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May 13, 2016
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Get Shredded!
Our first expert is Nick Mitchell, leading personal trainer and conditioning coach in the United Kingdom, owner of the personal training company Ultimate Performance.

Our second is Bret Contreras, a National Strength and Conditioning Association certified strength and conditioning specialist and certified functional movement screen expert. He has over 15 years of experience working as a certified personal trainer.
 Bret Contreras

Up next is Kelly Baggett, a performance consultant who designs programs and provides guidance for those who participate in various sports worldwide. His clients include athletes in football, basketball, boxing, volleyball, powerlifting, and bodybuilding, as well as plenty of people who just desire to look better.

Andreia Brazier, Brazilian born but London based female fitness model, is our final roundtable expert. She runs Total Body Conditioning with her husband Tom and her specialities include body conditioning, muscle toning, body fat reduction and body pump training.
andreia brazier

Now that the introductions are over let's get down to business…

Question 1 - Tell us a little about how your philosophy on training has developed.​

Nick Mitchell - For years, including the time I competed as a bodybuilder in the mid-late 1990s, I was entirely of the low volume, “high-intensity” school of training. Never quite as far as Mike Mentzer took it at the latter end of his writing career, but squarely in the Dorian Yates camp. Dorian was very much “the thinking man’s” bodybuilder, and I naturally gravitated towards his more reasoned approach and inspiring work ethic. It was 3-5 balls to the wall sets per bodypart, with the only real variation being switching up exercises, slightly tweaking repetitions, and cycling the actual effort and intensity techniques such as drop sets, forced reps, negative failure, isometric failure, rest pause et al.

Bret Contreras - My philosophy is always evolving through a combination of training myself, training others, reading research, and following what top trainers/coaches are doing.

Kelly Baggett - Learning about training was always my main hobby and pasttime even as a teenager. It was just a matter of acquiring as much information as possible over a period of many, many years, with a mind that is open to everything and attached to nothing. Then whittling thru all that information, making a lot of mistakes with it, and putting it together into a system that made sense to me, while continuing to look at all the new science and information coming out. It's a continually evolving process.

I think in order to really figure out what they're doing a coach or trainee has to go through a process of learning and understanding best described by Bruce Lee with this quote: "As one advances one does not accumulate but eliminate.The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity. Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just a punch, a kick just a kick. If somebody attacks you, your response is not Technique No.1, Stance No. 2, Section 4, Paragraph 5, etc. Instead you simply move in like sound and echo, without any deliberation. It is as though when I call you, you answer me, or when I throw you something, you catch it. It's as simple as that - no fuss, no mess. In other words, when someone grabs you, punch him."

The process of learning about training is very similar. Things are complicated until you have enough experience to truly understand them, and at that point things become simple again.

Andreia Brazier - I have been training since I was 15yrs old. Back then all I used to do was a fixed machine based leg workout that an instructor in the gym in Porto Alegre, Brasil, gave me. I did that program almost every day and used to do 45-60mins cardio a day and also one or two classes per day. I used to spend most of my free time in the gym!

Seeing results motivated me to learn more so I was always trying to find out more information from the trainers there as to how I could progress my training. It was fairly basic stuff but I got good results and my body changed a lot over that 5-6year period. When I got to London in 2004 my training change to a more bodybuilding split program and I would actively try to really increase my muscle mass and strength. This was probably the period where my knowledge of training and supplementation really increased. I was teaching classes in the gym, hanging out with a lot of fitness professionals and I also did my Premiere Personal training course to become a qualified Trainer in 2006.

I have always stuck to the basics in terms of training and I still follow routines that I was doing 8 years ago, but my training has got a lot more varied over time and with the recent competitions I have had to change things up a bit to ensure I was in the kind of shape the judges were looking for.

The problem was that I was fooled by the faulty rationale that had especially been pushed by Arthur Jones of Nautilus fame (still the best manufacturer of bodybuilding training machines even 40 years later – we have a 39 year old Nautilus pullover at my Mayfair gym and it is an incredible piece of kit that can’t be touched by any of its modern counterparts), and I bought into his own brand of logic of High Intensity Training, which can be neatly summed up with just one analogy: It takes just one spark to light a stick of dynamite, so anything extra is just wasted effort. I look back on that even as I write these words, and I really do think “What the f***?!” – but at the time, it made perfect sense (and still does, to the sadly misinformed). Of course, this is quackery and pseudoscience at its most ridiculous – allusions to dynamite, or the other oft-quoted “hammering a nail into wood” parable, have as much relevance to the physiological stimulation of hypertrophy as Sarah Palin does to statesmanship and the best representations of the United States abroad!

