Thursday, August 19, 2010

The theory of supercompensation: Strength training frequency and muscle gain

Moderate strength training has a number of health benefits, and is viewed by many as an important component of a natural lifestyle that approximates that of our Stone Age ancestors. It increases bone density, muscle mass, and improves a number of health markers. Done properly, it may decrease body fat percentage.

Generally one would expect some muscle gain as a result of strength training. Men seem to be keen on upper-body gains, while women appear to prefer lower-body gains. Yet, many people do strength training for years, and experience little or no muscle gain.

Paradoxically, those people experience major strength gains, both men and women, especially in the first few months after they start a strength training program. However, those gains are due primarily to neural adaptations, and come without any significant gain in muscle mass. This can be frustrating, especially for men. Most men are after some noticeable muscle gain as a result of strength training. (Whether that is healthy is another story, especially as one gets to extremes.)

After the initial adaptation period, of “beginner” gains, typically no strength gains occur without muscle gains.

The culprits for the lack of anabolic response are often believed to be low levels of circulating testosterone and other hormones that seem to interact with testosterone to promote muscle growth, such as growth hormone. This leads many to resort to anabolic steroids, which are drugs that mimic the effects of androgenic hormones, such as testosterone. These drugs usually increase muscle mass, but have a number of negative short-term and long-term side effects.

There seems to be a better, less harmful, solution to the lack of anabolic response. Through my research on compensatory adaptation I often noticed that, under the right circumstances, people would overcompensate for obstacles posed to them. Strength training is a form of obstacle, which should generate overcompensation under the right circumstances. From a biological perspective, one would expect a similar phenomenon; a natural solution to the lack of anabolic response.

This solution is predicted by a theory that also explains a lack of anabolic response to strength training, and that unfortunately does not get enough attention outside the academic research literature. It is the theory of supercompensation, which is discussed in some detail in several high-quality college textbooks on strength training. (Unlike popular self-help books, these textbooks summarize peer-reviewed academic research, and also provide the references that are summarized.) One example is the excellent book by Zatsiorsky & Kraemer (2006) on the science and practice of strength training.

The figure below, from Zatsiorsky & Kraemer (2006), shows what happens during and after a strength training session. The level of preparedness could be seen as the load in the session, which is proportional to: the number of exercise sets, the weight lifted (or resistance overcame) in each set, and the number of repetitions in each set. The restitution period is essentially the recovery period, which must include plenty of rest and proper nutrition.


Note that toward the end there is a sideways S-like curve with a first stretch above the horizontal line and another below the line. The first stretch is the supercompensation stretch; a window in time (e.g., a 20-hour period). The horizontal line represents the baseline load, which can be seen as the baseline strength of the individual prior to the exercise session. This is where things get tricky. If one exercises again within the supercompensation stretch, strength and muscle gains will likely happen. (Usually noticeable upper-body muscle gain happens in men, because of higher levels of testosterone and of other hormones that seem to interact with testosterone.) Exercising outside the supercompensation time window may lead to no gain, or even to some loss, of both strength and muscle.

Timing strength training sessions correctly can over time lead to significant gains in strength and muscle (see middle graph in the figure below, also from Zatsiorsky & Kraemer, 2006). For that to happen, one has not only to regularly “hit” the supercompensation time window, but also progressively increase load. This must happen for each muscle group. Strength and muscle gains will occur up to a point, a point of saturation, after which no further gains are possible. Men who reach that point will invariably look muscular, in a more or less “natural” way depending on supplements and other factors. Some people seem to gain strength and muscle very easily; they are often called mesomorphs. Others are hard gainers, sometimes referred to as endomorphs (who tend to be fatter) and ectomorphs (who tend to be skinnier).


It is not easy to identify the ideal recovery and supercompensation periods. They vary from person to person. They also vary depending on types of exercise, numbers of sets, and numbers of repetitions. Nutrition also plays a role, and so do rest and stress. From an evolutionary perspective, it would seem to make sense to work all major muscle groups on the same day, and then do the same workout after a certain recovery period. (Our Stone Age ancestors did not do isolation exercises, such as bicep curls.) But this will probably make you look more like a strong hunter-gatherer than a modern bodybuilder.

