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Thread: Low Volume Training? ie Quickly Diminishing Returns for Multiple Sets?

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    Wrecker of Homes d'Anconia's Avatar
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    Low Volume Training? ie Quickly Diminishing Returns for Multiple Sets?

    So I have always felt that there must be diminishing returns to scale for multiple sets when working out. It certainly seems illogical that doing 10 sets would net you gains 10x better than one set. But while on EXRX.net I found an article that seemed to cite some interesting studies?

    Quote Originally Posted by exrx.net
    The ACSM Weight Training Guidelines state more than one set may elicit slightly greater strength gains but additional improvement is relatively small (ACSM 1995). Studies demonstrating marginal improvements in strength with more sets typically use one exercise per muscle. Split programs performed by experienced weight trainers typically incorporate two or more exercises per muscle group. Fleck and Kramer's review of the literature suggests the optimal number of total sets are between 2 and 5 sets (Fleck & Kraemer, 1997). A second set seems understandable since a warm up set may allow greater intensity for the the following workout set (Shellock & Prentice, 1985).
    Certainly this seems to contradict popular theories on how volume works and appropriate training to see hypertrophy and strength gains.

    Quote Originally Posted by exrx.net
    Many scientific studies demonstrate one set is almost effective as multiple sets, if not just as effective in strength and muscle hypertrophy (Starkey, Pollock, et. al. 1996). These studies have been criticized for using untrained subjects. Hass et. al. (2000) compared the effects of one set verses three sets in experienced recreational weightlifters. Both groups significantly improved muscular fitness and body composition during the 13 week study. Interestingly, no significant differences were found between groups for any of the test variables, including muscular strength, muscular endurance, and body composition.

    A few maverick fitness authorities and professional bodybuilders have advocated high-intensity, very low-volume training. Author Jones, the founder of Nautilus and MedX weight training equipment, was one of the early pioneers of single-set training. In the 1980's, Casey Viator, the youngest Mr. America and Mr. Olympia contestant, and Mike Mentzer, Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia contestant, promoted the high-intensity, low-volume training. More recently, Dorian Yates, several-time Mr. Olympia, reportedly performed only a warm-up set and one or occasionally two workout sets throughout his off-season training.
    Has anyone tried doing just single or double (working) set workouts? I'd be tempted to try but you'd only be able to tell whether it was working after a few weeks and by that time you might have wasted a month of what could have been solid training. I know for me it has always seemed that consistency (ie how much workouts per week) has been the most important factor whereas the # of sets doesn't seem that important as long as I get a few in for each workout.

    Anyone with any knowledge of this subject able to shed some light? Thanks in advance.
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    Senior Member kmagnuss's Avatar
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    I do it pretty much every work out. The Bill Starr's INTERMEDIATE 5x5. It's a ramping 5x5, so that the only truly difficult set is the last one.
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    Senior Member kmagnuss's Avatar
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    And ps...before my knee injury I gained about 40 lbs and almost doubled my strength in under a year with it.
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    Moderator Off Road's Avatar
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    One set works, you should do it.
    Two sets work, you should do it.
    Three sets work, you should do it.
    and so forth...

    Everything works at different times. It's up to you to apply it properly.
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    maybe try a variation of all rep ranges over the course of a year? i might try something like this out... reducing volume a lot see how it goes. Do you think you'd be more or less prone to injury with this? i was just thinking hitting it heavy and fast then getting out seems like it would open you up to more injury but then i could see sticking around too long when your muscle is fatigued and doing unnecessary work would more open you up to injury. Maybe its the same

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    Quote Originally Posted by d'Anconia View Post
    So I have always felt that there must be diminishing returns to scale for multiple sets when working out. It certainly seems illogical that doing 10 sets would net you gains 10x better than one set. But while on EXRX.net I found an article that seemed to cite some interesting studies?



    Certainly this seems to contradict popular theories on how volume works and appropriate training to see hypertrophy and strength gains.



    Has anyone tried doing just single or double (working) set workouts? I'd be tempted to try but you'd only be able to tell whether it was working after a few weeks and by that time you might have wasted a month of what could have been solid training. I know for me it has always seemed that consistency (ie how much workouts per week) has been the most important factor whereas the # of sets doesn't seem that important as long as I get a few in for each workout.

    Anyone with any knowledge of this subject able to shed some light? Thanks in advance.

    I've always been a strong advocate of low volume high intensity...although I am not a HIT advocate by any means.
    We've all heard the old canard 'what you put into it is what you get out of it'

    However this only applies to lifting in a very limited sense. One can train hard or one can train long, but not both at the same time. So a few heavy hard sets or a lot of moderate sets. You are not going to be doing 15-20 sets with your true 5 RM max for example. Not for any real length of time certainly.

