POWERFUL Muscle Medicine
John LittleDoug McGuff, M.D., Discusses High-Intensity-Training Dose/Response for Muscle and Strength - Part 2
In Part 1 Dr. McGuff explained his beliefs regarding short, high-intensity workouts and how one five-set workout every seven to 14 days can increase size and strength. The conversation continues.
JL: In your video you cited two studies that support the validity of once-a-week training. Tell me about that and about how you fought the idea of training once a week until you did it—and then went on to make the best gains of your life.
DM: Well, in the study they essentially took groups of subjects who were training three days a week and two days a week and looked at their rates of progress. The three-times-a-week trainees went down to training two times a week, and the two-times-a-week trainees cut back to training once a week. When that happened, their progress—measured on an absolute basis per unit of time—improved. There have been other, similar studies. The trainees decrease their frequency and actually do better in a lot of cases—particularly the elderly. Even in younger subjects that’s borne out.
As far as my training is concerned, it was Mike Mentzer’s writings that influenced me. He had a kind of “Eureka!” moment, came back into the fray and started training clients. That’s when he argued for decreasing training frequency, and I finally just decided to bite the bullet and wait a whole week and see what happened. At about the same time I’d visited Greg Anderson in Seattle. He put me through a workout that was five sets—total. It was the most impressive workout I’d ever been through in my life. The guy just hammered me. At that point I had managed to push my training out to every fourth or fifth day.
He said, “You know, I remember talking with Rob Seraino some time ago, and when we look back on our records, the best progress we ever made was when we were training once a week.” I told him that when I got back, I’d give it a try.
The first time I took seven days off, going back to the gym was a completely different experience: The weight that I’d selected for myself that had previously been very challenging and right at the edge of my capabilities felt light. I actually had to check the resistance to make sure it was right. I got more repetitions with it than I had on the previous workout by a long shot. Reaching “failure” wasn’t like it had been previously. It was the sort of thing where you were creeping up on failure and thought you were going to fail on a rep, but you’d eke it out. Then you’d start your next rep and think, “Surely I’m going to bite the dust on this one,” but you’d “Okay, I’m not going to make it this time,” and you’d barely eke it out. Finally, on the fourth one, you’d bite the dust.
So you had a very gradual reaching of muscular failure, whereas previously muscular failure had been just like running into a brick wall. It would be just like a boot dropping—Bam!—and you were done.
I think when I trained more often, whole sets of fast-twitch motor units hadn’t reached recovery, so when I had to recruit those motor units, they just weren’t there. When I laid off the full seven days, they were there again.
JL: Haven’t you found that in some instances even more time might be required?
DM: Absolutely. With certain clients we’ve found that we have to look at the total context of their life—the ones with significantly stressful lifestyles especially.
In my practice I had a partner who worked full-time nights and had four children. We fell into this pattern where we thought, “Well, training once a week is good for everyone.” What we found, though, was that the guy would not progress; he could not make a strength improvement unless we waited. We kept pushing it out until we found that for him training every 12th day worked best, given the circadian disruption of being a full-time night worker and having four small children. You’ve got to look at what else is going on in the person’s life and plug in the right recovery equation.