We’ll be kicking off the Myolean Fitness Interview series with none other than 3D Muscle Journey coach, Eric Helms.
The interview revolves around how to optimally train for building muscle and strength. More specifically, our discussion includes:
- Mechanisms of muscle growth (mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage)
- Periodization for maximizing training adaptations
- Training volume, intensity and frequency for building muscle
- Whether strength leads to hypertrophy or hypertrophy leads to strength
- The use of single-joint exercises for strength and muscle
- Inter-set rest periods
- The biggest training mistake people make when trying to build muscle
- Eric’s PhD research
Who is Eric Helms
Eric is a competitive bodybuilder and powerlifter, coach, educator, author and researcher.
He has a Bachelor’s degree in Fitness and Wellness, a Master’s degree in Exercise Science, a second Master’s degree in Sports Nutrition, a PhD in strength and conditioning, and is a research fellow for AUT at the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand.
Eric has published multiple peer reviewed articles in exercise science and nutrition journals and writes for commercial fitness magazines and websites. He has taught University level nutrition and exercise science and frequently speaks at international academic and commercial conferences for fitness, nutrition and strength and conditioning.
Eric has competed in natural bodybuilding, where he earned his pro status with the PNBA in 2011, and he also competes as an unequipped powerlifter with the IPF at international level events.
As a part of 3D Muscle Journey, Eric coaches drug-free strength and physique competitors at all levels.
Best of all, Eric is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth professionals in the fitness industry and, for that, we are delighted to have him do an interview with us!
Mechanisms of muscle growth
Eric, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview! Let’s kick it off with a basic but very important question: What makes muscles grow?
My pleasure, thank you for taking the time to interview me, it’s an honor. Also, great introductory question! Muscle hypertrophy is interesting, because as an adaptation, it more or less serves to increase force production (strength) and also to allow for increased work capacity. I like to use the analogy of the engine and the fuel tank getting bigger.
Based on this, it might be unsurprising that progressive resistance training and increases in total volume of training are the most closely associated variables with muscle hypertrophy. Meaning, progressively stressing the muscle over time and ensuring an adequate amount of volume is performed (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/128681, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27433992).
In the scientific literature, three primary muscle growth mechanisms have, to date, been identified: mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress.
In what order of importance would you rank these and is it possible to assign a percentage value of contribution to growth for each?
This is one current model for hypertrophy, however, I don’t think it’s appropriate to assign percentages to each of these factors. The roles of each of these are interrelated and also unclear in some cases. For example, muscle contraction in and of itself is what provides mechanical tension, and metabolic fatigue and muscle damage are a byproduct of muscle contraction. Therefore, by definition, mechanical tension is the primary mechanism.
To show how metabolic fatigue and mechanical tension are interrelated, consider the following: A forceful enough muscle contraction will recruit the majority of muscle fibers. Likewise, training to or near failure with successive low magnitude contractions will also result in the majority of muscle fibers being recruited, but in both cases fiber recruitment is the key piece to generating hypertrophy. While these might be considered separate mechanisms, a training plan focused on high repetitions to failure or on lifting heavy loads will both produce hypertrophy for this reason (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27218448).
Finally, muscle damage is a less clear contributor, in my opinion (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21270317). Primarily, I say this because I think it is not the best approach to try to target muscle damage in training. Rather, muscle damage simply occurs with progressive overload and this is sufficient. Excessive muscle damage degrades your ability to produce force and could thus interfere with progressive overload.
In fact, one of the potential benefits to a higher training frequency is the attenuation of muscle damage via the repeated bout effect so you can expose the muscle to repeated stimuli more often to elicit an increased rate of hypertrophy. Focusing too much on muscle damage, in my opinion, could get in the way of this process.
In a recent study (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27219125), we saw that hypertrophic gains were delayed during the early stages of a resistance training routine because the muscle protein synthetic response to training was targeted at damage repair.
Does this mean that we should be aiming to avoid creating muscle damage with training?
The initial rise in muscle protein synthesis after resistance training is not correlated to hypertrophy until muscle repair is finished. That doesn’t necessarily mean that hypertrophy isn’t occurring during that time period.
In the case of the study in question, it just means that the change in hypertrophy wasn’t measurable in the lab until the 10 week time point, and that during the initial phases muscle damage was higher.
A follow up study that could answer your question would need to have two groups with a similar protocol, but one that elicited more damage and one less to see if there was a difference in hypertrophy.
However, until that study is conducted we can conclude the following about the muscle response post exercise:
1. muscle damage repair is the body’s first priority so, theoretically, causing too much damage might delay or interfere with hypertrophy,
2. any study looking at acute muscle protein synthesis response and making conclusions about hypertrophy is potentially incorrect as the protein synthetic responses during this period are likely predominated by regeneration rather than hypertrophy.
When trying to maximize training adaptations, does it matter if we aim to target all three growth mechanisms:
a. in the same training session,
b. in separate training sessions within the same mesocycle,
c. in separate mesocycles of the macrocycle?
