December 2012: Brad Schoenfeld (Part 1)

by on December 23, 2012

JOHN: Ladies and gentleman, you thought the bar was set high in the last interview, well we have another absolutely brilliant mind to share his thoughts with us! I am very excited to have Brad Schoenfeld with us this month. Brad, tell us a little bit about yourself, and what you are most passionate about!

BRAD: I’m one of the few practitioners who bridges the gap between academia and practitioner. My primary area of expertise is in optimizing body composition (increasing muscle development and decreasing body fat), but I have diverse interests that span a wide array of fitness topics. I’m known for my evidence-based approach to training and spend a couple hours a day on average poring over peer-reviewed journals. Guess that makes me a bit of a research geek 🙂

Education-wise, I received my Master’s Degree in exercise science from the University of Texas. I’m currently finishing up my PhD at Rocky Mountain University, where my research focuses on the mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. I’ve published over 30 peer-reviewed journal articles and I serve as an associate editor for the NSCA Strength and Conditioning Journal. I’m a Lecturer and Director of the Human Performance Lab in the exercise science department at Lehman College.

On the consumer side, I’ve been a personal trainer for almost two decades. I recently sold my private one-on-one training facility in Scarsdale, NY that I owned for 17 years, and I continue to do consulting with a number of private clients, most notably physique athletes. I’ve published ten books (my most recent of which is “The MAX Muscle Plan” which was just released last month), have appeared in hundreds of magazine articles and television shows on various fitness topics, and lectured around the world for many of the popular fitness organizations.

JOHN: Ok, so we have established you might know a thing or two! Brad my readers are primarily interested in two things. The things we all want of course, losing fat and building muscle. Let’s talk building muscle. Not just building it though, maxing out our genetic potential by utilizing every way imaginable to hypertrophy a muscle. Let’s start with muscle fiber types. We all know that fast twitch muscle fiber has the most potential to grow, so in your opinion, how do we maximize this in our programming?

BRAD: Certainly full recruitment of the entire motor unit pool is essential for optimizing hypertrophy. Based on the size principle of muscle recruitment, fast twitch fibers are normally the last to be activated (recruitment is carried out in size order from smallest motor units to largest). There is conflicting evidence as to what the minimum threshold for loading is to recruit all available fibers. Current thinking seems to be that ~60% 1RM is necessary in traditional training (i.e. not using techniques such as restricted blood flow), but some research shows this may happen at somewhat lower intensities. Regardless, it is important to realize that recruitment is only part of the equation with respect to muscle growth. Maximizing anabolic signaling involves other aspects including the time under tension of the fibers, local growth factor stimulation, etc. So from a practical standpoint, this indicates that a spectrum of rep ranges is needed to maximize growth. While the classic hypertrophy range (6-12 RM) seems to be relevant for the majority of training, both lower and higher rep ranges should also be incorporated to achieve optimal results.

JOHN: One of the questions I get pretty frequently, is geared toward going to “failure” and if it’s necessary for maximal recruitment of fast twitch muscle. Your thoughts on if this is necessary, and if so how frequently, as we all know we can’t go to total failure on every set we do.

BRAD: Failure training is important for maximizing the hypertrophic response. In this way, you maximize inroading and stimulation of all muscle fibers. That said, it’s a mistake to take all your sets to the point of momentary muscular failure, particularly when you’re performing multiple set routines. I see people in the gym pushing every set to the limit and beyond, thinking that it’s the best way to spur growth. Such thinking is misguided. There is compelling evidence that persistent training to failure over time can lead to overtraining, which actually ends up resulting in a plateau and thus impairing results. Bottom line is that you should incorporate failure training into some of your sets, but not all of them. And this should be done in a periodized fashion where unloading cycles are interspersed into the mix to facilitate recuperation–this is an essential component of my MAX Muscle Plan. Given that the threshold for overtraining is dependent on multiple factors and varies from person to person, it is essential that a lifter is in tune with his own body and knows when he’s pushing the envelope too far.

JOHN: Can you talk a little bit about inroading for us? What is it exactly? That is a new term to me.

BRAD: Inroading refers to the degree of fatigue experienced by the working fibers. Current thinking suggests that a greater inroading can lead to greater hypertrophy, at least up to a certain point. Thus, if you can induce greater fatigue in the spectrum of muscle fibers without “overdoing it” (i.e. promoting local or systemic overtraining), you can enhance the remodeling of muscle tissue to produce a greater hypertrophic stimulus.

JOHN: Ok got it. Some of the best gains I have made (and continue to make) I would attribute to doing occasional sets that we call “challenge sets”. This could be a grueling drop set on squats, it could be a set taken to failure followed by partial reps to failure, etc. These are done sparingly during a workout as they will leave you on your can passed out. Is that kind of what you are talking about with inroading? Ensuring your hitting literally every fiber you can to exhaustion?

