However, individual differences in strength and body structure such as our individual femur-to-torso ratio determines how we squat, ranging from general mechanics to depth.
There's No "One Size Fits All" Approach To Squatting
We squat when we sit in our chairs, use the bathroom, get in our cars and even when we sit at the dinner table. It’s such a fundamental movement that most athletes, regardless of sport, incorporate the use of squats into their training programs.
Athletics aside, squatting can help improve an individual’s strength, which can directly transfer to improving balance and coordination; a very important yet often overlooked benefit of working out.
In mainstream media, people often paint a picture of a perfect squat. However, the existence of an “ideal” squatting position is debatable and should likely vary from person to person based on individual differences like range of motion, flexibility, and the often overlooked femur-to-torso ratio.
Factors That Influence Squat Depth
In order to squat without falling over, you need to maintain your body’s center of mass over your base of support, (your feet). The body will take whatever steps are necessary to keep you upright, especially under load.
Limited ankle range of motion, for example, can have a huge impact on squatting deep by preventing your knees from pushing forwards towards the toes, and often causes excessive forward lean in a squat. That’s because in order to keep your center of mass over your feet, your body adjusts to keep half the weight in front of your ankle and about half of the weight behind it.
Limited ankle mobility (and a bad femur:torso ratio) often manifests in what is often called a “Good Morning Squat, somewhere in between an actual good morning and a squat (like the squatter on the left, above). If the ankles can’t flex, this results in a change in how the knees and subsequently, hips flex, resulting in much more forward lean.
Some people will argue that tight hip flexors or hamstrings will cause an anterior pelvic tilt and make squatting past parallel impossible or unsafe by putting extra stress on the lumbar spine.
Additionally, even people who regularly work on improving their range of motion can have trouble getting past parallel. Often to the extent that even using heel platforms or lifting shoes won’t rectify the issue.
Femur:Torso Ratio Determines Depth
I dug through the anthropometric research, and one thesis on the topic found the ratio of femur length:torso length has a relatively wide range (0.7-1.25).
As it turns out, if you have a femur:torso ratio of 1:1 (equal femur:torso ratio) or higher, you will likely have trouble squatting to parallel or below. If you approach a ratio of 1.2:2 (or have a longer femur than torso), it’s almost impossible to squat to or below parallel.
Meanwhile, if you’re on the lower end and have a ratio of 0.8 or less (meaning a long torso and short femurs), it’s likely that you’ll have no problems whatsoever going ass-to-grass, (or full range of motion).
The reason it may be helpful to know your ratio is simple: If you have a higher ratio, then all the foam rolling, yoga, and heel lifts in the world may not help you get to parallel or below.
But if your ratio is lower and you still have trouble, you may simply be dealing with limited soft tissue range of motion, which may be improved with some dedicated range of motion work.
Based on these measurements, you should be able to fairly accurately determine if you should be able to squat to parallel or below.
As you can see above, in order to maintain the bar's center of mass inline with your own, your body needs to hinge accordingly, based on the length of your torso and femur ratio. If you have a long femur and short torso, you can almost guarantee that you'll have much more forward lean with your torso than that of someone with short femurs and a long torso.
Alternative Exercise To The Squat
If by some stroke of bad luck you have long femurs and a short torso, all hope is not lost.
As Tom Purvis points out, we can ‘functionally’ shorten the femur by taking a wide stance and angling the feet outwards. This allows people to maintain their center of mass over their base of support, and keep their chests more upright as they approach (and blow past) parallel. We can also elevate the heels as a way to ‘functionally’ lengthen the tibia and accomplish the same thing.
If it turns out that you’ve been dealt a bad hand, you should consider why you are doing squats in the first place. Everyone is different and there is potential that doing a traditional back squat is not optimal.
If this describes you, consider the following alternatives:
The Final Word
The squat is a fundamental exercise that uses the largest muscle groups in the legs and can help you accomplish many goals ranging from general function, to hypertrophy and strength.
However, based on many variables including your femur-to-torso ratio, squats may not be optimal or will require modification to fit your individual biomechanics (how your body moves according to your structure).
If your mobility is ample, and you’re having difficulty performing a full range squat or remaining erect throughout, consider measuring your femur-to-torso ratio to determine if long femurs are the primary issue or if there is something else to blame (and fix).
If you had a bad luck of the draw and happen to have relatively long femurs, consider adjusting your squat form by increasing the width of your stance and rotating your toes outward to maintain the bar’s center of gravity inline with your own.
If the aforementioned options aren’t suited for you, rest assured that there are many other exercises you can perform in place of the squat to receive a similar benefit
About The Author
Learning to appropriately build and structure workouts based on experience, goal and equipment available is essential for maximizing your response to training. If you want to reach your desired body composition in an effective and efficient manner, building workouts that work for you is essential.
