Why Most Coaches Cannot Train Natural Lifters and/or Non-Elites Efficiently
Article by Russell Taylor of Taylored Physiques
The reason I wrote this article is the countless emails I received from many women (and some men) who were, basically, broken physically and psychologically due to excessive volume. Their coaches also assert that there is no way that lower rep ranges and volumes work.
One natural lady I had came from a coach who had IFBB professional bodybuilders as clients. The issue with this, is the IFBB and few other organisations have been associated with recovery and training aids, such as performance enhancing drugs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is widely considered as part of the genetic elite, admitted drug use himself (as it was legal at the time).
His stats listed online are such: 6’2” at 230lb.
Now, however, we have winners under 6’ at nearly 300lb!
Unfortunately, her training protocol also looked very similar to training quoted in magazines for professional non-tested athletes.
• Extremely high volume (700-800 reps each leg session, which she did twice a week)
• A 1300 calorie meal plan
• 6 hours of cardio
• Ultra high reps (20+) for most of her sessions
It is clear, that the ratio of recovery to progress is well out of balance here.
1. How do drugs and genetics influence training styles in history?
Ever since the late 70’s, drugs have been a big part of bodybuilding at the professional level. This has had a direct impact on the evolution of training in the past decade. In the 60-70’s, gyms were mainly open 3 days a week, not including ladies’ days. This was the main reason as to why 3-day full-body routines were popular. As we moved into the 80’s-2000’s onwards, body-part splits became all the rage. But why? The public, prior to the internet, only had the information passed down through magazines from the pros. I remember my cousin and I were shocked after looking at Arnold in the magazines; if only we could get half of those results! Luckily (well, we thought it was lucky at the time) his workouts would be printed within. In a recent interview, he outlines 35 sets per body-part and working out 5 hours a day (1). However there are a few exceptions to this, such as Mike Mentzer. Nevertheless, most agree that body-part splits became fashionable and so did higher volume.
2. Why is this an issue?
The issue is, a lot of coaches have taken this information and have applied it to everyone. Their information either came directly from the source, a magazine, or even another coach who got it from the same place. With each generation, a little twist was added to claim it was original. Then, it was applied to everyone with no respect to individual differences or “supplements”.
How do anabolic steroids & elite genetics affect training methods?
• They improve recovery and subsequently lead to better work capacity (15)
• They elevate MPS (muscle growth lasts longer) (13,14)
• They can build muscle with or without training, especially in novices (13,14)
• They enhance the amount of muscle built from training (14)
Why is this issue with naturals/non-elite athletes?
• With improved recovery, for the same or even better results than a non-enhanced lifter, there is less need for programmed breaks
• With improved recovery, for the same or even better results than a non-enhanced lifter, there is less need for periodization
• With improved recovery, for the same or even better results than a non-enhanced lifter, there is less need volume adjustments
• With elevated MPS, there is more growth than is obtainable by a non-enhanced lifter, so there is less need for higher frequency training
• More growth can happen even in a sub-optimal program in the genetic elite and “supplement” users does not mean it’s the most efficient use of time.
What does the science say on what is generally needed for efficient growth? Are these massive volumes needed at the expense of intensity?
Wernbom approached this in a systematic review, examining 227 papers on novices and intermediates on actual LBM growth.
A synopsis of his findings is presented below:
• Volume should be anywhere from 40-70 reps per body-part per session.
• Intensity should be higher than 75-80% of 1 RM.
• 8-10 reps, done either to failure or near it.
• Frequency per body-part should be around 2-3 times a week. (2)
This will act as a rough outline for the base of our training. I want to make the reps per session 30-85 per body part, to accommodate higher and lower volume responders.
Rhea (4) did a nice paper on strength and he found: the more advanced you got the more intensity you needed.
This translated to the following:
• 80-85% 1RM in advanced trainees, or about 6-8 reps.
• Frequency per body-part should be around 2 times a week.
• 8 sets per muscle group.
I’m going to take a liberty here, and say 8×6 is 48 reps, which is pretty similar in volume per body-part. So it should come as no surprise: bigger muscles are stronger muscles.
3. How about contest dieting in naturals?
Interestingly enough, there was a study on natural bodybuilding training which also mirrors these recommendations.
I’ll quote the abstract:
“The anabolic effect of resistance training can mitigate muscle loss during contest preparation. In reviewing relevant literature, we recommend a periodized approach be utilized. Block and undulating models show promise. Muscle groups should be trained 2 times weekly or more, although high volume training may benefit from higher frequencies to keep volume at any one session from becoming excessive. Low to high (~3-15) repetitions can be utilized but most repetitions should occur in the 6-12 range using 70-80% of 1 repetition maximum. Roughly 40-70 reps per muscle group per session should be performed, however higher volume may be appropriate for advanced bodybuilders.”(17)
4. What are the pros and cons of high reps?
In my personal opinion, it allows a lot of volume to be added in a short amount of time. Also, I think a major reason that is often ignored is recovery and joint health. Doing lower weight at higher reps will cause less joint issues and will be easier for the CNS to recover from, allowing less complex planning for recovery.
