Muscle Building Inquisition

An interview with John Paul Catanzaro

John Paul CatanzaroWe sat down with John Paul Catanzaro, a certified kinesiologist and exercise physiologist out of Ontario, Canada, for an interview on our favorite topic, building muscle. JP has written for us in the past and his article, Triple Split Training, was a real hit so we came back for more … and more we did receive! Enjoy.

Muscle Building Inquisition: If you talk to a lot of guys in the gym, they will be dead set on doing 8 to 12 reps each exercise because that is what all the magazines have said in terms of building size. What’s your opinion?

John Paul Catanzaro: Of course it depends on the level of the individual. Their training age will dictate, for the most part, the repetitions that I would use. When we are dealing with beginners for instance, we often utilize a higher rep bracket initially as they are learning the movements. The intensities are rather low and they tend to hypertrophy after a period of time, usually 4-6 weeks before true morphological changes occur. Of course with advance athletes you can start to venture into the heavier weights and utilize lower rep schemes. The key there is to perform a sufficient amount of volume in terms of sets to elicit an hypertrophy response. So the answer really is that it varies among individuals.

Variety is important because you do want to tap into different motor units, but the key for hypertrophy is volume, where strength, on the other hand, is more a function of intensity.

MBI: Okay then. You wrote an article a while back called Sicilian Volume Training. Can you go into a little bit of that?

JPC: Basically the 10 sets of 10 systems are quite popular. Many people are familiar with German Volume training (GVT) that Charles Poliquin popularized many years ago which is a very effective system to induce hypertrophy. Another very effective system was popularized by a man named George Turner who was a long time contributor to Iron Man magazine and it is similar to GVT - it is in fact a 10 sets of 10 system but instead of a vertical loading sequence, it is more of a horizontal sequence. In other words if you do back squats followed by leg curls, you will do all ten sets of back squats and then go into all ten sets of leg curls; whereas, in GVT, you alternate between the two (generally between antagonistic opposing muscle groups.) Sicilian Volume Training incorporates a little bit of both methods into the system. I find it is a little more effective for advanced athletes.

So depending on the level of the trainee, any one of those systems will work and will work well. The beauty of hypertrophy is that variety is important, so if there is one constant in strength training it is the programs that vary more often make the greatest gains!

MBI: You talk about varying programs. I read a lot of times from some coaches that you should vary your lower body routine a little bit more than your upper body. It takes a little quicker for the lower body to adapt. Have you found that?

JPC: I have actually found the opposite. I found that the lower body is a little dumber if you will, and takes a little longer to adapt and thus you can keep people on say squats and deadlifts and variations thereof a little bit longer than you would for upper body movements. You tend to vary upper body movements more than lower body.

Another issue to consider on this subject involves the variable recovery system. We know for instance that arms will recover much quicker than say your legs, particularly the hamstrings. So the arms can be hit a little more often than legs and because of that you will have a greater frequency of arm movements in your routine. Training chest, back or shoulders involves the arms so body split training is quite popular especially for advanced athletes because they are tapping into this variable recovery system. Not every body part recovers at the same rate. Whole body systems can be quite demanding especially for advanced trainees since they are constantly pounding the body with big movements like squats and deadlifts throughout the week.

MBI: Another area that is popular today involves multi-joint movements. The trend seems to be away from isolation work. How big a fan are you of isolation training? When you have a guy who comes to you and wants to add size, will you tell him to stick with your compound, basic movements or will you add some of those isolation movements into his program?

JPC: Well, In general you want to emphasize the big multi-joint, compound movements; however, training economy will dictate what you do in a particular program. I mean if someone is going to train once or twice a week then make sure they perform the big movements. If you have someone that wants optimal gains, though, youneed to have a healthy mix of both compound and isolation type movements.

Now to truly isolate is difficult especially at high intensity. Take the triceps pressdown movement for instance. Research shows that at high intensities there is greater EMG or electrical activity in the abdominals than there are in the triceps themselves during that movement. As the intensity starts to increase, it is actually quite difficult to truly isolate a muscle but with that said, I think it is important that you incorporate some isolation movements in your routine.

I had a lady in here the other day and at the end of her workout we incorporated some grip training. She asked me why. It’s a valid question so let me explain.

The chin-up is a great exercise for both genders - it is a multi-joint movement that works many muscle groups but the average chin-up for a female is zero! There are several reasons for this. The limiting factor for females mentally is perception. They perceive that they cannot do it so they fulfill that prophecy. Physically, many times their grip is a limiting factor so by isolating the weak link you can bring up the entire chain! Sometimes it is important to attack the weak link of the chain to bring the entire chain up. I believe isolation movements do have their place in strength training and should be utilized.