Your goal of training should be to get the maximum benefit from each exercise and whole workout for your target muscle group and purpose. Doing so will allow for efficient growth; a key to long-term success.
Steps To Building Effective Workouts
If you're motivated to change, the days of just grabbing a few exercises from the vault are a thing of the past. Making effective workouts takes meticulous attention to detail, but once you get the hang of it, it will become second nature.
Decide On The Target Muscle Group
The first step in structuring your workouts correctly is determining which primary muscle groups you are focusing on.
It likely seems obvious that this is the first choice, however it’s important to consider still because it should dictate the whole direction of the workout. If you decide to work on a muscle group halfway through the workout, there’s a possibility you’re not getting maximum benefit.
Decide on which muscle groups you plan to target ahead of time.
Decide On The Workout Purpose
The second step to effectively build your routine is to decide the primary focus of the workout. This could include training for strength, hypertrophy, fatigue resistance or fat loss (there are more, but for simplicity's sake, we'll stick with these). Pre-deciding on this focus is essential for determining which exercises to use, the order in which you complete them and the effort you put forth for each.
Rather than pre-fatiguing muscle groups with lighter isolation movements, stick with the most demanding, compound movements, first.
Start With The Most & Demanding Exercises
Once you’ve chosen your muscle group and purpose, you can begin to start building the workout.
At this point, I suggest starting with compound movements that are the most demanding in terms of fatigue. The reason for this is that it makes sense to have as much energy and muscular resource when completing these exercises as it will allow for the highest intensity and thus, potential for growth.
There is some question as to whether “pre-fatiguing” primary muscle groups before compound movements are beneficial.
However, it’s quite likely that pre-fatiguing the muscle will lead to excess fatigue during compound movements, rather than providing a greater growth stimulus. It’s also likely that the total work completed from pre-fatigue + compound would end up being less than simply working on the compound movement first.
Rather than pre-fatiguing muscle groups with lighter isolation movements, stick with the most demanding, compound movements.
Add In Specific Accessory Movements
Once you’ve determined which primary compound movements you want to use, you need to choose specific accessory movements based on your target muscle group.
Depending on the primary muscle groups, these exercises often include isolation movements. For example, if you’re working chest and back, you might include dumbbell flies and seated row. If you are training legs, you might include things like leg extensions and Romanian deadlifts.
The primary muscle groups being worked determine which isolation movements you should include. Further, I suggest attempting to opt for exercises that are most beneficial for the target muscle group. For example, with regards to triceps, a pushdown is far more beneficial than a dumbbell kickback for numerous reasons. Overall, I would always opt for the pushdown.
There are many other movements like this too, so ensure that you're actually paying attention to which exercises produce the greatest benefit.
Example Workout Structure
How To Create Effective Workouts
Using this method certainly is not the only way to structure effective workouts. Crossfit for example often incorporates wildly different exercises, focuses, etc. However, if your goal is to specifically increase strength in certain movements or growing certain body parts, this method is likely a better choice.
By using this structure, you ensure that you are targeting specific muscle groups while ensuring the biggest return from each exercise and the workout as a whole.
Rest Periods with regards to resistance training have been a source of debate for some time. On one side of the fence, many believe short, metabolically demanding rest periods to be advantageous, while others (like myself) believe that longer rest periods are more beneficial long term.
As it turns out, it's probably a combination of the two and the answer is entirely dependent on the type of training you are doing and the ultimate goal that you're trying to achieve via your training session.
Before getting into science and opinion, let me give my official two cents on the subject.
Rest periods are there for a reason. If you didn't need them, you could just train forever obviously and progress would be much quicker. The fact of the matter is, even basing your rest periods on your training style, the need for certain durations and types of rest are entirely dependent on the individual.
That makes sense right, since everyone is at a different level of ability.
So while the answers I give are estimates and suggestions, they'll likely vary depending on how fit you are and even on a daily basis. Depending on how well you slept or how much food you've eaten, rest periods vary, plain and simple.
Overall however, I'm of the belief that most times, rest should be adequate enough so that you can train at a high intensity for longer. For example, I'm of the belief that total volume is far more important for building muscle than would a 30 second rest period for metabolic stress.
Certainly, metabolic stress plays a role, but what's more important long-term? Having greater volume overall or more metabolic stress over the course of a workout? I'd say If I can move 5000 extra pounds (total) with a longer rest period, that would be my choice.
Again, this is largely opinion, but I'd argue the logic is sound. Read on and use the information to decide for yourself.