I think high rep training is often abused when training women. It is used as a cardio tool, at the expense of recovery. Lower intensity cardio, for example, will be much less stressful for the CNS and joints. In the end, the lack of recovery creeps in and loads become so light that I cannot see it being an efficient use of time to preserve mass.
5. Will these high reps be conducive in injury prevention to avoid long term setbacks?
Injuries are a major factor in consistency, and consistency will have a major impact on growth. So these reps should be quality and safe reps.
A big debate in the CrossFit industry is doing complex movements at high reps and/or with little rest. The issue is: the more complex a movement is, the lower the rep range should be due to potential form break down. This is because lower rep ranges allow better form due to less fatigue, and help you to learn higher quality movement patterns (you become more skillful at the lift and ultimately safer and stronger at it). Another point that should be made: it is much easier to add weight to lower reps than higher ones, thus allowing for more controlled progression. I believe isolation work will have far less issues and more machine-orientated work would be safer at ultra-high ranges. This should lead to more growth over time.
Go watch a 15-20 rep deadlift on YouTube. It normally gets worse as it progresses up the rep range, and looks like a back injury waiting to happen. Granted, I have seen some shaky low rep attempts, but this is more down to ego lifting than cardiovascular fatigue.
6. Recovery and periodization: why are we not seeing these in most advanced generic plans?
First of all: what is periodization?
“Periodization is the systematic planning of athletic or physical training. The aim is to reach the best possible performance in the most important competition of the year. It involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period.”(16)
In a typical weight lifting routine this can involve typically systematic changes in one or more areas of:
Example: Total number of repetitions per body part or total weight lifted.
How often a body part is trained.
How heavy the weight is in a given rep range.
Example: Maybe flat bench to incline bench.
• Rep ranges
Example: 5 rep power cycle to a 10 rep hypertrophy cycle
Recovery and periodization are other major factors in long term success in a routine. If you’re constantly going overboard with no planned breaks strength loss is only a matter of time especially in a deficit without “supplementation”. In the literature nonlinear periodization shows very little advantages in growth however in strength it seems to win hands down. Also anecdotally my trainees seem to recover allot faster when running this sort of setup which is a premium in competition prep. In fact in a recent paper it was recommended as the go to method for competition preparation. (17)
It’s very costly and time-consuming to teach an athlete how to implement advanced techniques, such as periodization or percentage-based training. It is much easier to hand photocopies of a meal plan and routine, take a few hundred bucks, and walk away. When really there’s not one perfect method, coaches need to constantly tweak diet and training to get the most from an athlete. Recovery is hardly ever factored into this style of coaching. It’s also generally considered that it requires way less volume to preserve mass than to build it. So there is scope to lower volume further depend on phase of dieting and training specially if cutting or bulking
The aim: to stimulate as much growth as possible, whilst allowing enough recovery potential to progress long-term, through individualised and clever planning.
We need to remove this mentality of ‘train harder to train better’.
7. The literature on high rep specific training
There is evidence that you can grow at high reps. I’m certain Schoenfeld et al. clearly demonstrated that lower intensities can have good muscle growth, but I shall quote part of the abstract below:
“Current research indicates that low-load exercise can indeed promote increases in muscle growth in untrained subjects, and that these gains may be functionally, metabolically, and/or aesthetically meaningful. However, whether hypertrophic adaptations can equal that achieved with higher intensity resistance exercise (≤60 % 1RM) remains to be determined. Furthermore, it is not clear as to what, if any, hypertrophic effects are seen with low-intensity exercise in well-trained subjects as experimental studies on the topic in this population are lacking” (6)
(<60% will be above 15-17 reps in most cases).
In his own words: “Taken in combination with the trend for significance, this suggests a potential advantage for higher load training when the goal is maximal hypertrophy.” So in short lower reps (typically <16) at higher intensity tends to lead in better growth in most situations. So it leads me to ask what’s making up the shortfall of lack of intensity in the non-drug tested winners.
Genetics and/or drugs would be my first to guesses.
Examining an IFBB Pro split
I receive more than my fair share of clients from coaches with IFBB/NPC winners, yet they have major issues training clients in organisations which do stricter drug-testing. Also if you look into the results of these shows, the winners are way larger than most other federations. Is something helping with recovery capacity and fat loss here? You tell me.(5)
Below is the alleged leg day of Kai Greene, IFBB Pro.
Let’s work out roughly how much volume, frequency, and intensity for the quads and compare it.
I really cannot see the non-elite recovering from such a split. Some may argue that some of these may be warm up sets but even then these will still add accumulative fatigue and still be around 250-300 reps per part. There is only so much volume you can add into a single workout before repair exceeds growth. This is well-covered by Mike Israetel in a recent video (12). Mike is a good example of a coach who can train people both sides of the pond. Early literature suggests that muscle growth usually lasts several days long (36 hours was noted in 1 study), but not likely a whole week (11). So higher frequency do makes sense. This would be less of an issue with “supplements” that enhance recovery and elevate growth for longer periods of time.
No top-ranking Pros use lower volumes?
