FFF 044: The Science Of Maximum Muscle Building & Making Gainz – with Brad Schoenfeld PhD


Brad Schoenfeld PhD, is an internationally renowned muscle building expert, researcher, speaker and lifetime drug-free bodybuilder.

brad schoenfeld

Brad Schoenfeld is a best-selling author of multiple fitness books including The MAX Muscle Plan and has published over 70 peer-reviewed research articles on exercise and sports nutrition.

In this episode of the podcast Brad will explain what the latest research says about muscle building. He’ll explain how often you might want to train if maximum muscle gain is your goal and why it might be more often than you expect, how much volume is needed per workout, the science on high repetitions vs low repetitions, why tempo may not be that important, the importance of de-loading and rest weeks, why you don’t need to ‘confuse the muscle’ as often as you think and lots more.

If you want to make gains, then this podcast is going to help you avoid the broscience and make serious improvements to both your training and your physique.


Scott: Hey, Brad, welcome to the show.  

Brad: Great to be with you, Scott.

Scott: Absolute pleasure. Brad, how did you get to the position you are now where you always into sport and so on at school? Did you come into it in later life? What prompted this interest and almost what pushed you down the muscle building hypertrophy focus as well because that’s what you’re known for a lot of at the moment?  

Brad: I was at the sports early on towards the mid to end of high school. I started getting out of that into music, playing music actually almost sort of for another day, but almost took on music as a career but long story short by the time I got out of college, I was skinny as all hell and very unhappy with my physique and my brother actually had been lifting for a year or so and had shown really good results from it. I was a little jealous and intrigued. He helped me start a program and kind of the rest is history. I took to it like a fish in water. I started seeing results fairly quickly. Before long I had people asking me what I was doing. People started asking me to train them and from there I got much more interested in the science and always had a more of a science background. I’ve spent at least my parents were both physicians and instilled the scientific method in me from the time I was young and really that way long in order to this path has taken me to where I am today is now a professor and educator in exercise science.

Scott: Excellent. In very basic terms, how does someone actually gain muscle? How did they increase lean mass? What’s happening there physiological level?  

Brad: Not sure. I’ll take a stab and then if I’m not going in the direction that you were thinking, let me know. Basically the forces from resistance training (and resistance training can be from lifting weight, doing push ups, body weight, exercises, cables, resistance bands), any type of resistance that is applied that overloads the muscles forces from this resistance are converted into chemical signals within the muscle and that thrives what is called protein synthesis which is the body’s making muscle proteins. When protein synthesis is increased over the breakdown of proteins and there will be a breakdown of proteins from training as well to a certain degree, as long as that happens consistently overtime your muscles will grow. It really is called protein balance. When protein synthesis exceeds protein breakdown overtime, your muscles grow.

When protein synthesis exceeds protein breakdown overtime, your muscles grow. Click To Tweet

Scott: Let’s see we’ve got someone who is listening to this and they’re wanting to increase the amount of muscle they have. Let’s work through the different elements of a worker anyway. Let’s start off with frequency, and this is something that you probably agree with and think that people often do and train a body part enough because they see the magazine, the workouts in magazines, the chest and triceps on a Monday and legs on a Thursday and so and so. What’s your take then on frequency? If your sole goal is really to put on some size?

Brad: Yes. A lot of these questions are somewhat difficult to give concrete answers for a number of reasons. Number one, people respond. There’s pretty large into individual differences and how people respond and also one manipulating one variable often changes another variable especially in research so it gets hard to kind of condense them and to formalize but here’s what I will say based upon the current evidence that we have. Generally speaking people train do not train most muscle groups as frequently enough that you can’t necessarily go by the routines of your favorite body builder who aren’t necessarily jacked because of their training practices or I mean certainly that’s part of it.

Generally speaking people train do not train most muscle groups as frequently enough. Click To Tweet

Scott: I mean, I’m certain super supplements helping them actually.

