The term “Bro Science” can be defined as common misconceptions and false information as it relates to bodybuilding. This brand of knowledge can even encompass nutrition in regards to getting lean or gaining muscle. The vast majority of male gym rats are there for one of two things: strength gain or muscle gain. Yet as far as exercise physiology is concerned, the vast majority of recreational lifters are participating in what can be referred to as a modified strength program. They are not part of the proper lifting program for strength, nor are they part of the proper program for muscle gain.
The big question is: Which program is best? There are so many of them out there to date that have a large fan base and bodybuilder following. There are workouts that employ muscle confusion, training techniques that focus on intensity and lifting the heaviest weight possible, and programs that incorporate “pump” sets to maximize blood pressure in the muscle tissue of a specific area. The answer: a mixture of all of them. The most traditional form of programming in exercise science is called periodization (1).
Whether it be sports or bodybuilding (which is more of a pageant than a sport), periodizing your program means that you are going through different phases over the course of anywhere from 3 months to a year (depending on your goals, competition season, etc) and in each phase you incorporate a training technique to continue to force your body to adapt/improve. The idea is for you to peak, or be at your best come competition time (spring break, basketball game).
What many people forget is that these new training techniques are founded from some of the basic principles of exercise science, mixed with personal experience with a dash of unproven opinion on what leads to muscle growth. Are these pro bodybuilders and fitness gurus wrong then? Far from it, the human body is extremely complex and what these training programs have done is taken traditional training techniques from exercise science and advanced it. Let’s take a look at examples of some popular ones and compare:
Muscle confusion: this program has been extremely successful because it is a miniature model of what we have just discussed. Essentially as you’re going through the different cycles of exercises, constantly putting your body up against a new training stimulus and using active rest periods where one muscle group recovers as your training another. This works great because it is an example of what you should be doing in your routines anyway. Giving your body enough time to rest between cycling different training styles is the best way to track your improvements.
As you repeat a training program/training style, see if you can improve upon your numbers from the last time you attempted it. This thought process is the best way for a recreational lifter to get started on the fast track to making improvements. Think about it? Instead of shunning other training techniques and avoiding reading new articles/research because you believe in one program; this style of lifting will keep you open to everything, and going through different phases with different styles of training keeps things new and exciting for you in the gym.
The instance in which muscle confusion programs usually fall short is that they are always high intensity/high repetition programs. While this may be good for weight loss (which is what they are always promoted for), the lack of time under tension (associated with the actual time period when the muscle is contraction, not with repetitions) and multi-joint exercises (ex: squats, deadlifts, bent over rows, bench press etc) prevents it from being ideal for strength or muscle gains. But, as I previously stated, the model itself that it’s centered around is ideal for recreational lifters.
The next popular training style incorporates lifting maximal amounts of weight with the goal of reaching a pre-determined number of repetitions while incorporating an extremely brief rest period. It works to reduce the volume (sets x reps x weight) of training on a given muscle while exponentially increasing the intensity. The ideology is similar to the training philosophy of Dorian Yates as he believes that if the training intensity is high enough, you don’t need to beat away at your chest for two hours at a time to get it to grow.
Most training programs that are centered around a style like this do incorporate periodization by allowing for periods of minimized intensity to allow recovery. This is essentially the “Rest-Pause” technique that has been apart of exercise science for the longest time. This is where you lift a weight until failure, pause for 15 seconds then continue the set until failure. This will not only maximize anabolic hormones (2) (testosterone and growth hormone are released in response to high intensity exercise) due to intensity but it will also maximize muscle damage (which does not directly correlate to delayed onset muscle soreness) (3).
This training style is great when it comes to covering all the different theories of hypertrophy (time under tension, anabolic hormones, high intensity exercise). However, the lack of training volume and compound training prevents it from being effective for anything else (muscular endurance, strength). The controversial aspect of this and the next popular training system is the theory that the stretching of muscle fascia (that surrounds the muscle) will lead to muscle growth. There is currently no major research to support this theory of hypertrophy.
The last popular training system I have to present to you is one that incorporates multiple sets at the end of the workout to maximize the pump. The setup of the workout is fundamental: start with multi-joint movements then finish with isolation exercises. The final sets in the exercise are done with short (usually around 30 seconds) rest periods in an attempt to excite an extreme pump and to increase exercise intensity.
This training style is almost identical to what is traditionally taught in exercise science in regards to bodybuilding. Rest periods of around 30 seconds using 8-12 repetitions for isolation exercises have been part of the fundamentals of bodybuilding for years; from the NSCA recommendations to personal training textbooks. A key aspect of this training program is that the pump sets effect hypertrophy independent of anabolic hormones or time under tension. Muscle fascia stretching induced by the pump is also important according to this training program.
As far as muscle fascia stretching is concerned, there is currently no major research to support it although it makes sense that the sheath that encompasses the muscle may restrict it’s growth. As of the present, the leaders in limiting/regulating muscle growth according to research are IGF-1, myostatin, and genetic predispositions. An example of a periodization program that can incorporate these and other proven training techniques could look something like this:
- Cycle 1: Strength 12+ sets a week per muscle group, 1-8 reps, 2-3 min rest
- Active rest - (training with less volume/intensity)
- Cycle 2: Hypertrophy (rest pause training)
- Active rest
- Cycle 3: Traditional Bodybuilding/Pump workout, 8-12 reps, less than 1 min rest.
- Active rest
A training protocol like this using multiple systems could maximize your strength coming into a hypertrophy program.
Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.
- Steven, J. Fleck. Periodized Strength Training: A Critical Review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research
- B. J. Nicklas, A. J. Ryan, M. M. Treuth, S. M. Harman, M. R. Blackman, B. F. Hurley, M. A. Rogers. Testosterone, Growth Hormone and IGF-I Responses to Acute and Chronic Resistive Exercise in Men Aged 55-70 Years. Int J Sports Med 1995; 16(7): 445-450 DOI: 10.1055/s-2007-973035.
- Kazunori Nosaka, Mike Newton, Paul Sacco. Delayed-onset muscle soreness does not reflect the magnitude of eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports