Everything we know about muscle building is wrong with Dr. Brad Schoenfeld

Everything we know about muscle building is wrong with Dr. Brad Schoenfeld


Pictured is Eat To Perform Athlete Anna Hulda on a photo shoot.

Brad Schoenfeld is the reigned “king of hypertrophy” his research has really moved the needle on what we believe about meal timing and how to gain lean mass.  The best of the best in the world rely on Brad’s information, we were lucky to have him come on and talk to our audience.  Also if you listen to Podcasts on iTunes here is Dr. Brad Schoenfeld on building lean mass

You can also find a lot of great content on Brad’s blog.

Also it takes us a few days to get some of these transcribed but we had another podcast on building muscle that was transcribed with John Meadows.  In it John talks about the difference between lifting weights and lifting weights to build muscle.

Transcribed Episode

Dr. Brad Dieter: Hi everybody. Welcome to the Eat To Perform podcast. I’m Dr. Brad Dieter and today I’m going to be your host. And we have an awesome guest on the show today. This is somebody that I’ve been really hoping to talk to for several years. And it’s just a treat and a pleasure to have him.

He’s kind of what I like to call the King of Hypertrophy and one of the leaders in the fields of applied exercise science research. So without further ado welcome to the show, Brad. We’re glad to have you. Tell us a little bit about yourself. You know, a little bit about your background too and kind of you know, where you come from and how that shapes your perspective today.

Brad Schoenfeld: Sure. I think one of the things that makes me somewhat unique in what I’m doing now as a researcher/educator, is that I started out as a personal trainer and spent many years in that venue. So really my, I come from being a practitioner. And really all what I’m doing now is guided by my work as a practitioner in a previous life at this point where I would have questions that I would always want to have the answers. And once I started really getting into research I just saw how really barren the literature is on so many topics that were of interest to me – practical topics.

I think the nature of research often is to look at basic research, mechanisms, and other factors. But in terms of some of the meat and potatoes stuff, it really was quite barren. So with that said I became a trainer, I started getting into fitness right out of college, and took to it very readily. From there I went on and started training people, developed a clientele, very loyal clientele, opened up my own private facility, training facility and from there I started getting the bug to go back and get my Master’s degree. Got involved in teaching and then decided to go on for my PhD and become a full-time educator/researcher.

Dieter: So Brad, you know one of the really unique things about you is that you know, your research is quite extensive. And you’ve begun to unravel some of the key questions around hypertrophy. What can you tell us about what you have learned about volume intensity, frequency, and rest intervals in relation to hypertrophy? And some of those findings that you found that have been a little bit surprising and just kind of walk us through a little bit more about the research that you’ve been doing lately.


Schoenfeld: Yeah so some of the traditional guidelines that have been discussed we’ve now started to learn they’re not quite as clear as we, as had been promoted. So one of my main hobby horses has been repetition ranges, or loading zones. Looking at the typical hypertrophy loading zone repetition ranges always been thought to be 6 to 12 reps and to maximize muscle you’d want to train in this bodybuilding style of training – repetition loading. And what we’re learning, and I’ve carried out now multiple studies on this topic, is that really training through a wide spectrum of repetition ranges provided there is sufficient volume within the loading zones, can produce substantial hypertrophy and rather similar effects on muscle. And that includes very light weights.

One of my studies, actually a couple, have looked at the 25 to 35 repetition range which is very, as you know, very high. And often promoted or preached that it as insufficient to build muscle. And what we’re finding out is that you get robust hypertrophy through a spectrum of loading ranges. And there is though some speculation now that I have that combining these loading zones actually can maximize the response. That having some lower repetition zone training, moderate repetition zone training, and high repetition zone training in certain, we don’t know the exact mix.

