Written by: Kevin Cann
I had posted a research article on Instagram yesterday that seemed to ruffle a lot of feathers. This actually came as a surprise to me. When I was writing it, I didn’t think many people would even notice.
I typically do not get a lot of comments on my posts. For some reason this one got over 60 comments. Not a single one agrees with the side of the research that I was leaning towards.
For quick context, this was regarding hypertrophy and its role in strength. The classical view is that in a periodized program we run a hypertrophy block because a larger muscle has greater potential for maximal force.
These authors question that. Their conclusion is that, based off of their research, as well as the body of literature, we cannot confidently say that a larger muscle is necessarily a stronger one. There are far too many inconsistencies in the research, and the research for it is nothing more than correlation at this given time.
People reading this will get some type of feeling I am sure. All I am asking is for everyone to keep an open mind, be critical, think, and skeptical. Changes in muscle size happen across a very wide range of repetitions with loads as low as 20% as long as training is at or near failure.
Strength is best developed from lifting heavy loads. If 1RM is your goal, you need to practice that skill. If we can grow muscle mass with heavier loads and practice that skill wouldn’t that be better than perhaps lowering the loads to focus more on increases in muscle mass?
Heavier weights also can elicit an emotional response from the lifter that is similar in competition. This is an important aspect to train in the gym. This is why we lift heavy very often. It covers skill and emotion. It builds hypertrophy as well. I think covering all of these bases is more important than trying to put on more muscle mass. I think this makes sense.
These inconsistencies exist across science though. This makes it very difficult for the coach. This is why I feel it is extremely important for every coach to have a theoretical framework to guide decisions.
Most coaches have some type of “system.” The definition of a system is a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done. Also called a method. These coaches methods are constructed based off of their bias and beliefs.
We all do this. It is unavoidable. When coaches create these systems, they tend to follow the same structure. Frequencies of the lifts will be one way, the progressions will be one way, and so on. Most of the time these systems are created with the coach thinking they have/know the answers.
Let us look at the hypertrophy example above. If we believe that muscle mass is a significant contributor to strength, we might look at total volume as being a main driver to progress. For sake of easy understanding, we will call this a high-volume program.
We develop a system that probably has higher frequencies of the lifts with multiple sets each day. Maybe we squat 3 times per week, bench 4 times, and deadlift 2 times. This is pretty common, and I have used this in the past and still do when the timing is right.
This system works most of the time. It should anyways as the lifter is getting a good amount of practice. What happens when this stops working? If we believe the hypertrophy/volume piece to be true, what would we do next?
Chances are you increase volume. Maybe this works, maybe it doesn’t. I actually think when it does work that the added volume just increases the effort of the set because the lifter is more tired. This is just a theory though, but also important for this conversation.
This can become a vicious cycle, where the coach and athlete get extremely frustrated and it may lead to a dissolving of that relationship. As coaches we need to understand the inconsistencies found in the research and observed in training.
These inconsistencies need to be considered in our decision making and actually be a part of our “system.” How can something be a part of our system if we do not know an answer? That is the tricky part.
This requires the coach to one, be aware of their bias. They need to know that they don’t know anything for certain. Two, they need to be able to control that bias. This can be difficult because you can be using your bias without being aware that you are. It is always there.
The coach needs to identify the things that they know and be aware of the things that we cannot say we definitely know. We know volume is important, but to what extent? We know hypertrophy may play a role, but to what extent? We know the emotions, experiences, and beliefs of the lifter are also important.
The coach needs a framework that takes all of these aspects into consideration. I choose the Dynamic Systems Theory/Constraints-Led Approach for this reason. One of the constraints alone is the performer. This includes the mechanical aspects such as muscle mass, but also includes the lifter’s emotions, experiences, and beliefs.
This framework is utilized for skill acquisition. Due to that fact I choose to view strength as a skill. It views the human as an open, complex, dynamic system. It understands the non-linear process of training. This helps the coach avoid banging their head off of a wall when what they believe to be true turns out to not be the case for that individual.
I have an idea of what the most efficient technique on the lifts are. There are general rules that I find to work well. For one, the lifts need to be done within the rules of the sport, and safely. Instead of me pushing my ideal technique onto people, I alter the task in ways to minimize options.
When I alter the task, I want to punish the inefficient technique, while simultaneously only leaving a couple of options. These options being left need to only be what I deem more efficient.
For example, the chest falling forward in the squat is a very common breakdown. Pin squats are an often-utilized variation to help redirect this to something more efficient. When we do this how do we normally decide reps and sets?