Brad: Yeah, that is a Mexican supplements too continue to be in the equation there as well. Generally speaking, I recommend training a muscle a minimum of twice per week. Now can there be periods where once a week in an overall period scheme? Absolutely. Certainly you will see growth on you can training it one day a week. As a general rule, greater frequency seems to have a greater effect on muscle mass. This has been true in research that I’ve done as well as meta-analysis that have been worked on which does show a greater effect. The frequency now, how frequent is best, that’s a difficult question to answer. Like I said, generally a minimum of twice a week whether three times a week or more would have better effects. It’s still questionable. It’s something to experiment with and I do think that there is at least the suggestion from the evidence that having periods of training even more frequently at least three days a week are beneficial overall. A lot of this is not an either/or. It’s not necessarily training three days versus two days, versus one days but structuring a workout overtime, that’s going to continue your results without bringing on overtraining. I think providing novel stimuli, so having different phases where you’re training with different frequencies or from buying different repetition ranges, et cetera are ultimately the best way to go in this area. Because it keeps providing a novel stimulus, keeps your body from overtraining, from having period where you’re just doing too much and thus can super compensate without degrading into overtraining.

Scott: Okay. You mentioned volume there. Is there anything that suggest a sweet spot so whether we’re going for amount of exercises per body part? Are we saying amount of sets per body part and how you split that up into different exercises? For someone who wants to know really what–say they’re training four times a week, doing an upper and lower split, what are we seeing roughly for volume because someone might now know exactly how much to trace and might go and do far too much? Is there any rough rough guidelines where we can say, “Yeah, it’s not a bad idea to do this amount.”

Brad: Yeah, based on the current data. I would say the training of each muscle group certainly the larger muscle groups with a minimum of like 10 sets per week is consistent with what we know from the literature. How that relates to let’s say small muscle groups like the biceps, triceps, cabs to lesser extent is still somewhat equivocal but as a general rule, I would say 10 plus sets per week and more be beneficial, yes. I think it can up to a certain threshold. Obviously there’s a threshold where you’re gonna start to overdo it and potentially you can have negative effects from there. But again, a periodized approach where you let’s say use that 10 as a baseline and then progress overtime to increasing that and then decreasing, structuring it in some way where you’re manipulating let’s say within the 10 to 20 set per week range would be a good basic guideline.

Scott: I think the problem now a lot of people have is they associate every rep essentially is going to be resulting an improve gains. The more they do, the bigger they’re getting. The more chest they do, the bigger the chest they get. If they train three sets of three different triceps exercise, well that’s good but if they did six sets of six different exercises then surely that would be better. How do you get people out of that mind set?   

Brad: Well, it’s basically volume as well as virtually all the variables and follow an inverted U response so that the inverted U, if you just put a U upside down there is a threshold which is the top of U where you’re gonna get optimal effects and then once you go past that threshold at some point, it actually starts to result in decreasing effect and so that would be through overtraining, doing too much. Volume is a known driver of overtraining and if you just keep bombarding your muscle group with set after set after set especially in a natural individual who has less recuperative abilities than someone who is enhanced, you will start to see negative results. Ultimately it comes down to finding that sweet spot for yourself. There is no cookie cutter sweet spot I can give because as I mentioned earlier, there is an inter-individual response but we can provide general guidelines and then from there people do have to experiment and find out what works best for them. There is a effect that you do need to use from the literature. The research can only be used as a general guideline and then it is ultimately an individual response that needs to be found. I will also say that there is when we talk about number of sets per week that there is a benefit at least to some point to having variety of exercises within that. The reason for that is that your muscles have varied detachment so that they’re going to be hitting the muscle from different angles is going to tie in certain aspect of the  muscle or cause certain aspects of muscles to work to a greater, lesser extent than other exercises. You need to try to find a range within those given number of sets that you can spread that out over several exercises. By the way, it doesn’t necessarily have to be within that particular workout. It could be doing it just overtime. In fact, during different exercises, there’s one exercise, one week and then try to have overtime, factoring in different movements to provide at least some degree of variety. And I will also say that too much variety beyond a certain point can have a negative effect because your body will never get used to the movement that is enough to have very good model learning development.

