Article: Saturation Bombing Isn’t The Answer

Posted: April 20, 2011 in Articles

A Study In Painful Overindulgence:

Our physical culture is awash with hard-talk slogans and philosophy. Go hard or go home. No pain, no gain. Pain is just weakness leaving the body. Bigger, better, faster, more. At the heart, it’s always “more” that we’re interested in. More always seems to be synonymous with better. We’re not comfortable with moderation, with “just enough”. Just enough isn’t sexy.

Turn Up The Volume:

Many of the popular bodybuilding methods that have been put forward and commonly applied rely on volume to succeed. High repetitions, with a lot of sets, and a shit-ton of exercises. I’ve done these programs. Most of us who have been around a while have. It’s not at all unusual to see three-hour workouts that comprise several hundred reps, collectively, and may feature as many as ten or twelve exercises.

Do these programs work? In some cases, sure. Every exercise method has something to commend it, and all of them are better than nothing. However, the body is an organism with a limited ability to recover and change to meet a stimulus. For each person, there is a point of diminishing returns in regard to volume of exercise. If we come near to that point, but don’t cross it, we will be able to get the most benefit from our efforts. At the same time, we won’t waste time or risk injury by pushing into a stage where our bodies are on the ropes and just trying to survive.

Complex, high volume programs keep us in the gym a long time, burn a lot of calories, and make us feel as if we’ve been awfully productive. We’re exhausted afterward, and we are less likely to get ourselves up to no good. We can be permissive in our diet, because we perform the trials of Hercules four times a week. For many of us, though, we end up stalled out because we are breaking the body down faster than it can be repaired. These programs work better for people with great genetics or great chemical assistance, or if you’re eighteen. Everything sort of works when you’re in your prime. For the rest of us…

Over the years, there have been a lot of successful programs built around simplicity. Just picking the best few exercises, and doing those a lot, rather than watering down the exercise regime with a lot of movements that aren’t as effective. Think of them as the antithesis of all that is espoused in “Weider Method” bodybuilding. Some even go so far as to say, “Just do squats. Everything else is crap.” That might, in my view, be too much of an overcorrection.

How Many?

At the same time, there have been differing theories as to the set/rep configurations that work the best. How many repetitions are needed to achieve the desired effect? How many sets are required?

Predictably, there is no one, perfect system for everyone, nor is there a pat answer to any of these philosophical questions. It’s been found that certain rep ranges, if done with appropriate resistance, have certain typical responses. That resistance is generally expressed in terms of any set of lifts growing more difficult as it comes to a conclusion, with the final repetition being tough, but possible.

Low repetition work, from one to six lifts to a set, generally stimulates maximum strength improvement. I’m given to understand that this has to do with both improving the neural pathways that enable muscle contraction and by sheer muscle growth. This type of training is often done for supporting sport performance and to train for maximum lifting performance, and is generally more interested in results than aesthetics.

Moderate repetition ranges, from eight to twelve, are generally seen as having the greatest effect on hypertrophy, which is to say that they cause the muscles to grow efficiently. While not as direct in their ability to increase strength, these rep ranges tend to cause the largest change in muscle size and shape. Thus, they are used frequently by those interested in bodybuilding.

Higher repetition ranges, beyond twelve, foster muscular endurance, as well as stressing the cardiovascular system to a greater degree. Freehand exercises are often done in these ranges, and can be used by athletes and other trainees to improve their ability to produce work over time. While muscle strength can be improved, and some hypertrophy can result, these ranges are not optimal for those purposes.

As you can see, just the number repetitions done gives plenty of grist for most people’s mill. Bloody-eyed argumentation can easily ensue when these questions are put to a group. Then there’s the question of sets, which is a whole universe of its own.

I’ve seen sets as high as ten or twelve, and as low as one. A study I read indicated that much of the possible benefit could be gained by doing a single “working” set (full effort, not warm-up). This philosophy is put into practice in the various high intensity training models, fostered by Mike Mentzer and others.