Maybe having a theoretically, I would say having more of the 6 to 12 rep is using that as your base, and adding in your higher and lower repetition during training would ultimately maximize the hypertrophic response. So to me that was a biggie. And this is not just in newbies. My research generally is carried out in trained, all trained individuals that have, usually on the average several years training experience, two to three days a week of training for several years. So these aren’t bodybuilders per say, but they are well-trained subjects who aren’t just getting newbie gains. And that was originally hypothesized by me. I tend to prove myself wrong in my hypotheses a lot because I had thought, when I saw some of the earlier research on, recent research by Stu Phillips Lab has done some, as well as some other groups, showing that this high rep training can actually promote roughly equal muscle growth.

I thought it was newbie gains. I figured that it was just these guys would, they can get jacked on cardio if they haven’t done anything. And ultimately in well-trained subjects we’re finding that’s not the case. That they can get very robust growth from high rep training. So certainly that’s one to know.

Dieter: You know, it’s funny Brad, you bring up a really awesome point there about how some of your thoughts that you’ve kind of proven wrong yourself, and that’s something I want to circle back to you and talk about that in the context of science a little bit more. But what you’re kind of telling me is that there’s a lot of individual variation between subjects within your studies which I think is a really underappreciated aspect of the research.

And you know, one question I would ask is did you notice anything in your studies about you know maybe some people responding a little bit better towards low rep high weight ranges versus higher rep low weight ranges? And do you think that there might be some sort of bimodal distribution in which some people perform better in a hypertrophy sense working in one rep range versus the other rep range? Do you have any ideas or thoughts that you can comment maybe on different phenotypes in response to exercise like that?

Schoenfeld: You see that I couldn’t comment on because we don’t, I haven’t done crossover work to try and ascertain that. That certainly is an interesting hypothesis. There’s some interesting work with gene expression and certain genes. Like there’s the ACE gene, the angiotensin gene converting enzyme gene, has been shown to have strength effects on a higher versus lower volumes of training. So certainly there’s a basis towards thinking that it could be gene-related or it even could be a fiber type related.

People that have higher proportions of type one versus type two fibers might. These are all hypotheticals that I couldn’t address. But to your first point, which is really important and something that’s been very eye-opening to me as a researcher, when you actually carry out controlled studies. Obviously I saw wide range, as a practitioner you’ll see very large inter-individual differences but it’s not in a controlled, you’re not doing this in a controlled fashion.

So the routines are somewhat different, you’re not using measurement tools that are very precise. I mean I’m using ultrasound where I’m getting a clear picture of muscle thickness. Here we’re measuring, actually measuring muscle growth somewhat directly measuring muscle growth and seeing that with the exact same routine, you’re getting very different responses. And what’s even to me even more interesting is that one subject might be getting better response in their leg muscles, and another one might be getting better responses in their arm muscles.

So one subject might get almost zero growth in their leg muscles from a given routine, which another one gets 10% gains and vice versa in the arms. The same person versus the other person that had the exact opposite in their arm. So it’s really interesting and it does point to the fact, or at least to me highlights the fact that we can only go by, we can only use research to guide us and then you have to use your own ingenuity and look at the individual you’re training and then adjust it based on their response. So training, the evidence-based approach, one of my big hobby horses is evidence-based training.

Evidence-based training is not just looking at research. Research is used as a guiding force, but ultimately we must use our, harness our own personal expertise and then look to the individual and make adjustments. Because the research is giving you means. What you’re doing is you’re getting, you’re making decisions based on the averages of how people respond and their high and low responders.

Dieter: You know, Brad that’s such an awesome point that you bring up. Really what evidence-based research is, is kind of this marrying of the literature and the research, also with a lot of our personal experience because I think sometimes we underappreciate that aspect of things.

One of the questions I would have, just because we have a lot of people who listen to the show, and I’d love to kind of give them some insights of general principles and things is, are there any kind of general guidelines that you can kind of put forth for people in which they can kind of operate under a framework that are good guidelines for them to operate in terms of kind of optimizing hypertrophy or places they can start?

Schoenfeld: When you say general principles, I’m not following. Do you mean…?