Too much variety beyond a certain point can have a negative effect. Click To Tweet

My general rule here is to have some core compound movements that are more difficult in nature, that are regular aspects of the routine squats or an exercise that if you don’t do them overtime, your body will not have the smooth movement pattern and then factoring in variety in more of your single joint based movements that have less model learning aptitude associated with them. In that way, you can hit the muscle from different angles while still maintaining that model unit efficiency.

Scott: I think, yeah, people get caught in the trap thinking that they have to confuse the muscle as they see in magazines. What we’re saying is for the compound multi-join exercises they’re doing so is variants are different types of squatting or lifting or set impressing. We’re seeing change them up less frequently but then you’re more isolation work then that can be changed more often again just through preferencing, changing the angles just to make it stimulate the muscle slightly differently and/or so far enjoyment because you don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again.

Brad: Absolutely, correct.

Scott: How often would you change up the basic? Would you say, well, let’s go for eight weeks on a period of starting with this and this and this, or 4 weeks or even longer? I know you’re already alluded to there is no absolute answer and that’s very much my approach is really black and white. It’s usually the gray area but as a general rule of thumb for changing up a program, what would we say?

Brad: You currently hit it that there’s no–I can’t give you a specific. I would say there’s certainly a lot of ways to do it. My general recommendation would be to keep those compound, those more structure exercises that have more mode of learning issues associated with them that are more complex in nature, keep them in your routine at least once a week or so and then work around that. Can you keep them in your routine more than once a week? Absolutely. Less I would say you’re gonna start to have issues and then how much variety you factor in again is somewhat specific to the individual and what the exercises you’re gonna choose to do. I would keep the variety to the more as you mentioned, more of the targeted single joint movements and movements that are more machine based even on let’s say a chest press. If you can do a machine chest press that’s gonna have a much less model learning effects than you would with a regular bench press just because of the degrees of freedom are much greater. There’s unlimited degrees of freedom in a let’s say a dumbbell chest press versus the machine chest press.

There’s unlimited degrees of freedom in a dumbbell chest press versus the machine chest press. Click To Tweet

Scott: One of the other things that it doesn’t seem to be getting as much attention at the moment. It seems to dispelled slightly but there was a time when everyone was becoming obsessed with tempo and super slow training to the point they do things like 5 or 7 second negatives and this seems to be especially prevalent in doing arm work. Now how important is tempo and when you’re working with clients, do you prescribe a tempo or do you use more general terms like we want an explosive lift or lifting with control or do you specify, we want an x second negative and so on?  

Brad: That’s a great question. We actually recently published a meta-analysis on this topic. For those who don’t know a meta-analysis is where you look at all the studies on a given topic within a certain inclusion criteria and you pull the data so that you get much greater statistical power within the studies and come to conclusions. Within fairly wide ranges of let’s say two total seconds duration so let’s say one second up, one second down, a three seconds up, three seconds down so total of let’s say 2 to 6 seconds duration, there’s very little evidence that one is better than another. My general recommendation here is to focus, have a mind-to-muscle connection. Lift with control, you’re gonna have to–when you talk about lifting explosively there should be an intent to lift explosively once a weight starts getting heavier. Let’s say if you’re doing a 10 rep set, that first rep is gonna be rather easy. You don’t need to lift explosively. You should control the weight whether you’re gonna lift it one second, or two seconds or three seconds. As long as you’re controlling it, I would say that an explosive lift is not necessary there but it should get to that 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th rep the weight becomes much heavier per se because you’re getting more accumulated fatigue and thus you’re gonna need to at least attempt to lift explosively. The weight is still not gonna move that fast. You can’t lift when you’re fatigued. You can’t move the weight as quickly. Basically it’s a compensatory factor. Now when you start talking beyond let’s say that six second total duration, 3 seconds up, 3 seconds down and get in to the so called super slow phenomenon of doing a repetition 5, 6, 7, 10 seconds on the concentric and similarly on the eccentric, there seems to be not only diminishing returns but that they’re actually is a decrement. Number 1, you’re gonna have to substantially compromise the amount of weight that you’re lifting to intentionally lift a weight slowly. Number two, a intentially very slow lift will tend to be reduced recruitment because the two factors of muscle recruitment are speed of repetition and the loading that’s used. When you’re reducing both of those factors, you can lift the right weight as long as there is an attempt to lift more quickly, you’ll tend to get greater recruitment. There’s been studies that have shown that not only is recruitment decreased but the amount of muscle that is accumulated overtime has a negative effect in various little training. Is there ever a reason to use very super slow training? I personally don’t see it. I don’t necessarily see. I can’t give an overall no that you’re never use it but I have not really found much of any use for that type of training certainly from a high perspective when you start talking injury rehabilation. I still don’t think someone gonna lift beyond two or three seconds on a concentric and eccentric is gonna have any greater safety benefit or rehabilitation benefit.