MBI: You talk about certain muscles recovering faster than others. What muscles have you found recover quicker?

JPC: The slow twitch fibers will recover quicker. For instance, if you look at the soleus in the calf, it is primarily slow twitch, about 88% (plus or minus 3%) slow-twitch. Therefore, you can train the soleus far more often than say its cousin the gastrocnemius which is more fast-twitch in makeup, or versus the hamstrings which are a little higher up the posterior chain and very fast-twitch in makeup. The hamstrings should only be trained once within a 5 or 7 day period, whereas the calves may be hit 2 or 3 times within that time frame.

If you wanted to test this, relatively speaking, there is a method to do so with the use of Electronic Muscle Stimulation (EMS). EMS has a reverse recruitment order; in other words, it will recruit white fibers before red, so it recruits fast-twitch before slow-twitch as opposed to voluntary muscle contractions which do the opposite. If at lower intensities a muscle fires with EMS, it generally indicates that it is a higher fast-twitch content.Basically, by placing EMS pads on different parts of the body, you can scope out or map the entire body of an individual and see relatively where they are more fast-twitch and more slow-twitch in make up.

MBI: Cool! Another area that people do not monitor is rest intervals. Guys either flat out do not pay attention to them or are so dead set on keeping the same rest intervals. Rest is another variable that you can manipulate to however you desire. What do you do with your rest prescription?

JPC: Again the best scheme is to actually alter the variables among programs. We know that if you want to increase maximal strength levels then complete rest is warranted because the nervous system takes far longer, about 5 to 6 times longer, than the metabolic system to recover. By incorporating complete rest, anywhere from 3 to 5 minute rest intervals between sets, you will allow for greater recovery of the neuromuscular system, which will allow you to use heavier weights.

This scheme will increase testosterone levels, and if you want to induce more metabolic changes, keep your rest intervals fairly short. That will help to lower the pH of your blood due to the lactate release, which in turn will help to increase Growth Hormone (GH) production from the pituitary. So it can help to improve GH levels, which are indicated for body composition changes. It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

In general, it is best to vary between incomplete and complete recovery by utilizing both short and long rest intervals respectively among programs.

MBI: You wrote in the past about progression from workout to workout. You said that to progress you either have to go up by 1 to 2% in load, or 1 to 2 reps each workout. Do you still believe that small increases are necessary?

JPC: I completely endorse that type of system and here’s why. I get many people that come to me on a monthly basis. They come in from out of town and I’ll put them on a new program. They take it and set out on their own.

What I have found over the years is that when I give someone a new routine, many times they go gung-ho right off the bat and it leads to little nagging injuries, and their progress tends to stagnate fairly quickly. By the third week they are done!I discovered after looking at their training logs that they are going to failure almost immediately right from the first week on. They are excited to get a new program and they take it to the limit.

It is much better to gradually progress in terms of volume (i.e. reps per set) or intensity (i.e. weight). I indicated in that particular article you mention that the first week is where you find your weight. Try to keep at least two reps in the hole. The second week you start to increase intensity slightly - aim for one rep in reserve. The third and fourth week is where you take it to the limit and the final workout should be a taper where you decrease volume not intensity. Generally, we’ll cut the number of sets by 40 to 50% and speed up the tempo.

Increasing the speed on the final workout has a very interesting effect. It actually increases the number of repetitions you can perform with the same weight you used during the previous workout, which maintains workload. The beauty of this approach is that it has both physiological and psychological ramifications: physiological by allowing the body to supercompensate and psychological because you perceive that you have done more with the same weight as before (even though you are not necessarily comparing apples to apples), which will help to increase testosterone levels.

It is a very interesting system and quite effective. Once I started to incorporate this approach and really educate my clients as to how to progress in this manner, they started to make great progress. The number of nagging injuries and complaints all of a sudden disappeared. I call that success!

MBI: That is some very interesting information right there! I’m curious, are you a fan of tempo training or do you just tell your clients to control the weight on the way down and explode up?

JPC: It depends. The general rule with beginners is that you want to lower the weight slower than you raise it. I am a fan of tempo prescription because if you have two individuals performing the same number of repetitions but one is actually flying through their reps and theother one is doing it in a more slow, controlled manner, which one would be more effective?

MBI: For a beginner, I would probably go more for the slow, controlled situation.

JPC: Right! But again you have to qualify the question because the answer will depend on what they are training for. If they are training for power or speed, then of course the one that is going fast will give them the better training effect, but if they are training more for body composition or hypertrophy, then the slower, more controlled reps will probably bring them within the time under tension that will elicit that sought-after effect so it all depends.

