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I've been doing a workout inspired by Body By Science for the last 5 weeks. I can't do the whole book justice in a quick post, but in a nutshell it recommends doing a single set of 3-5 exercises slowly, with high intensity, and to failure once per week. The purpose of the exercise is to exhaust all four types of muscle fibers simultaneously and drain their glucogen reservoirs. Supposedly this sets off different cascading effects within the body for strength gain, general endurance (including "cardio") and fat loss. The workouts are spaced a week apart because supposedly it takes that time to fully recover and more frequent workouts are counterproductive. The explanations in the book are referenced and if there's any dubious science, I missed it.

I've found that it seems to have maintained my strength, weight, body fat %, etc. with only the short weekly workout, but I am stagnant. I'm not getting any stronger (as measured by time-under-load) or any lighter (as measured by drop in scale weight or body fat %). I have not changed any other aspect of my lifestyle; sleep, diet, supplements, stress level have all been constant.

I would like some help diagnosing what the problem is:

  • Flaw in the book's premise or research?
  • Flaw in my workout (will describe below)?
  • Flaw in my progress measurements? (Perhaps my "intensity" is increasing so I tire myself out faster, making time-under-load a poor indicator of progress)

My workout details:

  • Once per week, one set per exercise (5 total)
  • 5 freeweight exercises, in order: Bench Press, Squat, Upright Barbell Row, Standing Barbell Shoulder Press, Deadlift
  • I use a weight for each that allows approximately 1 minute of time-under-load before I fail, doing sets at approx. a 5 sec. cadence
  • I track progress by measuring time-under-load (start to failure) with a stopwatch; I do not count reps
  • Enough rest between exercises to move the bar/weights and set up the next exercise. I'll wait a bit long if I'm breathing hard (my heart rate stays elevated throughout, I'm just resting to get my breath back)

I think I'm following the spirit of the book's recommendations, but for full disclosure here are the areas I can think of in which I deviate (the book didn't seem to indicate that these would be significant problems):

  • I'm using free weights instead of the recommended Nautilus machines (primarily because I use my home gym and that's what I have). I use a power rack, so I can safely bench & squat to true failure.
  • I use a 5 sec. cadence instead of the 10 sec. recommended by the book, mostly because I can't go any slower than 5 without feeling like I'm stopping.

Update: I've selected an answer, which I think addresses my issue well, but I'd like to add a couple additional items of note that I've tried (neither seemed to affect my performance) in case anyone else follows in my footsteps:

  • According to the follow-on BBS Q&A book (and one or two of the answers below), 7 days may not be enough recovery time especially for bigger guys. I've tried increasing that to 10-11 days.
  • Started up a regimen of creatine and L-glutamine to help improve recovery.
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I am impressed that there is a 15-minutes-per-week exercise plan that can help me maintain. Even if the workout is flawed from the standpoint of improving strength or composition, being able to maintain with such a small time investment is still a major win! –  Greg May 1 '11 at 23:41
    
Is this the only workout you do? Given that you're supposed to rest the muscles for the rest of the week? Because it does feel like that's a very long time to rest :\ –  Ivo Flipse May 4 '11 at 5:15
    
Yes, it does feel like a long rest, but it's claimed that having that much rest is a critical part of the strategy. He quotes a study in which 2 workouts per week were shown to be no more effective and less effective in some cases. –  Greg May 4 '11 at 15:18
    
But why do most top-athletes workout nearly every day then? :-) Too bad I can't verify the sources myself to see what's behind all this –  Ivo Flipse May 4 '11 at 18:49
    
Depends what sport & what their workouts are targeting I suppose. I can reference top-tier powerlifters who workout rather infrequently... In my case I'm overcommitted at work and short on time recently, so it seemed like a good opportunity to give this a try. –  Greg May 4 '11 at 21:28

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

After lifting a bit longer and more recent information I learned while reading Dr. Kilgore and Rippetoe's Practical Programming book, there are a couple potential culprits for stalls. I do recommend getting the book by the way as the first half of it is dedicated to understanding the theory of adaptation, what happens when we exercise, and the type of exercises that facilitate the changes we want. Pertinent highlights below:

  • You may not be doing enough work to cause "overload". Overload is the disruption of homeostasis, which is a trigger to force the body to adapt to the new stresses. This and the next two bullets are the bread and butter of strength training.
  • You may still be fatigued. After doing heavy work, your muscles are in a fatigued state. This is normal, and proper amount of rest between sets and exercises can restore enough function to get through the next set.
  • You may not have the restorative capacity to adapt between workouts. Restorative capacity is governed by a few things such as hormone levels, rest, diet, etc. I'll talk more about this a bit further down. Additionally, if you are beyond intermediate gains, and are getting closer to your genetic maximum (advanced level lifting) it can take you up to a month to fully adapt.
  • You may have overtrained yourself. Overtraining evidences itself as a loss of performance, and also has many indicators that can be confused with clinical depression. Essentially in this state, you need to diminish your work for up to twice as long as it took to get into the state. Once your body has regained homeostasis, you can attempt the overload cycle again.

So, what's needed to adapt and hyper-compensate for your planned overload?

  • Proper hormonal balance: The body usually takes care of this for you, as overload sets these in motion. Essentially, the testosterone has to be present in greater quantity than cortisol. This also explains why when women work out, they do not adapt in the same way that men do (normally lower testosterone levels).
  • Sleep: About the time you first enter REM sleep, your testosterone levels will peak until you wake up. An hour to hour and a half, your human growth hormone will be in peak production after you enter deep sleep. This is why 8 hours of consecutive sleep will provide better hyper-compensation than breaking your sleep up throughout the day.
  • Nutrition: you need hydration (anything that includes water will hydrate you assuming that you don't have excesses of diuretics), protein, energy, and vitamins and minerals. Energy can be in the form of fat or carbs--the body doesn't care. Water is a key ingredient in many restorative functions, including protein synthesis, of the body. A weightlifter requires more hydration than the average person. A weightlifter also needs more protein than the average person because that new protein (and water) will be used in building muscle. The vitamins and minerals are also required in sufficient amounts to support full metabolism.