These are usually some arbitrary numbers that the coach will latch onto some logic with. This implies that we know what optimal volumes and intensities are for this lifter. We are going to allow this logic to make that decision. This will not always work. Each lifter is different.
We usually start with 5 reps to get some time with a new variation and each 1-2 weeks we decrease the reps and increase the weight up until singles. These get HEAVY at the end. We take 1-2 sets at an RPE 8.5 or above every time. I will explain why in a bit.
I noticed with one lifter, that they were able to complete the task of pin squats, with the same technique as I was trying to discourage. In this case, this is NOT a constraint for that lifter. I have options here, but I need to decide what to do because this variation is not appropriate.
I decided to load it up. At some point, it will be too heavy to get away with that. We took singles here for a few weeks. She hit a nice PR on the squat at the meet and a 20kg total PR from a few months back. This allowed her to qualify for Nationals.
I had another lifter, with the same issue. However, this lifter tends to not be as comfortable in the bottom position of the squat. There is what I refer to as “panic” that occurs. I need to keep this in mind when tweaking the same variation.
Instead of overloading it, because I feel like it would have led to missed reps, I decided to have her take it to the pins and then raise the bar off the pins an inch or two and pause for two seconds. This forces her to spend more time in a position that she is not comfortable with. This too led to increases in performance and a qualifying total.
I strongly believe if I had each of these lifters just carry out the variation as is, we would not have seen the increases in performance. I would have been following a system, but with unanticipated results. I am then left wondering why. I know this, because I have been there.
This doesn’t mean that I am just ignoring general principles. I understand the nuances that go along with training and the human in front of me, as well as the limitations of the available science. I use objective measures and a theoretical framework that is supported by strong empirical evidence to guide me.
This framework also gives me the flexibility to make adjustments. I am not holding myself hostage with trying to hit certain volumes for example. We start at fives, like I said, and work up to heavy singles in the exercise over a block. Typically, but it can change.
Every day we lift heavy. 1-2 sets of an RPE 8.5 or more. I would rather them overshoot than undershoot here. The intensity gives the lifter skill practice under heavier weights and again stresses the emotions of the lifter. The research shows that strength is best gained from loads greater than 85% of 1RM.
This is about what lifters start the block at with variations on average. Might be less as they figure it out, but the relative intensity is still high, and this may be more important. When they are in difficult positions, there is a lot of strain and a lot of figuring it out sometimes. As they figure it out, we load it up. That is why I choose fives. Anything more seems to be more of an endurance task.
Hypertrophy is developed from a bunch of different rep ranges as long as we lift at or near failure. My lifters gain hypertrophy as a byproduct of training. If I lowered loads for higher reps, to focus on hypertrophy would this be more beneficial?
From the current literature and from my observations, I will say no. More here is not necessarily better and I will explain it through the framework that guides me. Heavier weights challenge the lifter’s emotions as well as the skill of lifting heavy.
They see a high amount of weight on the bar, they feel it on their back and in their hands, and they execute with it. This hits all angles of performance in my opinion. If I lower the loads, they see less weight, are executing a skill with lower loads (less than 85% of 1RM as recommended in the literature so this may not be good enough practice for heavy weights), and the perceived effort is more endurance related than strain related.
This helps guide my decision making when inconsistencies in the literature and amongst other coaches and lifters exist. We had 22 people compete in April with 22 total PRs in competition. This is a pretty amazing feat. I have never experienced success like that as a coach.
Most of these were not tiny PRs either. The majority were 15kg or higher in a few months of time. Some of those with missed lifts as well. The outcomes currently speak for themselves.
I understand that the success may be novelty. With that in mind I alter the structure of the programs frequently. I am not bound by one way of doing things. This can allow novelty to exist over longer domains. This is due to the framework being open ended as well. It even discusses the human as an open system.
If I believed that high frequency was truly the best option for training, I could not do this. Instead I would be handcuffed to a given structure. It will work until it doesn’t and then what?
My final message is this. We need to have more discussions to move the field forward. Too many coaches and lifters deal in absolutes. The majority of people were just telling me that I am wrong and here is some old cherrypicked research to prove my point.
One of these studies was from 1996 (probably copied from some blog somewhere). The stress literature as well as the motor control and skill acquisition literature, has made some huge strides since then that cannot be ignored. The majority of this research is after 1996.
This is where work by Kiely and Loenneke have made an impact on my thinking. They are critical thinkers, asking hard questions, and being skeptical. This can drive discussions as long as butthurt stays low.