Q: I’m concerned because I read that it takes a lot of sets to get a testosterone increase and stimulate the best mass results during a workout. Your programs call for only one or two work sets for each exercise. Do you have an answer to this dilemma?
A: There are a couple of landmark studies on workout volume and testosterone increase. One showed that it takes four sets of squats in a workout to get an increase (Schwab, R. et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 25:1381-1385; 1993). I usually recommend only two work sets. Am I missing something? Maybe not: Another study showed that five sets of squats done at only 50 percent of one-rep max, about 15 reps per set, triggered a significant testosterone increase (Kraemer, W.J., et al. J Str Cond Res. 17:455-462; 2003). So even lighter sets of squats can add to the anabolic-hormone surge.
That means your warmup sets on the big, multijoint exercises like squats can result in a cumulative T-releasing effect. I usually recommend two to three warmup sets prior to two intense work sets. Do 10 to 15 reps on most warmups, and your testosterone should stay on the increase. Plus, if you follow 3D Positions-of-Flexion leg programs, you do two sets of feet-forward Smith-machine squats for hamstring midrange work, which adds to the T-boosting effect. Stiff-legged deadlifts, the stretch-position move for hamstrings, add to it as well.
Something else to consider about volume: Too much can kill testosterone. The reason is that the body releases cortisol, a stress hormone that can cause muscle cannibalism—basically, your body starts throwing your hard-earned muscle into the energy furnace. How much training volume is too much?
A 2004 study used three groups of subjects: G1, the control subjects, didn’t exercise; G2 did 25 sets; and G3 did 50 sets. The workouts consisted of the big, basic exercises—squats, etc.—a few sets of each, and reps were five to 10 with 90 to 120 seconds of rest between sets. The high-volume group had significantly suppressed testosterone over a 24-hour period, although there was no drop in the moderate-volume group. (Alemany, J.A., et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 36:S238; 2004).
That’s why the programs I outline all contain no more than 25 to 30 work sets in any one workout—and usually fewer. Of course, if you’re on steroids, you can throw all of the above out the window. You can stand a lot more work, recover faster and grow more quickly. I choose not to go that route.
Q: You say that two to three sets of the big, midrange exercises are best for maximum force and growth stimulation. I like variety, so can I do one set of three different midrange exercises for a bodypart? For example, for chest I like to do barbell bench presses, dumbbell bench presses and machine bench presses, one set of each. Is that okay?
A: Legendary bodybuilder John Grimek once said that he’d rather do one set of 10 different exercises for a body-part than 10 sets of one exercise. Considering that each exercise is somewhat different, with a slight alteration in the angle of pull, it’s conceivable that you could be activating different fibers with different exercises. For example, a barbell bench press provides a feel that’s slightly different from what you get with dumbbell bench presses and machine bench presses.
The major drawback to your multi-midrange approach is time. Moving to another piece of equipment in a crowded gym could be a problem. You may have to wait to get it. Or if it’s a barbell exercise, you have to load the proper weight. That can all add time to your workout. Also, some big, midrange exercises always require warmup sets. For instance, we do two to three warmup sets of free-bar squats followed by one all-out work set. Then we move to leg presses. Due to the unique movement pattern, we have to do one warmup set on leg presses for our knees and hips. If we did all the work sets on squats, we wouldn’t need any additional warmup sets.
If you can’t afford the extra time, a solution that can get you similar multimidrange results is to alternate midrange exercises, doing a different one at each workout—do bench presses at one chest workout; dumbbell bench presses at the next; machine bench presses at the third; and then rotate back to barbell bench presses. If you’ve got the time, however, your multiexercise approach is fine.
Q: My gains with X Reps and POF have been well above my expectations. My question concerns hamstrings. In the e-book The Ultimate Mass Workout you say that the feet-forward Smith-machine front squat is the ultimate exercise for hamstrings, but the Smith machine at my gym isn’t bolted to the floor, and it moves easily. I don’t want to risk an injury, so I’ve been using feet-forward hack squats on a hack machine, but I don’t feel my hamstrings working when I do those. Should I try walking lunges instead? I’m 6’4”.
A: Feet-forward Smith-machine squats and feet-forward hack squats can be hard to feel in the hamstrings. We’re so conditioned to think about quads when we squat, it’s difficult to grasp that the opposing muscle group should be doing a lot of the work. Then there’s the fact that doing the front-squat version on a Smith machine can be uncomfortable for some people. My training partner Jonathan Lawson hates it with a passion.
Two things you can try for better hamstring innervation, no matter which midrange ham exercise you use:
1) Do two progressively heavier warmup sets on leg curls before you attack the hacks. That’s a version of a technique called postactivation, and it will get you in better touch with your hamstrings from a nervous-system standpoint.
2) Do only the bottom half of the hack squat—from slightly below parallel to halfway up to lockout. That will keep more tension on the hamstrings and let you concentrate on getting mass and sweep on the backs of your legs rather than feeling your quads take the brunt of the stress.
As for walking lunges, yes, I’ve used them, but recently I’ve heard about too many people getting serious knee injuries from doing them—pro bodybuilder Victor Martinez had to have surgery—so I’m steering clear of them at the moment.
If these recommendations don’t get you feeling your hams contracting harder on feet-forward hack squats, you can try leg presses with your feet high on the footplate, although MRI studies say those are the least effective of the three for hams. Considering your height, however, they should be a good hamstring activator because they give you an increased range of motion.
Editor’s note: Steve Holman is the author of many bodybuilding best-sellers and the creator of Positions-of-Flexion muscle training. For information on the POF videos and Size Surge programs, see the ad sections beginning on page 172 and 264 respectively. Also visit www.X-Rep.com for information on X-Rep and 3D POF methods and e-books. IM