Bodypart Splits

Q & A: Training for Mass vs. Power

Q: My first question is a classic one: how do the training programs of a body-builder and a "strongest man" competitor differ? In short--mass vs power. And why does the body-builder appear stronger than, for instance, the **German who clean and jerked 565lbs for his deceased wife? Ive heard so many different theories on this stuff...

A. First of all, for those of you reading who haven't seen the video referenced in the question, please see below. Doing so will automatically raise your testosterone levels by 150% (don't worry ladies, you can still benefit as there's a romantic side to the story).

It's important to note that:

A) Powerlifters and Olympic Lifters ("O-lifters") each care about one thing: the maximal amount of weight they can move for the FEW key lifts in their respective competitions (squat/bench/dead for powerlifters, and clean+jerk/snatch for O-lifters). Their end goal is to find the most efficient way to move the weight through the desired range. For example, powerlifters often create a huge arch in their back during a bench press so they don't have to move the bar as far up and down, and O-lifters learn to keep the bar as close to their body as possible so it doesn't "arc" out in front of them.

B) Bodybuilders, on the other hand, also only care about one thing, but it's entirely different: Aesthetics. Put another way, hypertrophy (hy-PUR-truh-fee), which simply means increasing the size of the muscle fibers.

(Note: Pardon me as the above points may seem very obvious, but it's important to note nonetheless.)

Training Differences

One could argue that the primary difference in training for these two respective goals (power vs. mass) comes down to the development of the nervous system. The German who clean+jerked 565lbs for his deceased wife trained his nervous system to "drive" the muscles to be able to contract+produce power as quickly and efficiently as possible. In an Olympic lifting context, this is typically done by moving sub-maximal weights at maximal speeds using low reps. An example of this would be executing power cleans for 5 sets of 2 reps at a weight than can be moved quickly and smoothly by the lifter. You can use this same principle with deadlifts, squats, and bench presses, too. In fact (as you may be well aware), many powerlifters use a high set/low rep at a low % to work on pure speed/power development. They are teaching their nervous systems to produce maximal force in as little time as possible. The faster one can do this, the more weight they can typically lift, or throw overhead.

Basically: you can become extremely "neurally efficient" without necessarily becoming big.

Heck, look at Tom Martin (180lbs) who set the world record for the deadlift in his weight class. He pulled 771lbs, yet appears wayyy less muscular than your average bodybuilder!

Let's briefly discuss training programs. If you take the program of a powerlifter and compare it to that of a bodybuilder, you'll immediately notice how much "simpler" the powerlifting program is compared to that of the bodybuilding program. Let's take a look at a sample "Leg Day:"

Powerlifting

Bodybuilding

1)   Deadlift 5x2

2)   Glute-Ham Raise 3x8

*3)   Split Squat 3x10/side

4) Weighted Plank 3x :20

*Maybe

1)   Squat 4x10

2) Deadlift 5x5

3)   Leg Press 4x15

4a) Walking Lunges 4x10/side

4b) Seated Leg Extensions 3-4x10

5a) Lying Leg Curls 3-4x10

5b) Seated Calf Raise 3xInfinity

Elite-level powerlifters and Olympic lifters know how to "trim the fat" in order to do enough so that their main lift improves, but NOT so much to the point where their body has to recover from a bazillion supplementary exercises. This will depend on the lifter of course (some powerlifters find that their body responds to slightly more assistance work than others), but the common theme is that they do the minimum required to see their competition lifts improve.

Bodybuilders, on the other hand, are known for their extremely voluminous training sessions, often spending 90-120 minutes in a single workout. They'll also do whatever it takes in their training to maximize how large their muscles grow, examples including (but not limited to):

-manipulating their form to maximize tension on a particular muscle

-using a slow tempo (during both the lowering AND lifting portion)

-using machines to isolate a muscle (taking that muscle's "helpers" out of the equation....ex. in a squat the hamstrings+glutes are still going to help the primary mover - the quads - do the lift....but in a leg extension machine you can isolate the quads to a much greater degree).

-"supersetting" exercises for the same muscle group (ex. walking lunges paired with seated leg extensions) to "exhaust" a particular muscle

-choosing lifts that take the muscle through a greater range of motion (ex. doing a dumbbell bench press instead of a barbell bench press)

-etc. etc. etc.

It's also shown that the higher rep/volume style of bodybuilding leads to development of what's called sarcoplastic hypertrophy, or, in laymen's terms, increasing the size of the non-contractile portions of the muscle cell (muscle cells have both contractile and non-contractile tissue within them). This is another method through which they can look very very big but not necessarily possess the strength of powerlifters.

