There are so many practices weight lifters accept as fact. 5-7 reps for power lifters/8-12 for hypertrophy/13+ for endurance, working out for the pump, eccentric motion is where the muscles break down, too much cortisol after 40 minutes of lifting to do any good . Some of these are disputed here and there but generally 80-90% of lifters assume they are the only way to train. However, a workout plan with bodypart splits, such that each bodypart is trained once a week directly, is probably the most mainstream idea of them all.
While most bodybuilding begins with whole body workouts, it doesn’t take long before you read that you are going to get to a point where you can’t sustain 3 days a week of full body workouts. The reasons given? The loads you are using are going to be too high to recover quickly enough, the amount of sets per bodypart required for continued growth are too high and would take too long to train a full body workout, etc. These all seem like great reasons and we all go along with the plan. We start training back and biceps one day per week, chest and triceps another day, legs still another, etc.
But what happens when you’ve trained for about 8-12 months or so? You start hitting a point of diminishing returns. Your measurements go from big changes to small changes to barely noticeable changes. Your friends who commented and noticed that you were getting all swole are not saying anything any more, and your weights don’t go up in most of your lifts half as quickly as before. In fact, you may find that week to week you haven’t gained any real strength in certain lifts.
The response from the fitness community is that this is par for the course- you have taken all the low hanging fruit off the tree when it comes to muscle building and now your gains are going to be much slower and less noticeable. So you have to start varying and periodizing things like rep ranges, exercise selection, rest times between sets, etc to keep from hitting permanent plateaus. So you start changing up things to see if you can kick start that new growth again. Others tell you you’re not eating enough, so you bump your calories by another 500 a day.
These sorts of changes do sometimes cause some new growth, but often times the result is that your switch from squats to deadlifts caused you to detrain in squats, and you’ve now lost strength and size from the fact that you’re not doing squats. You changed from 3 minute rest periods to 60 seconds and found yourself exhausted after each workout, but your lifts are going down as you can’t recover enough between each set in 60 seconds. And you may gain some weight from the extra 500 calories a day, but I assure you it’s not all muscle you gained!!
Consider for just a moment your recovery capability. The recovery cycle generally works like this- we do the muscle damage through lifting, we recover eventually to the baseline of where we were and then hopefully super-compensate (ie, grow in strength and size) and then repeat the process.
What we’re missing is that there is an element of detraining in that cycle. When you don’t work out for a few weeks, you lose muscle mass and especially strength. We’ve all seen that when we take a week to deload, or due to an injury. But what if the gains we are getting are erased due to detraining because we wait too long to work out the muscle again? That detraining could lessen, nullify, or even negate any strength gains we had and we would be none the wiser!
Most of us find that some muscles get sore for a few days, but others recover almost instantly. Over time it becomes harder to get a soreness that lasts more than a day as we adapt to the loads and exercises we are doing. Researchers have found that the levels of protein synthesis that elevate after resistance training return to their baseline levels between 28 and 72 hours depending on the subject (young, well fed males are the 28 in those studies). So if we stop growing by 72 hours, why are we waiting 168 hours (7 days) to hit those muscles again?! And more importantly, what is happening to those muscles by not training them again 72 hours later?
With the Olympics passing by it was interesting to hear how many people comment on the mass on the Olympians upper bodies. Considering they work their bodyweight only in all of their training, how can they get so such big arms, pecs and shoulders? Seems contrary to conventional wisdom. What’s really surprising to learn is that they train daily- yes daily. If they are growing and getting big at such a young age with a bodyweight workout that is done daily, how many conventional ideas are shattered in one fell swoop there?
It seems that the concept of the once a week body split is one that needs to be reconsidered. Now for some, they may find that their body parts get stimulation on other days in their split. For example, you may find that your shoulders get worked on chest days when you are doing bench press, and your triceps get hit as well. But we are not talking about direct muscle stimulation here- if they were getting hit hard enough on those days, you likely would have stopped having a day for shoulders and still seen plenty of growth.
The point is, I think it is worth considering a twice weekly hit of each body part in a direct fashion. That may mean going a bit longer than 40 minutes per workout, and that’s the subject for another article to come. But for now, you may want to try a split that hits each body part directly twice a week and see if you start seeing gains again. I know I did when I started this about 5 weeks ago, and it came at a time where I was wondering if perhaps I was too old to gain any sizable new muscle, too ectomorphic in body type, or just missing the boat on training entirely. I’m so happy I tried a higher frequency split and hope you find the same great results I have!