To identify the supercompensation time window, one could employ a trial-and-error approach, by trying to repeat the same workout after different recovery times. Based on the literature, it would make sense to start at the 48-hour period (one full day of rest between sessions), and then move back and forth from there. A sign that one is hitting the supercompensation time window is becoming a little stronger at each workout, by performing more repetitions with the same weight (e.g., 10, from 8 in the previous session). If that happens, the weight should be incrementally increased in successive sessions. Most studies suggest that the best range for muscle gain is that of 6 to 12 repetitions in each set, but without enough time under tension gains will prove elusive.

The discussion above is not aimed at professional bodybuilders. There are a number of factors that can influence strength and muscle gain other than supercompensation. (Still, supercompensation seems to be a “biggie”.) Things get trickier over time with trained athletes, as returns on effort get progressively smaller. Even natural bodybuilders appear to benefit from different strategies at different levels of proficiency. For example, changing the workouts on a regular basis seems to be a good idea, and there is a science to doing that properly. See the “Interesting links” area of this web site for several more focused resources of strength training.

Reference:

Zatsiorsky, V., & Kraemer, W.J. (2006). Science and practice of strength training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

34 comments:

js290 said...

How are the exercises performed as described by Zatsiorsky and Kraemer? Do they advocate the high intensity training style of Arthur Jones and Mike Menzter?

Somatotyping doesn't seem very scientific. Seems like the ability to grow muscle can be more easily explained with genetics and the amount of myostatin a person has.

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Ned Kock said...

Hi js290.

The book is about strength training in general, so the authors talk about many ways, and discuss results. They don't advocate a particular way.

Sheldon's theory (re. mesomorphs etc.) does leave a lot to be desired. It's an old theory.

Nevertheless, almost any human trait will be normally (or quasi-normally) distributed in any human population.

Circulating testosterone is one such trait.

Those at the right end will be what I referred to in the post as meso's; to borrow a term from the popular bodybuilding literature.

Ned Kock said...

Thanks Rinkesh.

Ed Terry said...

Thanks for your research into exercise as well as nutrition. As I age, I do find that my recovery periods are taking longer and longer. I've always performed each set to failure with the exception of squats. In the past I typically used multiple sets. I now experimenting with once a week workout using only one set per major muscle groups.

I also wonder about the recovery time versus size of the muscle group. One set of squats to almost failure now takes me a full week to recover from. Other muscle groups such as calves, abs, and forearms seem to recovery much more quickly.

15 years ago I spent at least 6 hours a week lifting weights. I now spend no more than 60 minutes a week lifting and am no weaker for doing so. At 53, my ability to add muscle mass has decreased.

Kindke said...

I've recently begun a frenzy into muscle and strength research and I've found some truely interesting things.

Ned did you miss the recent study here?

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0012033

Increasing weight may not be a completely nessecery requirement for progression.

Infact, once you grasp the theory you can see how only training at a certain % of your 1RM will severely stunt your progress. Especially if that % is quite high like 80%.

I made a post on T-nation about it but it seems to have been largely laughed at.

http://tnation.t-nation.com/free_online_forum/sports_body_training_performance_bodybuilding/new_resistance_training_research?id=4004731&pageNo=1

From looking at several hundred studies on pubmed, it seems that gains are most related to post workout activity of something called P70s6K and myofibrillar protein synthesis.

Im sure there is a supercompensation window but it must surely be slightly larger than advertised here. I think one also needs to consider something which I call localised over-training.

I.E. after a training session, all exercised muscles will be in competition for resources from the blood, particularly the BCAA.

BTW I don't ever recommend training to full failure, not only is it dangerous but I've noticed exponentially longer recovery times when training to full failure at high % of 1RM.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Ed.

Working to failure makes theoretical sense, and does seem to work well in practice for most people. The key seems to be how one defines "failure. I see it as the point where perfect form is compromised, even if slightly.

There is a lot of debate on squats. One can reasonably argue that multiple reps of full squats is not a very natural way of exercising. Lifting heavy weights and moving (e.g., walking) or holding them in place seems more natural (e.g., something like an isometric squat).

I personally avoid any exercise that causes me any kind of joint discomfort, during or after the exercise. Full squats do, so I have been sprinting or doing other things (e.g., isometric squats) for my legs.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Kindke.

Yes, I've seen the study and some positive comments by bloggers. But when I actually read the article, I had my doubts. If you check Figure 1 of the article (the bar charts) you'll see that the heavy weights group did much better in the hours following the exercise, with that situation reversing itself slightly at 24 h.

Since protein synthesis is much higher in the hours after the exercise, I cannot see how the authors can claim that the light weights (and high reps) group did better overall. They can only say that the LW group did better at 24 h, when protein synthesis is still happening but is significantly decreased.

