A Thorough Breakdown of the “Extreme Volume Study”

The authors of the "extreme volume study" break down their findings and the real-world application, and respond to critiques of the original paper.
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Additional writing and research by Mike Israetel

Note from Greg: A couple months ago, there was a big discussion in the “evidence-based” side of the fitness industry about the limits of training volume.  To a point, more volume tends to lead to more muscle growth, but logically, there must be a limit.  One of the studies that the discussion focused on was this one, authored by Stronger By Science coach Cody Haun and the research team at Auburn University.  Since there was so much chatter about the study, and since many of the important details of the study went overlooked, Cody wanted to write this article to set the record straight.

Our recent study examining “extreme-volume” resistance training and graded whey protein supplementation was published in Frontiers in Nutrition, and we decided to write this article together to encourage consideration of proper caveats and in hopes that readers could benefit from further clarification. Furthermore, a number of critiques and questions have been posited regarding the study design and results that we feel are appropriate to address for clarification. For example, it has been questioned whether or not this was indeed the highest volume training study in a six-week timeframe to date, as described in the manuscript. Other critiques relate to the type of lean body mass (LBM) gained (e.g., fluid versus tissue) and concerns about the design of the training protocol. Considering this, the outline of this article is as follows:

a.) Study design, purpose, and summary of results

b.) Addressing critiques and comparison to other studies

c.) Insights beyond the publication

d.) Implications

Importantly, the manuscript is open access, and data are freely available for your own inspection or analysis. More detailed information and explanation of study methodology can be found there, as this article will primarily focus on aspects pertaining to the outline above with practical implications highlighted and insight offered beyond the published work.

Study design, purpose, and summary of results

Briefly, the purpose of the study was to investigate the effects of training volumes higher than previously investigated in a six-week timeframe (i.e. ~ one mesocycle) on muscle growth in resistance-trained young men. Additionally, we wanted to examine if increasing the amount of whey protein consumed as training volume increased improved muscle growth responses compared to a steady dose of whey or maltodextrin. Subjects were screened prior to enrollment in the study, and they reported about five years of training experience on average. Upon initial screening, subjects included in the study could barbell back squat ~1.75x bodyweight on average (based on stringent 3RM testing during the screening process). The training protocol was purposefully unique to this study, which we’ll discuss more below. Each set was programmed to be completed at 60% 1RM, and the exercises employed in the study, along with the set x rep configurations programmed each week, are shown in a manuscript figure. However, another way of showing this data for the purposes of this article is separating sets for each exercise per week for the upper body and lower body, and based on the muscles emphasized. These examples are shown below.

Extreme volume data upper and lower sets

Extreme volume study data muscles emphasized

*This is only an example of categorizing exercises emphasizing specific musculature. This could be done differently, depending on the criteria you use. We categorized based on muscles lengthening and shortening the most during each exercise, relative to their resting lengths.

We used multiple advanced laboratory techniques to measure muscle growth in order to better characterize “true” muscle growth from both a regional (e.g. individual muscle, limbs, etc.) and whole-body perspective. These included: a) dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) for estimates of lean body mass (LBM), b) ultrasound (US) of the biceps brachii muscle and vastus lateralis muscle for measurements of muscle thickness, c) bioelectrical impedance spectroscopy (BIS) for assessments of body water, and d) muscle biopsies of the vastus lateralis muscle for assessment of muscle fiber cross-sectional area (fCSA). We also worked with a registered dietitian to provide intricate nutrition programming to all participants in an attempt to ensure participants were consuming enough calories to facilitate a moderate calorie surplus and reasonable macronutrient values (i.e., ~500 calories above estimated daily energy expenditure). Please see the open access manuscript here for more detail.

Based on inferential or frequentist statistics, there were no significant differences between groups in proxies of muscle hypertrophy (more on what “true hypertrophy” means from our perspective below). However, effect size calculations revealed the group of subjects consuming the graded dose of supplemental whey (GWP) gained the most lean body mass and lost the most fat mass according to DXA. Since there were only ~10 subjects per group and the study was relatively short in duration, more research is necessary to clarify if graded whey supplementation is more effective than traditional supplemental approaches.

One of the most interesting findings was the apparent continued hypertrophy response (based on DXA LBM) to training past previously investigated volumes. That is, it didn’t seem that subjects clearly surpassed their maximal recoverable volume (MRV), on average. This suggests subjects were still training below their maximal adaptable volume (MAV). Albeit, there was quite a bit of heterogeneity in responses, and this interpretation depends on the measurement (more below). Considering this, and based on a variety of interpretations we’ve heard or read recently, we’d like to focus this article on the overall effects of training regardless of group and dedicate much of the rest of the article to the overall response of the cohort to the training protocol with appreciation for the heterogeneity in responses and limitations of various measurements.

