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Why Some Modern Training Research Actually Prevents Progress!

The study we will examine today is titled, 'Low-volume circuit versus high-volume periodized resistance training in women' and it was published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Some time back I came across a study that clearly demonstrates the profound lack of understanding of muscle hypertrophy and training that is had by many researchers in the “exercise performance” fields.

This sounds like a pretty harsh statement at first, but I think once you get a feel for what is being done in exercise labs across the world, you might just agree with me.

The study we will examine today is titled, “Low-volume circuit versus high-volume periodized resistance training in women” and it was published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. (1)

The intent of the study was to find out whether a high-volume, periodized, multiple-set resistance training program was superior to a low-volume, single-set program for improving muscular performances in previously untrained women.

Or simply put, is low volume as good as high volume, after all, that is what the conclusions of there researchers will be used for in arguments about volume among lifters as well as academics.

When I first read it I mistakenly thought, “Wow, they are actually studying HST!” In reality, they weren’t…not even close. They were trying to prove that circuit training was inferior to traditional routines, and that high volume is better than low volume.

The Study

Let’s take a look at the experiment, and then compare it to what we know about the principles of hypertrophy. Now they were also measuring strength, because that has always been the traditional measuring stick for an effective routine.

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As well it should if strength is your goal. Thirty-four healthy, untrained women were randomly placed into one of the following groups: low-volume, single-set circuit (SSC; N = 12); periodized high-volume multiple-set (MS; N = 12); or non-exercising control (CON) group (N = 10).

The SSC group (low volume circuit on machines) performed one set of 8-12 repetitions to muscular failure 3 d•wk-1. The workouts consisted of performing a single set of each exercise in a slow, controlled manner with a 1- to 2-min rest period between exercises.

Each set consisted of 8–12 repetitions (at a pace of 2 seconds up and 4 seconds down) performed to momentary muscular failure. The resistance was increased during the subsequent training session only if a subject could perform 12 or more repetitions for a set without assistance.

Subjects alternated between two different training circuits using the same exercise order. The use of two circuits was used to minimize boredom and staleness over the 24-wk training period so as to create some variation in exercises.

The MS group (high volume periodized routine with free weights) performed two to four sets of 3-15 repetitions with periodized volume and intensity 4 days per week. A frequency of 4 days per week was chosen to allow greater variation in program design and higher volume of work.

On Monday and Thursday, the intensity varied between heavy (3–5 RM), moderate (8–10 RM) or light (12–15 RM) loads. On Tuesday and Friday, subjects trained using moderate loads (8–10 RM). Each set was performed until the targeted number of repetitions was performed.

If more repetitions than the target zone could be performed, the resistance was increased for the next set or training session. The velocities of movement were related to the intensity of the exercise and the movement being trained but encompassed explosive movement speeds when loads were submaximal and exercises appropriate (e.g., hang cleans vs bench press).

The rest periods in between sets were 1–2 min on moderate and light days and 3–4 min on heavy days. Make up workouts were allowed on weekends.

Ok, now just to clarify, these researchers want to know if low volume is as good as high volume. So, they chose two inherently different programs to test the effects of volume. The obvious question is why they didn’t use the same program and just alter the volume for each group? This is what they had to say to that question:

    “Experimentally, an almost unlimited number of factors (e.g., load range, volume, exercise choice, speed of movement, etc.) could be partialed out by various research designs but such studies would never allow one to see the more realistic effects of a composite domain of contributors to the adaptational effects.

    Therefore, we decided to make the comparison between two broad program designs made up of a specific set of clustered variables to determine the adaptational variations which may exist between two dramatically different program domains.”

In case you couldn’t follow their tenuous explanation, they decided that two entirely different programs would result in greater differences than altering the volume alone, so, in an effort to test the effects of different volumes, they chose two entirely different programs which varied in every variable know to man accept gender.

This sets themselves up to make inaccurate conclusions from the results. For, the same variables that they chose not to control more than explain the differences seen in the results of the study.

With a closer look at the different programs that each group was assigned to, it's easy to see why they got the results they did.

SSC (Low volume) MS (Traditional volume)
Sets 1 2 - 4
Reps 8 - 12 fixed 3 - 15 progressively applied
Tempo 2up/4down Varied according to weight loads
Resistance Constant Varied
Intensity Failure Varied
Rest period 1 - 2 minutes 1 - 4 minutes as needed
Frequency 3 days per week 4 days per week
Equipment Machines Free Weights
Exercises Circuit A
Leg press
Bench press
Leg curl
Seated row
Standing calf raise
Arm curl
Military press
Circuit B
Knee extension
Chest fly
Leg curl
Lateral raise
Seated calf raise
Back extension
Upright row
Rotator cuff
Lat pulldown
Hang clean
Bench press
Push press
Leg curl
Rotator cuff
Upright row
Dumbbell military press
Arm curl
Lat pulldown
Seated row
Side bend
Lateral hip-flexion
Leg curl
Calf raise

Essentially they compared a bad program you would be put on at a health club, to a traditional strength-training program. I was a little surprised to see Häkkinen involved with this study. He has been one of my favorite researchers over the years. His previous work is far and above the quality of this study.

The Results

And what about the RESULTS?

The MS group demonstrated greater, increases in upper and lower body maximal strength, increases in muscular power and speed, and increases in high-intensity local muscular endurance compared with the SSC training group.

So what do we learn from this study? Well, not much that we didn’t already know. They confirmed that using a circuit of machines with a fixed rep range and weight won’t build as much strength as using free weights and periodized-progressive load.

Keep in mind that somebody may very well be getting his or her Ph.D. for this study.

The reason I wanted to highlight this study was to demonstrate that, besides the fact that most all training research is based on strength and not hypertrophy, most training research isn’t very helpful in demonstrating how muscles grow as a result of training, and therefore how to optimally train.

This study also involved some biased as it attributed the observed differences in the results to the acute changes in blood hormones levels after training. If only it were true that a slight one hour change in hormones was the key to muscle growth...

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This kind of research is why I had to go further into other fields of research to find out what’s really happening inside our muscles as we train in different manners. It was also necessary to look elsewhere to explore how muscle grows mechanistically from that training.

HST is the result and application of that exploration and discovery.

As a result of this melding of scientific fields, HST speaks in a different language than traditional training studies. Instead of focusing on fatigue by measuring “volume” we speak in terms of “metabolic demand” (lactate and oxidative by-products), which triggers signaling proteins who’s pathways facilitate hypertrophy.

Instead of focusing on how hard a weight is to lift measured by the ambiguous term “intensity”, we more correctly refer to “mechanical load” and the cascade of signaling events triggered through mechanotransduction.

By making the language we use to describe muscle more accurate, we facilitate our ability to understand it. As our understanding of muscle increases, so does our ability to design training methods specific to muscle growth.

You can discuss these issues and others on the HST Forum. Join in and start sharing, learning, and growing.


1) Marx JO, Ratamess NA, Nindl BC, Gotshalk LA, Volek JS, Dohi K, Bush JA, Gomez AL, Mazzetti SA, Fleck SJ, Hakkinen K, Newton RU, Kraemer WJ. Low-volume circuit versus high-volume periodized resistance training in women. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Apr;33(4):635-43.