A Formal Validation of HIT-Like Protocols?

Well, kinda-sorta, I suppose.  I think we might want to add a few caveats, though, before we run around HIT-high-fivin’ one another.  The title is eye-catching enough,however:

Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men

…with the short of the study’s findings boiling down to this (from Chris, at Conditioning Research):

“Rather than grunting and straining to lift heavy weights, you can grab something much lighter but you have to lift it until you can’t lift it anymore,” says Stuart Phillips, associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University. “We’re convinced that growing muscle means stimulating your muscle to make new muscle proteins, a process in the body that over time accumulates into bigger muscles.”

Here’s the full text of study in question, via PLoS, online (a fantastic resource, by the way).   Give it a read, then c’mon back and we’ll see what we can make of this. Also, you can drop by Conditioning Research and check out the discussion of the study over there, as there is some interesting input racking up.

Now I prefer to sit and chew on stuff like this for awhile before I take any action one way or the other; rash judgments, I believe, are all too often wrong-minded judgments.  But I do think there is some descent, real-world take-away value to be found in this study.  Is it a bullet-proof defense of HIT?  No, this study has plenty of flaws, to be sure – but then again, I’ve never run across a study that was flawless.  It’s the nature of the beast.

And in the end, the results of this study don’t surprise me much in the least.  All protocols work (to varying degrees), at least in the short term, and this is especially true when considering a relatively untrained subject group (and yes, I’d consider this subject group to be in that category).  The real training questions, however, arise after the initial “just about anything” works honeymoon; successfully directing a trainee — who has already established a solid strength base — towards his stated goal is where the rubber really meets the road.  And, ultimately, this leads back to the necessity of training and successfully integrating all of the different aspects of strength.  Let me explain.

An unadulterated, straight-up HIT (single-set-to-failure) protocol is a fabulous way of developing raw strength and strength endurance and, for the vast majority of trainees – those who have no other aspirations beyond collecting the health benefits associated with resistance training – this can pretty much encompass the totality of their necessary weight training exposure.  I’d put most endurance athletes in this bucket as well.

~Note~ my use of “most” and “vast majority”, etc. is not an attempt to leave my self wiggle room, but is an acknowledgment of the necessity of an across-the-board, n=1 evaluation.  As always, one size does not fit all.

But once we begin to shade into the “performance enhancement” realm of training, though, we then have to contend with the development of the other aspects of strength – neurological factors, technique, power development (speed-strength and strength-speed), explosiveness, RFD, etc.  That is to say, strength training – for athletic betterment, at least (and we should always differentiate between “health” aspects and “athletic betterment) — is much more than just the manipulation of sarcomeres; those elements related to motor control and specific strength (and power) expression also play a huge role.

So the trainee needs to discern – or the trainer needs to discern for the client – the most efficient route (both in terms of time and of risk/benefit ratio) to the trainee’s stated goal(s) within the context of the trainee’s unique, and current, circumstance.  This is the spooky realm of multiple variables, where so much can (and usually does!) go wrong with one-size-fits-all programs.

But, too, I also think studies like this shed light on the notion that, although we cannot provide the exact scientific proof as to all of the whys & hows of a concept, we can at least observe the outcomes and results of known inputs.  Although I am curious as all hell, and relentless in the pursuit of knowledge, I do realize that there are some processes that I may never be able to fully define or adequately explain. And really, I’m Ok with that; I don’t have to know the precise step-by-step of everything, because, the fact of the matter is, that nature will always have a leg up on me in this regard; she’ll reveal whatever secrets she chooses to reveal and whenever she chooses to do so.  Sometimes that which happens within the “variable-grinder, black box” remains a mystery, although the inputs can be documented and outputs readily verified.  As an example, although we know way more now than we once did about the totality of human metabolism, there’s still plenty of “black box” stuff going on that we don’t yet have a good handle on.  We don’t yet know all of the precise pathways by which HFCS will wreck your metabolism, though we are quite aware that it does so, and so we choose to leave that crap alone.  Knowing the precise pathways are geek-cool, no doubt, but certainly not necessary insofar as deriving a positive health benefit.

Of course this is not to say that we shouldn’t continue to dig, investigate, and endeavor to piece together, but it does mean that we should not hesitate to follow empirically “proven” paths, if sufficient risk/benefit ratio exists (via n=1 determination) to follow those paths.  Inaction due to lack of adequate “proof” is no better than wrong action justified by no more than unsubstantiated “tradition”.

Let’s look at what I did in the gym yesterday, as an example.  The neural component of a regular, everyday back squat can be manipulated (among a myriad of other ways) by adding static holds at various points in the movement.  We can go a step further (as I did in this particular instance), by adding a jump squat to the mix.  And, as is with an extended TUL HIT-like protocol, a fantastic anaerobic response is also affected.  Jim Smith over at Diesel Crew posted on type of protocol recently, and shows yet another variation on the same idea.  Check that post out, here.

