Eric Helms: Truly Understanding RPE and Hypertrophy

Eric Helms, PhD, double masters holder, CSCS, and the current Chief Science Officer of 3DMJ is an incredible source of knowledge in the world of fitness and training. He’s published multiple peer reviewed studies on exercise and nutrition and plays a role in MASS, a monthly research review for strength and physique athletes. In addition to his impressive research background, Eric has coached hundreds of athletes and has dabbled in nearly every strength sport himself.

In today’s episode, we talk to Eric about a variety of topics including best hypertrophy practices, how to use RPE in a variety of ways, and much, much more. 

In this episode of The BarBend Podcast, guest Eric Helms and gust host Jake Boly discuss:

  • Who is Eric Helms, the origin story (1:55)
  • Where Eric got his “all in” mindset (4:50)
  • How to objectively assess when to realign focus (7:20)
  • Tips for athletes to balance their “all in” mindset (11:20)
  • How athletes without coaches can recognize when they’re progressing towards burnout (18:00)
  • Eric’s PhD and how he’s applied to coaching (23:50)
  • Eric’s thoughts on RPE and how he’s adapted it throughout his career (25:40)
  • Variance in RPE at various reps for certain athletes (31:00)
  • Differences in RPE perception in experienced athletes (37:00)
  • Should every level lifter use RPE? (40:50)
  • Transitioning into implementing RPE more strategically for novice athletes (43:40)
  • How you apply RPE to volume and other training variables (46:54)
  • Effective reps and effective volume (52:45)
  • Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and Eric’s thoughts on the topic (1:02:00)
  • On your Iron Culture podcast, who’s your dream guest? (1:09:10)
  • Favorite strength sport to compete in and why (1:12:00)
  • All-time go-to pump up song (1:14:00)
  • Where to find Eric (1:15:00)

Greg Nuckols’ article on sarcoplasmic hypertrophy

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Eric HelmsEric Helms

 In a true coaching relationship, you’re not a dictator, you’re not the person who tells them what their goals are, what their life should be, what their values are, but rather you help them see their blind spots. The analogy I like to use is that you’re not the captain of the ship, you’re the navigator.

 

Jake BolyJake Boly

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your guest host Jake Boly and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

Today I’m talking to Eric Helms PhD, double masters holder, CSCS, and the current Chief Science Officer of 3DMJ. Eric is also a part of MASS, a monthly research review for strength and physique athletes and coaches. He’s published handfuls of peer-review studies on exercise and nutrition and continues to push the boundaries for how we understand the human body.

In addition to his impressive research background, Eric has also coached hundreds of athletes and has dabbled in nearly every strength sport himself. Mind you, this is only really breaking the surface of all of his accomplishments.

 

In today’s episode, I talked to Eric about a variety of topics, including best hypertrophy practices, how to use RPE in a variety of ways, and much, much more. Seriously, this episode is packed with a ton of knowledge bombs. As always, we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast.

If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend Podcast in your app of choice. Every month, we give away a box full of BarBend swag to one of our listeners who leaves a rating and review.

All right. I guess to start this podcast man, I would love to get a little bit more on your background, your origin. Who is Eric Helms? This is for all of the listeners out there who may not be as familiar with yourself.

Eric HelmsEric Helms

For sure. First, let me just say, “Honor to be here. Thank you for the opportunity, and love what you guys are doing at BarBend.” As far as who I am, I’m just a dude who really loves lifting. I tend to have an all-in personality nature.

This goes back to when I was a little kid. If I were playing a video game, I would miss meals playing it. It would be the only video game I would play. I would play it until I won. When I was reading books, I would find every spare moment and just dive into it, imagine the characters if I’m reading a fictional book when I’m in school or something like that.

When the iron bug bit me back in ’04, it became a career change. It became an intellectual pursuit. It became something I competed in and still competing as an athlete and it became my vocation.

Eventually starting 3D Muscle Journey in 2009. My vocation — in many other ways now — is a science communicator and really has become something that gave me a lot of meaning in life.

Fast-forward to today, I’ve competed in 17 Powerlifting meets, 3 Olympic weightlifting meets, 2 Strongman competitions, and 13 natural bodybuilding competitions. We started 3D Muscle Journey. Our company goal was to support the drug-free lifting community, provide evidence-based information, coaching and good content to the community.

Back in ’09, we just had our 10th anniversary. That’s with myself, Alberto Nuñez, Andrea Valdez, Brad Loomis and Jeff Alberts. I also do a fair bit of science communication. I pursued strength sport and physiques intellectually. I’ve got my PhD in Strength and Conditioning that I got in 2017 from the Auckland University of Technology here where I live in New Zealand.

Before that, I did a masters in Sports Nutrition and a second masters in Exercise Science. I’ve had pretty much every certification under the sun as far as nutrition, personal training, strength conditioning.

I was a personal trainer from 2005 until the 2011 before we moved out to New Zealand to do my graduate work and to pursue the whole Internet entrepreneurial thing full-time. That’s pretty much me. I’ve written books now. I’m part of the monthly applications of Strength Sports Research Review and I also co-host a podcast with Omar Isuf.

I do a lot of stuff but it’s all related to bending the bar.

Jake BolyJake Boly

That’s amazing. You’re a Jack-of-all-trades. That’s crazy with your school background and whatnot, but also I want to circle back to what you first said before diving into everything you’ve done. Where do you think that all-in mindset developed from? Do you have an idea?

Eric HelmsEric Helms

I think some of it is just the traits of who Eric Helms is. Man, I can think back to being single-digit ages and that being the case. I remember we would go on a weekend, we’d go at my uncle’s house. My cousins were two and four years older than me. I guess they’re still two and four years older than me.

If we would play a board game, and I liked it, that’s all I want to do. Most normal people would play a game or two on the board game, get bored and want to eat lunch, then go play basketball, but for me I was like, “Let’s go round three,” constantly. It’s pretty annoying kid. [laughs] Brothers around me. That’s really just how I am.

 

I tend to have a very…I don’t know if obsessive is the right word. I guess it is. A fun [indecipherable 05:44] too can definitely become obsessive which I think is a double-edged sword.

Most bodybuilders, athletes, academics, and people who do one thing and dive very deep into it, that is a very useful skill but on the other side of it, it can lead to burnout, harm relationships, [indecipherable 06:09] holistic human, make you selfish, etc.

Ironically, the invention we have is jack-of-all-trades. It’s something that is a learned trade. The natural thing for me is to dive all into something and to have a little more balance, to be a little more holistic and to tee the bigger picture.

It has been something that has been the biggest lesson that I’m trying to bring to my fellow brothers and sisters in the Iron game. A cornerstone in what we do at 3DMJ and we find it makes for athletes who can stay in the game longer instead of burning out, getting injured, or having some unfortunate consequence of their dedication, desire and discipline.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Got you. They talked on all of that. It sounds like as you’ve grown as a coach and just grown in the field itself, you have learned how to take a step back and realize and conceptualize that, “Hey, whoa, I’m going too hard into this. I need to take a step back realign my focus and maybe almost pull back from diving so into something.”

How did you learn that, I guess and experience that? Was it like a moment in your life when you’re like, “Holy crap, I need to take a step back and work on this”? Or was it through maybe a mentor explaining something to you and so forth?

Eric HelmsEric Helms

A little bit of all of that. I’m fortunate I come from a family that at least on my mom’s side values psychology, emotional openness, things like that, good communication. Had I been raised in a maybe a more goal-oriented hard-line, made more traditional role for a male [laughs] approach to life, I can see it going really bad.

