Today I decided to change it up a bit. I wanted to get some great tips for packing on muscle so I called up the person who knows best, Brad Schoenfeld, and asked him for an interview. Seriously, I don’t think there’s anybody who knows more about hypertrophy. Today he tells us how he copes with covering up his massive biceps in the winter and other bodybuilding stuff.
[Jon] Let’s hit the deck running. Give me your top 3 tips for putting on muscle.
[Brad] First, thanks for inviting me to do this interview, Jon. Your site is a great resource for trainers and consistently delivers top-notch info. As for your question, here are three that are super-important:
1) Train in a variety of rep ranges–Varying your training intensities serves to optimize the three primary components essential to muscle development: mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. Moreover, the lower and higher rep ranges actually promote adaptations that facilitate better performance in a “hypertrophy” range. When properly manipulated, the combination of intensities has a synergistic effect on muscle growth.
2) Push the limits of training volume–There is a substantial amount of research showing that muscle growth and training volume are positively correlated in a dose-response fashion–at least up to a certain point. The important thing to note here is that you can’t simply train with high volume all the time–it will hasten the onset of overtraining. Rather, volume needs to be periodized where you gradually increase training frequency and/or the number of sets per session over the course of training cycle. This should culminate in a “shock” phase, where volume peaks. If you do it right, there is a supercompensation of muscle where growth is maximized.
3) Unload periodically–Unloading refers to having regimented periods of reduced intensity and volume interspersed throughout the training cycle. Training balls-to-the-wall all the time will ultimately lead to overreaching/overtraining and results will slow to a crawl. By selectively including some “down time” within your routines you stay fresh and rejuvenated, and actually foster better gains. Many serious lifters would substantially improve their results simply by employing this strategy.
[Jon] Wait, who are you and why should we listen to you?[Brad] I’ve been in the fitness field for two decades. I have a master’s degree in exercise science from the University of Texas and I’m currently completing my PhD at Rocky Mountain University. My research focus is on the mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training.
My dissertation focuses on determining if there is a specific range of intensity that is optimal for maximizing muscle growth. I owned a private training facility for many years and now teach in the exercise science program at Lehman College in New York City as well as continuing to consult with a select clientele, primarily physique athletes.
I’m on the board of directors for the National Strength and Conditioning Association and lecture around the world for most of the major professional organizations on a variety of fitness topics. For those interested in my complete bio, check out my blog at: www.workout911.com
[Jon] So what you’re saying is that you might know your stuff. What got you interested in researching muscle hypertrophy?
I was the epitome of the 90-pound weakling when I was in high school (probably around 110 lbs, actually, soaking wet). By the time I got to college I was very unhappy about my physique. At that point, I made a commitment to change my shape. Lifting weights was my salvation.
Like most, I started out reading the bodybuilding mags and following the routines of the pro’s. They had to know a thing or two about getting big, right? Well it worked, at least early on. I put on about 15 pounds of muscle in my first year lifting. Not too shabby. Problem is, I suddenly hit that dreaded plateau where gains came crashing to halt. At first I didn’t know what to do. After all, I was following the pro’s routines to the letter. They kept growing; why wasn’t I?
I soon came to realize that the majority of pro bodybuilders had superior genetics and even better pharmacologic enhancement. As such, their routines aren’t optimal for the vast majority of the population, including me. I knew there had to be a better way.
To make a long story somewhat short, I immersed myself in the scientific literature, reading every study I could on hypertropy. I became a student of the literature, and then began experimenting with different routines based on scientific principles. I started to pack on muscle again at an accelerated rate. That led me to enter a natural bodybuilding show (my first of many), and ultimately paved the way for a career in the fitness field with a particular focus on muscle physiology.
[Jon] What’s your favorite color?
[Jon a bit taken aback] Uhh. Why brindle?[Brad] It’s the color of my bulldog. Winston — my best buddy 😉
[Jon] You hooked me up with a copy of your new book, “The MAX Muscle Plan“. Thanks! For somebody who has read a lot of books on building muscle before, how’s this one different?[Brad] I’m extremely proud of this book. It’s the culmination of all my years of research and experience in creating a program to maximize muscle development.
The book outlines a six month periodized program that takes the reader step-by-step through each training cycle. I map out every set, every rep, and every exercise. All that’s required is the dedication and effort. Most importantly, I describe in detail how to customize the routine based on individual factors. In effect, the program serves as a template that is adapted to the needs and abilities of the lifter–which is essential for optimizing results. There really is nothing else like it on the market.
[Jon] How big are your guns? Are you annoyed that it’s getting cold and you have to cover them up?
I’m about symmetry, not measurements. As long as my arms are in proportion to my other muscle groups, I’m content. As far as the cold, I get upset when the temperature drops because I like warm weather, not because I can’t wear a tee-shirt 🙂
[Jon] You advocate a technique called step-loading in your book. What exactly is this?[Brad] Step-loading is a periodization technique that allows you to vary intensity within a given training cycle. There are many variations, but for hypertrophy I’ve found the best implementation is to structure step-loading over the course of a month, whereby intensity is increased over the first three weeks and then it’s followed by an unloading phase with decreased intensity in the fourth week.
This creates a wave-like loading pattern that allows for better gains while diminishing the potential for overtraining. I’ve used the technique extensively in my programs for years with tremendous success.
[Jon] Why is periodization so important to a muscle building routine?[Brad] Just to clarify for those who may not be familiar with the term, periodization is the planned manipulation of program variables (i.e. sets, reps, rest intervals, etc) over the course of a given training period. The primary benefit to periodization is that it balances the training stimulus with proper recovery, so that adaptations are optimized. In addition, it allows you to systematically target a desired training effect, in this case muscle development, so that you can peak at a given time.
Now there are dozens of different periodization models and countless variations of each model, and each can have practical application depending on the goal and client. But the important point here is that all training should be systematized to bring about optimal results.
[Jon] Can you give anybody reading this a couple tips to get better results in their clients? What might they say to sell them on the workout?[Brad] The most important advice I can give to any trainer is to stay true to the science of exercise. Training is both a science and art, but all-too-often trainers shun the scientific aspect and think of themselves solely as “fitness artists.”
Yes, experience is an extremely important component of program design, but you can’t disassociate the process from the underlying science. The best trainers combine what we know from research with what they’ve derived from experience. This is known as evidence-based practice, and it should be the approach taken by every trainer.
Keep abreast of new research. Develop a working knowledge of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, motor learning, and exercise psychology. And finally, adhere to the principles of overload, specificity, individuality and reversibility–these are immutable tenets of exercise training. Only if you are grounded in these facets can you then employ your artistic talents to their fullest.
[Jon] Sweet. I’ll refer your book to anybody reading this now because it’s awesome. Where can somebody pick a copy up?[Brad] Glad you asked. It’s available at all major bookstores. It’s also available at a considerable discount through Amazon.com. Click this link to buy it on Amazon.
For another take on periodization check out my (Jon’s) article called Personal Trainers Shouldn’t Periodize because it will help you plan your clients workouts.
photo credit: jcoterhals