Training Focus Dictates Rest Time
First and foremost, the type of training should be dependent on both the type of training you are doing and the type of energy system you are primarily utilizing during your training sets and sessions.
For example, you have 3 different primary energy systems in the body.
While all three of these systems are contributing to energy production at any given time, the type of training you are doing will place an emphasis on one of them more than the other. Additionally, replenishment of these energy systems happens at different rates for each. For example, the ATP / PHC system is called on primarily during short bursts on action such as during a power movement like the clean and press or a single deadlift.
Glycolysis is more for higher intensity, short duration exercises. For example, like a sprint on a bike or while running or even a high repetition resistance set.
Oxidative phosphorylation (aerobic) uses oxygen and more so fatty acids for energy production and is optimal for long duration events, typically endurance based such as a long duration run or bike ride.
An easy way to think of this is dependent on the time that you spend exercising.
Power movements which call on the ATP / PPC system, need rapid energy for a short duration. This is exactly what the ATP / PPC system does. Resources are limited, but it provides rapid, short bursts of energy.
Sprints or slightly longer duration will need less rapid, but more sustained energy. This is what glycolysis does. It provides energy fairly rapidly, but for a little longer duration.
Endurance events are much lower intensity but require long, sustained supply of energy. This is where the aerobic system comes in. It's not fast to supply energy, but can provide it for long durations of time.
If your goal is bodybuilding or even strength, having a higher volume of work over the long term, rather than single sets will likely be more beneficial. For example, if you rest for 3-4 minutes between sets and can maintain or even increase weight and reps and even sets, this will likely be for more beneficial than if you rest for 1 minute and have to lower weight, do fewer reps and fewer sets.
Desired Outcome Drives Rest Duration
Rest periods have been controversial for some time, as many believe that short rest periods will some how result in better performance. Surely, short rest periods are a great idea if you're trying to improve athletic performance for something that requires high intensity activity with short rest periods.
For example, if you're a soccer player, having fairly high bursts of activity with fairly short rest periods in training makes sense. Doing so can potentially increase athletic performance under similar circumstances.
However, if your goal is to improve muscle size, quality and even strength, then rest periods are an opportunity to improve performance.
For instance, lets say your goal is to improve strength. You're completing sets of 5 with 85% of your 1 Rep Max. Here, your primary goal is to improve strength. In order to do so, you'll want to move the heaviest weight possible, for as many reps as possible.
In this case, what would be more advantageous? A 1 minute rest period or a 4 minute rest period?
Chances are, it's the 4 minute rest period. Since your primary goal is strength, not how quickly you can do your next set, you'll want to rest for longer periods of time than would say the soccer player from the example from above.
If you rest for 1 minute and need to dorp your intensity from 85% to 75% in order to complete 5 reps, then you're missing the point of training for strength. If however you rest for 4 minutes and can complete 85% for 5 or even 6 reps, you've now accomplished your primary goal in terms of training for strength.
As you can see, in addition to your individual ability, your primary training focus will also dictate what amount of rest period length is appropriate.
As a final note on this subject, I've discussed similar concepts in other posts. If your goal is bodybuilding or even strength, having a higher volume of work over the long term, rather than single sets will likely be more beneficial. For example, if you rest for 3-4 minutes between sets and can maintain or even increase weight and reps and even sets, this will likely be for more beneficial than if you rest for 1 minute and have to lower weight, do fewer reps and fewer sets.
Of course, sometimes doing the ladder will be beneficial in some way, but a majority of time should be spent resting to increase total volume over time.
Resting According To Fatigue Is Okay
Lastly, I'm a firm believer that you should rest intuitively, based on how you feel to get the most out of each set. In fact, for the most part, except for when using HIIT, I almost never track the time I spend resting, simply because doing so isn't entirely necessary.
If for example, your day has a focus of increase muscle mass, you might typically rest for 3-4 minutes between sets. However, if you feel fully rested after 2 minutes, then start your next set at 2 minutes.
As mentioned, typical energy systems and types of training often are accompanied by different rest periods. However, if you feel rested or need to rest longer, then you probably should rest accordingly. Too often, people adhere to suggestions rather than using context and personal ability / preference.
There is no one size fits all approach, but these guidelines should give you a good idea to what is normal, according to your training focus and overall goals.
Exercise Is Like Evolution On A Micro Scale
Progressive Overload is a necessity when it comes to building muscle and getting stronger. The whole point of working out is to induce a change in the body. Whether it be increasing muscle size, dropping unwanted body fat or increasing strength, the need to continually increase your workload in one way or another is always present.
I like to think of any exercise related sport to be sort of like watching evolution on a microscale. Whereas true evolution takes thousands of years, you have the ability to essentially make yourself a lab experiment by stressing your body and watching the impending adaptation occur.
