The scientific basis of resistance training and muscle growth (hypertrophy) is fairly straightforward and based on a few key principles: the overload principle, the progression principle and the specificity principle. All principles collectively should be the cornerstone of any exercise program. The overload principle states that you must ‘overload’ your body with some level of stimulus for it to adapt and respond. This is why doing the same exercises, reps and sets for every workout eventually results in a plateau and likely even more boredom. The progression principle states you must make progressive changes to your workout to facilitate optimal improvements in strength, body composition, etc. Finally, the specificity principle states that your body will develop the physiological attributes specific to the stimulus you provide.
Today, the overload principle will take center stage. When I was in high school and my early college days, I like many guys read bodybuilding magazines and followed some of the programs like they were biblical in nature. I also subscribed to the philosophy of ‘more is better’ regarding the number of sets, reps, exercises, etc. performed in each workout. Sometimes chest workouts were two hours long, oftentimes consisting of 30 sets of various types of chest exercises. Looking back that was crazy, no stupid! I didn’t know any better and candidly I didn’t have anything better to do.
Fast forward ten years after sitting through one too many classes with the word ‘exercise’ in the title and I’ve thought many times that destroying my muscle was probably not doing near the good I thought it was. In fact, I remember reading a documentary on Lee Haney a few years back and one thing he emphasized was that training needed to be high-quality and all you had to do was “stimulate the muscle, not annihilate it!”
I couldn’t agree more. Now don’t get me wrong, muscle growth is not an easy thing and it comes as a result of a gut-wrenching combination of optimal volume and intensity. Other critical factors include optimal rest, hydration, and nutrition. If you are a decent representation of the masses, it’s likely your diet is less than stellar right along with your sleeping habits. Because of this, one could argue paying close attention to your body and the volume of exercise you complete is even more important. Sure, slugging a protein shake helps for sure, but it doesn’t make up for an otherwise crappy diet.
Unfortunately, the individuality aspect of people makes it extremely difficult to say how much is too much. We do know that as little as one set of resistance training to failure between 12 and 15 reps is sufficient for an untrained person to see gains in strength and endurance, but this isn’t optimal for someone who is trained and wants to increase their strength and muscle mass. I can’t begin to get into what amount of exercise is too much because there is no consensus due to the many different factors that can influence the potential outcomes.
In the end, I would say train smart, stick to your plan in the TransPHORMation Challenge. Listen to your body, learn about nutrition, learn about your physiology and apply the things you learn. While training hard is a critically important step to meeting your goals, nowhere does it say you have to be in the gym for hours each day. In the end, get in the gym and strive to make your workouts as efficient as possible.
Get in, go heavy, get out and go home!
This applies to the women reading as much as it does the men, older and younger!
– Chad Kerksick PhD
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