Do you have goals of maximizing your muscle and physique but are having trouble connecting the dots in your training? Sitting down with me this week is Coach Ryan L’Ecuyer and Chris Barakat to dive deep in the trenches of all things hypertrophy training.
A handful of topics we hit on are high frequency versus low frequency training, mechanisms of hypertrophy and muscle growth, training to failure, managing volume and intensity, how to design a training day focused on building muscle, and training during a deficit or surplus. Listen in to unpack the ins and outs of hypertrophy training so you can maximize your muscle and performance.
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- [03:33] Intro to Chris Barakat
- [07:45] Not being boxed into the literature
- [10:46] Pros and cons for high frequency training versus low frequency training
- [13:10] How you would spread out a high volume session
- [15:05] What a quad focused sequence would look like
- [22:00] Overloading in the shortened position versus the lengthened position
- [25:10] Energetic demands
- [27:00] The uniqueness behind high volume training
- [33:20] The importance of sequencing your exercises the smart way
- [35:15] Consolidating stressors as opposed to spreading them out over time
- [38:30] How to program high/low days in for bodybuilding
- [48:38] Proximity to failure for muscle gain
- [55:00] Where to find Chris Barakat
All right. There we go. And we are live. We have Ryan in his car post lift. Hopefully he doesn’t have a blood sugar drop and pass out in the middle of this with the Texas heat sweating in his car. Make this nice and entertaining, right? But we are afraid. And thank you for organizing this. We have Christopher tell me how to pronounce your last name. Is it Barakat?
Christopher Barakat: Barakat. Perfect.
James Cerbie: Well, I think today we’re obviously going to be talking a lot about hypertrophy specific training and putting on muscle mass, which I’m Super amped for. And maybe before we dive into that, it would be great if you give us a quick rundown elevator pitch of, like, who you are, what you do. Just in case we have people tuning in, they’re like, no idea who you are. Let’s give them the quick pitch here, and then we’ll dive right in.
Intro to Chris Barakat
Christopher Barakat: Yeah. Super quick pitch is I basically started competing in 2011 as a teenager in natural bodybuilding, and then that changed my educational trajectory. So I thought I was going to be a physical therapist early on in my College career, and then I just fell in love with learning more and more about exercise physiology, as well as nutrition to maximize performance and body composition. So eventually I got my Masters in exercise and nutritional Sciences, and I do a lot of research. Specifically in the bodybuilding realm. There’s a lot of components to exercise science and nutrition science, but I basically study resistance training as a means to maximize muscle hypertrophy strength adaptations and also how nutrition can kind of impact those adaptations that we see. I’ve been competing since 2011, competed last year with the Imbfwf and also the NPC, and that’s like a super brief rundown on what I do.
James Cerbie: I like it, man. Ryan, do you want to kick things off here with whatever first question you have for Chris?
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Yeah, just like a little bit of background with the connection here. Chris is somebody that I met at my last show in 2018, and I really appreciated the way that he handled his clients in the back. We had very quick interactions, and since then heard him on multiple podcasts, read plenty of his papers from afar, watched a little bit of his contest season last year where he looks phenomenal. And if I’m going to work with somebody, this is going to be the guy because this would be the first time I’ve ever worked with somebody through a contest season. And being the control freaks that I am, that’s a really big deal for me. So, it’s been really cool for me to have a coach for the first time and to see how he programs and how we go through nutrition, how we go through prep. It’s been really enlightening and useful for me. So, I want to get him on and just talk primarily about meso cycle structure. And the thing that I like about Chris is that he engages with the research, he contributes to the research, but he’s also not afraid to let his meathead roots come out as well and experiment a little bit and say, hey, I don’t know that this is really necessarily backed by the literature right now, but here’s something that I’ve noticed with my experience and with working with clients and based off of some of the mechanisms, this might be what’s going on.
But I really appreciate his humility and his willingness to kind of reach outside the box a little bit and not get too boxed into his educational background. So, where I want to go with it today kind of to start was this idea of high frequency versus lower frequency. And just to define this, we’re going to be talking again in meathead terms. So, when we talk about frequency and volume, we’re talking about per muscle group. And of course, you’re not going to isolate every single muscle with everything. We’re doing compound exercises. We’re going to be getting synergist muscles working at the same time. So, we’re not going to go like that crazy with the minutiae there. Just generally we’re talking how many times a week are you training a certain muscle group directly or how many sets are you doing? And that’s primarily how we’re going to gauge volume. And frequency will be how many times we hit those muscle groups in a week or even in a micro cycle, which will lead into which may not be one week. So where I want to kick it off is just what is your thought process?
Maybe pros and cons versus a high frequency program more than twice a week we’ll call it and a low frequency program less than twice a week for just general broad terms.
James Cerbie: And again, a quick clarifier there before you go, Chris, with people listening when Ryan says high frequency more than two times per week and then low frequency less than two times a week, again, we’re talking not like number of training days per week. We’re talking about how frequently you’re hitting a muscle group per week. Just want to make sure that it clarifies for people and we don’t lose them in that conversation. Please proceed.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Yes.
