At one end of the weight room, there's the bodybuilder who decrees that high-rep pump training is the canonical scripture for gaining muscle mass. At the other end—over in the shadows in the rack—is the strength-happy, smorgasbord-destroying powerlifter, who preaches "lift big to get big."
Both men claim they know the gospel for entry to hypertrophy heaven—and that you must choose one or the other. Luckily for those of us who don't see the appeal in only being big or strong, there are ways you can have it all. Try this research-backed take on the classic back-off set and get ready to give your muscles a shock they won't soon forget!
Moderate vs. Heavy Training for Size
A study published last year in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by muscle hypertrophy researcher Brad Schoenfeld and his colleagues investigated muscle-growth gains using a bodybuilding-type training program against one that was based on a powerlifting routine.1
The eight-week study wasn't performed on malnourished, untrained college kids, but rather on 17 well-trained weight-room veterans. Volume was equated with the traditional hypertrophy group performing 3 sets of 10 reps with a 90-second rest interval, while the powerlifting group did 7 sets of 3 reps with a 3-minute rest interval between sets.
Here's what the researchers found:
- Powerlifting-type training proved superior for enhancing maximal strength.
- Both groups made similar gains in muscular size.
The first point isn't exactly earth-shattering. Powerlifters are strong; train like them to get strong like them, right? The real takeaway seems to be the second point: Big loads make muscles just as big as moderate loads, if you program them right. So let's all put on our three-ply suits and stagger into the monolift, right?
Good luck with that! While there is definitely a case to be made for training like powerlifters some of the time, it's not something that most people want to embrace all of the time—nor should they, unless that's their goal.
For gym-goers who want to be somewhat stronger—which should be all of us—but not spend all of their time laboring under heavy-ass weight, I recommend keeping a foot in both camps. You can do this by alternating strength and growth phases for a few weeks or months at a time, but you can also do it in the same workout, adding strength and size at the same time!
The Breakdown on Breakdown sets
Fred Hatfield, Ph.D., aka "Dr. Squat," founder of the International Sports Sciences Association, is credited with inventing what has come to be known as "breakdown training." As both a record-setting powerlifter and longtime trainer of champion bodybuilders, he knows plenty about mixing strength and size, and his tool of choice for doing it is to mix high and low rep ranges within workouts. A Japanese study backed up the good doctor's thinking in 2004, when the researchers concluded that the simple addition of a light-weight back-off set to a traditional strength protocol led to both muscle gains and strength gains.
Before you start rubbing your hands and saying, "Of course. How easy!" let me assure you that it's not. Breakdowns are extremely intense and often painful! Your joints may not hurt like they would after 7 sets of 3, but your muscles will be melted, so approach your training with your war helmet on. If that sounds like too much, Planet Fitness and Curves are accepting signups!
Breakdowns consists of three distinct reps ranges including low reps, medium reps, and high reps. The sets are performed in reverse-pyramid style, so that after warm-ups you start with heavy weights, then move to moderate ones, and to lighter ones for the final burnout.
Why change weights? Because the amount of weight you lift relative to your maximal strength largely determines which kinds of muscle fibers are recruited. Heavy weights for low reps recruit both fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers to help build strength, while light-weight, high-rep sets hit primarily the slow-twitch fibers, increasing muscle endurance, pump, and muscle acidity.
Here's how I like to use breakdowns. After warm-ups, perform your first working set with a heavy weight for 4-6 repetitions. Use the absolute maximum weight you can handle while still maintaining proper form. On the second set you reduce the weight by 15-20 percent to a load that you can handle for about 10-12 reps. On the third set, cut the weight from the first set in half, with a goal of hitting 20-25 reps—but don't stop at 25 if you can do more.
Let's put some numbers to the percentages, using the dumbbell bench press as an example. If your max was around 120 pounds for one rep, you could probably move 85-90 percent of that weight for 4-6 reps, so you'd be using about 105 pounds. On the second set, you'd use 85-90 pounders for about 10 reps. On the third set, you'd go with the 50s for 20-25 reps. There's a little math involved, but if you can remember your locker combination it should be no problem.
You can approach multiple chest exercises in the same fashion, hitting the pecs with multijoint exercises first in the same reverse-pyramid fashion before adding on a single-joint movement. Take a bit longer on rest intervals for the multijoint moves—about 3 minutes—compared to single-joint exercises.
At the end of the day, training with both heavy and light weights could be more effective for muscle growth than training just heavy or just light. At the very least, get in the habit of doing a back-off set as your last set of every exercise, and you'll see benefits in both how you look and how you perform.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., Sonmez, G. T., & Alvar, B. A. (2014). Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(10), 2909-2918.
- Goto, K., Nagasawa, M., Yanagisawa, O., Kizuka, T., ISHII, N., & Takamatsu, K. (2004). Muscular adaptations to combinations of high-and low-intensity resistance exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 18(4), 730-737.