Brad Schoenfeld, PhD is a professor of exercise science at CUNY’s Lehman College and former sports nutritionist for the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, but he doesn’t come across as the stuffy academic type. Instead, Schoenfeld sounds more like a very smart trainer at your local gym, which he once was—until the allure of researching all those “gym questions” that trainees would ask led him to a career in exercise science.
As a professor, the longtime natural bodybuilder has been able to go deep in the weeds, writing the leading textbook on the Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy along with his The M.A.X. Muscle Plan workout manual (now in its second edition).
Since Schoenfeld’s list of research publications cover so many of the questions that recur in fitness circles, Men’s Health wanted to see if he could give us as many definitive answers as would fit in a single interview. Here’s how we fared.
So you’re going to put all the big debates to rest, all the pressing fitness questions, right?
No, absolutely not. Some of these questions don’t even have definitive answers, and others could take hours upon hours to answer thoroughly… I’ll do what I can. In my other life, I was a personal trainer for many years. I’m now answering the questions I wanted to have answers to when I was training people.
Let’s start there: What were you wrong about as a trainer?
Many things, for sure. For starters, I always thought you needed to lift heavy to maximize muscle mass. I was always a go hard or go home guy, a “go to failure on every set” guy. Research now shows that going to failure each time can have negative effects in some instances. Of course, there are still some benefits to training to failure. So you see, it’s complicated. Researching this stuff has shown me that a lot of the answers can’t be boiled down to a sentence or two. A lot of it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish as a trainee.
So here’s the ultimate trainer question: How can I get rippling abdominal muscles?
I do have a simple answer to this. It’s the “push-away” exercise—pushing away the food. Abs are built in the kitchen. Ab exercises at high volumes won’t do much, there’s no secret ab routine, and you certainly don’t need to take hourlong “power ab” classes. You’ll expose your abs by lowering your bodyfat. Abs are hard to hypertrophy [enlarge the size of the muscle tissue] by their very nature. Also, each person’s muscles will look slightly different when they’re hypertrophied and “cut” to where they’re visible.
So you’re telling me you can’t use secret training techniques to create a “peak” on your biceps or get your calves to “pop.”
No, you’re going to have a certain God-given shape and your muscles will hypertrophy the way they hypertrophy.
Speaking of body types, are there some bodies better suited for specific exercises than others?
Yes, certain exercises don’t hit certain body types as well as others. There are no exercises that have to be done. Some powerlifting coaches might say you have to do the squat, bench, and deadlift, but this is only strictly true if you are training for the sport of powerlifting. You can hypertrophy on many different exercises. People who have long legs and short torsos don’t squat as well, for example.
How would a trainee figure this out?
Part of training is learning how to do movements properly and then finding exercises that fit your body. Yes, there are certain “functional” exercises, like the squat, but you don’t squat down in real life with a barbell on your back. Functional means getting your body strong enough. You could train with machines and get functionally strong, depending on what you want to accomplish. This sort of thing is always specific to the individual. My motto is that “many roads lead to gains.” My way or the highway is just silly. ‘It has to be five sets of these three exercises.’ That’s not true. High-level bodybuilders, for example, have won major competitions with different training styles and different physiques.
But even if everyone can get stronger, not everyone gets strong at the same rate.
No, not at all. As someone who has carried out dozens of research studies, it’s interesting to see some people gaining muscle 25 percent faster than others. There is certainly an interaction between genetics and lifestyle here, but we can get only a general understanding of this based on our work.
Let’s talk about some aspects of diet and lifestyle. You sometimes hear people say that alcohol can inhibit gains. Is that true?
That depends on the dose. Occasional low to moderate alcohol intake—a glass or two of wine or beer—doesn’t have an appreciable effect. But if you’re consuming large amounts of it, say six to eight beers a night—well, alcohol is a toxin, and you’re going to be negatively impacting your performance. At any significant level of intake, it’ll impact health.
How about sleep? We hear all kinds of different answers about sleep, from needing seven to eight hours a night to certain elite athletes claiming they get 11 to 12.
There’s a new study in my reading bin that says the magic number is seven, but I’m not a fan of these magic numbers. You can definitely sleep too little or too much. Six to eight hours of sleep seems to be a sweet spot for most adults, though some seem to get by with less and others need more. Generally speaking, if you’re getting less than five hours of sleep a night, you’ll start feeling it. If you’re getting more than 10 hours, you might not have bad side effects, but you’re probably not being as productive because you’re simply not awake as much.