Not Being Boxed into Literature
Christopher Barakat: Cool. Yeah. I really appreciate that, Ryan. And I am going to answer the question. But if you don’t mind, I do want to touch on a couple of points you made in regards to not being boxed into the literature. So, when I was a bit younger, six years ago, eight years ago, ten years ago, I actually valued the research a lot more. When I didn’t understand it, I couldn’t critique it. I really took it at face value. And I kind of viewed it in a very black and white manner. So, if so and so expert that is in the field that isn’t an evidence-based practitioner, shared a research study or shared their personal training philosophies that was backed by research. I really took that to be super important, especially if it was regardless if it was on par with what was being practiced by some people in the space or if it was totally different than what has been anecdotally done and what bodybuilders have seen results within the past. As I got more and more involved in research and I was able to critique it, I started to understand that first and foremost, most of the research isn’t done in highly trained individuals.
So even when they use that terminology, resistance trained or even highly trained, you really need to look at, like, these individual strength levels. How many years have they been lifting? And a lot of times it’s still far away from the clients I was actually working with. These people aren’t pro bodybuilders. They’re usually College students that have, like, an athletic background that are participating in these research studies. So, I think it’s just really important to not get totally bogged down in the research. I think it gives us a good direction, especially for beginners, especially for intermediates. But once you get to really advanced people, taking into consideration their preferences as well as what you’ve just visually have seen work for bodybuilders over the last 50 years, you shouldn’t throw those two components of evidence-based practice out the window just because what’s being reported in the literature might be different than those two other variables.
Pros and Cons for High Frequency Training Versus Low Frequency Training
So, with that said, I can definitely start and kind of get to this first question, if that’s cool with you. So in regards to high frequency versus low frequency, I feel like it’s basically impossible to talk about frequency without talking about total volume and without talking about intensity.
So I like looking at frequency, intensity, and volume as three dials. If you manipulate one, you most likely have to manipulate another one of those two. And of those three tiers or those three variables, you could only really turn two of them up without turning one of them down. So just a quick example. If you’re doing high frequency and high intensity, you probably need to be doing low volume within those sessions because you’re just not going to be able to recover. If you’re doing super low frequency, let’s just say you’re doing low frequency and low volume, you probably need to do high intensity. Right. So those three are interrelated. And if you manipulate one, you need to consider what you’re doing with the other one. In regards to the pros and cons of high frequency and low frequency, it really comes down to the individual’s experience level as well as their preferences. So I think you can kind of get away with either or depending on where you’re currently at and what your preferences are. So I can give some examples if.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: You’d like, yeah, totally. And I think just to kind of clarify, I guess we should at least talk about it in a volume equated way. Right. Because if we just say you’re doing six sets per session for laps, and then you’re doing four of those sessions versus two, then it’s like it’s a completely different ball game at this point. So, I’m glad you brought that up. So, let’s frame this as in, okay, let’s say it’s 15 sets per week. You’ve got either three or two or one or something. Right. Just to kind of frame that for sure.
Christopher Barakat: So, let’s just call it 15 sets per week for a muscle group. The benefits then of high frequency versus low frequency is like, if you’re kind of splitting up that volume by doing two sessions per week, you’re probably going to be able to give the exercise you’re performing for that muscle group higher levels of intensity and kind of keep performance up for those movements rather than starting off the session really strong and then seeing a drop off on each subsequent exercise. Whereas if you do a lower frequency approach and again, volumes equated. Yeah, you can hammer the muscle hard, but kind of as each exercise passes, fatigue is going to accumulate both systemically and locally. So that’s where, like, exercise selection and sequencing become way more important because you can structure your workout in a very smart way to minimize how much of a negative response you get by piling in so much work in one session. So that’s when you have to be a little bit smarter with your sequencing and selection approach.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: So, what would that look like if we take that high volume example in a given section in one session? How would you spread that out in order to not see huge performance decrements and make sure that the quality of work is still fairly high?
How You Would Set Up a High Volume Session
Christopher Barakat: Cool. So generally speaking, I like to start the training session if you’re doing a bunch of exercises for one muscle group. So, it’s a high-volume session, with low training frequency throughout the week. I’m going to start the session a lot of times with exercises that overload a muscle. And its shortened position because it’s very demanding to get a muscle fully shortened, fully contracted. So, I’m probably going to start the session with something like that. At the same time, exercises that do train a muscle in its fully shortened position, it doesn’t create a lot of muscle damage. Right. So, the strength drop that you’re going to see on your subsequent exercises isn’t going to be that much compared to if you started with exercise that starts in a lengthened position first. So long story short, I kind of start with movements that overload the shortened position to start off the session. Then I get into, like, those meat and potato compound movements that can look like a squat, that can look like your bench press, whatever it may be. So, kind of meat and potato compound lifts. And then I finish off a training session with exercises that overload the muscle and their length and position create the most amount of damage because there’s nothing really following up after that and the session is going to be over.
So, your subsequent exercise performance doesn’t matter. So that’s a general way that I would kind of sequence an entire training session if I’m doing a lot of volume for one muscle group in one session.
James Cerbie: I love it. That makes so much sense. Just like the structure in terms of going like, shortened compound lengthened and how you sequence that over a training day. Could you potentially just give just one example of, say, you wanted to do this for quads, right?
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Sure.
James Cerbie: What would that sequence look like in the training day of going kind of like something shortened into a squat and then something lengthened for that muscle group?