Dieter: Yeah let me kind of rephrase that. Are there any just very sound fundamentalist idea that we know to be true, kind of holding all things constant, what are some very basic guidelines that you can give people who are starting in the hypertrophy scheme or people who are trying to build muscle or things like that. What are some overarching principles you’ve found from your research?

Schoenfeld: Well there’s very clear evidence of a dose-response relationship. It’s compelling. And anyone who says otherwise is just not, to me, missing the boat. They’re not looking at the research objectively. And by the way, along those lines you can look at single. One of the issues with resistance training studies in general is that they are inevitably underpowered, statistically underpowered.

So that your, it’s difficult to find what’s called a significant effect which is a 95 plus percent confidence that the results aren’t due to chance. And some researchers, I don’t want to say researchers, but people in the field because some of them don’t even product research, they just critique it. But some people in the field have used that as a, cunningly used that to say well there’s no difference between what’s say single sets and multiple sets. And that is misleading because it doesn’t say that. It says that these studies did not have the statistical power.

Maybe it would say that, but if you actually look at the body of literature, and pull that as we have done, that is not what the literature really shows when you do things like made analysis where you can derive greater statistical power from a large body of research. There’s a clear dose-response relationship. And I will say I don’t even like to look at it single sets versus multiple sets. Really we want to look at value over the course of a week, like weekly volume is a better indicator. Because if you did one set every day, that would be different than doing one set twice a week.

So it’s really accumulating volume and I’m not saying you’d want to necessarily train every day anyway. There might be either, potentially could be downsized to that. But bottom line is you have to look at what the total volume is per week. Now if you’re again asking for what someone should do, we can give general guidelines. But they will vary widely. Now based on some of the work we have been doing in looking at the data, I would say that 10 plus sets per muscle group per week, somewhere in that range, 10 or more would be generally beneficial to maximize a hypertrophic response.

Now I will say you can get robust hypertrophy from doing far less than that. But if we’re talking about maximizing you can substantially increase your gains. Now does that mean that everyone will, will there be people that might do five sets per muscle group in a week and still see the same gains as if they would do 10? Inevitably I’m sure that is the case. So this is where, like I said, I can’t give you something that everyone should be doing. And everyone wants that cookie-cutter prescription and that is not what an applied science like exercise, you can’t give those type of cookie-cutter prescriptions. And those who try to do that really are doing a disservice.

I can give general guidelines, and I say this in the books that I’ve written, that here is a template and from the template you have to see how your training goes and adjust it based on your response.

Dieter: You know, just to kind of switch veins here a little bit and just circle back to something we talked to earlier is I think that you and I both share a common love and appreciation of the scientific method of inquiry. And I know that sometimes as scientists we’re viewed as people who think we always have the right answer, we’re never wrong. Now I know that personally from my own experience, there’s so many things that I’ve changed my view on in the past decade as I continue to learn and grow, and as more data becomes available.

Can you share with us something that you’ve changed your view on during the course of your career? Anything that you thought was true and then you found some data that really challenged your viewpoint and you kind of changed your stance on something?

Schoenfeld: Well I mentioned before the high reps was one that just really was a big eye opener for me. Because I had always thought it was pretty much a waste of time to train with over about 12 rm. So that was certainly a biggie. There’s just been so many that you need to do a split routine to maximize growth.

I’ve done some work recently on frequency where get really tremendous growth from doing total body routines three times a week. I’m not saying that’s necessarily how you want to train all the time, but I would’ve thought early on in my career that a split routine, the pro split would’ve blown away a total body routine. Really it’s not the case. I was pretty convinced that you needed to train with shorter rest intervals to maximize muscle growth. And recent work that I’ve done shows that is not the case and in actuality somewhat longer rest intervals have better responses.

I was a big, I thought based on early research and look we all, we can only go by the evidence you have at the time, but I thought based on our early research that jacking up hormones, the acute hormonal response of growth hormone, a GF1 testosterone post-workout was a big driver of hypertrophy. And recent work that I’ve seen and I’ve actually written a position paper on this already, a review paper on this saying that if it does have any influence, and that’s not even clear, it would be a small influence. It would be very modest. So, so many things.

