The Science Behind Getting Strong and Sculpted

Wanna get fitter and put on some muscle? We have just the guest post for you today! It comes from an excerpt from Strong and Sculpted (Human Kinetics, 2016), written by internationally renowned fitness expert and best-selling author Brad Schoenfeld, and it shares exactly how to get strong — and the science behind why it works.

The Strong and Sculpted Program

You’ve no doubt heard this adage: “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” With respect to fitness, truer words were never spoken. The probability that you’ll achieve your physique-related goals without a solid blueprint for success is slim to none.

Yet all too often, people go to the gym with no sense of a game plan. Some adhere to the same old routine day in and day out without regard for progression. Others wander around aimlessly deciding what to do next. The result for all these lifters is a failure to attain their desired results.

Planning an exercise program is best accomplished by using a technique called periodization. Periodization refers to the planned manipulation of program variables to optimize a given fitness outcome. Simply stated, it’s a strategy to keep progressing in your fitness efforts without hitting a plateau.

The genesis of periodization can be traced back to the 1950s when Russian scientists devised the concept to prepare athletes for Olympic events. Training was segmented into distinct cycles that corresponded to given fitness components. The cycle traditionally began with a hypertrophy or endurance phase, progressed to a strength phase, and then culminated in a power phase. The Russian model, popularly known as linear periodization, was designed to take place over a four-year period — the time between Olympic competitions. When properly implemented, the athlete would peak just in time for the contest. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Soviet Union dominated in terms of the number of Olympic medals won in the years following the implementation of periodized training.

Although linear periodization proved to be highly successful, strength coaches from around the world began experimenting with alternative forms of the model. The concept of undulating periodization was soon born. Rather than use progressive cycles focusing on different fitness components, the undulating model varies training variables within short time frames. Most often, this involves rotating heavy, moderate, and light training days, generally over the course of a week or two.

Despite much debate, there is no best method for periodization; all of the models can produce excellent results. The common thread is that all of the models involve the manipulation of training program variables, including volume, frequency, loading, exercise selection, intensity of effort, and rest intervals. As long as proper progression and adequate recovery is built in to the scheme, many approaches are viable depending on your ultimate goal.

The Strong and Sculpted program, a hybrid of linear and undulating periodization models, has proven highly successful for getting women into top shape. A modified daily undulating periodization model is used for the basic training and advanced body-sculpting phases, whereas the peak physique routine is essentially a modified linear cycle.

If this sounds intimidating, don’t worry; I keep things simple here. There are no complicated formulas, no convoluted training schemes. It’s all laid out in an easy-to-follow fashion. To provide context for the program, the following are overviews of some of the training variables and how they are manipulated to optimize results.


Volume of training pertains to the amount of work completed over a given training period (usually on a per-session or per-week basis). Volume can be expressed in a couple of ways. Commonly, it is specific to repetitions. Thus, multiplying the number of reps by the number of sets performed over the time period in question provides a measure of training volume. Perhaps a more relevant gauge of volume can be obtained by factoring in the amount of weight you lifted as well. In this scenario you multiply reps x sets x load. The product, called volume-load, gives a true sense of the total work accomplished during training.

Although volume is widely regarded as playing an essential role in muscle development, some fitness pros claim otherwise. They subscribe to a theory called high-intensity training (HIT), which proposes that performing a single set of an exercise to failure, is all that’s required to maximize muscular adaptations. According to HIT theory, performing additional sets is not only superfluous, but actually counterproductive to results.

So who’s right?

Without question, single-set training is an effective strategy to build muscle. For those with limited time to devote to working out, it’s a viable option. That said, if your goal is to maximize muscle development, HIT simply doesn’t do the trick. You need a higher training volume.

Substantially higher.

Proper manipulation of program variables is essential to maximizing results.

Research shows a clear dose–response relationship between training volume and muscle growth. Simply stated, this means that as the volume of training increases, so does hypertrophy—at least up to a point. A meta-analysis by Krieger (2010) published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research demonstrated just how important volume is to muscular adaptation. Data from all pertinent studies were pooled for analysis, and a specialized statistical technique called regression was employed to rule out confounding issues. The findings? Effect size (a measure of the meaningfulness of results) was over 40 percent greater when multiple sets were performed compared to single sets.