Is there ever a reason to use very super slow training? I personally don’t see it. Click To Tweet

Scott: It seems to come down to as well that tempo is just much farther down the list of priorities and someone probably shouldn’t be stressing over the fine points.

Brad: Agreed.

Scott: What about rep range? I know you’ve done research. I’m looking at high rep and low rep training and I think the listener will probably have got over the myth that are the traditionally held beliefs that low reps were only for building muscle and high reps were for getting lean or toned as they might say. What’s your take on there? Also, does it depend again on the muscle? Because I know there’s been some people that I’ve seen for again see we’re digging lateral raises that you get a better response from doing a high rep range compared to doing high rep squats for example. What’s the actual evidence about rep range for building muscle?    

Brad: Yes. This is an area that I’ve done a lot of work in my lab. Certainly you can build muscle across a wide spectrum of rep ranges. We recently published a study showing that the classic hypertrophies going to be 12 reps. It was no more effective at the whole muscle level than using 25 to 35 reps. That’s a very high rep efficient range. There is these theory that and there is with supporting evidence theories based on the supporting evidence that there is differential effects on muscle fiber types so that your lower to moderate reps will tend to have greater hypertrophy in your type 2 muscle fibers and your higher reps, let’s say 15 plus will tend to have greater effects on increasing hypertrophy in the type one fibers which more endurance based fibers. That still needs to be clarified but there’s quite a bit of research out of Russia that’s shown us some x-rayed couple states. Well in Canada, Dr. Stu Phillips did a study that it show that type 1 fibers benefit from higher rep training. With that in mind, at least my current working theory is that combining rep ranges, so have some low rep ranges, 3 to 5 reps, have some moderate rep ranges, 8 to 12 and some high rep ranges, let’s say 15 to 25 or so. Overtime, we’ll maximize hypertrophy. I would say that my general strategy is to work within the hypertrophy zone, 8 to 12 rep zone.

My general strategy is to work within the hypertrophy zone, the 8 to 12 rep zone. Click To Tweet

Something because it’s more efficient for providing a combination of volume and intensity of load thresholds, and then factoring in some strength work which is gonna actually help to increase the weights that you can use in your moderate rep training and your hypertrophy zone and less enhanced mechanical intention, and also working in that lighter rep zone overtime. How that’s done? You could do a daily undulating periodization, you could do weekly undulating periodization, you can do a block type periodization routine and how frequently that is manipulated is very up to the individual. As far as the individual muscle groups, it’s a very interesting question. There would be the theory based upon what I just said at least the hypothesis that training muscles that are more type 1 oriented have greater proportion of type 1 fibers would be more beneficial with higher reps.

Scott: In case we miss that, a few examples of the muscle groups in question that would be the more type 1 fibers.

