Popular dogma states that to make muscles grow you need to overload them with heavy weight and low repetitions, but you'd get an argument about that from several Norwegian physiologists who looked at this issue recently. These researchers designed a study to see whether better training effects can be obtained from using a weight equal to 10 percent of maximum for one rep or 90 percent of maximum for one rep. They recruited 10 male subjects, who trained three times a week for 10 weeks. Five of the subjects trained at 10 percent of maximum, using three sets of 10 reps on biceps curls. The other five used weights equal to 90 percent of their maximums for three sets of two reps during the first four weeks, increasing to four sets of two reps during the last six weeks. Using complex computer-aided measuring devices, the scientists found that the degree of muscular-size increase was the same for both the heavy- and light-training groups. One flaw of this study, however, was the fact that the heavy-training group used only two reps. Most experienced bodybuilders know that, while doing one-to-two-rep maximums does increase strength, it does little for adding muscle mass.
Lifting weights that are heavy enough to permit only one to two reps shifts the focus from muscles to connective tissues, such as tendons and ligaments. Of course, this doesn't mean that no muscle comes into play during such heavy training, but training with more reps does seem to involve more muscle, particularly with larger bodyparts, such as back and thighs.
Tom Platz found this out instinctively years ago. Platz initially used very heavy, lower-rep squats to build his massive thighs, but when he began experimenting with extremely high reps (as many as 50 or more per set) his thighs took on the freaky look that made him famous in bodybuilding circles.
Do bodybuilders need to eat more protein than other people?
The question of protein needs for strength athletes remains a controversial one, as two recent studies indicate. The first study, conducted by Dr. Gail Butterfield and associates at the Veterans Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, examined the protein needs of five male recreational weightlifters. Note that "recreational" is medicalese for lifters who don't train very hard.
The subjects, average age 28, followed two different diets for two-week periods with two weeks' rest between diets. The researchers predetermined both the energy and protein requirements for these men based on existing research. The first diet was lower in protein but higher in carbohydrates and fat. The second diet provided a level of protein that was 1 1/2 times greater than the established need based on weight and activity for these particular subjects. After measuring nitrogen balance, an indication of protein use, the researchers concluded that while a high-protein diet improves nitrogen balance slightly in weightlifters, the effect may derive more from the increase in calories associated with a high-protein diet rather than from the protein itself.
Another study, this one done at Tufts University in Boston, also looked at the protein and energy needs of people who regularly lift weights. This study involved seven men, average age 35, who trained almost daily for one hour with weights. The researchers found that the average energy requirement for these lifters was 4,200 calories a day, although the men only expended an average of 360 calories per workout. The conclusion here was that even without aerobic exercise people who lift weights need more calories but require no more protein than sedentary folks.
At first it appears ludicrous to suggest that bodybuilders may need no more protein than the average Joe who doesn't train at all. Both calories and carbs have a protein-sparing action, however. In short, you get more protein bang for the buck if your calories are sufficiently high. In this scenario all the protein you consume goes toward tissue-repair associated with training.
The situation becomes the reverse, though, when you go on either a low-calorie or low-carbohydrate diet. Here the limited calories you take in may not be enough to spare protein. In the absence of sufficient carbohydrate or calories your body tends to break down tissue protein, or muscle, and convert it into glucose for energy purposes. In this case taking in extra protein will offset the cannibalizing of muscle that often results from diets that are too low in calories or carbohydrates.
In fact, the so-called yo-yo syndrome, in which dieters regain lost weight usually results from a decreased metabolism caused by extended dieting, particularly without accompanying exercise. The lowered metabolism is due to the loss of the most metabolically active tissue in the body.
In summary, you need more protein when you're dieting, but if you consume enough calories and/or carbohydrates, you don't need to consume massive quantities of protein or amino acids. The proper amount of protein to fuel normal training is about 15 percent of your total caloric intake. Because it contains enough calories to supply the energy you need, all of that 15 percent is used for tissue building.