    However volume (assuming neither under or overtraining is taking place) is only a tiny part of the variables accounting for gains. Diet, rest, exercises... all have to be in place as well). As long as the muscles are stimulated they will grow. Whether that takes one set or 10.

    The reason that many trainees do more than one set or two, is that it takes a great deal of practice/training and some pretty strong mind/muscle concentration (non-FLEX meaning) to completely exhaust the muscle in one or two sets (to the point where an adaption to stimulation takes place) Most people just are not able to do that. A beginner certainly needs to do more sets to get a "feel" for the movements and once one sees gains it's difficult to switch for fear that a new style of training might not give the same gains. Plus it's been hammered into most people's minds that one needs to do so many sets in order to see results. Even Mike Mentzer who was the strongest advocate of HIT, admitted (shortly before his death) that he never really trained the way he advocated as he found there was just too much temptation to do a few extra sets for "insurance purposes".

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    THE 800 QUEST NickAus's Avatar
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    I have been doing high volume work for my upper back for months now and I am way stronger and thicker than when doing low volume.

    Just reporting my results but I know of others who are the same as me.
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    no matter what number of sets, or reps or what ever you do, if you dont put in the effort you wont get results, its more about effort than exact numbers. Im no HIT advocate either, if any of you seen my workouts I do lots of volume and its what my body responds to. But the Key to any program success is your own personal effort, Passion trumps everything.

    Now taking in account the energy systems of the body, namely the Anaerobic ATP/CP energy system and breaking down of glucose, and ATP function, and mitochondria activity within the cells, and taking how this plays into maximal motor unit recruitment the multi set approach is best.

    The key number to remember in BB/PL is 25. all of the tried and trusted set-rep schemes all add up to 25 or at least near that. So thats the true key, as long as your moving max weight (80-85% of 1rm) for around 25 reps on a given exercise no matter how many sets it takes, thats usually going to give you your best results. plus u cant maintain maximal motor unite recruitment for more than 10-15 secs so this is why you will need more sets to get to the 25 rep total, and if you can do 25 reps of anything in under 15 secs thats not max recrutiment and its too light to stimulate any real muscle growth or gains in strength

    i mean if you just want to put numbers to it. But you can follow this approach, if you dont put in the effort into it that wont happen
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    Quote Originally Posted by BigCorey75 View Post
    The key number to remember in BB/PL is 25. all of the tried and trusted set-rep schemes all add up to 25 or at least near that. So thats the true key, as long as your moving max weight (80-85% of 1rm) for around 25 reps on a given exercise no matter how many sets it takes, thats usually going to give you your best results.
    Using that logic, 3x5 isn't going to work? 2x6 isn't going to work? 5/3/1 isn't going to work? I guess we can throw away some pretty good routines then
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    Westside Bencher Travis Bell's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BigCorey75 View Post
    The key number to remember in BB/PL is 25. all of the tried and trusted set-rep schemes all add up to 25 or at least near that. So thats the true key, as long as your moving max weight (80-85% of 1rm) for around 25 reps on a given exercise no matter how many sets it takes, thats usually going to give you your best results. plus u cant maintain maximal motor unite recruitment for more than 10-15 secs so this is why you will need more sets to get to the 25 rep total, and if you can do 25 reps of anything in under 15 secs thats not max recrutiment and its too light to stimulate any real muscle growth or gains in strength

    i mean if you just want to put numbers to it. But you can follow this approach, if you dont put in the effort into it that wont happen
    This really is overly broad and not really true. 25 total reps is such a vague and meaningless number.

    To the OP, for me, I have more success with very high reps when concerning hypertrophy. So no, I don't really like the lower volume stuff.

    Low volume stuff like 531 are really well geared towards strength, but their intention isn't necessairly at having muscle growth as the number one goal. Obviously as a powerlifter I incorporate low rep training, but that's because strength is my number one goal, not muscle growth.