An Important Caveat

The immediate conclusion most people draw from this is that if their goals strictly lie in the sphere of aesthetics, then they should train like bodybuilders with a very high volume, high repetition approach. Which leads me to this:

The two training methodologies aren't necessarily mutually exclusive of each other, ESPECIALLY when it comes to training for aesthetics. 

For example, my wife, Kelsey, earned her Pro Card in bodybuilding by primarily using a powerlifting-style approach in her training!

WBOW KelseyDoucette
WBOW KelseyDoucette

In fact, this is sometimes the biggest setback I see in people training solely for the goal of lookin' good: they aren't strong enough. I strongly feel that most people - even those with bodybuilding aspirations - should begin with (and continue to cycle in) "powerlifting'esque" training tools as many will be surprised at how much they grow simply by getting stronger on the compound lifts (squats, overhead presses, deadlifts, bench presses, chinups, etc.).

The "Illusion" of Bodybuilding

Alright, this is Q & A is already significantly more prolix than I was anticipating, so just one more point: Diet and creating an "illusion" are HUGE factors in making bodybuilders look bigger. Bodybuilders will diet down to insanely low bodyfat levels, and strategically manipulate their nutrition, to make themselves appear more "full" right before a competition. Not to mention, the spend hours practicing their poses in order to make their muscles appear larger than they actually are.

Going back to the example of my wife, many girls may look at the picture of her above and think "No way would I ever want to look manly and bulky like that!".

Guess what? Do you think that's how she looks walking around the street? Nope. Despite the fact that she has set American records in powerlifting (hint: she is very strong), she actually, *gasp,* looks very feminine, and sexy to boot, walking around day to day. The picture from her bodybuilding show is the result of very meticulous nutrient partitioning and hours of hard work practicing her poses and routines.

Here's a picture I found, via a quick desktop search, of us at a Lord of the Rings showing with a live orchestra. Which goes to say: bodybuilders don't look like they do on stage year-round.

380044_10100531154858263_6221870_55382117_1211433027_n
380044_10100531154858263_6221870_55382117_1211433027_n

And yes, the show was as cool as it sounds.

I bet if Matthias Steiner (the German O-lifter from the beginning) were to diet down to a very low bodyfat and manipulate his carbohydrate/water intake, he would look very, VERY muscular, too.

Another example: see the before/after photos of Dave Tate, a powerlifter who went on a "bodybuilding kick" and got his nutrition in order. I hope this helps prove my point.

Whew, anyway, I hoped this help elucidate some of the differences between training for mass vs. power. It was far from comprehensive (the topic can literally be discussed for days), but hopefully at least gets you started on the right track.

**On a side note: Matthias steiner should technically be considered one of the most powerful men in the world, as opposed to strongest - because he moves weight at a higher velocity - when compared to powerlifters who are some of the strongest people in the world. Kinda ironic how powerlifting actually involves moving heavy weights at a slow velocity, whereas Olympic lifting is all about moving it fast......

Trimming the Fat: Some of My Fastest Gains Ever

Every now and then I like to peruse my old training logs, peeking back in time to take a glimpse at what I was doing in the weight room; be it three months ago or three years ago. The other day I decided to flip through my logbook from college, and was suddenly reminded of the sudden, and dramatic, shift my training took at one point. You could call this my "Enlightenment," or, when I discovered that it was possible to accomplish more in less time. You see, for the first few years of college, I was following a classic bodybuilding split, utilizing tips I had picked up from the muscle mags and various personal trainers that crossed my path. I would work 1-2 body parts a day, training six days per week on the average. Each of these training sessions lasted about 90-120+ minutes, and I would utilize about 4-5 exercises per muscle group, performing 4-5 sets for each exercise. I'd incorporate just about every exercise I could think of, "attacking my muscles from all different angles" just like the magazines told me I needed to do. I was doing pretty well for myself, too: adding some muscle here, getting stronger there, maybe getting a new vein in my arm. *high five!*

After all, the more I could squeeze in, the better, right?

However, toward the end of junior year, I decided it was time to seriously investigate my training. This meant looking beyond the magazines in the grocery aisles, and seeing past what the majority of gym-goers were doing. To make a long story short, this is when I discovered some extremely valuable information and began reading from authors/strength coaches who actually knew their stuff. The strength coach for Virginia Tech was also extremely accommodating and patient with me, answering the endless slew of questions I incessantly threw at him as I first began to shadow his work with the athletic teams.