If I was raised by an obsessive father who wanted me to be a sports hero, I probably would be a very unhappy person of this stage of my life. I had this background safety net, if you will, of support, and a perspective on life. I think that it’s big part of it. My first mentors were some of my family members and so that’s the way I was brought up which I’m very grateful for.

Beyond that, I think failure was a great teacher for me. When I first got into bodybuilding, my first season in ’07, my wife basically gave me ultimatum afterward and said, “This isn’t what I’ve signed up for and I want to support you on what you love to do but however it happens it can’t keep happening like that.”

It made me realize just how much of an obsessive selfish personality was I when I’ve closed up everything. I remember specifically spending all of my free time reading about bodybuilding. Even when I was sitting there watching a movie on Netflix with my wife, I get up and half watch while being on a computer.

This isn’t even one of those easier things to do back in ’07. I didn’t have like Instagram on my phone. I couldn’t just slightly do it which seems to be much more socially acceptable now to be on your phone while doing something else. I actually went over, turn on the computer, and got on the forums, and started reading things while we’re watching Netflix.

For some reason to my brain now has acceptable behavior. Getting that [laughs] push back from people who I care about deeply and who care about me helped. Then in ’09 when I tried to do it the “right way” or at least better, that’s when I met Jeff Alberts. That’s when Alberto Nuñez, myself, and Brad all got together. We have this shared vision.

It was really Jeff who was the catalyst before 3D Muscle Journey became the company that it is now and in movement. It was a blog that he had in a whole premise. The baseline of it was him returning to the sport after being burned out, not competing for about three seasons with the goal of enjoying the process and placing the journey over the end destination.

Ironically, after him competing since he was 23 and now in his late 30s, that this is the time he won two natural pro cards and have his most successful season when he was less focused on winning.

He was probably the first leader for me in that way, both by example and then also philosophically when I got to talk to him and truly gave a little more, I guess you could say direction to the realization I had in my prior season, ’07.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Got you. I know you work with the ton of athletes. There’s always that level for strength athletes, especially those who are super hardcore of going all in, similar to what you just described.

When you’re working with athletes that you see similar trends in the personality trade of like going all in or maybe neglecting things that they shouldn’t be on a daily basis, what are some tips and feedback do you give them, the kind of calm back attitude not…?

I don’t want to say go down the same road you did, but maybe avoid it or go about it in a better way. You know what I’m saying?

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Yeah, I do know exactly what you’re saying. It’s a huge part of coaching. The first thing that I started to realize is that you can’t have a realization for someone else. You can only meet someone where they’re at.

In a true coaching relationship, you’re not a dictator. You’re not the person who tells them what their goals are, what their life should be, what their values are, but rather you help them see the blind spots. The analogy I like to use is that, “You’re not the captain of a ship. You’re the navigator.”

A navigator has a different set of skills. The captain knows the best way to get from point A to point B, but in the end this is not the person that makes the calls.

That is the support role of a coach. He’s acting as navigator. Maybe sometimes being a little more helpful or more constant in the feedback, or more directed, or more willing to step up and help, say a “young captain” or some more experienced captain. In the end, the client is the one in charge.

The mistake I initially made was to try to have that realization for the client. If they’re just simply not in the same place in life than I was or hadn’t been through the same experiences, that’s, more often than not, going to fall on deaf ears.

Typically, when you’re dealing with an athlete who’s in that frame of mind or they might go down to that path, it’s because they’re trying to perform at their best. They see an intense focus on their goal, sacrificing other things in their life to “win,” and the idea of having this absolute single-minded mentality being a beneficial thing for their performance.

If you can speak the language of performance first, that’s how you get your foot on the door, and you get them to see their blind spot. The big myth is that being single-mindedly focused in all in “on your sport” and some of the traditional ways we see that in media or we hear it talked about.

It’s actually better for performance. I think it’s largely a myth, especially in something like bodybuilding where it’s not like you can compartmentalize that effort into when you’re at practice or in training.

Bodybuilding is something that follows you 24/7, especially during contest prep. Every time you step into the kitchen or every time you step into the gym, there’s an opportunity to see it as something related to bodybuilding.

That can become a very, very obsessive 24/7 focus, which is counterproductive. In many cases, it leads to burnout. You see a much higher prevalence of disorder-eating patterns, body image issues, general psychological pathologies in athletes, especially bodybuilders. That’s obviously counterproductive to long-term performance.

The way I get my foot on the door is I help them see how sabotaging their relationships or having their boss get mad at them or being really obsessed about something that they can change is actually counterproductive.

Paralysis by analysis is a very common thing or to simply overtraining, doing too much, trying to stay too lean, removing the enjoyment aspect of food. It typically goes poorly for humans.

Every culture you can imagine has an expression through food of the culture. It’s how we literally break bread. That’s how we connect with our family, our friends. All holidays have something related to that. Culture is expressed through food. Familial bonds are expressed through food.

If you try to completely maximize nutrition from a very qualitative performance-based perspective, you end up saying no to certain signals and certain practices. You lose connections with people. You lose your social support. You lose meaning. That ends a pretty performance down the line or, more simply, you start ignoring internal cues of hunger and satiety.

You try to eat by the numbers or by the meal plan. That ends up being less optimal than someone who has a finely refined sense of where their hunger or [indecipherable 15:57] are.

You could better match portion sizes with their actual energy needs at a given time or someone who tries to stay so lean in the off season because they think it’s better for prep or better for their goals, that it harms their ability to gain muscle, etc.

There are so many instances where that obsessive tendency that desire to go all in ends up short-circuiting long-term progress. It’s the old adage, “Bodybuilding is a marathon, not a sprint.”

I try to help athletes see, “Do you want to be competing in bodybuilding when you’re the masters of two class? Do you want to be improving for 20 years, or do you want to have a good handful of seasons before you burn out?”

That guy who says, “Yeah, I used to do bodybuilding, but it’s really unhealthy.” The same can be said for injuries in powerlifting or just people who stop lifting once they’re no longer competitive or competing.

Most people, especially in strength sports and physique sports, some, they played powerlifting or played bodybuilding as a freshman in high school, right? You get into it as someone in your 20s or 30s, and you find it as an amateur sport. You’re going to high schools to compete initially or gym.

It means you really care about it when it becomes a very serious hobby in your adult life. It’s a tragic to see someone give it up because they went too hard and burned out when it was something that they found and desired as an adult. It means they have a lot of emotion toward just enjoying lifting. I try to cultivate that so people don’t lose it.

Jake BolyJake Boly

I feel that to the bones. I feel like almost everybody who got into strength sports has that time frame when they’re so into it because it’s new. It’s exciting. They’re progressing. It’s addicting in a lot of ways. I love what you just said.

Having a coach is the biggest way to success for a lot of athletes, but do you have any kind of, let’s call it a mental checklist, that people that might be listening that don’t have a coach could ask themselves and inquire themselves objectively.

If they’re going down a route of potential burnout, and maybe they’re not seeing a full big picture just yet, do you have any tips on like self-recognizing that?

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Yeah. There’s a lot of things you can do. One of the best tools for people who are “self-coached” is to really go through the process of coaching yourself. For example, one of the main benefits of having a coach is having that emotional distance.

This is the same reason why doctors aren’t supposed to operate on their family, or lawyers aren’t supposed to represent people that are close to that whole conflict of interest.

