As long as I’ve been involved in bodybuilding (38 years…..since 1974), one of the most prevalent questions that has always been asked is, “what’s the ideal set and rep combination?”. Specifically, the question seeks to find the answer to “how much?” intensity, and – to a lesser degree – what KIND of intensity?
Needless to say, there are numerous philosophies on this subject. It calls into question everything from “Super Slow” reps, to “Heavy Duty”, “High Volume”, “Forced Reps”, “Drop Sets”, “Pre-exhaustion”, high weight for low reps, low weight for high reps….in addition to training frequency. Should we hit each body part once per week? Twice per week? Three times per week? How much is enough, and how much is too much?
All of this is a balancing act. Intensity refers to many things – including how heavy the weight is, how much “burn” you feel, whether you train to failure, the total number of sets per body part per workout, as well as how many days of rest between body part workouts. Between our extreme zeal for quick results, and the illusion of “killer workouts” portrayed by the magazines, it’s easy to fall into the trap of the “more is better” mentality. But more is not better.
“Over-training” might be the most prevalent mistake made by the majority of aspiring bodybuilders. I’ve been guilty of it myself – so I know first hand how the thinking goes. When a body part is “stubborn”, we figure if 10 sets won’t make it grow, we’ll do 15. If that doesn’t work, we’ll do 20. If twice a week is good, three times per week is probably better. One of the hardest things to accept is the notion that we don’t grow during the workout; we grow in between workouts – during the recovery period. And we shouldn’t break down more muscle than we can build up.
Some of have us have seen, or have experienced, workouts that are SO intense they make you vomit. When I was a teenage bodybuilder, there was a guy in the gym who was thrilled when that happened him. He would deliberately work his legs so hard, he’d have to throw-up (from low blood sugar). Obviously, he was operating on the misguided belief that “the harder you work, the better your gains”. And while most of us don’t necessarily pursue vomit-worthy exhaustion, many of us have worked a body part so hard that it’s gone limp, and is sore for three or four days after the workout. This approach is all wrong.
Anabolic vs Catabolic
Our muscles only grow from our workouts, when our bodies are in an anabolic state. This only happens when there are enough nutrients in the system, and we are adequately rested. The “nutrients” to which I am referring are protein (and its related amino acids) and carbs (glucose and glycogen). That means two things: when these nutrients are low, or when there is more rebuilding required than the available nutrients can handle – we are catabolic. “Catabolic” – as you probably know – means LOSING MUSCLE.
So, in our quest for larger muscles, its vitally important for us to know WHEN we become catabolic, so that we can AVOID it at all costs. Yet, as I mentioned above, “over-training” might be the most prevalent mistake made by the majority of aspiring bodybuilders. And when we over-train, we’re catabolic.
We over-train when we do too many sets for a body part. We over-train when our workouts are too intense, for too long, and our blood sugar (glucose) drops too low. We over-train when we fail to eat enough protein and carbs, or not frequently enough, because we can’t recover from our workout. ALL of us have been guilty of these things, at one time or another.
Those of us who have been doing this a while, have learned the hard way that the best way to train is “Intense but Brief”. The trick is getting as much intensity as possible, with the fewest number of sets. Lee Labrada recently said the same thing, in an interview with Iron Man Magazine (“I believe in using high-intensity training techniques that overdrive the muscle in as short a time period as possible.”).
The goal is to spend the least amount of “fuel” (protein and carbs), thereby stimulating a given muscle “enough” but not annihilating it, allowing sufficient recovery time before you work that muscle again, and ensuring that your nutrient intake is adequate and well-timed.
Workouts that last longer than 90 minutes (especially when the workout is intense) generally cause one’s blood sugar (glucose) to drop too low. When we have low blood sugar, the body release cortisol automatically – because that is the mechanism by which the body can “create” glucose, in the absence of eating. It does this by breaking down muscle (for amino acids) and breaking down adipose tissue (for free fatty acids), thereby bringing the glucose level up to a “safe” zone. This is fine for survival, but it’s at the expense of our hard-earned muscle. This approach may be okay for someone who only wants to be thin. But it’s completely counter-productive for a bodybuilder.
Doing too many sets for a given body part also leads to over-training. There is only so much recovery that is possible, even with a steady supply of nutrients. Blasting a body part with 20 sets is virtually impossible to recover from. It’s like trying to get a sun tan by getting a sunburn every time you lay out. A shorter (but still intense) workout of 5-8 sets per body part is better strategy.
Balance is the key. Think of the time and calories you spend during a workout as “muscle currency”, which must be spend, in order to make new muscle. Your goal is to spend as little muscle currency as possible, while still providing enough muscle stimulation. This will result in a net gain (of muscle). However, if you spend too much muscle currency (too much time, too many sets, to many calories), you’ll end up making less muscle than you’ve spent.
Work a muscle using a combination of high reps with moderate weight for “sarcoplasmic” muscle growth, and heavier weight for lower reps to get “myofibrilar” muscle growth, all within 5-8 total sets. Train each body part no more frequently than twice per week, and no less frequently than once per week. Get enough sleep. Eat enough protein and carbs, spaced out every 3-4 hours (five to six feedings per day). Follow these guidelines, and your muscles will grow.
About the Author
Doug Brignole is a veteran competitive bodybuilder, currently in his 38th year of competition.
Having started at the age of 16, and winning numerous teenage competitions in addition to the Overall Mr. California, and his weight division in Mr. America and Mr. Universe, Doug now has his sights set the World Championship of 2014.
He has been an enthusiastic student of biomechanics for many years, writes for a number of websites and magazines, and is now working on his second book.
He has been certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise.