by: Josh Bryant
Life is all about priorities.
Training is no different; common sense would tell us the most important exercises in training program should be first in the training program, when you are freshest.
Compound movements are the most important piece of the pie of any legitimate weight training program.
Heavy or Light Weights
Even six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates has stated that top strength athletes in heavy weight classes have more muscle mass than pro bodybuilders. This would exclude Ronnie Coleman in his heyday.
Lo and behold, Coleman was also one of the strongest men in the world.
All the great perennial Mr. Olympias, from Schwarzenegger on, have been extremely strong men. Before you scream “Frank Zane!!” at your computer, realize men’s physique competitors sport more muscle than Zane in his prime.
Getting stronger with the right nutritional plan and supplementation plan will equate to larger muscles.
The flawed logic starts in the lab.
A recent study by McMaster University of Canada showed no difference between heavy and light loads for muscle hypertrophy. The study basically showed, when training to failure, light weights increase muscle size as much as heavy weights. They have measured the effects of workouts ranging from 30% of a 1RM to 80% of a 1RM. This may sound like some sort of great epiphany for those that prefer to train with light weights, but let’s look at this a little more carefully.
As a bodybuilder, with this approach, you will have to wear board shorts forever, take boat loads of drugs and pray the good Lord blessed you with genetics to be muscular.
The subjects had no formal weightlifting experience and had no regular lifting activity over the last year. In other words, when it came to the pig iron, they were green. Even in textbooks dating back decades, it has been established that beginners have similar neurological adaptations to weight training with light weights and heavy weights. Hypertrophy usually isn’t even a major factor for three months into weight training. This study was performed for only 10 weeks.
Studies that don’t tell the whole story contribute to the problem.
Let’s talk performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), shall we?
Many pro bodybuilders spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on drugs. Powerlifters, by default, that choose to use drugs, spend a few hundred a month.
To say many of the top athletes in both sports use PEDs is true. Powerlifters generally stick to androgenic-anabolic steroids (AAS). Bodybuilders use AAS, HGH, Insulin, IGF-1 and the list goes on.
AAS has been around since the 1950s.
The other agents became popular in the 1990s; the same decade as the first mass monster era, coinciding directly with the newly available drugs.
Even with all of the new drugs that are still generally not being used by top strength athletes, many strength athletes have more muscle than pro bodybuilders. Granted, it is covered up by more body fat, but it’s there!
I realize straight limit strength training is not a super highway route to win the Olympia, but there is clearly a relationship between muscle size and strength.
Bodybuilding and powerlifting methods performed by drug users cannot be compared to on an apples to apples basis. Pharmacology, supplementation and diet must be examined.
Limit strength is your base and must continually be increased to maximize muscularity.
It’s not a coincidence that no one has ever come close, before or after, to the reign of the greatest bodybuilder of all time Ronnie Coleman.
What about Pre-Exhaust Training
Logically, pre-exhaust training would not be the best choice for getting big!
Let’s defer to science.
Using a single joint “isolation” movement to failure before performing a heavier multi joint “compound” movement is performed is called pre-exhaustion training. A practical example would be leg extensions before front squats (for the quadriceps) or cable flyes before the bench press for the chest.
This technique was popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Pumping Iron. If you watched it, you’ll remember Arnold performing leg extensions before squats. While a seemingly uncanny practice, the idea behind pre-exhaustion training is when you fatigue the prime mover muscle with an isolation exercise prior to a heavier compound movement. You will lead to greater muscle fiber recruitment because muscular fatigue will set in before neurological fatigue.
Compound movements require a far greater degree of neuromuscular activity than single joint movements do. Theoretically, you’ll get the best of both worlds by inserting pre-exhaustion training in your repertoire; as you recruit more muscle fibers, it will ultimately lead to much greater muscle growth.
Some prominent coaches and trainers believe pre-exhaustion training is friendlier on the joints. Muscular fatigue sets in prior to training heavy compound movements, which now can be trained using lighter loads yet still yield hypertrophic benefits.
All of this sounds great! So what does science have to say?
One 2003 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research conducted on 17 men showed the effect of pre-exhaustion training on lower-extremity muscle activation during the leg press.
Prior to performing the leg press exercise, subjects performed a 10 repetition maximum in the leg extension, then a 10 repetition maximum was performed in the leg press.
Muscle activation was measured using EMG (electrical activity of the muscle), which showed that activity of the quadriceps, or target muscle, was significantly less when subjects were pre-exhausted. The judgment of muscle building effect of an exercise requires more than an EMG reading but the subjects were able to complete more repetitions and use more weight on the leg press when not in a pre-exhausted state.
The conclusion of this study was contrary to what most bodybuilders believe; pre-exhaustion training had a disadvantageous effect on performance because of decreased muscular activity and reduced strength when performing core lifts, which after all, are the core of our training.
A 2007 study in Brazil titled “Effects of exercise order on upper-body muscle activation and exercise performance,” produced a similar conclusion.
The study, which also utilized EMG, involved performing repetitions on the machine pec deck prior to the bench press, in a pre-exhaust style.
The study showed that the muscles of the chest were no more efficiently recruited as EMG signals confirmed. The only muscle that had a higher EMG during the bench press was the triceps, this was simply because the chest was fatigued and motor units from the pectoralis region could not be as effectively recruited. This study concluded that if you want to get better at a particular exercise, perform it first in the training session.
Pre-exhaustion training will not lead to greater muscle fiber recruitment or even greater joint safety for that matter. This is because the muscle is fatigued. Fatigue makes cowards of men, said the great Vince Lombardi. It also makes cowards of big muscles that can lift big weights by altering the motor pattern of the compound movement, resulting in less efficient and even unsafe technical execution of compound lifting movements. The majority of pre-exhaustion training benefits are simply “bro science.”
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