Actionable Data: Routine Adjustments Based On Lack of Muscle In Spite Of Strength Gain

My most popular post, “The Six-Year Itch,” was capped with this statement:

I write this mostly for myself, as a return to what got me to damn near my genetic potential in the first place. High intensity weight training to total muscular fatigue, focusing on emptying the tank as fast as possible and judging progress by internal cues rather than forcing external metrics (e.g. raising weight just because or fidgeting to reach a better TUL).

If I end up training with weights more than 1 hour per week, I’m doing it wrong. I bet I can get it back down under 20 minutes like the old days. Hell, less than 10 minutes (per week) has let Vee achieve 18+ inch arms.

That post was just over 1 year ago and since then I’ve started grad school and have maintained a very busy training schedule. However, the perk of grad school is that I get Bodpod body composition measurements for a very reasonable cost. So on September 9th, 2011 I had a bodpod scan that gave me the following:

-Weight    173.898 lb
-Lean Body Mass    150.614 lb
-Fat Mass    23.283 lb
-Body Fat Percentage    13.4%

At that point I took on a constant loading program espoused by the late John Christy. I did this due to the fact that I didn’t have a trainer at my disposal to really drive me through high intensity workouts akin to Dr. Doug McGuff would espouse. I love carpet time but in order to achieve this you need to be able to give yourself over to a trainer you trust and Keith, and he’ll tell you this, is not a HIT trainer per se. That’s not to say that he’s not capable of kicking ass. So my workout was high-intensity oriented given that I didn’t have a trainer: big compounds with microloading. It also helps to know that I was coming off a hand injury that kept me from pulling hard or doing good chins. Here was my workout in early October:

  • Trap bar Deadlift: 220 x 12, 200 x 12
  • Weighted Chin: +12.5 x 12, BW  x 12
  • Weighted Dip: +30 x 12, +15 x 12
  • Shrugs: 200 x 12
  • Gripper: 92.41 x :45 x 2/each hand (static hold)

And here is where I was last week:

  • Dip: +100 x 3, + 75 x 4, +45 x 5, +23 x 6
  • Chin: +70 x 3, +47 x 4, +23 x 5, BW x 6
  • Trap Bar Deadlift: 360 x 3, 326 x 4
  • Dynavec Multi-Directional Hip Extension: 145 x 15
  • Nitro Pullover: 210 x 10

And for what it’s worth I can now do much more weight for higher reps. For example I can do weighted dips with 65lbs around my waist for 10 reps. This should mean more muscle, right? Let’s look at a Bodpod from last week:

-Weight: 174.508 lb
-Lean Mass: 150.438 lb
-Fat Mass: 24.07 lb
-Body Fat: 13.8%

Say what?! Big strength gains and no muscle gain at all? This is what is called “Adaptive Coordination” and is how athletes locked in a weight class sport continue to get stronger in spite a lack of gain in muscle tissue. After trying to reason my way out of it, I went and got a Dexa Scan done which gave me this result:

Bodyfat: 13.1%

Fat-Free Mass: 153.4lbs

Fat Mass: 23.2 lbs

Bone Mineral: 8.5lbs (HELL YEAH! MORE THAN KEITH! EAT IT!)

The Dexa had me at 176.6lbs, 1 hour later without any food or water intake, which makes up for the difference in lean mass between the bodpod and the Dexa. The cool thing about this, if I’m to look for a silver lining, is that I eat unweighed, unmeasured paleo and it keeps me rather lean. Not bad. However, I got stronger but not bigger, why?

My ability to lift weight improved due to a variety of things. This is just a short list of things I improved in the past 8 months:

  1. Inter and intra muscular coordination
  2. Motor learning
  3. Motor unit/fiber recruitment efficiency
  4. Golgi tendon inhibition
  5. Heterochronicity
  6. Fatigue resistance
  7. Postural changes
  8. Co-contraction
  9. Connective tissue changes
  10. Improvements in cadence and turnarounds
  11. Motivation
  12. Pain tolerance
  13. Perception of difficulty
  14. Confidence
  15. Experience

No less than 15 different things that can go up and allow weight to go up without muscle going up. There is a longer discussion about lifting ability versus lifting capability that is beyond the scope of this article.