I don’t think you need to try to target muscle damage as a part of your training for all the above mentioned reasons. I do think there is a rationale for using a variety of repetition ranges, intensities of load, and effort (RPE) over time for hypertrophy.
At this time, we don’t have enough data on periodization for hypertrophy so I can’t conclusively say that repetition ranges would best be undulated on a daily, weekly or mesocycle to mesocycle basis. However, for strength it is becoming more clear that undulating models might be superior to linear models (www.instagram.com/p/BHpe8MDjkTv/?taken-by=helms3dmj) and there is some preliminary evidence suggesting this may be the case for hypertrophy as well (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27042999).
In the end, it makes sense to have some type of plan to induce adaptation as efficiently as possible, but you don’t necessarily need to try to target damage or even metabolic fatigue. If you simply undulate your repetition targets through a variety or ranges (~3-15) and achieve progressive overload, you will likely garner all theoretical benefits to hypertrophy training.
Training volume, intensity and frequency
Is there an “optimal” training volume, intensity and frequency per muscle group for maximizing muscle hypertrophy?
No. For training volume I say this because it will be different for every single individual. While studies can tell us the volume range in which the mean hypertrophy response is the highest, that is not necessarily what is best for the individual.
I advise people start on the low end range of what seems to be in the range of optimal, and then only increase if performance is not increasing.
Intensity for hypertrophy primarily just needs to be progressive. You can train with 12-20 rep ranges or 3 to 10 rep ranges and, so long as you are progressing, it will get the job done.
Finally, frequency is a method of organization, and if you aren’t doing an amount of volume or a magnitude of intensity that would require dividing it up into more manageable amounts over the week, it is not necessarily beneficial to increase frequency.
Essentially, frequency should increase if individual sessions overcome your intra-session recuperative abilities, but a benefit might not occur from increasing frequency if you haven’t reached this point. For example, some studies on trained individuals show an advantage to training muscle groups more frequently (3 vs 1 time per week) with equated volume (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25932981) but very high muscle group training frequency (6 vs 3) may not provide an additional advantage (www.instagram.com/p/BHnBMuojWIX/?taken-by=helms3dmj).
Likewise, in novices, high frequency training less consistently shows a clear advantage (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24732784, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17313289).
In essence, increasing frequency is primarily of benefit when higher volumes and higher intensities need to be performed and, thus, there is not a static answer to what is optimal.
Brad Schoenfeld is currently conducting a study, in collaboration with Thiago Lasevicius, which will compare muscular adaptations to a training frequency of 2 x week (upper/lower split) vs 3 x week (full body split) for each muscle group, with equated weekly volume.
What do you predict the results will be and why?
Hard to say. It depends on the training status of the subjects, the length of the training study, how the volume of the training protocol compares to what the subjects are used to and whether there will be a taper and an intro week or not to help them adapt to the new higher training frequency or not.
It could go either way depending on these factors, which is why previous work has found conflicting results with regards to training frequency.
A couple of months ago, a relatively well-known fitness professional posted this on Facebook: “The lifter that just wants to look good and train for life should do a LOT more work in the 12-20 rep range.”
Emerging data from Stuart Phillips’ lab (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27174923) also seems to confirm that we can achieve significant muscle growth with lower training intensities, provided that sets are taken to failure.
With the above in mind, do you think that physique competitors should focus more on the 12-20 rep range rather than on the traditional 6-12 range?
The lifter that just wants to look good and train for life is not the same thing as a physique competitor. In fact, those are pretty far from one another. With that said, so long as strength is increasing, either rep range can be an effective stimulus for muscle growth.
With that said, there may be an advantage to training in multiple rather than singular repetition ranges for hypertrophy, as I pointed out above. This could be due to the benefits of undulating intensity and volume to avoid injury and illness (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9662690), differential effects of repetition ranges on specific fiber type hypertrophy (something postulated by Dr. Schoenfeld), or improved motor learning due to variations in the task.
Additionally, there are advantages to both light loads and heavy loads over time. Light loads when progressed over time accumulate more total volume (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27625750) while heavy loading results in greater increases in strength, which can increase mechanical tension.
If anything, it is likely that the synergy of the two will result in the greatest long term hypertrophy. I stress long term, because 99% of research is a collection of 4 to 12 weeks studies which can’t tell us everything.
Does getting stronger lead to increased muscle hypertrophy or is it the other way around?
With this line of thinking, should progressive overload be built into training routines (i.e. today I will increase the weight on the bar by x% because that’s the plan) or should it be a natural outcome of the training itself (i.e. I’ve managed so many sets and reps last time, so it makes sense to increase the weight this time)?
Hypertrophy is one component of strength, not the other way around. If you are effectively overloading muscle and generating hypertrophy, you will get stronger over time. A large part of that strength increase is also due to motor learning, skill development with the exercise, neurological adaptations and other structural changes.
But, nonetheless, strength increases are a good marker for the effectiveness of your training program. You should have a plan to increase training loads over time.
Strength occurring as a natural outcome of the training itself does happen, but primarily in novices and intermediates. Past that stage it requires training with a little more purpose.
