Everything you need to know about program design for physique development.
This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Yesterday Coach Scott Abel covered how strength bias can hold back gains and the difference between strategy and tactics. You can read part 1 here.
Multiple Work Sets
In terms of training for leanness and balanced muscular development and the metabolic optimization that goes with that, then multiple work sets are ESSENTIAL.
The goal in the early years of training should be to expand work capacity for more “volume” and not better 1 rep max strength.
The research is quite clear on this.
The simple truth is that multiple work sets cause the body to adapt to larger volumes of work, and it does this by increasing strength-density—the ability to exert force not for maximum weight, but for the duration of the whole workout. This is what creates muscle size and density, what we formally refer to as “muscle maturity.”
When we add varying rep ranges (aka “surfing the strength curve”) as any intelligent bodybuilder will do, this will in turn produce and induce the specific kind of “strength-density” necessary to acquire increased muscle mass and density.
Furthermore, as brilliant researcher David Behm pointed out, “Larger muscles may generally rely more on recruitment for increases in force output.” This speaks directly to my points above regarding the importance of creating neurological efficiency and neurological patterning to teach the body more efficient recruitment for force production. (This is even more essential for the demographic group of trainees I refer to as the hardgainer demographic.)
But at the same time this higher volume approach to training for size and development usually negates pure max load strength. Training for muscle development is more about strength density than it is about max 1 repetition “how much can you bench?” concerns. Training for both size and strength at the same time is a mistake for most trainees, and only the most genetically advantaged get away with it.
People need to stop thinking that what this industry’s genetic superfreaks do for training (usually under the influences of a vast array of polypharmacy as well) is the right training for them. For far too long the traditional bias in this industry has said, “Train for strength and development will come.” But for the vast majority of you out there this is patently untrue!
The real truth is about strength density is, “If you train for development, strength will come.” But it’s a different kind of strength, not a how much can you squat or bench one time kind of thing.
Make no mistake here. Multiple work sets are essential to growth and development. Just know that people claiming one work set is enough to induce growth are usually people under the influence of pharmaceuticals. And that is fine if that is your thing. But the research doesn’t bear out the “heavy duty” myth. In fact, you study the history of this industry you’ll realize that “heavy duty” was born out of a marketing tactic from the very beginning.
The Existing Myth of Heavy Duty (Howdy Duty) Training
In contrast to the necessity of multiple work sets, the outdated mythology of “Heavy Duty” training is that one single work set, if done at high enough intensity, is enough to stimulate muscle growth.
Oh, if only it were true.
This “theory” has no real-world validity whatsoever. It was a media creation from Arthur Jones, Mike Mentzer and the like. It is not now, nor has it ever been, associated with solid principles involved with muscle adaptations to stress, and more importantly, the “neurological efficiency” I have been explaining throughout this manifesto.
There are actually several problems with this ‘one work set heavy duty’ idea.
First of all, research is clear that most trainees cannot even come close to generating “max workload capacity” in this way, and hardgainers are even less likely to be able to do so. This is a (neural) adaptation to training stimulus that can take years to develop. Some people can never create enough nervous system “intention” to workout at max levels, which is not the same as training with maximum loads. (Max level training, and training with maxium loads, are often confused together in the iron-world.)
Moreover, it takes multiple work sets to “teach” the body to work at higher and higher levels of intensity. It is this “accumulated stress” of multiple work sets that induces the adaptive response. Once again this is about strength-density, not max load strength.
One work set is simply not enough to induce an adaptive response resulting in muscle growth and quality development. One work set conditions the body to adapt to one work set. There is no “progression” in muscle cell hypertrophy. Although over time you may be able to “lift more” this wouldn’t necessarily lead to muscle growth and quality development.
Training for growth and quality development (what some call “lean mass”) is not just about “force production.” It is also about the training context within which that force is generated and sustained.
Simply put, one single work set at high intensity is NOT the best way to build and progress neurological efficiency and force production capacity. This is especially true if your nervous system is not well-adapted to high intensity training from pervious athletic experience. You simply cannot produce enough adaptive stress in one low-volume, high load set to make a muscle adapt to that set by “growing.”
The absolute most common training error out there is confusing pure strength training with training for mass building and balanced physique development, or mass with class. And this is where the “specificity” principle is so relevant.
To quote Behm’s research again:
Maximum strength training methods with their high intensity resistance but low volume of work not elicit substantial muscle hypertrophy. Therefore, a higher volume of work (greater than 6 reps with multiple sets) is needed to ensure a critical concentration of intracellular amino acids to stimulate protein synthesis and adaptive response. (p. 271)
And just so you don’t think that is a standalone conclusion, if you look up this research you’ll see that following this statement Behm cites other sources as well whose research shares the same conclusions. (Or you can also find this research in my book, The Abel Approach.)
The Case of Dorian Yates
Supporters of this Heavy Duty nonsense often refer to the great Dorian Yates and his endorsement of it.
First off, there is no question Dorian was a fantastic Mr. Olympia. I was in attendance at a few of his CLEAR victories. He was a champion.
In arguing his support for “heavy duty, one work set” training, Dorian was quoted as using his own analogy. He said, “It’s like hammering a nail into a wall. If one stroke of the hammer does it, why would you keep hammering the nail?”
As logical as this analogy seems on the surface, it doesn’t speak to neurological efficiency and work capacity at all. To explain why Dorian’s analogy is incomplete, I’ll use the same analogy he did. Let’s say the head of the hammer you are using represents nervous system “intention” and “neurological efficiency.” Well, if that hammer head is made of styrofoam instead of steel, you are going to have to hit that nail repeatedly in order to hammer it into the wall (read: multiple work sets).
Moreover, this doesn’t begin to address the number of times you miss the nail. Dorian’s metaphor is incomplete. You can see why multiple work sets are necessary to induce the desired adaptive response.
That wraps up the strategic considerations in regards to designing the perfect workout program for “mass with class.” Check back with us tomorrow as we move into tactical considerations and the ultimate conclusion of Coach Scott Abel’s 3-part series. Stay pumped.
 Behm, David G. “Neuromuscular Implications and Applications of Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 9.4 (1995) p. 265. Print.
Coach Scott Abel is now well into his 4th decade as an expert in the physique-transformation game. He has been known as the Trainer of Champions and has Coached Olympia Winners Figure Pros, models, and taken clients from beginner level to National Titles and beyond – and of course Coach Abel now Coaches all those who want to improve.
Coach Abel has been a writer, ghost writer, and columnist in the industry – and is now a best-selling author on Amazon as well. Scott’s latest book, The Hardgainer Solution, is a bestseller on Amazon, and is available now.
You can read more of Scott’s free articles at scottabelfitness.com, where you can also find his free video exercise library, and get free chapters from his books and several free workouts by signing up to his email list.