Now can you utilize both schemes? Yes. With advanced trainees, we tend to stick to explosive concentrics. The eccentric action will be controlled for the most part, but it depends on the movement and what we are trying to achieve. Occasionally, we will insert isometric stops as well, but concentric actions at the advanced level are usually explosive. It does not necessarily mean that the weight is going to move fast but the intent is always explosive.

MBI: Nice way to clear it up because I know there is a ton of confusion in this industry over tempo training. Another common thing in the gym that you see all the time are guys doing half reps. How effective do you find partial reps for size?

JPC: Partial reps can be effective to get over a plateau, but if you are using them constantly in your training then you are basically shooting yourself in the foot! Not only will it reduce flexibility, but you will adapt strength solely in the range you train in.

Work defined is the amount of force you produce over a given distance. There is a quite a big difference between someone doing a quarter squat versus a half squat versus a full squat. Every once in awhile you can incorporate quarter squats or half squats to help bust through a training plateau, but you should encourage full range of motion with most exercises.

Much of the misconception that strength training produces a muscle-bound, inflexible individual stems from partial rep training. In fact, the second most flexible athlete is an Olympic weightlifter.If you train in full range of motion, the weight alone will provide passive stretching. These guys can do full “ass-to-the-grass” squats with some serious weight, but many bodybuilders who train in a shortened range of motion can barely tie their shoe laces! It all depends on how you train.

MBI: That is true. Many guys in the physique world cannot see the forest because they are blinded by the trees! They always have to perform certain exercises in a particular way or they think they’ll never grow. Do you agree?

JPC: I do. Squats are a great example, but another good one involves chin-ups. You get a bodybuilder to do a chin-up (i.e. supinated grip) or a pull-up (i.e. pronated grip) and many times they end up repping out with half the range of motion. But once you get them to do a full repetition - and I mean from a dead hang at the bottom until their chin clears the bar at the top - all of a sudden watch how their numbers start to drop! It’s a big blow to their ego, but that’s a true chin-up. That is what personal trainers and strength coaches need to teach - they need to prescribe full range of motion. Every once in awhile you can use partials or isometrics or other methods to help blast through plateaus but to use them constantly in training I think is doing an injustice to your client.

MBI: Well put. I think there is far too much of that going on now. Let’s change subject for a minute. Many people are interested about building wide shoulders. I saw an article you wrote about doing seated lateral raises and then standing up to extend the set. Any other tips to build shoulder width?

JPC: If your program design has a healthy diet of presses, rows and chins, then doing specialized shoulder work is really unnecessary. But if you have a bodybuilder that wants to build full boulder-sized shoulders, then doing isolation movements like lateral raises, for instance, is warranted.

Most people think that the shoulders are comprised of only three heads, the anterior, medial, and posterior head, but research shows that the shoulder is actually made up of seven segments. To truly train and stimulate all heads of the shoulders, you want to train them at different angles – even just a slight change in angle can actually alter recruitment pattern.

For example, the first 15 to 30 degrees of (humeral) abduction involves primarily the supraspinatus muscle, which is one of the muscles thatmakes up the rotator cuff. The medial deltoid contributes to a greater extent the further you start to abduct into the movement. You can affect recruitment for the lateral raise by altering your body position: sides-lying on a Swiss ball or incline bench will stimulate more supraspinatus; whereas, leaning away from a pole will hit more of the medial deltoid fibers.

There are many ways to influence the deltoids and hit them through different angles. I find that trisets and giant sets are quite effective for building shoulders. If your goal is to build full delts, then yes, I would recommend doing additional isolation work, but if you are doing plenty of rows, presses and chins, don’t bother.

MBI: What are the advantages of using trisets?

JPC: The advantage is that you can get a lot of work done in a short period of time, and that you can hit the muscle through different angles with various exercises.

Go back to shoulders. If you perform an “L” lateral raise, you cut the lever length in half. By doing regular laterals and then switching to L-laterals as you fatigue, you can extend the set. Then, by moving from a seated position to standing, you can start incorporating a little more of the legs to aid the upper body which will further increase the time under tension!

Another example involves hitting the shoulders with various exercises. You can go from say an overhead press to an upright row to a lateral raise and hit each of them with different rep brackets. The presses use a lower rep bracket; the upright rows a medium bracket; and train the laterals with higher reps. Trisets enable you to recruit different motor units which is advantageous to hypertrophy.

MBI: Talk a little a bit about splits. This is a very controversial topic, What have you found to be some of the more effective splits or do you prefer whole body workouts?