When you exercise, you're stressing your body. You're putting a certain type of stress on the body to encourage it to adapt in a certain way. If you want to increase muscle size, you can train in one way and if you want to increase the strength ability of that muscle, you train in a different way. By doing so, the body adapts to the stress by growing bigger and stronger so that the next time you encounter it, it's not as much of a threat.
While adaptation is a natural and appropriate response, it poses a problem for those of us looking to put on serious muscle or increase strength.
Once you've adapted to the original stressor, you'll need to increase the workload via either increasing the weight you use, increasing the repetitions, or both. This is known as practicing Progressive Overload.
Progressive overload is simply a concept to ensure that you're actually able to continue to adapt. When you think of exercise inducing adaptation, it stands to reason that once you've adapted to a given stimulus, using the same stimulus repeatedly won't produce any additional benefit. Look at it this way:
Let's say when you first start working out, you can bench 135 for 10 reps. So, you go into the gym and complete 3 sets of 10 reps for the bench, using 135. You get pretty sore, recover and then come back to the gym. You go to bench press again and you complete 3 sets of 10 reps for bench, using 135.
This time, it's a bit easier and you don't get as sore. Obviously, this is because the body has adapted by increasing strength and fatigue resistance. But, where do you go from here? In order to continually progress, you need to increase the stress. If you continue to use 135 for 3 sets of 10, you'd expect that it would produce the same result right? You wouldn't expect to magically be able to now bench 145 for 3 sets of 10, right?
In this scenario, the next logical steps would be one of the following:
This is a prime example of progressive overload. Increasing 1 or all of those pillars is essentially for continually progressing, otherwise you should expect to never actually grow.
Keep in mind that the same thing is necessary if your goals of exercising is to burn fat. Progressive overload in this instance would be the same as above, but would also include variables like number of exercises, reducing the time your workouts take you, reducing rest periods, etc.
How to Implement Progressive Overload
Other than the steps laid out above, there are a few other strategies that you can use to ensure that you're practicing progressive overload in your own training.
Keep A Training Journal
Keeping a training journal not only gives you structure, but allows you to ensure that you are doing more than you have in the past.
If your goal of the day is to bench press for 8 repetitions, you can look back at the last time and view how you performed. Based on previous workouts, you can either increase the weight you use, increase the repetitions you do with the same weight, increase sets, or all three depending on how you feel.
Even more, you can go as far as write down how you feel during workouts, what you ate, how much quality sleep you received the night prior and just about anything else that might happen to influence your ability in the gym. All of this information together is a great opportunity to really learn something about yourself, including what works and what does not work for you as an individual.
Adjust Weight, Reps & Sets For Similar Exercises
Some people suggest changing workouts often while others perform the same workout over and over again. They key is to have a good balance between change and familiar exercises. It's perfectly acceptable to have healthy exercise variation, it's just that many people think that attempting to "confuse" your muscles is appropriate.
Rather than changing workouts every time, to never return, consider re-executing workouts, but ensuring you do improve in one or more of the 3 categories of overload (weight, reps and sets). I suggest rotating exercises for certain muscle groups out on a monthly basis. For example, if you're primarily back squatting and doing RDLs for legs this month, perhaps next month you can do front squat and leg press.
Certainly changing exercises on occasion is beneficial, since you can adapt to certain movement patterns just as you can reps, weight and sets. But changing too often can hamper your adaptations for certain movements.
Progressive Overload doesn't need to happen over night
Many people strive to do more and more each session in attempts to get bigger and stronger. While progressively overloading the muscle is a primary factor in growth, it can often lead people to train too much. If you are consistently training and are progressing in at least one of the 3 categories of progressive overload, you are probably in good shape when it comes to progressing.
But also, don't get discouraged if you can't increase from one session to the next. There are a number of reasons that you might not be progressing, from poor nutrition, lack of sleep and increase of stress or maybe you just weren't feeling it that day. While progressive overload is essential, it's more of an average thing, rather than dependent on single workouts. If you're regularly progressing in one of the 3 categories necessary for progressive overload, then you are probably moving in the right direction.
A Note On Training To Failure
Many people take "progressive overload" to mean "train to failure." Let me clarify, that's not what I'm recommending and further, I almost never recommend training to failure other than with extremely light loads (>50% 1RM).
Training to failure is dangerous; there's no way around it, plus, it has almost zero transferable benefit. "But how will I grow then?" you might ask. Well, remember that progressive overload has 3 categories, which all relate to total volume load, or the amount of work you completed during a workout. THIS is far more important than taking single sets to failure or beyond.
