5 Things I Learned About Training Through Reading Research

Over the past few years, I’ve witnessed several popular strength coaches mention that nothing in the research ever drives what they do in the gym. Not to be a dick, but this makes perfect sense, since these guys don’t read research. I’ve delved into the research pretty heavily over the past several years, hell, I even started up Strength and Conditioning Research Review with my incredibly talented colleague Chris Beardsley, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much I’ve learned. When you regularly scan through over 100 journals every month, you glean a lot of information, and you see trends and identify commonalities in the research. Without listing a bunch of references, here are five things I’ve learned through research; not through training.

1. Bloodflow Restriction Training is Legit

Before I learned about bloodflow restriction (BFR) training, I assumed it was stupid and possibly dangerous. You might have heard of Katsuu training or occlusion training – same principle – basically you wrap something tight such as a knee wrap around your arms or legs and lift light weights for high reps. When I started learning about cell swelling through Brad Schoenfeld, then I started hearing Layne Norton and Jeremy Loenneke (this dude is the world’s expert on BFR), I decided to start paying attention to articles pertaining to BFR. At this point, I think I’ve seen at least 30 published articles in support of BFR training. It’s not dangerous for the heart or vessels, it leads to high levels of muscle activation, it’s very good at inducing hypertrophy, and I believe it has potential in many different settings (deloading, rehab, elderly, bodybuilding, etc.).

bfr training

We’ve been experimenting with BFR at The Glute Lab and will post a blog and video on this shortly. Don’t be like me and write this form of training off – there’s definitely a time and place for it.

2. Cycling Increases Quad Hypertrophy

I grew up reading bodybuilding magazines, and the old bro wisdom was that cycling would diminish leg hypertrophy. While it is true that jogging can interfere with leg hypertrophy due to the repetitive eccentric pounding, and while it’s true that any endurance work interferes with building leg power, if hypertrophy is the goal, cycling will actually increase quad growth. I’ve seen probably half a dozen studies on this, and they show that a variety of cycling protocols can enhance quad size when used in conjunction with strength training. So don’t be afraid to pedal away if you’re a physique athlete. You can do high-intensity interval sprints on the stationary bicycle, or perform longer steady state training.

giant-thighs

3. Effort Matters More Than Load for Hypertrophy

The debates over the internet have raged on for many years regarding the perfect rep range. Is it multiple sets of heavy triples? Is it 4 sets of 10? Is it 1 set of 20 a la Super Squats? Or is it 3 sets of 30? Though you might have a strong opinion on this matter, you may be surprised to find that the research shows that sound levels of hypertrophy are achievable through a variety of rep ranges, so long as effort is high. Brad Schoenfeld and I believe that you should be employing a variety of rep ranges in the gym for various reasons, but suffice to say, push it hard in the gym and perform the right exercises and you will see results.

Coleman

Now, when considering the entire body of research, it appears that heavier weights slightly outperform lighter weights for hypertrophy, but it’s not a landslide. Moreover, the vast majority of studies examine inexperienced lifters, so more research is needed. Nevertheless, at this point, we must be honest and admit that performing a set of 30 reps to failure is hard as hell and is just as daunting as a maximum triple for many lifters. It’s certainly not a walk in the park. I’ve squatted 225 x 30 (breathing style), deadlifted 315 x 30, barbell lunged 225 x 20, and hip thrusted 245 x 20. These feats absolutely sucked! Don’t be bullheaded and insist that a lifter has to lift maximal weight to see results – it’s not true.

4. Full Range Beats Heavy Partials for Hypertrophy

I always wondered what was better for muscle growth – doing lighter, full range movements, or going heavier and performing partials. While I still feel that both should be employed in one’s training, there are now a handful of studies indicating that full range trumps partials for hypertrophy, even though lighter weights are used. I learned this through reading research, where scientists control the variables, unlike in the gym, where we tend to change ten variables every week.

5. Resistance Training Builds Flexibility Via a Different Mechanism than Stretching

You might remember a time when everybody thought that lifting made you bulky, slow, and inflexible. This was the old school of thought, but then bodybuilders emerged who could bust out the splits while sporting 35″ thighs.

platz

It turns out that resistance training builds flexibility just as good as stretching does, and this has been shown in around 5 different studies, but it does so through different mechanisms. Stretching works more on the psychoneural side of the flexibility equation by increasing stretch tolerance and decreasing the stretch-related pain associated with reaching a particular muscle length. Resistance training, on the other hand, increases flexibility more so through the mechanical side of the flexibility equation. It actually lengthens the muscles by increasing the number of sarcomeres in series, and this effect is more pronounced when performing negatives (eccentric actions – think Nordic ham curls for the hammies) and/or exercises that stress long muscle lengths (think RDLs for the hammies). I couldn’t have learned this if it weren’t for research.

Conclusion

Being the best lifter you can be, the best athlete you can be, the best personal trainer you can be, the best strength coach you can be, or the best physical therapist you can be requires that you work hard on all fronts. You need to hit the weights and the books. You need to learn through training yourself, training others, and delving into the science – only then can you reach your fullest potential.

