In any field of science, particularly applied sciences, The Literature™ does not come out until long after the science has been hypothesized, practiced, and preached. Shamans were curing people long before Fleming discovered penicillin. We can only hope experiments validate that which we have conjured up in our measly brains or learned from the elders, but we are seldom this lucky, as is the case for shamans healing cancer by aligning chakras or whatever it is they do. Resistance training (RT) has been around in its modern form, with barbells and such, for the better part of a century, perhaps a little longer. However, the dumbbell and similar items have been around for thousands of years, and physical training of some form is likely prehistoric. In comparison, The Literature™ is in its infancy. Old habits die hard, but sooner or later we have to burn off the deadwood.
Though The Literature™ is still young and growing, some of its data are quite meaningful. If The Reader considers himself a trainer/coach/prophet or merely a Student of the Game, he should spend the time necessary to go through this. It will only make him more knowledgeable and well-reasoned. The intention of this article is not to ruffle feathers, but I will not pretend I don’t enjoy challenging authority and rustling some jimmies. I want every lifter’s training to be optimized, and I certainly would like the trainer/coach golden retrievers to be replaced with Men Who Understand Science. The Literature™ should act as the wind necessary to guide our sails. If we do not wrestle with the science we have no idea which way the wind is blowing. However, this is a lot of information and if The Reader is relatively new it may seem overwhelming.
This will be a Deep Dive into the hypertrophy literature and how we should go about accumulating hypertrophy. I say accumulate because hypertrophy is an anabolic process, not a fixed goal one can achieve. Resistance training is our best tool for inducing hypertrophy along with routine consumption of a caloric surplus, and this post will be concerned specifically with the training prescription necessary to maximize gains. As the article continues it will get further in-depth and we shall continue our descent down the rabbit hole. I thought about trying to shorten it by including multiple studies for a single conclusion, explaining less, not writing an article at all, etc. But, the less thorough this is, the more room for interpretation there will be left to the Reader. That is not my goal for this article. I want to remove any chance of an arrow piercing the armor.
One Must Gripe Like He Means It
“To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact.” – Charles Darwin
The most important variable for a Man of Logic deciphering what The Literature™ is attempting to tell us is not understanding p-values or effect sizes, but the ground that leads the man to the study in the first place. Many of the studies below can be claimed by a particular philosophy as evidence for its position, but could also be adopted by another system drawing exactly the opposite conclusion from the same data, with many shades of gray in between. So, the bifurcation in the interpretation stems from the a priori belief system already espoused by the Reader, although it manifests as an interpretation issue.
I believe that force production is the basis of our reality. I also believe we improve our ability to produce force in specific ways, centered around a barbell and perhaps a dumbbell or two. This drastically influences how I interpret The Literature™.
My bias, which is the correct one to have – I highly recommend it – is looking for data that allows me to further believe that training for strength is the paramount strategy one can use in the gym. This means that if a study can lead me in the direction of offering legitimate strength training as an equally-valid strategy for hypertrophy as, say, bodybuilding-type training, I am going to highlight that fact. I am not going to advocate bodybuilding or high-rep training because it is clear that these modalities do not make us nearly as strong as low-rep training.
For example, many have run wild with some minor implications from a recent Schoenfeld et al.  study in order to peddle the idea that we need not use high-loads regularly to achieve maximal hypertrophy or even strength gains. The Reader will find this to be patently absurd when the data is laid out later in this article, but it illustrates an inherent problem in concluding what the data actually say. Humans read and interpret the numbers; the data do not conclude themselves.
If, for instance, when I come across a study purporting that low-rep sets caused as much hypertrophic response as moderate- or high-rep sets, I am going to snatch this up as evidence that we should focus on low-rep sets. I will do this because the overarching philosophy leading me to this study is skewed toward force production. Furthermore, I am always going to side with the training that will allow us to kill two birds with one stone. I hate birds.
My other bias is toward training tools, specifically the barbell. There are features of the barbell that no other tool in the world can achieve, and it is the most potent device we have for driving both strength and hypertrophy. This brings me to a much larger gripe, a problem with the fundamental nature of The Literature™. The Reader will find many studies in the following paragraphs that include exercises such as the seated knee extension, machine biceps curls, et cetera. These exercises were invented so that mouth-breathers only capable of wiping sweat off of a machine were able to teach paying gym members how to exercise. Any man, woman, or child capable of speaking out loud can learn how to teach somebody what to do on a pec-deck machine. Grab the handles and bring them together. Good. Excellent. Squeeze. Yeah, that’s it. That will be $45.
These exercises feature two particularly ugly characteristics. One, they usually isolate a single plane of motion and allow the lifter to forget entirely that we are creatures designed to move in three-dimensional space. The Press is different from a seated machine press for several reasons, but perhaps the biggest one is that the machine only allows the lifter to move vertically. In the Press, especially a dynamic one with a layback, our body does much work in multiple planes throughout the movement. We press the bar in a straight line, but only if we force ourselves to do so. It is easy, especially in the beginning, to find ourselves in the habit of pressing the bar forward of the mid-foot or even jiggling the bar laterally throughout the motion. We must learn to control the barbell and fix these inefficiencies, one of the key skills in learning barbell exercises. Machines do all of this for us, rendering our ability to move in space as what we in The Biz call “pathetic.” The other issue is a byproduct of the isolated movement that forces the lifter into using one, maybe two muscle groups. Usually, the machine is designed to allow total isolation. This is a problem because these movements are entirely contrived and not seen in the Real World.