Bottom line: If your goal is to maximize your genetic potential, higher volumes are a must.

Now, before you start thinking that having a great body requires that you spend all your waking hours in the gym, understand that the dose–response relationship follows an inverted-U curve. This implies that increases in volume result in greater gains up to a certain threshold. Once the threshold is reached, further increases in volume have diminishing returns; when taken to excess, volume increases ultimately lead to an overtrained state. The goal, therefore, is to perform just enough volume to max out your gains.

Easy, right? Not quite.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for training volume. To an extent it depends on the person. Genetics enters into the equation. So do lifestyle factors such as nutritional status, training experience, stress levels, and sleep patterns. A fair amount of experimentation is required to determine your particular optimal volume levels.

That said, there is a benefit to manipulating volume over time. Ideally, this is accomplished by instituting periodic high-volume training phases to promote functional overreaching. These overreaching phases should be relatively brief and involve pushing your body to its limits and then pulling back in volume and intensity so that you don’t become overtrained. When properly implemented, the strategy promotes a supercompensated response that optimizes muscle development.

Intense training also requires that you incorporate regular deload periods (generally lasting a week) into your program. Deloads facilitate the recuperation and restoration of bodily systems by reducing training volume (along with intensity). In this way, you come back strong and refreshed, and progress continues on an upward trend. The frequency of deloads again depends on your particular response to training. A good rule of thumb is to deload once a month or so, and then adjust the frequency accordingly.

Although the total volume of a program is an important metric, you also need to consider the volume per muscle group. Larger muscles require more volume to fully stimulate all fibers. The lats, traps, pectorals, glutes, and quads fall into this category. Moreover, certain smaller muscles such as the biceps and triceps are worked extensively during multijoint pushing and pulling movements (e.g., presses and rows). Hence, these muscles don’t need as much direct work to maximize development.


Frequency of training refers to the number of exercise sessions performed over a given period of time, usually a week. It is generally believed that at least three lifting sessions per week are necessary for optimizing body composition, but a greater frequency can enhance results, at least up to a point. That said, train too frequently for too long, and you’ll end up overtrained.

The solution: periodize your training frequency so that you progressively increase it over a given period of time.

In addition to the number of total weekly training sessions, another frequency-related consideration is how much time to allow before working the same muscle group again. Make no mistake, training a muscle group too often is detrimental to results. As an analogy, say you got sunburned after spending time on a tropical beach. It wouldn’t be prudent to go back to the beach the next morning, right? Doing so would only increase the severity of the burn. But allow a few days to pass and the burn will subside. Even better, your skin adapts by producing more melanin so that future exposure to the sun will result in a tan instead of a burn.

What does a suntan have to do with resistance training frequency? Intense lifting results in structural damage to the muscle fibers. During recovery, the body repairs this damage so that the muscle comes back bigger and stronger for the next bout. But if you hit the same muscle hard before the process has fully run its course, you deprive it of the opportunity to repair. In effect, muscle tissue is broken down at a greater rate than the body can rebuild it, ultimately compromising muscle development (i.e., localized overtraining).

A good rule of thumb is to allow a minimum of 48 hours between exercises for the same muscle group. This is the approximate amount of time that protein synthesis remains elevated following a resistance training bout. You also need to keep in mind the contribution of secondary muscle movers to exercise performance. Upper-body pushing exercises such as the bench press and shoulder press heavily involve the triceps, whereas pulling movements such as lat pull-downs and chin-ups require substantial contribution from the biceps. Routines should therefore be structured so that all muscles receiving extensive stimulation in a workout are afforded adequate recovery time to reduce the risk of localized overtraining.

Perhaps the most appropriate reason for altering training frequency is to regulate volume. Provided that volume remains constant within each training session, a greater workout frequency necessarily results in a greater weekly volume (e.g., six weekly workouts produce a higher volume than three workouts of the same composition). Accordingly, a greater frequency increases the potential for overtraining assuming that the per-session training volume is maintained. It’s therefore imprudent to consistently train on successive days over long periods of time, even if individual muscles are afforded sufficient rest between workout sessions.