Further, you also have to consider what effect training to failure has on performance and recovery. If you fail on your fist few sets of your first exercise of the day, it's likely your performance on subsequent sets will suffer. Not to mention, you'll probably have a hard time recovering due to the large, damaging stimulus you just placed on your body.
Just remember, progressive overload is more about increasing the total volume you perform, for much longer time frames than a single workout or even a single set. Train smart and avoid true failure and you'll progress faster; plain and simple.
Progressive Overload is essential for progressing both in and out of the gym. Make sure to try to improve in one of the 3 categories of progressive overload each time you perform a similar exercise or workout routine.
If you don't overload the muscle in one way or another, after you adapt, you won't grow. Simple as that.
Real Guidance On A Budget
Most Believe Muscle Damage To Be The Driver Of Growth
Muscle Damage has long been considered to be a major driver of hypertrophy. This idea of muscle damage is actually one that has been long ingrained into the fitness society as a necessity when it comes to muscle growth.
Undoubtedly, you’ve heard the notion that in order to build muscle, you need to first “break it down” in order to rebuild.
No doubt, muscle damage does occur under different circumstances. Consider that last time you did a huge leg workout. Chances are you got insanely sore and had a difficult time walking for a few days.
While some of those feelings of pain were probably due to some form of sensitization of the muscle, there was probably also some damage occurring. However, it’s important to recognize that just because the muscle became sore, doesn’t directly mean that you’ve damaged the muscle and even if you do damage the muscle, that doesn't necessarily mean you're building new muscle as a result.
In order to better understand why this might be the case, let’s dive into some aspects of muscle growth so we can determine whether or not muscle damage is actually important.
What's The Best Theory Behind Muscle Growth?
Currently, the best theory in terms of how the body actually increases muscle size is regularly increasing protein synthesis, or the process that results in the generation of new contractile components in the muscle.
In addition, we can also consider what is known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. This is simply an increase in the sarcoplasm, or the interstitial fluid surrounding the muscle fibers, within the cell membrane. But for the sake of this article, we’ll stick primarily to Myofibrillar hypertrophy (increasing size of muscle fibers).
From here, we then need to consider protein turnover. Without getting too confusing, there is actually a constant breakdown of proteins in the body. This is different from exercise induced muscle damage, however. It's just a natural process of the body. It breaks down damaged or unneeded proteins regularly throughout the day.
It’s thought then that if protein synthesis exceeds that of protein breakdown, muscle growth will occur.
This makes sense though, right? It’s similar to the energy balance equation. Just as you need to eat more than you burn in order to gain weight, In order to actually increase size, you need the build up of proteins to be greater than that of breakdown. Simple enough.
Considering that muscle growth is probably dependent on ensuring that protein synthesis is greater than breakdown our overall goal would be to minimize damage and breakdown and increase recovery and growth.
The best current theory for muscle growth is regularly inducing muscle protein synthesis; a process of building new proteins. In order to do so, muscle protein synthesis must be greater than that of protein breakdown for a net positive protein balance.
Muscle Damage & The Repeated Bout Effect
Consider for a moment what exercise and growth actually is.
When you first start training, or even begin using a new style of training, you get pretty sore. This is in essence, causing damage and sensitizing the muscle, just as most people would expect.
However, then what? In order to actually grow, the body needs to adapt in order to survive. And so it does by increasing protein synthesis to ensure that the damaged muscle is repaired.
But now consider what has happened. The muscle was damaged and then repaired. The muscle has now been upgraded, so to speak, to be able to handle a similar stress in the future.
Based on the fact that the body adapts, it would stand to reason that because of this adaptation, the muscle would cease to become ‘damaged’ further by a similar stimulus. This concept is dubbed ‘the repeated bout effect.’
The repeated bout effect is essentially the body telling us that we’ve adapted to a certain stimulus.
Essentially, the idea of the repeated bout effect goes something like this:
In this case, your body has adapted to the initial stress, meaning the muscle is prepared for it in the future, reducing the damage that is inflicted. Really, this is what training is all about. You stress the muscle, the muscle responds and now you’ve adapted to insure that the muscle no longer becomes stressed.
If we then take it a step further, this further corroborates this idea that progressive overload is essential. Even further, we then can assume that progressively overloading the muscle fairly frequently while minimizing actual damage would be optimal for continued growth.
Muscle damage does occur but eventually is diminished due to the repeated bout effect. This leads us to conclude that damage is not directly associated with actual growth.Further, it would then make sense to try and stimulate synthesis as often as possible, while minimizing actual damage.
Muscle Damage Occurs But Subsides
To clarify, muscle damage does seem to occur as a result of a wide range of different stimuli. More often than not, muscle damage occurs initially when someone starts a training program or simply decides to lift in some novel way.