The next stage: Bass + Blitz = Bomb Diggity?

So the next step is to see how I do with a full-on return to pure-HIT strength training. Specifically giving myself over to a trainer, my boss, and getting thrashed once a week in the weight room. On Saturdays I’ll run some Sprint-8 type intervals followed by a long weight vest walk. I won’t keep track of calories but I will eat more on those days just because I can.

If this looks familiar, it’s because this is exactly how Clarence Bass trains. At least that’s how he trained 14 years ago and no article I’ve read recently indicates otherwise. And like Mr. Bass, I’ll vary my routines while maintaining marker exercises: everything from Dr. McGuff-style workouts to Doug Holland-style deadlift+beer sessions. The latter will likely be once per month.

However, there is benefit of periodic volume and intensity increases. I’ve discussed the concept of the “critical point of change” as applied to power law dynamics, specifically the use of workout chaos to increase effort due to lack of coordination and the blitz to drastically ramp up demands and intensity at the same time. The thing is I’ve never actually done a blitz, not well, likely because I was too exhausted to get excited for one and/or the recovery demands are quite an undertaking. Think 4500+kcal/day, contrast bathing, weekly massage, loads of sleep, as little life stressors as possible. Ask Dallas about his clean mass gain and he’ll tell you just how hard it was to do for 5 weeks but 2 weeks is about the limit of a drastic, silly, obscene increase in effort, demands, and recovery work. Summer is where this could take place. I’ll plan on doing something like that in July and doing a bodpod right afterward. If it works, it validates both the ABCDE diet AND the No-Bull Mass Gain diet, at least somewhat.

“There is no failure, only feedback” is a saying that Arthur De Vany likes to use regarding his perspective on the lack of failure in life. I got stronger than I ever had been overall in my upper body and not a new pound of lean mass to show for it. This information is actionable and so we’ll see the result in another 4 months or so. Onward!

Update: 4/24/2012

James asked this in the comments:

I’d be interested to know what the inter and intra day reliability of your individual bodpod unit is. We have a bodpod and as part of our lab accreditation we had to perform a reliability study on it and although I can’t remember the coefficients of variation of the top of my head I do recall it was higher than expected. Bodpods better than most body composition measures, but far from perfect.

This is a great question that I don’t have an answer for but I can tell you that it was the reason I got the Dexa done to “check” the accuracy of the Bodpod. Halfway through the interval of this experiment, on 12/13/2011, I had a Bodpod done: same administer, same time of day, same status (17 hours fasted, no liquids since 8pm the night before). The results were as follows:

  • Body Weight: 175.04 lbs
  • Lean Body Mass: 151.437 lbs
  • Fat mass: 23.603 lbs
  • Body fat: 13.5%

So it might be off slightly day to day, it seems to be consistent enough to track long term changes, at least as consistent as hydrostatic weighing. That seemed to work for Clarence Bass, so I figure it’s OK for me for a very accurate directional accuracy.

25 thoughts on “Actionable Data: Routine Adjustments Based On Lack of Muscle In Spite Of Strength Gain

      1. They’re regular in my program; if I had a Pendulum Power Grip Pro I’d use that instead but the Ivanko is a go anywhere, do anything grip tool.

  1. whoa…that pendulum thingy is a whole lotta machine for such a small movement. what level captain of crush have you worked up to?

    i too have gotten stronger but composition hasn’t changed much as far as i can tell. are those bodpods worth doing for curiosity sake?

    1. The pendulum is great for negatives but I agree with your statement of a whole lot of machine for a little movement!

      Bodpods are great if you can action the data; we like them for transformation projects because its quite accurate and shows changes in fat mass quite accurately.