34 thoughts on “5 Things I Learned About Training Through Reading Research

  1. Scott

    To pt #3, does the research mention a low end of effectiveness? I can’t imagine lying back for bench press with 5lb DBs for 3×8 is as effective (even close) as 60-70% of est 1RM. I suppose that doesn’t qualify as effort?
    Looking forward to reading more on BFR. It still seems like something one definitely doesn’t want to get wrong, but I’m currently in the dark.
    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Good question Scott. There would obviously be some cut-off. But let’s say you take 50% of 1RM and lift it as many times as possible to failure for 3 sets with 60 seconds rest between sets. This would produce good results even though the load is light. I’m not sure where the cut-off is though – with BFR Training the recommended load is 20-30% of 1RM I believe for sets of 30, 15, and 15 with 30 seconds rest between sets or so. As I mentioned in the article, I like a variety of rep ranges for maximum results.

      Reply
      1. Dunkman

        I suspect that some of the cut-off for the lower end of weight is influenced by psychology as well – it’s nearly impossible at extremely low weights to reach near failure (which a lot of the studies use as the metric for effort). In other words, I think the mind shuts the exercise down before the muscles do. Which could explain why the weight lifting world has been working with the same generic rep range (8-12) for over a century. It seems to be the upper end for the average person’s span of attention for maintaining effort. The exception would those who have learned to train hard or have a naturally higher level of discipline (for example body builders). And maybe along a similar line, changing up rep scheme might not just be about overcoming adaption but also ensuring that the brain doesn’t accommodate (lose focus) over time.

        Reply
    2. Will Vatcher

      Any “coach” that dosn’t research and read will not improve and develop. Its also a sign of arrogance that they know best and dont need to read and research. Thre are plent around – dinosaurs stuck in the past.

      Reply
  2. Joakim

    About #2. Is hypertrophy increased if cycling is preformed within the leg-workout (either right before or after lifting), or does cycling in general add to some mechanism leading to enhanced capacity for leg-hypertrophy, even if performed on separate days? And also, wouldn’t endurance training in close conjunction with strenght-training (right before or after lifting weights) inhibit muscle growth by the inhibitory effekts that the AMPK-pathway has on mTOR?

    Best regards//Joakim

    Reply
        1. Joakim

          Only read the abstract, but it seems like aerobic exercise actually aided in down regulating myostatin??

          This probably must also be true for the upper body? And if so, then it seems to me like it would be a great idea to incorporate cycling and concept2-style rowing inte ones program in order to maximize hypertrophy.

          (Or maybe i should read the full-lenght?)

          (and also, would be great if you could include a “notify new responses by e-mail” in your blog, som one does not risk missing replies and interesting responses to blog-posts)

          Reply
      1. Tim Rowland

        For that first link Bret, couldnt the results be explained by the fact that cycling actually increases quad hypertrophy like you mentioned in another article you wrote? Because it doesnt seem to make sense that hypertrophy wouldnt be affected if aerobic exercise “activates AMPK, reduces glycogen stores, and impairs the progression of concentric force”. Just doesnt add up to me :/

        Reply
          1. Tim Rowland

            So what im saying is, in this study, could the (supposed) negative effects of performing aerobic training before resistance training be counteracted by the fact that cycling actually increased quad hypertrophy, resulting in no difference in quadriceps muscle size between the 2 groups?

            It would be great to see a study that compared total leg hypertrophy between a group doing unilateral cycling before unilateral resistance training and a group just doing unilateral (opposite leg) resistance training to see if it has a more global effect on hypertrophy.

  3. Charley

    Great content, Bret. Would be totally interested in learning more about strength training in relation to flexibility if you want content feedback/ideas. I know Dean Somerset has voiced that a lack of flexibility often times can mean a lack of strength in anoth r area. His video on the side plank and hip rotation for example. So, it seems there a multiple ways it can effect flexibility. He said that topic was extremely popular in one of his blogs. I think really that means us iron heads hate fuckin stretching…

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Haha! We’ll do anything to justify not stretching ;)
      Good point – it increases fascicle length, but it can also improve joint stability which can lead to added ROM as well. I suspect that strength training leads to a variety of mechanical, psychoneural, and functional adaptations that combine to improve flexibility, and these adaptations rival the gains in ROM achieved through stretching alone.

      Reply
  4. terje

    Bret, thanks for sharing your valuable lessons. I have a question, if it is true that resistance stretching increases the number of sacrometers, does this imply that it has potentially more functional range and also more lasting (since the muscle becomes physically longer)?