Overloading in the Shortened Position Versus the Lengthened Position
Christopher Barakat: Cool. So, let’s say we’re doing a quad focus leg day. It can look like starting off the session with leg extensions. Again, like this, the repetition range for each exercise is kind of going to depend on what’s the smartest rep range for that exercise, like what’s best equipped for that exercise. So, something like a leg extension to start. Ideally, I would do something like a reverse band hack squat for my second movement again, because even though you can overload that length and position at the bottom of the squat, that reverse band is actually going to make the concentric harder and harder as the quads are shortening through knee extension. Then maybe I would get into something that is really difficult in a lengthened position, like a step up or a Bulgarian split squat. Right. And that would be like the three main quad movements for the day where you kind of have shortened mid-range meat and potato compounds and then something that. Yeah, you have less stability, but you’re also providing a lot of stimulus and tension in that stretch position. I can give a quick example, too, for like, pecs if you want.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Yeah, sure.
James Cerbie: He doesn’t want pecs.
Christopher Barakat: Yeah. Something for like, let’s say you’re doing a chest focus day. It can be starting off with something like a pec deck fly rather than something like a dumbbell fly. Right. Because you’re going to get a fully shortened Peck here, maximum tension in that shortened position, whereas the dumbbell is going to have maximum tension in that lengthened position. So, something like a pec deck flyes, then your meat and potato presses. So maybe incline dumbbell bench, maybe also a decline dumbbell bench after that to get a different portion of the Peck. And then maybe you finish off with cable flyes or dumbbell flyes. So that’s just kind of just general sequencing in order for hypertrophy, not for necessarily maximizing strengths on specific lifts, especially if you want to be like a hybrid athlete where your kind of power building. It’s not going to be the best way to bring up your squat bench and dead.. But I do think it’s going to be the best way to approach overall muscular development in all different regions of each muscle group.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Yeah, it’s cool what I like about that approach, because initially when I would hear about those types of approaches, I would think that those subsequent exercises are going to take a really big hit. But I think when you organize it that way, it’s actually less of a drop off than if you were to do it the other way around. And I think probably part of that has to do with a central kind of systemic factor as well, because it’s like everyone knows you start your workout with the squad, right? Of course, that’s what you do, because that’s the general organization. If you’re coming from a strength conditioning background, there’s going to be some type of prep work and then power work, and then there’s going to be your big compound lift, and then you might do accessories afterwards. And there may be some merit to that. Like you said, if you’re coming at it more from a strength background and a sports performance background, that probably makes the most sense. But if you’re looking at things from a hypertrophy perspective and a longevity perspective, especially in that sport, I think it does make a lot of sense.
And like I said, you tend to not see as much drop off, really that you do tend to keep the quality fairly high there, which was interesting to me. Like anytime that I structured anything like that, I’ve always been surprised that I’m like, I’m actually really not taking a huge hit here. The quality seems pretty high, and I think it’s nice from just a psychological perspective, too. It’s like as you’re doing those leg extensions, you’re kind of getting yourself ready to squat, things are starting to kick in. You’re starting to get warm. That’s probably healthy from a soft tissue standpoint as well. And now you’re just geared up and ready to go. So that’s been a cool change for me. I think there’s a lot of stuff. I mean, both you and James know that I don’t spend a whole lot of time on the Internet, but you do hear a lot of stuff about the short lengthened kind of conversation. And I think sometimes it is a bit of minutiae, but it actually can be really useful when you just have a general understanding of it for this type of stuff at a high enough level.
At a certain level, if you’re just getting into it, it’s probably not something you need to spend your entire weekend trying to figure out. But I think it’s also easy enough at the same time. And those examples were really useful, I think. I hope that people that get to start thinking about that stuff a little bit and make it fairly easy.
Christopher Barakat: Yeah, if you don’t mind. I also want to share, like something I experienced with a lot of my training partners that’s on the same topic. We used to do certain leg days together, and we always started off for a leg day, at least one of the sessions with lying hamstring curls. We then moved into squats and then we got into RDLs, and my buddy wanted to bring up his hinging movement, so he started programming RDLs first which obviously is overloading the hamstrings in a lengthened position. And his RDLs went up just a little bit, very slightly. But his lying Ham curl took like a massive hit in performance. And his hack squat took a huge squad started with something that’s like really systemically fatiguing. Whereas when you do that lying hamstring curl first, that’s the shortened exercise, so to speak, do another meat and potato compound and then get into RDLs. His RDL performance was excellent. So just again, in the gym, in the trenches, these things matter. And if you’re trying to make progress, like micro-cycling, meso, to meso, just being smarter with these small details can go quite a long way. And it’s just going to improve not only performance from session to session, but can also potentially have it almost seem like you have less to recover from just because things were programmed smarter.
So, yes, definitely things to take into consideration. Another thing I’ve seen in the sport or in the community, I think people that are really focused on hypertrophy, I see a lot of people start a poll day for back focus development with deadlifts. And I feel like that’s just a really easy way to make sure that your pulldowns and your rows are going to take a huge hit. And I feel like those pulldowns or rows are more important for your back development than the deadlift. So, yeah, just things to consider there. You don’t have to program in the same exact way you see your favorite person on social media doing. It. Like you can think outside the box and challenge what they’re doing and experiment with a different approach and see how it kind of favors you or not. Yeah, cool.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: I got one more quick question about the shortened versus lengthened conversation because I think sometimes it sounds like this voodoo thing that, hey, you either know or you don’t know what’s an easy way that you would teach someone to understand if it’s overloaded in a shortened position or it’s overloaded in the length of the position, let’s take the hamstrings or just in general, really not even a certain muscle group just so people can kind of think about this stuff themselves. And how would you look at an exercise and figure that out?