Extreme volume study weekly volume load

Addressing critiques and comparison to other studies

Critique 1: “60 % 1RM at 3-4 RIR per set isn’t a very high intensity. This likely doesn’t reflect intensities used in the practical setting by serious trainees looking to build muscle.”

Counterpoint 1: At this point, the evidence is clear that hypertrophy-focused programs’ effective rep and load ranges can be quite flexible, so long as sets are taken to failure or near failure. For example, Schoenfeld et al published a meta-analysis in 2017 showing no significant difference between hypertrophy outcomes comparing studies utilizing ≤60 % 1RM and >60 % 1RM.  Utilizing a variety of loading and rep structures organized in a logical manner probably maximizes muscle growth in the long-term to ensure both faster and slower twitch fibers are properly stimulated. Although fiber-type specific hypertrophy based on specific training doses is still contentious, based on available evidence and principles of neuromuscular physiology, we suspect preferential growth of fibers can occur based on training stimuli. In support of this thesis, a recent blood flow restriction (BFR) study in well-trained powerlifters reported significant type I fiber hypertrophy, but not type II fiber hypertrophy, from practical BFR using ~30% 1RM only for a few weeks out of a six-week block of training. This is the first layer of evidence supporting the initial selection of 60% 1RM across lifts and weeks in the study, although we’ll discuss other reasons more below.

Counterpoint 2: Acute measurements of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) in response to completion of resistance exercise at different percentages of 1RM have also been investigated by various labs, and these data are visualized below supporting 60% 1RM as sufficiently heavy to realize significant increases in MPS.

From Burd et al., 2012

 

Extreme volume study MPS and exercise intensity

From Poortmans, 2016

 

Extreme volume study FSR and exercise intensity

From Kumar et al., 2009

Perhaps the best example is from Kumar et al (2009), wherein the authors reported no significant differences in myofibrillar protein synthesis rate increases between 60%, 75%, and 90% 1RM with sets not being taken to failure (shown above).

Counterpoint 3: Multiple lines of evidence suggest that you don’t need to train all the way to failure to realize significant increases in muscle size or strength (Martorelli et al, 2017; Izquierdo et al, 2006; Nobrega & Libardi, 2016).

Beyond these data, since the programmed volumes were very high and primarily barbell movements were utilized, we felt the need to attempt to improve the safety of participants without sacrificing the muscle growth effects of training by avoiding the requirement for subjects to reach failure. However, we felt this was a fair tradeoff as the programmed loads and structure of the protocol were likely sufficient to realize similar muscle fiber activation patterns. Electromyography (EMG) is a method used to measure the electrical activity of a muscle. It is commonly used in exercise science research to gain an understanding of the extent to which a muscle is active during an exercise, although it possesses certain limitations and should be interpreted carefully. A study from Sundstrup et al in 2012, which utilized EMG to measure muscle activity during sets taken to failure, provides more support of why we didn’t feel the need for subjects to reach failure. Sundstrup et al (2012) reported normalized EMG plateaus at ~3-5 reps from failure, which suggests no additional total fiber recruitment past this point, although fiber rotation or select fibers may have received more activation (although we can’t know that for certain). In Sundstrup et al’s own words: “Furthermore, a plateau of high level of muscle activity was reached at approximately 10–12 repetitions of the 15 RM, indicating that a maximal level of EMG can be reached 3–5 repetitions before failure (Figure 1).”

Extreme volume study EMG for prime movers

From Sundstrup et al., 2012

Indeed, the subjects in our study generally reported that their reps in reserve fell within this range (~3-5 RIR, on average).

Counterpoint 4: Finally, one of the most well-established relationships between training variables and hypertrophy relates to training volume. Although we’ll address volume in more detail below, for now, this can be thought of as either challenging sets per muscle per week or tonnage per exercise per week. See example plots redrawn below and James Krieger’s recent article on the topic for more detail.

Extreme volume study hypertrophy and sets per week

Redrawn from Schoenfeld et al., 2016

 

Extreme volume study muscle damage and training volume

Basically, the more training volume completed, to a point, the more resultant muscle growth.