The amount of weight you lift ― called the intensity of load ― is an important consideration for building muscle. Intensity of load is generally expressed as a percentage of one-repetition maximum (1RM) ― the amount of weight you can lift once but not a second time while maintaining proper form. For example, say your 1RM for the back squat is 100 pounds (45 kg). If you perform this lift at 75 percent of 1RM, you’d be lifting 75 pounds (34 kg). Alternatively, intensity of loading can be expressed by a given repetition range. For example, an 8RM would be a load you can lift eight times but not nine.

Now, it should be apparent from these definitions that the term heavy is specific to the intensity of load; the closer you get to a 1RM, the heavier the weight will be. However, the effort you put into a set will affect your perception of a weight’s heaviness. For instance, if you perform a set of squats at your 20RM, the first few reps will be easy and thus feel light. By the time you reach your 10th rep, that same weight will be more challenging; and once you reach that 20th rep, the load will feel extremely heavy. Thus, heavy and light are relative terms that need to be understood in proper context. From our standpoint, we use these terms specifically as they relate to intensity of load; a heavy weight means that you are lifting close to your 1RM.

From a loading perspective, we can create various loading zones that correspond to repetition ranges: heavy (3-5RM), medium (8-12RM), and light (15+RM). This method of categorization provides a framework for program design because the loading zones involve the use of different energy systems and tax your neuromuscular system in different ways. Here’s the lowdown on how each zone contributes to building muscle.

Heavy-load sessions in a low-rep range are necessary to maximize strength, primarily through improvements in neural efficiency (i.e., recruitment, rate coding, and synchronization). Stronger muscles allow you to use heavier weights ― and thus generate greater muscular tension ― in the medium-repetition range that is considered optimal for muscle building. If you can increase muscle tension without compromising the number of reps performed, you’re setting the stage for enhanced muscle development. It also is believed that lifting heavy loads helps in the conditioning of stubborn high-threshold motor units (the ones associated with the largest Type II fibers), so that they are recruited at lower percentages of 1RM. The upshot is that you stimulate the full spectrum of Type II fibers during medium-rep training.

Training through a spectrum of rep ranges enhances muscle development.

Medium-load training is a staple in body-sculpting routines. These loads are heavy enough to not only promote substantial mechanical tension, but also maintain the tension for a sufficient time to stimulate the full spectrum of available fibers in working muscles. In addition, the use of medium loads generates considerable metabolic stress. The associated buildup of metabolites influences growth in multiple ways, including the production of growth factors, increased cell swelling, and greater muscle fiber activation. Better yet, the combination of these factors is believed to have a synergistic effect on muscle development, increasing gains over and above what can be achieved from either of these mechanisms alone. Accordingly, medium-load training has come to be known as the hypertrophy rep range.

Finally, the use of lighter loads with high reps has several benefits from a body-sculpting standpoint. For one, it increases your lactate threshold — the point at which lactic acid rapidly begins to accumulate in working muscles. An excessive buildup of lactic acid inhibits muscle contraction, reducing the number of reps you can perform. Higher-rep training counteracts lactic acid accumulation by increasing the number of capillaries (tiny blood vessels that facilitate the exchange of nutrients and metabolic waste) and heightening muscle-buffering capacity, allowing you to perform an extra rep or two when pushing to failure. Moreover, the increase in capillaries enhances the delivery of substances (e.g., oxygen, hormones, amino acids) to bodily tissues, promoting better recovery following an intense workout.

In addition to these indirect effects, training in a high-rep range directly enhances muscle development by targeting your endurance-oriented Type I fibers. The greater time under load associated with high-rep training keeps Type I fibers activated to a greater extent than when training with low- to medium-rep ranges, providing the necessary stimulus for their growth. And despite the claims of some fitness pros, Type I fibers are important in overall muscle development.

Research from my lab indicates that combining loading zones over the course of a training program maximizes muscle development. The Strong and Sculpted program takes full advantage of this strategy. Loading zones are manipulated in a systematic fashion. You’ll train through the full continuum of rep ranges during the majority of the program, while focusing on the hypertrophy range to achieve your peak physique.

Excerpted from Strong & Sculpted by Brad Schoenfeld. ©2016. Reprinted with permission from Human KineticsAll rights reserved. No reproduction, transmission, or display is permitted without the written permission of Human Kinetics, Inc.


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