I’m constantly changing my opinion. To quote my good friend Brett Contrairs who quoted his PhD supervisor, John Cronin, “I go by the adage that this is what I know today, but I reserve the right to change my opinion tomorrow based upon new research that comes up.”

Dieter: You know, I think this is a perfect segue into my next question. It has to deal with, you know one of the papers that you published in the last few years with Alan and James that’s been circulated very heavily through social media, through the press, and it’s on the idea of nutrient timing. And I think your study, your meta-analysis was a little taken out of context for some people. And it’s been perceived as a paper that says there’s no point of post-workout nutrition and it doesn’t matter at all. And you know I would love to just kind of hear from you your perspective.

I know my perspective on it was a little bit different and more nuanced than that, but I’d love to hear from you. After all this research on the post-workout window and all these things, could you tell me a little bit from your perspective what you think on that topic after reviewing all this research and this literature? What do you think about the whole post-workout thing?

Schoenfeld: Yeah, so the paper has been taken very much out of context by a lot of people. Now there is, without question, nutrient timing matters. So if you were not to eat for 18 hours after a workout, I would pretty much guarantee you’re going to suppress your gains that you’re going to lose out.

What the main analysis I think showed in my humble opinion, was that there is not really this narrow, you don’t need to be super anal that there’s this narrow anabolic window, and that if you don’t slam a shake the minute you’re, within a half hour after your session is done, that you’re going to lose all your gains, or that you’re going to start to even lose your gains at that point. That really, we need to start thinking of this more in terms of the peri-workout period which is the time around the workout, and you want to look at when you had your meal before the workout and then within that context, that can give you some ideas to when you’d need to replenish after without having to worry about losing much. And that based upon other work that Alan and I have done, we did a review paper for the JISSN called Nutrient Timing Revisited, which is free for everyone to read and I encourage them to read it.

We hypothesized that the window was probably four to six hours somewhere in and around the workouts. So if you have let’s say a meal two hours before a workout then have an hour workout, so you’re now at three hours, probably within a couple hours after that you’d want to get another meal in.

Now if you’re having breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you’re pretty much always going to be within your anabolic window unless you’re eating after dinner, I mean unless you’re training after dinner in which case you might want to have another shake I guess conceivably. But other than that it really is, it’s kind of superfluous to think about needing to have a meal, a post-workout meal because you’re always going to be within that period of time where you’re within your anabolic window.

Dieter: Yeah you know obviously you’re the author of the paper, so you’ve been pretty close to this. And I think that’s pretty much the perfect interpretation of the data in the fact that really what it tells us is this anabolic window is not as narrow or strict as we thought, and that you don’t really need to be so stressed out about the post-workout nutrition. It’s more of the context of the overall diet.

Now what about people who train for two days or the people who train in the morning and then at night? What is your thoughts on, do you think post-workout nutrition is important for people like that? Or even in the context of competition where you need to kind of maximize recovery pretty quickly. What are your thoughts on that aspect of post-workout nutrition?

Schoenfeld: Well no, I would think that if you’re doing two-a-days there can be a greater benefit towards having an abrupt quick post-workout shake and that would include carbohydrate. Now the extent of, so this now will then depend upon what muscles you’re going to be training. If you’re going to be let’s say doing back work and then coming back to do biceps work later, where your biceps would’ve been taxed sufficiently, then yeah I think it might be very important then to make sure you’re not only getting the protein but especially some carbohydrate within you so that you can replenish your glycogen stores. And there has been some good literature showing that if you train in a glycogen depleted state, that it has negative effects on your workout routine.

