Why heavy squats are shown to slow your muscle gains

Squat

Everyone is so focused on getting stronger these days, but did you know it could hurt your hypertrophy in the long run?

Let me explain what I mean…

This study (1) compared two groups of men who did the same training program.
Both groups did the same exercises, as well as the same upper body intensity of 4-5 reps per exercise, but varied their lower body intensity.

Group 1 did 4-5 reps (high intensity (HI)) for their lower body exercises, whereas group 2 did 10-12 reps (moderate intensity (MP)) for their lower body exercises.

So the only variable was the difference in intensity done for the lower body.

 

And here’s what happened…

The researchers found:

“Greater increases in MP groups compared with HI groups were observed for bench press 1RM (p = 0.007), bench press power at 50% of 1RM (p = 0.011), and for arm muscle area (p = 0.046). Significant difference between the 2 groups at posttest were also observed for fat mass (p = 0.009).”

So the group that did more reps on legs actually made better strength and hypertrophy gains in their upper body. Bigger biceps from squatting less heavyweight.

The MP group also lost more fat. This could have been because of the greater volume done on legs compared to the other group, but I doubt that’s the only reason.

And here’s what they concluded:

“Results indicated that training programs focused on lower-body muscle hypertrophy and maximal strength for upper body can stimulate greater strength and power gains in the upper body compared with HI resistance training programs for both the upper and lower body.”

 

Explanation

So how is this possible?

Well, training legs take a lot of energy, because first off, quads are a big muscle group. Secondly, squats are a very taxing exercise on the whole body, because you use almost every muscle in the body to do it. Squatting less weight will tax the nervous system to a lesser degree, leaving more envigorated neurons for upper body exercises. And thirdly, lower body training requires more recovery time than the upper body. The lower body actually likes lower frequency for optimal strength gains, whereas the upper body prefers a higher frequency for strength gains.

Although the researchers stated that doing higher reps, 10-12, is more focused on hypertrophy, this isn’t fully the case, because other studies found that there is no difference in strength gains when doing 4-5 reps vs 10-12 reps (2). You get strong in the rep range that you exercise in. If you exercise in all rep ranges, you will get strong in all rep ranges, such as with undulating periodization (UP).

 

Conclusion

For maximal upper body strength and hypertrophy gains, train your legs less intense. Not less frequently, just less intense. Although the study does not confirm this, I think the same would hold true for deadlifts.

 


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