From recreational lifter to professional, strength athlete to bodybuilder, gaining strength and causing muscular hypertrophy are both goals which will be emphasised throughout different parts of a training career.
Without going into too much detail, the primary mechanisms for hypertrophy are fourfold; namely progressive tension overload - lifting heavier weights over time - which should be of prime concern and is the main driver for stimulating growth, metabolic stress (buildup of Hydrogen ions and other metabolites which stimulate hormonal output and various other factors causing increases in muscle mass), training to or very close to failure and, to a far lesser extent, muscular damage. Muscular damage is, in fact, a hotly contested factor with evidence going either way, and as such it can be safely concluded that if it does make a difference, that difference is minor and ‘tearing muscle fibres’ should never be the main focus of any lifting session. The three should be thought of in a pyramid, with overload on the bottom, metabolic stress and failure in the middle and damage on the top.
"To grow, maximise the higher factors as much as possible whilst not impacting the big picture – overload".
So with that said, while the basic principles of ‘lift weights, eat more’ hold true – there are a few different variables which are often discussed in an effort to optimise your time in the weight room. In this article I’ll aim to break down what I feel are the most important ones, and give my views based upon the data as to the best methods of building muscle, gaining strength and becoming awesome.
Volume has been heralded as one of the most important factors in muscular hypertrophy for decades. Volume is described as sets x reps, and as I will mention later, in my opinion should be viewed on a weekly basis as well as within each immediate session.
With a few notable exceptions who prefer to utilise one single set to failure (Dorian Yates is probably the most influential, followed by Mike Mentzer), it has been hypothesized in weight rooms for years that more sets, within reason, is better. While this is supported in data (1), it is not always immediately apparent how many sets or reps is ‘optimal’.
One of the tools I like to use for this purpose is what is known as Prilepin’s Chart, which is designed to indicate the best rep and set ranges with different loading parameters for gaining strength.
This chart was drawn up by A.S. Prilepin, a Soviet sports scientist who is said to have reviewed the training journals of over a thousand weightlifters during their domination of the Olympic games in an effort to figure out the most effective total volume with different loads. As you can see, a percentage of a trainee’s one rep max is indicated in the first column, followed by how many reps per set is recommended, as well as the total volume. He noticed that when athletes went under this volume, they progressed slower and when they overdid it they would ‘burn out’ and regress or stagnate. One thing I would edit from this chart is that, due to the study being done on weightlifters and not regular trainees who might emphasise hypertrophy, the lighter weights were performed as ‘speed work’, hence 3-6 reps being recommended with 55-65% of 1rm. At this kind of loading, I will often use 6-8 reps instead, with 3 sets of 8 resulting in the ‘optimal’ 24 reps completed.
Sets, Reps, Loading
‘But I don’t want to be a powerlifter or weightlifter, why do I need to work with such heavy loads?’
This question pops up a lot. When we are talking about resistance training loads, the following is usually held as gospel:
- 1-3 reps for maximal strength
- 3-5 reps for strength
- 8-12 reps for hypertrophy
- 15+ for endurance
But there are a lot of limitations to this kind of thinking. First of all, this does not mention how much intensity is used (for the purpose of this article, I will be using ‘intensity’ to mean it’s correct definition of ‘percentage of 1rm’). A 3 rep set with 65% of max as Prilepin prescribes will illicit a different response than a 3 rep set with 90% of max which is also within his guidelines. Secondly, and more importantly, this does not mention total volume. As mentioned above, metabolic stress is a large determining factor in muscular hypertrophy and this is caused, for the most part, by total immediate (within one session) volume. Most studies looking into this have only compared, for example, 3 sets of 8 and 3 sets of 3, or 4 sets of 10 and 2 sets of 2, which gives a large disparity between training volume and, therefore, metabolic stress.
This issue was tackled by schoenfeld et al in their 2014 paper (2) which measured the differences in strength and hypertrophy improvements over a period of time using different rep ranges. The difference between this and all previous similar studies was in this one they equated volume to some degree.
Subjects either performed 3 sets of 10 (30 total reps) or 7 sets of 3 (21 total reps) for a period of 8 weeks. After the program was completed, the hypertrophy was the same in both groups, but in the ‘powerlifting group’ the strength improvement was dramatically more impressive.
This indicates that, so long as sets are increased so that total volume is adjusted to allow for metabolic fatigue, one CAN in fact utilise the rep ranges advocated by prilepin to cause maximal muscular hypertrophy whilst lifting heavy enough to BE as strong as you look!
The takehome from this is that you should, ideally, work within the ‘strength’ rep ranges on your main lifts, irrespective of goals, and adjust total workload within the session to facilitate a hypertrophic response. After that, use common sense when picking rep ranges for accessory movements (You wouldn’t perform 6 sets of 3 when doing lateral raises) and use prilepin’s chart for guidance, then finally, if you use isolations, ‘go for the pump’ and look to cause metabolic fatigue as much as possible.