Thus, we elected to increase training volume each week through the addition of sets while holding load steady at 60 % 1RM for this study. We didn’t just hold intensity constant for shits and giggles or because we thought volume-only progressions were going to be the most effective. We did it, in part, to test if volume-only progressions could be effective, and if so, how effective. Stated differently, holding the load constant from week to week allowed for the examination of the growth effect of adding sets, without an interaction of load and set addition, to better clarify the effects of this programming strategy. Also, given the logistical difficulty of monitoring the safety of participants and accurate loading, standardizing reps per set and load per set provided clear instructions and feasibility for us as a research staff and for the participants. Consider that 30 subjects were taken through the protocol and we only had five squat racks in our weight room. This took a concerted effort. Practically, studies need to be realistic to carry out, and we’re less defending the protocol here, and more admitting it’s not perfect but we’ll take any good data we can get. Perfect data doesn’t exist, and we moved forward with limitations in mind.

Posted with permission.

You might still be thinking that doing a single set of 10 at 60% 1RM on four different exercises isn’t very difficult. But, consider that doing over 5 sets per exercise per session and over 20 sets total in a week is a different story. We imagine that most people reading this who have completed 5-10 sets of 10 reps in a workout in the past can appreciate just how challenging such a protocol is.  With both of us having worked under the barbell for over a decade now, we know that over 20 sets of 10 with 60% 1RM on the back squat is by no means easy. Although subjects consistently reported that they could have done ~3-5 more reps with good technique, they also reported being very fatigued, soreness ratings significantly increased over time, and we doubt similar volume loads could have been sustained using higher intensities after week 3 without adjusting load down during training sessions. Based on available data and practical experience, we were aware that for a single set, subjects could have likely completed >15 reps before failure at 60% 1RM. However, keep in mind that subjects were programmed to complete more than 4 sets per exercise after week 1, and finished week 6 at 12 sets of 10 reps per exercise during session 1, 8 sets of 10 during session 2, and 12 sets of 10 during session 3. From our practical experience and available scientific data, subjects can be notoriously bad at RIR estimates. So, it’s very possible they low-balled at the beginning of study and high-balled at the end.

Additionally, we piloted two iterations of the protocol on ourselves before having subjects complete it, and it was the most brutal six weeks of training we’d personally ever completed. Also, subjects were instructed to exert maximal force during each rep of each exercise, with the intent to better ensure higher threshold motor unit activation, and thereby stimulate greater fiber recruitment on a per-rep basis. So, you can call this training less than “optimally efficient” and many other things, but it was anything but easy. Also, it’s worth mentioning that yes, we fully expect recovery would have been much more difficult if the weights were heavier, weight was progressed, and RIR was lower.  So, that should all be taken into account if you attempt to transfer the results of this program (specifically the sets done in the last week) to your own training.

Critique 2: “Other studies have investigated higher volumes.”

Recently, it has been argued that another study investigated higher volumes and that the claim this was the highest volume training study in this timeframe was technically not true, with specific reference to this 2015 study from Radaelli et al. However, based on our calculation of training volume as total reps for a given movement x load, the volumes investigated in our six week study were indeed higher in this timeframe. Importantly, as pointed out by Greg in his review of this article, this is likely less important than considering this calculation in light of subjects’ maximum strength and volume load expressed relative to percentage of 1RM: for example, 5000lb of volume from 60% 1RM versus 5000lb of volume from 90% 1RM. So, for a more informative comparison, expressing these calculations relative to the subjects’ 1RM can provide more insight into the relative difficulty of the training program and the expected adaptive outcome. In Radaelli et al’s study, the authors described the intensities of each set as “8-12 RM to concentric failure” and described load progression throughout the study by stating loads were increased by 5-10% in the next session once participants were able to hit 12 reps with a certain load. If we assume subjects lifted their 10 RM on average, this equates to ~75 % 1RM. So, relatively speaking, each unit of volume may have been more difficult to achieve in the Radaelli et al study, further confounding a direct comparison. For example, although total volume is still higher in our study, relative volume load in the Radaelli et al study was higher the first two weeks and comparable on week 3 – assuming subjects were lifting ~75% 1RM. Consequently, the apparent discrepancy depends on how one defines and expresses volume (e.g., sets per muscle per week vs. tonnage or volume load vs. volume load relative to percent 1RM). The study from Radaelli et al included 48 men and lasted six months. Participants were separated into three groups that completed either one set, three sets, or five sets of each programmed exercise three days per week. Radaelli et al reported volume from the first and last training session. The volume load from participants in the one-set and three-set groups were considerably lower than our study. But, although the five-set group surpassed the volume we investigated the first week of our study, the total volume within the first six weeks of their study was still much lower than ours with week 1 of their study being the only week that was higher.