JPC: I really like incorporating antagonistic splits of opposite muscle groups, body parts or movement patterns. One that is quitepopular that many of the top coaches use is to perform chest and back together, then to do quadriceps and hamstrings together on a separate day and you usually incorporate abdominals on that day as well, and then finally perform triceps and biceps together on yet another day with any additional delt work. That type of three-day split tends to work well for most individuals.

Whole body workouts are recommended for beginners because they are learning how to lift and are using much lighter loads. With low intensity, the frequency can be greater – in other words, you can present a set of stimuli more frequently. However, as you advance and the intensity increases, you cannot present that stimulus as frequently. You need more time to recover. That is where splits are advantageous.

The key is to determine what the ideal frequency is to make that 1 or 2 % increase each workout. This depends on the individual. Teenagers who live at home with their parents and go to school do not really have much stress in their lives and their hormones are raging! A 3 in 5 system (i.e. 5-day rotation) works quite well where Day1 is chest and back, Day 2 is legs and abs, the third day is off, Day 4 would be arms and delts, the 5th day off and then they repeat the cycle.

A 30 year old working 9 to 5 with a mortgage and a kid will have a little more stress in their life, so a 3 in 6 system (i.e. 6-day rotation) works quite well. And if you have a 50 or 60 year old whose hormones have declined considerably, then they do not recover as well. Add on top of that a couple of kids, maybe some employees, problems with their marriage, debt, etc. and you’ve got a ton of stress! Well, a 3 in 7 schedule (i.e. 7-day rotation) might be more suited for them.

So frequency depends on where you are within that continuum, and even then, it depends on the situation. You may have an 18 year old that just lost a parent or is on exam week and is under a tremendous amount of stress. That will definitely affect their frequency if they want to continue to make progress.

MBI: Good stuff! I don’t think many people put much thought into how their lifestyle may affect their workouts. I want to ask you about arm training real quick. Where do you see the biggest results with your clients and what kind of sets and reps are best with arm training?

JPC: As they progress, we tend to use lower rep brackets with arm training. The key is to perform big bang, multi-joint, compound movements, such as weighted close-grip chin-ups and parallel-bar dips, for low reps (i.e. 6 or lower) and a high number of sets (i.e. 6 or more) in an undulatory or wave-like manner. In other words, by alternating between volume, or what we term accumulation phases, followed by more intensity driven (or intensification) phases tends to work quite well assuming that their recovery is adequate.

John Paul CatanzaroMBI: Excellent! What exercises should they be doing for their arms?

JPC: For the elbow flexors, if they are not doing chin-ups - and there are over 70 variations available - they will not achieve maximum arm growth. Next, there are various arm curls out there. I often recommend Zottman curls, which involves a supinated grip on the concentric and a pronated grip on the eccentric action, as well as incline (both supinated and neutral/hammer grip) curls, which tend to hit a little more of the long head of the biceps. Also, consider improving forearm size and strength with a neat little tool called Tyler grips. I’ll explain how to use these gems in a future article.

Keep in mind that the elbow extensors make up almost 2/3rds of upper arm size so don’t neglect them. The best exercises there include dips, close-grip bench press, California press with a Swiss ball or Olympic bar, various triceps extensions (particularly in the decline position, which hits all 3 heads of the triceps according to MRI studies) and pressdowns.

MBI: That just about covers everything, JP. What are you working on right now that you might want to share with our readers?

JPC: Well, after a year off from speaking to set up my new training facility in Richmond Hill, Ontario, I’m back at it. My seminar series commences in July primarily in the Greater Toronto Area (which is the most populous metropolitan area in Canada by the way), but we are working on some dates in the States as well. You can get all the information at

Also, my Warm-Up to Strength Training DVD is doing quite well, selling copies worldwide. It’s been featured in various magazines and endorsed by many experts including Drs. Eric Serrano, Mark Lindsay and Ken Kinakin as well as Olympic strength coach, Charles Poliquin. Readers can visit for more details.

MBI: Great! Thanks for a fantastic interview.

JPC: No problem. All the best.

About The Author

John Paul Catanzaro is a CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private facility in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. John Paul has authored two books, The Elite Trainer (2011) and Mass Explosion (2013), and has released two DVDs, Stretching for Strengthening (2003) and Warm-Up to Strength Training (2005), which have sold copies worldwide, been featured in several magazines, and have been endorsed by many leading experts. In 2013, John Paul released two new webinars, Strength Training Parameters and Program Design and Body Composition Strategies, providing the latest cutting-edge information to fitness professionals. For additional information, visit his website at or call 905-780-9908.