Christopher Barakat: Sure. So, if you have some understanding of just anatomy and kinesiology, that’s going to be your best way. So, I mean, something like a hamstring, you’re asking, okay, what’s the function of the hamstring? It’s knee flexion and hip extension. So a fully shortened hamstring is going to be a fully flexed knee and a fully extended hip. So, you have to have some sort of understanding in regards to anatomy and kinesiology. You can also ask yourself, okay, how do I stretch my muscles? So how do you stretch your hamstring? You’re flexing at the hip and you’re trying to touch your toes. That really mimics an RDL. Right. So that’s basically your fully lengthened hamstring. How do you stretch a Peck? You’re kind of doing it like a doorway. You’re doing a doorway stretch to stretch your PEC. So, a dumbbell fly is overloading this lengthened position. You have to have some sort of understanding of anatomy and physiology. But you can just kind of ask yourself, like, how do I stretch a muscle? Okay, that’s going to be its fully lengthened position. And then maybe if you know, your agonist and your antagonist muscle, that also can help you understand what the shortened position and lengthened position is. But yes, there needs to be a little bit of baseline understanding there.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: James, do you have any other questions in that conversation there?
James Cerbie: No, I really like that conversation. I thought that was really good.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Yeah, that’s very useful.
James Cerbie: Like, really well said and organized. Yeah. I think anybody listening should be able to follow along with that pretty simply and then actually take and apply that for themselves. If you want to go through a phase of training where you really do want to focus more on hypertrophy and putting on muscle mass, I think just being able to have a better concept of the organization of a training day is huge.
Christopher Barakat: Right.
James Cerbie: Because if you can’t organize a day well, then we don’t need to talk about micro, meso cycles and all this other stuff. We got to start at point number.
Christopher Barakat: One, which is like, very true.
James Cerbie: We seem to have a well-organized training day because it’s like if you can just have a well-organized training day and you can do those four times a week and you can just keep adding volume and load, you don’t need to be a rocket science, like make pretty decent progress for yourself. Because in my mind, that’s the sort of thing that’s pretty easy to teach people. It’s just like, hey, here’s how to do a training day. Run this. When it stops working, then you probably want to come talk to me because I can’t teach you how to really do legitimate micro-meso macro cycle stuff that takes way more nuance and experience, but just like having a good training day and then just like running that thing and getting every single bit out of it that you can. It’s like, hey, you keep putting weight on the bar. Numbers are still going up. Sweet. Keep going, right.
Christopher Barakat: For sure.
James Cerbie: And so no, I thought that was very good.
Christopher Barakat: Yeah.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: So, I’d like to go into it just for fun because this is stuff, we know we’re not going to know the answer to this, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. This is like the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night and gets me super excited. It doesn’t really get my girlfriend super excited, but it keeps me engaged and really pumped about learning and everything. And I love the mechanisms, even though we don’t really understand it just yet. It’s a fun conversation to have so when I look at something like one time a week volume bomb, regardless of how you structure it, hopefully we structured an intelligent way where the volume is still really high quality throughout the session. When I hear that, I’m almost thinking like energetic demands, there’s definitely going to be significant tension on the muscles. But the thing that to me that’s very different about that type of day compared to a higher frequency day. And again, we’re comparing the same amount of volume weekly set volume throughout the week. The thing that’s different to me about that type of day is that it’s like this repeated effort, which is going to require more energy.
It’s going to require more turnover of ATP. We’re probably going to run through more glycogen, and that’s going to have maybe some type of different effect and some type of different adaptation. To some degree, it’s just a different demand. So, when I think of these volume bombs these big days where you’re just doing a bunch of volume for one body part or a couple of body parts in a given day, I think that there’s probably some level of stress to the energetics of the cell, more so than we would get if we were doing, say five sets compared to $0.15 or something. So, do you think there is anything unique about that stimulus? And I know we’ve talked a little bit about this sometimes, especially at a certain level, it’s really useful just to get that volume bomb. And I will say anecdotally doing that anytime that I’ve done that for arms and because I’ve mostly done higher frequency stuff. But when I’ve done some of these lower frequency, higher volume per given session splits, it seems like my arms in particular respond really well to that. So just as kind of an anecdote, it’s just interesting.
So do you think there is anything unique about those high-volume sessions? And just like for fun, what do you think is going on there?
The Uniqueness Behind High Volume Training
Christopher Barakat: Okay, I’m going to try to give a super thorough answer, and it’s going to be long winded sweet. All right. I’m going to talk a little bit about just volume in general at first and then dive into like the volume bomb for the higher-level athletes. So, when you look at the research, when you look at meta-analytic data, the number of ten to week per muscle group is what gets thrown out. And I think that’s a really good sweet point. I mean, to me, it’s a pretty wide range, but there’s so much into individual variants. There are a few things about the volume, intensity and frequency thing that my philosophies are much different than a lot of other people in the evidence-based space. So, I’ll kind of just quickly touch on that and then talk about this volume bond. I think when you’re a beginner, you can start at the very, very low end of your volume requirements, four sets per week, six sets per week. If you’re a true beginner, you can technically grow with one or two sets per week. Right. Because it’s a stimulus. So it depends where you’re at. But when you’re a true beginner, I think you should milk and get away with the least amount of volume that you need to do to get good progress.
Right. Week to week, month to month, whatever it is.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Absolutely.
