Progressive Mechanical Loading for Injury Rehabilitation/Prevention
by Chris Mason
Progressive Mechanical Loading (PML) is a term I have coined to describe what I have found to be the most effective injury rehabilitation/prevention method in my nearly 30 years in the iron game. PML is deceptively simple, but as Occam’s razor suggests, the most effective solutions need not always be overly complicated or exotic in nature.
Aristotle writes in his Posterior Analytics, “We may assume the superiority ceteris paribus [all things being equal] of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses.”
PML involves the use of progressive resistance to condition tissue (skeletal muscular, connective, even osseous) to either prevent injury when the extreme forces of heavy loading or explosive training are employed, or when injury occurs, to facilitate a speedier and more complete recovery.
I first became aware of the the general concept from Louie Simmons (www.westside-barbell.com). I had torn my right pec major relatively significantly and had called Louie to receive counsel. In short, Louie told me to get back to benching almost immediately. Start extremely light (use 20+ rep sets), use high frequency, and very gradually increase the loading over time. I did exactly that, well almost exactly… I probably started heavier than I should have using 95 lbs. I think I did 9 reps the first time. All I did was the one set and stopped at 9 reps because it literally felt like the pec was going to completely tear from the bone with each rep (which Louie had warned me would happen). I moved the weight slowly with what can best be characterized as perfect form. I did this daily trying to get more reps each time. When I got to 20 reps I increased the load by 10 lbs and started over doing as many reps as possible. After about four weeks of daily benching (one set each day) I went to benching every other day continuously trying to progress in reps and resistance. When I got to the mid 200s for 20 reps I began to increase the loading and decrease the reps first doing sets of 12 and over the course of a few more weeks moving down to sets of 5-8 reps and so on.
The method worked, and worked very well. I believe it resulted both in faster and superior healing of the injury. I am now benching more than ever and have not experienced lingering problems from the injury. There is science to back the concept. My buddy Shaun did some post-graduate research at the University of Virginia (10 minutes from my home). The focus of his research was the regeneration of connective tissue. Convenient, eh? To make a long story short we were out having a drink one night at a local university haunt called Boylan Heights. Well, maybe more than one drink…. Anyway, while discussing the topic he told me about research which showed that when the skeletal muscle associated with damaged (in this case I believe it was a partially severed tendon) connective tissue is mechanically stressed it causes a chemical cavalcade which results in increased signaling for the repair of the damaged tissue. This information simply reinforced what I had discovered empirically. Rest for an injury is not ideal, rather mechanical loading of the tissue such that the injury is not exacerbated, but the tissue is still sufficiently stimulated to more aggressively repair itself, is what leads to optimized recovery.
I mentioned in the beginning of this article that PML can be used for both injury repair and prevention. For injury prevention a modified version of the technique is employed. In the spirit of full disclosure, what I am referring to here is just an extension of the concept of GPP (General Physical Preparedness) and the first couple of micro cycles in classic periodization. The difference is it is a highly specific adaptation of these concepts. Its primary use is for the seasoned lifter/athlete who has developed an excellent strength base and plans to try something new, or something they have not done in a long time. You see, the body’s adaptation to exercise is extremely specific. For example, take a lifter who back squats, but never performs front squats with regularity. The primary movers for both movements are the same, but the relative emphasis on them varies due to the changes in the location of the load and thus the movement of the body and joints. The variation in movement is also dramatically different for the nervous system.
The variation in the movement pattern and thus variation in stress on the musculature and connective tissue can lead to injury if the more advanced athlete too quickly attempts maximal loads. This is because the force production capacity of the involved musculature may exceed the mechanical stress absorbing capacity of the connective tissues for the specific movement pattern of the front squat, or any new, or not regularly used movement. PML can address this by building the connective tissue for the specific movement pattern prior to the use the of maximal loads.
The basic principle of progression for this use of PML is similar to that used for injury repair, but differs in initial loading. The initial loading will be significantly greater than that used for injury repair. It will still be relatively light, but in this case the selected resistance should be heavy enough that it is difficult to complete 20 repetitions. The frequency is also less, more akin to that of your normal training, and the progression of resistance can be faster, but should still cover four to five weeks prior to reaching loads of 90% or greater.
Savvy use of PML will lead to less injury, faster recovery if injury does occur, and the ability to more quickly progress in one’s strength or athletic training. Give it try, you will not regret the decision.
