Whether you’re a competitive athlete, trying to look a bit better in your speedos, or attempting to stave off muscle wastage while cruising around The Pacific during your retirement years…it’s generally well accepted that manipulating resistance training variables (load, volume, contraction type, rest periods etc) will provide more bang for your buck than performing the same program repeatedly.
It’s also assumed (often without basis) that those making the best progress in relation to muscle hypertrophy or strength gain are manipulating training variables in a superior way compared to those making slower progress. Of course, we could make the argument that those making the most significant advancements in the weights room are those with inherent genetic gifts or what many consider “hyper-responders”, predisposing them to faster rates of muscle or strength accumulation irrelevant of programming nuances.
Well what’s more important? If we have the optimal training program set up by systematically manipulating training variables can we “outwork” the winners of the genetic lottery following subpar programs? It’s an intriguing question, and up until this month any answer to it was largely speculative.
Thanks to Damas and colleagues, 20 resistance-trained young males performed 8 weeks of unilateral resistance training twice a week with 1 leg randomly assigned to a standard program (control leg) and the opposite leg to a variable training program which manipulated load, volume, contraction type and interest rest intervals (variable leg). The variable leg completed all 4 training variations every 2 weeks. Bilateral vastus lateralis cross-sectional area was measured, pre- and post-training and acute myofibrillar protein synthesis rates were assessed at rest and over 48 h following the final training session.
What did they find?
Muscle cross-sectional increase was similar between the control leg and the variable leg, DESPITE higher total training volume in the variable leg. The 0-48-h myofibrillar protein synthesis rate increase post-training was slightly greater for the variable than the control leg. All participants were considered “responders” to the training, although none benefited to a greater extent from a specific protocol.
Here’s where it gets more interesting…the between-subjects variability was approximately 40-fold greater than the intrasubject (between legs) variability. Specifically, the variation in muscle size and protein synthesis between the legs on different training programs was 0.08-0.9% whereas the variation BETWEEN subjects was 37.8%.
The higher total volume and greater myofibrillar response in the variable leg surprisingly did not translate to a greater muscle hypertrophic response.
What can we make of this?
Well it’s probably not what the neurotic training programmers with the fancy spreadsheets and complex periodisation models want to hear. While the study was only 8 weeks long, with a moderate cohort size, it did indeed show that manipulating common resistance training variables elicited the same muscle hypertrophy as a repetitive, standard training program.
Although training volume and the stimulation of myofibrillar protein synthesis was slightly higher in the variable leg, this difference wasn’t sufficient to cause detectable greater gains compared to the standard leg.
So, while it doesn’t sound fair, it’s likely that the nuances of training programming pale in comparison to the power of genetic differences between individuals. It’s also fairly likely that someone following an optimal manipulation of training variables will make far less progress in the weights room compared to someone with genetic gifts (or other intrinsic predispositions to muscle growth) following a basic/beginner level training program. Drugs aside, this study gives more evidence as to why the jacked-up bros seem to build a frustrating amount of muscle mass following subpar, fad or whacky training strategies. These guys can just “get away” with more than those on the other end of the genetic spectrum.
So, does this mean that manipulating training variables is a useless endeavour? Of course not. I would speculate that even those less “gifted” would make more progress following a variable, optimised program compared to following a repetitive program. In the same vein, even the very gifted jacked bodybuilders following mediocre training programs could be even BETTER with some manipulation of their training approach. But, if you feel like you’re doing everything “right” in relation to training programming and are still unsatisfied with your results compared to Broseph who comes in and does that same 5 sets of 12 bench press 3 times a week and grows by the minute…don’t assume that your approach is wrong, you probably just don’t have the intrinsic aids that Broseph has.
Manipulating common training variables caused similar muscle hypertrophy than a standard training program in trained young men. Intrinsic individual factors are the key determinants of the change in muscle protein synthesis and muscle size compared with extrinsic manipulation of common training variables. Between-subject variability was 40-fold greater than the variability promoted by extrinsic manipulation of training variables, indicating that individual intrinsic factors are stronger determinants of the hypertrophic response.