The Importance of Sequencing Your Exercises the Smart Way
Christopher Barakat: I think over time for you to develop the skill of lifting and to become more proficient at certain exercises, develop that motor control. You need to increase your volume because you’re probably training more movement patterns now and you just want to practice that movement pattern more to become proficient in the movement pattern. So that’s kind of like your intermediate space. The thing where I disagree with a lot of people in the evidence-based space, I think just because you’re more advanced and you have more training experience does not mean you’d need more weekly volume. I think what ends up happening is your strength levels become so much higher and your skills are already so much higher, you can start to get away with less weekly volume because the strength is there and you’re proficient at the movement. So the quality is automatically better than it previously was. With that said, when you start off, you can just kind of stick to the simple movements, the compound movements. You don’t need to think about hitting each muscle group from every angle and hitting every region of the muscle. You’re going to get pretty good growth throughout the entirety of the muscle.
And then as you get more advanced, especially as you become a high level bodybuilder, I think that’s when you really want to try to maximize regional hypertrophy and you’re trying to think about this more on a cellular level where people have this misunderstanding, a muscle doesn’t grow from origin to insertion point. It’s not like these muscle fibers are running the entire length of skeletal muscle, right. So, at the cellular level, we’re getting really small growth of 1 mile fiber over and over and over, and eventually then the entirety of the skeletal muscle growth. But we understand that certain regions of muscle grow better depending on the exercise you’re doing because of the stress placed upon it during that exercise. So, with all that said, if certain regions are growing more with certain movements, when you think of this muscle protein synthetic response, MPs isn’t going to be the same at every single region of the muscle as well. And people don’t realize that because the way that things are reported in the literature, the way that we can actually measure these things, it’s kind of misunderstood, right. Like we measure muscle growth through ultrasound, looking at muscle thickness.
Sometimes we look at the cross sectional area with an MRI. When we look at muscle protein synthesis like these cellular mechanisms, we’re taking a muscle biopsy of a super small region like one very specific region. So, we don’t know what else is going on in another region because this portion of my pack isn’t going to necessarily have the same MPs’ response as this portion of my pack, so on and so forth. So, with all that said, I think as you become more advanced, these like, volume bomb sessions almost become a necessity because you’re trying to maximize muscle protein synthesis now in every single region. So, you need to perform exercises that train each function of the muscle. Right. So, like, if you’re training hamstrings, you can’t just do a hip hinge, you can’t just do your RDL or your 45-degree hip extension. You need to do your hamstring curls as well. You need to train knee flexion if you want to maximize your pecs. You can’t just do horizontal adduction exercises like a Pec deck fly and a flat bench. If you really want to grow this clavicular head to the maximum, you need something that has this flexion and adduction kind of movement in there.
So I think as you become more advanced, that’s why you require a certain level of variation. You require a higher level of variation. And that’s why those volume bombs are effective. Like if you just did one exercise for that muscle group in a session, you’re only going to maximize growth in one particular area of the muscle. And as a bodybuilder, that’s not your goal. Your goal is to maximize growth in the entirety of the muscle. So that’s kind of like my long-winded response, if that makes sense, at least to kick it off.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Totally. Yeah. So, I guess the follow up question would be why wouldn’t you just spread out? Why wouldn’t you have a clavicular PEC day and external PEC day and abdominal PEC fiber day? What would be the reason for doing them all in one day?
Christopher Barakat: Yeah, I think you can kind of try to get away with it and see how it goes. But I feel like let’s just say you did an incline dumbbell press one day, right? Your front belt is going to get hit a bit. Your clavicular head is going to get smashed. Your external head is still going to be activated a bit, and your triceps are going to get some sort of stimulus. And then if the very next day you say, okay, I did incline, let’s say I’m going to do flat again. The delts already had some sort of stimulus yesterday. Triceps had some sort of stimulus yesterday. I feel like you keep turning on the growth signal without allowing for true full recovery. So, I think as long as you’re sequencing exercises in a smart way, you’re better off kind of blasting it in one session with doing a lot more exercises, giving it 72 plus hours to fully recover, and then getting after it again, so to speak. I think that can be potentially better. And then I also kind of when you look at soft tissue, if you’re doing like a Press every single day, are your shoulders and elbows going to kind of keep up?
If you’re squatting one session, then you’re pressing, then you’re doing knee extensions and you’re splitting up your quad work, are your knees going to just feel good by doing a maximum loaded lift more frequently? So soft tissue stuff can also be a reason why it might not be the best. But I think there are different individual responses that maybe for someone and their preferences and their enjoyment, maybe for someone, it is better for them to spread it out throughout the week, whereas for someone else, like, for me as a bodybuilder, if I just do one exercise, I might get like a decent pump. But if I do four exercises for that muscle group, I’ll have a great pump and kind of have just a greater overall enjoyment of the session. And I’m like, all right, my back work is done for the day, my chest work is done, whatever it may be, there’s a lot of ways to approach it. But that’s one reason why I’m a fan of high-volume sessions for more advanced athletes to a certain extent. Right?
Consolidating Stressors as Opposed to Spreading Them Out Over Time
James Cerbie: Yeah, I think that’s totally just chimed in super quick here. I think that makes a lot of sense because we talk a lot about from a macro perspective, like a bird’s eye view, this concept of trying to consolidate your stressors. Right. Like, you go all the way back to Charlie Francis and he starts writing about this concept. We need to consolidate stressors. And that is one of those heuristics and I think the strength training space that is just so remarkably applicable at so many different levels and you can carry it and apply it in so many situations. This is another one of those situations where it’s like consolidating those stressors as opposed to spreading them out over time. Right. It’s the same if you go back to Charlie Francis’ example, obviously, he was dealing with sprinters. Right. And his whole thing was, okay, well, if I’m going to train a world class sprinter, why would I want to do anything with him between, say, like 70% to 90% output. Right. He’s like, I’m working hard enough to not recover, but I’m not working hard enough to get faster. Right. So he pretty much comes in and says, cool, well, we’re either doing sprint work over 90% or we’re doing tempos beneath like 70%.