Brad: I was gonna say, the soleus muscle is a classic example of a muscle that is generally across the spectrum across individuals much more type 1 based. That’s a postural muscle and thus would have greater effects at least conceivably from training it with higher reps. Now people or individuals have very different profiles. The only way really that you can know other muscles would be the biopsy. I mean, that’s obviously not a strategy that people are gonna undertake, biopsy every muscle and say, “This is a type 1, higher type 1 here so the training is more with higher reps and this muscle is more type 2 so I’ll train it with lower reps.” That’s just simply not a viable strategy. There have been some tests that have been recommended. I don’t think they’re necessarily very good at repetition test that you can undertake. I don’t think they’re very good at really assessing fiber type within a muscle. Basically the strategy other than the soleus which is mostly known for your higher rep or your higher type 1 fiber percentage, I don’t really see it. I just see the benefit of varying rep changes and try to assess. Maybe experiment with higher reps for muscles that aren’t growing or lower reps and see how it goes and perhaps you can figure it out.

Scott: Okay, excellent. Very interesting. We’ve been talking a lot about the training aspects side of things. But you’ve also obviously done a lot of work recently on protein timing after right of size. Now you see in many gyms, the moment somebody’s lifted weights and they’ve gone downstairs and they’ve necked a protein shake and the research that you guys have been publishing is saying, “Well, this anabolic window is much longer than people think about and really it’s looking at having a quality source of protein within several hours after training is going to be sufficient. But if someone is trying to get bigger, have you seen that protein timing becomes more important or does it not really make a difference?

Brad: When you say protein timing, as you mentioned, protein timing makes a difference because if you go fasting for 24 hours that’s gonna have…

Scott: Sorry, I mean, after exercise. Let’s say we’ve got someone who’ s trying to one, build muscle, another person who’s in the gym for they’re just doing the cardio work, someone else is a pro-lifter, someone else is a cross-fitter, you see a spectrum of goals but for the person who’s trying to increase muscle mass the most, does protein timing after exercise become more important?

Brad: If you’re asking if the window narrows once you become more well trained and in crude becomes increasingly more important, that question is still up in the air. There was a recent acute study that did seem to show that. Although the study had certain inherent limitations in terms of when the pre-needle [?]  who was taking in which confounded–could have confounded the results. Here’s my general recommendation, it’s not gonna hurt you to take a protein shake quickly after training. I still do take a protein shake quickly after training just because it’s not gonna hurt. But the offer ride [?] how much that’s gonna affect–here’s what I would say with a high degree of confidence, it’s not gonna make huge differences. Could it make a smaller difference? I can’t say it won’t. The fact that there’s no evidence against it, the fact that it’s not gonna hurt and that we don’t know I think at least gives credence to doing it to saying, “Yeah, it’s not gonna hurt you. You might as well take something quickly, fairly quickly and at least get the potential benefit if there is one.”

Scott: Anything else on the nutrition front there? Are you a big proponent of Creatine? Other than Creatine and whey protein, is there anything else from the research that you’ve read that would suggest it could be advantageous, maybe not significantly so but maybe worth including anyway because there’s no harm? Like you know Jose Antonio says, “If it’s neutral or we have an effect then try them.”

Brad: Yeah, well and don’t forget also of course is the cost factor. That’s nice if you’re getting it free or if you actually gives it to them. You have to consider that to some people. I mean, certainly I’m a big proponent of fish oil. Now that again will depend upon how often you eat that fish. I do believe that having your Omega 3 fatty acids especially the preform ones in fish oil which have the Hexanoic acid DHA which has been shown to have really a wide ranging, not only health effect, not only protein muscle health effects but health effects. I mean, certainly it has a beneficial effects on cellular structure. It might enhance insulin signaling and potentially there’s been some studies showing potential benefits to lean muscle accretion. Beta-Alanine also seems to be known that might have some benefits. Although I think the data is still preliminary here. I would say that there doesn’t seem to be really significant negative side effect and there’s a potential for benefit.

Scott: Putting all together then, do you suggest people take a deload piece or time away from training? Do you say every 8 weeks, 12 weeks or do you say, “Well, just take some time off if you feel that you need it, if you’re losing enthusiasm for the gym, you’re maybe getting sore then it’s time.” Or do you say, “No, no, when you do program and a rest period before you get to that stage?”

Brad: Yeah, I think usually if you’re starting to really feel it, often that is a symptom you started to become well trained or at least non-function you overreached. I do recommend it. It’s good just to institute deload periods at structured points throughout your routine, how often those should be structured is very individual.