      1. I’d be interested to know what the inter and intra day reliability of your individual bodpod unit is. We have a bodpod and as part of our lab accreditation we had to perform a reliability study on it and although I can’t remember the coefficients of variation of the top of my head I do recall it was higher than expected. Bodpods better than most body composition measures, but far from perfect.

      2. James,

        Indeed and that’s why I got the Dexa 1 hour later to test the “gold standard” against the “good standard” as it pertains to me. I’ve had the bodpod done a couple other times between in between September and now and its fairly accurate against what I gather from the BIA and 3-site calipers at home.

      3. Skyler,

        Thanks for adding that consideration into the post. comparing the bodpod to any other method though concerns the validity of the measurement, not the reliability.

        I pulled the data we had collected on interday and intraday reliability for our bodpod and found the avg error was ~3%. Not huge and obviously sensitive enough to detect large changes in body composition. But snapshots taken a year apart that look similar could just be coincidence.

      4. Great points James. I should further clarify that a client had purchased the DXA scan for me and it was a curiosity to see how (relatively) accurate they would be to one another. I’m looking forward to the accumulation of more data with the Bodpod over the duration of grad school.

  2. Hi Skyler,

    Great and interesting post. With respect to Mr Bass his routine is a bit different now according to his latest book Great Expectations: whole body weights one day, upper body weights plus lower aerobics one day, whole body aerobics one day and then lots of walking. The principles are the same though. Bass has always been an inspiration since I read Ripped 26 years ago.

    Mass comes hard to me so as I’ve got older I am more focussed on (a) being injury free – Bill DeSimone’s books are an essential read (b) getting leaner- which has needed some weighing and measuring and (c) hiking for fun. The rest of my life is stressful at work and with family worries and I am 44 now so my aims have changed since I was 15 and wanted to be huge.

    Great to read this though


    1. Hey Chris,

      Thanks for stopping by and updating me on the state of Mr. Bass. He was always an experimenter and it doesn’t surprise me that he is still dialing things in even in his 70s. Mr. Bass is still an inspiration to me as well; a large part of these bodpod measures comes out of his hydrostatic weighing through the Ripped series, especially Ripped 1.

      Priorities do change; as well I don’t want to be huge at all costs – I know how to do that with a pizza everyday! Rather it’s a unique challenge to try to (a) maximize my potential as outlined in Casey Butt’s book on maximum muscle potential (b) create a huge glucose sink while I’m still young enough to maximize it without banging my head against a wall too much and (c) have data to help others in the same way… with the idea of creating a “Grand Unified Theory”… delusions maybe but it’s a nice subtle motivator!

      As I get older I see the family concerns increasing, which is why my training load is reducing rather than increasing. I’m basically motivated by old muscular guys who didn’t turn to shit physically because they never got so injured or involved that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

      As always your perspective is appreciated; thank you!

  3. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you followed a strict, high-volume bodybuilding template for a while. Could you eek-out a few more lbs of muscle? Would the extra time required be “worth it”? It’s interesting to note that when I go through periods of bodybuiling-like training, I seem to put on mass (not DEXA verified, only observational), while my CNS gets to “coast” and recharge. We all know that bodybuilding routines can be lead to overtraining and stalled progress too, so tempering via an imposed daily/weekly time constraint is useful. Which leads to the debate of “functional mass” vs “beach mass”. Bigger, yes — but faster & stronger — and more importantly, more powerful? So goals are everything. Athletes need the all important power/bodyweight ratio to rock. Bodybuilders? Meh, who cares. Tweeners? Yeah, of course we want the best of both worlds — which simply means we have to accept compromise on both ends.

    Re: bone mass – now we know who *really* caries the Neanderthal gene. I’ve been officially exonerated 😉

    1. I figure your bone mass is smaller only because you’re over 35 and turning bone over less aggressively.

    2. And the longer answer to this is: perhaps. This is the argument Brian Johnston made for the gains bodybuilders in the 70’s made on Nautilus: it was the severe reduction in volume and giant intensiveness upgrade that sparked a totally different environment, hence his HIT flip of a period of very high volume and calories. I guess the bodpod will tell the tale.