In the five-set group (n = 13), Radaelli et al reported volume load as ~140,000kg during the first session of the study. The authors reported that the volume load from the last session of the study in the five-set group was ~160,000kg.  So, if we assume ~150,000kg was completed each session on average throughout the first six weeks of training, subjects completed ~450,000kg of volume each week and, therefore, ~2,700,000kg of volume in the first six weeks of the study. Randomly sampling 13 subjects from our study, subjects completed almost double the volume in the six-week timeframe we investigated (i.e., ~5,000,000kg). The only week that was higher in the Radaelli study was week 1 (~450,000kg vs ~375,000kg). Beyond the Radaelli et al study, a few other studies have also investigated very high volumes but, based on our in-depth search of the literature while designing the study and writing the manuscript, none surpassed the volume we investigated. We’ve plotted these data for visualization below. When considering volumes relative to sets per muscle per week, a different interpretation arises. As pointed out by Menno Henselmans in this article, the Radaelli et al five-set group completed 30 sets for the biceps each week and 45 sets for the triceps each week, which is a higher set-per-week value than our study when defining volume in this way. At any rate, we’re simply pointing out that while each interpretation is technically true, understanding how volume load is computed and presented in a manuscript is important to better comprehend the relationship between dose and adaptive response whilst appreciating the limitations of each method.

Extreme volume study total volume load

Thus, based on our definition of training volume and comprehensive review of the literature, our study appeared to be the highest volume (i.e. total reps x weight for each exercise) investigated. Importantly, while the article was awaiting publication, Dr. Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues published a study that may have involved higher total volume loads, but training doses were reported as sets per exercise per week and not as total volume loads. To be clear, we’re not arguing that our study is superior to others or to toot our own horn. It’s simply meant to bring attention to the fact that we intended to investigate higher volume loads than had previously been investigated and that also influenced the design of the study and how the training protocol was set up. This training protocol was not designed to be optimal or to be implemented directly in the practical setting. Rather, the qualitative nature of the design and proximal doses of sets per movement or muscle per week were meant to help inform practice and better understand adaptive proclivities in this population of young, well-trained males. Indeed, to others’ points, tracking volume load in other ways like the number of sets per muscle per week or per movement per week is likely more feasible and accomplishes very similar goals compared to tracking “tonnage” or volume load. However, from a quantitative standpoint, the case can be made that tracking total volume load, volume load relative to body weight or 1RM, or other relative factors can allow for increased precision of overloading training or an improved understanding of dose-response relationships. Since it’s relatively easy to compute, it makes sense to track both in our view.

Critique 3: “The study was too short to draw confident conclusions.”

The study was designed with a “mesocycle” timeframe in mind. One of the intentions was to clarify upper limits of short-term RT dosing for hypertrophy intending to mimic the duration of a training cycle in the practical setting. So, we think this critique is not very applicable, as our research question wasn’t aimed at explicitly addressing longer-term interventions. However, we feel the results of the study can help people structure longer-term training programs, considering the implications of the study’s results. Certainly, longer-term training studies with a larger number of subjects will help clarify dose-response relationships in various subsets of the population.

Critique 4: “It looks like what the subjects actually gained was fluid.”

Indeed, body water measurements consistently increased over time and fCSA data, US data, and DXA data demonstrated different qualitative responses. However, the DXA LBM data shows a clear average increase when subtracting the change in extracellular water from PRE-MID (+1.2kg), with the remaining increase thought to be primarily due to intracellular water and lean tissue (e.g. muscle). From MID-POST, only ~+0.2kg was observed when removing the change in extracellular fluid. When expressing changes in body mass over time removing fat and total water, an average increase from PRE-MID of 0.7kg was observed, and an average decrease from MID-POST of 0.2kg for a total change from PRE-POST of 0.5kg on average. This seems to support the notion that subjects may have been training beyond their MRV after week 3 of the study, although this may be unnecessarily myopic considering muscle is ~75 % water and removing water altogether isn’t necessarily reflective of true “hypertrophy.” As Greg pointed out in the review of this article, it’s overly confident to argue too strongly that the increase in LBM was primarily due to water, considering the data collectively, especially since fCSA tended to increase mid-to-post. Since the US and fCSA data were from either the biceps brachii muscle or the VL muscle of the quad alone, those changes can’t necessarily be extrapolated to reflect the changes in all of the other muscles of the body. This is important to consider since the exercises employed emphasized musculature other than the biceps and VL (e.g. SLDL, bench press, OH press), and the DXA data provides a better picture of the whole-body response. Thus, the DXA LBM data are better reflective of the whole-body response, in our view. To address this critique using a different way of showing the data, we’ve plotted the raw changes in LBM, changes in LBM minus changes in extracellular water (ECW) potentially due to swelling or edema, and changes in body mass with changes in fat mass and body water removed.