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    I train three times a week. I have a squat (leg) day, a deadlift (pull) day, and a bench (push) day. I will complete some type of max effort work on those movements, then I complete 5-6 assistance exercises. I do each of those exercises for 2 sets of 10 reps. I am already warm from my main movement, but I still use that first set as kind of a warm up/feeling out set. I have been having the greatest success I have had in years training like this.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Off Road View Post
    Using that logic, 3x5 isn't going to work? 2x6 isn't going to work? 5/3/1 isn't going to work? I guess we can throw away some pretty good routines then
    Pavel states it as the 3-5 rule. For an average trainee, the easiest way to program a routine is 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps on 3-5 exercises. Which sounds about right, but its not meant to be cast-iron.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Off Road View Post
    Using that logic, 3x5 isn't going to work? 2x6 isn't going to work? 5/3/1 isn't going to work? I guess we can throw away some pretty good routines then
    I never said those routines wouldn't work. Just from knowledge and experience Ive found that number of 25 to be the most effective. Even tho I have not done 5/3/1 ive read a lot about it and im convinced that it does work well and it is sound programming even if it does not fit the 25 rep "rule" sorta speak...lol

    But look at some of the most popular set rep schemes that have produced time and time again some of the best results and have stood the test of time in weight training (3x10, 4x6, 5x5, 6x4, 8x3, 10x3, Max OT, Somolov) all of them tend to be roughly in that 24-30 total rep range for a particular exercise. Now with that being said, with proper loading, and progression, one can have good results on other set rep parameters.
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    The very first exposure I had with weight training was single-set training. My school had hired anew strength coach to work with some of the sports teams and he had us do slow (2141) tempo single sets on the main barbell lifts. It worked but we were all untrained so anything would work.

    This is a timely discussion because I'm slowing down on texas method and I'm thinking of adding more volume on volume day. I've heard of people having success by doing 6x5 on squats and bench for a few weeks instead of 5x5 to allow them to increase the weight on the lower-rep stuff on friday. I can't decide whether to do 6x5, to get used to handling heavy weights, or doing 3x5 but adding in a couple sets of an extra exercise like SLDL to try and induce some hypertrophy.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Travis Bell View Post
    This really is overly broad and not really true. 25 total reps is such a vague and meaningless number.

    To the OP, for me, I have more success with very high reps when concerning hypertrophy. So no, I don't really like the lower volume stuff.

    Low volume stuff like 531 are really well geared towards strength, but their intention isn't necessairly at having muscle growth as the number one goal. Obviously as a powerlifter I incorporate low rep training, but that's because strength is my number one goal, not muscle growth.
    The 25 rep range as i stated earlier is where ive seen people can get "Best of both worlds" in terms of size and strength. Like you said if your a powerlifter gearing towards more towards pure strength you will gear towards lower rep training in order to fully activate your CNS and gain strength. Bodybuilders will tend towards the higher end of the total rep scheme 40-50 to help increase TUT for more hypertrophy geared training. Ive noticed that the 25 rep range tends to deliver a better mix of both worlds in terms of strength and muscle gain. You get enough weight to get max motor unit recruitment, and enough TUT to elicit some hypertrophy gains as well.

    I know i know, people will say, you can gain muscle mass from lower reps, which is true, and you can also get stronger from doing higher rep training which is true. Hell im going through a phase of higher rep training myself right now. But from just over time ive noticed the 25 (24-30) rule tends to be the "Golden Range" to get results in both strength and hypertrophy
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    Senior Member Meat_Head's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Songsangnim View Post
    One can train hard or one can train long, but not both at the same time. So a few heavy hard sets or a lot of moderate sets. You are not going to be doing 15-20 sets with your true 5 RM max for example. Not for any real length of time certainly.

    The reason that many trainees do more than one set or two, is that it takes a great deal of practice/training and some pretty strong mind/muscle concentration (non-FLEX meaning) to completely exhaust the muscle in one or two sets (to the point where an adaption to stimulation takes place) Most people just are not able to do that. A beginner certainly needs to do more sets to get a "feel" for the movements and once one sees gains it's difficult to switch for fear that a new style of training might not give the same gains. Plus it's been hammered into most people's minds that one needs to do so many sets in order to see results. Even Mike Mentzer who was the strongest advocate of HIT, admitted (shortly before his death) that he never really trained the way he advocated as he found there was just too much temptation to do a few extra sets for "insurance purposes".
    Great post, and I agree 100%.

    In general I think higher volume at a medium intensity(i.e. up to but not past momentary muscular failure) is better for hypertrophy, but there are all kinds of variables that come into play. When you're talking about volume and intensity the biggest thing to consider is your central nervous system. Different exercises demand different things from the CNS, and that should play a big role in your programming. For example, heavy deadlifts place enormous demands on the nervous system whereas bench presses demand much less. An all out set of DL's will knock you out of your boots, but you could do an all out set of bench presses and keep working just fine. In short, a high volume approach is difficult to use for the big lifts(squats, dl's, goodmornings, etc.) and probably not as effective. If you're leg workout consists of 10 heavy sets of squats, you're apt to burn out in a matter of weeks. This will overtax the CNS. It won't have time to properly recover(and adapt) and thus you won't see much in the way of strength gains. On the other hand, its very possible to train less taxing lifts with high volume without diminishing your strength gains. For a lot of exercises, a high volume approach is preferable - for example, no one trains the snatch with one set per workout, there's just no point, the exercise demands more total volume to be effective.

