T Nation

Lack of Progression: Improper Load?

I think we all agree that diet is probably the number one reason we don’t get the results we want. Next to that, could it be that a) we simply aren’t pushing enough iron? and b)we are not adding enough variation to our program? I bring this up because of two VERY thought provoking statements I read last night. 1)(Ian King)“If you are simply attempting to create muscle breakdown as you may in hypertrophy training, the NUMBER of exercises may be more important than the number of SETS per exercise”. (What do you guys think?)2) A LOT of authors and trainers are suggesting that if you are not pushing (in terms of work sets) somewhere in the range of 75-85% of your 1RM, growth will be slow. Your thoughts…

I had recently been at a plateau for several months. I was making gains, but they were minimal gains. During this time I frequently changed my routine, increased sets and weight without a real difference in gains. For the past three weeks I have been doing supersets and I have made substantial progress. I can’t believe the difference. I think my muscles are more fatiqued after my workouts than they have even been and I can really feel it the next day. I’m not sure about increasing the number of exercises, but working the same body part with two different exercises in succession with little or no time between sets has really made the difference for me.

GregtheMan: SuperSets fall under the catagory of “Advanced Training Techniques” in the literature and publications like “Flex”. They are meant for EXACTLY the reason you used them; to break through plateaus. However, my question is more basic. Even with a superset, wouldn’t you agree that your muscles still needed some “baseline” overload? In other words, a superset or tri-set or drop sets, whatever, would not be effective if you were using relative light weights that represented some small fraction of your 1RM? Seems basic, but all you have to do is look at what people are doing in the gym and you say to yourself “maybe not…”

From my experience and observation of others,
here are my thoughts:

# exercises vs # sets
It seems that people with a younger training age do better using fewer exercises with more sets per movement. They need to develop their nervous system for each of these movements which are new to them, and doing too many movements in a given workout will over tax their nervous system, IMHO. On the other hand, people who have been training a long time have a much more developed and efficient nervous system, and in order to maximally recruit motor units, they need to do fewer sets per exercise, but a greater number and variety of exercises. This greater variety will force more continued adaptation than doing fewer exercises. At least this is true for me.

# reps vs % of 1RM
I think Ian King is right about this. The younger your training age the more you will benefit from higher rep hypertrophy training - doing more volume with less weight. The longer a person has been training, the more one will benefit from doing a lower volume with a higher percentage of 1RM. Again, this is true for me.

Aside from those points, the two mistakes I see people frequently make in the gym are: 1. not periodizing and altering their training frequently enough. Regardless of your training age, you still need to cycle through a variety differing stimuli - ie differing loads and volumes. 2. not increasing the weight regularly enough. In other words, they keep using the same weight and expect that they will continue to grow. Hope that helps.

Now I just have to make sure I follow my own advice. :-)

Free: THAT’S what suprised me about Ian’s statement (and still does!) My feeling has always been like yours. The beginner benefits from FEWER exercises/more sets and “visa versa” for the more experienced lifter. Now, Ian goes on to say (I was reading “Get Buffed” last night) that in order to avoid overtaxing the nervous system and overtraining, there is an inverse relationship between number of exercises and sets; if you increase the number of exercises, you HAVE to decrease the number of sets and visa vera in order to avoid the very problem you bring up.(I’ve read it more than once that you could actually have a beginner doing 3-4 exercises per bodypart, BUT only two working sets per exercise), with the OPTIMAL number of TOTAL sets per workout (for hypertrophy) being 15-25. Your thoughts?

By the way: For anyone who thinks I/We are making this “too complex”; it’s having this kind of understanding that helps you avoid all the “…to “tone”, do this; to build, do this; so-you-don’t-get-bulky, do this” non-sense we too often see and hear.

Yes, I think that in general you need to
decrease the number of sets per exercise
whenever you increase the number of exercises

  • and vice versa. Just as there is an inverse
    relationship between volume and intensity,
    there is an inverse relationship between
    number of exercises and number of sets. Your
    body can only do so much before you start
    to smash it into overtraining. Regarding total
    number of sets, I think 10-20 for the natural
    lifter and 15-25 for the “enhanced” lifter.
    Depending on the number of reps in each set.
    Others may have better insight into training
    while “enhanced” since I don’t have a lot of
    experience with that.

Another thing people forget is stick with a program for a decent amount of time.

I vary my workout but only after I have exhausted the benefits fron a routine. normally 4-6 weeks. I see many vary on a weekly basis. I feel it takes almost 2weeks to adjust to a routine.

I agree with what has already been said…just pointing out a pitfall many hit.

BRILLIANT STUFF GUYS … I’ve been contemplating a “volume and intensity” post so its great to see this. We know that at lower intensities (% of 1RM) volume needs to increase so they are interrelated. Responses to any combination of intensity and volume with vary between individuals (due to fibre type, metabolism, hormone levels etc) BUT I have been wondering if you could work out the correct stimulus for growth as a TOTAL WEIGHT IN ALL SETS as a factor of the 1RM and then divided it into sets along the lines of kings hypertrophy guidelines. Give this some thought - a rough theory is that total weight for an exercise should be around 25x1RM with a limit of 2-3 exercises.

Besides debating the questions that you guys are discussing, I think there is another, more fundamental problem with most trainees. I think this is what mufasa was referring to in the first place.

The problem is this...nearly every trainee Ive worked with at every level (from beginner to very advanced) uses loads below their potential. Ive worked with some very experienced (and large) as well as relatively strong lifters and when I see their weights, I tell them my grandma can lift more than them! Then I tell them that I seriously think that their loads are too little for their experience and size. They undoubtedly get offended, saying something to the effect that they train damn hard and I dont know what Im talking about. A few workouts with me and they see what Im talking about. They had been using loads 10% or more below what they could have been handling for equal reps.

I think the real challenge in progress is to lift heavier than you think you can. Our old motto was if you can do 8, then do 12. And if you can use 200lbs, do 215. You may need a spotter and you may fail from time to time. But it's amazing how much stronger most really are relative to how heavy they lift.

People are always astounded by my weights in the gym. They are not that spectacular but they are good for my size. Since Im lean with a smaller bone structure (and because I wear shirts and pants in the gym rather than string tanks and hotskins), I dont look all that powerful. But when I start training, people are shocked at my weights. Years of trying to lift what I “shouldnt have been able to” contributes to my size and seemingly unrealistic weights.

Mufasa, this is a very good point. I’ve been kind of suspecting for a while that my relative lack of progress has been due to not using enough weight, and I appreciate JMB’s point on that issue. However, it seems like every time I start moving up in weight (especially on an upper-body exercise) some joint or other gets injured. Admittedly, I’m 39 and have a light bone structure, but I’m not THAT old! My diet is good, I use a lot of supps, and I don’t think I’m overtraining. Anyone have any thoughts/advice on this problem?