Extreme volume study raw delta lean body mass

 

 

Extreme volume study delta fat and water free mass

Since the majority of the remaining body mass consists of bone, organs, and muscle tissue, it seems reasonable to us to assume the primary change explaining the increase was muscle, as it comprises the majority of the remaining tissue. We are completing further analyses now to better address the specific mode of hypertrophy, with intent to better understand fiber-level adaptations to myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic fractions in muscle biopsy samples. Although there’s a good bit of work remaining to be more confident in our findings so far, preliminary data from subjects exhibiting large increases in muscle fiber size (fCSA) indicate heterogeneous responses in myofibrillar protein concentration and sarcoplasmic protein concentrations as well. In other words, although increased fiber sizes were observed in quite a few subjects, this increase doesn’t seem to be entirely due to myofibrillar protein since sarcoplasmic protein concentrations also demonstrated increases in some cases. We’re performing follow-up experiments to be more confident in our findings before we present that more formally. You might also be interested in a manuscript we have in review that discusses the presence of or alterations in biomarkers that seem to explain a significant amount of the variation in muscle growth in this study so we can better understand physiological factors related to why people respond better or worse to high volumes of training. We hope you’ll check that out upon publication!

Considering this, we feel it’s important to bring attention to the heterogeneity in responses of fCSA (in both slower and faster-twitch fibers) and muscle thicknesses of the bicep and vastus lateralis to better interpret the results of the study. The plots below can serve to better demonstrate this than text, so check those out.

Extreme volume study delta VL thickness

 

 

Extreme volume study delta FCSA

 

Extreme volume study delta type II FCSA

 

Extreme volume study delta type I FCSA

As you can see, averages only tell us so much. Some subjects continually realized increases in fCSA and muscle thickness while others didn’t. This speaks to the importance of individualizing training doses to train within the bounds of your MRV, and even points to the importance of considering different muscles probably possess different MRVs. Furthermore, since hypertrophy is empirically defined as an accrual of myofibrillar protein concomitant to increases in fCSA, these data only tell us so much. Future work will focus on the nature of hypertrophy in response to specific training interventions; this is the direction we’re currently focusing our research questions, similar to our analysis in this paper.

Insights beyond the publication

While the reps in reserve questions were answered similarly toward the end of the study, researcher observations were unanimous that the guys were struggling hard to meet technically sound rep goals toward the end, and true RIR declined. Two takehomes:

a.) Many subjects really were close to their max ability to recover or had actually exceeded it already.

b.) RIR use in lab settings is not without its imperfections and should be used alongside objective measures (velocity, RM tests, etc.) when possible.

In fact, subjects started growing frustrated with having to provide a rating after each set and started to seem as if they were just repeating the rating to avoid changing the load stemming from high fatigue. Having interacted with many of them since the study, it seems they won’t be carrying out this protocol or training like it for a good while.

Implications

a.) If you go very high RIR to begin with and don’t increase bar weight, you can recover from lots of sets, more than most expected. At least one potential insight we can glean from this is that when people claim success with exceedingly high-volume programs, we should be very interested in their per-set RIR before drawing any tentative conclusions based on their experience. A 40-set program of compound lifts with 5 RIR averages can be survivable, whereas the same program with 0 RIR might be highly prohibitive.

b.) Because both high RIR and stable bar weight are likely not the best ideas for consistent real-world training, lower RIR and increasing bar weights are likely to cause more fatigue on a per-set basis, meaning that the total number of sets you can tolerate is probably lower than the set volume used in this study.

c.) Subjects were probably near or beyond their MRVs by the time they were doing 30 sets per muscle group per week at the end of this program.  Since higher loads and lower RIRs will likely cause more fatigue per set, it’s unlikely that most people’s MRVs will be greater than 30 sets per muscle group per week in most practical settings. This gives us some insight as to the limits of volume progression in practice.

However, it stands to reason that stable bar weights in the context of overloading other training parameters (e.g. frequency, rest intervals, reps per set, total sets, etc.) might be a good option in some contexts, considering that hypertrophy was observed using the volume progression in this study. Stated differently, load progression for hypertrophy isn’t the ONLY way to productively overload training for hypertrophy, and it wasn’t necessary in this study to elicit a hypertrophic effect for some subjects. Future research can help clarify specific effects of load progression, frequency progression, or other progression styles to better understand adaptive responses.