Now if you’re going to do an upper body workout in the morning and then a lower body workout in the afternoon, evening, that would be diminished of course because you really haven’t depleted those stores, those glycogen stores. From a protein perspective, I would say it’s less so in that respect because again you’re going to be getting your protein in. If you’re doing a morning and evening you would be having, assuming you’re having lunch, you’d be getting your post-workout meal in at some point anyway. So the need to do it quickly is not as big an issue. But from a glycogen repletion standpoint there is good evidence that because of the upregulation of glycogen synthase which is the enzyme that stores glycogen, it’s very much upregulated immediately after workout and delaying glucose intake post-workout will delay the rate of glycogen repletion and thus you’re not going to have as much glycogen restored.

So how much will that affect your evening workout if you delayed it by several hours? Tough to say. In terms of the performance affect, we could say how much roughly it would affect it, if it has let’s say, affects it by half will that have the major affect on your workout? That’s tough for me to say. But I would say it would be beneficial certainly at that point to have a shake including carbohydrate.

Dieter: So the next topic I’d like to ask you about is a little bit more selfish. Kind of where I’m at in my life and my career, you know, you’ve just started not too long ago as a professor in New York, and you’re running your own lab. And I think people often underappreciate the amount of work that goes into putting a study and you’re probably one of the most, if not the most prolific researchers in our field.

You ask really great practical questions, you have obviously a great team of people you work with, and you’ve transitioned into this new role. You know I’d love to hear from you what your experience has been like and how you’ve been able to handle all these new challenges and these new things, and some of the aspects of research that most people don’t know about. I’d just love to hear your take.

Schoenfeld: Yeah I’ll start off by saying I have the best job in the world in my opinion, for me at least. It’s the most rewarding and fulfilling job I could even hope for. So basically I get up every morning and I’m jacked to go to work.

So I love every minute of what I’m doing. I had sold, now four years ago, four plus years ago, I sold my private training facility that I ran for many years. And I sold it to become full-time faculty and couldn’t be happier. So I love what I did back then, but this is just my passion now and really what floats my boat. That said, there were huge challenges. If you’re talking about specifically carrying out research studies, the longitudinal research studies are stressful as hell. Because number one you have to, now I deal with, my studies – almost all of them involve well-trained subjects.

So that was one of my big things when I got into research was saying that oh look at all these studies out there are generally conducted in these untrained individuals and we know that the initial response to training is highly neurally activated and there’s big differences between what well-trained people who have been training for several years plus will experience versus those who are new to training. And I vowed that I was going to start to add to the literature in well-trained subjects and I have. But number one it’s difficult to find those subjects.

So the recruiting aspect and part of what you have to understand in my line of work, I have to get a study finished within a 15-week semester. The semester’s actually 16 weeks if you factor in Thanksgiving holiday or Spring Break. So basically in a 16-week period I have to get a 10-week study done. So my studies generally run 10 weeks, that’s eight weeks of the actual training and then you have the two weeks on either end for testing, for pre- and post-testing. So you’ve got to get these subjects in, recruited, and I have great, really give a big shout out to the never-ending sea of interns that I have in my excess science program. Wish I could keep some of them. Unfortunately they end up graduating and I have to get new ones to carry, foot the bill. But they do a great job in recruiting, but it’s not easy and you always worry that if you don’t get enough people, you’re not going to have the statistical power in the study to do what you want to do or to get the proper information and thus it would compromise your study to get the results that you need.

That’s number one, number two are dropouts. So you have to always get a lot more subjects than you need from a power perspective to ensure that when the inevitable dropouts occur, that you’ll still have statistical power. Some studies you get very few dropouts, it’s tough for me to envision to know why a lot of times. But I mean I’ve had a study recently. We recruited 30 subjects, I ended up with 19 finishing the study. So 11 dropouts. Where other studies I’ve only had three or four dropouts. So that gets very stressful trying to get people to fill out their food diaries, just ridiculously hard and you realize by the way I have realized how almost, I don’t want to say useless, but how very limited the use of food diaries has in terms of extrapolating what people really do.