That comes down to having a bias. When you have a strong emotional bias because you care about someone. You have a prior existing relationship that can affect your ability to be objective and make the right call in the heat of the moment. When it’s very important, like when someone is on trial or, or needs heart surgery, etc.

Who are you more emotionally close to than yourself? It’s very difficult to coach yourself and I’ve had people who state because they’re trainers that, “No, no, I’ll do my own training, I do my own prep.” They make terrible errors that they would never do if they were actually coaching someone else.

Oftentimes, it’s not a knowledge issue, but it’s a lack of perspective. It’s not being able to see your own blind spots. That’s why they’re called blind spots. One of the things you can do to counteract that till some degree is to really formalize the process to where you are like your own client.

For example, you can send yourself a report. Cliff Wilson, a really great coach who I respect a lot in the in the bodybuilding scene. He actually sends himself a report and an email and reads it and puts himself in the same mindset he does with his clients.

Looks at his pictures, reads the report looks at the training and assesses you know, the volume, the rate of fat loss pictures, the posing, and response to that email as though it’s his own client. I don’t think you need to go to that degree of artificiality. You do want that same mindset.

You really want to think taking your objective data, and also your subjective report, and then externalize it and writing it down. Logging it, recording a video or something and then viewing it.

Ironically, here’s a good example. Sometimes and you look in the mirror, you might see one thing or focus on something negative, but then just seeing pictures of yourself. It can give you a very different perspective. I experienced this during my last contest season. I was sending regular video updates to Alberto Nuñez, who was handling my prep and being my external guidance to my own thoughts to make sure I didn’t have blind spots getting in my way.

When I got my stage pictures back from my first show, I was like, “Wow, is that me?” Like, “I can’t believe it, that’s awesome.” It’s been eight years since I’ve been on stage. I just hadn’t been able to see the progress by looking at, regular offseason pictures or looking in the mirror every morning, and then sending weekly updates.

When I had that moment to objectively sit back and look at stage pictures, that weren’t something that I was assessing on a regular basis. I was actually able to see it in a different light. Leveraging that same perspective is really helpful. I think that’s one thing.

Another thing that I think is really useful, so athletes don’t forget why they got into lifting in the first place, is to focus on the process. There’s actually research showing that focusing on the day to day process of lifting or executing a plan, is more likely to help you succeed in your goal, than being always focused on the end outcome.

There’s a lot of data or just human motivation and what keeps us ticking, that when once you start rewarding a behavior, you get more focused on the reward. Quickly, I’ll talk about this cool study kind of cool, kind of fucked up, pardon my French.

Study from back in the day where they took preschoolers who were drawing. They were just in a preschool, they spent their time drawing. Researchers came in, and one group they just observed and they watched, whether they kept drawing over a certain period of time.

Another group they told them, “Hey, now you’re in a competition whoever draws the most is going to get gold stars”. Then the third group, they gave them gold stars, but they didn’t tell them they’re in the competition. They looked at the amount of the preschoolers who stayed drawing or stopped growing once the experiment was over.

 

In the group that was just observed, they had a given amount of people who just stopped drawing. You’re young, you decided to draw, maybe you find out, it’s not what you like to do, and you rather play with Legos. There’s a certain dropout rate, they compared the two groups to.

In the group that was not given notice that they were in in a competition, but we’re just giving gold stars at the end, they had a similar dropout rate.

In the group that was told, hey, now you’re in a competition and the more you draw, you’re more likely to get this reward. They had a much higher dropout rate because now they were not drawing for fun, but they’re drawing to get the gold star.

I think that’s something that a lot of competitors can relate to. They lose a certain level of enjoyment with their training, when now they’re chasing, a trophy or a specific number on their squat or bench or winning a title or getting a pro card, etc.

Keeping that focus on the process versus the end goal, staying grateful, I think a gratitude journal is really, really valuable too. You can appreciate what you have instead of thinking about what you don’t have yet.

Then also getting that separation, so you when you really do coach yourself, have actually externalizing those variables, you can assess them more objectively. Those are three things that I really recommend.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Awesome. I was going to ask you, actually how you like to stoke back up the fun, when you might be losing it. It sounds like those are awesome options for a lot of clients out there and athletes at that.

I want to kind of shift gears and dive a little bit more into your research background and ask you about some topics that I’m super curious about your thoughts on. Before we dive into some of the bigger topics. In college for your PhD, you studied and dove into RPE and powerlifting. Correct?

Eric HelmsEric Helms

That’s right. I did a master’s thesis and also my PhD research. I focused much more on manipulation of protein and macronutrients during dieting and strength athletes for masters. My PhD, I specifically looked at auto-regulating powerlifting training, using the RPE scale that was developed by my team, based on repetitions remaining at the end of a set.

Jake BolyJake Boly

My question there is, since your research, have you shifted gears at all or learned better ways to apply RPE in training, whether it be for powerlifting specifically or other strength athletes? I just want to hear your thoughts on RPE. How you like to apply it and how your view of it and a concept of it has changed over time, if it has.

Eric HelmsEric Helms

It’s evolved greatly over time and I see it as very much as a tool. A tool can be used for a lot of different purposes. Obviously, there are some things you just wouldn’t use a certain tool for, like if you have a screw, you wouldn’t want to use a hammer to nail a hole. [laughs]

I think people tend to look at RPE probably in too narrow of terms. For example, people typically either prescribe load using a percentage of 1RM or RPE, but I really like to use them in conjunction.

For example, you can give someone 3 by 8 at 70 percent. That’s typically something that most people can do for 12 to 15 reps sorts of. Moderately heavy depending on the exercise of course, moderately heavy but average load. Something you can do without getting too close to failure.

You could prescribe someone 3 by 8 at a 6 to 8 RPE, meaning you should have, two to four reps left in the tank at the completion of each set. However, there’s a lot of individual variation.

We did a study that was at a Dr. Mike Zourdos’ lab at FAU. Where we had people go to a 1RM and then we used trash bags to cover the weight. Then we put 70 percent of weight on the bar and we had people go all the way to failure, and they called out RPE ratings across the course of that set.

At the top of each squat, once they thought they’re at seven, and a nine RPE they would call it out. Also a five RPE as well. We found that the more reps they performed in a set, the less accurate they were at lower RPEs. High-rep squats just really, really suck, you know the metabolic fatigue, total cardiovascular stress.

It gets pretty high and it makes you think you’ve got less in the tank than you do. When you’ve got a room full of students motivating you and yelling at you to go over with a failure. Once you’re actually truly at only one rep away from failure you can tell.

The five and a seven RPE were way less accurate for high-rep squats, and a nine RPE was pretty accurate no matter how many reps you did. The cool side-outcome of the study that we didn’t even set out to investigate was just the great range of reps that you might see at 70 percent.

There were some people who only got six reps at 70 percent of 1RM. There were some people who got well into the 20s. That means that, percentage 1RM, the average value of say, 12 to 15 reps at 70 percent might meet the large part of the bell curve.

If you go outside to some of the outlier people, there are some people who can’t get eight reps at 70 percent. There’s some people who can get like 24. It’s only one third of the potential reps they could get.

A lot of people don’t know when they first start using our RPE, what’s an appropriate load to put on the bar like you tell them, “Hey, I want you to do eight reps that have six RPE.” If they’re really experienced, and they’ve been in the gym and have an extensive background, have a log book to look at, they could probably put the right weight on the bar.

If they’re relatively new to RPE, or maybe they haven’t done high-rep training or something like that, or it’s a new exercise for them giving them a percentage can get them in the ballpark. Then, they can adjust after that.

