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“We have demonstrated that low-load high volume resistance exercise has a potent stimulatory effect on anabolic signaling molecules, [myogenic gene expression] and muscle protein synthesis.” Nicholas A. Burd et al, PLoS (August 9, 2010)

Light Weights Build Muscle—Study Provides Proof

Complex Study, Simple Training

“I employ the weight versus effort principle a lot,” an older friend wrote recently, “but I don’t believe that the serious bodybuilder could make the gains they want by controlling effort.” Many people, in their heart of heart, feel the same way. After hearing forever that heavy weights build muscle they can’t bring themselves to believe that the controlling factor is effort.

For full details on effort-based training, see Forget Heavy, Think Effort http://www.cbass.com/Carpinelli.htm and Lifting with Effort http://www.cbass.com/LiftingWithEffort.htm 

Fortunately, we now have inside-the-muscle proof that may make believers of my friend and others. (Gains come harder if you don’t have faith in what you’re doing.)

An impressive new study at McMaster University in Canada shows that light weights, lifted to failure, may actually be more effective than heavy weights in building muscle.

Devised by lead author Nicholas A. Burd (a senior doctoral candidate) and senior researcher Stuart M. Phillips, an associate professor of kinesiology, the study was published online August 9, 2010, in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS).

90% and 30% to Failure

The study used weights that represent a percentage of what each subject (15 men average age 21) could lift one time. The heavy weights were 90% of that person’s best single and the light weights were 30% of max.

“[Thirty percent] is a very light weight,” said Professor Phillips. At 30%, Burd reported that subjects could lift the weight at least 24 times before they gave out. The heavier weights could be lifted 5 to 10 times before exhaustion.

The impressive feature in this study is how muscle building was measured. Bodybuilders use a tape measure. These scientists used the latest technology to assess  changes in muscle tissue components. They took biopsies and analyzed changes in muscle fibers.

Muscle protein synthesis (formation) was measured at rest, and 4 and 24 hours after exercise. The researchers explained that “synthesis of skeletal muscle protein…is eventually expressed as muscle hypertrophy.” In short, muscle size and strength follow muscle protein formation.  

As you might expect, the description of the changes observed inside the muscles is technical. The bottom line finding is that “low-load high volume resistance exercise” is more effective than “high-load low volume” in inducing “acute muscle anabolism.”

Anabolism means growth. Think “anabolic steroids.”

Frankly, it takes an exercise physiologist to fully understand the physiological complexity of this study. If you’re an exercise physiologist, you’ll want to read the full report in PLoS. Most people (me included) want to know the basic methodology of the study and the main findings.  

Line of Attack

“In the present study, we aimed to systematically investigate the impact of two distinctly different exercise loads along with differing exercise volumes on anabolic signaling, myogenic gene expression, and rates of muscle protein synthesis (MIX, MYO, SARC).” Muscle protein synthesis or formation is the easiest to understand and we’ll focus on that.

MIX, MYO, SARC refer to the basic parts that make up muscle fibers. Muscle fibers are composed of rod-like structures that contract called myofibrils (MYO), which are surrounded by gelatin-like sarcoplasm (SACR). MIX muscle protein is mostly MYO, but also includes SACR and collagen. Mitochondria, special cells that process oxygen, are scattered throughout the sarcoplasm. (More about mitochondria later)    

The young men did four sets of unilateral machine leg extensions with 90% of their individual one-repetition maximum until failure (90FAIL) and 30% of 1RM to failure (30FAIL). Three minutes rest was given between sets, and failure was recognized when a complete range of motion could not be performed.

The researchers anticipated that the anabolic response would be similar for 30% and 90% to failure.

Surprisingly, they found “for the first time” that light weights are more effective in “increasing muscle protein synthesis.”

Main Findings

The following quotes are from the study; the emphasis is mine. Again, it’s a bit complicated.

“Specifically, the 30FAIL protocol induced similar increases in MYO protein synthesis to that induced by the 90FAIL protocol at 4 hours post-exercise, but this response was sustained at 24 hours only in 30FAIL.” MYO remained 199% elevated above rest at 24 hours only in the light weight group.

As noted earlier, the myofibrils (MYO) are the contractile elements in skeletal muscles; they are also the largest components of muscle fibers.

“In contrast to recommendations that heavy loads are necessary to optimally stimulate MYO protein synthesis, it is now apparent that the extent of MYO protein synthesis after resistance exercise is not entirely load dependent, but appears to be related to exercise volume and, we speculate, to muscle fiber activation and most likely to the extent of type II [large] fiber recruitment.”

Total exercise volume (load x reps) was greatest in the 30Fail mode.

