For those of us dreaming of adding a little more muscle, or just sticking with what we have, there was tantalizing news at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in San Diego earlier this month.
One of the society’s “papers of the year,” selected for its impact and research significance, touts a new, unique, and effective strength training regimen called the 3/7 method. It’s the latest in a long line of so-called muscle-building breakthroughs—and the good news is that it actually works. But the more interesting question is why it works, and what it tells us is the real key to building muscle.
The paper arose out of a meeting between a Swiss track coach and a Belgian neurophysiologist. Jean-Pierre Egger has won the Olympic shot put twice and has coached several world champions, including four-time Olympic shot put medalist Valerie Adams. He told Jacques Duchateau, a researcher at the Free University of Brussels, that he has been using a new method that allows his athletes to maximize strength with less training time and effort.
Duchteau decided to test the new protocol in his lab.The 3/7 method, originally developed by French strength coach Emmanuel Legeard, involves lifting approximately 70 pounds Percentage of maximum single reps (or, equivalently, about 12 reps of weight you can lift before reaching failure). You lift it in five sets of 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 reps, with only 15 seconds of rest between sets.
This protocol is of interest to Duchteau because it appears to combine the best of two different approaches to building muscle. Relatively heavy weights put mechanical stress on your muscle fibers, while extremely short rest periods can starve your muscles of oxygen and put metabolic stress. Duchteau believes that each of these factors independently triggers muscle growth.
The award-winning paper by Duchteau and his colleagues in the Review of Exercise and Exercise Science summarizes a series of experiments comparing the 3/7 method with various other bench press protocols. For strength and muscle growth (but not explosive power), it outperformed 4 sets of 6 reps with a 2.5-minute rest between sets, and produced similar results to 8 sets of 6 reps, all with the same weight.
As Egger and Duchteau point out, the key advantage is efficiency. A single exercise using the 3/7 method takes about 5 minutes, while 8 sets of 6 reps take more than 20 minutes.
But is the 3/7 method better than the others, or is it just different? If efficiency is what you’re after, a Dutch company called fit20 offers a weekly program that involves just one set of 4 to 6 super slow motion reps per workout. A multi-year analysis of nearly 15,000 people using the system, published by Solent University researcher James Steele, found a typical strength gain of about 30 percent after a year.
As for the so-called magic of combining mechanical and metabolic stress, McMaster University researcher Stuart Phillips — who happens to be the recipient of the ACSM’s Citation Award for significant contributions to exercise science at this month’s annual meeting — still holds Doubt. After all, he points out, track athletes put a lot of metabolic stress on interval training, but they don’t develop massive leg muscles.
A series of studies conducted by Phillips and others over the past decade have shown that many different exercise routines lead to similar gains in muscle and strength. Key commonality: You approach (though not necessarily reach) a temporary failure at the end of each practice. Lightweight, heavyweight, short rest, long rest — you can adjust the variables to your heart’s content, as long as the end of the set feels hard.
The 3/7 method definitely fits the bill, Duchateau says: If you pick the right weight, you’ll fail the last two sets. So if you’ve hit a plateau or are looking for variety in your workouts, try something new. Or stick with the old way if you prefer. Either way, Phillips says, the real magic ingredient remains the same: effort and consistency.
Alex Hutchinson is the author of Patience: The Marvelous Elastic Limits of Mind, Body, and Human Performance.follow him on twitter @sweatscience.
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