BRAD: Yes, both research and experience show that specialized techniques such as drop sets and heavy negatives are excellent ways to spur growth. I wrote a review paper on this in a recent issue of the NSCA Strength and Conditioning Journal. Inroading is part of the mix, but these specialized techniques also enhance metabolic stress and muscle damage, which are factors in the growth process. As you correctly point out, though, these techniques are highly taxing to the neuromuscular system and thus be used sparingly. If performed too frequently, they will hasten the onset of overtraining and have a negative effect on hypertrophy.

JOHN: What about slow twitch fibers? Can they grow an appreciable amount that would be noticeable to the eye? If so, how do we best train them to grow?

BRAD: Absolutely! While fast twitch fibers get all the hype (and somewhat deservedly so), slow twitch fibers certainly can and do hypertrophy. Research shows that fast twitch fibers hypertrophy about 50% more than slow twitch fibers–but that still means that slow twitch fibers have considerable ability to grow. In fact, studies have found that bodybuilders have substantially greater enlargements of slow twitch fibers compared to powerlifters, which may be a big reason for the greater overall size in the bodybuilders. Given that slow twitch fibers do not fatigue easily, they are better targeted with higher rep training (in the range of 15-20 reps) as this maintains a greater time under tension for these fibers. This can have particular relevance to predominantly slow twitch muscles, such as the soleus, where focusing on the higher rep range can be beneficial to maximizing its growth.

JOHN: Brad this is great info, and something many hypertrophy programs completely miss out IMO. In terms of intensity here, and going back to my above question regarding intensity, should these higher reps sets culminate in failure?

BRAD: At least some of the sets should be carried out until failure. This will optimize adaptations related to lactate clearance as well as inroading of the slow twitch fibers. But again, repeated failure training will hasten the onset of overtraining so it needs to be employed judiciously over the course of a periodized program.

JOHN: Speaking of fast and slow twitch fiber, do you believe lower body generally needs more reps to stimulate hypertrophy then upper body?

BRAD: I don’t necessarily think the lower body needs higher reps, as some have postulated. This would only be of potential relevance if someone has a high percentage of slow twitch fibers in the region (and thus the same approach would apply for the upper body). The bigger issue is that the lower body often will need higher training volumes to stimulate optimal growth. What I’ve found is that the lower body can be more stubborn to grow, seemingly because of the constant low-level use in everyday life. I’ll note that this is not a universal rule that applies to everyone–again, the principle of individuality applies. Some respond very well to lower volume routines–in certain cases even lower than for the upper body. So lifters must be in tune with their bodies, experiment with different volumes, and assess what works best for their individual genetics.

JOHN: Ok got it. What about hyperplasia? Do you think it’s possible to create hyperplasia via extreme training (or stretching)?

BRAD: The prevailing body of research does not support hyperplasia (i.e. the creation of new muscle fibers), at least in traditional training protocols. Traditional resistance training results in an enlargement of existing fibers (hypertrophy) to account for muscle growth. The question as to whether “extreme” training might bring about hyperplasia is an interesting topic. Conceivably, adding more fibers will expand our hypertrophic potential, so if this can be accomplished it certainly would be of benefit for those that are looking to maximize mass building. Back in the 90’s, Joey Antonio carried out a number of avian (i.e. bird) studies on the subject that did in fact show hyperplasia could occur. Here’s the rub, though: the protocol involved a progressive stretching protocol where weights (amounting to up to 35% of the bird’s mass) were attached to the wings of the subjects for days on end. Now I can’t imagine any somewhat sane human undergoing this type of training in an attempt to increase fiber number. It is highly doubtful that any of the so-called “extreme” training routines currently promoted would have any such effects on hyperplasia. This is an area that deserves more research as it has not been well studied and there’s still much we don’t know.

JOHN: Well my readers (and me) can be a little INSANE, so next time you are at the gym, don’t be surprised if you see someone wearing a Mountain Dog shirt hanging from a chin up bar with 100lbs until their hands bleed! HA!

JOHN: Ok, so vary reps, go to failure on maybe one set per exercise, periodize wisely, train intensely….now onto to the classic debate of high versus low volume. As a trainee gains experience, do you think they should progressively add more volume to their plan? How much is enough?

BRAD: Absolutely! Volume has been shown to be perhaps the most important factor in hypertrophy. At least up to a certain point, a greater volume leads to greater gains in size. This is why the single-set-to-failure approach is suboptimal for maximizing muscle gains. There’s one little problem, however: if you constantly train with high volumes you’ll rapidly become overtrained, which results in the dreaded plateau. This is why periodization is so important in a hypertrophy-based routine. For those who don’t know, periodization refers to the manipulation of training variables (such as reps, sets, and rest intervals), which are varied over time to optimize a training effect.

