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If you’re a beginner, stop reading this article right now and move on to another – you simply aren’t ready for the muscle-blasting effects this hardcore training technique can elicit. Give yourself about six months of dedicated work in the gym, then revisit this article.

Those of you who are experienced lifters and aren’t afraid to try something new to spur incredible levels of muscle growth, read on. But beware: Training a muscle group on two consecutive days isn’t for wimps and should be done only occasionally. Here’s what you need to know about back-to-back training.

DOMS and Recovery

Many lifters gauge the effectiveness of their workouts by delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). After all, the more soreness you feel the next day, the better, right? Actually, this rationale is good. Generally speaking, your muscles synthesize new proteins and grow when they’re repairing muscle damage, and DOMS reflects the extent of damage a muscle has incurred.

But – and this is important – what kind of activity, if any, should you do during recovery? In other words, when can you train that muscle again? The common recommendation is to wait until the soreness is gone, for two reasons: 1) the need for the cellular repair process to be completed, and 2) the rise in cortisol, your body’s main catabolic hormone, that often accompanies muscle damage. This wisdom, however, is now being challenged.

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Back-to-Back Science

Recent research by Finnish scientists sheds new light on how a sore muscle should be treated during the repair process. When they had young male trainees perform three hard sets of knee extensions (what M&F calls leg extensions) with the last two sets taken to failure, the result, of course, was sore quads. But even though the test subjects were still sore two days later, they were put through the same leg workout.

As they report in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, the researchers expected to see a drop in testosterone after the second workout and an overall elevation in the catabolic hormone cortisol, but in fact observed the exact opposite. Testosterone levels after the second workout were slightly higher than after the first. Although the difference wasn’t statistically significant, the fact that it hadn’t dropped was remarkable. In addition, cortisol actually decreased!

When this happens, testosterone has a distinct advantage at turning on the muscle-building machinery in the muscle. The only bad news was that subjects showed a decrease in the exercise-induced growth hormone spike. Yet the fact that lactic acid production was also slightly lower after the second workout may explain this, since lactic acid is believed to initiate growth hormone secretion during exercise. The important thing to remember here is that re-training a sore muscle after only two days didn’t adversely affect the hormonal responses involved in its recovery.

Work by Japanese researchers suggests that other chemical responses important in recovery are also unaffected by back-to-back training. They induced soreness in the biceps muscles of volunteers with heavy negatives on curls, and repeated the exercise two and four days later. No significant differences were seen in max strength, range of motion, muscle soreness and plasma creatine kinase (a chemical indicator of muscle damage) between each exercise bout. In other words, muscle damage wasn’t made worse by the back-to-back training.

Taken together, these studies suggest – contrary to what we’ve always believed – that exercising a muscle group while it’s still sore and in the recovery process doesn’t appear to hamper its recovery. And even more interesting, cortisol levels may be lowered. Whether this effect is due to the shock of simply varying the routine or is some undiscovered phenomenon, it certainly suggests that back-to-back training may lead to a greater anabolic environment and enhanced muscle growth.

If you’re in a rut with your training and your gains have plateaued, shock your muscles with yet another pounding session just when they’re expecting a break.

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How to Train Back-to-Back

Ready to try this seemingly backward training technique? It’s sure to shake things up and get your body responding. Just be sure to follow these tips:

  • Back-to-back training should be done only occasionally. Don’t try it more than once every 3-4 months per muscle group.
  • When you do decide to use it, make sure all other stresses (physical and emotional) in your life are low. Don’t use it at a time when you’re under unusually heavy labor at work, working very long hours, studying for exams, running on little sleep, or going through life changes and/or difficulties.
  • You can attack any muscle group in this manner, just don’t hit all your muscle groups with it at the same time. Keep a minimum of one week between back-to-back sessions for different muscle groups.
  • The first workout for each bodypart should be very intense – use forced reps, drop sets or negatives, and be sure to go to all-out failure on most sets. Use a higher volume by doing more sets (at least 12-16).
  • The next day or day after that, hit that same bodypart with another workout, but choose different exercises from the previous ones. Don’t go longer than 48 hours between workouts. The second workout should be lower in both intensity and volume (total sets). Do about 6-8 sets total and perform 12-15 reps.

 

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Back-to-Back Supplementing

Because this program is so taxing, you must be certain that your physiological systems are running optimally. Good nutrition and wise supplement choices can help keep your immune system in check, your hormones in tune and your muscle-building on track.

Calories
First things first: Make sure your calorie intake is adequate for your size long before you decide to attempt this workout. That means if you weigh 160-200 pounds, you need at least 2,600-3,000 calories a day.

Protein
Provide those damaged muscle fibers with the amino acids they need to recover and grow. Get at least 1-1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight for several days before and after using this technique. Also get about 20 grams before each workout and 40 grams after.

Carbohydrates
Carbs are necessary to fuel the processes of muscle growth and replenish glycogen-depleted muscle fibers, and it may help keep cortisol levels down. Try to eat at least 3 grams per pound of bodyweight per day. Before each workout, take in about 40 grams; immediately after, take in about 100 grams.

Glutamine
This amino acid helps spare muscle protein and can keep your immune system strong, even when you’re pushing it to the limit. Take about 10 grams in two divided doses per day for several weeks before you try this program. Immediately after the workout, take 5 grams along with your carbs and protein.

Mucuna pruriens/alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine (alpha GPC)
These two compounds have been shown to raise the growth hormone response after a workout. Try 200-400 mg mucuna pruriens and 100-300 mg alpha GPC 30-60 minutes before the second workout, and a similar dose before bedtime.