Hypertrophy Specific Training

Part 2: Overtraining and Strategic Deconditioning

e don't know if hypertrophy specific training was used by the ancient Greeks. So part of this article is pure speculation.

Milo and the Bull

Milo was an ancient Greek athlete and warrior, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of his day. His father gave him a bull calf to raise. One day, his father asked him, 'How big is your bull today?' Milo ran outside, picked up the calf and carried him inside to show his father. This went on for years and as the bull grew, so did Milo’s strength." The story of Milo of Croton and its relevance to Hypertrophy Specific Training.

To those of us engaged in Hypertrophy Specific Training, that sounds like a lot of bull to us. Maybe that's why we call it a "fable".

The story does illustrate the principle of gradual progression in fitness and sport. If we don't increase the weight or the speed, the body remains adapted to past efforts. If we press on too far and too fast—overtraining—we risk injury and burnout. What's worse, we risk giving up hypertrophy specific training as an unpleasant job.

What the Fable of the Bull Reveals.

To Succeed with Hypertrophy Specific Training:

  • Progression is needed, otherwise the body will stop adapting

  • The steps in progression must be small steps; otherwise the body will be overstressed

  • Exercise duration should be increased gradually to avoid overloading the nervous system (burnout)

How Hypertrophy Specific Training Works

The body can adapt to the challenges of weight training and aerobics, but on its own terms. We don't force the issue. We listen and observe how the body responds. If we sense overload, we back off.
Our job is to create an environment that will develop the body's potential. We change our eating and drinking habits to improve nutrition. We change the loads lifted and the ways we lift them, the miles (km) covered by walking, climbing, running, skiing, swimming. If we are consistent and persistent, the body will respond in its own way, in its own time. Periodic break periods in our training schedule keep us from overstressing the body—overtraining.

What's Missing in the Fable of the Bull

Today, scientists know something that the ancient Greeks did not know. In Hypertrophy Specific Training, the limiting hormone is cortisol, the stress hormone. We know that we must keep the stress level within limits. Too little stress and our bodies decline for lack of challenge; too much stress and our bodies are overloaded, our immune systems decline, and we become prone to a laundry list of chronic diseases.

At each stage of hypertrophy specific training, there is a load ceiling above which we dare not go. For each exercise, there is weight that is the maximum, a speed that is our limit, a time that is enough. There is a limit to what the body can tolerate based on the way it manages stress and cortisol.

This is not a reason to become discouraged:
Our personal load ceiling and tolerance level changes with training.

At first you might be able to manage walking only half an hour three times a week at slow speed. That's OK. Do it. Then every Monday, add five minutes per day. After six weeks, you will be able to walk three hours per week. Then week by week, you gradually increase speed. Imagine what you can achieve after one year, gradually increasing the volume (time) and intensity (speed).

Approach Hypertrophy Specific Training the same way. Start with weights that feel comfortable. Then add a trifle each day. That's how Rome was built. That's how Hypertrophy Specific Training works too.

Overtraining: Signs and Portents

Overtraining can sabotage any kind of training, including Hypertrophy Specific Training. You cannot overtrain and build muscle too, because overtraining tears down muscle.

How do we know when enough is enough? As they used to say, "That's the 64-thousand-dollar question!" There is no single answer that applies to everybody. Among the following signs of excess stress, you might have some or all or none:

  • Frequent difficulty sleeping on exercise days. Regular insomnia may be a sign of too much stress.
  • Decreased performance and loss of coordination
  • Prolonged recovery, musculoskeletal injuries
  • muscle soreness/tenderness lasting more than one or two days
  • Elevated morning heart rate or elevated resting blood pressure
  • Headaches, loss of appetite, gastrointestinal disturbances lasting more than three days.
  • Decreased ability to ward off infection
Adapted from: Too Much Of a Good Thing, American Council on Exercise (Downloadable PDF available.)

Paradoxically, if you don't exercise at all, try exercise to help you sleep.

Sidebar: Alcohol can cause insomnia. If you drink more than two standard alcoholic drinks per day, try reducing to one or two drinks daily or try three "dry days" each week.

The Cure for Overtraining

The cure for overtraining is REST. As soon as you suspect overtraining, take an entire week off. Then start over with about two-thirds the time and 50% of the intensity as before, meaning 50% of the weight or 50% of the speed. Possibly, 50% of the speed means walking instead of running. Gradually, build up the volume (time) and the intensity (load or speed) over several weeks.