I do it because it’s kind of required and you want to get some sense, I guess better than nothing. But some of the things that these people, subjects write down, I’m like there’s no way you’re doing this. I get jacked 220 pound guys who are writing down they’re eating 1100 calories for over three days. It’s just, it’s not feasible. And you know that, even if it’s feasible they were doing that then, that does not represent their true eating habits. So that’s a biggie, making sure they’re not doing. You realize that you have, I can control everything that goes on once those subjects are in my lab and in the gym.

Once they’re out there, I can’t tell you that they’re not scarfing down something. It’s like they tell me, they swear to me they won’t take supplements. Can I vouch for that? We can’t test that. I’m not funded to put them through tests. And even if you can they can stop, and they would. It would just be silly to try to get through to that, or to go over that. So it’s so many factors you realize that you’re limited on in terms of what you can extrapolate and it poses a lot of challenges to the researcher in terms of drawing evidence-based conclusions.

Dieter: It sounds like you’ve got a pretty crazy schedule and a lot of things going on, but what are some of the big questions that you’re trying to tackle in your lab and get answers to over the next few months or few years? I’d love to hear about that too.

Schoenfeld: Oh there are so many. So I have one up that we’re just going to be starting imminently which is going to look at the determinants of squat, one-arm squat strength. So we’re going to look at biomechanical, psychological, and some other factors and look to see what the relevant factors that most influence squat strength.

So we’ll look at specific joints. We’ll look at the knee versus the hip, joint versus back, we’ll look at various psychological determinants, etcetera. I’m going to do a dose-response study. It’s coming up in a few months in well-trained subjects, which has not been done. Which looks at one, we’re going to look at one set versus three sets versus five sets, three times a week. So really three sets per week versus five sets, versus nine sets versus 15 sets per week, which to me is another really important study. I’m going to be doing one on intentional focus that’s going to look really at the mind to muscle connection to see what if any influence that has on actual growth.

You do know that it does increase muscle activation of given muscles, but the question is does that translate into greater growth? I have a study coming up in some months that will look at that. So a bunch of them. And I have, right now I have about on last count I think about 17 or 18 that are currently in review. So I’m collaborating with a huge number of a lot of different researches and have some really cool studies. I’ve made analyses out there, one of them is on resistance training frequencies, so I’m collaborating with James Krieger on a lot of these made analyses.

Looking at resistant string variables, we have one on protein timing which looked at pre-timing ­­– immediately pre versus immediately post-workout which is a really cool study. Another one on non-equated repetition ranges, one with the three sets of three versus three sets of ten. So just a lot of cool stuff and I’m collaborating with, I really owe so much to the people that I collaborate with in terms of furthering my ability to put out some really great research.

Dieter: Brad this has been an awesome conversation and I’m just so thankful for having the time with you. And you do some seriously great work.

Schoenfeld: Yeah from your mouth to God’s ears.

Dieter: So I know that you pump out a lot of content and you do a lot of really great work, and people can find a lot of it. And being a very busy researcher yourself you probably also have some need for some assistance and things like that, like you talked about.

So where are some places that people can go to find your work, to contact you, maybe get interested in getting involved in some of your research in your lab? Do you have a website or your Facebook page or what are some of the best ways that people can actually go ahead and contact you about your research or about getting involved in your labs?

Schoenfeld: Yeah I have an active website which is LookGreatNaked.com. Now it’s look great naked, not look good naked. Look good naked I hear is a porn site, so you might want to visit that too, that’s up to you. But mine is LookGreatNaked.com and I have a blog on there and you can contact me through my website.

I’m also very active on social media, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They just Google me or go onto social media, they can find me and follow me on those sites.

Dieter: You know it’s been kind of a dream come true for me to sit down and talk with you. I’ve been wanting to do this for years. So thank you so much for your time, Brad. I really appreciate it.

Schoenfeld: My pleasure, bud.

Dieter: And now since it’s a Friday afternoon, we’ll go ahead and let you go and have a great day. So we will talk to you later.