I am bad at bodybuilding

Halfway through Project Paul, I’ve had to change my approach to lifting weights to ensure I’m getting muscle-growth effects.

School Of Personal Training Posted Sep 08, 2015 Future Fit Training

With places on our Train to Gain workshop in Manchester available for booking this week, this topic seems fitting for this latest blog instalment.

Having been used to training to perform movements efficiently to make me faster, stronger, more mobile or more powerful, hypertrophy requires a completely different mindset which has been tough to adapt to.

I’ve almost had to relearn how to train – focusing on contracting the target muscles rather than just moving the weight from A to B. The slower eccentric contraction times (3-4 seconds) force you to really think about controlling the weight, feeling the muscular tension necessary to promote the adaptations we want.

That tension needs to be constant, so the tempos Shaun has prescribed me ensure there is no rest throughout the repetition or indeed the entire set of most exercises. For example, the glute hip thrusts are performed to a 3012 tempo, meaning the eccentric (lowering phase) takes 3 seconds, no rest at the bottom before pushing back up in 1 second, then squeezing the muscle in a shortened position for 2 seconds and repeating. It hurts. A lot.

We’re talking about using weights that make the last 2-3 reps of a set in particular extremely hard work. Intensity is a key variable for hypertrophy - very light loads just don’t stimulate the muscle fibres anywhere near as effectively.

However another important variable is volume, or the total amount of work done by the muscle, normally calculated as sets x reps x load. A simple way to explain this is the total weight lifted for a given exercise over the course of a workout. So for example, if you used a 50kg barbell to perform a bench press, and did 10 reps, that would equate to 500kg. 3 sets would therefore mean a total weight ‘lifted’ of 1500kg.

Higher volume is associated with greater hypertrophy, so in simple terms over time we would look to progress this total volume figure. At first glance you would assume that to increase total weight lifted, using heavier weights would be a logical strategy. However adding more sets and reps is equally, if not more important.

Here’s why:

Using our example above, if we increased the weight to 60kg, and were already working to near maximum effort with 50kg at 10 reps, we may only manage 3 sets of around 8:

60kg x 8 reps x 3 sets = 1440kg

That’s a total of 60kg LESS than we were doing before, i.e. we‘ve actually regressed the volume, so although we may get stronger, there’s little stimulus for the muscle to actually grow.

On the other hand, if we’d stuck at 50kg, we could have added a 4th set:

50kg x 10 reps x 4 sets = 2000kg

However that’s a relatively huge amount of overload up from 1500kg – we only want to make the smallest change necessary to promote an adaptation.

That’s also why, although high volume is what we want, we wouldn’t start a programme with the maximum amount of sets and reps you can fit into a session (or your training week) as that doesn’t give you any room to progress.

So instead we could add reps:

50kg x 11 reps x 3 sets = 1650kg 

Bear in mind of course that each and every additional rep you do here adds 50kg (in this case) to the total so in theory even just doing 11 reps in the first set and 10 in the 2nd and 3rd is a progression. It’s also important to stop a couple of reps short of absolute failure (assuming you can at least manage the lower end of the target range) until the last 1-2 sets as if you push to complete fatigue in the muscles early on it’s unlikely you’ll manage the required reps in later sets which then impacts on the total volume (e.g. 50kg x 13, then 50kg x 9 and 50kg x 7 = 1450kg, again lower than our original total).

It’s only when you hit the top end of the prescribed rep range for all sets (e.g. 12) that you then increase the weight. However depending on how many reps you manage, this might only be for the first set of the next workout, using lighter weights and doing extra couple of reps for the others to make sure the total volume is progressing. In other words a reverse pyramid.

Again as an example, if we manage 50kg x 12 reps x 3 sets that equates to 1800kg in total. Next workout we then might do:

Set 1: 60kg x 10 reps = 600kg

Set 2: 55kg x 11 = 605kg

Set 3: 50kg x 12 = 600kg

Total = 1805kg

This is obviously a very small increment over the 1800kg, so we could employ set-extension methods such as rest-pause to add extra reps in the final set. This involves a short 10-15 second rest after reaching failure, then performing an extra rep or two, thereby potentially boosting the total volume for this exercise up to 2005kg.

Reading all this may be confusing which is why by far the best way to get to grips with it is to actually do it! That’s precisely why we developed our Train to Gain workshop, to give you first-hand experience of what hypertrophy training concepts and techniques should feel like. Come along to the workshop in October – but be prepared to work hard!

As ever, keep updated by following me on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #ProjectPaul, and look out for a progress photo in the next couple of weeks!