 

For example, if you prescribe 3 by 8 at 70 percent — by the way, that should be between the six to eight RPE — you know what to put on the bar for that very first set.

If you are one of those people who skews to the left of the middle of the bell curve and it’s really, really hard, and you put up a 10 RPE and barely can complete that eighth rep, you know to drop the load on the second set pretty substantially.

Likewise, if that eighth rep flies up and you’re going, “Man, I could have done twice as many reps,” you know to scale the weight up on the next set. They can be used in conjunction to give someone a starting point. Then, to adjust afterwards.

That’s one thing that I don’t think I realized when I went into the research originally. I saw them as two opposing paradigms of thought, when I think they go quite nicely.

Another thing that is important to realize is that RPE doesn’t have to be a prescriptive tool. It could be very much just a monitoring tool. As you get more and more advanced as a lifter, putting measurable poundage on the bar, mesocycle to mesocycle becomes quite difficult.

If you could truly add five pounds to a lift every four-week mesocycle, you could think about that. There’s 52 weeks in a year, and if every four weeks you’re adding five pounds, that’s a lot of weight to add. That’s — if I did my math right — 65 pounds that you’d add to a lift in a year. That’s simply not going to happen at a certain point.

Once you’ve gotten to say 90 percent, 95 percent of your possible strength, you might only get half of that at best in a year. Sometimes at a high level you’re only adding 5 to 10 pounds to a lift in an entire year.

How do you gauge progress? How do you assess the efficacy of a program? Being able to see, Hey, I did a single at 455 pounds, and last time it was a 7 RPE, this time it was a 6.5 RPE.” That’s the thing where if you were not aware of how to track RPE and if you weren’t accurate with it, you wouldn’t have that tool to gauge progress.

Having the ability just to look at your RPEs, even if you’re programming with percentages just to keep your finger on the proverbial pulse of your strength progress, allows you to see those piece and values of strength progression.

If you set back far enough you could see whether or not it’s overall training upward. If you’re looking just purely at the numbers, sometimes you’ll go a longer period before being able to assess whether or not something’s working.

Those are two areas that I can specifically think of now as you bring it up that I’ve thought about differently over the years. There’s so many ways to use RPE. You can use it to auto-regulate volume. You can use it to do a tester single to see how ready you are to train and adjust to what you decide to do on that day. You can use it as a progression tool. Lots of ways to use the proverbial hammer.

 

Jake BolyJake Boly

I love that. I have so many other questions that you touched upon. I want to circle back about something you said in that study. I remember reading that study. I thought it was so interesting how you guys went about performing it. I want to ask you about the huge variance in reps at different RPEs for individuals.

Why do you think that might be? Do you think it’s previous training experience, training age? Does it have to do with muscle fiber composition people have? Do you have any idea or speculation into that rationale?

 

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Probably all of that and a few other things. One thing that I always think is really interesting, especially when you start to get to the extreme ends of it, is that just because percentage 1RM is the same relative effort on paper. When you deal with people who are much different body sizes and much different strength levels, it starts to be a little different.

Say 90 percent of 1RM, regardless of whether you’re 100 pounds or whether you’re a 300-pound competitor, whether you’ve been training for a year or 15 years, you’re probably going to get two to four reps.

However, once you start to get further and further from that percentage 1RM, all these other factors start to come into play. Other things can impact whether or not you’re going to fatigue earlier or later.

One thing to consider is that even if you take the same person…I remember when I first stepped into the gym and I started squatting, I remember just having one plate on my back and being able to do 10 to 15 reps. That was really, really hard. That was very fatiguing. That was the most reps that I could do.

Now, if you ask me what could I do for 10 to 15 reps, we’re looking at two to three times that load in absolutely terms. My body weight has only gone up by 20, 30 pounds. There’s not necessarily a linear scaling between the load you can lift and your body. The amount of calories you’re actually expending scales really well with the total volume load, sets times reps times load.

If we do 3 by 10 at 135 versus 3 by 10 at 365, that’s way more calories burned. That is something that’s going to impact your body. You still have to deal with that oxygen debt. You still have to deal with that metabolic stress. As you get stronger and stronger and stronger, higher reps become disproportionately fatiguing.

One thing we saw in these studies was that certain things correlated with how many reps someone would get. Heavier people typically wouldn’t get as many reps. That might be because they had more absolute strength in that non-linear scaling with bodyweight to strength to the number of calories burned per rep. That could be with higher levels of body fat or less cardiovascular conditioning.

In some of the research I did I had some people who competed in CrossFit and power lifting. Although it wasn’t enough for me to confidently state this is why, the CrossFit competitors could do a lot of reps and recover really well between sets. Some of the heavier power lifters really struggle even when we have a three-minute rest period — some of the research I did — which is a standard thing.

When you’re pushing near failure with really heavy weights, that’s a lot of calories burned. You still have to actually recover metabolically to be able to do it again. That’s a component of it. I do think perhaps fiber type could come into play. I’m not very confident on that, because we would need to get some biopsies done and make some correlations there.

Sex can potentially have an impact. There is some data to suggest women might recover better between sets and have more inner aerobic endurance at a lower percentage of 1RM. Definitely training age. When you are at a lower training age, you can’t express your true maximal strength.

The very first study we did showed that novice squatters recorded a higher velocity at 1RM than experienced squatters. This is not to say that they could squat heavy loads faster. It just means that when you put a truly heavy load which should force them to lift it slowly on their back, they couldn’t maintain form and drive through it.

While if you look at a very experienced lifter…For example, if you livestream the USAPL Nationals and you watch the best lifters, or if you livestream IPF Worlds, you’ll see that the first, second and third attempts look very similar. If they make it, it’s just slower.

They can maintain that force production as they approach their limit strength so long as they don’t stop and they’re unable to overcome momentum. They will complete the lift.

If you have ever been a trainer and you work with a very novice person, the heavier the load gets, the more their form breaks down, the less self-efficacy they have, the more wonky they look, and they might not be able to maintain that motor pattern under heavier load.

The heaviest weight they can do for their 1RM is not their actual 1RM, per se. It’s not an accurate representation of their true force expression. At lower absolute loads, they may be able to do more reps and actually reach closer to true muscular failure.

In an inexperienced lifter, it may appear that they can do more reps at a higher percentage than 1RM, but it’s just that their 1RM is deflated relative to what it actually could be. All of those factors go into it and probably have some impact on whether or not someone can do a lot of reps or fewer reps at a given percentage of 1RM.

Certainly the closer to 1RM you get, the less that variance is. If we’re talking, say, 85 percent higher, you’re going to see a much narrower range of repetitions someone can do. If you’re talking 80 percent or lower then man, you could have some pretty disparate numbers on the extreme ends.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Got you. Something you just said in there struck my attention. It’s on the concept of sex, and the differences in how RPEs might look, especially at heavier loads. I know you suggested than women have a better ability to recover in between, maybe, more higher volume sets.

This is what I’ve seen, and what other coaches have talked about is that women athletes will tend to fail at a much quicker rate when it gets to super high intensities, right? My question is, at high intensities like that, do you see any trends with women and men when it comes to true 10 RPEs, 7s and what those looks like? Did I word that correctly? Hopefully.

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Yeah. When I’ve look at very, very, high-level lifters, some of these trends are much less obvious. One thing I like to tell people is, yes there are sex differences. For example, if you were to visualize two bars that are vertically placed above each other, the normal bar of responses among female lifters and male lifters might overlap 60 to 70 percent, so there’s a 20 to 30 percent different on average.