The approach that I’ve developed — which has worked exceedingly well with everyone from recreational lifters who want to add some size up to elite competitive bodybuilders — is to systematically increase volume over the course of a 12 week mesocycle. My general template is to segment training into “blocks” of 4 weeks that is designed to produce “functional overreaching” where the body supercompensates by the end of the cycle. The program progresses from a 3-day-a-week routine in the first month, to 4 days-a-week in second month, and culminates with a shock phase of 6 days-a-week in the final month. Throughout each block, there is an “unloading” phase in the last week of each block where volume is decreased to provide the optimal balance of training and recovery so that gains continue over time. In this way, each phase builds upon the previous one so that the lifter ultimately achieves maximal muscle growth by the end of the macrocycle.

Now I want to be clear that everyone responds differently to training. This is a basic tenet of training — the principle of individuality. Some people can tolerate greater volumes while others less. This is why I emphasize that my program is a template for maximizing muscle and each lifter must tailor it to his individual genetics. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription.

JOHN: I find your approach very interesting. I typically have people work their volume up over a 3 week period, go really hard for 6-7 weeks, then lower volume over a couple of weeks. I also built a program where the volume wasn’t measured in terms of sets, it was raised by training sessions, and cycled up as you describe. Like you, I do 12 week blocks as well!

One thing that I have learned over the years is exactly what you said, the principal of individuality. I have people that can only tolerate 4 to 5 weeks of blasting, and some that can literally go 20-30 weeks. Its crazy the variance.

JOHN: Ok, lets’ touch on adaptation. If muscles adapt, how about changing exercises instead of volume to keep gains coming?

BRAD: It’s not an either/or issue, IMO. As mentioned, a higher volume of training is essential for optimal hypertrophy. That said, there’s definitely a benefit to using a variety of exercises too. Free weights, machines, and cables all have certain advantages and disadvantages when it comes to building muscle, and the disadvantages of one tend to be the advantages of the other. Combining these exercises produces a synergistic effect that maximizes results. Same thing with training from multiple angles. Muscles like the deltoids and pectorals are partitioned into separate “heads” that allow you target individual areas of the muscle. Then there are muscles such as the trapezius with upper, middle, and lower regions that can each be activated by different movement patterns. And there is emerging evidence that the majority of muscles are compartmentalized so that many of the fibers do not actually span the entire length of the muscle, which further emphasizes the need for exercise variety. Even changing around hand and foot spacings can target muscles differently and thus spur additional growth. For example, a wide stance squat will involve greater activity of the adductors and glutes while a narrow squat will more involve the gastroc and vasti muscles. Incorporating a varied exercise selection will therefore ensure stimulation of the major muscle groups.

JOHN: Ha! So you wouldn’t mind the frequency at which I rotate exercises and angles!

I think a big factor in recovery is simply the use of a good intraworkout mix (assuming the rest of the diet is solid as well). I am seeing extremely impressive recovery rates from intraworkout casein hydrolysates (driving muscle protein synthesis), and low osmalality carbs (reducing muscle protein breakdown via insulin response). Have you seen any studies where subject were intensely trained, and an intraworkout magic potion of some kind was used to increase recovery?

BRAD: The subject of sports nutrition is one of the more exciting and evolving areas of research. I actually am co-author to a journal article with my friend and colleague, Alan Aragon, that scrutinizes the current literature on the post-workout “anabolic window”. The article is currently in review so I can’t give too much away, but I will say that there is a lot of supposition in the current recommendations on the topic that require clarification. Certainly nutrient timing has relevance, particularly in those who are highly trained and seeking to maximize muscularity. But the specifics behind optimal timing are not well understood at this time and research is very contradictory as to the efficacy of some of the more popular timing approaches. A significant issue is the relative dearth of studies that have examined serious lifters. There also are a number of methodological issues with the studies themselves that make it difficult to draw conclusions. I am currently planning to carry out a study in the near future that accounts for some of these deficiencies and hopefully sheds more light on optimal nutrient timing strategies.

IMO, the most important nutritional aspect of fueling growth is to consume sufficient calories while keeping protein levels fairly high (~1 g/lb bodyweight) as it is clear that protein intake is increased in those who are serious lifters. Taking a high-quality protein source such as a whey/casein combination in and around a workout has been shown to have significant benefit for maxing out protein synthesis. But these results must be taken in the context that total dietary protein intake was modest. Research shows that type of protein required (i.e. protein quality) to drive synthesis tends to become less of an issue as the amount of protein consumed increases provided that the source contains the full complement of EAAs, particularly when total calories are at or above maintenance. The biggest nutritional mistake I see is for an experienced lifter to try to maximize mass building while cutting body fat. This is possible during the early phases of training, particularly when the individual has a good deal of fat to lose. But as one gains lifting experience, the goals become incompatible. If gaining maximum mass is your goal, you need to eat a caloric surplus to support growth.

END Part 1

Next month we dive into satellite cells, myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, cell swelling, the value of the “pump” and more in Part 2!