Working Out Isn’t Rocket Science… It’s Much Harder
By David Berman, MS, PT, COMT, CSCS
If you want to build a rocket, all you have to do is follow the instructions. In fact, I’ve seen 10 year olds build and successfully launch homemade rockets.
Accomplishing your fitness and health goals is another thing altogether – especially if one of your goals is building muscle, for example.
The fact is that science knows very little about how to do things like build muscle. If you don’t believe me, then go ahead and google “how to build muscle”. I did, and got 581,000 results.
I took a few minutes to take a look at some of the information these sites provided. Here are two pieces of advice I found:
“Train for hypertrophy and avoid strength training.”
So, at the very least, the information on web-sites is confusing and can even be conflicting. Also, a large portion of the remaining links sent me to sites that were basically selling something (i.e. a book, a supplement, a device, etc.).
The point is, I found no reliable or specific instructions on what to do. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place with the wrong search phrase.
So I went to PubMed (a place where you can search scientific research journals) and searched for “human skeletal muscle hypertrophy”, hoping to glean some insight into what science has learned over the last 40+ years (the oldest article was dated 1967). I reviewed the 728 articles that this search turned up.
Here’s what I learned from my research (which took about 2 hours worth of reading and several years of advanced education to interpret):
• Creatine supplementation is effective in increasing fat-free mass and strength when used in conjunction with heavy resistance training.
• It’s important to eat protein/amino acids following resistance training to support muscle growth.
• Training to failure might help advanced lifters break through training plateaus when used periodically.
• 3 sets are better than 1 for strength and mass training of the lower extremities, but there’s no significant difference in upper extremities for untrained individuals.
• A single session of doing max negatives (eccentric work) significantly compromised strength gains for several weeks.
• Testosterone injected into healthy men increased muscle size.
• Maximal muscle growth (hypertrophy) occurs with heavy loads (80-95% of 1RM)
• Strength gains are the result of both neurological factors as well as hypertrophy.
• Short rest periods (30-60 seconds) between sets might be better when working for muscle hypertrophy due to increased release of growth hormone.
• Given sufficient intensity, frequency and volume of work, many different modes of exercise can result in significant increase in muscle size (though the article never tells us what is “sufficient”).
So basically, what has taken science over 40 years of scientific research to figure out I could have learned at any local gym by speaking to any somewhat experienced personal trainer or fitness pro for about 10 minutes. And this still gets me no closer to understanding exactly what I have to do to get bigger muscles.
Sure, this provides some rough guidelines. But working out is about specifics, and we still don’t have nearly enough to construct the perfect program.
For example: How many sets should you do per body part? How long should your sessions last? Which exercises should you do and in what order? How many reps should you do? How fast or slow should my reps be? Do I do forced reps, negatives, drop sets, pyramid up or down, do supersets or even giant sets, use machines or free weights, etc.? How many days per week do you workout?
You get the idea.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that achieving your goals in the gym is not a function of following some specific recipe. Because no such recipe exists.
Bodybuilding and fitness appears to be more art than pure science. To be successful you must be part artist AND part scientist.
Remember this the next time you think about paying money for the next “secret” program or supplement that will get you bigger. In the meantime, I wish you all the best in creating your own work of art.