  4. I’m really surprised that you’ve been using the constant loading program without gaining muscle…I guess muscle gains following strength gains isn’t exactly true after all. The gains you made in strength must feel pretty awesome though. I know its hard to be objective but do you think that you look different? Fuller muscles that type of thing.

    1. Hard to say; there are days where I *seem* harder and more vascular but I suspect that’s just transient changes in water obscuring/revealing vascularity.

      1. At this point, would you say that using the constant loading program with small increases each week is not the way to go for someone looking to maximize muscle gains?

      2. I would say that: 1) a person needs to get stronger but 2) a person needs to challenge their bodies with that new strength. So in isolation it probably isn’t the best way to maximize muscle gains for most people but you certainly aren’t going to get weaker trying to maximize your genetic muscular potential.

  5. Skyler,

    We’ve discussed jump training in the past and at one time one of your goals was to get your vertical up even higher than it was (and it was impressive then). Given that your bodyweight is pretty low and you made those huge increases in strength did you notice any improvement in your vertical or is that something you’re not too concerned with anymore?



    1. David,

      I’ve not really been concerned with it lately; I’ve come to realize my “gift” is leaping ability. After very little focus on improving leaping ability I had my 2 foot standing vert measured at 31″ on a vertec unit at University. I suspect with a little focus on jump training I could push my running leap up over 36″.

      I care less because I can count on 2 hands the number of basketball games I’ve played in the last 5 years. It was much more of an identity thing: I can dunk and as long as I can I don’t care about actively improving my leaping ability.


  6. “I would say that: 1) a person needs to get stronger but 2) a person needs to challenge their bodies with that new strength. So in isolation it probably isn’t the best way to maximize muscle gains for most people but you certainly aren’t going to get weaker trying to maximize your genetic muscular potential.”

    Can you clarify the second point? Wouldn’t increasing the weight steadily equal to challenging ones new strength?

    1. Yes but not necessarily enough to add new muscle. The expense of muscle makes it a “last ditch” option for the body under most circumstances: it’s easier to improve neural drive and voluntary motor unit recruitment than it is to build tissue de novo. That’s why weight-class sports exist and guys can live in certain classes while steadily gaining strength.

      To put it another way: you need both improved strength (capacity) and to challenge the use of that strength (ability) to realize new lean tissue gains and its terribly slow compared to improving neural recruitment of muscle tissue.

  7. Very interesting stuff.

    I’ve been reading a bit lately about conventional lifting programs (Starting Strength 3×5, Strong Lifts 5×5 etc), and they make it sound so simple – just follow the program, push the weights up slowly, eat hearty, and then mass and strength with follow. It adds some very useful perspective to see that a dedicated trainee (dare I say hardcore enthusiast) can follow this kind of program, show great progress in demonstrated strength, and not have much more muscle in the end.

    As someone who also follows the HIT blogs, I occasionally see reports from HIT practitioners who are still seeing gains in weight lifted after a relatively long time (years) on such a program. In at least one case, I recall some frustration on the part of the practitioner that the strength gains came without much additional muscle. I wonder if that doesn’t represent a similar phenomena – you are learning to better utilize the muscles you have (e.g., demonstrate strength more effectively) without really building up much additional muscle.

    The $64K question is this: Do these kinds of improvement in demonstrated strength, achieved without much additional muscle, mean anything in terms of overall health and well being? Certainly one could argue that there is a functional benefit to being a little stronger, IF the strength gains you demonstrate on a particular movement translate into being stronger for other activities. I’m sure some would argue that even that benefit is debatable, due to the whole ‘specificity’ thing. But beyond the functional benefits of higher maximum strength, are there any known health benefits to being able to produce more maximum strength or power from a given mass of muscle? I also wonder if you are just trading off against some other performance characteristic, e.g., you lose endurance?

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