Dorian Yates’ ‘Chest Blaster’ uses about 82 reps for chest (8).
Dorian Yates’ HIT workout has about 40 working reps for legs (9).
Mike Mentzer’s routine could be as low as 16-30 reps per session, performed 1-3x a week.
8. What about tested Pros?
I recently asked Evan Godbee (WNBF and PNBA Pro) what he does, and this is his response:
“Ok so I figured it out for the program which I just finished running. I want to stress that how I’ve previously trained over the past few years (since 2012) has been with a twice per week frequency with a more even volume across muscle groups and larger volume per session. Training with a higher frequency we’ve put some of my muscle groups at maintenance whilst focusing on bringing up weak areas.
I’ve split up the muscles and calculated average reps for them per session (my reps undulate per session for main lifts and per week for accessory lifts).
Quads 105 reps, x 3/week (includes sumo deadlifts).
Back 133 reps, x3/week.
Chest 64 reps, x 3/week.”
This equates to 100 reps on average, which is way closer to the study material than the IFBB example.
I also asked IFPA Pro Tyler Mayer about his routine.
He tends to do power-hypertrophy training which includes:
Reps: 4-10 90% of the time with some odd 15-rep movements.
Frequency: 2x a week.
Volume: 38-45 reps on most body-parts, including quads.
Other routines worth mentioning
DoggCrapp (aka DC Training),
Frequency: around 2x a week.
Volume: around 30 reps on most body-parts, including quads.
(Some say this is a power lifting routine as there’s no ultra-low reps technically it comes under bodybuilding and it has been used for that purpose).
Frequency: around 3x a week.
Volume: around 25 reps on most body-parts, including quads.
Can naturals take any lessons away from the big guys, and vice versa?
For the PubMed geeks
I have been thinking: the “pump” is similar to Metabolic Stress, which is 1 of the 3 factors of growth. Brad recently did an article on this.
There is some evidence Brad recently presented on type 1 hypertrophy AKA the endurance fibres, which some of the low-rep guys are missing out on. However, low reps seem to concentrate on the other 2 factors more (Mechanical Tension & Muscle Damage).
“There is no question that type I fibres contribute to total muscle volume. People tend to discount the hypertrophic importance of type I fibres based on research showing that type II fibres have about 50% greater potential for growth.”- Brad Schoenfeld. (7)
This does not mean type 1 fibres do not grow, it just means they grow less. They could still add to total LBM which low rep guys could be missing out on.
So at the moment it make total sense to incorporate some high rep stuff in at the 15-20 rep range. However, in a natural, I believe this should be in the minority of routine.
For the “supplemented” bros
I have spoken to many enhanced athletes this past year and they have said that using a more efficient approach to training has allowed them to reduce their “supplement” use, and achieve better results.
Warning signs that a coach may not be evidence-based
• Lack of Pro cards or clients who placed in polygraphed & urine-tested orgs (OCB,ANBF,DFAC, and WNBF are examples)
• Does not adjust training to client needs and uses cookie cutters all through prep
• Uses excessive volume from day one
• Immediately pushes “supplements” on you when there’s an issue with either training or diet
• Gives you a rigid starvation plan from day one
9. Implementation of the positives of both routines
So what we are left with:
• Most of the training should be sub 12 reps, with the occasional use of higher reps strategically placed or periodically cycled into a programme
• Around 30-85 reps per muscle group or higher/lower depending on response
• Frequency each part should be hit 1.5-3x per week depending on response
• Incorporate deloads (light periods) when needed (light weeks or days)
Example routine for Legs:
• Squat & RDL 4 sets x8 reps (leaving 1-2 reps from failure, or about 75% of 1RM)
• Leg press & hamstring curl 1-2 sets for 20 rep (pump/fibre type 1 focus)
• + calf work
• 2x a week frequency
If someone is getting good results does not mean those results could not be better. This is yet another example that we all have something to learn from both methods, and neither approach is strictly 100% wrong.
The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans.
Wernbom M1, Augustsson J, Thomeé R. (2)
Essentials of strength and conditioning (3)
Maximizing strength development in athletes: a meta-analysis to determine the dose-response relationship.
Peterson MD1, Rhea MR, Alvar BA.(4)
Is there a minimum intensity threshold for resistance training-induced hypertrophic adaptations?
Testosterone-induced increase in muscle size in healthy young men is associated with muscle fiber hypertrophy(13)
The Effects of Supraphysiologic Doses of Testosterone on Muscle Size and Strength in Normal Men (14)
Anabolic steroids increase exercise tolerance.
Tamaki T1, Uchiyama S, Uchiyama Y, Akatsuka A, Roy RR, Edgerton VR. (15)
Recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: resistance and cardiovascular training.
Helms ER1, Fitschen PJ, Aragon AA, Cronin J, Schoenfeld BJ. (17)
About the author
Russell Taylor got into coaching professionally in 2014. Since that time Russell Taylor’s evidence based approach has had a string of top placing client male and female finishers in everything from physique to figure, and even competitive powerlifting. He has also been published many articles and routines for high profile webzines. His ultimate goal is unify the industry by combining academic evidence together with practical experience.