And it’s just like I think from a conceptual standpoint, you can just take that and it bleeds into so many things that we do here in training. It’s just like one of those things. If I can get anything across to people, if you can just grasp this one concept, I think it will be so enormously beneficial for literally any training endeavor that you go on.
Christopher Barakat: Yeah, no, that’s a great point. I kind of want to make a similar point in regards to beginners and their volume. It’s an example I’ve used before or an analogy I used before. I think bodybuilding has been misapplied to the general public because of what pro bodybuilders do and what has been shared in the old school bodybuilding magazines. Right. If you pick up an old Flex magazine and you get a pro bodybuilders workout, they’re doing a chest day and a back day. And let’s say they’re doing twelve to 16 sets for that one muscle group like Jimmy Smith and Jane Doe down the street that don’t really lift ever, but want to get into lifting, they might pick up that workout and then go do twelve sets of chests one day, and then they’re absolutely obliterated and they’re sore for six days. And it’s like, why did you do that? And it’s like, well, that was the only information I had available to me. That’s what the pro bodybuilder does. And then my thought on that is like, well, okay, if you want to improve your fitness level, cardio vascularly, like a marathon runner, you’re not going to get off the couch and go run a marathon.
Like, you’re going to jog 1 mile, if you’re lucky, and then eventually do a mile and a half and then eventually do 2 miles. So, it just blows my mind that people in the resistance training world, like a true beginner, should be able to get a great session in literally 25, 30 minutes just because the pro bodybuilders training session is taking them 90 minutes. That is not what you should be doing. But most people, like, pick up a program off of social media or they see something in a magazine or somewhere online, and they’re literally doing something that is just so inappropriate for their level of skill and experience that if you just use the running example that you use with the sprinters are just that basic level of knowledge of like, if you want to start running, you’re not going to attempt to run 10 miles. You’re just going to start with one and see what happens. Yeah. That can just be applied across the board for sure.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Totally.
Christopher Barakat: Yeah.
How to Program High/Low Days for Bodybuilding
Ryan L’Ecuyer: It’s cool. What I like about it is also from a systemic standpoint, it’s good to have I mean, another Charlie Francis thing is, like these high, low days. Right. And I always try to think about how we program that in for bodybuilding? Does that mean I have a day where I’m doing just ten Ri on everything or like a zero RP or something? What am I supposed to do here to have these low days? Well, it’s more coming from a systemic and central standpoint. The low day just ends up being an upper body day pretty much. For the most part, you’re going to train even if you train as hard as you absolutely can, you take everything to failure on an upper body day, like a chest and back type of day. It’s a difficult session, but it’s not going to destroy you like a lower body day will. So, it’s kind of baked in if you’re doing that. Whereas if you’re doing a higher frequency program every day kind of ends up being somewhat of a moderate high day, which maybe there’s some merit to that. I think probably more on the strength side, but it’s just an interesting concept.
I think that going back to what you’re saying before of just having those from a bodybuilding perspective, like having these synergist muscles that people don’t really think about it. I’m really glad that you brought that point up, because I think when people start to get into this regional hypertrophy stuff and they start looking at these very specific exercises, they kind of forget about the other stuff. They forget about those other joints involved. Usually there’s other muscles involved. You can’t really avoid that with most of these things. And we start that protein synthetic response with muscle protein breakdown. That’s kind of the signal for this response. So, if we’re just constantly driving muscle protein breakdown, we might not have enough time for that synthetic response to take it back up and have that refractory period where things come back down. So I think that that’s a pretty cool just way of thinking about it and way of organizing. And I mean, shit, it’s fun. Like, we all started with Flex Magazine. We all started by doing the body part splits, and it’s kind of cool to get back to your roots sometimes. And that to me, has been really fun having some of these days where it’s like a lot of my days are kind of a blend of stuff, but there’s like a push day.
I haven’t done that since I was in high school. It’s really fun, actually. I think it’s helping me to recover in between sessions. And that was a note that you gave me when we were looking at my previous contest season in 2018, where it just looked like I was just kind of getting smaller and smaller over time. And you’re like, hey, that could be a result of doing this higher frequency training where it’s like, especially when you’re in a caloric deficit, you’re probably not going to recover. So just really quick if you want to maybe touch on that. I have a feeling it’s not going to really change the answer too much. But is it any different in terms of the micro cycle structure? When you’re in a caloric deficit, how do things change? That’s a caveat. Like you’re actually lean, you’re not like 30% body fat. And in a caloric deficit, we’re talking as you get into those, sub 15 for a male, maybe sub 20 for a female, something like that, for sure.
Christopher Barakat: So, for me, my micro cycle structure and just general split wouldn’t necessarily change much whether I’m in a surplus or a deficit. The thing that does change the most is when I’m in a deficit, I end up just taking more recovery days kind of as needed, because I feel like I am not prepared to train today. So, I always tell people I would rather train less frequently and have more eight out of ten, nine out of ten training sessions, then train more frequently and have a bunch of four out of ten, five out of ten training sessions. I used to be that kid in college too, that I’m tired of shit. Had a twelve-hour work day. I’m like, I got to go train, got to be hardcore and you pick up that 45-pound plate and it feels like it’s 90 pounds and you’re like, who change is going to be a shitty session. But I’m fucking here, so it’s cool. Hashtag Rising yeah. So, I used to do that. And then this past prep is where I really realized where I was. I’m not ready to go to the gym today and I really want to match my performance or beat my performance from the last micro and I just don’t think I’m going to do that today because I feel pretty shitty.
