Excluding the Middle: Not Just a Fallacy

In virtually every textbook and manual about strength training that I’ve ever read, the suggestion for “hypertrophy” workouts is always something like 3-5 sets of 10-12 reps at around 70-75% of your 1RM. This tends to double up as a suggestion for beginners, as well – the rationale being that they need to use lighter weights and build a foundation before moving into heavier weights.

Of course there are some differences of opinion there; Bill Starr suggested sets of five, and this has been continued by Glenn Pendlay and Mark Rippetoe with their ongoing use of the now-classical “5×5” workouts.

In reality it seems that it just doesn’t matter much what beginners do. They’ll grow and get stronger regardless of the program as long as they’re showing up and trying to get stronger. And in Maximum Muscle, I questioned the idea of the “hypertrophy protocol” to begin with. This entire notion is based on these beginner gains, firstly, and secondly, on the notion that the hormonal response elicited by this kind of training actually correlates with muscle and/or strength gains.

It doesn’t actually appear that it does once you actually look at the scant research that uses well-trained subjects, by the way. I’ve said for quite awhile now that there’s little purpose for using high-volume/low-intensity methods like that exclusively if you’re interested in getting either bigger or stronger. Please note the emphasis on the word exclusively, because that means it’s important.

What seems to be happening is that beginners get a pretty massive spike from resistance exercise, and the magnitude of that spike does tend to correlate with the amount of work done (so the hypertrophy protocol will create a more pronounced hormone response than your typical strength protocol). However, your hormone response to exercise is one of those things that tends to be blunted as you get stronger and generally “more adapted” to lifting weights.

In advanced guys, not only is this hormone response blunted (PMID: 18714223), but the hypertrophy protocol also produces inferior results in trained strength athletes (PMID: 12734759 – also note that while the non-athlete group made gains, and despite the conclusion of the authors, the strength athletes did rather poorly).We also see that the hormone response tends not to affect the growth-signaling chemistry (PMID: 19736298) nor real strength or size gains (PMID: 19910330), and that results can be achieved without these transient spikes in the first place (PMID: 16972050). There’s also this gem (PMID: 19077743) that shows the hormone response to diminish with training, and suggests it may not be predictive of actual gains.

In short, I don’t think the hormone response means much of anything, and a real critical analysis of the research (as opposed to cherry-picking the abstracts) agrees with that premise. With that in mind, it would also make sense to re-examine why we’d use this kind of training and for what purposes, especially for those moving past the beginner phase of training.

Beginners and Bodybuilders

These two groups have something in common: they both love to do a whole lot of volume in their workouts. Beginners do it because they tend not to know better, and because they almost always want to be bodybuilders. It’s funny to me how the general wisdom of bodybuilding has come to dominate virtually every commercial gym in the world, because even people that claim not to have bodybuilding goals almost always work out with a routine designed for bodybuilding.

Funnily enough, I don’t think anybody’s sure why bodybuilders train how they train. Much of it stems back to Arnold’s weirdo fetish about “the pump”, but there’s not much evidence-based rationale for it. Simply put, training for the pump is training for strength endurance, when muscles actually respond to progressive loading (i.e., getting stronger).

There is a volume component to this as well, so it’s not just about getting your 1RM up like a powerlifter, but you still have to add weight over time while operating within a reasonable limit of work in each workout. I’ve touched on this before, where both empirically and academically it seems that the limit should be somewhere in the range of 40-60 total reps per muscle group.

I think it was Pavel Tsatsouline that said you want to try to achieve a pump with heavy weights. Just working the muscle with 3-5 sets on 10 different exercises isn’t cutting it; if you’re training with useful weights and putting enough effort into each set, you won’t have the stamina to knock out that much work.

Yet this is what just about every damn body does.

Pumping can work just fine if you’ve got anabolic steroids to automatically switch on protein synthesis for you. It doesn’t quite cut it for natural bodybuilders, or even for those of you that just want to be PrettyTM. If you want to optimize your muscle mass as a natural, then you need to be putting your efforts into getting stronger with a reasonable volume of work – not too high, not too low. That’s what reasonable means.

It’s no coincidence that the best bodybuilders also tend to be the strongest, even amongst the drug users.

Excluding the Middle?

Shifting gears slightly, I want to talk about relative weights and rep ranges – more specifically, how these things change as you get stronger.

You would think that the trend would be towards doing more sets, fewer reps-per-set, and heavier weights as you get stronger and become more advanced. To an extent, this is what happens.

However, as is always the case with advanced strength athletes, it’s not always so clear. Strangely, it seems that you see people gravitating towards the top-end strength work like that, yes, but you’ll also see some of the opposite.

Some guys do a ton of sets at low-ish reps, or maybe a handful (1-2) of very hard sets in the 5-10 rep range, which is the range of 85% their 1RM (or higher). Then you see other guys that seem to never go above 70% and instead do very high reps, or the Dynamic Effort/speed work that’s still fairly popular.

What you don’t see are the top guys doing the middle-of-the-road stuff that can benefit a beginner, and that most wannabe pump ‘n tone guys (and girls) end up doing for the next five years while not seeing any improvements.

