Q: I’ve read that training all out [to failure] is not the best way to grow muscle. The argument I read said that it causes nervous system and adrenal burnout as well as higher levels of muscle-eating cortisol [stress hormone]. Don’t you think bodybuilders will grow better if they use more sets, stopping short of failure to avoid those problems?
A: No doubt about it, training all out is traumatic. It’s brutal on the body, but that’s what makes it so effective—if you use it correctly…
As we’ve said in our e-books, if you’re going to train to failure and want great gains, you need to buffer your phases of all-out bouts with medium-intensity training—that is, a string of subfailure workouts every few weeks. That intensity downshift allows your body to recoup and your muscles to supercompensate (catch up and grow from your all-out assaults). The question becomes, How long should your all-out phases last so you pack on muscle without suddenly shifting into reverse and burning out?
The best example we’ve got is Jonathan’s 10-week Size Surge experiment that took place back in the ’90s. For that program, he did the following:
- A one-week medium-intensity (subfailure) phase
- Four weeks of all-out training on a big, basic program (three days a week, about one hour per workout)
- Another one-week subfailure phase
- A final four-week all-out 3D Positions-of-Flexion routine (training every other day on a two-way split)
How did it work? As many of you know (we talk about this motivating mass-gaining experiment a lot), Jonathan made great gains, with 20 pounds of muscle in that 10-week period. He built his solid bodybuilding base structure in 10 weeks, not 10 months. Granted, he was regaining some of the muscle he’d had previously, but he still packed on about 10 pounds of new muscle, an impressive feat…
So, is four weeks the limit for high-intensity phases? That depends on a number of factors, including your intensity-generating abilities, your recovery capacity, your training volume, outside stress, and diet among other things. Some people may need a downshift after three weeks; others may be able to go six weeks before they need to take a step back. Four weeks may be a good place to start, then use a one-week downshift phase with your same program, stopping all sets before failure, just as Jonathan did.
Couldn’t you just use subfailure volume training—more sets for each muscle, no work sets to muscular exhaustion—all the time? That can build muscle too—if you have a lot of hours to spare. If you want to build muscle with that volume style, you’ll be in the gym for long stretches (bring your camping gear). It takes a lot of sets to get a size effect if you’re not pushing yourself very hard (see the size principle of muscle-fiber recruitment explained in many of our e-books). Great bodybuilders like Bill Pearl have used that approach and built phenomenal physiques; however, his workouts took more than two hours each six days a week. We have lives outside the gym, so we prefer to be much more efficient than that.
If you’re like us, with families, jobs and other responsibilities, shorter all-out workouts that include X Reps and X-hybrid techniques, with subfailure supercompensation phases every so often, is the way to grow. Jonathan’s best-ever results with those mass tactics can attest to that…
Till next time, train hard—and smart—for BIG results.
—Steve Holman and Jonathan Lawson
NEW 2.0 Release (with big, updated Home-Training Section)
We’ve just updated our Quick-Start Muscle-Building Guide 2.0. There’s a big new section with complete home workouts that include STX, slo-mo sets, speed reps, and stretch moves—all tailored for a bare-bones home gym (ours is only selectorized dumbbells and an adjustable bench, and we’re getting impressive results with these workouts)…
There’s even a weight-free workout using some of the aforementioned methods, no equipment necessary.
We’ve got it at a limited new-release price of ONLY $9—Click the cover above or HERE.