So I just take the day off, go on the next day, and I would smash and I was very happy with that and I think that really helped with keeping my size while I was cutting. And then when I’m in a surplus, the only thing that really changes, the split can stay the same. And the thing that changes, like I can tolerate a bit more volume and I can definitely tolerate more advanced intensity techniques. So, I can throw in a drop set or a little bit of intersect stretching, or I can handle those intensity techniques a lot more when I’m in the surplus compared to when I’m in the deficit. And more importantly, when at this stage you’ve been lifting for ten years. When I am in the deficit, I’m not really focused on, like, building muscle, I’m more so focused on maintaining. So, I’m not going to do something that kind of digs a deeper ditch, even if it creates a larger signal, because I don’t have the resources to actually recover from that signal anyway. So, you have to be smarter while you’re dieting. Again, I keep in some intensity techniques in the beginning of prep when food is still high and body fat is still at a decent level, but towards the tail end, I really don’t utilize a lot of intensity techniques at all.
My session volume can go down and then I just start resting a bit more. So, if I feel like shit, I just take the day off. So, yeah, I don’t know if that answers the question.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Absolutely. And as a follow up, at what point in their last season was that in terms of body? Because I know you did a pretty good job keeping. You did a great job keeping data throughout the whole thing. Do you have a body fat percentage and a week out that you started to drop off some of those intensity techniques and start to add in some of those covered days?
Christopher Barakat: Yeah. So, I pushed really hard going into show number one because I was behind. So, when I was like six weeks out, I felt like I was looking like I was 910 weeks out. So, I went really hard into show one and show one was not my best look by any means. And then after show one, I was able to increase my food. I loved what I did. So, on my training days, I increased my food to theoretical maintenance and then on my non trading days, I just stayed in a super aggressive deficit. So, my weekly caloric balance was still a caloric deficit. So, my Dexter data showed that I regained all of the muscle that I lost when I pushed really hard for six weeks to get to show one. And I kept losing fat. So, I had a sick recomp where I regained like three and a half pounds of lean mass and I lost like 6 pounds of fat mass or something. So, I got way better as the season went on, even though I brought up my total calories, my performance in the gym actually started improving on some lifts rather than just maintaining.
And I just felt good. I felt really healthy. That’s another thing that’s interesting. A lot of people think that body fat levels are like the primary thing that dictate testosterone levels and hormonal health. A lot of it actually has to do with acute energy intake. So, if I crash diet right now while I’m in my off season and at like 11%, 12% body fat, if I draw labs today and I draw labs in ten days after being in a really low-calorie deficit, my test levels are going to drop just from being in an acute hypochlorite state. But if I increase my food intake, my test levels will kind of come back. The reason I went there was because I actually felt worse going into show one. And then as I got leaner but my food came up, I felt better and better. And unfortunately, I don’t have labs there. But based on anecdote libido and just overall feeling, I think that my hormonal health was actually better for show two and show three than it was for show one. So, yeah, that’s just a little side tangent. I forgot even what you asked, to be honest with you, but I’m sorry.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: I think I asked about microstructure changes in a floor deficit, but, yeah, super relevant to that data.
Christopher Barakat: Yeah. So, when I pushed really hard, it was more like, my caloric deficit was really aggressive. My training approach in the gym stayed the same. I wasn’t really doing a lot of intensity techniques. And then as I actually brought food up, depending on how I felt, I would actually sprinkle in an intensity technique but do like one less set. So sometimes it was just like more of a time efficient thing. For example, if I’m doing preacher curls rather than doing two working sets at the very tail end of my prep, sometimes I would just do one working set, but make it a drop set, you know what I’m saying? So it’s like to me it was like a similar amount of stimulus, but it was a little bit more time efficient and I was still able to have fun and auto regulate and just fucking enjoy myself in the gym, which.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Is really important, I think, especially towards the end.
Christopher Barakat: Sure.
Proximity to Failure for Muscle Gain
James Cerbie: Yeah. I was going to say we’re like 49, 49 minutes here. And so maybe kind of like one more question, one more topic, and the one that you had over here in the outline that we haven’t hit yet that I thought would be good to wrap up on, it would be the proximity to failure. Because again, I think that’s one of the places where there’s an enormous gap for people is understanding where they need to get to from an effort standpoint in order to convince their body that it should put muscle on. Right. Because it’s like evolutionarily from a physiological standpoint, we don’t really want to carry excess muscle mass. So, you have to send a pretty large, loud signal to force the body to carry this really big, expensive extra tissue around. Right. So, when I think like big rocks, I think that would be another really cool one for us to touch on here with regards to proximity to failure for muscle gain, or even just like maintenance of tissue, for sure.