I suddenly realized that I didn't actually need to train 12 hours per week to become bigger or stronger. It was far from essential to do 25-30 exercises per week. It wasn't necessary to spend an entire day on one body part. And it wasn't required to perform countless drop sets and supersets of isolated delt, bicep, and tricep work to make my shoulders and arms grow. In fact, it turned out that a mere 20% of my efforts was responsible for 80% of my results. I became educated on the minimum effective dose, or, the minimal stimulus required to produce a desired outcome.

It was time to "trim the fat," so to speak, with my training. I wanted to test this for myself, to see if it was REALLY true. I mean, it's one thing to read about it, hear others talk about it, but it's a completely different bear to induce change upon YOURSELF, especially when there's a young ego at stake.

As such, I made up my mind to undergo a plan that would have me training no more than four days per week, and my sessions would be required to take no longer than an hour (excluding warm-up). Inspired by Alwyn Cosgrove, I decided to choose only two different workouts, and I would alternate between the two every time I set foot in the gym. I had a "Workout A" which was essentially lower body emphasis, and a "Workout B" which was upper body dominant. Here it is below:

Workout A (Lower Body)

Workout B (Upper Body)

A) Squat B) Deadlift C1) Bulgarian SplitSquat C2) Barbell Step-Up

A1) Incline DB Press A2) Seated Cable Row B1) DB Military Press B2) Pullup C1) Close-Grip Bench C2) Ab something

That was it. For six weeks, that is all I did.I would typically perform Workout A on Mondays and Thursdays, and Workout B on Tuesdays and Fridays. A method of undulating periodization was applied for the sets and reps each day.

And what do you know? My arms, shoulders, chest, and legs all continued to grow, despite the fact that I was I was training only four hours per week. This was one-third of the time I was spending in the gym all throughout high school and the first half of college. I had more free time, the workouts were surprisingly brutal (especially on the high rep squat days), I didn't constantly feel sore, and I was receiving an increasing number of the "So, what have YOUbeen doing?" or "What supplements have you been taking?" (<== lol) questions.

Now, there's no doubt that some of my gains can be attributed to the fact that I dialed in my nutrition further, and was actually deadlifting for the first time (in fact, I'd go so far as to say that deadlifting alone attributed to the majority of my gains). Also, one will almost always experience progress in one form or another when switching up the routine. However, there was no doubt that something was working.

In fact, things were working so well that I decided to enter a new eight-week cycle:

Workout A (Horizontal Push/Pull)

Workout B (Lower Body)

Workout C (Vertical Push/Pull)

A1) Bench Press A2) Bent-Over BB Row B1) Incline DB Press, Neutral Grip B2) Seated Cable Row

A) Snatch-Grip Deadlift B1) BB Forward Lunge B2) BB Step-Up C) Ab something

A1) BB Overhead Press A2) Pullup/Chinup B1) DB Arnold Press B2) Lat Pulldown

And the gains continued to come. I was stronger and leaner, I felt better, and, yet again, was accomplishing this in far less time that I had for the years prior.

An Important Note Were these "perfect" programs? Not at all. (Is there a such thing anyway??). In fact, looking back, there are quite a few obvious tweaks I would make. HOWEVER, at the time, I was trying my best to apply the principles I had learned in my research. And that's the important part.

Summing all this up, here are the take home points:

  • Less is more. You can nearly always accomplish the same, if not more, by trimming the fat in a training program. Water boiled at 100ºC is boiled. Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.
  • While the high volume bodypart split routines can work for the genetically elite, they often aren't the best choice for the majority of trainees (and, as a side note, certainly not athletes).
  • You don't need 6+ hours a week to get stronger, lose fat, or put some lean body mass on your frame.
  • When in doubt, choose exercises that are multi-joint over single-joint.
  • Deadlifts are awesome.

Bodypart Split Q & A

I received this question via email from a friend I had been helping out with some programming. I realized it would be best turned into a blog post, as his question can be quite a hot topic of debate. I do apologize in advance, as this blog post is a bit more geeky and *circumlocutious than other posts. So, for those of you interested in the video-based and picture-based entries, you may need to skip through a bunch of science to get to such things. My apologies.

*Yes, I used that word. It means "wordy." I learned it in a C.S. Lewis book club in college. Did I mention I'm cool? Anyway, moving on....

Question: I wanted to ask you if you could point me in the direction of any studies showing that training as you have shown [to me] is more effective in training strength, size, endurance...anything...when compared to bodypart split routines. I have some friends who insist that the only way to achieve mass/strength gains in your chest (for example) is to do 3x10 incline, 3x10 decline, 3x10 flat, 3x10 flies, etc. all one day a week (or the whole inverted pyramid with five sets where you start with 10 reps and end with 2-3).

