Saturday, October 19, 2013

TRAIN TO GAIN : Set-ing Your Hormone Zone Sets, reps and hormones by Jerry Brainum

While some bodybuilders do as few as four sets per muscle group, others do 20 or more. Those in the latter category often resort to a little chemical help, such as anabolic steroids, that makes for more complete recovery and thus compensates to a certain extent for gross overtraining. Still, I’d venture to guess that if you asked many bodybuilders for a scientific rationale for their training procedures, most wouldn’t have a sensible answer. Their rationale would be something like, “It just feels right.”

While so-called instinctive training does have merit in that different exercise routines affect people differently, you can’t escape science. Don’t believe me? Step off a tall building and see if your “instinctive” belief that you can fly prevents you from getting up close and personal with a slab of concrete.

Exercise scientists have recently published a raft of interesting studies that have more practical value than the usual fare published in science journals. One such study examined the hormonal effects of using various set and rep protocols.1

Such information is relevant to those seeking gains in muscular size and strength because exercise affects the flow of various anabolic hormones, such as growth hormone, testosterone and, from a catabolic standpoint, cortisol. The connection between exercise and hormones is evident when you consider that intense weight training increases the number of androgen receptor sites in muscle, which in turn creates a greater connection between testosterone and muscle. Testosterone promotes muscle growth, as looking at any anabolic steroid user will tell you. That also explains why using steroids without exercise doesn’t work well for adding muscle mass—because of the limited number of androgen receptor sites available in those who don’t work out.

The study featured 11 young men, average age 23, all of whom had two to eight years of training experience, although none were competitive athletes. The subjects were divided into three groups that used different training protocols:
  1. Maximum strength (MS). This group used weights that allowed an average of five reps per set, lifting 88 percent of maximum weight for one rep, with three minutes of rest after each set.
  2. Muscular hypertrophy (MH). This group used a plan designed to promote optimal muscle gains. It involved weights that allowed 10 reps per set at 75 percent of one-rep-maximum weight, with two minutes of rest after each set. The MH and the MS routines used two, four and six sets per exercise.
  3. Strength endurance (SE). This group used weights that were 60 percent of one-rep maximum for 15 reps per set, with one minute of rest after each set. They did two or four sets per exercise. Even four sets with this protocol proved difficult for the subjects, and all refused to do six sets.
All three groups did four exercises: bench presses, lat pulldowns, squats and overhead presses. To meet the rep goals, they dropped the weight on each set after the first. All subjects trained at the same time each day to avoid any time-related hormonal influences.

Varying the number of sets in the MS protocol had no effect on any hormones, but in the MH and SE groups growth hormone and cortisol were higher after four sets rather than two. Both growth hormone and cortisol rose higher in the SE and MH groups than in the MS subjects but were higher in the MH subjects only after they did four and six sets. The SE produced the highest growth hormone release of all three routines—surprising, since it featured the lightest weights.

The study shows that higher hormone levels may not play a role in gains during a heavy strength program, but lifting heavy produces gains through other means, such as increased intracellular growth mechanisms and higher maximum neural activation of muscles. That’s noticeable with many Olympic lifters, who are undoubtedly strong but not necessarily heavily muscled.

The study confirmed past observations that doing more sets increases the secretion of both growth hormone and cortisol, though it did not affect testosterone release. It also showed that doing two sets led to a growth hormone release without an accompanying increase in cortisol. When the sets increased to four, both GH and cortisol increased, but the GH release was great enough to offset the catabolic effects of the cortisol.

Another interesting finding was that there appears to be a ceiling to the extent of hormonal release during weight training. Six sets didn’t promote any more hormone release than four sets per exercise. GH was higher during the strength endurance protocol than it was during the muscular hypertrophy protocol, an effect thought to occur from extended low tension, or stress, during the higher reps on the endurance routine.

Based on this study, it isn’t necessary to do more than four sets per exercise for optimum hormone release. That information applies to trainees not using any type of anabolic drug, as drugs could enable them to train past that four-set limit and still show considerable muscular progress.

Now that we have a good idea of how many sets to do per exercise to promote maximum hormone secretion, the next study should examine the total number of sets per muscle group that works best for that purpose and the optimum training frequency.

1 Smillios, I., et al. (2003). Hormonal responses after various resistance exercise protocols. Med Sci Sports Exer. 35:644-654.

©,2013 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

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