Christopher Barakat: Yeah. So, I’ll dive into it in regards to proximity to failure. Again, when you look at the three variables, volume, intensity, and frequency, the lower your intensity or the further away from failure you’re training, the more volume you likely need. But it also kind of makes your overall work just less efficient, in my opinion. So, I don’t think it’s better by any
means. But it’s just something that you need to know. If you’re training at lower intensity, you need more volume, and then the same is true. Just vice versa. It’s the opposite. Right. So, the higher intensity you’re training at, the closer to failure or to failure you’re actually training, the less volume you should be doing and the less volume you can actually tolerate. Because if you do high volume and high intensity, you’re just digging a really deep ditch that you can’t recover from, especially as a natural. So, I just want to quickly go back to the whole Flex Magazine thing. Yeah. Those workouts that you’re seeing from the pro bodybuilders doing twelve to 16 sets for one muscle in one session, you also need to consider that they’re on anabolic steroids.
So their recovery capabilities are greater. So, it’s just another issue where just because they’re doing it doesn’t mean it’s wrong for them. Like, they’re actually able to recover from that, but you’re not going to be able to recover from that. With that said, I think it’s important to train pretty darn close to failure, and it is something that you learn over time. And that’s another reason why when I was talking about this volume thing, I think when you start off, start with really low volume, because any sort of signal is going to be anabolic and drive a positive response. As you’re an intermediate and you’re developing these skills and better motor control, you kind of just require more practice. So doing more volume is more practice. And then as you become stronger and stronger now the quality of your work is higher. You actually know what training to failure is like. So that’s another reason why you can actually taper back your volume because you can just go there and fewer sets, get a really good signal with fewer sets, and then ensure you’re not doing enough total like you’re not doing so much total work that you can’t recover from.
So yeah, in regards to training close to failure, I mean, I think all of your work, if you’re trying to maximize muscle hypertrophy, needs to be at a minimum of a rate of perceived exertion of a seven. But I like most of my working sets to be at a nine inch were like, again, if you’re doing something and it’s pretty movement specific. So, if I’m doing something like a hammer strength incline chest press, I’ll train out of ten. I’ll literally perform that exercise until I cannot perform another rep. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. My body is going to recover from that. If I have a barbell on my back and I’m squatting, the risk of injury goes higher and higher as you’re approaching failure. So, I’m probably not going to take that to a ten. The risk reward ratio is just not there. So, it becomes super specific to each movement. And you kind of just need to be smart about when you’re taking things to an eight or nine or ten and when you’re kind of hanging out at a seven. And all I’ll say is, like the exercise with higher risk of injury, you should probably stay on the slightly lower end of the intensity or that RPE scale.
And then if you’re doing machine-based work where it is basically impossible to get injured unless your form breaks down and you start cheating, take that to actual failure. So, I think if you train to true concentric muscle failure where just that target muscle can no longer contract and you’re stable, you’re fine. If you’re training to failure where you’re like using momentum and you’re cheating, you’re just increasing your injury risk. You’re creating more systemic fatigue and actually less local fatigue on the target tissue anyway. So, you’re not training, like a good bodybuilder in the first place. So that gets kind of mixed up in what failure actually is and defining failure and one person’s failure versus another person’s failure. So, I hope that at least provides some insight.
James Cerbie: Yeah. No, I thought that hit the nail in the head.
Christopher Barakat: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve trained with a few clients before, and they were taking everything to their rate of perceived exertion of the ten. But it was very systemic. They were training with a lot of rage and aggression, which can be great, but their form was shit. So, they were failing more so for almost like cardiovascular reasons. But their form was just all over the place. It wasn’t like their target tissue was failing. It was just like they can no longer just move the weight from point A to point B. And they did exert themselves to a maximum level. But that’s not required for hypertrophy training. You need to make sure that that muscle has nothing left in it. But it’s like two very different things. So that’s when you kind of need to know, like, your skill level, your level of advancement, what the client, you need to kind of get video feedback. If you’re an online coach to see what your clients training looks like. If you have no idea if they actually know what failure is and what their form breakdown is, it’s hard to understand what they’re doing if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Ryan L’Ecuyer: Totally. Yeah. That’s such an important distinction because it’s not just about effort. It’s about targeted effort like you talked about before with it’s like we need to stimulate muscle protein synthesis in these specific fibers. It needs to happen there. It’s not happening in your cardiovascular system or your fucking forehead, like, for just going and I’m Super guilty of this because I am the rage monster lifter. So, I know all about that. So, yeah, it’s a really important distinction. Like, you were trying to fatigue the local tissue, not just fatigue ourselves. It’s a big, big deal.
James Cerbie: Nice, guys. That’s fantastic. That’s phenomenal. That’s a really good conversation.
Christopher Barakat: Cool. Thank you, guys, for having me on, man. It was a pleasure connecting, James. Yeah.
James Cerbie: Thanks so much, man.
Christopher Barakat: Thanks for setting it up. Yeah.
James Cerbie: Before you bounce, I was just going to say, if you would like to be found, where can people go to connect with what you’re doing.
Where to Find Chris Barakat
Christopher Barakat: Yeah, absolutely. You guys can check out my website. The schoolofgainz.com gains is spelled with a Z obvious. And you can just also search on Instagram, basically, which is my full name. It’s @christopherbarakat.. I used to be super active there. I’ve been super MIA and super hush.. On the website, you can find, like, the research, the published articles, the blog articles, just plenty of free content on there, as well as some paid content like training programs. A really good nutrition e-book so yeah, just plenty of resources there as well.
James Cerbie: Awesome man. Well, thank you again so much for coming on. Folks, I hope that you guys enjoyed it as much as Ryan and I enjoyed getting to partake in it, but have a fantastic rest of your week and we’ll talk to you guys next Monday.
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