You have discovered the hard way roughly how much exercise is too much. You have joined the club! Your job now is to fine-tune your program to stay within your personal limit and to succeed with Hypertrophy Specific Training.

Examples: If you are under 50 and exercising more than 12 hours per week, try cutting back to one hour per day. Reduce the intensity of aerobics exercises. Build up again, slowly over several weeks or months. If you are over 50, and exercising more than 7 hours per week, cut back to 4 hours per week. Reduce the intensity or aerobics exercises. Build up again, slowly over several weeks or months.

Strategic Deconditioning: What Did Milo do when the Bull Became Fully Grown?

At some point the bull reached its maximum size, while Milo still wanted to progress. So how could Milo continue progressing?

For ages, coaches have developed rules to answer this question. One rule says, "You must confuse the muscles." What this means is, "Vary the exercise frequently. The body will continue trying to adapt but cannot, because you keep changing the exercise stimulus." The problem with this rule is that it is too vague and it only works if you follow the coach's program. What's more, such a statement is meaningless to someone engaged in Hypertrophy Specific Training.

What I am going to reveal to you now is how to apply this rule to any kind of exercise. After you read the rest of this page you can design your own program for Hypertrophy Specific Training.

Strategic Deconditioning and Hypertrophy Specific Training

Bryan Haycock trained as an exercise physiologist. He developed Hypertrophy Specific Training as a system for building muscle that can be used by an older person, i.e. over 40, to regain muscle lost through inactivity. In fact, the older the person, the better the system will work, but that's another story.

Here we want to discover what Bryan found out about designing an exercise program.

To start, let's imagine Milo of Croton as a teenage boy who started lifting a calf when it was quite small. What would really have happened? Let's apply the theories of Hypertrophy Specific Training.

During the first 8 weeks, the calf would grow fast. How could Milo have kept up? During the first 8 weeks, beginners at most sports develop coordination based mainly on neurological adaptation. So Milo probably had little difficulty in doubling his strength without enlarging his muscles.

During weeks 9 to 20, the calf added a lot of weight. As Milo's body adapted to the heavier load, he added muscle and continued to improve the ability of his nervous system to activate muscle fibers. However by week 20, Milo's body approached its limit of capacity based on the size of his muscles and their ability to contract. This limit comes to beginning trainees around week 20, when their bodies have no further Current Adaptive Reserves (CAR).

After week 20, the calf continued to gain weight, but Milo's strength gains had already leveled off. Milo was longer able to lift the calf. The same thing happens to everyone engaged in Hypertrophy Specific Training. That's why we now call Milo's story a "fable".

If Bryan Haycock could talk to Milo across the 2,500 years that separates us from the ancient Greeks, what advice would he give about Hypertrophy Specific Training?

I image Bryan saying:
"Milo, take a week's break. Make it 9 days including the weekend. Then find a second calf weighing 20% less than the last weight you lifted, and start again. After another 8 weeks lifting, take another break, find a third calf weighing 20% less than the last weight you lifted, and start again. Do this for ever and ever."
Milo would have found that at the end of each 8-week cycle, the weight he could lift was slightly greater than in the previous cycle. As he began each cycle, the weight of the calf was more than the weight he started with in the previous cycle. Slowly, month after month, Milo would have found that the calves he could lift were becoming bigger and bigger and so were his muscles too.

Maybe that's how Milo did it. Perhaps Milo did know how to apply Hypertrophy Specific Training. If so, the knowledge was lost as the story was passed down to us. But now we know the key to Hypertrophy Specific Training is strategic deconditioning:
  • The way to avoid overtraining is to avoid increasing the volume and intensity of exercise to absurd levels.

  • Taking a 9-day break after 8 weeks of exercise deconditions the body.

  • By re-sensitizing the body to lower levels of stress, deconditioning allows us to benefit from lower loads.

  • Reduced exercise time and lower loads/speeds help avoid overtraining.

Strategic Deconditioning and the Skeletal Muscles

Bryan Haycock shows how to apply Strategic Deconditioning (SD) to strength training. He proposes the following schedule for Hypertrophy Specific Training:
    One 8-Week Macro-Cycle
  • Mini-cycle 1: Light weights, two weeks at 15 repetitions per set.
  • Mini-cycle 2: Medium weights (+20%), two weeks at 10 repetitions per set.
  • Mini-cycle 3: Heavy weights (+20%), four weeks at 5 repetitions per set (with optional variations for the last 2 weeks).
  • Strategic Deconditioning during a 9-day break.