Most programs hew to the middle of the road, asking for three to five sets per exercise. This is a safe middle ground, generally assuring that the muscles have been taxed, but haven’t been exhausted to the point of possible overtraining and injury.

High volume programs ask for more sets. While anyone might subjectively like the idea of doing six to ten sets of each exercise, if they’re honest with themselves, they only have so much gas in the tank. If you’re laboring on your eighteenth or twentieth set of the workout, I would suppose that you can no longer push anywhere near the weight you could on your first or second. Unless you’re superhuman, or taking all day to exercise because you walk around the block and eat a sandwich between sets, you’re going to have to hold back a little, or be forced to work in an exhausted, sup-optimal state as the session drags on.

How Often?

Finally, there’s the question of how often to exercise, or more properly, how much recuperation time a person needs. This will vary somewhat based on a few observable phenomena. The first is the intensity of the exercise regime. If we’re doing a light-duty program that leaves us a little damp at the forehead but otherwise unhindered, we might be able to do it almost every day. Why? Because our bodies don’t have to repair much damage or make wholesale changes.

Habitual exercise is great. If you always jog a mile, stretch, do a few pushups and situps, and then get ready for work, that’s a wonderful choice for your health. Your heart thanks you. Habits like that will help you stay active and healthy, and will probably stave off middle age bulk around your midsection. Because they are habitual, however, your body will habituate to that stimulus, and will cease to change as a result of said stimulus.

Most people can recover sufficiently to allow them to do moderate intensity exercise three or four times per week, provided that they are healthy and eating/sleeping well. By moderate I mean to say that they are going as hard as most people are comfortable with, lifting at least 60% of their maximum effort or taking their heart rate up to the point where they are breathing hard for a few minutes after the effort has ceased. Breaking a sweat and feeling a little discomfort, but not quite going full-tilt–those are the hallmarks of this level of intensity. Provided that people continue to add intensity to this type of regime, thus keeping the effort level in the same plane, this type of exercise can allow a slow and steady change while not running too great a risk of injury over the long-term.

Then there’s the old blood and guts, balls to the wall type of training, the kind where you feel you might puke, pass out, or lose control of your bodily functions. The kind that makes you keep sweating hard for a half hour afterward, and leaves you feeling like you’ve been flattened with a rolling pin for the rest of the day. Now, there was a time when I could rock and roll like this four times a week, but I find that I just can’t sustain that anymore.

After a really rock ’em sock ’em deadlift workout, it sometimes takes me about four days totally recover. Does it make me feel like a weenie? Yes. Can I change it? Only if I’m willing to really alter my habits, doing things like ice baths and massage, maybe even starting on some expensive supplements. Somehow, I’d rather go at a sustainable pace. If I can only pull two big workouts a week, and maybe a few lighter ones in between, so be it.

For me, I’ve found that I can get surprising improvements out of a fairly sparse workout schedule. If my body doesn’t feel right, I’m okay taking it easy or resting a few extra days. For instance, I had a back ache all last week, and was otherwise exhausted from normal life stuff. I could have run against the wind and worked out hard, sure. Would it have been a time when I tempted fate in terms of injury? I think so. And I’m okay with looking at the long scale of time, with taking it easy a bit now, so I’ll be able to keep exercising month after month, year after year.

May All Our Sins Lead To Wisdom:

I was the biggest die-hard muscle head when I was younger. I never gave myself a natural break. I wanted to lift the most, the longest, the hardest, the meanest of anyone in the gym. Every time. Regardless of what program I was trying, I went after it hell-bent for leather. Guess what? All my breaks were enforced, because I’d get dinged up and HAVE to stop. And once you stop…that was my other problem. If you have to lay off for a month or two to heal a torn up body, that break might turn into several months, or even years, and then you’re right back where you started, except a little older and more decrepit.

Guess what? The diehards really die easy. I know. I was one, and instead of sensible, steady progress, I was on again, off again for years and years. I guess that we have to make these mistakes in order to get a little wisdom, but I sure wish I could have had someone to teach me a better way when I was about nineteen.