I want to disprove them and convert them to this marvelous new system...it's like a burning fire within me, but me saying things like "it makes more sense based on how you move on a daily basis or during sports", or "if you train your whole body three days a week it's ostensibly the same as doing 3-4 exercises per muscle group per day" doesn't cut it for them.

…coming from neuroscience/psychology I have very little understanding of general terminology for pubmed searches in exercise physiology and other such related fields which could be useful in disproving my friends. Just kind of looking for some 'pointing in the right direction', is all.

Answer: First things first, I don't necessarily think that bodypart splits are good for nothing. Most training methodologies can produce results given they are within the proper context and executed appropriately. My particular training philosophy is heavily influenced by the nature of my job, on top of the consistent results I've seen in my work. I don't necessarily think there is a 100% superior way of training, but I will share what I've found to work for the majority of people, the majority of the time.

Moving on, yes, I can point you to a few studies. However, I wouldn’t allow research to solely dictate your stance on this topic (or any other, for that matter), but more on that later. Here are two studies:

1. McLester et al., “Comparison of 1 Day and 3 Days Per Week of Equal-Volume Resistance Training in Experienced Subjects” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research; 2000, 14(3), 273-281

This study compared the SAME volume of training per muscle per week (ex. 3 sets performed once per week, as you see in a typical split routine…Vs. 1 set performed three times per week.

Results: the one day per week group achieved only 62% of the strength improvements of the 3 day group and a lesser increase in muscle.

Take home point: This study showed that training a muscle three times per week resulted in significantly more lean body mass and strength gains compared to doing the same volume once per week (in other words, three sets, three times per week is a superior stimulus to nine sets performed once per week). Also, note that the subjects in this study were experienced lifters, which is an important point (with beginners, almost anything will elicit strength gains).

2. Wernbom et al., "The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans." Sports Medicine 2007; 37(3): 225-64. Review.

As you can see, this one is a review. What they did was looked at several studies on strength training and hypertrophy (increasing muscle size) across a bunch of populations.

Take home point: Their conclusion was that, for increasing muscle size, it’s better to train each muscle group three times per week, as opposed to once per week.

As for the rest of my answer, I’ll go ahead and make a list, as it will be a bit easier to follow:

A. Note that what these studies are basically saying is that FREQUENCY IS KING. When looking at a number of exercises to perform in a given week to reach your goal (mass gains, fat loss, sport performance, etc.) it is better to space out a given number of exercises throughout the week, as opposed to clumping the same number of exercises in one session.

When you look at other areas of life, the same rule usually applies. When the doctor hands you prescription medicine, is it better to take the entire bottle at once, or take a couple pills each day, spread throughout the course of the week? Clearly, you’ll reap the benefits better if you space out the doses, instead of taking them all at once.

Look at the leg development of sprinters. Most of these men/women have legs that the majority of the population would kill to have, and these sprinters train every single day.

Heck, take bodybuilders, too. Most bodybuilders that wish to “bring up” a lagging bodypart will increase the frequency they train that bodypart. So, why not increase the frequency to begin with?

B. Even though I gave you some studies that supported my particular training philosophy, I must make an important point. While studies can definitely be useful, they are far from foolproof, and are nearly always performed in a “closed-loop” setting, aka a predictable scenario in which nearly all the variables are controlled in some fashion.

SAPT1
SAPT1

So, instead of using the labs of researchers, in which nearly everything is controlled, I prefer to use the data based off the results of our own “lab,” or the results of people that have trained under our watch at SAPT. This is an “open-loop” setting, in which hundreds of real people walk through our doors on a weekly basis; all of whom have their own eating habits (good and bad), sleep habits, activities and stressors outside SAPT, all of which we have no control over. In my personal opinion, this is a much more appropriate scenario in which one can determine if a particular method “works” or not.

C. Bodypart splits are simply not a practical choice for the majority of trainees, athletes and non-athletes alike. Most bodypart split routines require four, and even up to six, days a week of training about 90-120 minutes each session. Why spend this much time training, when you can usually accomplish the same results by training just three times a week, at 75-minutes a session?

Besides, most trainees simply don't have the time to train six days per week and stay in the gym for 90 minutes. Sure, if you're in college, and/or single, this may be possible. But what about if you have a wife, kids, and a full-time job? Not to mention, many adults' jobs create a very unpredictable schedule in which it would be illogical to train with bodypart splits.