Remember the size principle discussed here ad nauseam? The size principle is a law that explains the order in which muscle fibers contract. Small fibers contract before large fibers. The controlling factor is the effort exerted. More effort activates more and larger fibers. It’s fully explained in our previous article Forget Heavy, Think Effort:  http://www.cbass.com/Carpinelli.htm .

The stimulatory effect of 90Fail and 30FAIL was also seen in MIX and SARC protein synthesis, but to a lesser extent for SARC synthesis. Similar to the MYO results, the response in SARC was “only sustained for 24 hours in the 30FAIL condition.

While we didn’t focus on anabolic signaling and gene expression, the researchers also found that low-load high volume lifting has a “potent stimulatory effect” on anabolic signaling and myogenic gene expression. For more details, please read the study.

I promised to discuss the oxygen-processing mitochondria. Here it comes.

30% Builds Both Size and Endurance

The similarity in the 24-hour response of MYO and SACR to 30FAIL led the researcher to an intriguing proposal. Recall that sarcoplasm (SACR) contains the mitochondria, which increase in size and number with aerobic training.

“We propose that this finding provides support for the idea that 30FAIL exercise mode may function as an exercise mode to increase proteins from all fractions in muscle, including mitochondrial and myofibrillar proteins, leading to both enhanced oxidative capacity and hypertrophy.” In other words, lifting 30% of maximum to failure appears to build both size and endurance.

There’s more, but those are the key findings.

The McMaster University researchers boiled it down to this conclusion: “These results suggest that low-load high volume resistance exercise is more effective in inducing acute muscle anabolism than high-load low volume mode.” (Emphasis mine)

*  *  *

More Appealing Resistance Training for Health

Senior researcher Stuart M. Phillips, PhD, teamed up with our friend Dr. Richard A. Winett, Centre for Research in Health Behavior at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, to explain why studies such as his are relevant beyond pure bodybuilding. Their review paper on the subject appears in the July/August 2010 issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports.

Phillips and Winett believe the focus on poundage, rather than effort, makes resistance training (RT) unnecessarily complicated and, for many, uninviting. They see this as a major loss for public health.

“There is a clear ability of RT, in contrast to aerobic training (AT), to promote...skeletal muscle mass/strength,” they write. “Thus, as an anti-sarcopenic exercise treatment, RT is of greater benefit than AT; given the aging of our population, this is of primary importance.” (Emphasis mine)

You’ll find many more health benefits of RT in their report. 

They propose to change “how RT is viewed and adopted as a prescription for public health.”

Simple Model

Phillips and Winett want to do away with two widely held tenets of RT: “heavier is better” and “more is better.”

As we’ve just seen, heavier resistance doesn’t necessarily produce better results. Phillips and Winett point out that “heavier is better” is based on external force, rather than muscle cellular response. On the other hand, effort is internal to the person, and directly targeted to muscle fatigue. The internal model is both effective and more user-friendly, they contend. Simply put, it makes more sense to focus on what's happening inside the muscle than on how much weight is being lifted.

The internal degree of effort model allows a wide range of repetitions and manner of performance, which Phillips and Winett argue, quite logically, appeals to a wider range of people. (The 30% and 90% loads, as used in the Burd-Phillips study, are of course extremes for research purposes. Most people would find a mid-range load more to their liking. Four sets would also have limited appeal.)

Likewise, the high-volume “more is better” standard is a turn-off for many people.

The Phillips-Winett solution is simple and sound. They favor dropping “sets per exercise” as a measure of volume, and suggest adoption of “sets per muscle group” as a more meaningful measure of workload. “Multi-joint exercises affect multiple muscle groups” and often make single joint exercises redundant, they explain. For example, the chest press and shoulder press both work the triceps, making a specific triceps exercise unnecessary and, perhaps, counterproductive.

Here's what they suggest in a nutshell.

Their new model calls for an effort-based program with one set of 10-15 multiple muscle group exercises (for example, leg press, chest press, pulldown, overhead press) executed with good form. That’s it. Simple, effective, efficient, and calculated to keep people training—and liking it. 

(I would suggest that 10 or fewer exercises would do the job for most people. The model workout I have in mind might include the following exercises: leg press,  hyperextension, calf raise, pulldown, seated row, chest press, shoulder press, arm curl (optional), and ab crunch. One set is perfect. As noted, most people would find 4 sets boring and unpleasant) 

The Phillips and Winett review article contains a wealth of information on the health benefits of RT, and on their new “Intrinsic Model of RT.” For those interested in more details, here's the link: http://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/Abstract/2010/07000/Uncomplicated_Resistance_Training_and.9.aspx

Non-subscribers may have to purchase the article.

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