With the changes in circumstance now taking gym attendance away from us, we’re left with greater challenges in terms of how to increase hypertrophy and maintain muscle mass that we’ve developed over time.
However, whilst the situation may not be ideal, this is a barrier that we CAN overcome.
The most important challenge we face is the role of the Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio in at home and predominately bodyweight exercise.
The stimulus is something that excites (in the physiological manner) an organism to move. This appears upon a spectrum.
If I ask you to pass the remote control, its a low stimulus event, the movement was pretty much isolated to a small number of muscles and was over very quickly resulting in very little fatigue. We would therefore say this was a low stimulus with low resulting fatigue. If I asked you to do this every few seconds or so for the next 24hrs, it’s still a low stimulus. However it now comes with a high degree of fatigue due to the accumulation of repetitions over time. After 10-12hrs its going to feel a lot different a movement that it did the first time.
If we take the polar example, a 200kg Back Squat. The stimulus is incredibly high, outside of powerlifting environments this is an unimaginably heavy weight to lift. Say we did a single rep, it’s slow, painful and requires a good portion of effort. The stimulus is very, very high, every muscle fibre has to contribute to make sure the weight goes up, yet it’s over quickly, remember just the one rep. Stimulus is high, fatigue is low-to- moderate. If we now have someone take 5-8 reps at this load (assuming the individual can…) we now have to factor in the introduced component of fatigue over time. A high stimulus with a high fatigue index.
When it comes to at-home and bodyweight based training, we encounter a unique issue.
In most circumstances within the gym, our goal is to maximise stimulus within the context of minimising fatigue. I want to lift the most weight I can, effective to my goals, with the least amount of fatigue preventing me from repeating the stimulus again.
Bodyweight training is inherently low stimulus in all but the most challenging exercises (think high level gymnastics as an example of this…).
Fortunately the idea of a “rep-range for hypertrophy” has been long dismissed.
It is now widely accepted within literature and in hypertrophy circles that muscle growth can be achieved on a range of between 5-30 repetition max. Less than a 5RM and we don’t accumulate enough time to generate sufficient tension, too far above 30RM and we don’t have enough mechanical tension on the muscle to accumulate fatigue.
Take a moment to think that through. The weight I lift maximally for 5 reps, and the load I lift maximally for up to 30 reps, is equally stimulative for muscle growth.
How is this possible?
The stimulation of muscle growth requires a few key conditions. The most important and accepted of these is the need to overload the individual muscle fibres with mechanical tension. If I want something to grow, I need to apply direct tension to that muscle.
So when it comes to at-home training, without access to external resistance to apply the mechanical tension we need to stimulate at the lower rep ranges (5-10RM for example), we need to move more towards the benefit that fatigue accumulation has during high-rep sets (15-30+) in creating mechanical tension.
Under normal conditions, if we benched pressed our 5RM load, we automatically have a very high degree of mechanical tension on the muscle fibres to stimulate growth downstream due to the weight on the bar.
However if I did a maximal set to failure of Push Ups, achieving say, 25 reps, the last 5 or so repetitions of that maximal set will see the same degree of mechanical tension on the muscle fibres as fatigue sets in and more and more muscle fibres are recruited to perform the repetitions. In this Press Up example we’re using the first 10-15 repetitions to build fatigue to ensure that the last few reps achieve the requirement for stimulus.
You may question why no simply do sets with 30 reps and beyond. Well the research strongly indicates that there is a threshold of load that needs to be hit to actually create enough tension for fatigue to become a contributing factor. This seems to be around the 30% (30RM) mark for most individuals. If we use something like a 500ml filled water bottle for a Bicep Curl, there are vary few individuals who will maximally (not volitionally) fail between this range.
So we have a zone to work between, anywhere from 5RM (approx. 85%) all the way to 30RM (30%).
If we generated a list of all bodyweight exercises achievable in a home environment, some will fall between this zone, some will fall outside. Some individuals may be able to hit 30 repetitions of Push Ups without getting close to a failure point, others may completely max out at 3.
But within this target zone we have a raft of movements that we can use or manipulate with training methods or the addition of external load, to create a strong stimulus for hypertrophy.
For those with training equipment at home, the process becomes a lot simpler. The application of external resistance increases the technical tension on an exercise. We don’t therefore necessarily need very high repetition sets to achieve the desired outcome.
However as we have shown, for those purely working from bodyweight, it is 100% possible to maintain and even continue growth of muscle mass.
For a very quick example, let’s look at the Squat as a movement. Without the use of Barbells and Dumbbells, how do we generate enough mechanical tension to illicit the stimulus we need??
Well, how about after warming up, the first set we do is a maximal set of bodyweight Squats with our heels elevated (putting more emphasis directly on the Quads), and achieve something like 60 reps before we reach very close to failure. On the surface this looks a pointless exercise for hypertrophy, and may provide very little to no direct stimulus, but what if we used this set as a primer for the next effective reps and sets?
By keeping the recovery time short after this opening set of 60 (3-5 breaths eg 10s or so), and we then went straight back into the same exercise, we’re maintaining close to all the fatigue from the initial primer set, we may now only be able to hit 15-20 reps before failing. Take another 10 sec break, go again and it may now only be 8-12 reps, the next may only be 3-5 reps. At this point we’re no longer achieving the outcome in terms of repetitions and we end the exercise. The bodyweight Squat has now become a training tool for Quadricep growth and we’ve used no resistance other than our own bodyweight.
If you’re interested, give this a go and let me know how you’re Quads are feeling during and the next day…!!!