    There's also muscle fiber composition to take into account, for hypertrophy purposes at least. The lateral deltoids, calves, and forearms usually have higher concentrations of slow-twitch muscle fibers, and many lifters(myself included) find that they respond better to more reps and higher volume. But if you take that same approach to, say, training your hamstrings(fast-twitch dominant), you're on a fast track to kicking yourself in the head.
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    Senior Member Sensei's Avatar
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    It's all about need and goals.

    HIT's fine once in a while for a change.

    I think we need to be careful about the generalizations we make about volume and intensity. You can have training that is both high volume and high intensity. Smolov (which isn't my personal favorite btw) is a great example of such a training method. FWIW, HIT can be pretty high volume.

    I thought the points Pavel makes about the volume-intensity dichotomy were pretty good:
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    Senior Member Allen Cress's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sensei View Post
    It's all about need and goals.

    I think we need to be careful about the generalizations we make about volume and intensity. You can have training that is both high volume and high intensity.
    [/url]
    Exactly. I train both high volume and high intensity and have for the past 5 years and my progress has been nothing but great. For me there isn't any other way to train but with high intensity. Once you build up your workload capacity you would be surprised on what your body can handle.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sensei View Post
    It's all about need and goals.

    HIT's fine once in a while for a change.

    I think we need to be careful about the generalizations we make about volume and intensity. You can have training that is both high volume and high intensity. ]
    One certainly can. But it's not going to be as high volume as one could handle with a lower intensity. Nor is it going to be as high intensity as one could handle with a lower volume.

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    Senior Member Sensei's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Songsangnim View Post
    One certainly can. But it's not going to be as high volume as one could handle with a lower intensity. Nor is it going to be as high intensity as one could handle with a lower volume.
    Let's not split hairs. If you are on Smolov, for example, and you are doing 7 sets of 5 w. over 80% of your 1RM, then that's high volume and high intensity. If you are an intermediate or advanced lifter, it's insane volume and intensity.

    The dichotomy is overstated - usually by advocates of HIT who are probably doing moderate to high volume with moderate to low intensity. I want to be clear that when I talk about "intensity", I mean "intensity" defined as the % of your 1RM, not perceived exertion.

    When I go to a gym, generally speaking I see people either going balls to the wall w. a low weight (high volume, low intensity), or doing plenty of sets w. a negligible weight (low volume AND intensity).

    JMO.
    A child does not learn to squat from the top down. In other words, he does not suddenly make a conscious decision one day to squat. Actually, he is squatting one day and make the conscious decision to stand. Squatting precedes standing in the developmental sequence. This is the way a child's brain learns to use the body as the child develops movement patterns. Therefore, a child is probably crawling, rocks back into a squatting position with the back completely relaxed and the hips completely flexed, and stands when he has enough hip strength. This approach makes a lot of sense and can be applied to relearning the deep squat movement if it is lost. -Gray Cook
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sensei View Post
    Let's not split hairs. If you are on Smolov, for example, and you are doing 7 sets of 5 w. over 80% of your 1RM, then that's high volume and high intensity. If you are an intermediate or advanced lifter, it's insane volume and intensity.

    The dichotomy is overstated - usually by advocates of HIT who are probably doing moderate to high volume with moderate to low intensity. I want to be clear that when I talk about "intensity", I mean "intensity" defined as the % of your 1RM, not perceived exertion.

    When I go to a gym, generally speaking I see people either going balls to the wall w. a low weight (high volume, low intensity), or doing plenty of sets w. a negligible weight (low volume AND intensity).

    JMO.

    I'm not splitting hairs but simply qualifying what I meant. High volume=20-30 sets. High intensity=80%+ of 1 RM
    That is what I meant when I said you can either train long or hard but not both.

    I guess we simply have different definitions of what constitutes high volume.

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    Senior Member Sensei's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Songsangnim View Post
    I'm not splitting hairs but simply qualifying what I meant. High volume=20-30 sets. High intensity=80%+ of 1 RM
    That is what I meant when I said you can either train long or hard but not both.