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      terje – good question. First, I want to mention that the increases in length appear to occur for around 6 weeks, at which point they cease. This is for good reason, as if a muscle kept growing longer and longer, it would eventually cease to stabilize the joint it crosses. Now, to answer your question. It does have functional ramifications – in sports science we call it “changing the optimum length,” whereby the angle at which a muscle produces maximum torque is shifted to higher angles or greater muscle lengths through eccentrics. This has implications for hamstring injury prevention since the biceps femoris is commonly injured when the muscle is highly activated while being stretched to a long length. Here’s a good abstract to check out: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20381001

      Reply
  5. Bodynsoil

    Great article and thank you for the information regarding biking and sprints helping with hypetrophy, I love sprints and HIIT training on my stationary bike. Regarding flexibility, I’m remembering back in the day watch Phil Hill, a mountain of a man, doing wild flexibility moves mid posing routine, including splits…impressive..

    Reply
  6. Andrew Mayes

    “any endurance work interferes with building leg power” I was under the impression that a moderate amount of endurance would not affect leg power ? ( taking into consideration the individual on how much endurance they can handle)

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      I’d need to check into this further, but I can recall at least 3 different studies showing that adding aerobic training to strength training does not lead to as good of improvements in power and rate of force development. If power is the goal, just do resistance training and plyos. But if you’re not an athlete, then a little bit of endurance work isn’t going to do too much harm.

      Reply
  7. Dunkman

    So your first point prompts me to ask about my-reps again. The theory myo-rep proponents have is that they produce essentially the same effect as BFR without the cuffs or straps – very similar to the old bodybuilding concept of “the pump”. I know there are only unpublished studies about myo-reps, but if occlusion works, I wonder if the routines will eventually be shown to have the same or similar effect.

    Reply
  8. Caleb

    You wrote a piece on daily training a few years ago, and stated that you were utilizing this approach for your personal training. I’m curious what your thoughts are regarding this now that there’s been some time, and what the literature states regarding daily training.

    Reply
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  11. Geoff

    Bret, I did not know where to put this, but on your free ebook about Hypertrophy, there is an apparent typo on page 4. The heading of one paragraph reads, “What are long term studies important?” It should read, “Why are long term studies important?”

    Also, you’re right about strength training research. I used to be a purely HIT, one set to failure type guy. I still see this as a rather valid, super efficient, and if done correctly, a safe form of exercise. But so much research demonstrates that the principles of HIT apply in several ways. Thus, low effort, but high weight workouts can be done almost daily and elicit excellent improvements over time (like in Perryman’s book), but with less chance of psychologically giving up (because 1 set to complete failure freaking sucks). But at the same time, like you noted above, effort is what counts most for hypertrophy. But, training with resistance more frequently seems to elicit greater protein turnover and blood flow to connective tissue (which is super important for injury prevention and recovery).

    Thanks for the work you do .
    Geoff

    Reply
  12. jacus

    hi bett!
    i would love if you can help us with a bit of more info regarding sets reps time vume etc. together with your own programe. how many times a week, a day?
    i am really interesting in starting doing kaatsu training for my rehab players and players who needed muscle mass in certain body parts.
    would really apretiate it!

    Reply
  13. Tim

    It seems clear to me that the effects of cardio, including cycling, on RFD and muscular power are negative. Obviously, this is a concern for most athletes, including oly lifters. But, how do you see this affecting powerlifters, if at all?

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Great question! I could provide a very compelling argument for both sides. The hypertrophy could benefit strength, but the loss in power could hurt it. Might be useful to periodize throughout the year.

      Reply
  14. Chris

    Brett…I love to see some practical suggestions for BFR training…body parts, rep ranges, and exercises where it seems to work best (obviously arms and legs).

    Reply
  15. moss

    for a NATURAL body-builder, load will always be more important than effort, and I mean ALWAYS.

    If you’re not wearing gear or taking gear, then you got no option other than incremental progressive overload.

    Reply
  16. Sofia

    Hi Bret,
    I was wondering what your thoughts are on explosive training? For example working out with kettlebells or lifting weights fast in general. Is it an effective way for muscle growth, and specifically how do the glutes respond to that kind of training? Thank you for all the great info!

    Reply
  17. Shane McLean

    Bret, I don’t need to hit the books. You do all the work for us. Great piece mate. Make a lot of sense.

    Reply
  18. Michaela Copenhaver (@lightweighteats)

    With regarding to #4, I’d definitely read that before, but didn’t realize it only applied to hypertrophy. As a weight-restricted athlete who’s butting up against the limit, I’m more interested in strength gains than hypertrophy from my lifting. Any thoughts on which would be more appropriate, heavier partial reps or lighter full reps?

    I always feel like a sissy loading less weight than my teammates, but I try to remind myself that I’m doing as much work my sinking deeper into the squat and pressing farther on the bench.

    Reply
  19. Rob S

    Hey regarding percentages of 1RM what is priority. Say you shoulder press 100 pound dumbells for a few reps. When you go to do higher reps on the shoulder press for hypertrophy but find out you can’t do enough weight to be in that percentage range , I think it’s 70-85% 1RM, do you do as much weight as possible for those reps or do you do the correct weight for as many reps as possible. Basically what is of primary importance weight or reps for hypertrophy and or strength using the glycolytic pathway?
    Thanks.

    Reply

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