Are you desperate to build muscle? Have you googled phrases like “the ultimate arm annihilation”, “how to build big legs”, “Arnold’s chest workout?”. In the gym kicking your own butt 5, 6 or even 7 days a week but still struggling to gain muscle?
Well, you are looking at the world through a straw. Jumping from one “best” program to another is small picture thinking. You are missing the wood for the trees by looking for the most badass training session to annihilate your muscles without thinking what comes next. To get bigger you need to think bigger.
Your current “world through a straw” mindset means you violate many of the underlying principles of training. You just trash a muscle group without knowing if you’ve provided an appropriate growth stimulus. Without an overarching training structure, each session just becomes an exercise in achieving fatigue.
If you aren’t providing your body with the signal to grow it won’t. So, it’s vital to know when and how to adjust your training to maintain progress. To achieve this, you must be able to manipulate the key training variables and sequence them into a logical structure.
You have all sorts of variables to play with when it comes to planning your training. For example, training volume, intensity, frequency, exercise selection, exercise variety, sets, reps, rest and tempo. The first three variables are the most important – Intensity, Volume and Frequency. If you can logically adjust these over successive phases of training then you will make previously untapped progress. In this article, I will outline exactly how to structure your training to manipulate these three variables and give you the best muscle building bang for your buck.
Before outlining how to organize the training variables into a periodized plan let’s first cover the fundamental principles of training to maximize muscle. Training must adhere to these principles to be successful. The two most important of these are:
- Progressive overload
You should be training in a way that is specific to your goals and in a progressive manner.
Specificity is the fundamental training principle to base your training program on. The principle of specificity is both the most important principle in training and the most straightforward. Specificity means that training is directed towards developing the training adaptation you desire. Simply put, you get good at what you do.
For example, specificity for a powerlifter means that all training is geared towards increasing the competitive total of the big 3 lifts – squat, been and deadlift. For physique orientated goals, specificity relates to training to maximize muscle mass and/or reduce body fat.
Designing a program specific to the goals of your training becomes even more important as you progress from a novice to an intermediate and onwards to an advanced trainee. Given you are reading this then I’m assuming you have progressed past the newbie gains stage and are looking for some more advanced knowledge to keep you growing.
Training specifically for hypertrophy:
Brad Schoenfeld’s research gives us an insight into the optimal training strategies for hypertrophy. He has identified the three key training mechanisms which drive muscle gain. They are:
- Mechanical tension: external forces put on the muscles by the weights, resulting in muscle contraction.
- Metabolic stress: the accumulation of metabolic byproducts, referred to as metabolites (e.g., lactate, hydrogen ions, and inorganic phosphate) during and following resistance exercise, which indirectly mediate cell and muscle swelling.
- Muscle damage: referring to micro tears accrued from deliberately lifting weights, usually accompanied by DOMS.
In my opinion 75-80% of your results will come from mechanical tension. If you focus on progressively lifting more weight in the 6-12 rep range, on the big lifts, then a lot of your muscle gains will be taken care of. However, to maximize your potential it is wise to use isolation exercises and techniques aimed at metabolic stress and muscle damage.
Mathias Wernborn investigated the key drivers of hypertrophy in his paper “The influence of Frequency, Intensity, Volume and Mode on Muscle Hypertrophy.” Based on the findings from this research it is possible to make the following recommendations:
- Do 40-70reps/muscle group/session
- For a total of 80-210reps/muscle group/week
- Lift loads heavier than 60% 1RM
- Train each muscle group 2-3xweek
Eric Helms expanded upon some of these concepts in his excellent book the Muscle and Strength Training Pyramids. Taking Eric’s input and my own practical experience I think the above guidelines can be built upon with the following…
- 66-75% of your sets should be in the 6-12 rep range
- Most of those should be for sets of 8-10 close to, or to failure
- Use 1-3 exercises per body part (1 for smaller muscle groups)
- Begin with 2-3 sets per exercise
- Progress to 3-6 sets per exercise
- Lift with a moderate tempo (about a 2 second eccentric and 1 second concentric)
So, there you have a comprehensive set of guidelines specific to training for hypertrophy. Your next port of call after training specifically is to apply the principle of progressive overload.
The principle of overload governs effective, hard training. Overload means that training must disrupt homeostasis enough to cause the body to adapt.
The human body is an incredible mechanism. It can do some incredible things. Despite being capable of tremendous feats of strength, endurance and ingenuity the human body doesn’t like to do the extraordinary. It likes maintenance. More specifically, it likes homeostasis.
- the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.
This is what makes building muscle so hard. To build muscle you must disrupt the equilibrium and force your body to adapt. You must challenge it by lifting weights sufficiently hard that it perceives them as a threat to its survival. By doing so you will overload your body and it will adapt and build bigger, stronger muscles.
Once you have presented the body with a training stimulus and the adaptations have been made, the next stimulus must be greater than the one which preceded it. Overload must be progressive. If you do not progress the overload once the body has adapted then, it is no longer an overload. To elicit a similar disruptive effect and, therefore, further adaptations a greater overload must be presented.
So, your training must become harder over time. On average, you must continue to provide an overload to the body through your training. Thus, over the course of weeks, months and years you must continually strive to lift more weight, do more sets and reps.