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Rodney is a real AtLarge Nutrition customer who recently sent our owner, Chris Mason, these pictures as a way of saying thank you for both ALN supplements and for Chris’ nutrition advice (Rodney had used the contact us link on our site and had read Chris’ Fat Loss Made Simple – http://atlargenutrition.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/atlarge_nutrition_fat_loss_program.pdf).
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Hypertrophy Specific Training CAN Have a Direct Effect on Maximal Strength
by Chris Mason
On my drive home this evening my mind wandered as it often does. During the process I came to what should be an obvious, but was instead a bit of an epiphany, at least at the conscious level, conclusion about hypertrophy training as it relates to maximal strength. That conclusion was that hypertrophy training can have more than an indirect effect on maximal strength.
It is absolutely true that hypertrophy training indirectly aids maximal strength assuming the trainee also includes maximal strength training in their regimen. This is due to the fact that a percentage of any hypertrophy that occurs in skeletal muscle is comprised of an increase in the size, and thus potential force production of the contractile myofibrils (actin and myosin). Maximal strength specific work in the form of high intensity, low repetition training then permits the nervous system to harness the increased force production potential of the larger myofibrils and the athlete is able to lift ever greater maximal loads.
With that said, my epiphany relative to a direct effect of hypertrophy specific training on maximal strength stems from the fact that I realized that hypertrophy training is also a form of strength endurance training, and that strength endurance can play a role in a one repetition maximum attempt. The connection lies in the fact that any maximal strength demonstration, by definition, will move relatively slowly. The success or failure of a given max attempt can thus partly depend on how long the athlete can produce maximal force, or the rate of reduction in maximal force production. In theory, enhancing strength endurance can enhance the length of time the athlete can produce maximal force.
Think of it this way, and I will greatly simplify for the sake of argument (taking joint angles and varying forces etc. out of it); if it takes 301 lbs of force to bench press 300 lbs and the lifter starts the press by producing 310 lbs of force which then rapidly declines to 305 lbs, and then 301 lbs, and finally 298 lbs before the completion of the press, they might miss the lift. Conversely, if via hypertrophy specific training the lifter has built their strength endurance to the point they can prolong their ability to produce maximal force, and or mitigate the rate of reduction of force production, the likelihood they can grind out a maximal attempt increases.
The above begs the question of how a strength athlete can use this concept to their benefit. At face value it might seem that hypertrophy specific training would be counterproductive for the strength athlete relegated to a weight class other than superheavyweight. When it comes to the human body that which seems obvious isn’t always the case. An important component of skeletal muscular hypertrophy when considering an individual whose level of muscular development is anything beyond a rote beginner is total caloric intake. If the athlete controls their total caloric intake and practices hypertrophy specific training not much in the way of actual hypertrophy will occur, but the adaptation of increased muscular endurance will still be manifest given proper rest etc. So, even for the strength athlete that does not want a significant increase in skeletal muscle mass, hypertrophy specific training can be of benefit to their absolute strength and performance.
If you have followed me or my companies at all for the past several years you already know I am a firm believer in Louie Simmons and his Westside Barbell training system (www.westside-barbell.com). I have known his system is highly effective for some time, but the more I learn and contemplate the ramifications of what I learn, the more I begin to understand why. Relative to this article, Westside includes hypertrophy specific training directly alongside maximal strength training, and I think that fact is lost on a lot of trainees. The accessory work which is at the core of the Westside system is, for all intents and purposes, bodybuilding. Its inclusion aids maximal strength in exactly the manner I have defined above.
To further illustrate the effects of hypertrophy specific work and enhancing strength endurance for maximal strength we need look no further than one of Louie’s disciples and a story Louie loves to relate when telling about his system. Travis Bell is a natural athlete who is a tremendous bench presser (570+ lbs raw and nearly 900 lbs shirted at around 260 lbs body weight). Travis began training at Westside several years ago and has made amazing progress since being there. At one point, when Travis’ training had stagnated, Louie had instructed him to add sets of 100 repetition band pushdowns supersetted with lying extensions after his standard triceps work. As Louie tells it, Travis’ triceps blew up to over 20″ in short order and his bench press followed suit.
Bottom line, if you want to be as strong as possible do not shy away from hypertrophy specific/strength endurance work. Make it a part of your regimen and optimize your training results.