    How to Estimate Weights:

  • When you start each macro-cycle reduce the time, intensity, or speed compared with the previous macro-cycle.
  • The target weight for each mini-cycle is the weight on the last day for the mini-cycle.
  • First determine the target weights for the first mini-cycle. This is the weight that you can lift 15 times, but not 16 times. Say 20 pounds (10 kg). All other weights can be calculated.
  • The weight on the first day for each mini-cycle should be about 15% less than the target weight on the last day. Say 17.5 pounds (8.5 kg).
  • Each day the weight should increase by about 2% for a 2-week mini-cycle and by 1% for a 4-week mini-cycle.
  • The amount should increase enough to reach the target weight on the last day. For two weeks, Monday, Wednesday and Friday of each week, say 17.5, 18.0, 18.5, 19.0, 19.5, 20 pounds.
  • When shifting from light weights to medium weights, add 20% to the target weight (last day 24 pounds). Subtract 15% to get the weight for the first day, about 5%. Say, 24 pounds minus 15%=21 pounds.
  • Do the same when shifting from medium to heavy weights. Say, last day 29 pounds; first day 25 pounds.
  • Start the first day of the next macro-cycle with 65% of the weight of the previous macro-cycle. Say, 65% of 29 pounds = 19 pounds. This gives about 10% increase in weight for each macro-cycle.
  • The weights will become too heavy, because nobody can increase strength by 10% every two months. When the weights become too heavy, reduce by 5% and continue. If still too heavy, reduce by 5% more and continue.
  • This is science, but not "rocket science". We adjust as we go to fit what our bodies tell us.
  • Personally, I find four weeks with heavy weights too stressful. To reduce the stress, I use mini-cycles of 2 weeks for light weights, 3 weeks for medium weights and 3 weeks for heavy weights. You should experiment to find what suits you best.

Hypertrophy Specific Training Applied to Abs Training

The abdominal muscles respond to weights and to high repetitions. Weights strengthen the abs, while high repetitions give the abs muscles the endurance needed to stay tucked in all day without conscious effort.

There are several good abs exercises, such as: crunches, reverse situps and leg raises. A schedule for crunches is shown here.
    Crunches: Lie on your back with your feet raised, legs bent and relaxed. Raise your head and shoulders no more than 30 degrees.

  • Macro-Cycle 1

    Mini-cycle 1: Weeks 1 and 2 (6 sessions)
    • Begin with one set of 10 repetitions and no weights
    • Increase by two repetitions every session to 20 reps.
    Mini-cycle 2: Weeks 3 to 5 (9 sessions)
    • Begin with one set of 10 repetitions and a 5-pound (2.5 kg) weight
    • Increase by two repetitions every session to 26 reps.
    Mini-cycle 3: Weeks 6 to 8 (9 sessions)
    • Begin with one set of 14 repetitions and a 10-pound (5 kg) weight
    • Increase by two repetition every session to 30 reps.
      Nine days Strategic Deconditioning

  • Macro-Cycle 2

    Mini-cycle 1: Weeks 1 and 2 (6 sessions)
    • Begin with one set of 15 repetitions and a 5-pound (2.5 kg) weight
    • Increase by 6 repetitions every session to 30 reps.
    Mini-cycle 2: Weeks 3 to 5 (9 sessions)
    • Begin with one set of 15 repetitions and a 10-pound (5 kg) weight
    • Increase by 6 repetitions every session to 30 reps.
    Mini-cycle 3: Weeks 6 to 8 (9 sessions)
    • Begin with one set of 15 repetitions and a 15-pound (7.5 kg) weight
    • Increase by 6 repetitions every session to 30 reps.
      Nine days Strategic Deconditioning

    • Additional macro-cycles follow the same pattern, with weights and repetitions increased, depending on the capacity of the trainee.
    • Mini-cycles 2 and 3 have three weeks each, instead of two weeks and four weeks. Four weeks with the heaviest weight may be too stressful.
    • For abs training both weights and repetitions are increased, but the pattern is different from that used for skeletal muscle.

Hypertrophy Specific Training By the Numbers

Let the numbers be your guide but not your master. Here's how to use them:
  • Do take a written program to the gym so you will know exactly how much weight to use for each station or how many minutes you will exercise and at what speed.

  • If you feel the weights are too light, be patient. Don't be too quick to increase the weights or speed. Let the numbers do it. This is the safe way and the way to avoid overtraining.

  • If you feel that the weights are too heavy or the speed is too great, reduce the level immediately. This is the safe way and the way to avoid overtraining.

  • Trust your judgement based on how you feel about what you are doing.
Further reading: Hypertrophy Specific Training

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