In conclusion, every study teaches us something, but no study is the holy grail of knowledge, nor should any study’s results be taken at face value without reading into the methods and potentially even other observations of the researchers. For example, one of our favorite Brad Schoenfeld studies comparing high- versus low-force volume-equated routines demonstrates the importance of this nicely. Although hypertrophy was statistically the same, subjects in the high-load group reported excessive fatigue and it took them  about an hour longer than the low-load group to complete training sessions. So, always look to literature to instruct, but never accept research conclusions without a good dive into the intricacies of a study. Better yet, refer to the whole body of research on a subject and never take one study too seriously.

Note of thanks from the author: Thanks to Chris Vann, MS, for providing edits to this article and his critical assistance with the study. Also, thanks to my amazing PhD mentor, Dr. Michael Roberts, for facilitating this research and the other Molecular and Applied Sciences Lab members at Auburn University for all their help to make this project happen.

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53 thoughts on “A Thorough Breakdown of the “Extreme Volume Study””

  1. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is the fact that, maybe, the reason the gains declined in the second part of the program might have been due to the novelty of the new program wearing off. Even if the guys didn’t exceed their MRV, would we expect them to grow at the same rate indefinitely?

    1. That was a thought I had. In a perfect world, they would have had more money and more time to test another group with flat volume (somewhere around the week 3 or 4 volume). If they would have seen a similar pattern of hypertrophy in that group (a lot at first, then tapering off during the last three weeks), that would suggest that the leveling off in hypertrophy was due to habituation moreso than the increasing volume. But, research funding is limited, unfortunately, so it’s impossible to ever conduct the perfect study to test every counterfactual.

      Although, I think it’s interesting to look at the different ways of assessing hypertrophy in this study. On one hand, LBM corrected for ECW didn’t increase much after week 3, but fiber CSA increased a bunch. If you look at the individual fiber data, it doesn’t look like mean hypertrophy really occurred UNTIL the volumes got super high. Which is a better measure of “true” hypertrophy? I think that’s context-dependent, and I don’t think there’s a simple answer.

      1. Following up on this, what implications does this study have, given past training history and how to plan mesocycles?

        I’m imagining that for an average study, you have a variety of training histories, so a volume program will have higher volume *on average* than the lifter’s training histories and will result in more hypertrophy *on average*, a strength program will have higher percentage of 1RM than the average past training block and will result in statistically significant increases in the average 1 RM strength, etc. I know it’s tough because I don’t see many studies which follow lifters over a number of mesocycles to better understand interaction effects, but how do you think that about explaining this variance?

        For example, about 10 years ago, a pullup was probably about 60% of my 1RM and nearly every time I walked by the pullup bar in my house I’d do a set of usually 8-12 reps resulting in probably 30+ sets a week in pullups. I’m guessing if I had jumped into a high volume upper body pulling program, the hypertrophy gains for the associated muscles would’ve been minimal.

        1. In this model, if the covariate effect is “significant”, it’s more clear that starting state played a role in explaining the variance in responses.

          For almost every variable, the covariate did not explain a significant amount in the variation in the response.

          However, (insightful thought by you sir), baseline fCSA explained a notable amount of variation in the fCSA response and the manuscript is currently under review where we clearly report that! Nice thought!

          In that same manuscript, we will report a variety of other predictors of the response we examined. I hope you’ll read that upon publication!

          To be clear, I’m generally agreeing with you that the state of the subject at baseline affected how they responded. However, for most variables (and considered that we were statistically powered to identify a large effect [n=30]), baseline states didn’t explain as much variation as the effect of training.

          Another thing to note, there was a 1 week period before the study to help ensure subjects entered the study “fresh” by disallowing them to exercise at a high intensity prior to PRE testing and in hopes of removing some residual effects of recent training.

    2. Thanks for reading the article!

      1.) Aaaah the novelty point.

      My first response to this is:

      Mechanistically, how would the “novelty” of a variation in what we did alter the adaptive responses we observed in this timeframe?

      That is, what mechanisms do you propose would have been sensitive to a variation in training that would have significantly changed the adaptive responses?

      Remember, our primary research question centered on muscle hypertrophy and not strength improvement.

      2.) Of course we wouldn’t expect them to grow indefinitely at the same rate.

      I feel this was clearly insinuated in our writing in both this article and the original paper.

      Not sure if this is sarcastic or genuine, but there are a milieu of physiological reasons why growth stalls after initial training periods. Happy to legitimately discuss those if you’re serious.

