By Todd Bumgardner, MS, CSCS ProSource
I've gotten a lot of strange looks when I divulge my career choice. It seems that people think of strength coaches as guys and gals that like to play around in weight-rooms all day. To the outsider, it looks as if we've merely taken our hobby and made it our career to avoid "real work." Being the gentleman that I am, I always respond to these slights with repose. The ignorant don't realize what they don't understand.
Strength coaches -- at least the good ones -- are truthfully masters of manipulation. Not of people, of course, but of variables. When it comes to mastering mounds of iron and sculpting a broad, solid frame, there are two main variables to consider: intensity and volume.
Traditional mass programs adhere strictly to high volume with low to moderate intensity. These odes to nostalgia have your ass stapled to machines grinding high-rep sets to near failure. This old school pump-and-burn strategy is dreadful; not only does it leave a lifter bored to tears, it also destroys the capacity for movement.
It doesn't have to be that way.
You can have your cake and eat it too, provided that the batter is mixed with protein powder and consumed post-training. Oh, and the training preceding the cake munching fiesta is filled with high-intensity compound lifts.
This is another point during which I receive odd looks. (You can lower your eye brow now). Everyone (by the way, I'm not sure who Everyone is, but he sure shares his opinions often) knows that volume builds mass. I agree with everyone.
But -- here comes the rub -- everyone misconstrues the true role of volume for building muscle mass. See, in most instances lifters and coaches think that intra-set and intra-workout volume are the ingredients of the mass-inducing elixir. They're partially right. High volume sets and workouts disrupt homeostasis enough to elicit a big hormonal response. This, as the research states, will cause muscle to grow.
True growth, however, is over the long haul. Sure, you could follow a "mass" program that accounts for a million reps in a six-week period and grind your butt into a leg extension machine. If you work hard, you'll most likely get bigger.
As devil's advocate, I'll pose a question often raised by one of my training influences, Dan John. What do you do at the end of the six weeks?
See, those high volume programs work for a little while, but it's the total volume accumulated over time that builds true and lasting muscle mass. That volume is best accrued by lifting heavy weights. The heavier the weights, the more mechanical tension; this leads to a cascade of hormonal responses, neurological adaptations and metabolic adaptations that promote size and strength.
You see, it's the accrual of high-intensity volume over time that solidifies a muscular frame. Here are the strategies that will keep you accruing stress and packing on high-intensity mass.
High-Intensity Mass Strategies
Cluster Sets: Ok, so this strategy is a cross-over.
It meets the end of high intra-workout volume and intensity. The key, however, is the intensity.
Cluster sets build intra-set and intra-workout volume while maintaining work at a high intensity. I'm not a rocket scientist, but it seems to me that greater volumes of work with high intensities build bigger muscles. Cluster strategies allow for that work because the volume is interspersed with short rest periods. Here's an example cluster strategy contrasted against a straight-set, high volume loading approach.
Bench Press Cluster:
4 x 3-3-2 (each dash signifies 10-15 seconds of rest)
Total volume: 32 reps
Intensity: 80%-85% of 1RM
Bench Press Straight Set: 3 x 12
Total volume: 36 reps
Intensity: about 70% of 1RM
While a straight set strategy of similar volume produces more reps, the cluster set strategy promotes work at higher intensities. We lose a few reps in the cluster strategy (of course, we could make those reps up) but the work at 80% of 1RM incurs more hypertrophy producing stress than work at 70% of 1RM.
5 x 5 Assistance Exercises: Lifters have been using the five-sets-of-five strategy for decades. For some unknown reason, it's fallen out of favor in recent years. Training has gotten fancy. The truth is, however, that the five-by-five strategy still produces powerful size and strength results. Human physiology hasn't evolved so much in the past few decades that we no longer adapt to basic loading.
Nowadays, five-sets-of-five clings to an unstable foothold as a main lift-loading parameter. Unfortunately, the fun often stops there. After perusing countless programs and talking with a country full of strength coaches, I've learned that very few are still using five sets of five to load assistance exercises. Big mistake.
Like cluster strategies, five sets of five promotes work at high intensities (a five rep max for a given lift is typically between 85% and 90% of 1RM). Twenty-five reps is also a fair amount of volume. Rather than finishing your main exercise and immediately bumping your accessory exercises up to sets of ten, stick with sets of five and keep moving heavy weight.
Reduced Rest: Lifters often disregard the rest period as a training variable worth manipulating.
Growing up in a powerlifting gym, I'm especially guilty of disregarding rest -- more weight, more reps and move on. I've been wrong.
Cutting rest while keeping intensity up creates a serious disturbance that elicits a strong hormonal response.
Here's a programming option. For four weeks, try keeping your volume and intensity constant while reducing the amount of rest between sets each week. Start out with ninety seconds of rest and progress down to forty-five seconds. By the end of the month you'll have created an internal environment that's primed for growth.
Olympic Lift/Powerlift Complexes: Our theme is easy to follow: grab heavy weights and move them fast. The Oly/Powerlift complex is our theme's perfect embodiment.
I'd love to take credit for creating such a masterfully mass producing concoction, but unfortunately I can't. I'll have to hand the credit to my colleague and personal strength coach Mike Ranfone.
These complexes recruit high-threshold motor units, the ones that grow the fastest. Completing them is simple. Pick an Olympic lift and load it with light to moderate weight, follow that with a powerlift loaded at higher intensity. Complete the Olympic lift (two or three reps is sufficient), rest for thirty seconds to one minute, and then hit the power movement.
My favorite combination is the hang clean and the bench press—it was the first one Coach Ranfone introduced to me. The violent pull and shoulder external rotation of the clean followed closely by the strong push and shoulder internal rotation of the bench press builds colossal and stable shoulders.
Normally, I conclude articles with a push forward, but in this instance I feel it warranted to look back in summary. Keep things heavy and cluster your sets. Five sets of five is always a powerful size builder and rest periods can't be ignored as a authoritative size-building variable. Olympic lift and Powerlift complexes recruit mass-building high-threshold motor units.
Mass isn't a battle that's quickly fought. It's a war that requires persistence and ammo. You're armed; the rest is up to you.