Even more so, we see an increase in protein synthesis that accommodates this damage. However, it’s important to notice that this increase in protein synthesis seems to occur in order to repair the damage, not necessarily increase growth.
Here’s an example
What appears to happen in research is that as muscle breakdown increases (muscle damage), protein synthesis does in fact increase, which would lead us to believe that inducing muscle damage would then be beneficial for muscle growth.
However, what seems to happen is that this increase of protein synthesis has the purpose of repairing the damage, and not necessarily increasing muscle size, relative to the starting point.
In fact, another study that I reviewed displayed just this fact. And further, actual increases in muscle size did not occur until muscle damage had subsided.
Muscle damage does occur when presented with a novel stimulus. As a result, muscle protein synthesis is increased. However, it seems this increase in MPS is to repair the damage rather than increasing growth. Research indicates that growth occurs after the damage is repaired and not as a result of it.
So What's The Goal Of Training If Not Damage?
Considering that acute muscle damage might not be an actual driver of actually increasing muscle size, what should the primary focus be, then?
Let me clarify that muscle damage and the resultant repair is probably quite essential for continued growth, just not directly. It’s in my opinion that muscle damage and resultant repair is just simply a response to novel stimuli.
In order to then actually grow, you’ll need to go through this process of damage and repair, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the driver of growth, long term. It’s likely that damage and repair does occur and is important, it’s just that after this process has occurred, it probably doesn’t contribute much further, unless progressing means pushing yourself to a point that further damage occurs.
Based on the idea that actual muscle damage probably subsides after a short period of time, the main goal would then to be stimulating protein synthesis, while minimizing the risk of damage.
This is quite contrary to how many people think, but in my mind makes sense.
When you damage yourself, increases of protein synthesis are going towards repair, rather than building new tissue, for the most part. Further, damage results in pain, which can reduce performance and actually result in less volume performed over all.
It then make sense that you’d want to continue with a certain exercise or type of exercising for some time, while ensuring that you’re increasing total volume and practicing progressive overload, regularly.
Essentially, you want to train to stimulate protein synthesis, while minimizing the actual chance of causing damage.
How Should I Train Then?
Once you get past the idea that you need to damage the muscle to grow, you can begin manipulating your training to find the amount of work that is necessary, without causing unneeded damage and pain.
Train Near Failure, Regardless Of The Weight You Use
Even though you aren’t training for damage, you still need to stress the muscle enough to ensure that you’re actually stimulating growth.
Recent research suggests that for the most part, the load you use is fairly irrelevant, as long as you take sets fairly close to failure. That’s not to say that you need to train to failure on each set, you just need to stress yourself enough to stimulate growth.
To do this, you need to manipulate reps based on the weight you’re using. In order to stimulate growth with very lightweight, you’ll need to complete many repetitions. If you’re using heavier weight, you’ll need to complete fewer reps.
Just keep in mind that while training with varying weights is fine as long as reps are adjusted too, if you have specific goals such as strength or strength endurance, you’ll need to train in ways that actually produce that result.
I.e. don’t expect to increase your 1 rep bench maximum by benching in a 30-rep range.
Practice Progressive Overload Through Volume & Frequency
Since muscle damage probably isn’t a great indicator of growth, the next best theory is increasing protein synthesis regularly by increasing volume over time and doing so on a more frequent basis.
Essentially, the goal of your training should be to increase total volume (progressive overload), but do so fairly frequently, which in turn, increases protein synthesis frequently for a greater growth potential.
Increasing volume by increasing frequency in my mind is the best route you can take here. By training more frequently, you’ll reduce soreness on a per workout basis, while also stimulating protein synthesis often. In doing so, you can train more often and stimulate growth more often, without risk of being incredibly sore.
Introduce Novel Stimuli Occasionally
While this whole article may seem like you should continue doing the same thing over and over again, that’s not necessarily the case.
Just as the body will adapt via the repeated bout effect, the overall response to regular variables will also decrease over time. For example, if you’ve been simply flat bench-pressing for years, you can expect the body’s response in terms of growth to eventually diminish.
Just as the body adapts to weight and rep ranges, so too will adapt to specific exercises.
I suggest using “blocks” or extended periods of time, such as a month, training with specific movements. After the block is over, begin implementing new variations of similar exercises. For example in block 1 of your training, you might use flat bench, in block 2, you might use an incline bench.
Simple variations of exercises may present a novel stimulus for increased growth, while still leveraging some of the benefit of the repeated bout effect.
As I’ve discussed in other articles, it doesn’t seem that muscle damage plays the roles that so many people think.
Is muscle damage occurring when you lift? Probably, and this damage is also probably very high when you first begin training and when you present a novel stimulus to yourself.
