Muscle growth is not determined only by how heavy you train, how many reps you do, or how much time you spend in the gym.
Volume, Intensity and Frequency are equally important, and together create the stimulus that leads to growth. Focusing on only one of them means missing the forest for the trees.
Online you’ll find an endless debate. One one side you have the people that say strength doesn’t matter for size and you should just pump your muscles in the 10-12 rep range. One the other side you have those that say volume doesn’t matter than much and strength gains are essential for muscle growth.
Well, both are right.
A few years ago dr. Brad Shoenfeld published a paper on the causes of muscle growth. He arrived at the conclusion that there are 3 factors that lead to muscle growth:
- Progressive tension overload – meaning lifting heavier and heavier weights
- Muscle damage – meaning how much you break the muscle fibers in training
- Metabolic fatigue – the burn you feel when doing high reps
So both pumping your muscles and lifting heavy lead to growth. But not equally. It turns out progressive overload is by far the most important.
Strength is King
If a person doesn’t get stronger over time, no matter how much volume they do, they won’t get bigger.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that yourself. If you’re as strong as you were last year, you’re probably the same size too. Also you never see someone lifting heavy weights for reps without having good muscle development.
Something to note though is that strength and size are related only when strength is gained in a medium rep range. Powerlifters and olympic weightlifters train their nervous system to produce high amount of force for one rep. They also use the form that gives them the best mechanical advantage. When doing only 1-3 reps per set, strength and size are not tightly related.
Alright, so far we’ve concluded that lifting heavier and heavier weights over time is the main stimulus for muscle growth. This means the main goal of your training program is to get you stronger in a medium rep range.
Let’s see how you do that.
The Muscle and Strength Hierarchy of Importance
Taken for the AWESOME book The Muscle & Strength Training Pyramid
The first thing you need to understand is that there is a hierarchy of importance when it comes to setting training variables. At the bottom of the pyramid are the most important aspects, and as you get closer to the top each level becomes less important for your overall results.
As you can see rest periods and tempo are actually the least important things you can focus on and yet guys in the gym talk about these most often. We’re not going to do that.
What we’ll focus on is on setting the right volume, intensity and frequency.
Because if those are set correctly, strength progression happens automatically. Let’s start with volume.
How much Volume should you do?
A few months ago Greg and I interviewed Eric Helms and I had a question I wanted to ask him for a long time. I asked him: Does volume in and of itself lead to muscle growth or is it that volume leads to strength gains which lead to muscle growth? This was Eric’s answer:
“I would say that yes, just pure volume to a certain degree creates growth. But after your muscles adapt to doing a high amount of muscular work, then the fuel cell is big enough. In that situation you may need to do more volume, to get progressive overload, to get the fiber to grow. A good way to look at it is that you need volume of heavy enough work to create an adaptive stimulus. And the volume you need is going to be more than you previously needed to grow before you plateaued.”
So while volume is what creates the stimulus, you should be doing as little work as you can while still progressing optimally. Because if there comes a point where you plateau, you can increase volume a little which will drive further adaptation.
I’d say most intermediates (training for the actor/model type physique) need between 40 and 100 effective reps per body part per week in order to make optimal progress. From that point, over the years they’ll probably have to gradually increase the amount of work they do in order to keep progressing.
How Heavy should you Train?
If you’ve noticed, previously I said between 40 and 100 effective reps per week, not any kind of reps. There is a certain threshold of effort that you need to pass in order for a rep to stimulate adaptation.
As you can see in this picture, you can get those reps in any rep range. However, the easiest way to accumulate heavy enough reps is in the medium rep range of 5-10 reps per set. This is why training in this rep range is the best choice for muscle growth.
Think about it.
If you did 100 reps in sets of 3, you could get enough heavy volume to drive hypertrophy but the stress on your body would be enormous. If the results you get are equal to training in a medium rep range, why would you do it?
On the other hand if you did sets of 15 or more with light weights, only the last 8 reps or so would count as effective reps. You’d have to do a lot of unnecessary extra volume because the first few reps are like a warm-up.
This is one of the reasons why doing straight sets like 5 x 5 is superior to doing ascending pyramid sets. You’d get more effective reps with 5 x 5.
I think Greg Nuckols explained it best. He said:
“In the medium rep range, the weights are generally light enough that you can maintain good technique, not cheat the range of motion, get pretty close to failure safely, not “burn out your CNS” after just a couple of sets, and not be left with creaky joints. On the other hand, the weights are generally heavy enough that you’re still putting a fair amount of tension on the muscle, you’re more likely to be limited in each set by muscular fatigue than systemic anaerobic fatigue, and you’re not doing so many reps that you’re metabolically crushed after your first couple of sets.”
Simply stated all reps are heavy enough to count and it’s the easiest way to accumulate efficient volume. That efficient volume is what stimulates strength gains which lead to muscle growth.
What’s the best Training Frequency?
You can think of frequency as the way you organize your volume instead of it being a distinct training variable.
If the number of heavy reps per week is equal, different training frequencies will produce more or less the same results. This is why you can have equally effective training programs even though one has you train a body part once a week and another two times a week.
This is true when volume is low/medium. Athletes doing high amounts of volume for one body part can’t fit it all in a single training session. For them a higher training frequency becomes necessary.
The reason for that is because as an intermediate you can make progress in strength almost every time you hit the gym. This means you’d progress faster if you have 6 workouts in a month compared to 4 workouts.
Putting it all together
So in short you need a good combination of volume, intensity and frequency. If you have that progression will happen almost automatically.
To give you a concrete example, my training over the last 5 months looked something like this:
- Flat Bench Press / Incline Bench Press (3-5 sets of 5-8 reps)
- Standing Press (3-4 sets of 5-8 reps)
- Another Incline or Flat Press (3-5 sets of 5-10 reps)
- Lateral Raises (3-5 sets of 8-15 reps)
- Incline Flyes or Machine Flyes (3-5 sets of 8-15 reps)
- Skullcrushers or Rope Pushdowns (3-5 sets of 6-10 reps)
- Weighted Chin-ups or Pull-ups (3-4 sets of 5-8 reps)
- Squats (5 sets of 5 reps)
- Pendley Rows (5 sets of 6 reps)
- Barbell Curls (3 sets of 6-10 reps)
- Bent-over Flyes (5 sets of 6-15 reps)
- Calf Raises (3 sets to failure)
A point I want to make here is that you should not confuse a training program with a training split or routine. A training program also covers progression. Progressing the weight on the bar and progressing through different routines.
What most people call training programs are just training splits. They show you what exercises to do on what days and that’s it. Of course, it works for a while but then you must start to plan the way you progress the weights on the bar.
The Training Program I use
I currently follow the routines from the ShredSmart Program. It’s designed to give you the model/actor type of look – narrow waist, broad shoulders, square chest, and well developed arms.
However, it’s not the best program for bodybuilders because it doesn’t include enough lower body training.
If you’re after the lean and muscular physique though, check it out. It may be the right fit for you as well.