Mass Made Simple, Not Easy
Today, in a pool of sweat, gasping for air, with my heart pounding, and my leg muscles on fire, I finished the last workout from Dan John’s book, Mass Made Simple. I know, seriously, I’m talking about that Dan John guy again. I promise, I will try and not write about him again, at least for awhile after this post (unless he says something interesting, so no promises). Just as the title of the book states, the workout is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. There were fourteen workouts in total, and each workout consisted of five exercises and one complex (6 exercises done in succession). The five exercises consisted of the bench press, bat wings (upper back exercise), single arm overhead press, bird-dogs, and the back squat. The barbell complex contained the bent-over row, hang clean, front squat, overhead press, back squat, and the good morning exercise. The most brutal part of the workout was the finale, which contained the complexes and high rep back squats. It was at the end of these workouts where I came to the conclusion that Dan John is not a very nice man, at least in the way he structured this workout. Coach John eased me into the high rep squats, starting with only 30 reps (how nice of him) with a lighter weight, which was really just a primer for the 50 rep squat that was to come later in the workout plan. That’s right, 50 reps in a row with a moderate weight on your back. The ultimate goal is to get a 50 rep squat with your body weight by the conclusion of the plan. I originally began the workout based off of my body weight parameter, but I had to lower the weight to make the ultimate goal (a 50 rep squat) actually attainable. In my past posts, I have readily admitted that my squat is a work in progress, and it was neglected in my youth (for bench press mostly, I won’t lie). After a few workouts, I came to the realization that I would need to restart the program with lower weights. I never did reach that 50 rep squat with 135 lbs., but I did get 34 reps with 115 lbs. and 25 reps with 135 lbs. Those are rep numbers that I never would have been able to reach before I started this plan, and now 135 lbs on a squat feels like child’s play instead of a chore. The workout also had the following effects, a 10 lb body weight increase, I reached 50 lbs on the bat wing exercise, got up to 95/115 in the complex (the weight I used depended on how I felt that day, and the overhead press was the limiting factor), and an increase from 215 to 235 lbs in the bench press (yes, I had dipped a little in strength since I did my powerlifting workout in the Spring). I must admit that some of the weight gain came from a decrease in my cardio levels (minimal running, mostly hiking), and an increase in carbs and calorie intake. I also believe that the complexes and the high rep squats played a huge factor in the changes too. Those squats felt like pure torture for me and they were something I had never done in any past workouts. I was excited to see how my body was going to respond to them, and respond it did. So what was the science behind the workout? How did it work?
- “Mastery of the basic multi-joint barbell movements.”
- “A commitment to getting stronger.”
- “Real improvements come when you squat seriously.”
- “Bulking is best done in a short period of time.”
- “You need to be physically ready to bulk up.”
I wasn’t able to find any specific research on 50 rep squats. It just hasn’t been done. However, I did find an extensive review of literature related to muscle hypertrophy (increase in size) by Brad Schoenfeld. Schoenfeld was looking to uncover the optimal protocols for maximizing muscle growth. Exercise-induced muscle hypertrophy is activated by mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. I think it’s safe to say that high rep squats and complexes will induce all those things. Training variables such as intensity, volume, exercise selection, rest intervals, muscular failure, and repetition speed can all be manipulated to improve muscle hypertrophy. It appears that a moderate repetition range of 6 to 12 reps with high volume (multiple sets), and a load of 65% of one rep max or greater, is ideal for hypertrophy. The higher volume is shown to increase acute testosterone levels and growth hormone release. The Mass Made Simple program manipulated all of these variables in essentially one set of squats to produce the aforementioned mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress, activating muscle hypertrophy. Complexes were also high volume, at one point in the workout, reaching a total volume of 150 reps (30 reps each individual exercise). There is some evidence that faster repetitions help produce muscle hypertrophy, and the complex repetitions were done quickly. Like I mentioned earlier, one set of high rep squats were not included in the literature review, but it appears that the high rep back squats come close to optimizing all these variables in one set. If I had been able to perform the squats with a greater load that was close to/or equal to my body weight, I can only imagine that I would have gotten even better results. Let’s look at one more real life example of somebody who made a living out of building muscle mass, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even if we leave performance enhancing substances out of it, Schwarzenegger would have been a big, muscly dude because of his workouts. In his book, The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, he revealed some of his training methods which included higher volume training. He employed up to 20 sets per body part in his training with a moderate rep range. Beyond the strength training, it does take an increase in calories and carbs if you are looking to gain size. Coach John addresses this in the book, especially increasing the intake of protein.
Mass Made Simple taught me a few lessons. I realize that I loathe high rep squats and I even get a little sick to my stomach when I think about them. I also realized that I could push myself a little further than I thought. It comes down to a matter of perspective. After hitting 25 reps with 135 lbs on the bar, a set of 10 feels like nothing. The workouts definitely took me out of my comfort zone, and we know that’s the way to make progress. Next up, I plan on experimenting with Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 training program for powerlifting. I am looking to take advantage of this new found strength in the squat and the extra weight I have added to my frame. The majority of people who utilize my services are looking to lose weight and/or improve their athletic performance, but I have had a few people who were looking to bulk up (particularly athletes, and even a male model). Even if you are not looking to gain muscle mass, I encourage you to give the following a try. Consider it a challenge! If you’re an experienced lifter, try squatting your body weight for 50 straight reps. Full squats, not partial, and if you have to rest, try to keep it to a minimum. Remember, the goal is 50 reps without rest. If that seems unreasonable, lower the weight. Be prepared to breathe hard, feel your heart beat out of your chest, drip sweat, and feel your leg muscles burn. Some would say that the nauseous feeling that you are getting is the release of growth hormone. I imagine Dan John would say, “You’re welcome.”