Case in point: Ron (from The Ron Reed Project) was frequently called by his work, spur-of-the-moment, to travel across the United States on a business trip. Many times, these trips would come up at barely 24-hours notice. If I was writing him a bodypart split, and trained only his chest on Monday, then what would he do when he was called out of town and had to miss his "back" day, or his "arm" day? It was obviously much more practical to work his entire body using compound lifts. Then, if he was spontaneously called away, we wouldn't have to worry as much about "missing" a particular body part.

So, yes, a bodypart split - on paper - may be a decent way of doing things for a while, but it would be foolish for me to program this type of training for people who may only have three to four total hours in a week to get in the gym.

D. Speaking of compound lifts, I really don't get why people waste valuable time on bicep curling when they can't do a single chinup. And, if you can do chinups, then I still dare you to drop bicep curling for a month and focus on a healthy dose of weighted chinups and 1-minute chinups, THEN tell me if you absolutely need to bicep curl to experience arm growth!

E. Bodypart splits often ignore the "movement" side of things. I don't know about you, but I prefer to at least have a little bit of "Go" with the "Show." I remember, after a semester of using bodypart splits in college, I returned home to play some backyard football with a group of guys. I was astounded at how clumsy I felt. It was if I could barely change directions without falling over.

I recommend the majority of people include at least some movement training in their routine, as it has benefits for athletes and non-athletes alike.

F. Remember that bodybuilding is a SPORT. Their lifting style is specific to their sport at hand. If you were a tennis player, would you utilize a lifting program written for a wrestler? Absolutely not....it would be asinine, right?

Now, I can't help but admire top bodybuilders. What they accomplish really is a phenomenon (drugs or no drugs), and you can't help but at least respect the dedication and meticulous attention to detail it requires to successfully step out on that stage. Just remember that it often makes little sense to take their program and try to make it your own. More times than not it will be like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.

G. It is beyond the scope of this post to delve into, but something worth noting is that that bodypart splits became popular along with the rise in use of pharmaceutical drugs in bodybuilding. Up until the spike in drug use, the majority of bodybuilders used full-body routines. Most people wouldn't be able to actually tolerate, and experience success from, the voluminous bodypart split training days without drug assistance. The volume increases came after the drugs, not the other way around.

H. Compound lifts excite a hormonal release in the body that doesn't occur with most single-joint lifts. It's still up for debate if these hormonal changes have a lasting affect, but no one will deny that the changes happen, even if it's just a response to the exercise. For example, a military press or weighted pushup will cause a greater spike of testosterone, growth hormone, etc. in the blood stream than a tricep pressdown will.

I.  Something I'd generally suggest is to avoid taking training advice from people unless they’ve had to train people for a living. With a quick glance at my “SAPT Program” folder on my computer, I tallied up over 700 programs I’ve written over the past year alone at SAPT. And this is just one year’s worth of programs. If Chris and Sarah (who founded SAPT) counted up their programs, they’d be well into the thousands. If you ask me, this is a lot of data. We have quite a few “test subjects,” and have very easily been able to see the methods that work, and the methods that fail. Not to mention, if we fail to deliver results to our clients (increased sport performance, looking and/or moving better, etc.), then we go out of business.

I would ask your friends: Where did they receive the advice to follow a “one bodypart per day” split routine? Was it from someone who trains people day in and day out, and has to deliver results in order to put food on the table? OR, was it from a random bodybuilding magazine (most of those routines are quite humorous and belong in a fairytale land, I might add), or from a random guy at their local gym who told them that in order to achieve massive pecs they’d have to blast them into oblivion one day per week?

J. I think it's a bit amusing that your friends suggest "3x10 incline, 3x10 decline, 3x10 flat, 3x10 flies, etc." as it reminds me of my gym routine in high school. I think almost every male has been there, but let me ask you something: Is doing twelve sets of a chest-dominant exercise in a single session really four times superior to doing three sets? (Hint: Start with researching the law of diminishing returns :) ).

K. Don't worry, there is no K, and I'm not going to go all the way to Z!

To conclude: I am NOT saying that a bodypart split is impractical for everyone. And I am admittedly biased because of my work and the population I work with. However, it's just a shame that most teenage guys look at successful bodybuilders and decide that the routine of a professional at a very specific stage in training must be the routine they should do, too.

Yes, the majority of successful bodybuilders use a split routine. However, the majority of unsuccessful bodybuilders also use a split routine! We must look at the entire spectrum to arrive at an objective conclusion. I personally feel that, for the majority of trainees, a movement-based (ex. upper/lower) or full-body routine is best.

Based off the data we've collected through training people, I've seen that it works time and time again. Coming from my personal experience, I think it would be tomfoolery to neglect providing a tried and true system to the people I work with.