The man I credit for opening my eyes to what resistance training is all about is my friend Charles Poliquin. It was via Poliquin’s principles and teachings that I finally grasped what really makes a muscle grow, aside from brutally hard work and consistency, which are the two things I think I did have right and are the non-negotiables to all but the genetically elite. Experimenting with Charles’ protocols was the real eye-opener, as it opened up a whole new world of points of stimulation instead of simply training to failure and indiscriminately crushing my body. Ultimately this has provided me with so many different training tools to help my clients and my team, and because of Poliquin I realize that the variations we can provide are pretty much endless, as we seek to manipulate and periodise everything from exercise variations, load, sets, reps, tempo, rest interval, and intra-set pauses to training frequency, range of motion, CNS activation, and exercise order.

My training philosophy is now that pretty much everything can work depending upon the circumstances. I really can’t stand the charlatans who try to sell you that they have the “magic” program! And seeing as most of your readers are interested in hypertrophy, if you want to pin me down to my current training philosophy it is to move from a state of planned overreaching (high volume work, often twice a day training of the same bodypart if time and recovery permits) into a briefer period of low volume, Dorian style “high intensity” training. Typically this will be a mesocycle of 15 days with a 10 day microcyle of training a body part once every 5 days, followed by a 5 day microcyle of significantly lower volume work.

Question 2 - Science or art. What is most important in designing an effective training program?​

Nick Mitchell - I’d say the answer slightly depends upon the program’s goals, as I think a pure strength training program requires more thought and the application of science than something that is more bodybuilding oriented where the goal is usually as straightforward as “cause damage to the muscle cell”.

What I know for a fact is that you can successfully coach a bodybuilder and rely more on feel and “Art” than you can do S&C work with an athlete. In that field the application of science is an imperative.

Where the Art comes into its own however is when you step away from your laptop and coach hands on in the gym. There, it is at least 90% art and there is absolutely no substitute for real life training experience. The very best “in-the-gym” trainers I’ve ever had the privilege to witness are not necessarily men who know diddly squat about science, but boy can they help a trainee to get the very best out of a workout. Most of the guys who are really obsessed with their books and overplay the science don’t have physiques, and I feel this is very telling. Coaching someone to milk every rep, of every set takes a certain talent and only comes with time and doing it on yourself. This is one of the reasons why so many bodybuilders are so scornful of your typical personal trainer. For the large part I don’t blame them – it’s a profession with ludicrously low barriers to entry for a job that is extremely hard to do properly.

That said, the ideal is to combine both Science and Art together in one. Just today I received an email about a bodybuilder PT who had a newbie trainee using chains in a workout. That’s not appropriate anyway, but what’s really wrong is that the chains were on a Hammer Press and never actually touched the floor once!

Bret Contreras - I like to say it's both; but most of "the art" could be examined and published, thereby rendering the art "a science." For example, a study could show that when designing programs, taking into consideration a client's training preferences in terms of favorite exercises and training split (usually considered an art) led to better results. Now it becomes science. So to me, it's all science (a blend of hard sciences like anatomy, physiology, and physics, along with soft sciences like psychology and sociology).

Kelly Baggett - When designing a program I'd say science is more important, but when implementing a program in the real world there's definitely an artistic element that can only be learned by actual doing. You see this in personal training. The best personal trainers are not typically the most knowledgeable, but they are creative. I'm probably more of a science oriented guy but I appreciate the creative aspects as well.

Andreia Brazier - I would have to say 50:50. I have never been one to stick to a rigid training program, I know people who do and its works well for them. I always have a goal and know what I need to improve so depending what my end goal is, I adapt my training to focus on achieving it. I have always been motivated to train so depending on how I'm feeling on that day, that will be the key determinant in what I train.

Question 3 - How do your general prescriptions for training differ depending on the experience of the trainee? Does specificity become more important for advanced trainees?​

Nick Mitchell - The more advanced the trainee then the more specific the program. And of course, the better you know the trainee, regardless of training age, the more specific we can be.

The beauty of this game is that every single person is different and as they progress on their journey we get to tweak and modulate what they do. It really is a case of constant and ongoing refinement. I am always learning more, always experimenting on myself, and I love that!

Bret Contreras - Of course it does. Beginners need to spend more time mastering movement patterns and learning how to activate muscles properly. Advanced trainees need to hone in on targeted goals and train accordingly.

Kelly Baggett - The main thing is periodization shifts from true concurrent to conjugate sequencing. A less advanced trainee can build and develop all qualities at the same time.

For an athlete this means he could train and develop rate of force development, reactivity, strength, and size all at once.

A lower level bodybuilder might be able to gain strength, build size, AND drop body-fat, all at the same time. This is concurrent periodization.

However, as the athlete or bodybuilder progresses he needs more specialty in any given quality, so instead of trying to build everything at the same time the focus in any given phase would shift towards emphasizing one or 2 while maintaining the others.