It’s just important to realize that eventually, the body does as it’s intended and adapts by repairing the damage.
After this damage has then been repaired, stimulating further protein synthesis regularly is likely the primary goal of training rather than training specifically to ‘damage the muscle.’
Got questions and other input on the subject? Just as with any consideration regarding muscle growth, there are potentially other insights I haven’t considered. If you have a stance on the subject, let me know so we can discuss!
Want Guidance But Don't Need A Trainer?
The need for using heavy weight in order to build muscle is a fairly controversial subject. Often, information regarding this subject gets muzzled by people with opinions on either side of the fence.
Some say using heavy weight is necessary while others attribute muscle growth to other factors such as total volume and frequency.
As it turns out, both are probably right, it just depends on context.
Building muscle is a way of adapting to the stress of exercise
Building muscle is a fairly complex process that has many different variables.
The leading theory behind how you actually build muscle regards increasing something called protein synthesis, and increasing it often.
When you exercise, you place your body under stress. As a result, the body increases a process called protein synthesis; a rate of constructing new components of muscle that leads to an increase in muscle size and strength.
When you first begin exercising, this process happens pretty easily. Almost any stress you place your body under will result in this adaptation process.
However, once you begin to be more and more adapted to the stress of working out, it becomes increasingly difficult to trigger this increase in protein synthesis.
When you lift weight, your body has a threshold for increasing the rate of protein synthesis, and thus muscle. Basically, if you don't push past this threshold, you wont trigger a response from the body to build muscle. This is because it's not a large enough stressor to force an adaptation.
The Form of Stress You are Under, Determines How You Build Muscle
As it turns out, triggering the process of protein synthesis, isn't always dependent on the weight you use, but the forms of stress you place on the muscle.
A study by Schoenfeld, et al in 2015 compared two groups executing the same exercises. One group used 30-50% of their 1 Rep Max (1 RM), while the other used 70-80% of their 1 RM.
Surprisingly, their was no difference between the groups in terms of increasing muscle size.
When you lift weight, your body has a threshold for increasing the rate of protein synthesis, and thus muscle. Basically, if you don't push past this threshold, you wont trigger a response from the body to build muscle. This is because, it's not a large enough stressor to force an adaptation.
Interestingly, based on the amount of weight you are using, the threshold varies.
If you are using weight that is light (30-50% of 1 RM), the response is dependent on approaching muscular failure (i.e. doing a lot of repetitions). If you are using heavier weight, you'll need to approach failure with a heavier weight, at least above 60% of your 1 RM.
The Weight You Use Affects More Than Just Building Muscle
While using light and heavy weight correctly appears to result in the same amount of muscle, your intended goal matters significantly.
For instance, if your main goal is to increase strength, you'll need to use heavier weight (higher than 60% of 1 RM).
While the study by Schoenfeld didn't show significant differences between increases in muscle size, the study did reveal that the group using heavier weight showed the greatest increases in strength. Which isn't surprising. If you expect to be able to lift heavy weight, you'll need to do so often.
Additionally, the lower weight group showed much more increase in muscular endurance when compared to the heavy weight group.
The conclusion? The weight you use, drives the adaptation when you've surpassed the relative threshold.
Additional Notes on Building Muscle
Earlier I mentioned that these responses are an adaptation to stress. While this is true, eventually you'll adapt and the weight and/or reps you used will not produce the same response it once did. This is when you need to employ the concept of progressive overload or constantly either increasing, weight, repetitions or both.
When using a lighter weight, you should consider using a technique called Blood Flow Restriction. By occluding muscles near the proximal end of the limb and using a lighter weight, lifted to failure, you can promote muscle growth. The catch is you can receive similar adaptations while using lighter weights and fewer reps.
Do You Need To Lift Heavy To Build Muscle?
Depending on your goal, you may need to use heavy weight. When performed correctly, both light and heavy weight can result in building muscle, but the ability of that muscle will vary based on your training. The most important thing is to make sure you are triggering an adaptation response.
If you are using lighter weight as opposed to heavy, you'll need to make sure you approach muscular failure in order to induce an increase in protein synthesis.
If you've ever considered bodybuilding, building muscle or just getting stronger, jumping in can sometimes seem confusing, difficult and just downright overwhelming.
It's no wonder with the sea of differing information clouded by instagram hard bodies telling you to eat clean and try hard. "Get Motivated" they say. "Work Hard" they plea. Well, eventually that stuff runs out and you still aren't sure if you're doing the right things.
What to Expect From This Article
If you consider yourself a beginner and simply want to know what's important, this brief article is for you. I'm breaking down the absolute essentials that you need to know to get started with an effective muscle and strength building approach, immediately. We'll cover things like progressive overload, if you should train to failure, frequency, volume and then finally some actionable items (how to use this info).