I secretly wish they were right though. I have little time to exercise, and often lack the motivation. Light weights and high reps appeal to me. The problem is that I am not convinced it works.

Ned Kock said...

Btw, the theory of supercompensation discussed in this post should not be confused with the pseudoscience equivalent that a lot of bodybuilders seem to subscribe to.

In the latter (e.g., the pseudoscience theory), the approach is usually working one muscle group like crazy and resting that muscle group a full week. That may or may not work for various people, but it is not the same as the theory of supercompensation discussed in the post (and in the exercise physiology literature).

js290 said...

Ned,

How do you do your squats? Seems like sprinting would put more load on the joints than squats.

Also, the contents of this article may be of interest to you:

http://www.asep.org/files/Smith.pdf

Supercompensation meaning the body is stronger than normal? Or does it refer to actual measurable muscle growth?

Ned Kock said...

Hi js290.

Thanks for the link.

Below is an example of isometric squat (hopefully blogger will not cut off part of the link). I usually hold the position for about 30 seconds at a time, as a start.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GrarSW1OsY

Also, I use weight, and try to breathe normally while holding the position (no Valsalva maneuver). Progressive overload is achieved by holding the position longer or increasing the weight.

Sprinting causes me no joint discomfort whatsoever; neither does walking. When I do sprints, I typically do two to four all out 30s sprints in one exercise session.

js290 said...

I was actually more curious as to how you were doing full squats that was causing you joint pain.

If you're trying to get your exercise routine figured out, I'd definitely recommend Body by Science if you haven't read it already.

http://www.bodybyscience.net/

It essentially summarizes the observations of Arthur Jones, Mike Menzter, Ellington Darden, and the other advocates of HIT with references to scientific literature, very similar to your blog posts.

In one of his articles (http://www.ultimate-exercise.com/stasisvsdynamism3.html), he refers to anamnestic workouts which may coincide with the supercompensation mentioned in the text book.

Ned Kock said...

Hi js290.

My interest in exercise physiology is mostly theoretical; an indirect way of understanding metabolic disorders. I also like to look at numbers/stats in health studies and make sense of them.

For that, there is no substitute for going to the source - actual research. This is published in academic articles and summarized in college textbooks.

I try things on myself, to the extent possible (juggling a number of other things), but I have no interest in becoming a bodybuilder or even coming close to that.

As for BBS, I did hear good things about it, but also not so good things. Several comments here, under various posts, from folks who tried some of the suggestions in BBS, and things didn't work as expected.

Eventually one has to adapt knowledge to their particular situation. Almost all traits are normally distributed in any population, and people find themselves at different points of the curve, for each trait.

The average person doesn't actually exist. It is always an "n=1" experiment.

Scott W said...

This is going to sound like an odd question, but I have wondered about the impact of bone density increase due to weight training. I can understand how it occurs in bones under tension, but (and here's the odd part) what about our necks?

We are generally not in the practice of lifting weights with our heads, so do the neck vertebrae weaken over time (which would be bad) or do they get some kind of residual effect?

I would think that we would be evolved to not have to do head lifts to ensure lifetime strength in our neck vertebrae...maybe holding up our big brains is enough.

Scott W

js290 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
js290 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
js290 said...

BBS was not written for the body builder. They took principles from smarter than average body builders (Menzter) and trainers (Jones) that are now being observed scientifically. It's competition that advances the field. Similar to how innovation in racing cars find their way onto road cars. Not everyone needs a racing car, but everyone can almost always benefit from the technology developed in racing.

I agree with you on the distribution of traits. Perhaps those disappointed by BBS were on the wrong side of the genetics distribution with expectations on the other side. I, too, have no desire to become a body builder. My interest is in optimizing my exercise routine. As quoted from BBS:

Ultimately, we need to make a concerted effort to learn how to distinguish between fitness and health and must shift our focus from how much exercise we can endure to how little we precisely require to cultivate the positive fitness properties from exercise...

For me, even if HIT doesn't work as advertised, I'm still ahead because I'm working out less (but more intensely) and safer from a kinematics perspective. If it's what they do claim is true, then all the better.

