As you will notice I am new on this forum but I have been training HD style for close to a decade now and been following this forum closely for a number of months. Below I will share with you my experiences with ultra-high intensity / super low frequency training and pose a few questions that will hopefully improve our knowledge.
Even early on, when I first started to train 14 years ago, I noted that the harder I pushed myself at the end of the set, the more I grew. So when I was first introduced to Mikes ideas, I embraced them right away. As I was living outside of the US at the time and had access to Mikes works with a several years of delay, I was mostly influenced by his earlier writings where he claimed that anything you can do to make your workouts harder is a step in the right direction. So I continued to make my workouts harder and more infrequent until I reached the point where I was training every muscle once every 21 days. Basically I was and still am- doing a 3 way split with one workout every week and took each set far beyond positive failure.
It is important to notice that this change was gradual and with much hesitation. What gave me the courage to extend the rest period so much was the simple fact that whenever I took time off from training due to a family/work obligation or even a sickness, I would maintain my muscle mass -even if I ended up working a given muscle group almost once a month. In an article published by Rick Winnett in Master Trainer magazine (but not posted on his website) I explained why most bodybuilders mistakenly believe they have lost muscle mass during a layoff when in fact they may not have (will post quotes from that article if you guys are interested). During this period my intensity kept going up and I would routinely perform drop sets, immediately followed by statics, and even negatives.
I must also note that I tried both pure static workouts ala Pete Sisco and strict superslows and lost muscle mass on both programs. I gave them sufficient time and kept pretty accurate records and am personally convinced that they failed to work for me. But of course, I cannot claim that this was a scientific experiment or that they will also not work for other people.
Soon after my failure to make much use of superslow, I had a phone consultation with Dr. Doug McGuff to discuss a variety of issues. He was of course surprised that I could hit each muscle only once every 21 days and not atrophy but said that it wouldnt be inconceivable. Regarding the excessive intensity (or lets call it going way beyond positive failure because there is little agreement obviously regarding what exactly intensity means) I pointed out two things to him: 1) I am a pretty weak individual and can lift significantly less than people my size do. I think this is due to the fact that my CNS simply refuses to contract a large % of motor units at once squeeze my biceps when I flex it and it is much softer than you may expect- so maybe I really need these crazy techniques to recruit the last motor units. 2) When I look back at my training and analyze the most productive periods I always notice that I made the muscles burn by extending the set beyond failure.
In response to my second point, Dr. McGuff pointed out the famous study where a cuff was placed around the biceps during curls, leading to better hypertrophy. He said that lowering the PH level in the muscle could actually lead to better growth and perhaps this is what I was doing by burning the muscle. (this was 2.5 years ago when I was at 155 lbs and around 5.5% bodyfat measured hydrostatically at Adelphi University)
After our conversation I read the research piece in question and started to think of ways to reduce the PH levels in the muscle even more by restricting blood flow to the area (without using a cuff). I first tried movements where the muscle being exercised was placed above the head such as high cable curls for the biceps of vertical leg presses. Next I tried performing a set by breathing as little as possible (I know, it sounds crazy) and then I tried getting my heart rate up on an exercise bike before doing a set. When none of these worked, I finally realized that the only viable way was to make the muscles contract at a higher rate so that the blood supply couldnt keep up with the demand, thus leading to lactic acid accumulation. After much trial and error the protocol I came up with was (using Triceps as an example): Perform one heavy set of rope extensions (10 reps) to failure, drop the weight so you do another 10 reps to failure and move directly to close grip bench presses with a ridiculously light weight that will let you perform 100 -120 extremely short and quick reps. Here I am moving the weight only 3 inches or so using the hardest portion of the ROM and performing the reps as quickly as possible usually 2-3 reps per second. When the burn completely shuts off the muscle I rest for around 10-20 seconds and the same is repeated for another 100 reps. (I call these short and fast reps quick set)
A few questions will come up of course: Why not do the quick set right at the beginning? It has been my experience that ANY PROTOCOL THAT ELIMINATES HEAVY LIFTING LEADS TO ATROPHY. Not a scientific study, just my experience.
Why not do the quick reps with rope extensions? In my experience it is impossible to burn muscles thoroughly with isolation exercises. I dont know why but I am having to use multi-joint movements to achieve a full burn.
Anyway after doing this a few times for my arms I happened to notice that my triceps had gotten bigger while my biceps size had barely changed. At first I didnt make much of this. But when I later thought about it, I realized that the quick sets may actually be responsible for this because right around that time I was still struggling to find an appropriate exercise to perform quick sets for the biceps (remember multi-joint exercises are needed for this type of training) and was not yet able to burn my biceps while triceps was getting a good amount of burn. Another thing that increased my faith in quick sets was that after my first leg workout involving them my whole body was pumped for several days (increased Testosterone production???). As I continued to read the literature, however, I realized that the true value of reduced PH levels may come from the fact that more Fast Twitch fibers are utilized when PH levels are low (compared to what one would expect given the weight). So I said, wait a minute I am reducing the PH levels, but what I should really do is to force muscles to contract heavily while the PH levels are low. So I started adding a rest pause set to the end of this already giant set. In sum, my workout now looks as follows:
First giant set: 10 reps to failure with favorite mass exercise, drop weight do another 10 reps to failure, jump to a multi-joint exercise do 3 sets of quick reps to make muscles burn as hard as possible.
Second giant set: same as above, immediately followed by a set of rest pause of 10 reps.
(each set takes between 5 and 7 minutes to complete)
Thats it for that muscle group.
I know this sounds absolutely absurd but during the last two years my weight went from 155 @ 5.5% to 165.5 @ around the same bf% (no hydrostatic measurement this time but I am confident that I am no less lean than last time). Also the last two years havent been entirely problem free as I had to take some time off due to a family matter and my job. I also let my bf% slip to teens at some stage and had to diet down, thus wasting a lot of time. So I could have made this progress much faster.
The reason I took so much of your time is that
1) I though this could provide some food for thought for everyone and show that at least for some, taking a set way, way, way beyond failure may indeed work. (though I am not saying that even for me this is optimal)
2) Wanted to know what you guys think is the least productive link in this chain because I am looking to cut down the length of these mega sets a little bit. Although I am not too exhausted after training, I think that the sets have ballooned too much and I could certainly cut them down if only I can identify which of the elements I kept adding through the years are contributing to the results the least.
Thanks and regards to everyone