Fitness Q&As – Part 2
Useful Links: Part 1
Fitness helps me think better, feel better, and move better.
Welcome to the second part of the Fitness Q&As series. If you missed Part 1, click the link at the top to check it out.
This week’s topics include:
1. Can you grow muscle if you do the same number of sets every week?
Volume is one of the key mechanisms involved in muscle hypertrophy. It has a dose–response relationship with hypertrophy, so, the higher the volume, the more growth it will elicit.
In relation to resistance training, volume is usually expressed as reps x sets x load. Therefore increasing reps, sets, or load are all viable options to boost volume and thus hypertrophy.
If you do the same number of sets every week, you might rely too much on the weight lifted as a marker of progress. The problem is, increasing load becomes more and more difficult past the “newbie gains” stage. As a result, muscle growth could slow down or stall if this were your only way of accumulating volume.
When programming for myself or my clients, wherever circumstances allow it, I tend to utilise theoretical concepts called “volume landmarks,” developed by Dr. Mike Israetel. In short, you would aim to accumulate sets throughout a mesocycle, from your Minimum Effective Volume (the bare minimum number of sets you need to make gains) to your Maximum Recoverable Volume (the maximum amount of sets you can push yourself to do whilst still making gains).
An example might be to start Week 1 with 10 sets and end Week 6 with 20 sets per muscle or muscle group. I would recommend reading How Much Should I Train? for more details.
So, while it is possible to keep growing with the same number of sets per week, I think varying the number of sets or reps might both be valuable strategies to increase volume over time.
2. Which one is more effective to grow your quads: squats or leg extensions?
In general, whilst we know that multi-joint exercises are usually more efficient at improving strength than single-joint exercises (click), the picture for hypertrophy is not so clear.
Muscle growth seems to happen via three main mechanisms: mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. Squats and leg extensions can produce all three, so they are good candidates for a hypertrophy-oriented training program. In fact, I would include them both.
However, depending on the muscles you are trying to grow, you might decide to prioritise one over the other. For example, the leg extension seems to be really effective when the goal is to train the rectus femoris, one of the quadriceps muscles (click).
On the other hand, the squat might be more helpful to grow the other three muscles making up the quadriceps group, in addition to training your back, glutes, and hamstrings to a greater degree than the leg extension.
In fact, due to the fact that compound lifts like squats train more muscle groups at the same time, they should be the staple of a program aimed at balanced physique development.
This is not to say a leg extension could not prove a worthy addition or even an alternative in some situations.
For example, on days when you are more tired or have less time to train, cranking out five or six sets of leg extensions might be more viable than three sets of squats that you need half an hour to warm up for.
Other factors to consider when choosing between the two lifts include: Can you do a great squat? Then squats are definitely good to grow your quads.
Do you have bad technique, shortened range of motion, or pain when squatting? Then a leg extension could be a better choice, paired with another compound movement like the leg press.
My approach is to use more than one exercise for a certain muscle group at varying frequencies in different mesocycles, depending on the goal and characteristics of each particular training phase.
3. What’s more effective for muscle growth: low reps and high loads, or high reps and low loads?
Contrary to what most think, the “hypertrophy rep range,” or the best rep range to grow muscle, commonly considered to be eight to 12 reps, looks more like six to 30. Therefore, as long as you are somewhere on that continuum, you will elicit some muscle growth.
Furthermore, varying rep ranges can provide a new stimulus for your muscles to adapt to even if you don’t change your exercises. This can be another strategy to induce progressive overload.
Restricting your rep range seems to be much more important for strength. To develop this skill, you may want to stay within the one to five rep range.
For hypertrophy, on the other hand, all the “classic” rep ranges (one to five, six to 12, 15 to 30) can produce results. Eight to 12 is still a good range because it is time-efficient, so you could spend most of your training in this range, but I would also utilise the others, albeit less frequently, in order to make the most of all the tools at your disposal to induce a hypertrophic response.
4. If you are getting stronger, does that mean you are also growing muscle?
And, by “getting stronger,” I mean being able to lift more weight over time for the same number of reps.
That said, increasing strength does not necessarily mean muscle growth. In fact, according to the results of this 2018 study, one set might yield the same increase in strength as three or five sets, whereas it is clear that you stimulate more hypertrophy if you do more sets.
Training for pure strength sometimes includes very little volume, so that the athletes can recover from the very high intensity. As a result, you may make plenty of strength gains, but you may achieve less growth than you could have otherwise, or you may only maintain your current musculature during pure strength training phases.
This is not to say you can never engage in this type of training, but it might be better to reduce its frequency if your main goal is hypertrophy.
When designing your own program, keep in mind two important factors:
5. Can you put on muscle if you maintain your weight?
The short answer is yes. Under certain circumstances, you can achieve what is known as body recomposition, which means your weight remains stable, but you are losing fat and putting on muscle in its place.
This is what happened to me when I started training. Through a fat loss diet, I dropped my weight back to what it had been two years before, give or take a few pounds. However, I put on some lean mass, whereas in the past I had been “skinny fat.”