Saturation bombing isn’t always the way to go. More certainly isn’t always better. You can’t always go hard, and that doesn’t mean you have to go home. You have to listen to your body and recognize that you’re mortal. Smart work usually wins out over thoughtless devotion to pain. If you can only work out once a week, it’s a hell of a lot better than no times per week. If you’re only deadlifting 135, that’s still 135 more than the average shlub.

Winning With Small Bites:

Pick up some weight, then put it down. Be mindful of how your body reacts. Learn your limits, your nagging pains, your recuperation times, then gently and mindfully push those limits. It’s not what you look like or how much you lift six weeks down the road, it’s how you feel and if you’re making progress six months away, a year away, three years away. If you only increase a lift by five pounds a month, that’s still sixty pounds by the end of the year. Anyone can do five pounds a month, seriously.

Let’s say that you’re the “I can’t do a pushup” guy/gal. Maybe just the empty bar on the bench press is where you’re starting. If you just go up five pounds a month, and I guarantee you’ll go up faster than that in the beginning, you’ll go from 45 pounds to 105 in a year. If you keep at it, year two will get you 165, and year three will get you 225. That’s from the slowest progress model I can easily consider.

Five pounds a month for anything other than really weak lifts is small potatoes. With big lifts like squat and deadlift, five pounds a WEEK is sustainable for a good long time. That model, starting with the bare bar, would put you at 305 by the end of the year. Believe me when I say that these progressions are possible.

Will you eventually begin to slow down? Sure. As you approach the end of the “easy” gains your body can make, progress becomes more difficult, and tactics have to be developed. That said, before your latent abilities are reached, you’ll have already surpassed the progress of nearly all your contemporaries.

If one watches, year after year, the people around them in the gym, most of these folks find a level and stay there. Why? Because they don’t know exactly what they’re doing or how to train toward progress. They’re spotty. Their goals are vague. They go through the motions with the same weight, sets, and reps every time.

By simply saying to yourself, “This is what I want to achieve, and this is how I will do it, over this period of time,” you’ll easily surpass the bulk of the gym-goers you meet. With little bites, you can eat at the iron and get where you want to be. Just a little more than last time, and next time just a bit more than that, and soon, you’ll find that you have really improved.

Happy Lifting!

  1. Chris says:

    Lots of great info in this one, Pat! I can see alot of the mistakes I made in the past and had actually still make today! Very interesting indeed! Do you think you could give your opinion on nutrition/proper diet? I know you have to eat well to get good results and obviously to be healthier, but is there a difference in eating to gain Muscle/bulk VS eating to feed my muscles? I’m not sure if I asked that right. I look forward to beginning my training in the next few weeks. Thanks again for the well written and highly motivating advice!

  2. Chris, while I’m not diet expert, there are some guidelines that can help support any workout routine. It’s important to examine what you’re trying to accomplish and make diet choices that will help you get there.

    Eating to gain weight is a bit different than eating to get lean while retaining muscle, but both choices revolve around high protein intake, which is necessary for working muscles. Bulking diets generally dictate high calories, with plenty of fat and protein intake. These are usually “phase” diets, rather than something you do all the time. Muscle retention/recuperation will probably stress a more sustainable diet, but one that encompasses a lot of lean protein and good nutrition from multiple “real food” sources.

    Guidelines I’ve heard for bulking say that you should take in one gram of protein for every pound of body weight. This can be difficult and expensive. The cheapest way to do so is called GOMAD, which stands for gallon of milk a day. Milk being about two bucks a gallon, it’s a cheap supplement, if you can tolerate it. it has whole protein, and is easy to digest for many people. Other diet staples include tuna, eggs, peanut butter, and chicken breast (skinless), as well as complex carbs like oatmeal. Fruit and veggies are also important. Things to avoid are deep fried stuff, white flower, simples sugars, and too much booze.

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