    I guess we simply have different definitions of what constitutes high volume.
    Volume = tonnage lifted. If you only work w. the bar, even if you do 20-30 sets, it's probably low volume and low intensity (unless your 1rm is low).
    Last edited by Sensei; 02-22-2010 at 10:22 AM.
    A child does not learn to squat from the top down. In other words, he does not suddenly make a conscious decision one day to squat. Actually, he is squatting one day and make the conscious decision to stand. Squatting precedes standing in the developmental sequence. This is the way a child's brain learns to use the body as the child develops movement patterns. Therefore, a child is probably crawling, rocks back into a squatting position with the back completely relaxed and the hips completely flexed, and stands when he has enough hip strength. This approach makes a lot of sense and can be applied to relearning the deep squat movement if it is lost. -Gray Cook
    Lifting Clips: http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=johnnymnemonic2
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sensei View Post
    Volume = tonnage lifted. If you only work w. the bar, even if you do 20-30 sets, it's probably low volume and low intensity (unless your 1rm is low).


    Considering the audience we are posting for, I doubt too many of them regard lifting the bar as 80%+ of IRM which is the other part of the equation.


    Anyway, getting back to the topic at hand. From your first post on this thread it seemed that you were taking issue with my comment about not being able to work hard and long. (If this is a misrepresentation of your position then I apologize in advance. However I also clarified this by stating that one is not going to be doing 15-20 sets with his true 5 rep max (for each and every set).

    Unless you disagree with the bolded part and so far I see nothing that explicitly suggests this, I would say our points of view on this are closer than they may seem.
    Last edited by Songsangnim; 02-22-2010 at 10:36 PM.

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    Senior Member Sensei's Avatar
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    I think we, and when I say 'we' I mean people in general, seem to have a problem w. definitions of volume. Volume is total tonnage moved in a set or training session.

    Intensity of a set or session is its % of 1RM, not whether you could or couldn't have done another rep. "Hard" is not the same as "intensity".

    Number of sets, tempo, rest intervals, etc. matter, but I think most people don't need this level of complication in their training. Programming doesn't have to be as hard as most people make it. Simply calculating volume and average intensity is enough to track and plan progress over time.

    ...as far as where we disagree - I'm not sure.
    A child does not learn to squat from the top down. In other words, he does not suddenly make a conscious decision one day to squat. Actually, he is squatting one day and make the conscious decision to stand. Squatting precedes standing in the developmental sequence. This is the way a child's brain learns to use the body as the child develops movement patterns. Therefore, a child is probably crawling, rocks back into a squatting position with the back completely relaxed and the hips completely flexed, and stands when he has enough hip strength. This approach makes a lot of sense and can be applied to relearning the deep squat movement if it is lost. -Gray Cook
    Lifting Clips: http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=johnnymnemonic2
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  25. #25
    Wrecker of Homes d'Anconia's Avatar
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    Sorry if I am beating a dead horse but I recently realized that a certain part of my original question in this thread still seems somewhat unclear to me.

    My understanding of strength (here meaning one-rep max or comparable) is that it is primarily a function of the CNS's ability to fire off muscles in a coordinated sequence to lift as much weight as possible, and of course size (or #) of the muscles contracting. Most people agree that someone can see good strength gains with low repetitions as well as low volume. The references I saw advocating low-volume always talked about strength gains.

    But...

    Are we as sure about size gains (hypertrophy)? I remember hearing that the underlying principal behind muscles getting bigger is that a.) every repetition a certain portion of muscle fibers are stimulated (higher weight means more muscles are or have to be stimulated), b.) the more repetitions the more likely a fiber will be stimulated (or the more times it will be stimulated), and that c.) the accepted repetition range for best hypertrophy results (usually between 6-14 reps but obviously debatable) was the best because overall it tended to stimulate the most fibers the most amount of times before being fatigued. This last part might be the most important because theoretically if someone could do get more overall stimulation from higher weights (intensity) with the same amount of *sets* then that would be better for hypertrophy.

    So does the low-volume strategy hold up for muscle size/composition gains as solidly as it seems to for strength gains? Assuming my a.), b.), and c.) are correct then the only way that could be true is if after the first set or two of any exercise, assuming 50%+ intensity, that the portion/number of muscle fibers stimulated is NOT likely to increase and REPEATED stimulation of a muscle fibers is NOT likely to have much marginal increase in hypertrophy or composition.

    Does this make sense? I understand that some of you may think that I am overthinking here but these are the types of questions that this forum is here to help answer. Whereas the idea of steeply diminishing returns seems acceptable at first glance for strength it is not as readily accepted for hypertrophy... at least not in my opinion. The article I read referenced only one study that specifically talked about hypertrophy gains was said to use *untrained* subjects whereas pretty much all studies included or emphasized strength gains. So would you guys theorize that it's as applicable to hypertrophy as it is to strength?
    ...........||High School||.....||July '05||.......||January '09||
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    Deadlift........?.....................315x5...............435x5
    Weight........180...................192...................185
    BF%.............?......................12.....................12
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