Intensity vs. Volume for Hypertrophy (includes a 4 day split routine)
by Chris Mason
My last article addressed how to get bigger legs in 30 days using a form of double pre-exhaustion with a very high intensity of effort and low volume. I addressed how hypertrophy can benefit strength athletes from bodybuilders to weightlifters with some detail, but I did not directly touch on the topic of intensity vs. volume as it relates to hypertrophy.
Intensity vs. volume has been a topic of hot debate over the years with the two extremes of the spectrum being commonly represented on one end by the HIT (High Intensity Training) one set to failure popularized by the legendary Arthur Jones (the man who invented Nautilus® training equipment), his protege Ellington Darden PhD, and bodybuilding icon Mike Mentzer. The other end of the spectrum has the GVT (German Volume Training) proponents and the system coined Intensity or Insanity championed by bodybuilder John Defendis (he learned it from another bodybuilding legend named Steve Michalik) which promoted up to 60 or more sets per body part per session (clearly the high volume champion)!
The one immutable physiologic fact is that intensity and volume are inversely related when it comes to strength training. Intensity can be defined in this case by either the classic weightlifting definition which relates it to the percentage load used compared to the trainee’s one rep max, or by how close to concentric failure (when you cannot complete a rep) one comes during their post-warm-up sets. The higher the intensity of the session, the less volume which can be benefited from.
Many, many trainees confuse tolerating a given high volume routine with truly benefitting from it. Some trainees can adapt to a volume load such that they don’t show the classic symptoms of overtraining, but that does not mean they are training in such a fashion as to elicit, and more importantly, to permit supercompensation which results in improved size, strength, or both.
Don’t be a dummy, dummy! If you are not consistently progressing, assuming you are not near your genetic potential for size, strength, or both, you are NOT training properly, and as most serious trainees are not lacking in the effort department (i.e. intensity) chances are very good you are training with excessive volume and literally preventing the outcome you seek!
Now, as anyone who has been around the iron game for any length of time knows, there can be a pretty large variance in the amount of volume which works for a given trainee. There are two main reasons. First, individual genetic makeup provides for variance. Some people can simply handle more high intensity volume than others. Second, intensity, as has already been stated, is a variable that can make a huge difference. There is a marked difference in terms of recovery from training done at 100% intensity (as a percentage of one’s 1RM), or to failure with repetitions, than training done at 70-80% intensity, or stopping two or more reps short of failure. In the end, I believe this is a primary source of the confusion that persists in the bodybuilding (hypertrophy specific) world as to what volume of training is best.
So, what is the answer, what is the optimal volume and intensity for training for hypertrophy? In terms of actual results the answer is somewhat equivocal, but when you take into account time (the actual amount of time spent training) the answer becomes much clearer.
Over the years I have trained myself and many, many others both in person and remotely. What I have found to work best for the vast majority when hypertrophy is the primary goal is 4-6 working sets (I define work sets as post-warm-up sets) of 8-12 reps taken to, or within 1 rep of failure for larger body parts, or muscle groups, and 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps for smaller muscles, or muscle groups. So, nutshell, high intensity with moderate volume is the most effective means of eliciting maximal hypertrophy. Sure, variants of this formula work, but as noted in the previous paragraph, when you consider time spent in the gym, the formula I have set forth is the most “cost effective” I have found. Increased volume, generally speaking, does not translate to significantly better results (and often leads to overtraining), and less volume nets less results.
Earlier in this article I mentioned bodybuilding legend Mike Mentzer. Mike, after his competitive bodybuilding days, and before his death, promoted less and less volume. What is interesting is that at his competitive best he did not train with one set to failure. He used multiple working sets to failure and was able to achieve what is arguably one of the finest physiques ever displayed sporting a very rare combination of shape, symmetry, and sheer mass. I think Mike’s move towards extremely low volume was based on both a diseased mind (I understand he was considered to have some mental health concerns) and the need/compulsion for progression that is basic to human nature. People, especially high achievers, always feel compelled to improve things. This basic attribute of humanity is simultaneously a driver of achievement and a foible.
I mention Mike again because the following routine, which I have found to be VERY effective, is based off of a contest training regimen which Mike employed at his peak. To be clear, Mike was one to grow into his shows, so the pre-contest routines he used were potent at stimulating hypertrophy.