What about the stress response from arguing? Could a bad relationship or home life reduce your level of fitness?
Stress can have a negative effect, but this too is on a continuum. I’d also distinguish here between eustress and distress. If I’m about to speak somewhere, that’s eustress to me, or if you’re getting a promotion, that could be eustress for you – manageable stress related to excitement or anxiety about impending performance. Fighting with a significant other is clearly distress—bad stress beyond what you can handle—but at what point will that have a negative impact on you? That will vary by the person. Some will be able to handle a lot, others a little, depending on how they tolerate and manage distress.
Now let me ask you about some of your research. Hypertrophy is one of the topics you’ve researched extensively. What are some benefits of hypertrophy?
Obviously, it’s visually appealing to a lot of people. Muscle is aesthetically pleasing, and many men and women want to have a muscular, well-defined physique. Muscle itself has major health implications. It’s an endocrine organ and secretes various substances that produce health benefits. It’s a storage bin for glucose, and more muscle can reduce the glucose load and make your body more insulin sensitive, allowing the cells of the body to use blood glucose more effectively. Adding more muscle will tend to increase your strength and can improve your posture.
So there isn’t some distinction between “functional strength” and “hypertrophy” in the way that you hear bodybuilding fans and critics debating.
Pro bodybuilders taking massive amounts of PEDs are not a fair comparison in terms of aesthetics versus strength, form versus function. As a general rule, adding more muscle makes you more functionally strong. I’m not saying it’s a linear relationship, but there is a relationship.
So how can the average trainee achieve hypertrophy? How many times per week should a muscle be trained to maximize muscle hypertrophy?
To achieve it, you use resistance training. To “maximize” it, as you say, you’ll need to maximize gym time. However, the majority of gains involving hypertrophy can be achieved with fairly minimal routines, after which there are diminishing returns. Chasing those diminishing returns is what you’ll spend all that extra time in the gym doing.
As a general rule, resistance training three times a week is the minimum needed to achieve decent to good muscle growth. To maximize it, you’ll want to aim for four times a week. The amount of the load is not a major factor. You can gain muscle with light or heavy loads up to 40 reps, but you need to be training with a relatively high degree of effort throughout. I would say that it is patently clear from the research that heavy loads are not required to maximize muscle gains provided you train relatively close to failure.
So after we’ve finished these resistance workouts, how long is our so-called “anabolic window”*
Ed: The anabolic window is a term used in strength training to describe the period after exercise during which nutrition can shift the body from a catabolic state of breaking down muscle tissue to an anabolic one in which you’re building it back up.
I’ll tell you this: it’s not a narrow window. Muscle tissue is sensitized to anabolism for 24 hours after exercise. What our research group has compellingly shown is that you should look at your workout meals as bookends. If you’re going in fasted, having not eaten anything, you will need to eat soon after you’ve finished. If you’ve eaten an hour or two before the workout, that meal is within the window for at least the next five to six hours. For the general public, if you’re eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at regular intervals, you’ll always be within the anabolic window.
You mentioned fasting. Does that have any benefits for hypertrophy or strength?
Fasting has no benefit for strength or hypertrophy. As for other benefits, the literature is somewhat equivocal. Fasting can help people control their appetite and food intake. It comes down to weight loss and energy balance. Weight loss is a simple matter of calories consumed being lower than calories burned. When you’re limiting your window of opportunity for consumption, that will help you lose weight. All diets are predicated on controlling your food intake.
Given that equivalent protein levels are maintained, they can all help you lose weight under calorically controlled conditions. Some people claim other health benefits for fasting, but the literature isn’t conclusive on this point. Diets will help you get your cholesterol, diabetes, and other conditions under control because weight loss will help you control those conditions—and the point of a diet is to facilitate weight loss.
Some people take ibuprofen or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to deal with inflammation and pain. Can this inhibit gains in the gym?
The occasional dose of ibuprofen or Motrin is okay once a month or every couple months. However, younger individuals—meaning people under 65—who take NSAIDs over long periods of time, could see a detrimental effect on muscle growth and strength, especially growth. Ibuprofen is not as inhibitory in trainees over 65. In fact, for these older trainees, it might even be somewhat beneficial given that they’re prone to chronic inflammation, which is not a concern for younger trainees.
Here’s another recurring question: How long should you rest between sets?
