Moderate strength training has a number of health benefits, and is viewed by many as an important component of a natural lifestyle that approximates that of our Stone Age ancestors. It increases bone density, muscle mass, and improves a number of health markers. Done properly, it may decrease body fat percentage.
Generally one would expect some muscle gain as a result of strength training. Men seem to be keen on upper-body gains, while women appear to prefer lower-body gains. Yet, many people do strength training for years, and experience little or no muscle gain.
Paradoxically, those people experience major strength gains, both men and women, especially in the first few months after they start a strength training program. However, those gains are due primarily to neural adaptations, and come without any significant gain in muscle mass. This can be frustrating, especially for men. Most men are after some noticeable muscle gain as a result of strength training. (Whether that is healthy is another story, especially as one gets to extremes.)
After the initial adaptation period, of “beginner” gains, typically no strength gains occur without muscle gains.
The culprits for the lack of anabolic response are often believed to be low levels of circulating testosterone and other hormones that seem to interact with testosterone to promote muscle growth, such as growth hormone. This leads many to resort to anabolic steroids, which are drugs that mimic the effects of androgenic hormones, such as testosterone. These drugs usually increase muscle mass, but have a number of negative short-term and long-term side effects.
There seems to be a better, less harmful, solution to the lack of anabolic response. Through my research on compensatory adaptation I often noticed that, under the right circumstances, people would overcompensate for obstacles posed to them. Strength training is a form of obstacle, which should generate overcompensation under the right circumstances. From a biological perspective, one would expect a similar phenomenon; a natural solution to the lack of anabolic response.
This solution is predicted by a theory that also explains a lack of anabolic response to strength training, and that unfortunately does not get enough attention outside the academic research literature. It is the theory of supercompensation, which is discussed in some detail in several high-quality college textbooks on strength training. (Unlike popular self-help books, these textbooks summarize peer-reviewed academic research, and also provide the references that are summarized.) One example is the excellent book by Zatsiorsky & Kraemer (2006) on the science and practice of strength training.
The figure below, from Zatsiorsky & Kraemer (2006), shows what happens during and after a strength training session. The level of preparedness could be seen as the load in the session, which is proportional to: the number of exercise sets, the weight lifted (or resistance overcame) in each set, and the number of repetitions in each set. The restitution period is essentially the recovery period, which must include plenty of rest and proper nutrition.
Note that toward the end there is a sideways S-like curve with a first stretch above the horizontal line and another below the line. The first stretch is the supercompensation stretch; a window in time (e.g., a 20-hour period). The horizontal line represents the baseline load, which can be seen as the baseline strength of the individual prior to the exercise session. This is where things get tricky. If one exercises again within the supercompensation stretch, strength and muscle gains will likely happen. (Usually noticeable upper-body muscle gain happens in men, because of higher levels of testosterone and of other hormones that seem to interact with testosterone.) Exercising outside the supercompensation time window may lead to no gain, or even to some loss, of both strength and muscle.
Timing strength training sessions correctly can over time lead to significant gains in strength and muscle (see middle graph in the figure below, also from Zatsiorsky & Kraemer, 2006). For that to happen, one has not only to regularly “hit” the supercompensation time window, but also progressively increase load. This must happen for each muscle group. Strength and muscle gains will occur up to a point, a point of saturation, after which no further gains are possible. Men who reach that point will invariably look muscular, in a more or less “natural” way depending on supplements and other factors. Some people seem to gain strength and muscle very easily; they are often called mesomorphs. Others are hard gainers, sometimes referred to as endomorphs (who tend to be fatter) and ectomorphs (who tend to be skinnier).
It is not easy to identify the ideal recovery and supercompensation periods. They vary from person to person. They also vary depending on types of exercise, numbers of sets, and numbers of repetitions. Nutrition also plays a role, and so do rest and stress. From an evolutionary perspective, it would seem to make sense to work all major muscle groups on the same day, and then do the same workout after a certain recovery period. (Our Stone Age ancestors did not do isolation exercises, such as bicep curls.) But this will probably make you look more like a strong hunter-gatherer than a modern bodybuilder.
To identify the supercompensation time window, one could employ a trial-and-error approach, by trying to repeat the same workout after different recovery times. Based on the literature, it would make sense to start at the 48-hour period (one full day of rest between sessions), and then move back and forth from there. A sign that one is hitting the supercompensation time window is becoming a little stronger at each workout, by performing more repetitions with the same weight (e.g., 10, from 8 in the previous session). If that happens, the weight should be incrementally increased in successive sessions. Most studies suggest that the best range for muscle gain is that of 6 to 12 repetitions in each set, but without enough time under tension gains will prove elusive.
The discussion above is not aimed at professional bodybuilders. There are a number of factors that can influence strength and muscle gain other than supercompensation. (Still, supercompensation seems to be a “biggie”.) Things get trickier over time with trained athletes, as returns on effort get progressively smaller. Even natural bodybuilders appear to benefit from different strategies at different levels of proficiency. For example, changing the workouts on a regular basis seems to be a good idea, and there is a science to doing that properly. See the “Interesting links” area of this web site for several more focused resources of strength training.
Zatsiorsky, V., & Kraemer, W.J. (2006). Science and practice of strength training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.