But within women, within men, you can see much larger differences than the average difference between men and women. So, I think the differences between individuals greatly overlaps and exceeds the differences on average between the sexes.

I’ve seen lots of women who can grind out very, very slow lifts once they’re well trained. Sometimes, I wonder if some of those observations you cited have more to do with the training age and that in general, just in our society, not always and it’s changing certainly, that women typically have less experience lifting than some of the men do.

One thing I’ve seen is that when you have a smaller population of people lifting, you might have those outlier extreme performances. For example, you might have a world-class female lifter, but they’re just such a genetic freak that after one or two years of lifting, they’re winning championships.

For one, because they’re a genetic freak, but for two, because there’s not a huge depth of people to compare them against. While in the male categories, when there’s a greater number of people competing, you’re going to see much more selection at the highest level where you not only have to be a genetic freak, you also have to be lifting for a while and really maximize that potential.

You’ll see a relatively novice high-level performer. We love to have these strength standards like, “Hey, if you can squat x number of kilos or this multiplier of your body weight, you’re now advanced.” But the reality is, if you ever listen to Andy Bolton, the first time he ever deadlifted, he deadlifted 600 pounds. Was he an advanced lifter the very first time he lifted a weight?

No. That’s the first time he ever deadlifted. He just is that strong naturally. I think it’s important to remember that the first time someone touches a barbell or maybe a year into it, they could be a world-class performer, but it doesn’t necessarily make them an advanced lifter, which means they might still be recording a higher velocity than you expect at 1RM, or not have the ability to grind.

That might be what coaches are seeing anecdotally when looking at women versus men, but when you look at the modern 2019 IPF World Champions, you see a lot less differences between the sexes in my experience. There’s women and men who can grind really, really well and I think some of that gets washed away when you’ve got 10, 15 years under the bar.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Totally. That’s awesome food for thought, honestly. I didn’t even think of it in that respect, so I appreciate you saying that because now I’m thinking about it from a whole different point of view. In terms of RPE and auto-regulation, do you think every level of lifter can find use in that protocol and tool?

Eric HelmsEric Helms

I think the tool should be used differently at different levels. One thing that is pretty cool that we’ve found. Some of the most recent studies that have come out of the collaborations with FAU and AU team, myself and Dr. Zourdos.

One of my current PhD students, Colby Souza, who did masters under Mike Zourdos. He did a comparison. He was part of a group that did a comparison at 80 percent of 1RM on the squat bench and deadlift, and trained lifters and doing as many reps as you can and then assessing when you were at those various RPE levels.

There was incredible precision on all three lifts. Trained lifters at a relatively high low 80 percent of 1RM are able to gauge how many reps in reserve they have extremely accurately. Sometimes on average, less than one rep off. That same method where at the top of a rep, you call out when you think you’re at a six and a nine RPE.

That is really cool. That means a trained lifter can use this with a lot of confidence that they’re pretty much on point. Especially if they have a background training to failure. If they’ve been using RPE for number of months doesn’t take much experience to get that done.

We see that more so training experience than then experience with the RPE scale is important. Presumably that means if you have multiple years under the belt of lifting weights. You’ve done enough training to failure, for you to know what one, from failure two, failure three from failure might be.

We also have data showing that inexperienced lifters don’t have that same ability. They might be two, three, four, five reps off, when they think they’re one or two reps away from failure. Now that’s still pretty accurate. If you were to compare that against percentage 1RM or someone might be doing 8 reps or 25 reps.

I would still take the accuracy of an RPE for a novice lifter, but I would say, why not get accurate first? What I like to do with a beginner lifter, is not have them actually target certain RPEs or choose load with RPE, but rather or given them a conservative percentage-based program. Simply have them rate RPE.

This generates a lot of lifter awareness. Just having an idea in your head of how many more do I think I could have done. Then having some training where they do an amrap as many reps as possible. Training to attain RPE here and there especially on something like an accessory work.

Where there’s a low risk of injury and it’s not going to generate much fatigue. Building the skill of being able to rate RPE more accurately first, before then prescribing load using RPE as an intermediate or advanced I think is a natural progression for how to use RPE across different training ages.

Jake BolyJake Boly

I love that. Do you have a let’s say baseline recommendation as to when you would transition? Let’s say a novice lifter who’s going for percentages. Then rating them to start transitioning into implementing RPE a little bit more strategically as a tool for intensity-based training.

Eric HelmsEric Helms

For one, if you’re a coach, you’re going to get a sense of when someone’s ready. When the ratings that they put in their log book, compared to the rating you would give them when you see video, or when their amraps are pretty close to what they had previously rated.

If you put what was previously there 5RM on the bar, and they supposed to be to failure. They go to true failure, watch the video and it is and they’re doing like 10 reps you know they’re probably not very good at rating. That last 5RM wasn’t a 5RM, but if they’re getting a rep or two off, you’re thinking, “Oh, they probably got stronger as well.”

They rated as a 10. It looks like a 10, great. If they are constantly missing reps, which is actually rare than you think. That’s more of an Instagram thing. The classic grinder and then you go, “Yep, six RPE.” That’s more about social approval, than what actually happens in the gym when you’re looking at videos writing it down.

All the data we have people actually underrate RPEs. Even though in social media, you see the opposite. Which I think is more just trying to look cool on camera. From a coaching perspective, you want to see your RPE start to line up with the RPEs of the lifter and get video feedback.

As a general caveat, in the studies where we see really good ratings of RPE like the ones I mentioned, 80 percent of 1RM on the big three. We’ve got at least two years of training experience, specifically using the lifts that are being rated.

I think that’s a pretty good gauge. I would say an anecdotal thing I would add to that, is probably going through at least two mesocycles with some training near to failure, where you’re actually rating RPE.

Not only having, say, two years of training experience minimum, with the lifts you’re going to use RPE on, but then having used RPE just as something you’re tracking rather than prescribing for a couple of months of cycles of training so that you can really learn the ropes and get a feel for it.

Once you’ve got those two things in place you’ll have pretty good precision to where it will be useful tool. Just understanding that it is a skill and sometimes we look too binarily, black or white, and should I use percentages when I’m on RPE.

That’s probably not the way to look at it. It’s not comparing two methods, you’re comparing something you can actually get better at. Mike T gauging his RPE, is going to be way better than the first time you do it, and it may not be something that’s worth comparing.

Like a well experienced lifter who’s played with RPE for a long time, may be able to reap more benefits from it in terms of auto regulation. Putting the right weight on the bar for the goal of the day, because they really know how to use that tool well.

Jake BolyJake Boly

I want to ask one more question on RPE before we shift gears and I ask you about the next topic. My final question on this topic is, you mentioned that you can apply RPE to different adaptations, so it can be used for other things than strength.

Let’s talk about how you would apply it to volume and other variables in training and some strategic ways that listeners can do so if they are, maybe, let’s say trying to think of a different way to push their performance outside of just strength and intensity focus.

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Absolutely. Yes. There are some cool stuff you can do with RPE to auto regulate volume. For example, you can use what I call an RPE stop, which originally came from the idea “fatigue percentages”, which Mike T started in reactive training systems.

Really, simply, an RPE stop can be used for an open-ended set. For example, you put a fixed load of a bar and you do as many reps as you can until you hit a target RPE. You can say, “Hey, I’m going to put 70 percent on the bar and when I hit seven RPE, I’m going to stop and I’m going to do a fixed number of sets”. That way you are auto regulating the volume per set.