It seems that body recomposition is more likely to happen to beginner trainees or those returning to exercise after a long layoff.
The more advanced you are, the more crucial a calorie deficit may be for you to gain size, and this will more than likely come with some inevitable fat gain.
6. Does sleep affect body composition?
Sleep can have a massive impact on the amount of body fat and lean mass you may accumulate. For example, studies have found an association between a lack of sleep and excessive body fat in both adults and younger people (click, click, click).
Sleeping too little can have a cascade of negative effects for body composition:
Furthermore, a lack of sleep can affect your recovery from training. The more resources your body has to expend to help you recover, the fewer it will be able to spare to build more muscle, thus impacting your gains.
So how much should you sleep?
The answer isn’t that straight-forward. The optimal number of hours of sleep for each individual will depend on various factors, such as their lifestyle. However, there are age-appropriate recommendations for sleep health, which you can use as a starting point, then adjust depending on your results.
7. Does the hormone insulin help you gain muscle?
Insulin is a mistreated hormone. It is released mainly in response to carbs ingestion and temporarily suppresses the use of fat for fuel, therefore people believe it is “bad” for body composition.
The same people are also persuaded that this temporary fat usage hiatus inhibits fat loss, but this is incorrect. The use of fat for fuel will eventually resume, and you will lose fat as long as you are in a calorie deficit.
Furthermore, insulin reduces muscle protein breakdown. As a result, the rate of muscle protein synthesis (the creation of new muscle protein) can overshoot that of muscle protein breakdown. This means that your body is able to not only repair the muscles that have been damaged by your training session, but also to make them grow bigger, which is precisely the goal of hypertrophy training.
Although it is still unclear whether hormones like insulin directly contribute to muscle growth, it seems that at the very least they help it happen.
For more insight into this topic, I would suggest reading The Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy by Brad Schoenfeld.
8. To grow muscle, which one is more important: (1) lifting a heavier weight, even if range of motion suffers, or (2) lifting a lighter weight with full range of motion?
Provided you are getting close enough to failure to stimulate hypertrophy in both situations, I would put my money on Option 2. In fact, a number of studies, such as this one from 2013, have proven the superiority of range of motion over magnitude of load for muscle size and strength gains.
Moreover, bad technique and shortened range of motion have both been associated with reduced hypertrophy regardless of load used (click, click), therefore ego lifting doesn’t seem like a good idea to develop your best physique.
When you lift an excessively heavy weight with limited range of motion, especially in the case of compound movements, you might not recruit all of the muscles you intend to target, or you might not subject some of them to enough time under tension.
The outcome would be less hypertrophic stimulus compared to a fuller range of motion, even if the load lifted was greater.
9. What do you think of BCAAs?
Branch-chained amino acids (BCAAs) are three essential amino acids called leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
If your diet meets the current Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for protein in the UK, which is 0.75 gr per kilogram of bodyweight, you already get plenty of BCAAs from food, so you don’t need additional supplementation.
If you lift weights, it’s likely your current protein intake will be higher than the RNI, therefore you also don’t need to consume BCAAs.
Nevertheless, many people take BCAAs because they believe that these supplements will increase muscle protein synthesis; reduce muscle protein breakdown; enhance muscle growth and recovery; reduce DOMS and fatigue; and spare muscle glycogen during exercise.
However, scientific literature has shown that, although BCAAs do appear to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, complete protein sources – which contain all essential amino acids, including BCAAs – still do this to a greater degree.
Furthermore, BCAAs supplementation might reduce the absorption of other amino acids, as the supplemented BCAAs would “compete” for absorption with the natural amino acids you would get from your diet. This would not happen if all of your amino acids came from food sources rather than supplements.
In summary, complete protein is arguably more effective and cheaper than any BCAA supplement.
10. Should you take a multivitamin?
In general, you should not need to take a multivitamin if you followed a balanced diet. Natural micronutrients are superior to any supplement, as mentioned in the previous answer.
Vitamins and minerals work in synergy. In natural foods, they are grouped together in order to produce specific results.
Artificial supplements can’t reproduce the effectiveness of this natural relationship, therefore you should always aim to improve your diet first before you chose to resort to supplements.
For example, if you aren’t eating enough fibre, you should focus on that first and see if there are any meaningful changes to the way you look and feel.
In some specific cases – for instance, preparation for a bodybuilding competition, when calories might be reduced to such a degree that nutrient intake might not be adequate to prevent deficiencies – optimising your diet via natural food might not be possible. In this case, a multivitamin could help.
However, comp prep counts as extraordinary circumstances. For the average joe, multivitamins are likely a waste of money.
For instance, my first nutrition client was taking a multivitamin every day when we started working together. I asked her to stop doing that for the duration of her eight-week coaching experience.
During our final session, I asked her if she was going to start taking the multivitamin again.
She said the habits we built together had done more to help her improve her well-being in eight weeks than the multivitamin had done in eight months. (You can read an interview with her here and her client testimonial at the bottom of this page.)
In Future Episodes:
The next article will be all about different types of motivation and how to harness the power of motivation in your own fitness journey.
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An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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