By Jason Martuscello, MS
One thing has stood the test of time when it comes to achieving maximal size gains: the 6-12 rep range. For years we have relied upon the classic repetition maximum continuum for selecting an intensity for specific training goals. This classic approach has prevailed in using our one-repetition maximum to determine the number of repetitions to perform for specific training goals and adaptations. Powerlifters, who seek strength and power gains, maximize from performing 1-6 repetitions of their one repetition maximum (1RM) and endurance athletes who demand muscular endurance should hit 12 or more reps. That 6-12 sweet spot, or 67-85% of the 1RM, has been touted as the superior rep range for optimal hypertrophy gains1. This rep scheme is so heavily engrained in gym culture we may turn from Schwarzenegger to Lance Armstrong if we accidently hit 13 reps instead of 12. Despite having guided our training for years, could this approach be limiting our size gains?
The Solution to Size
To master our puzzle of muscle growth we need to have the two pieces: 1) the stimulus and 2) the growth agent: protein. The puzzle cannot be solved without assembling these two pieces needed to increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS) over muscle protein breakdown (MPB), thus resulting in muscle hypertrophy. Regardless of how hard you go in the gym or how much protein you slam down – without the precise combination of both your size gains will be limited. Lets examine the right stimulus and proper timing of the growth agent for maximizing growth.
The Stimulus: Tensioning the Already Intense Relationship
In creating a thrashing anabolic environment where incredible size gains will be inevitable we need to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. What better way then to rep those 100lb dumbbells – talk about screaming growth. In referring back to our classic rep scheme, higher intensities through our 6-12 rep range (67-75% of 1RM) has been the recommended guide to growth. Therefore, if we lift heavier weights we will increase activation of our muscle fibers, especially type II fibers that are known to be more responsive to hypertrophy. In return we create a nice stimulus for growth. This has been our cornerstone approach for years but we have been ignoring one key variable: volume. Using higher loads means we are limited to fewer repetitions as opposed to using lower loads, which allows us to perform more repetitions. Going against the grain with a question that raises bodybuilder’s eyebrows worldwide, is training with the lighter loads and more repetitions a superior growth strategy then using heavier loads with less repetitions? Surprisingly the answer is yes. Thanks to Dr. Phillip’s Lab up in Canada it is now clear that performing a lighter load until failure will stimulate muscle protein synthesis to a larger extent when compared to using heavier loads2. Why is this? Whether lifting a heavy load or light load, performing until failure recruits the muscle fibers based on our size principle (smallest to largest), with heavy load requiring less time and repetitions to recruit the fibers and the lighter load requires more repetitions to reach a fatigued state. Therefore, lighter load means more repetitions, allowing more sustained contractions and increased muscle time under tension. This creates a prolonged stimulus for muscle growth.
The Growth Factor: Protein Quantity, Timing, and Distribution
Armed with our new solution to size (volume and time-under-tension), we now hit the gym with our anabolic stimulating, low-intensity, high volume workout until failure, but realize we have to get to work, leaving no time for our post-workout shake. This all to often excuse for suboptimal nutrition with our training is muscle hypertrophy’s worst nightmare. Regardless of how effective your training approach is, if you decide to delay your trigger for muscle growth your training will be negated. Although exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis, it also increases muscle protein breakdown to a larger extent (hence why we call it damage). This results in a catabolic state where breakdown of muscle occurs. Therefore, eating protein is essential to stimulating protein synthesis above breakdown to create a positive net protein balance needed for muscle hypertrophy. To create our relentless muscle growing environment we will address three aspects of dietary protein: 1) quantity, 2) timing, and 3) dosage and distribution toward maximizing size gains.
We all consume protein, but are we consuming the right amount to stimulate and maintain our muscle-growing environment throughout the day? What I have noticed, there are two ways consumers can fail: 1) the more the better: those who eat copious amounts of protein with hope of just achieving enormous size and 2) the not enoughers: those who train hard and complain they cannot put on size. Neither is effective, efficient or economical, as too much protein intake can stimulate protein oxidization3 while too little can prevent muscle growth. Maximizing hypertrophy starts with knowing your daily protein needs, and ensuring intake that is sufficient for stimulating growth but not excessive, to stimulate oxidation. The ISSN Position stand on protein and exercise recommend ingesting 1.4-2.0g/kg/day of protein for physically active individuals engaged in resistance training to provide for lean tissue accretion and repair of excise induced muscle damage4.
|Determine Your Daily Protein Intake Needs|
|Your Weight||÷||2.2||X||1.4||Low End: ______|
|Your Weight||÷||2.2||X||2.0||High End: ______|
Timing: Opening New Anabolic Windows
Now, knowing your daily protein needs, what are the best times to consume protein to keep this anabolic environment? The most studied, and well known is our post-exercise anabolic-window. Protein consumption immediately following exercise is of extreme importance as the enhanced effects of exercise and protein are greatest at this time point5. Your muscles have an increased sensitivity to protein after exercise: think of your muscle as a sponge just waiting to absorb protein and grow. However, properly planned protein ingestion should not be limited to the post exercise window. With exercise stimulating rates of MPS for over 24 hours we have other time points to maintain this anabolic environment. A largely overlooked anabolic opportunity is before bedtime. The low MPS during sleep creates an innovative growth strategy we often take for granted. Protein (casein) consumption immediately before bed has been shown to stimulate MPS and improve net protein balance during overnight recovery6. Imagine that, getting size gains while getting shuteye!
Distribution & Dosage
If you consume protein after workout and before bedtime you will be on your path to Arnold like gains. Well not quite, growth is a 24/7 job, if you’re not building, you’re breaking. Your body is continually breaking down protein (muscle, hair, skin, nails, etc.) so protein intake should not cease if you want to maximize size gains. Outside above anabolic opportunities, dispersing protein throughout the day seems to be the most optimal strategy for keeping muscle protein synthesis stimulated and maintaining this growth environment7. Based on current evidence, consumption of ~ 20–25 g (~ 8–10 g EAA) appears to be most effective for maximally stimulating MPS after resistance training8. To help guide our protein intake distribution the figure above demonstrates protein feedings to stimulate MPS above MPB during different time points throughout a day. Exercise stimulates protein synthesis for up to 24-48 hours, and leaves us catabolic even without protein ingestion. Therefore, fast digesting protein sources (i.e. whey) for post-workout window and slow digesting protein sources (i.e. casein) before our bedtime anabolic opportunity.
Although the classic rep scheme for muscle hypertrophy has prevailed, our new solution to size provides a longer lasting stimulus for sustained size gains. Put your growth agent to work, through precise timing, dosage and in sufficient quantity and you will awaken a muscle-building beast with unlimited gain potential.
|90% 1RM to Failure||30% 1RM to Failure|
|Load||82 kg||28 kg|
|Repetitions||5 repetitions||24 repetitions|
|Work||720 kg||1073 kg|
|Time Under Tension||16.3 seconds||43.3 seconds|
Data from Mitchell et al., 20122
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8. Moore DR, Robinson MJ, Fry JL, et al. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2009;89(1):161-168.
Photos by Natalie Poette