Long story, short…your training has to be hard and it has to get harder.
More Is Not Better. Better Is Better:
The problem with the above is that many people equate more with better. Nice logic, it’s just not that simple in practice. You cannot indefinitely train harder, for longer, more frequently without burning out and ending up an injured, overtrained wreck.
To avoid the pitfalls of overtraining in your quest to increase your muscle mass you must be smart. You need to know how to adjust the three key training variables:
Intensity, in this instance, is defined by the percentage of 1 rep max used when performing an exercise. When training for size if you reach a sufficient intensity threshold (lifting weights >60%1RM) then volume is the key contributor to muscular size.
Essentially volume is your total workload per exercise, session and week. A simple way to track it is the following equation:
Sets X Reps X Load
Research indicates a dose response relationship between training volume and hypertrophy. In fact, assuming the previously mentioned intensity threshold of >60% is met it appears that volume is the key determinant of success when it comes to gaining muscle mass
So, from a practical standpoint finding the rep range that allows you to do the most, hard (above 60% 1RM) volume per training session is a great idea.
Just because a high training volume is good doesn’t mean you should go crazy. Muscle gain is a slow process and you need to milk the gains you can make in the long run. Do too much now and you leave yourself with little scope for adding more volume (unless of course you are a pro athlete/bodybuilder who just eats, sleeps & trains). Make every extra set count. Don’t do junk volume!
So how do you set up a sensible and gradual increase in training volume?
A practical approach to increasing your training volume:
- Start by selecting 1-3 exercises per body part (I’d suggest 1 for small body parts)
- Train each muscle group 2-3 times a week (generally twice a week for big body parts)
- Perform 2-3 sets per exercise (3 for big compound movements & 2 for isolation work)
- Do a total of 30-60 reps per muscle group each session at >60% of 1RM (make most of it 75-85% 1RM).
- Add 1 set per body part (not per exercise) every 1-2 weeks
- Keep doing this until you can no longer recover from training. Then take a deload week before starting your next block of training.
While traditionally the term frequency has been associated with how many days a week you work out, a potentially more important variable is the number of times a given muscle group is trained per week.
The literature appears to indicate that splitting the same training volume into more frequent training sessions is superior for hypertrophy. This is likely because the hypertrophic stimuli are distributed more optimally over the course of the week in higher frequency training approaches. Currently the weight of evidence appears to suggest that training a muscle group 2 times a week is better than once per week. The research is not clear whether training a muscle more often than twice per week is better for muscle growth. As a result, we can conclude (for now) that training a muscle twice a week is suitable for optimizing hypertrophy.
The interplay between intensity, volume and frequency is critical to the success of a program. Intensity and volume are inversely related. When one is high the other cannot be without consequences (e.g., overtraining &/or injury). At any one time, you can only push two of these three variables hard.
So, now you know the importance of having a plan, the mechanisms of hypertrophy, the two fundamental principles of training, and the three key variables to manipulate. It is the time to knit all this information together into a coherent periodized plan.
Based on all this information here is the structure I have been using, with phenomenal results, in my own training and with my clients.
Phase 1: Standard hypertrophy training – focus on the 6 to 10 rep range (intensity, volume & frequency all moderate)
Phase 2: Standard hypertrophy training – focus on the 8 to 12 rep range (intensity drops, but volume increases)
Phase 3: Higher rep/volume hypertrophy based training – focus on the 10 to 15 rep range (intensity drops further, but volume increases proportionately). Make use of special techniques like rest pause, occlusion training, Myo-reps, drop-sets, tri-sets, giant sets etc.
Phase 4: Transition/Maintenance Phase (low volume focus on 4 to 6 rep range)
Phase 5: Repeat process if wanting further mass gain or begin cut if you want to drop body fat
That outlines the basic structure and how intensity is manipulated. To put some more meat on these theoretical bones let’s take a closer look at how each phase could be set up and how frequency and volume are adjusted.
Phase 1: 4xweek following Upper/Lower Split, training each muscle 2xweek
Phase 2: Increase training frequency and total volume by transitioning to 5xweek using an Upper/Lower/Push/Pull/Legs Split, training each muscle group 2xweek
Phase 3: Increase frequency and overall training volume again by switching to 6xweek using a Push/Pull split, training each muscle group 3xweek. Intensity is lowered by doing your training in the 10-15 rep range. To drive volume higher add occlusion training at the end of days 3 and 4 of the split. Then, on days 5 and 6 utilize tri-sets. To make that a little clearer it would look like this:
Mon – Push (Quads, Calves, Pecs, Anterior Delts, & Triceps), 10-15 reps
Tues – Pull (Hamstrings, Glutes, Back, Rear Delts, & Biceps), 10-15 reps
Wed – Push, 10-15 reps + occlusion training for Quads and Triceps
Thurs – Pull, 10-15 reps + occlusion training for Hamstrings and Biceps
Fri – Push, Tri-sets
Sat – Pull, Tri-sets
Given the average intensity (% of 1RM) goes down throughout the course of the three phases, volume and frequency can be continually driven higher. This allows you to progressively overload your body via increased training volume. Since volume has a dose response relationship with hypertrophy this is optimal for muscle building and will allow you to reach your muscular potential as quickly and efficiently as possible.