Another way to do it would be to do an open-ended number of sets with a fixed number of reps. For example — and this is why it’s called an RPE climb — you can start out by doing, say, eight reps with whatever results in a seven RPE.

It means you select the weight of the bar and you’re getting pretty close and you allow a certain amount of RPE climb. This means that, let’s say, you allow 1.5 RPE to accumulate. That means you’re going to stop once that same load for the same number of reps goes up 1.5 RPE points or higher.

Let’s just say, to arbitrarily choose a number, you do 225, you do your eight reps — it’s a 7 RPE. You rest your x number of minutes, but you actually keep that consistent. You do your second set, same load same reps. You do eight reps with 225. This time it’s a 7.5 RPE.

OK, that makes sense. Accumulative fatigue set-to-set. You keep going and you do two more sets and on that fourth set, you get an 8.5 RPE. That’s when you stop. That’s 1.5 RPE points that have climbed from the initial 7 RPE with the same load and same number of reps.

Now this is a useful way to auto regulate because, if you think about it, on a really, really crappy day — maybe you didn’t eat enough, maybe you’re dieting, maybe you got poor sleep. Nonetheless your set-to-set strength endurance, or your ability to recover strength and do repeated expressions of force, is poor that day.

It’s probably not a day you want to hammer that trait. If you were really, really bad at recovering your strength set-to-set, you force yourself going all the way to failure, maintaining load or even doing clusters to get somewhere, you can bet you just dug a really deep hole of recovery, because you’re already in the hole a little bit.

It’s probably not a good idea to just crush yourself with five sets of eight on a day when your body was really not ready for it, or your mind wasn’t. On one of those days your RPE might climb really quickly. That first set might go from a 7 to an 8 RPE. Then next it goes to a 9 and you’re done. You only get three sets.

Likewise on a day when you’re really fresh, you ate well, [indecipherable 49:59] and storage just topped out, you took two scoops of your pre-workout. You’re ready to do some work. You might get six sets. It’s the idea of, just like striking when the “iron is hot” with load, when you simply go, “Right, my goal today is a single at 8 RPE.”

I might be weak that day and put up a poor number compared to my max. Or, shit, I might get close to my previous 1RM even though it is an 8 RPE. That’s fantastic. That tells me that my maximum strength is increasing or that I’m a little under-recovered.

You can do the same thing with volume. You can assess your volume capabilities and allow yourself to strike when the iron is hot. To let the leash out a little bit, if you will, and perform more volume when you’re in a state to do so.

I will say though that when you’re using this strategy, it does need to be within the context of some type of plan. Maybe a periodized system. You wouldn’t want to allow yourself to do five or six sets if you felt great in the middle of a taper, five days out of a competition.

The goal is not to fatigue yourself with a lot of volume. You might put a set cap of two or not use this strategy at all. Auto regulation isn’t necessarily a replacement for periodization, it’s something that allows you to work within the confines of the goal.

For example, you might allow a higher RPE climb during the volume block, and a lower RPE climb during the intensity block so that, while you’re still letting the leash out, per se, you only let it out so much within the goals of the mesocycle.

Jake BolyJake Boly

That’s really cool. I’ve actually never heard of an RPE climb. That is something that I would like to play with, eventually, in my program.

Eric HelmsEric Helms

For sure. That’s not a term I just throw out to make sense. It’s basically the same concept as a fatigue percentage. Where the original fatigue percentage, you would take weight off the bar and then wait until you get back to your original RPE. Which is a similar strategy. I find this is easier to explain if we keep the load the same and let the RPE go up a certain amount.

The way Mike T did this back in the days, he would use like a three percent reduction in the load, or a five percent reduction in load, or a seven percent reduction in load. You keep the reps the same and then once you get back to the original RPE with a lower load, then you’ve accomplished basically the same thing.

Just that you are achieving lesser or fewer back-off sets based on how much you backed-off from the original load. Therefore the amount of accumulated fatigue would be greater with a smaller percentage backed-off. Doing only three percent less.

If you go from 200 kilos to 194 kilos, that’s only a three percent reduction in load. That’s going to be almost the same RPE that first set. If you drop seven percent, it might take a few sets for it to feel as hard. Similar concept but, I think, an easier way to explain it to the client.

Jake BolyJake Boly

I want to shift gears a little bit and ask you about a topic that’s gaining more and more traction due to social media these days, but that is effective reps and effective volume. I would love to hear your thoughts on it and how you view it and, maybe, apply it in your training and clients’ training?

I just want to hear your topics, because I think with your diverse background and your experience I’m really interested to see what you think on this topic.

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Effective reps is something that, as we American say, Borge Fagerly or Borge Fagerly talked about a long time ago, when he discussed and creating Myo-reps. It’s something that Chris Beardsley of the Strength and Conditioning Research Review has talked a fair bit about as well as other people in the sphere of lifting.

The basic idea is that certain reps are more stimulating. Specifically for hypertrophy which has, of course, knock on effects of strengths if you generate more size. You do recruit high threshold motor units. You’re going to probably induce more strength gains, but this is a primarily a discussion for hypertrophy.

Basically, it’s only the last few reps in the set where you perceive the barbell or the dumbbell to be slowing down due to accumulative fatigue that are creating a robust stimulus.

For example, let’s say, we’re going back to that 12 to 15 reps with 70 percent of 1RM, the argument would be then only in the last five reps or so, where you actually start to see the barbell slow down rep to rep to rep as you approach failure, are producing a close to maximum stimulus, while most of the earlier reps are simply there to generate the fatigue to allow you to perform those “effective reps.”

This is come about and has some utility but also has some holes in the theory. We used to say like maybe five years or so ago that that volume load was a predictive factor of hypertrophy, that being sets times reps times load.

But as we started to look more other factors, we saw that volume load only in certain conditions seem to be predictive hypertrophy, and indeed, a set of 6, and a set of 15 to failure, while the set of 6 being closer a 1RM will be better for strength development, they’re actually quite similar in terms of the stimulus for hypertrophy, even though one has about twice the volume load of the other.

You know, if you were to do a set with your 15RM, which is going to be lighter than a set with the load you use for your 6RM, one is going to be about the twice volume load is the other.

However, a 15RM does not produce twice as much hypertrophy. In fact, they produce almost identical levels of hypertrophy. That’s because in the end, when you do a set to failure, that has enough reps in it to produce sufficient time under tension, you’re getting to the same point.

The way to think of this is that if you’re going to do 15 reps, you’re going to have different motor units getting cycled in to pick up the slack as other motor units and the fibers they innervate are fatiguing. So as different muscle fibers are working towards pushing these reps of these 15 reps set up and up and up and up and up, eventually, they’re going to fatigue and someone else has to come in and pick up the slack.

These high threshold motor units will get cycled in to continue that force production. Eventually, they too will fatigue until everything is fatigue and you’ve effectively trained everything to its maximum capacity having done 15 reps out of a total possible 15.

Now, the same thing basically happens on a 6RM. We know from Henneman’s size principle that if you lift a heavy enough load everything is recruited. Essentially, our muscles recruit only the fibers they need to lift the load and due to the fatigue or lifting a really heavy load, that can mean more and more fibers are recruited.

When you lift a very, very heavy load all the way from you slow-twitch fibers all the way to your fast-twitch fibers are recruited almost immediately. If you lift a six rep max, pretty much everything is recruited automatically. Then after the six reps are done, everything has been effectively trained and the large motor tension has been put on the muscles.

