’s optimal workout for muscle gains may be another’s gross overtraining. There are genetic factors to consider too. It’s no secret that some people take to weight training far more efficiently than others, and that shows up in their rates of progress.

In the past I’ve written about a study in which groups of men began lifting weights. Some, despite using the same workout and a similar diet, gained nearly twice as much muscle as others.

The disparity in muscle gains can be explained in several ways. Testosterone is a major anabolic hormone. Some men have more of it naturally than others, and that sets the stage for rapid muscle gains. Interestingly, recent research shows that the temporary rise in testosterone produced by exercise does little or nothing to trigger muscle gains. At first that seems confusing, since anabolic steroid drugs, which are based on testosterone, without a doubt produce potent anabolic effects in muscle. The answer is that it takes an extended high level of testosterone to boost muscle gains. You accomplish that by either using anabolic steroids or having a naturally higher testosterone production.

Research studies have examined various bodybuilding training and dietary practices, but none has compared typical bodybuilding techniques with the official recommendations on how best to train for muscle gains and fat loss. Another relevant factor to be explored is the differences between so-called natural bodybuilders, who eschew any type of anabolic drug use, and those who use the drugs. Since anabolics do extend and speed various growth and recovery factors, the workouts used by bodybuilders on anabolic drugs may not be suitable for those who aren’t. That, in fact, is the problem with attempting to follow the routines of the champions as published in many muscle magazines.

For one thing, you don’t have their genetic advantages. For another, you don’t use their drug programs. It’s not hard to see that duplicating the training methods of pro bodybuilders is a complete waste of time for most people.

A recent study examined typical training, diet and drug practices used by competitive male bodybuilders.1 The source of the information was a Web-based survey of 127 male competitive bodybuilders. Their average age was 28, and they had an average of 7 1/2 years of competition experience. Among the subjects were two elite bodybuilders who had won natural, or drug-free, world-championship competitions.

All of the men in the survey trained on split routines, working different muscles on different days, rather than whole-body routines. They trained an average of five or six times a week, with each workout lasting 40 to 90 minutes. During the off-season most of the men averaged three to six sets per exercise, with a rep range of seven to 12. They rested one to two minutes between sets. Many of them lifted heavier during the off-season to gain more muscle, but just over 60 percent still did aerobics to stave off fat gains. The two elite natural bodybuilders did not do any aerobics in the off-season.

In their muscle-building efforts, the bodybuilders used several advanced training techniques, like pyramiding the weights and dropping the reps on each successive set and performing supersets, which are two exercises done back to back with no rest in between. Other techniques they used included forced reps, in which a training partner helps with additional reps past the point of muscle fatigue; partial reps; and negatives, or using a heavier-than-normal weight but only lowering, not raising, the weight.

For precontest training, the bodybuilders again averaged four to five exercises per muscle group, but their reps per set increased to 10 to 15. The rest time between sets dropped to 30 to 60 seconds. Most of the men also did aerobics, averaging five times a week and using a low-to-moderate pace. During the final two weeks before a contest they reduced the number of sets but increased their reps, using lighter weights. Many also increased the aerobics.

Nearly 77 percent admitted to using bodybuilding drugs. That, of course, did not apply to the natural bodybuilders, who used no drugs. The most common steroids used during the off-season were nandrolone, Sustanon, boldenone and testosterone. Prior to a contest the bodybuilders switched to what they perceived as more “anabolic” drugs, such as Winstrol and Anavar. They also threw in some alleged cutting drugs, such as thyroid and clenbuterol.

All the bodybuilders used food supplements. Protein shakes were the most popular, followed by creatine, branched-chain amino acids, glutamine, vitamins and fish oil. The authors noted that the training methods used by the respondents were in line with principles established in scientific studies regarding the best methods for boosting muscle growth. On the other hand, they think that the drop in training volume prior to a contest wasn’t enough to maximize muscle growth. That’s a contentious statement, since some scientists suggest that it’s intensity, not volume, that determines muscle gains. In addition, the bodybuilders were likely on severe calorie- and carb-reduced diets, which made overtraining a possibility, even while they were taking in more protein. This is one example of how exercise scientists can get it wrong if they go strictly by the book.

The authors note that the greatest elevations in anabolic hormones, such as testosterone, growth hormone and insulinlike growth factor 1, are produced after training that involves higher volume and moderate-to-high intensity. As mentioned above, however, more recent research shows that the fleeting elevation in these hormones following training does not seem to significantly influence muscle protein synthesis, which is the basis for muscle growth.

The authors say that advanced bodybuilders need to do at least 10 sets per muscle group to promote gains in muscle mass. The bodybuilders in the survey did 12 to 30 sets per group. Doing 30 sets per muscle constitutes overtraining for anyone, and in those who aren’t using anabolic drugs, it will usually lead to a catabolic state, meaning muscle loss. A primary goal in precontest training is to keep or maintain as much muscle as possible while reducing bodyfat to minimal levels.

Another thing noted in the study was that keeping rest times between sets to a minimum—60 seconds or less—increases the metabolic stress, which is a basic mechanism of muscle growth. Short rest periods lead to hypoxia, or a relative lack of oxygen in the blood, which signals the release of various anabolic hormones. Once again, though, whether the short rise in anabolic hormone release during exercise actually does anything is still subject to debate.

As for training frequency, studies show that training any muscle just once a week is sufficient to trigger growth. That’s good news for most bodybuilders, since the trend in recent years has been to hit each muscle group only once a week. Other studies have shown, however, that training a muscle two or three times a week produces twice as much muscle size compared to once a week in strength-training and power athletes. Another study showed that those who trained a muscle group three times a week vs. once had greater muscle gains, even though the volume of training was the same under both conditions.

The advanced techniques used by bodybuilders don’t have a lot of scientific evidence behind them, but they do influence the three major factors associated with gains in muscle size: increase in mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress. Plus, you don’t have to publish a research study to know that they work. They have stood the test of time in helping countless bodybuilders build impressive physiques over the years.

The higher reps done during precontest workouts are thought to boost metabolism—when combined with short rests between sets—and so aid in creating muscle definition through greater bodyfat loss. The higher reps also deplete more muscle glycogen, making carbohydrate-loading techniques more effective. Carb loading is used to produce a fuller-looking muscle, although its effects are questionable at best. Still, if a muscle is depleted of glycogen through exercise and lack of carb intake, adding back the carbs will no doubt produce a fuller appearance, if only because glycogen is stored with water in muscle.

The authors think that it’s a mistake for natural bodybuilders to use lighter loads during the final two weeks before a contest, since it can lead to muscle loss. They also note that doing a lot of aerobic exercise can have the same effect in natural, but not drug-using, bodybuilders. A better method is to lose fat through diet manipulation, rather than attempting to burn it off with a lot of aerobics.

Editor’s note: Jerry Brainum has been an exercise and nutrition researcher and journalist for more than 25 years. He’s worked with pro bodybuilders as well as many Olympic and professional athletes. To get his new e-book, Natural Anabolics—Nutrients, Compounds and Supplements That Can Accelerate Muscle Growth Without Drugs, visit   IM


1 Hackett, D.A., et al. (2013). Training practices and ergogenic aids used by male bodybuilders. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 27(6):1609–17.

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