It’s good just to institute de-load periods at structured points throughout your routine Click To Tweet

My general rule is every 3 to 4 weeks or so is a good starting point but that should be then re-evaluated and part of it is gonna depend how hard your training, the volume. I talked about periodizing, if you’re in a period where your volume is lower then you can go longer without the deload and when you’re doing let’s sat more intensive routine. Let’s say you’ve upped it to a six-day a week higher volume type of program, higher frequency then the deload periods probably should be more frequent.

Scott: What happens if someone is trying to put on  muscle but they also do a lot of cardio, they like going to the gym and going on the treadmill and doing that kind of thing. If time is an issue and they can’t split when they train so they have to go and then do both cardio and resistance training in the same session, do you advice people do the cardio component before or after the resistance training?     

Brad: Yeah, it’s such a tough question to answer. The literature really is all over the place on this. I would say that really then depends upon what type of cardio you’re doing. If you’re gonna do a HIIT style cardio, High Intensity Interval Training, I generally recommend doing that after the training because you will tend to fatigue yourself and that can have negative effects on your lifting session. When it’s more steady state type cardio, generally doesn’t matter but as you said really the best way to do it to reduce the negative effects is to split the training either later and before, one in the morning, one in the evening or else on separate days if possible. But if you’re gonna do them in the same session, really if you’re gonna do steady state, I can’t give you an evidence based answer just because the evidence really is very conflicting on this and I can’t wrap my head around whether what is better than another there.

Scott: Before we move on to the final round up questions. Is there anything that I should have asked you about muscle building that I haven’t done already or something that you think is key to adding here or top tip that we’ve not mentioned yet?

Brad: I think you’ve been very thorough so no, I think that’s it.

Scott: Here’s the question I ask everyone that comes on the show and that’s what do you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?

Brad: That’s a really good question. I would say we kind of touched on this earlier but that following the routines of your favorite body builder is not the optimal way for a natural to optimize results. I certainly will pray to that early on.

Scott: No more Jay Cutler’s back attack.

Brad: Right, yeah, that’s on Lee Haney and Shawn Ray exactly doing the bro splits six days a week and I was able to get better results and certainly they worked especially when you’re more of a newbie. Pretty much anything will work. But I started getting certainly was able to take my physique to a much higher level once I got past that type of philosophy.

...when you’re more of a newbie....pretty much anything will work. Click To Tweet

Scott: I see. What’s on the cards for you at the moment, Brad? I know you’ve got an exciting event happening over here in the UK next month. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Brad: Yeah, I’m so stoked to be speaking with my fellow compatriots, partners in exercise science, Alan Aragon, Bret Contreras and James Krieger. We’re doing a mega summit, fitness summit at the Personal Trainer Collective which is taking place at the University of Bath and that is April 22nd and 3rd, I believe or 23rd and 24th, I think. It’s on a weekend and we’re gonna be 8 hours both days, Saturday and Sunday. We’re gonna be giving both the science and practice. It’s gonna be in formats that the everyday gym goer can understand. But really getting past some of the BS and the mythology that often perpetrated in gym lore and really giving concrete training advice and practices, really expanding on some of the things that we’ve discussed today. I know my colleagues are gonna be presenting some really cutting edge evidence, a lot of it from research that we’ve done and I know everyone will come out of it with a lot of great knowledge.

Scott: Fantastic and I’ll be sure to put a link in there to the show notes for anyone who wants to get a ticket. Brad, thank you so much for giving up your time and coming to the show. It’s been absolute pleasure and I hope your advice is gonna lead to people getting some more gains in the gym if they’ve been listening then I certainly it should do.

Brad: It’s been my pleasure, Scott.

Thanks for listening and the support – if you enjoyed this episode, I hope you can leave the podcast a rating and review on iTunes, and if you haven’t subscribed yet, this is the best time to do that too. This will help the show to get up in the rankings.

Scott is the owner and founder of Food For Fitness. He is a fat loss coach, speaker and fitness writer with a masters (MSc) degree in Applied Sports Nutrition.