You’ll notice that the first rep on a 6RM is pretty slow and that only gets slower from there. Whether you’ve done a 15RM or a 6RM, you’re getting to the same place is essentially the point. While the entirety of that 6RM might be “effective reps” the argument would be that only once you start to see the barbell velocity slow in a 15RM are you achieving effective reps.

What we know to be true from the research is that when you’re comparing any load from say about 40 percent of 1RM up to say your 5RM or 6RM a set to failure is about equivalent to any other load for the stimulus for hypertrophy.

It means if you take a set of 30 to failure or say your 40 percent 1RM to true failure, which is hard to do because the metabolic fatigue will confuse you as to when you’re actually there. Where you take a 6RM to failure, they’ll have the same stimulus.

But where it starts to fall apart is when we look at studies that are not to failure, sometimes we see similar hypertrophy especially in trained lifters that kind of throw some wrenches in the idea of effective reps.

The problem with the effective reps theory is that while it makes sense on paper and has solid theoretical support there are enough studies now where the non-failure group might actually get more hypertrophy or there’s no difference in hypertrophy between the two groups.

That is probably a little more complicated than that. There are probably interactions between what is the prime mover, what’s the secondary muscle group. Not all the muscles are necessarily contributing the same amount, fatiguing at the same rate. Advance lifters also seem to be able to recruit high threshold motor units earlier in a set.

If you’re lifting to maximum concentric velocity, that might also change things, that’s another way to recruit muscle fibers. Then you might induce fatigue a little earlier and get more growth out of that.

There probably is some effect of the total amount of work done, it’s the effect of metabolic stress can’t be discounted. That might put, higher rep sets on more equal footing than you expect. You have to consider that if you’re going really, really heavy and you can only get three reps. Those are just three effective reps.

We have data to show that sets of 2 to 4RM — if you equate the number of sets — doesn’t produce as much growth as sets let’s say 8 to 12RM .That’s simply because you’re not spending enough time actually lifting. It’s too heavy for you to complete a sufficient amount of time under tension to fatigue all those fibers.

There is a useful way of looking at training when you talk about effective reps, but I don’t think it’s to the point where it’s a model that predicts hypertrophy.

We’ve seen studies go against that model enough times now, that I’m not confident. I think it is useful to think about maybe why hypertrophy can be equal between a low load and a high load set at failure.

If you understand that, you basically get to the same place but through different means to recruit and train all those fibers. That’s where the utility ends in my opinion. I’ve seen some very hard line positions with effective reps were basically, “Hey, only the last five reps in a set to failure counts.

Either therefore you should be training with moderately heavy loads all the time. High reps are simply just unnecessarily fatiguing and burning a lot of calories.

I have seen the position that basically you should always train to failure to ensure that you’re getting the most effective reps each time. Forgetting the big picture of how much that might induce disproportionate fatigue or risk injury or create burnout.

Useful paradigm probably doesn’t accurately model hypertrophy in response to how close to failure you go or the number of reps in a set, or what RPE you train at. In fact, in my PhD, the final study we did, we took trained lifters doing the squat and the bench press. These are reasonably strong people.

By the end of the study, they were on average squatting close to 400 pounds these males and benching well into the 200s. One group trained with a percentage 1RM, the other group trained with RPE. The percentage 1RM group gained strength at a faster rate than the percentage 1RM progression.

They ended up training at roughly a five to six RPE throughout the whole study. That means that they had four to five reps left in the tank throughout the whole study. Which means that they almost did no effective reps, if you use that kind of hardline position.

While the other group started at a 5 RPE, and trained all the way up to a 10 RPE by the end of the study. They had on average about an 8 RPE, meaning that they were getting, at least three of those five effective reps on average throughout the study.

You would expect to see no growth in one group and some growth in the other. In fact, when you compare the muscle thickness changes in the pectoralis major, in the quadriceps there was no significant difference between the two groups. The actual percentage changes and mean values were quite similar.

It doesn’t always add up. That’s where we need to probably look a little deeper into this model. Not just base it off of the observation that sets to failure at various different intensities produce hypertrophy.

Jake BolyJake Boly

I would have to agree with that because I feel like with how social media can spin it, they almost make it black and white. Like you said, there’s so many different levels. Especially when you consider the different studies that have looked at this topic with the differences in training aid and so forth.

I feel like that’s just it can’t be that clear cut, especially when it comes to hypertrophy and how people respond to certain intensity. That was a fantastic analysis. Thank you. I always appreciate it. Hopefully the listeners do too.

Eric HelmsEric Helms

My pleasure, man.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Last topic for you, I promise and then I’ll let you go about your day. I want to ask you about sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. I want to ask about your thoughts on it. I want to ask you, have you read the study by Haun and colleagues? I believe that’s how you pronounce his name.

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Yeah, Cody Haun. Dr. Haun is done. I have read this study. I think it’s really, really intriguing.

Jake BolyJake Boly

 I would love to hear your thoughts on it. If you think it’s possible to train for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy alone. If you think it’s even possible to isolate that variable for maybe like a mesocycle or so forth.

Eric HelmsEric Helms

The short answer is no, I don’t think it’s possible to train for alone. That study and some other observations we’ve had over time — Greg Nuckols has a great article on this strongerbyscience.com, I’d recommend you check it out — would hint that certainly, you can have training that’s a little more biased towards that.

A analogy I like to use is that the myofibrillar growth, the actual increase in the contractile tissue component, your actin and myosin, that is growth of the engine, while sarcoplasmic growth is the growth of the fuel tank, if we use the analogy of our muscle being a car.

If you do things that are very energetically demanding of your muscle, especially at relatively high forces, it’s going to have to do things to make you better at buffering to provide more fuel, to be better at shuttling things, to make the mitochondria more efficient, so that you can actually produce those contractions to handle calcium better, etc., etc.

Likewise, if you’re putting really, really high tension on the muscle, it’s going to need to have a larger engine, if you will, a larger muscle fiber to produce more contractile force, a greater amount of actin and myosin.

If you’re producing, to take it to another angle, if you’re training at a long muscle lengths, and if you’re challenging its ability to rapidly shorten and then contract the stretch shortening cycle and you can see adaptations to the tighten molecule, which is like an internal tendon if you will, that allows passive force contribution to occur intramuscularly.

If you’re — sorry — training along muscle lengths that’ll increase sarcomeres in series, make sure your muscle able to produce force at longer muscle lengths and change that relationship between length and tension.

You can see changes in the connective tissue and the fascia in the resting tonicity of muscle in response to the levels of forces the length of the muscle when it’s trained and when it’s producing forces.

Whether you’re doing more eccentric training, you’re going to see more hypertrophy in series, in the length versus more muscle thickness changes in doing concentrate training. It’s really cool now that we’re starting to dig into more specifics of muscle fiber adaptations to different training stimuli, and the various adaptations that can occur because of that.

There wasn’t too long ago, maybe say 2010 or so, where you could have probably found me on some message board, poopooing the idea of non-uniform regional hypertrophy, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, or anything besides the notion of basically muscles just getting bigger or smaller, and how a bigger muscle’s a stronger muscle and it’s that simple.

Now, we know that there’s a lot that goes into the global hypertrophy we see. You can produce equal hypertrophy, doing really high reps with low-rest periods and heavy training. Obviously, we know that on average, a powerlifter is going to be stronger than a bodybuilder even when they have a similar cross-sectional area.

Beyond that, there might be actual structural changes. Those aren’t just neuromuscular changes, though there will be differences in pennation angle. There’ll be differences in the actual myosin isoform expressions or the fiber-type differences between the two.