    3. I could do 20 sets of chest related exercises and my chest would probably get swole but after that what can I do? I will probably have to maintain that pace just to keep my gains let alone to receive more.
      I doubt seriously you would be able to respond positively after cutting the volume if you had to. It would seem long term gains would be significantly greater as a whole than maxing out volume now for strength and or hypertrophy. I would be more interested to know at what pace should volume increase as to approach gains in those areas without overtaxing our bodies to adapt in the future. Although I know this study would possibly be a nightmare to perform at any length to see worthwhile data I would still like to know your thoughts .

  2. How does the definition of “high volume” change when cluster sets are used rather than standard sets?

    For example, if 20×10@ 0.6 1RM in a week is considered high volume for squats assuming “standard” rest between sets (say, 3-5 minutes), then what if 40×5@0.6 1RM are done with much shorter breaks such as 20-45 secs.?

    From a Hristov INOL (Intensity x Number Of Lifts) perspective, they’re equivalent because that calculation only takes into consideration the total number of reps and the intensity. In practice, though, I find sets of 10 with longer breaks far more taxing than sets of 3-5 with much shorter breaks. To some extent I feel like it’s a product of how I’m used to training. Yet I also prefer to do squats, bench and deads/RDLs 6-days a week (with high-, medium-, and low/active rest-volume days) and I believe clusters sets leave me significantly fresher, physically and psychologically, than sets of 10+ even if the RIR is 3-5.

    That said, my concern is that I’m simply not doing enough volume to maximize gains in strength or size. For example, on squats, my weekly INOL averages about 7 with an intensity of 0.78 1RM. On a weekly basis, it’s difficult but not crushing. That volume number translates to 28×10@0.6 1RM. Maybe it’s me, but that seems daunting. I suppose I need to try it to know first-hand, but I’m very curious if you have any thoughts (or can point to any research) on how to think about volume when cluster sets are primarily used.

  3. I’m surprised they didn’t do a peaking cycle and at least report anecdotally after all that accumulation of volume. I would be more interested in seeing that to be honest. I imagine their enthusiasm for dropping volume and increasing weights would be pretty high after this

    1. Thanks for reading the article, Brian.

      That wasn’t part of our research question and funding wouldn’t have allowed for it to be done right, or, I agree, it would have been interesting to see potential supercompensatory effects.

      Traditional periodizatuon instructs us in this manner. Decrease volume, increase intensity to peak strength.

      However, this project focused on muscle growth specifically.

      I suspect that would have been quite stronger in the movements we employed had we tested them after a block of strength training.

  4. Good question, Jesse.

    First, the subjects reported ~5 years of training experience, on average.

    We personally screened interested subjects’ 3RMs for each of the movements before they were allowed in the study with tight technical constraints. They squatted ~1.75 bodyweight predicted 1RM, on average.

    I’m comfortable classifying the subjects in this study as trained.

    With that said, I think the findings can be interpreted accordingly.

    College-aged young men with training experience……

    Next, you’ve alluded to the possibility that the state each subject exhibited at baseline (as a consequence of training, lifestyle, etc) influenced their adaptive response.

    Absolutely, and why I chose to analyze the data using an ANCOVA where baseline values served as covariates in the model to control for things like starting strength, muscle size, etc.

  5. This is fantastic! Thanks for sharing.

    The heterogeneity in results across subjects is striking…and a bit concerning when it comes to the real-world applicability of these (and other related) research findings. I would be curious what the results would have been if they’d used 80 or 90% 1 RM instead. If I had a gun to my head, I’d bet greater hypertrophy in Type II fibers and greater ‘real’ (myofib. rather than sarcoplasmic, or water-related) muscle growth over the long term, as current wisdom is that Type II fibers have a greater growth potential.

    By the way, what is ‘RIR’?

    1. I think the jury is still out regarding whether sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is a) a real thing and b) substantially influenced by training style. I tend to think it’s real, but there’s just no good evidence (that I’m aware of) regarding the influence of training style. Keep in mind, this study looked at extracellular water. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy posits an increase in intracellular water in muscle fibers.

      As for the heterogeneity, that’s just how it goes. That’s why I always say that research should just be taken as a starting point.

    2. I think Greg’s points are reflective of the current state of the literature.

      We don’t have enough evidence to be confident training styles exert fraction-specific effects.

      But, physiologically and in principle, this makes sense. The principle of specificity or specific adaptations to imposed demands instructs us in this area by suggesting the contractile and metabolic patterns occurring through training would eventually present as morphological changes to support function.

