Is There a Minimum Intensity Threshold for Resistance Training-Induced Hypertrophic Adaptations?

Abstract

In humans, regimented resistance training has been shown to promote substantial increases in skeletal muscle mass. With respect to traditional resistance training methods, the prevailing opinion is that an intensity of greater than ~60 % of 1 repetition maximum (RM) is necessary to elicit significant increases in muscular size. It has been surmised that this is the minimum threshold required to activate the complete spectrum of fiber types, particularly those associated with the largest motor units. There is emerging evidence, however, that low-intensity resistance training performed with blood flow restriction (BFR) can promote marked increases in muscle hypertrophy, in many cases equal to that of traditional high-intensity exercise. The anabolic effects of such occlusion-based training have been attributed to increased levels of metabolic stress that mediate hypertrophy at least in part by enhancing recruitment of high-threshold motor units. Recently, several researchers have put forth the theory that low-intensity exercise (≤50 % 1RM) performed without BFR can promote increases in muscle size equal, or perhaps even superior, to that at higher intensities, provided training is carried out to volitional muscular failure. Proponents of the theory postulate that fatiguing contractions at light loads is simply a milder form of BFR and thus ultimately results in maximal muscle fiber recruitment. Current research indicates that low-load exercise can indeed promote increases in muscle growth in untrained subjects, and that these gains may be functionally, metabolically, and/or aesthetically meaningful. However, whether hypertrophic adaptations can equal that achieved with higher intensity resistance exercise (≤60 % 1RM) remains to be determined. Furthermore, it is not clear as to what, if any, hypertrophic effects are seen with low-intensity exercise in well-trained subjects as experimental studies on the topic in this population are lacking. Practical implications of these findings are discussed.

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Acknowledgments

This review was not funded by any outside organization. Brad Schoenfeld is the sole author of this work. There are no conflicts of interest present.

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Schoenfeld, B.J. Is There a Minimum Intensity Threshold for Resistance Training-Induced Hypertrophic Adaptations?. Sports Med 43, 1279–1288 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0088-z

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Keywords

  • Resistance Training
  • Resistance Exercise
  • Muscle Protein Synthesis
  • Repetition Maximum
  • Blood Flow Restriction