I'm not advocating HIT, per se, because, as you've discovered, the first order effect is diet. But, I thought you would be interested in the scientific literature cited in BBS. They spend an entire chapter on various metabolic cycles (Krebs and Cori come to mind). Keep in mind though, accepted scientific literature can be lagging a lot of times. There's plenty of "scientific" literature out there that would dispute your diet. ;-) But, like you say, if n=1, only the person that is n cares :-)

It's changed the way I think about working out precisely because they ask the fundamental question: What is the point of exercise? The answer they found seem to point to the metabolic effects that you're interested in.

http://tinyurl.com/28hgbhv

BTW, properly done squats should not hurt the knees. Poor form may hurt the back. However, squats done on a Smith machine (with vertical guides) are horrible for the knees. Think about the natural path the load takes in the squat movement relative to the constrained path of the guides.

js290 said...

Ned, sorry for the multiple post. Blogger complained about the URI being too large and didn't confirm my first reply actually made it. Please delete the duplicates.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Scott.

That is a good question. There are studies showing that BMD increases only if the bones are in the path of resistance to weights. In the case of the neck, I guess one way to do that would be to carry loads on your head.

There are also studies that show an overall increase in BMD, even for the bones outside the path of resistance. That is, through squats you'd also get some increase in BMD in the arm bones.

The latter effect seems to be small though.

Ned Kock said...

Hi js290.

That's okay. I deleted the repeated entries.

Scott W said...

Thanks Ned. I'm thinking that isometrics would be the safest way to exercise your neck bones.

Scott w

Anonymous said...

I love this subject. No shortages of opinions backed by research with the one disconcerting detail that they don't agree.

First one opening general statement. If there was one right way we'd all know it by now and we'd all be doing it. People's bodies are different and what motivates them is different. (Motivation matters as a variable.)

My view on one set vs. three is based on understanding what you're measuring and what you're after in a training result.
Most studies look at one rep max strength gains as the metric but three sets improves strength/endurance. People need strength/endurance more typically than they need maximal strength in their daily living. The question here becomes what is your goal?

The next thing I look at in training is neural adaptation. Not from the point of view of simple muscle strength gain but from the point of view of coordinated muscle function, again, something that is transferable to real life. When you exercise the brain is always learning what it is you are asking it to do. What you need to ask yourself is how well does this exercise correlate with a real life requirements.

To this end single legged squats are vastly superior to double legged squats. They invoke balance and provoke the activation of not only the primary movers but the stabilization muscles as well. The brain is acquiring a functional skill in activating all these muscles in proper harmony and improving balance.

I also like walking lunges at the climbing wall in the gym (when not in use, of course) as the instability of the soft foam at the base of the wall gives an excellent boost to the basic skill by ramping up the important balance/stabilization component (vestibular/stabilization muscles). The stabilization muscles protect joints (inner unit vs. outer unit).

The balance and single leg components also increase core activation naturally. (See single legged squat and quadratus lumborum for instance.)

Both these exercises can be done with dumbbells for increased strength and though leg exercises strictly speaking, they ramp up the core/full body aspect with weights in hand.

I do multiple sets, am 59 years old and am stronger now than I have ever been (I have hit personal bests in just the last month) and have been exercising for decades. I vary my rep ranges between six and fifteen (but not limited to just those two extremes) My total exercise volume is between two and three hours a week.

Because I have been at this a long time I have learned to read my broad cycles. I push during the peak periods and back off during the valleys. I also adjust to good days and bad days within the broader cycle.

It is complex but natural movements with high neural skill components and complete muscle activation patterns that have moved me into peak condition while keeping me from injury.

I do not exercise to failure but stay in good form for all reps. I avoid full range of motion because it is a distortion of natural movement. Full range of motion with high loads in particular tends to damage joints.

Natural, functional strength is more complex than the simple study designs typically seen in the literature.

Hopefully these things that I have learned through many years of experimentation will be of interest to you, Ned, and your readers, and will foster some experimentation of your own.

Anonymous said...

I love this subject. No shortages of opinions backed by research with the one disconcerting detail that they don't agree.

My view on one set vs. three is based on understanding what you're measuring and what you're after in a training result.
Most studies look at one rep max strength gains as the metric but three sets improves strength/endurance. People need strength/endurance more typically than they need maximal strength in their daily living. The question here becomes what is your goal?

The next thing I look at in training is neural adaptation. Not from the point of view of simple muscle strength gain but from the point of view of coordinated muscle function, again, something that is transferable to real life. When you exercise the brain is always learning what it is you are asking it to do. What you need to ask yourself is how well does this exercise correlate with a real life requirements.