Monday & Thursday:
Superset (perform 3 supersets):
Incline dumbbell flye x 10 reps
Flat barbell bench press x 10 reps
Giant set (perform 2 giant sets):
Leg extension x 12 reps
Leg curl x 12 reps
Full squat x 12 reps
Rest 3-5 minutes then (not part of the giant set):
Leg Press – 1 x 15 reps
Calf raise – 2 x 20 reps
Overhead cable ab crunch – 2 x 12 reps
Tuesday & Friday:
Wide grip chins – 2 x failure
Superset (perform 2 supersets):
Dumbbell pullover x 10 reps
T-bar row x 8 reps
Superset (perform 2 supersets)
Dumbbell lateral raise x 12 reps
Seated dumbbell press x 10 reps
Superset (perform 2 supersets)
Barbell curl x 10 reps
Dumbbell rollback x 12 reps
Donkey calf raise – 2 x 15 reps
Overhead cable ab crunch – 2 x 15 reps
* Each of the above sets is a working set. Warm-up as needed prior to their performance.
Follow the above routine for three months. After three months take at least ten days off totally from training and then begin a new training regimen based upon your goal(s).
Nutrition and Supplementation
This is a training article, but some mention should be made of both nutrition and supplementation to support your intense hypertrophy focused training. In terms of nutrition the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle applies. The key points to remember: You should try to minimize consumption of processed foods, consume sufficient protein (1g per pound of body weight is more than sufficient), consume sufficient calories to support potential growth (this is the most often missed component), and have some sense of nutrient timing surrounding your training (be sure to consume some protein and quickly absorbed carbs immediately after training).
The concept of sufficient calories is a bit amorphous, so let me be more specific. For younger men, and those with a fast metabolism, sufficient caloric intake to fuel growth ranges from roughly 17-25 calories per pound of body weight. For older trainees, and those with slower metabolisms, the range is more along the lines of 14-18 calories per pound. The only way to know what is best for you is to experiment, but the ranges noted are good starting points.
In terms of supplementation, and keeping one’s budget in mind, I recommend the following:
http://atlargenutrition.com/product/pre-workout/ – take one serving about 40 minutes prior to training
http://atlargenutrition.com/product/nitrean/ – 1.5 scoops mixed in water or milk post-workout
Size is a one of the main goals of bodybuilding, but myofibrillar hypertophy (an increase in the size of the contractile myofibrils – that which mechanically makes your muscles contract) can also benefit the powerlifter, weightlifter, or other strength athlete not necessarily relegated to a weight class. The reason is because demonstrable strength is both a function of the nervous system and the skeletal muscular system. Intermediate to advanced lifters can essentially tap the potential of their nervous system relative to a given volume of skeletal muscle mass thus slowing, or eliminating gains in strength. To further elucidate the concept, the nervous system is essentially the conductor and orchestrates the coordination of the musculature both intra and inter-muscularly. It can be trained to extract greater force production from the muscles for a given plane of movement, tempo, and load. As with any adaptation, the adaptation of the nervous system to strength training is not infinite. At some point, the only way to extract appreciably greater force production from our muscles is to increase the size of their contractile elements (the aforementioned contractile myofibrils).
Ok, so now you hopefully have an idea of why hypertrophy can be an important component of any strength sports regimen, now to the HOW. Below is a specialized leg routine based on a concept I first read about from the inimitable Ellington Darden of HIT fame. Yes, I know, HIT doesn’t work and blah, blah. Well, keep in mind that one of the best Mr. Olympia competitors ever, Dorian Yates, used a version of HIT to dominate professional men’s bodybuilding for years.
While HIT in its classic form has not proven to be optimal for any purpose, it has many effective components, and among them is the creation of giant sets (3 or more exercises back to back) which are absolutely brutal in nature, and when utilized properly can elicit unprecedented fits of muscular hypertrophy.
Use the following giant set once per week. Perform it twice after appropriate warm-ups and then complement it with some direct work for the hamstrings ( 3 sets of 8-12 reps of direct hamstring work).
Perform each movement to just shy of concentric failure (i.e. stop when you know you cannot get another rep). Have each exercise setup ahead of time and do NOT rest between them until the giant set is complete.
Leg press – 10 reps immediately followed by…
Leg extension – 12 reps immediately followed by…
Full back squat – 12 reps – then you lay down and try to revive yourself…
If you can walk properly after each giant set (remember, only do it twice per workout) you have not worked hard enough. Your legs should be pumped to the bursting point!
This training will hurt. It might even make you vomit, but if you can take it, give it your all, and complement it with plenty of rest and calories for fuel, your leg WILL grow like weeds!