Exercise selection (multi- vs. single-joint)
A recent literature review (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27677913) concluded that “People performing resistance training may not need to include single-joint exercises in their program to obtain equivalent results in terms of muscle activation and long-term adaptations such as hypertrophy and strength.”
Are people with strength and physique oriented goals wasting their time with single joint exercises?
Despite the fact that a review has been written on this topic, I’ve actually seen very little good data on this topic. Specifically for strength there are issues. The only two studies I’m aware of that examine this area are fatally flawed (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23537028, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26244600).
In both studies, single joint arm work is added to a multi joint upper body protocol in one group, but not the other, which makes sense. However, they measure strength in both studies via single joint 1RM tests. This doesn’t make any sense to me. The question a powerlifter wants to know is whether adding tricep pushdowns to his protocol might help his bench press, not whether it will help his tricep pushdown! So, in my opinion, we are lacking good studies on this topic for strength development.
As far as in general, I do think the vast majority of the benefit gained for both strength and size is from compound movements. However, some individuals might be better suited to using single joint exercises than others. I would love to see an analysis where limb length is taken into account with added leg curls or extensions to a squat protocol, or tricep pushdowns to a bench press protocol.
In the end, I do think some single joint work should be done, but it should be seen as an insurance policy to make sure no stone is left unturned, in case the compound movement isn’t effectively training some of the musculature of the limbs.
Rest between sets
A study from Dr Breen’s lab (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27126459) showed that shorter rest periods between sets (1 minute vs 5 minutes) blunt the acute muscular anabolic response to resistance training, possibly through compromised intracellular signalling.
Moreover, Brad Schoenfeld’s recent longitudinal research on this topic (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26605807) found greater gains in muscle strength and hypertrophy with 3 minutes vs 1 minute of rest between sets.
Does this mean that, when training for strength and hypertrophy, we should always keep inter-set rest periods above 3 minutes?
This isn’t the first time this has been found. In 2009, Buresh found greater arm hypertrophy resting 2.5 vs 1 minute (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19077743).
This shouldn’t surprise anyone, in my opinion. If we know that progressive overload and volume are key contributors to hypertrophy, why would we shorten the rest periods to the point where it forces load reductions and the loss of repetitions performed?
How long you need to rest is also dependant on the RPE of the set and the exercise, so really you should simply rest as long as needed to ensure you are recovered to perform well for the next set.
That said, if time is an issue, antagonist paired sets can be performed with shorter rest intervals after each exercise as this won’t stress the same muscles i.e. performing an upper body push set, then an upper body pull set, or a leg extension followed by a leg curl, or a triceps isolation followed by a biceps isolation exercise. This can be done with 1-2.5 minutes between sets vs 3-5 minutes and it won’t compromise volume (if anything it might aid it) (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20733520).
Biggest training mistakes
In your experience, what is the biggest training mistake people make when trying to gain muscle?
Simply not having a plan or any organization or logic to what they are doing. If you develop a plan to progress and a logical way to carry out your training it will make a huge difference in your success.
Eric’s PhD research
You’ve mentioned that you are currently running a study for your PhD research. Care to tell us more about it?
Certainly! I’m conducting a study at the moment comparing strength, hypertrophy, and stress levels in two groups of trained males (minimum 2 years lifting experience, minimum strength of 1.25x bodyweight bench press, and 1.5x bodyweight squat) following protocols only differentiated by how load is prescribed.
The groups have the same set and rep scheme, yet in one group percentage of pre test 1RM is used to prescribe load, while in the other group they use RPE to select loads. The RPE targets for each week are set to match the percentage 1RM group.
But there are huge interindividual variations in how many repetitions can be performed at a given percentage 1RM and, also, there are differences between individuals with how conservative or aggressive they are with selecting loads in the RPE group. Either of these factors might affect the outcomes.
I’m excited to see what happens, and we should finish data collection by the end of november and then we should be able to publish early next year.
The Muscle and Strength Pyramid eBooks
I understand that, together with Andrea Valdez and Andy Morgan, you’ve written two books, one on training and the other one on nutrition for strength and muscle.
Can you tell us more about them and where we can get them?
Yes! I am the chief author of the Muscle and Strength Pyramid eBooks!
These are two eBooks on the hierarchies of training and nutrition for strength and physique athletes and enthusiasts. They literally cover everything. They tell you how to set up your diet and training and how to put it all into context.
They come with 6 sample programs to illustrate the principles and a nutrition calculator to put everything into play.
You can find more about them here: www.muscleandstrengthpyramids.com
Jiu Jitsu, singing or butt cheek walnut breaking?
If you HAD TO choose between:
a. Getting in the ring for a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu match with Mike Israetel
b. Doing a “sing-off” with Alan Aragon in front of a big crowd
c. Competing with Bret Contreras in a walnut-breaking contest with your butt cheeks
which would you choose and why?
C, easy choice! Not A because I don’t like being hurt, not B because I can’t sing, but if I lose a butt-cheek walnut breaking contest…is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Where to find Eric
Where can people find you and more of your work?
Check me out and my team 3DMJ at the following places: