The basic premise of progressive-resistance training for developing muscle mass and strength, whether for bodybuilding, powerlifting, weightlifting or any sport where strength and power are big pluses, is to continually and progressively increase stress and overload on the muscles. Overload means subjecting the muscles and the body to greater stress and physical work than what they’re accustomed to. The body adapts to an unusual stress or overload by overcompensating. In lay terms, overcompensation means the body doesn’t like being overstressed. It reacts by making the muscles just a little bit stronger, bigger and better conditioned so as to better accommodate the stress just in case it happens again. Of course, to keep the body overcompensating, you have to keep overloading the muscle so the adaptive response keeps on occurring.
The only way to do that is by performing repetitions of exercise and sets of repetitions, while a) increasing the amount of weight you use, b) increasing the number of reps you perform with a certain weight, c) increasing the volume of work you do’doing more sets and reps’and d) increasing the intensity of your sets: by decreasing rest time between sets, using special high-intensity techniques (supersets, drop sets, forced reps and so forth) or changing the way you do your reps’for example, going from cheat reps to strict or vice versa, or going from high reps to low reps or vice versa, or going from regular-speed reps to either fast or slow reps or vice versa, or going from full-range-of-motion reps to constant-tension reps or vice versa. You want to create a new adaptive response.
A lot of people take reps for granted. They think only in terms of number of reps done’low, moderate or high’or the effort put into the rep: warmup, easy, hard, light, heavy and so on. They don’t realize there are many different kinds of reps, such as strict reps, cheat reps, forced reps, rest/pause reps, negative-only reps, positive-only reps, negative-accentuated reps and isokinetic reps.
Nor do they take into account the speeds with which reps can be done’regular, slow, slow-motion, fast and superfast’or the ranges of motion’isometric reps (no movement), partial reps (just the bottom half or the middle or the top), half reps, quarter reps, 1 1/2 reps, 21s (seven half reps from the top, seven half reps from the bottom and seven full reps), constant-tension reps, peak-contraction reps, constant-motion reps, explosive reps or full-range-of-motion reps.
Most important, they don’t understand the various muscle fiber types, the difference between fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers and what kind of reps best develop them.
Reps are probably even more important than sets because the number of sets you can do for a muscle group per workout is limited. Yes, two sets are better than one, and three are better than two, and four are better than three; but eventually the law of diminishing returns sets in. That’s when you cross the thin but definite line between an optimal number of sets for maximum growth and overtraining. If you can recover from them, even 1,000 sets isn’t too much, but let’s be honest. Most people can only take 12 to 16 sets per major muscle group’ unless they’re taking pharmaceuticals to enhance recovery. What is going to overload the muscles and create an adaptive growth response is more likely to come from progressively heavier weights, increasing the intensity of the reps and sets you do or changing the manner in which you do your repetitions.
Often all it takes is a change. Any change. So when you get right down to it, strict reps aren’t better than cheat reps. It’s the change from one to the other that causes a new stress and an adaptive growth response. The same thing for high and low reps, fast and slow reps, full-range and partial reps and all the other types of repetitions. None is significantly superior for growth. Use any of them for too long, and your body stops growing because the stress is similar and familiar. You give your muscles no reason to keep growing.
A lot of guys never change their style of doing reps’sometimes for years and years. They always do sets of six to 10 reps, they always do their reps the same speed, and they always do them in the same style. Their muscles have long since adapted to the way they train, so it’s no wonder muscle growth has slowed to a snail’s pace. They don’t realize that a new adaptive response and extra muscle growth will come with varying their reps. And they don’t realize they’ll never develop all the different muscle fibers if they don’t do a mixture of high and low reps and reps of different styles. Take Tom Platz, for example. The guy built the freakiest legs in the history of bodybuilding’hell, the history of the world’but a lot of people don’t realize that Tom did both very heavy, low-rep training for his thighs and very high reps. And by high reps I mean so high he didn’t count reps, he’d go by time. He’d stick 225 pounds on the bar and squat for 10 minutes continuously without rest. If you asked Tom how many sets of squats he did that day, you’d think he was lying when he answered, ‘Just one.’ He did do just one set but what a set! How many reps can a guy do in 10 minutes, 100, 200? His thighs must’ve been on fire.
