Throughout high school and college I was extremely skinny. My BMI was in the “Underweight” category and size “small” shirts fit loosely on me-despite being 6’2”.
My first real foray into resistance training was doing four barbell lifts; the bench press, the back squat, the deadlift, and the overhead press. I did 3 sets of 5 reps, adding increments of weight every session (and then weekly as strength gains plateaued). I followed this program for 3 months and saw increases in strength and bodyweight. I thought it was a massive success.
Here is the before and after:
|Weight: 165 lb||Weight: 187 lb|
|Pushups: 5 reps on 12” box||Pushups: 5 reps|
|Visible “4-pack” of abs||No visible abdominal definition|
What led to such “massive success”?
To start, this was the first lifting program I ever did with any substantial load (weight). For years I had been a “rehablete”-performing lots of “mobility work” and “corrective exercises” in an attempt to alleviate chronic back, shoulder, and knee pain. Unfortunately, the net effect was still having pain and being out of shape.
Second, I had novice gains. For novices, nearly any training stimulus above their current fitness level will confer benefits. For example, it has been observed that even a walking program promotes strength and hypertrophy (muscle growth) in untrained people (Ozaki, 2019).
Third, I started to consciously eat more. I didn’t track anything. I simply ate slightly past fullness at each meal.
Lastly, I gained a considerable amount of body fat along with muscle. Looking at photos of myself at the time, I had a visible belly, but convinced myself that putting on so much fat was the necessary cost of gaining muscle.
Overall, there wasn’t anything special about sets of 5 reps nor the use of barbells. The “special thing” was that I resistance trained consistently with sufficient volume and intensity. I am confident I could have gotten similar results using machines instead of barbells. I probably would have had better hypertrophy results with higher weekly volumes (>10 sets per muscle group) as has been recommended based on research (Schoenfeld, 2018). For example, I did a weekly volume of 6 working sets for the chest in the form of the bench press. Clearly, this volume caused muscle growth, but there likely could have been more growth later into the program with a higher volume.
Recently, after slimming down to 175 lb, I did a hypertrophy program for 5 weeks. Here is the before and after:
|Weight: 175 lb||Weight: 179 lb|
|Pushups: 2 count pause pushup, with 20 lb of added weight, 5 reps||Pushups: 23 reps|
|Visible “4-pack” of abs||Visible “2-pack” of abs|
Looking at my strength levels after slimming down to 175, I realized I had gained a considerable amount of fat in the first program. For example, following the first program I was doing 5 pushups at a bodyweight of 187 lb. However, later at 175 lb, I was able to perform 5 pushups with 20 lb of added weight-a net of 195 lb. I was stronger at a lighter weight and with better abdominal definition (a rough proxy for body fat).
What was different in this hypertrophy program?
First, I did higher rep work (up to 20 reps per set) and less low rep work (only as low as 8 reps per set).
Second, the volume increased weekly and was higher overall. For example, by the final week I was doing 15 working sets per week for the chest.
Third, I expanded beyond the compound barbell lifts to include isolation movements (like lateral raises and hip abduction). I also used machines (lat pull down, chest press, shoulder press)
Lastly, I calculated a daily target for carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Then I measured my food intake using hand portion estimates for whole foods and nutrition labels for processed foods.
A few reflections and lessons for the future:
- Measuring bodyweight twice per week is crucial to track progress. Taking the average of two measurements helps focus on the weekly trend, rather than get too hung up on single measurements.
- It took several weeks to become used to the higher protein intake. It still takes a conscious effort to hit my goal of about 175 grams per day.
- Consuming tofu, eggs, and dairy (cottage cheese) makes a high protein intake more affordable.
- Processed foods and liquid calories (i.e. juice, milk) can help to increase total calories since they are not satiating.
- Barbells are not magical for strength or hypertrophy. I am not bashing barbells, but they have become a sacred cow for some lifters. I still think barbells are one of the best tools out there because of their versatility, ease of use, and relatively low cost.
- Keeping some sort of food log is important to hit overall calorie and protein goals. Someday I may be able to eat for hypertrophy intuitively, but I’ll stick to logging my intake for now.
- At the amateur level, your food measurement method does not have to be very accurate, but should be repeatable. I am sure my daily counting of “7 palms of protein” does not exactly correspond to 175 grams of protein. But it doesn’t have to. What matters is that I’m using the same measurement method and eating similar foods. It’s easy then to change food intake as my goals and weight change.
- For me, gaining about 1 lb/week of body weight seems to offer an acceptable amount of fat gain. If I had finished this hypertrophy program with “no visible” abs and at a body weight of 187 lb like before I would not consider that level of fat gain worth the muscle built.
I’ll be going through a more strength focused program with lower rep work, which I haven’t done as much of this past year. I’ll continue measuring weight, start measuring waist circumference, and keep food intake at maintenance (but continue tracking).
Self-experimentation doesn’t mean just trying different inputs. You’ve got to measure your response and adjust accordingly.