But long before I decided to go down this route, at this particular time in my training, I first had to take an accounting of my current strengths and weaknesses and weigh those assessments against (1) my goals, (2) my current circumstance, and (3) the totality of my available resources (time, equipment, etc.).  This should be a never-ending process of self-questioning for the trainee, an/or the trainee/client partnership.  Anyway, here was the evening’s playlist:

iso-explosive (my preferred terminology) back squats + split jerks: 135 x 3(6), 3(6); 155 x 3(6); 165 x 3(6)

Each round was performed like this: squat to a position well below parallel (but hams not “resting” on calves) & hold for 5 secs, then raise to the parallel position & hold for 5 secs, then raise to an approx. 45-degree position & hold for 5 secs.  From this position, then, immediately explode into a jump squat.  That’s one rep; repeat x 3, then, immediately: split jerk x 6, alternating lead foot each rep.  Rack the weight and hobble away.  Don’t go far, though – you’ve got another round in less than one minute.

then, a superset of:

snatch-grip high (just below the nipples) pulls: 135 x 5; 185 x 5; 235 x 3, 3, 3

Atlantis machine upright (shoulder) press: 165 x 6; 195 x 5, 4, 4  (5,1,x,1 tempo)

So I’m not a bodybuilder as such, but I learn from the bodybuilder.  I’m not an O-lifter or a powerlifter, but I learn from each of these sports as well.  I’m not a track & field athlete, nor a strongman or Highlands games competitor but again, I observe and learn what I can from each discipline.  I’m not a research scientist, but I study the published works, and ask (hopefully intelligent) questions where and when the opportunities arise.  As always, my net is cast wide, and my mind remains open for those methods that work.

13 responses to “A Formal Validation of HIT-Like Protocols?

  1. Although I’m one of those “HIT guys”, I wouldn’t consider this study a validation of HIT, as the loads and reps they used (30% of 1RM) are not typical of HIT programs, which tend to use weights more in the neighborhood of 80% 1RM and low to moderate rep ranges. Even the higher rep work done by some HITers tends to be done in rest-pause fashion to allow for the use of heavier weights.

    Also, considering the small sample size and measurement of post workout protein synthesis rather than long term measurement of actual strength and size changes, I’d say at best this might be an indicator of areas where more research should be done, rather than anything conclusive.

    • Yeah, lots of holes in the study from a True HIT prospective to be sure. The chosen equipment, the load (and resultant TUL) brackets, the training age of the study group, etc…With studies such as this, you take what *is* useful and combine that with what you know from empirical evidence to be true. Nothing definitive, but there are some hints here of being on the right path.

    • I also have seen the study and some positive comments by bloggers. But when I actually read the article, I had my doubts. If you check Figure 1 of the article (the bar charts) you’ll see that the heavy weights group did much better in the hours following the exercise, with that situation reversing itself slightly at 24 h.

      Since protein synthesis is much higher in the hours after the exercise, I cannot see how the authors can claim that the light weights (and high reps) group did better overall. They can only say that the LW group did better at 24 h, when protein synthesis is still happening but is significantly decreased.

      • Yeah, I think we really need to keep in mind that the scientific study of sports physiology is in it’s infancy; we’re just at the point now of being able to see the puzzle, much less put the thing together. Hell, we don’t even know yet if we’ve got all the pieces 🙂 See Monday’s post for more on this subject.

  2. Clarence Bass reported a summary of a similar study on his website a couple of months ago – I believe the study was a meta-analysis done by Ralph Carpinelli (Adelphi Univ.) and others, but I’m not sure. From memory, the punch-line of the study was that external load, TUL, volume, etc., mattered, but not in the way we might think; that is, there was no superior protocol. Rather, the key was “effort”. So, one could use relatively light weights and achieve the same results (strength and hypertrophy) as one who used a much heavier load; the key was the effort involved.

    • And I have to agree with that idea as well; “effort” seems to be the single required constant across all protocols. There is, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s point-of-view, no beneficial “lazy” option.

  3. Just went to the Conditioning Research site to read the discussion there and see that they had already identified (with corresponding link) the Clarence Bass discussion I mentioned above.

    • i think the guy over at evidence based fitness reviewed the study pretty well. overall, this study is pretty much useless and a waste of time on the part of the researchers

      • I think the study sheds light on what might work, with certain populations, of course, and at a certain point in the anabolic continuum. But then again, the lab of the real-life gym had already shown us that. This is the state of sports science at the moment. Every now and again science will reveal a sliver of information as to the mechanics behind why a particular “protocol” (for lack of a better term at the moment) works, and we can use that information to remodel,albeit in slight ways, our existing training methods.

  4. There is a missing step in the reasoning expressed by the authors. Their conclusions are dependent on this premise: “Resistance exercise stimulates the synthesis of skeletal muscle proteins [1], [2], which is eventually expressed as muscle hypertrophy [3], [4].” (From the Introduction of the article.” Their study finds differences in the amount of the muscle proteins being formed, and CONCLUDES that this proves increased muscle hypertrophy, citing 2 studies for support (references 3 and 4).

    Looking at reference 3 (West, et. al.) we find that this is a study of the possible relationship between presumably anabolic hormones and muscle hypertrophy, and that the study failed to establish a correlation. There is no mention in the abstract of any attempt to establish a relationship between protein synthesis and hypertrophy, nor does it seem likely (given that they filed to find a difference between study groups) that it might have done so.

    The second reference, number 4 (Hartman, et. al.) also does not address the matter for which it is cited. Again, I only have the abstract, but that does not mention any analysis of protein synthesis, just of hypertrophy.

    So, the authors measure protein synthesis, but claim to have proven matters relating to muscle hypertrophy, using bogus citations to support the correlation between synthesis and hypertrophy, citations that do not even address the matter at hand. I fear that this sort of intellectual and academic dishonesty is all too common. I think this study may be safely ignored.

    • Excellent input; thanks, Andy. I’ve got a post coming up soon re: the extreme difficulty in accounting for the myriad of all possible variables in studies of hypertrophy and/or strength gain.

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