Question 4 - Do you use any methods to determine individual exercise tolerance and recovery rate when designing programs?​

Nick Mitchell - I use as many assessment tools as I can possibly get my hands on to enable me to have the fullest picture possible of the person with whom I am working.

When it comes to tolerance and recovery, one very simple tool I use is a hand dynamometer. This tests grip strength, and one dead giveaway of overtraining is when the grip starts to weaken, so it is extra help for us in gauging when to back off. This is easy to use and inexpensive.

The main tool we use however is bloodwork. I send people to a laboratory that is just ten minutes walk from one of our gyms and we can run very simple or very extensive panels – how deep we go depends upon the client’s goals and budget. For example, pretty much as standard we try to get everyone of our clients at Ultimate Performance to go in for a standardised blood test I requested – RBC zinc, RBC magnesium, and D3. If these are sub optimal then everything else will be off, and the test is only £110. To use another example, if we have a guy who wants to gain muscle, does everything right to no avail, then we will run a full Androgen profile amongst other things.

Bret Contreras - No, but you just made me think of a good study. Exercises indeed have varying recovery rates, and this also varies according to the lifter. You tend to learn this over time when training folks (this is "the art"), but it would be nice to have some data to look at to see how quickly people recover from max effort exercises.

Kelly Baggett - The main thing I've found that can impact exercise tolerance and recovery rate is everything OUTSIDE the gym. What does the rest of the athlete's schedule look like? What is his sleep schedule like? Is he/she experiencing any significant emotional stressors?

These are all important because the body doesn't really differentiate between stressors. A couple of nights of no sleep will stress the system more than a couple of days of 2 a day high volume workouts. Caloric restriction is also a stress into itself and will magnify the potential stress of any workouts performed in that state.

Some people have a hard time "recovering" from life itself, even without exercise thrown into the mix.

Asking the athlete questions such as those mentioned above can go a long way in evaluating the ability to tolerate a given workload, but if individuals want to go a bit further, a simple heart rate variability monitor can help evaluate recovery workout to workout.

Andreia Brazier - In some cases yes. I don't believe that every set of every exercise in every session should be done to complete failure, but without overload, there is no progression.
I believe that going through a period of dense, high volume training to failure, there needs to be a good recovery period in which your body, especially the connective tissue, can rest and recover with slightly higher intensity but lower volume work.

Question 5 - Most athletes including Olympic and powerlifters don't train to failure. Do you believe that bodybuilding training is different and failure is an important tool for success?​

Nick Mitchell - There are huge differences and you need to always train with your specific goal in mind. Most strength athletes train to get stronger, not bigger, whereas bodybuilders are in many ways the opposite. Strength is a mere by product of their ultimate goal.

What bodybuilders need to remember when looking at a strength athlete’s program is that they probably want to limit any hypertrophy in order to stay within a weight class. This means minimising intracellular damage to the muscle by not training to failure, not getting too much of a pump (if at all), and avoiding excessive eccentric training. On the other hand, bodybuilders need to maximise all of these factors.

What bodybuilders should learn from strength athletes however is how to properly train the CNS – a powerful CNS is one of the reasons why a skinny little athlete can jump higher than a bodybuilder who can lift so much more weight. If you take a guy who has only ever done classic hypertrophy training and then improve his CNS what will happen when he goes back to his bodybuilding work? He will lift more weight for the same reps, cause more muscle damage, and get even bigger. This is one reason why the ideal bodybuilding client is a well trained athlete, as their body is just primed for growth.

Bret Contreras - I disagree. Maxing out is a form of failure training, so many Oly lifters and especially powerlifters engage in this practice. Many coaches talk in black & white, saying you should never go to failure or you should always train to failure. There's plenty of gray area on this topic; going to failure with deadlifts is a whole different story compared to going to failure on a set of rear delt raises. In bodybuilding, you sometimes utilize shorter rest periods with more targeted lifts to pump up the muscles. In this case, going to failure isn't going to compromise recovery and lead to stagnation.

Kelly Baggett - I don't think failure is necessary regardless of the goals, but it also depends on workload. The need to train in an intensive state (hitting failure with lots of arousal) will be inversely proportional to volume.
Someone performing only one set per bodypart will need to exert more effort to fully tax and train all available motor units than someone performing 10 or 20 sets. So I can see a place for it, but it depends on the volume of a workout. I personally don't actively have people seek training to failure, but I don't necessarily discourage it either. If one is training fairly hard it'll iherently occur from time to time as one is seeking a repetition or weight PR in a given exercise.

Andreia Brazier - In some cases yes. I don't believe that every set of every exercise in every session should be done to complete failure, but without overload, there is no progression.
I believe that going through a period of dense, high volume training to failure, there needs to be a good recovery period in which your body, especially the connective tissue, can rest and recover with slightly higher intensity but lower volume work.