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.

Of Routines, Ruts, and Habitual Eating

In case you missed it, TTP reader Mike asked the following in response to my “Quick and Dirty on Calorie Intake” post:

…My problem is I think I hit bottom on the lean out and was wondering if calorie restriction is in order?

I was curious about your comment “to eat more in order to go down in weight.” Sorry to bore you but I would like to lean out more but what in your opinion would I be giving up to get it, strength, stamina etc., on the calorie restricted approach? Unfortunately I can’t swing a long trip abroad to lean out.

I’m pretty pleased with where I am and don’t want to get greedy on leaning out but I liked your take on the calorie restriction issue so I thought I would ask for your opinion. Thanks for your thoughts.

This is the blah blah blah part . . .
I have been unweighed unmeasured gluten-free paleo, low carb (sub 50 per day), 1oz nuts a day, no dairy (except heavy cream in decaf coffee) keeping a food journal for 6 months. My cheats are protein style double doubles (1 x per week), chicken nachos (1x every 2 weeks). (I’m trying to be honest with what goes in my mouth per Skyler’s related blog post).

I have dropped about 40 pounds in the past six months on the strict paleo, did the water tank body fat measurement and came out at 16% in April. The BF % scale at home would seem to indicate this is going down still and my weight is staying the same at around 220 for the past month, which is good (muscle?). Activity level is strength biased xfit 3 times a week, longer outdoor activities (biking stairs etc) at least once per week, sleep good but could be better…

And what follows is my rather abbreviated answer:

Here’s the thing with calorie restriction, Mike: your metabolism will slow (thereby reducing the effectiveness of said cal. restriction), and your workouts will begin to suck. Not right off, of course, but pretty damn quick thereafter. Short bursts of slight — and in some cases large — over-eating interspersed with a few days of under-eating & IF seem to help most people punch beyond sticking points. I do this quite naturally, and in a random manner — I very rarely think “gee, I haven’t hit an IF in a while”, rather, it just comes about organically. Same with the “eat like a starved hyena” days. Until you really learn to listen to your body, though, a 5-day restricted/2-day re-fuel might be appropriate. Personally, though, I’m not good with schedules like that, preferring the more organic, fractal method.

Now, I’m still good with what I’d originally put out to Mike, however, there are a couple of things that I’d like to add to that.  First off, a 40-lb fat depletion in a 6-month span is rockin’ (though not at all unexpected), and it sounds as if Mike hasn’t actually stalled in his fat loss, but simply slowed a bit.  I don’t know exactly where Mike is on the ol’ look, feel and perform scale (maybe he can elaborate), but if “feel” and “perform” are spot-on, and what we’re wanting to come around is the “look” aspect, it may just be what we need is a tad bit more patience.  I’m not sure what another 6-ish percent bodyfat equates to (weight-wise) in Mike’s case, but it might be helpful to relate that amount of fat to where he was 6 months ago.  A little perspective sometimes works wonders.

And now for a bit of psychology…

I’ve always maintained that training, diet – well, all of Physical Culture, in fact – is largely mental in nature.  The best trainers, the best S&C coaches, and the most successful practitioners are not only technically proficient, but masterful motivators and – to but it bluntly – skilled shrinks…artful manipulators of the human psyche!  Wild animals left to their own devices exhibit perfect phenotypical expressions representative of their particular species.  They eat when hungry and of what is correct for their nature, move when necessary, and otherwise mindlessly attend to their survival.  Not so we humans, who are encumbered by ego, self-reflection and that ever-present self-chatter.  Our mind is constantly wanting, grasping, and left unbridled, this gets us in a world of self-made trouble.  One tiny aspect of this, as it relates to Mike’s case, may be the ol’ bug-a-boo of habitual eating.

In a way, food journals can be your best friend; or, too, they can be your worst enemy.  On the positive side, a journal allows for the exposure of what one actually consumes in a day, and in what ratios and, in some cases, this can be enlightening (i.e., the “damn!  I had no idea I ate that much [fill in the blank]! scenario).  In some cases, though, I have seen keeping a journal completely backfire.  The outward manifestations might have varied, but the causation usually boiled-down to one thing: compulsion.

Take for instance Mike’s “1oz of nuts per day”.  Now, 1oz of nuts is not going to make or break anyone’s fat loss attempts, however, it may be indicative of the larger issue of habitual eating.  That particular calorie intake may simply be a feel-good psychological crutch – something akin to, say, those who only smoke when they drink.  Situational is the key word here.  This is why I am so big on people learning to really listen to their bodies — an entity, by the way, that is in continual flux.   The body doesn’t ever “always” need 3 eggs and 2 strips of bacon for breakfast – some mornings it may want/need/require half a fatted hog, and other mornings (or days, even), it may not need anything at all.  This folds directly into the downside of routine, the downside of schedule.  Much better, I think, to learn to listen past the mind’s dictates, and for the body’s actual requests.  Where does the mind come in handy?  In the deciphering addiction as opposed to need.  The topic of another subject entirely, and beyond today’s scope.

Skyler Tanner discusses, in this recent post, the suppressive action of unusual foods upon the overall appetite, and this is certainly true.  The other aspect of this, though, is the fact that one is forced out of a set routine – a perfect, dietary, one-two punch, if you will.  In this circumstance, one may not be at the point of being able to fully listen to the body, but at least that ability to “mentally dictate” has been somewhat blunted by the unusual circumstance.  This, in fact, is the “magic” behind bootcamp-like transformations, and is a big reason behind why sporting teams hold training camps away from home base.  The real trick, then, is to learn the art of non-routine even as you navigate the work-a-day (and highly scheduled, routine oriented) world that we all must live in.

Much more on this at another time.  Now on to the physical side of things…

Friday night’s gym session –

This explosive-movement-heavy session followed a good bit of fixie riding, so my legs were good and warm (if not a wee bit zorched) by the time I hit the gym.  As it was, I dove right into this explosive superset:

kneeling DB jumps: 20lbs x 5, 25lbs x 5 sets of 3

straight bar muscle-ups: bw x 2, each round

Following that I rolled right into this superset:

military front press: 95 x 10; 135 x 6; 150 x 6, 6

snatch grip high-pull: 95 x 10; 135 x 6; 150 x 6, 6

Here’s a Joe DeFranco clip of a barbell kneeling jump demonstration.

I prefer to use DBs for this exercise, but it really doesn’t make much difference.  The key is to really engage the hips in the movement.  If you’ve got sleepy hips in the Oly movements, this exercise will help fix that.  Also, if you use DBs for this movement, be sure to explosively shrug the weight up (as you would in a normal Oly/Oly derivative lift), as opposed to “arcing” the DBs outward and forward so as to provide upward momentum.