There’s probably differences in the sarcoplasmic versus myofibrillar components to where that hypertrophy comes from, etc., etc. We need a lot more data in this area. I’m, at the very least, pretty confident that there are going to be different adaptations.

If you were to generate the same whole muscle hypertrophy from doing exclusively blood-flow-restricted-high-rep-low-rest-period training, with largely concentric biased actions, versus doing really, really high-load training, low reps to produce the same hypertrophy and doing more dominant eccentric actions, you’d get some very different muscle characteristics and enforce characteristics.

I think that’s neat. We’re not at the point where we can confidently predict those and say when it’s best to do one or the other or how to sequence them.

I do think it probably gives some credence to some of the notions that we have in periodization, that there should be distinct blocks we focus on one thing or the other to some degree and not that that can occur in a micro-cycle like daily undulating periodization.

Or that it can occur in a longer period, like classical Western periodization, or that it can occur in a truncated version of that, like block periodization. There’s many ways to get there. We don’t know what’s best yet, but we can say that you’re probably producing different adaptations, when you have those very distinct programming modalities.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Got you. Want to say, Dr. Haun, I am sorry for butchering your name, and two, the Greg Nuckols’ article you reference. That’s the one that was titled The Bros Were Probably Right, right? Is that the one?

Eric HelmsEric Helms

I think so. I could look it up, but I’m pretty sure that is the article. One thing I really liked about Greg is that he updates his articles as more data comes out. I could be wrong, but I want to say that he’s probably added a bit to that, since the latest research has come out.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Awesome. Well, listeners, I will link that down in the description within this podcast on the website. That almost wraps up our podcast, Eric. I do want to ask you a few more questions that we do in a more of like a rapid-fire round so super quick questions. If you’re game for it…

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Shoot away.

Jake BolyJake Boly

…I’ll shoot away. All right. Number one, on your “Iron Culture” podcast, who would be the ultimate guest to have? If you could have anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?

 

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Man, I’m going to say Dave Draper, The Blonde Bomber. Anyone who’s not aware, this was the trading partner of all the classic guys from the ’70s. He won Mr. America in ’65, Mr. World, 1970 and I want to see universe in ’67.

His philosophies on training and on life, and just sticking with it for the long haul, everything he talked about in terms of burnout and loving it for the process, is really, insightful. He’s a fantastic writer. Anyone who has not read it, I highly recommend “Brother Iron Sister Steel.” It’s a great book that he wrote in 2011.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Amazing. If you could train with anybody, who would it be?

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Jeez, that’s a tough one. I would probably want to train with John Grimek. I would require a time machine.

That would be cool to train in an era where bodybuilding and weightlifting were almost the same thing, and to train with the guy who represented the US in 1936 Olympics for weightlifting, back when the clean and press was still one of the three lifts in weightlifting.

It was also the guy who required the rule where you can’t compete in the Mr. America more than once because they thought he would never stop winning it. He was the 1940 and 1941 winner.

He was also huge. If you were to calculate his FFMI, his fat-free mass index, it was close to 30.

Especially when he stopped chasing the weight class restrictions in weightlifting, trying to get the clean and press national record. He let his body weight get up as high as he wanted for the off-season of his 1941 American debut.

The guy was like 5’8″ and I believe over 200 pounds on the stage in 1941. Obviously, not shredded but still appropriate to be in a speedo. The guy could do a black flip, he could do the splits, and he could strict press close to 300 pounds over his head. He was huge and symmetrical.

One of the few people to have beaten Steve Reeves, which he did in his return to the stage in the Mr. Universe competition. I think in ’47 if I recall correctly.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Favorite strength sports to compete in and why?

Eric HelmsEric Helms

That’s tough. [laughs] That’s a hard one, because I compete in weightlifting, Strongman bodybuilding, and powerlifting. I’m going to be that guy who is just refusing to give up his mistresses, and say that I love them all equally, but for different reasons.

Strongman is awesome because I am new it and because it’s still kind of the Wild West. There’s very little standardization, the equipment is different every time, the heights you have to do with stone too are different. The circumference has changed. There are so many variables. It very much feels like anything can happen. You can compete against someone a lot stronger than you and you may be able to beat them with the right medley of events.

I used to work with a gentleman named Jen Li Sheng. I still work with him, but back when he was Singapore’s Strongest Man, he barely had a 400-pound back-squat and only a touch over a 500-pound deadlift. There were some events he just could barely put up, but he consistently won World’s Strongest Man, because he was so athletic.

He would beat people who came from a power-lifting background who could squat and deadlift a couple hundred pounds more than him. He was able to beat them because he was so athletic. He could flip tires like you wouldn’t believe. He could do loaded carries at incredible speeds, and he would always make up ground that way.

I think it’s a much more interesting sport to watch than participate in.

Powerlifting, I love because it’s just raw expression of strength. You’re just as strong as you are, and coming from a bodybuilding background, that objectivity, I really like.

Weightlifting, I like it for the same reason, but the cool the thing about weightlifting, coming from a power-lifting background, is that I’m way stronger than I need to be for the level of strength that I need for the competition lifts. I back-squatted 495, but my best clean-and-jerk is only 115 kilos, which is like 250 pounds.

It’s really about figuring out the movement. It’s a really heavy skill component. It feels like playing chess, and it’s very frustrating but also very rewarding. Then bodybuilding is like a transcendent experience where you’re trying to make it through the desert with only half a liter of water but 100 miles to go, and just surviving is a emotional process.

I have a different love for each one. I’m probably going to keep doing them all as long as my body allows me to.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Amazing. You had a bad day, you get to the gym, you have a heavy training session, what is your go-to pump up song?

Eric HelmsEric Helms

That’s a good question. If I’ve had a bad day, if I’m in a bad mood, I probably won’t try to force it with something like hard rock or rap, I will probably play funk. Maybe a little Earth, Wind, Fire, James Brown. Maybe Wild Cherry if I want to get crazy, you know what I’m saying. Maybe some Brick House.

Some funk always puts me in a good mood. It’s really difficult to listen to funk and not smile. That’s typically my go-to when I’m not in a good mood.

Jake BolyJake Boly

Got you. It’s like standing in a completely still room and telling people not to dance when they put it on.

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Exactly. Not going to happen.

Jake BolyJake Boly

 [laughs] Well, I seriously appreciate your time. I know I’ve learned things throughout this podcast. Hopefully, our listeners do too. Can you tell the listeners where to find you, where to follow you and where to get in touch with you if they want to learn more or work with you?

Eric HelmsEric Helms

Yeah, absolutely. I am the Chief Science Officer, I act as the consultant to the coaches at 3dmusclejourney.com to make sure they’re up to date with the best and the latest of science, and they’re the primary coaches these days.

I just worked with athletes I’ve worked with for a long time. If you want to do coaching, or if you want to get access to the 3DMJ podcast, the blogs we write, our courses, which many of them are free, check us out at 3dmusclejourney.com. That’s the number 3, the letter D, and the words musclejourney.com together.

From there, you can find the links to monthly applications in strength sport, the monthly research review that I do with Dr. Eric Trexler, Dr. Mike Zourdos, and Greg Nuckols.

You can find links to the Muscle and Strength Pyramids, my books that are the guides for nutrition and training for recreational and competitive strength and physique athletes, with my co-authors, Andrea Valdez and Andy Morgan.

 Then you can find Iron Culture, which I do with Omar Isuf on iTunes or Spotify or YouTube. That’s probably the best way to find all of that content. For daily stuff, you can follow me on Instagram @helms3dmj.

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