To this end single legged squats are vastly superior to double legged squats. They invoke balance and provoke the activation of not only the primary movers but the stabilization muscles as well. The brain is acquiring a functional skill in activating all these muscles in proper harmony and improving balance.

I also like walking lunges at the climbing wall in the gym (when not in use, of course) as the instability of the soft foam at the base of the wall gives an excellent boost to the basic skill by ramping up the important balance/stabilization component (vestibular/stabilization muscles). The stabilization muscles protect joints (inner unit vs. outer unit).

The balance and single leg components also increase core activation naturally. (See single legged squat and quadratus lumborum for instance.)

Both these exercises can be done with dumbbells for increased strength and though leg exercises strictly speaking, they ramp up the core/full body aspect with weights in hand.

I do multiple sets, am 59 years old and am stronger now than I have ever been (I have hit personal bests in just the last month) and have been exercising for decades. I vary my rep ranges between six and fifteen (but not limited to just those two extremes) My total exercise volume is between two and three hours a week.

Because I have been at this a long time I have learned to read my broad cycles. I push during the peak periods and back off during the valleys. I also adjust to good days and bad days within the broader cycle.

It is complex but natural movements with high neural skill components and complete muscle activation patterns that have moved me into peak condition while keeping me from injury.

I do not exercise to failure but stay in good form for all reps. I avoid full range of motion because it is a distortion of natural movement. Full range of motion with high loads in particular tends to damage joints.

Natural, functional strength is more complex than the simple study designs typically seen in the literature.

Hopefully these things that I have learned through many years of experimentation will be of interest to you, Ned, and your readers, and will foster some experimentation of your own.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the double post.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Anon.

Thanks for stopping by. You are not Mr. Scooby are you?

(Not a joke question, see link below. Scooby is one of my favs.)

www.scoobysworkshop.com

js290 said...

Ned, a friend of mine just happened to lend me High-Intensity Training by John Philbin. Figure 4.1 in the book is a supercompensation graph very similar to the one you posted from the text book. According to Philbin, the 24-hr compensation is for non failure exercise (ones that do not produce enough lactic acid). Failure exercises require 48 hours, and advanced overload training requires 72-96 hours.

In the Body by Science Q&A book, McGuff further addresses the anamnestic workout. His theory is any gains is more likely due to neurological efficiency, i.e. ability to recruit more muscle fibers, from the previous workout than actual strength gains as another anamnestic workout simply leads to overtraining.

Ned Kock said...

Gains through neural adaptations seem to be more common at the beginner's stage. As the body becomes used to properly recruiting muscle fibers, strength and muscle gains tend to happen concurrently.

Still, the body has a number of mechanisms that make us "hold off", and not use our full muscle potential. Even muscle gain is held at bay endogenously - myostatin.

Zach said...

@Kindke the guy over at evidence based fitness did a really good job of reviewing the study you are referring to:

http://evidencebasedfitness.blogspot.com/2010/08/if-youre-going-to-claim-to-improve.html

basically, it is 100% meaningless and has no practical application

@Ned Kock endomorphs are not hardgainers, only ectomorphs are hardgainers. endomorphs actually have an advantage when it comes to muscle gain

Ned Kock said...

Hi Zach.

Yes, that study has a number of issues. More than I thought.

Endos have a hard time gaining muscle too, but less than ectos. They can gain fat very easily.

I don't have the ref handy, but it seems that muscle gain is greater at low than high body fat levels.

Greg said...

Hi Ned,

Thanks for the great article, it's hard to get solid infomrmation these day, you just don't know what's been researched and what's just wasting your time.

You said above "For example, changing the workouts on a regular basis seems to be a good idea, and there is a science to doing that properly"

Please advise where I can find this "science" as I'm relatively new to this and don't know where to start in your interesting links section.

Many thanks for your time.

Lamar said...

Another excellent post. I recently discovered your site and have been reading it all morning.

I have a rather simple question.

What do you practice in terms of nutrition and an exercise regiment?

John Andrews said...

Good info! It’s important to work out the right way if you wish to see results! Overtraining can actually lead to loss in muscle mass. Provide your body with the right diet, especially high protein foods to build muscle strength. Nutritional supplements like Ageless Male can contribute a great deal by improving metabolism and building lean muscles, but only if accompanied by diet and exercise. I read in Ageless Male reviews that men who used this supplement and followed a right fitness schedule saw exemplary results. So yes, don’t exercise blindly, know what you’re doing and its eventual effects on the body.

John Andrews said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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