Finally, understand that the lifting community has five classes of lifter that are defined not by how much they can lift, but by how long it takes for their bodies to adapt:

  • Untrained: an untrained lifter will cause adaptation and recovery within 24 hours. An untrained person could safely lift every day.
  • Novice: someone who has been training for 0-3 months, and has gotten to the level where recovery takes 48-72 hours. This trainee requires a full day of rest between sessions.
  • Intermediate: an intermediate lifter requires a week to fully adapt. Adaptation also requires more careful manipulation of the training parameters to disrupt homeostasis and cause adaptation. An intermediate lifter will start using a concept called periodization to provide the different stresses needed to produce a new personal record at the end of the week.
  • Advanced: an advanced lifter requires a month to fully adapt. This lifter is even closer to their genetic maximum, and the line between overload and over-training is becoming razor thin. The periodization used by an advanced lifter will be more complicated than that used by the intermediate lifter.
  • Elite: an elite lifter requires a year or more to fully adapt. This lifter has a highly individualized and specialized program where every factor has to be considered when they are trying for a new personal record. This represents the top 1-2% of athletes in any field.

Without the information of your body weight and how much you can lift, I can only offer general advice. Compare your lifts to this chart. If you are above the Intermediate level lifts, it may be that the "Body by Science" approach no longer applies to you. You will need more variation in your training to cause adaptation.

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thanks for a second answer full of good info. According to the chart I'm somewhere in between intermediate and advanced. In fact the chart is very helpful because the advanced level is a nice goal to set for myself (and I see that I'm not as unbalanced as I suspected I might be). –  Greg Aug 4 '11 at 16:25
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I suspect that you are now outside the parameters that the "Body by Science" book assumes. It is likely written for untrained or novice lifters, and has limited application for you. If you want to gain strength I recommend going for a proper "intermediate" program and milk that until you need an advanced program. –  Berin Loritsch Aug 4 '11 at 16:29
    
As far as practical considerations, I've been resting longer between BBS workouts and I know I could use more sleep than I get, however... I find that I still have to interject my old powerlifting routines to gain strength. What I really want to understand from this question is where the "flaw" is in the BBS research - if I've gotten too "advance" for it, fine, but I'd like to understand what the physiological reason for it is. Not enough recovery was a good candidate, although I've improved that. Maybe some genetic limit? (Powerlifting training is more about the nervous system...) –  Greg Aug 4 '11 at 16:29
    
My money is on the work you need to do to interrupt homeostasis. The BBS workout is not providing the stimulus you need. I'm trying to summarize about four chapters of the Practical Programming book to give you an idea where the problem can be. No program will work forever, and the BBS program is limited by the sample population they used (if any) when they researched the program. If they pulled from college students, that means only untrained and novice lifters were available. As Practical Programming states in the introduction, there just aren't studies on how to build optimal athletes. –  Berin Loritsch Aug 4 '11 at 16:34
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Picked up Practical Programming from the library; great recommendation. I can't put it down! I think you're spot on here. The theory behind BBS does jive with PP in terms of some of the physiology and debunking some silly fitness traditions, but PP does a better job at addressing the differences in non-novices. –  Greg Aug 6 '11 at 3:44

I'm relatively new to weightlifting, so take this with a grain of salt. There's more than one view on the concept of training to failure, Glenn Pendlay (USMAW Olympic coach for several years) is one of the people who doesn't believe in them. That said, based on what I've read so far, you may have to do something unintuitive in order to increase your strength. That's Lift Less.

Particularly when changing a workout plan, you have to adjust to what is demanded from that plan. In particular, when I migrate off the StrongLifts program to one of the Pendlay programs or Madcow, etc. there will be a deloading process. In short, you lift less weight while your body adjusts to its new demands.

You admitted that you are not doing two things on the Body by Science program:

  • You are not using nautilus machines. To that, I think the barbell lifts you are doing are great--and probably hit a lot more muscle groups than the machines do. Those are the same lifts I'm doing on the StrongLifts program.
  • You have a 5 sec cadence instead of a 10 second cadence. I think this may be where your problem is.

My suggestion is this:

  • Deload to the point where you can comfortably do the 10 second cadence
  • Progressively load by 5 lbs per session on each lift, and keep going until you stall
  • When you stall (can't get a full set in), repeat the same week
  • When you stall twice in a row deload, and lower the amount you go up each time

That's advice based on what I've read from the StrongLifts material, but it seems sound.

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Thanks, this is good advice. I'm going to continue testing the increased rest days, and then I'll try your advice. I'll report back, but since the cycles were every 7 days and are now more like 10-11 with the increased rest, it may take awhile! ;-) –  Greg May 25 '11 at 19:11
    
Glad I could help. At this point its just echoing what I read, I haven't needed to deload yet. –  Berin Loritsch May 25 '11 at 19:13

When relying on one single workout per week to build muscle, your diet and nutrition intake before, after, and the rest of the week becomes a lot more important if you want a steady progress. I suggest looking into that.

Diet and exercise compliment each other and are extremely dependent on each other in order to get results both in loosing and gaining weight.

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Thanks @mozy, I agree that diet is very important. I'm inclined to think that it may not be the missing piece here because my diet is generally pretty good, is in-line with that recommended in Body by Science, and I haven't changed it from when I was doing a more traditional strength program (and getting good results). –  Greg May 25 '11 at 19:12

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