When Martha Stewart reaches into her cupboards, she does not externally rotate her shoulder joint to place her elbow at her side, then flex her shoulder to bring her arm overhead while maintaining perfect external rotation, then grab a plate, then bring everything back down in the opposite order it went up. (Although, many health experts would say this is exactly how it should happen and that she needs to be mindful of her rotator cuff muscles while she is in the kitchen. Hi, I’m Earth, have we met?) The rotator cuff muscles only perform movement of the shoulder when they are isolated. In Reality, they simply protect the integrity of the shoulder joint while we move normally, keeping the head of the humerus pulled into the glenoid fossa while we throw our arms in the air and wave ‘em like we just don’t care.
This is merely one example to show the absurdity of dividing the body into individual parts that operate in a vacuum. The low-bar squat is a contrived movement, sure, but it was designed to stress several muscle groups over a long range of motion in the systematic way in which they already operate. A toddler performs perfect squats daily, while never once doing anything that resembles an isolated hip abduction or a seated knee extension. So why do some of the Lab Coats consistently study exercises that force the use of light weight throughout a fixed range of motion and provide a fraction of the strength/hypertrophy benefits of barbell movements? Because they have never lifted weights and they haven’t the foggiest idea about how to coach their study subjects through the movements.
My last gripe is with training status. I will note in the following studies whether the subjects included were trained, but how do the experimenters truly know? And, if the lifters are untrained, why bother? What can we tell from studies with subjects whose recent activity included brisk walks from their car to their front door and grocery bag rack pulls? The only value in testing untrained people with training is to see what happens specifically in untrained people. However, we are not untrained, and I would be surprised if any untrained people are interested in the outcome of a RT study. Why would they be? If they were interested in training they would not be untrained and if they were trained they would not be interested in studies with untrained subjects. So, what good is the study outside of the fact that the experimenters earned their degree after the paper was published? My blood pressure is rising.
Moreover, there don’t seem to be accepted criteria that define “trained” status across all the studies, and several studies with “trained” lifters do not give a precise definition of what they deem to be trained. It’s often that the subjects tell the Lab Coats that they’ve been exercising regularly for the last three or six months, but what does exercise mean? Have they done the Novice Linear Progression and Texas Method templates? Were they doing CrossFit or Zumba classes? Does physical therapy qualify as lifting? I mean for the Lab Coats, not me. As far as I’m concerned, Physical Therapy is only challenging for corpses.
Anyway, this is why we in The Biz have such a difficult time accepting The Literature™ as valid for any interpretation at all. No good coach or lifter in the world does a majority of their strength or hypertrophy training on machines. Furthermore, no bodybuilder in the history of man has based the majority of his training on high-rep, low-intensity loading, and especially not on machines. My Readers can research this on their own time, but Ronnie Coleman squatted 800 for 2 reps while competing for his Olympias, Arnold was winning European powerlifting competitions in his teens, and Dorian Yates was hitting 405 lb for volume on the incline bench press before he ever competed in bodybuilding. Machines hardly existed in Arnold’s time and Coleman didn’t get to an 800+ squat with knee extensions. These impressive levels of strength are what laid the groundwork for their ability to perform hundreds of reps per training session later in their bodybuilding careers. One has to earn his volume.
It is obvious that the vast majority of Lab Coats are not lifters, because they would not feel comfortable using a training prescription that so demonstrably neglects barbells and dumbbells. Hypertrophy and strength are grounded in difficult barbell work. They are not achieved through a padded seat with CNN playing on a TV overhead. It is tough to take a lot from a study that believes a machine biceps curl with ~35 lb could achieve similar results for the biceps as chin-ups or heavy barbell rows. This mode of thinking is symptomatic of a grim pathology. Men and women who have not lifted heavy weights for any extended period of time, if ever, are telling the lay public how to get strong and make muscles grow. It would be fine with me if The Reader thought of this behavior as fraudulent. Not only have most of them not done any serious strength training themselves, but they have not coached anybody through these processes either. What do they know about training?
These criticisms should foster a deep skepticism in The Reader. We need to mind our step when combing The Literature™ because we do not want to encourage these barely sentient Lab Coats to continue offering isolation exercises in place of compound barbell movements, and there is often little practical advice we can take into the weight room from these lame studies. So, how do we read these experiments? Very carefully. I will try to mine what I can from all that follows, but be cognizant of the issues inherent in the data that come from such poor methodologies. To be fair, there are a couple of excellent studies that follow. They utilize barbell exercises and adhere quite closely to what would constitute real strength training. Still, it would behoove The Reader to carry a healthy skepticism through this article (and life).
By the end of this post, The Reader will be hit with a summary and some pragmatic guidelines. Spoiler alert: The Reader needs to lift a lot, lift often, and lift heavy. If The Reader is so inclined, he can come along with me as I venture into the voluminous depths of The Literature™.
The rest of this article is available on Starting Strength’s website.