The benefit of using short intervals is that it will reduce the time of the workout, which is important if time is of the essence. However, if you go too short, it will inhibit your gains. Two to three minutes is an optimal rest period between sets in a conventional workout. You can do things like supersets to perhaps get around that, but I’m talking conventional workouts here involving the bench press and squat.
This seems to be more specific to larger muscle-group exercises such as the squat, heavy barbell or dumbbell row, strict press, and so on. Biceps curls and leg extensions won’t require as much rest because fatigue is not as pronounced. If you’re taking longer rest intervals, you can maintain heavier resistance on the barbell. However, there are diminishing returns after a certain point. Also, with extremely heavy loads, there’s not only metabolic fatigue but neurological fatigue. A state record or world record lift could take a lot out of you. In the course of a heavy training regimen, three to five minutes between sets for powerlifters is sufficient.
Should you drink your protein supplement before or after the workout?
The research actually shows that taking it pre-workout is just as effective as taking it post-workout. As long as you’re getting within that barn door of an anabolic window, you’re fine. The most important thing is consuming adequate daily protein. That’s roughly 1.6 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight [roughly 1 gram per pound of bodyweight]. If you’re hitting that on a daily basis, you’ll be fine.
For pro bodybuilders and powerlifters, it certainly doesn’t hurt to consume protein pre- and post-workout, but whether that has a benefit discernible, it’s still equivocal because we’re not doing research with this sort of community. Additionally, remember that whey protein is just a food that’s high in protein. If you’re consuming 1.6 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, you won’t need to buy this powdered foodstuff. If you’re not, it’s a convenient way to reach that daily goal.
What about loading up on carbohydrates before a big resistance training session?
For marathon runners, sure, you’ll want to be carb loading the day before an event. For resistance training, not so much. The only thing is making sure you have relatively full glycogen [the stored form of glucose] levels. That said, resistance training is not highly dependent on glycogen, as long as you’re not carb-depleted. Someone following a carnivore, keto, or paleo diet could be glycogen-depleted and might not maximize muscle gain. If you’re in a mass gaining phase, you need to consume at least a moderate amount of carbs, somewhere in the general 3 grams per kilogram of bodyweight range.
Can the frequency of meals affect your body composition? For example, would a trainee be better off eating five to six small meals per day if they wanted their body to absorb all the nutrients from the food?
Intermittent fasting can be effective with very few meals from a fat loss standpoint, but from a muscle building perspective, it’s not a great strategy. Three to four meals a day, spaced out evenly, will give most trainees what they need to maximize muscle. If you’re a pro bodybuilder or strongman, your diet will be different. You can’t just eat two meals and settle for 2500 calories.
What about protein absorption? You see varying opinions about that, with some people suggesting your body can’t absorb more than 20 to 30 grams of protein in one serving.
There’s virtually no limit to what your body can absorb. Your body can absorb almost everything it consumes, by which I mean it will get what you consume into your system. How much protein that muscle tissues can utilize is a less well understood question. Certainly the answer is higher than 20 to 30 grams. On average, I’d say this is at least 40 grams, with some research showing that you can absorb up to 70 grams. We don’t have great data on this, so spreading out your protein intake across three to four meals is probably the best strategy to ensure it’s utilized by the tissue.
So now that we’ve gone through a lot of your research, what are your final thoughts on “evidence-based fitness?”
Research never tells you what to do. It can give you general ideas, but it will never tell someone precisely what to do in the gym. There are always going to be gaps in the research, too. What we call evidence-based fitness isn’t just doing what “the research says.” Some of this will involve trial and error on the part of the person doing the training.
And, to wrap things up, what’s one of your more heterodox or controversial thoughts about the fitness world you’ve studied?
I’m not sure it’s controversial, but I want to state that the vast majority of muscle-building supplements are useless. Creatine has the most efficacy, which is well documented, but even the best supplements don’t give anabolic steroid-like effects. At best, creatine offers a modest benefit. Caffeine has a mild positive effect in terms of making you more alert and ready to train.
Perhaps beta-alanine [Ed: an amino acid that supposedly aids in the production of carnosine, a compound that plays a role in muscle endurance in high-intensity exercise] might help as well, but it’s not a muscle-building supplement per se. As for those over-the-counter supplements that claim to boost growth hormone and testosterone levels—the ones you see old baseball and football players selling on late-night commercials—those simply have no efficacy at all.
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