Firstly, things like 4-5×10 just lose their utility beyond a certain point, at least when used as the sole training method. I think the worst thing a person can do as an intermediate (that is, past the first 3-6 months of training but not yet officially mature enough to be “strong”) is trying to use a high-volume approach like that. At that level, the person is not strong, relative to his/her capability anyway, and using low percentage workouts by and large will not get you strong. What that person needs is heavy sets of 5-8 reps – moderate reps, moderate percentages.

So why do advanced guys get away with it? Why do you see some of them thriving, for that matter?

I think there’s a kind of synergy that can happen once you’re strong enough to take advantage of it, where you sorta come full circle. Whereas very heavy weights “pull” your strength up from the top by exposing you to heavy stimulus, light weight/high volume work can “push” your strength up from the bottom by helping to adapt your muscles and connective tissues (and probably by serving as a nice break from heavy work).

Once you’ve spent years working with heavy weights, you’ve developed a hell of a foundation, for one. At that point, you haven’t exactly exhausted the potential of heavy stuff, but you’re at a point where you’ll benefit from more profound changes in stimulus, even if it’s just due to the alternation of heavy and light weights.

At the same time, that middle ground that worked for you as a beginner and even as an intermediate – workouts with moderate percentages and moderate volumes – can lose steam. I think that as you get stronger, this “no man’s land” of percentages results as you have to balance the need for higher stimulus with the greater effects on your recovery.

Say you rack up say five doubles, or six triples, or even just five singles up to a max, and you’ve done 10, 18, and 5 total reps, respectively. The weights are fairly high, sure – easily up in the 85-90%+ range – but the total tonnage isn’t that great simply because you haven’t done all that many reps. In this case, the weight itself serves as the stimulus and you don’t need a ton of volume – a ton of volume would wreck you.

On the other end of the curve, if you’re doing percentages at or below 70-75%, then the weight itself isn’t really the key stressor. You can still knock yourself out with a ton of volume or taking a lot of sets to grinding-failure, but the lighter weights won’t tend to impact recovery to the same extent. Even so, the volume has its own effect on your muscles and surrounding tissues.

But you take a guy that squats even 500 lbs and have him try to knock off a 5×5 squat workout, and you’re looking at some serious poundage for that session, and with a fairly substantial weight to boot. Obviously this will get worse the stronger you get, too; anecdotally you’ll see guys working down the percentages with their lighter work as they get stronger.

That may sound odd, but consider 60% of an 800 lb squat – that’s still 480 lbs. Even though it’s “just” 60%, it’s still a heavy enough weight in absolute terms that it can be a stimulus.

I think that as you get stronger, the need to “widen the gap” becomes more important. You need heavy work at the top-end – singles, doubles, and triples with pretty heavy weight. I’d also suggest that the occasional “toughness set”, a high-rep set of 8-20 reps with a challenging weight on a big lift, could be useful too. For that matter, it’s not like there aren’t big strong guys that don’t do higher reps on average, too – the key difference is that in general, they tend to be all-out “intense” sets (in the HIT/bodybuilder definition), instead of multiple sets of pump ‘n toning work. At the other end, you can benefit from lighter work, at or below 70% for volume (be it high-rep 5×10 kind of stuff, or speed-type work).

The middle-ground seems like it will trend towards over-working you if you’re getting on up there. It’s great for beginners, but maybe not so great for more advanced guys. I think those middle percentages may be a place for Westside-style special exercises to shine. You try to do that kind of work with your big compound lifts and you’ll burn out fast, but all the stuff WSB recommends to build general fitness overcomes some of that.

Train the lifts very heavy or very light, and make up the rest with special exercises. I like the sound of that.

Even though I’m not all that strong, I’ve found that this wisdom applies to my deadlift. When I do actually pull off the floor, it’s very rarely more than a few singles, doubles, or rarely triples. This is coupled with much lighter “speed” work, generally 70% or less (I’ve played with heavier stuff and haven’t found it useful, go figure). Any “volume” work I want to do comes from Good Mornings, box squats with bands, or plain old 45-degree back raises.

On the other hand, my weaker lifts still benefit from plain-old volume work and progressive overload. It’s all about where you are in terms of strength and how much you want to add.

So what about the guys that want to be PrettyTM? Well, obviously growing muscles is a slightly different tangent, but I don’t think there’s a huge difference in suggestions simply because of the overlap in getting bigger lifts and getting bigger muscles. Bodybuilders will likely benefit from the One Hard Set method (i.e., max reps with a pretty heavy weight) combined with the lighter Pump N Tone sets (your typical 3-5×10), which gives you the top-end high-percentage work and the low-end higher-volume work.

Otherwise, besides a change in the rep ranges (higher average reps for bodybuilders vs. strength types) I think the rules still apply – exclude the middle as you get stronger.

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4 thoughts on “Excluding the Middle: Not Just a Fallacy”

  1. Good stuff, Matt.

    I've been excluding the middle lately by mixing multiple heavy sets (4 x 4 @ 5-6RM) with a few sets (2 x 6-9) done HIT-style for each major muscle group and it's working very well.

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