      Thus, I suspect higher volume training with lower forces has a greater effect on the sarcoplasmic fraction and higher force training has a greater effect on the myofibrillar fraction. We have studies planned this year to test these hypotheses as follow-ups to this work and other projects in the lab. Notably, evidence from MacDougall in the 80s, and our lab’s work suggests that sarcoplasmic expansion can occur from training without concomitant changes in myobfibrillar protein concentrations.

      We have an article in review that delves much deeper into this area and provides a review of the related literature. I’m hopeful it’s published in the coming weeks and hope you’ll check it out, Yon.

      Exciting work ahead!

      1. Thanks for your thoughts, Cody. If indeed it turns out that higher loads/lower reps favor myofibrillar over sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, this would confirm anecdotal reports of trainers such as Mike Matthews, Sean Nalewanyj, and others, who swear by the superiority of the 4-8 rep range for optimizing hypertrophy in naturals, at least when using compound movements. It may also support the contention that lower rep training leads to ‘denser’, more ‘compact’ looking muscles, and higher rep training leads to ‘fuller’, ‘puffier’ looking muscles, though I don’t know how much truth there is to this.

        I would also be very interested in whether and how these two different training styles affect the longer-term ‘permanence’ of hypertrophic gains, perhaps related to satellite cell activation. For instance, would someone who trains in a lower rep range recover their gains faster after an extended layoff than one who trains in higher rep range? Is one rep range better for retaining muscle when in a caloric deficit? It is often said that ‘taking the weight off the bar’ (switching to a high rep/low load protocol) is a sure recipe for losing muscle when cutting. However, I always wondered if this is really true…

        1. Sorry it took me so long to respond. I didn’t see your answer until today and I swear I was checking every other day for the replies.
          First of all, I hate to come off as a critic, especially given the fact that you added a very important data point to our understanding of strength training. Your team’s efforts are appreciated.
          One possible way in which I think “novelty” might have occured is through a combination of new (execution of?) exercises and more intense exercise. Even if RIR was relatively high, you might have pushed the subjects more than they did in their own training.

  6. I combine low volume and high volumes to stimulate growth in slow and fast twitch muscles. This approach is based on the Henneman’s size principle.
    The Henneman size principle states that motor units are recruited in an orderly manner from smallest to largest, and that recruitment is dependent on the load of the activity. Low volume is used with sufficient load to stimulus the fast twitch muscle fibers before the slow twitch muscles fatigue. I use high volume based on the assumption to stimulus sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. The first exercise for low volume is with a compound exercise. The low volume exercise is followed by the high volume exercises which are primarily done with isolation exercises.

  7. Thanks for reading, Yon!

    First, the easy question: RIR stands for Repetitions in Reserve. It is the inverse of RPE.

    For example, an 8 RPE (on a 1-10 scale) is a 2 RIR. You can think of it like 10-RPE = RIR, where 10 RPE = 0 RIR and 0 RPE = 10 RIR….

    We are currently finishing up analysis of biopsy samples for sarcoplasmic vs myofibrillar fraction-specific alterations. This detailed analysis involved proteomics, transmission electron microscopy, and other advanced molecular biology techniques. Please be on the lookout for that data as it’s too soon to report what we found until we complete the entire analysis.

    1. Thanks for clarifying RIR Cody. I’m really glad to hear that you guys are digging down deep into physiological/molecular mechanisms of hypertrophy- a much needed avenue of research at this stage. Very much looking forward to your findings!

  8. Hey Greg,
    Thanks for the article. I have a question that I can not find any answer for on the net, and maybe there hasn’t been any study of it. But it is, concerning protein synthesis. They say after workout it is peaking at around 24hrs, this seems optimal for full body workouts, as many argue, but does anyone know what happens in the case of a split where you work another body part that next day, does it crush back that response?. Can one body part be building up from protein synthesis while simultaneously tearing down another?. These questions assuming all natural, with no ped influence. Thank you sir, for any input.

    1. I don’t know if that’s ever been directly studied tbh. I do know that in studies that involve whole-body exercise, MPS measured in the legs tends to be a bit lower (about 20-30% or so) than it would be after just doing lower body exercise. I suppose it’s possible that the same thing would happen when training muscles on back-to-back days, but I’m really not sure.

      1. (Response to Greg, under Eric T.’s comment) One possible confounder to the whole-body vs leg-only MPS response is that, during the whole body study (Macnaughton 2016), the participants performed the quadriceps exercises (where MPS was measured) after a chest and a back exercise. So exercise order/fatigue might be implicated.

  9. I may be missing it in the paper itself (I’m admittedly out of my depth), but is there a viable explanation for why the malto crowd fared better than the whey crowd? All other things being nearly equal, malto almost did as well as the graduated crowd…

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