As a final note, when considering going to failure, remember that the goal must be to reduce any impact on progressive tension overload and metabolic fatigue.
As any good Instagram infographic will tell you, rest is as important as training and you grow when out of the gym, not in it. While this is true and well understood, just how much rest you need is again a point of contention in training circles. One one extreme we have high volume training bodybuilders who insist that training a muscle more than once per week is overtraining and it will not grow until it is fully recovered, then on the other side we have Olympic coaches like John Broz advocating squatting to a max every day and using phrases like ‘how you feel is a lie’ when asked about listening to your body or resting when feeling fatigued.
*At this point I will point out the elephant in the room. Drugs. When an athlete is using certain performance enhancing compounds, it allows them to benefit from both extremes. Due to elongated elevations in muscle protein synthesis, assisted athletes can grow a lot more easily from only one training session per week or less, and at the same time, increased recovery capacity (as well as top tier Olympic lifting genetics) allow Broz and his athletes to train on programs that would kill a mere mortal. With that aside, we can proceed to look into my recommendations for training frequency for regular, natural trainees.
As mentioned previously, there are 4 main factors for hypertrophy and progressive tension overload is the primary driver. These 4 factors together all cause hypertrophy due to activation of muscle protein synthesis (this is hugely simplified, but sufficient for the purposes of this article) which lasts, in a natural trainee, for a period post training determined by the individual’s genetics, training experience, diet and a host of other factors to do with the training itself. When all this is taken into account, MPS is elevated for approximately 24-72 hours in literature, but the average sits around 36 (3), one and a half days. If training volume is higher such as a 5x5 of a main lift followed by 3 sets of 8 repetitions of an accessory isolation movement (let’s say squat and thigh extension) then it’s at the higher end of the scale and if you only perform one set of three reps falling short of failure it could be even lower than the bottom end of this range.
This means, though, that after 2-3 days, a muscle is no longer growing even if you kill it with volume as found on a typical split where you may see 15+ working sets to failure! The huge volume workout causes dramatic amounts of metabolic fatigue, and large amounts of damage, but the stimulation still tops out at around the 36-72 hour mark – even if you are still sore (Giving further credence to the assertation that muscular damage may not be as big a factor as once thought).
Being that overload (weight on the bar) is a very important factor, too. It would make a lot of sense for a trainee to perform exercises quite often, as this would allow for ‘practice’. Engraining movement patterns and improving neural efficiency is a massive part of gaining maximal strength, and the stronger you are at the top end, the heavier you can perform rep work!
My recommendation, therefore, is to train with moderate acute volume (for example, one main movement and a single accessory or isolation movement if required to bring up a weakness) 2-3 times per week. If opting for 2 times per week, acute volume will be higher, if 3, it will be lower. Many trainees will simply pick one movement per bodypart, example bench press, and perform it 3 times per week in the 5x5 rep/set ranges, meaning 15 working sets per week (the same as our typical bodypart split mentioned above!)
When talking about rest, it would be a mistake to miss out the rest period between sets which is optimal. While every gym instructor is told that resting 60-90 seconds is the way to go, this may not in fact be true in every situation.
Rather, it would make significantly more sense to vary rest periods depending on the relative load and ‘difficulty’ of an exercise. A 5 rep set of squats will take more recovery than a 5 rep set of rows or barbell curls, for instance.
‘’But then I don’t get a pump’’
Remember the pyramid!
For your main movement, or ‘strength work’, your ONLY goal should be tension overload, and that means resting as long as you need. In fact, recent work by Ahtiainen et al (4) tested rest periods of 2 minutes vs 5 and noticed NO difference in hypertrophy between both groups. After your heavy work is performed, use accessories and isolation movements to ‘chase the pump’ and induce metabolic fatigue through short rest periods etc.
I’ll briefly touch on exercise selection too. With everything said taken into consideration, one should use movements which give the biggest ‘bang for your buck’, namely, barbell compound movements for most. This gives the perfect situation for progressive overload because it’s easier to microload a barbell than a dumbbell where jumps tend to be 2kg or more! (Microloading increases are important, those 500g plates add up!).
MOST, but not necessarily all.
So long as you cover the basic movement patterns, namely
- Horizontal and Vertical push
- Horizontal and Vertical Pull
- Hip Hinge
- Knee flexion
It really boils down to what you can progress with best with your leverages and biomechanics. Purists may hate it, but not everyone was built to back squat or deadlift from the floor.
Your muscles don’t know, what they are doing. All they recognise is tension. This means that YES you can absolutely build a fantastic physique without ‘the big three’ and a thigh extension will build your quad just as effectively as a squat provided programming is adequate(5).
So while I would recommend 99% of trainees back squat, full deadlift, bench press, overhead press and do some kind of row and chin up, this is not to say that someone who is elderly, someone who has poor leverages/mobility or someone who simply PREFERS it and will progress faster due to adherence cannot replace these with adequate comparable movements.
After that, a trainee should simply assess weaknesses or chosen points of emphasis and go nuts with isolation movements accordingly!