Have a vision
First and foremost, regardless of your goals, you need to have a vision of exactly what you want and how to get there. It seems cliche, but if you aren't planning your training you're basically just pissing in the wind hoping for the best.
Figure out how much muscle you want, what kind of physique you want and then train for it. Plain and simple.
Understanding Muscle Growth
This is one of the more important sections in this article.
So many people, myself included, try to over complicate things. When you're a beginner, you can basically wish your strength and muscle to show up and it will. If you haven't been exposed to training before, you're presenting the body with an entirely new stimulus that it's never encountered. As a result, you'll grow.
As a beginner, you should primarily focus on whole body, compound movements such as the bench press, squat, deadlift, overhead press, leg press, etc.
While many people may argue with that, as a beginner doing so will help you build a base of strength, and potentially even muscle. With movements like this, you are recruiting large combinations of muscle groups to help build connections from your brain to the muscle, build strength via the same mechanisms, potentially build muscle, and increase tendon strength.
While training for muscle growth specifically is important, the benefits in strength, mind-muscle connections, coordination and tendon/ligament health will be far superior from a barbell squat than a bicep curl. Sorry.
That's not to say you can't do things like biceps curls, etc. I'm simply saying to focus on free weight, compound movements first and then focus on isolation movements.
Use Linear Progression
There are probably a ton of different terms you've heard but just don't understand. In lieu of that, I'll stick with one, which is the most important as a beginner known as linear progression/periodization.
Linear progression simply means that you'll start with a lower amount of weight for a higher amount of repetitions and then over time, move to lower repetitions with higher weight. You're simply progressing in strength and ability in a linear fashion, incrementally increasing weight, while decreasing reps.
You've probably heard of things like block periodization, daily undulating periodization, etc. While those are techniques you may use down the road, there just isn't any compelling reason to over complicate things for a beginner.
Stick to the basics and work really hard. Then start messing with advanced techniques.
Start with Important first, Nice to Have, Second
This is in terms of how to structure your workouts. In order to be clear, I'll keep this short.
You should structure your workouts by placing the most demanding and important exercises first and then complete the less important, easier exercises.
For example, if you're working legs, you may complete the following exercises:
Start with specific exercises for the intended muscle groups first and begin transitioning to less demanding, less important exercises (for that day).
Rather than focusing on single sets, think ahead for the long term workout. By not failing on your first (or really any) you can still overload the muscle via weight, reps and sets over multiple sets, rather than 1 sub par one.
Be Smart When Training To Failure
Training to failure is easily the biggest mistake I see beginners make. But you've heard you need to fail to grow?
Not necessarily, even though its a grey area.
Think of it like this. I've mentioned that you need to overload the muscle via different mechanisms. That initially gives people the impression that means within single sets. We've all seen it (or done it) where we walk into the gym, slap a few plates on the bar and then lift to failure on the first set. That's a mistake that won't help you.
To paint a picture, you DO need to overload the muscle to stimulate growth, but that doesn't necessarily mean taking sets to failure. For instance, if I do 1 set of 10 for bench press to failure and need to stop, I've only done 10 reps. However, If I stop at 8 reps, I might be able to do 3 sets totaling at 24 reps.
Which do you think will stimulate more muscle growth?
Rather than focusing on single sets, think ahead for the long term workout. By not failing on your first (or really any) you can still overload the muscle via weight, reps and sets over multiple sets, rather than 1 sub par one.
As a side note, this applies primarily when using weight that is around your 6-12 Rep Max (RM) weight. If you're using very light weight such as 30 RM, you should take your sets extremely close to failure. (This is because you need to in order to stimulate a growth response. If you want more on this subject, please read this).
Eventually Become More Specific With Your Training
While as a beginner, you should train primarily using compound movements, eventually you should move towards more specificity. This means that if you want big biceps and quads, you should work them directly.
While exercises such as pull-ups, squats, deadlifts all work multiple muscle groups, if you're interested in building up certain parts of your body, you should attempt to work them directly at some point. For example, if you want bigger biceps, while chin-ups and rows will work biceps, it makes sense that you should spend time working your biceps directly via some sort of curl variation.
How to Structure Your Training
As you can see above, how you should progress is fairly straight forward and can be applied to all exercises / workouts. Start with high reps / volume and progressively move towards heavier weight with fewer reps. Once you've gone through all blocks, you can return to block one, but using heavier weight as you'll be stronger.
While there are certainly other ways to go about setting up your training program, using this method is the easiest and likely most effective for someone just looking to put on some muscle and strength.
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