Is it true that steroid users should use high reps for bodybuilding while natural non-steroid users should use heavy weight?
Gain Muscle Scientifically Without High Reps?
Today I decided to peruse a few books on ‘how to gain muscle scientifically.’ Since I figure anything worth doing is worth overdoing, I ended up down the rabbit hole of nonsense, looking through around a dozen such books. ALL of them, to my amazement, contained the following nugget: You’ve been doing it all wrong. High reps and sets only work for people on steroids. You can’t train like the huge guys in the magazines. When you’re not on steroids, you need to use low reps and heavy weights to recruit type 2 muscle fibers.” Of course, this is a paraphrase and a combination of many similar statements, but in all of them, the gist is the same. There seems to be a foregone conclusion building that only those on steroids will gain muscle using high reps.
Why Do High Reps Work Better for Steroid Users?
I even saw a question on Quora: Why do high reps work better for steroid users and why does high weight work for naturals? Luckily the first fellow to answer talked sense and let the OP know that this was a fabrication. And it is. It is basically magical thinking. The idea that the basic physiology of muscle gaining changes when you are on steroids is an absurd notion. As the answer on Quora states, these ideas are built on observational biases and generalizing observations from one or two people to the entire population. Unfortunately, this is common with many self-proclaimed bodybuilding and strength training experts on the web who observe the training results of one person, themselves, and then declare that these results, and therefore the methods behind them, apply to everyone.
This observation, superficial though it is, may make sense. One of the main effects of anabolic steroids is to allow one to recover more quickly. People on steroids can, therefore, better recover from very high weight training volume with high reps and high numbers of sets. This faster recover allows them to train with this kind of volume more frequently. There is also a school of thought that says steroids give you an anabolic boost that allows you to grow pretty much “no matter what” but this is a tad exaggerated.
High Volume (High Reps) Work for Hypertrophy
The truth is that most everybody will gain more muscle with a lot of training volume. While both heavy weights (low to moderate reps) and high reps can be and are used, the idea that if you keep the volume low but concentrate on heavy weights so as to recruit more type 2 fibers, you will grow better, is a load of bunk. Just about all resistance training tends to cause a general shift to type 2a fibers, but you should not be concerned with the underlying physiology of training, but rather the primary goals of your training.
While I’m on the subject, focusing on physiological details like muscle fiber recruitment or protein synthesis is a favored province of those who wish to appear scientific but who do not have any real experience or knowledge of the nuts and bolts of strength training or muscle building.
Steroids Speed Up Recovery from High-Volume Training
Although there are many claims about what steroids do specifically in the body in order to help build more muscle, most of them are well beyond what evidence can actually show us. However, the main thing we can be sure of is that anabolic steroids, when taken in supraphysiological doses, speed up the repair process in the muscles. For most of us, when we train our muscles intensely, we actually experience a period of muscle breakdown or catabolism. In fact, despite all the talk about transient growth hormone response and how your nutrition may enhance protein synthesis after a workout, the primary response of the body to an intense bodybuilding workout is to drop testosterone levels and to release glucocorticosteroids. This causes a breakdown of muscle but also a reduction in inflammation. Depending on the individual, it may take up to 48 hours for the body to rebound and recover, after which the micro-damage to the muscles will be repaired and the body will have responded to this damage by building larger and stronger muscles.
Steroids, shortcircuit this response in the body and greatly speed up this repair process. The result is much larger and stronger muscles in a much shorter time-frame. All this enables the user to work out with both more volume and more load and do it more frequently. This gives the steroid user a profound edge. What it doesn’t do, however, is cause the steroid user to respond to parameters that a steroid-free trainee cannot respond to. The only difference is the speed of the response and the lack of muscle break-down when using steroids.
Non-Steroid Users (Naturals) Should Use Full-Body Routines?
It is frequently claimed that non-steroid users should train with low to moderate reps and heavy weights using full-body routines. In other words, they should focus more on strength than hypertrophy. If this seems a bit counter-intuitive, it’s because it is. Although this advice often centers on muscle fiber recruitment and other physiological details, I would surmise that, in addition to the observational bias we started with, it is also an attempt to reconcile the generally negative stigma toward bodybuilding body-part splits and the subsequent hype around full-body low volume workouts for muscle.
Since professional bodybuilders who use steroids still successfully use so-called ‘bro-splits,’ which are not supposed to work, it must have to do with the steroids. The steroids cause training that would not normally work to actually work. And work better! But for the rest of us, the correct training is a polar opposite. In other words, I think this whole thing is an attempt to justify the popular trends in strength training and muscle building. In reality, it has never been true that a full-body workout is a superior way to train for pure hypertrophy. In fact, this type of training is not even a good way to train for strength! Instead of turning this article into a rant about inefficient training methods, I’ve already written a great deal about this subject in the difference between bodybuilding and strength training.