At other times Tom would go really heavy, pyramiding down to a triple using more than 700 pounds. Sometimes he’d do sets of 10 to 12 reps, and sometimes he’d do squats for sets of 50. He never locked himself in. That’s how he developed the freakiest legs ever’by constantly shocking his thighs, by never letting them get used to one rep pattern.
Eddie Robinson, who developed legs almost as freaky as Platz’s, is another pro who always did a combination of heavy and light training for his legs, with lots of high-rep work. After he and his training partner squatted their brains out with sets of up to 525 pounds for 25 reps, they’d put a 175-pound barbell on their shoulders and do lunges the entire length of a football field behind the gym and then back again. How many reps to do you think you’d do for each leg lunging 200 yards? Two hundred? More? I don’t think even Eddie knows for sure. What he does know is that every time they did it, he barfed his guts out afterward. Every single time. It takes a brave man to perform an exercise he knows beforehand is going to make him vomit. One thing’s for sure: Eddie never allowed his muscles to get complacent or his body to get into a comfort zone by sticking to the same sets and reps all the time.
Although Eddie doesn’t do as much lunatic training as he used to, he still does a lot of high-rep work. He often does a triple-drop combination with a single exercise to work a muscle to exhaustion. For hamstrings, for example, he’ll do lying leg curls with a dumbbell between his feet (he prefers the dumbbell to a machine because he can’t cheat and feels the muscle working better). He starts with a 90-pound dumbbell and does six reps. Then as soon as he hits failure, he replaces the 90-pound ‘bell with a 60-pounder. He usually gets about 12 reps with it. The instant he fails with the 60-pounder, he replaces it with a 40-pounder and does 40 reps. That’s one set. He’ll do four such sets with no rest between exercises, which will take him about eight minutes. That’s it for leg curls. He’ll finish off hamstrings with a couple of sets of stiff-legged deadlifts. The whole workout takes him 12 to 15 minutes.
A lot of bodybuilders are more concerned with ego and showing off than with working the muscle. They think doing heavy sets of squats for five or six reps will give them max size and legs like Platz’s. Let me ask you a question: Have you ever seen a world-class powerlifter or weightlifter with thighs like Tom Platz’s? Of course not. With all the heavy singles, doubles, triples and sets of five and six reps they do, how come they don’t have massive legs and cuts like Tom’s? Hell, some of the top powerlifters in the world have the lousiest leg development you could imagine. Fred Hatfield’s thighs look as if he’s never touched a weight in his life, even though he’s squatted with more than 1,000 pounds. Genetics is one reason, but Fred does mostly heavy, low-rep work for his legs. His training is geared more for tendon, ligament and connective-tissue strength than for working muscle fibers. And it shows in his leg development.
I think many bodybuilders fail to gain the size and mass they want because they don’t do enough reps, especially for legs. John Parillo has some of his top guys doing sets of 100 reps of calf raises, leg presses and belt machine squats. Why? So they can increase their cardio? Hell, no! So they can build bigger, more massive muscles, that’s why.
Whenever I interview top bodybuilders, I always ask them if they prefer slower, heavier, lower-rep training or lighter, higher-rep, constant-tension-style training. You’d be surprised at how many say, ‘Well, I really enjoy the slower, low-rep, heavy training. I like to feel heavy weights. But I’ve discovered that I grow best when I do higher reps.’
So you see, what you enjoy doing is not always the best way to develop your muscles. And sometimes the method that allows you to lift more weight isn’t as good for muscle mass as the method that forces you to use lighter weights. For powerlifters the method that forces their leg muscles to work harder is not the method that allows them to squat the most weight. Squatting in a narrow stance with the bar higher on the shoulders and a more erect torso is better for isolating the thighs without undue involvement of the hips, glutes and lower back. It works the quads better but doesn’t permit you to use as much weight. A very wide stance, with the bar lower on the traps and a more bent-over torso, gives the legs less of a workout but allows the powerlifter to squat more weight because he can utilize the strength of the glutes, hips and lower-back muscles too. More of my rep rap next month. IM