The Muscle Growth Triad: Meditations On Programming [Pt.1]

By Aadam | July 18, 2016

This article is ~2200 words and a 15ish minute read time.

When it comes to gaining muscle and strength there are endless debates about what is best.

You have people who will tout the benefits of high rep, low weights; others who will say the best way is lifting heavy with low reps; and others yet, who claim that one set to failure is the holy grail of muscle gain.
I’m not much for cults and groups or dogmatic approaches. The way I see it: everything has a place when utilised in the right context and dose.
Just like every successful diet or nutrition approach has you manipulating calories in one way or another; similarly, every successful muscle building plan has you manipulating the three main elements of programming: Volume, Intensity, and Frequency.

This is what I call The Muscle Growth Triad.

Musclegrowth-triad-image

– Volume.

Volume is simply how much you’re doing. It’s usually denoted by sets and reps, and includes:

  • How much work is being done for each muscle group in the direct session, and the cumulative sessions over a week.
  • How many sets and reps are being done per workout and the total workouts over the week.
  • How many exercises you’re doing per muscle group or body part.

So, how much volume should you be doing, exactly? 

In this Meta-analysis by James Krieger, the recommendations were between 4-6 sets per muscle group, per workout. 
[beginners near the lower end, intermediate and advanced trainees near the higher end].
One suggestion I will make here is for the smaller muscle groups – biceps, triceps, delts, and abs get quite a bit of work from their bigger counterparts [think chin ups, bench press variations, deadlifts, squats, shoulder pressing etc.], so cut the volume of these smaller muscle groups by half of what is recommended [4-6 sets / 2 = 2-3 sets]

– Intensity.

Intensity is how hard you’re training [or lifting].

When we talk about intensity, we can be referring to two things:

  1. The amount of weight you lifted relative to your 1 rep max: Training at 90% of your 1 rep max will be a higher intensity than compared to training at 60% of your 1 rep max, as an example.
  2. Or, how close you went to muscular failure: Going to complete failure being more intense than keeping a rep or two in reserve.

When it comes to muscle growth, we generally want to keep the intensity anywhere from 60-85% of your 1 rep max.
To make things more tangible for our cause – this would bring us to a rep range between 5-20 reps.

NB – When it comes to measuring intensity, don’t worry about getting wrapped up in percentages and all that other fancy stuff. Just stick to the rep ranges. Lifting in a certain rep range will correlate pretty closely to the right percentage of your 1 rep max and intensity. As an example, lifting a weight for 5 reps and leaving 1-2 reps in ‘the tank’ will generally mean the weight you selected was around the 80% of your 1RM.

You’ll note that this is quite a big range, and rightly so – if you want to gain muscle and strength a variety of rep ranges should, and need to be, utilised.
These are my personal recommendations for physique-focused individuals.
hypertrophy-piechart

  • 70% [the bulk] of your training should have you training in the 5-12 rep range. This will allow for sufficient loading and metabolic stimuli to ignite a hypertrophy response from the body.
  • 20% of your training should have you training in the higher rep ranges, 15, 20, sometimes even up to 30 reps. This will heavily increase metabolic stress – another tenet to muscle growth.
  • 10% of your training should have you lifting in the really low rep ranges. This is the strength realm and while lifting a load of weight may feel awesome while others watch in awe; it’s not really the right stimulus for those of us who wish to gain size. Keep it to a minimum.

A note on training to failure.

While training to failure is another way to gauge and increase intensity, it isn’t something I recommend doing on a consistent basis.
Why?

  • Constantly training to failure will take a massive toll on your CNS and can lead to burnout and impaired recovery

Remember, it’s not only your muscles that take a beating from lifting; your CNS, which controls all of this, also takes a hit. If you train to failure at every workout, not only will you take longer to recover and start feeling like crap, but your chances of overtraining also go up.

  • Decrease in Performance 

If you want to get bigger and stronger you have to be increasing performance over time. The key to increased performance is adequate training combined with adequate rest: if you’re coming into every session and training to failure constantly your ability to recover is going to take a hit. 
With a decrease in recovery, your performance in future sessions is also going to decline. The result: no gains. 

  • Increased chance of injury.

If you’re not recovering properly and going into every workout fatigued, and continually training to failure it’s only a matter of time until you get sloppy with form and risk an injury.
With all of that being said, however, the problem isn’t so much the act of training to failure than it is overdoing it.

Here’s how to use failure intelligently.

Don’t train to failure every set; Instead, go to failure on the last set of the exercise. So, if you’re doing 3 sets of 12 reps on the DB Press, you can go to failure on the last (3rd) set.
• Don’t go to failure on the compound lifts. Firstly, there’s an issue of safety and form breakdown here. You’re more likely to hurt yourself going to failure on complex movement patterns like the bench press or deadlift than you are on a Dumbbell alternative. 
Secondly, the compound lifts take a bigger toll on your CNS – this can lead to impeded recovery and resultantly muscle growth.
• Save training to failure for hypertrophy, higher rep days (8-20 reps). This will increase intensity and metabolic stress (more muscle growth) while decreasing chances of overtraining and injury. 

– Frequency.

Frequency is how often you’ll be training.

Based on the same Meta-review by Krieger, the suggestion was each muscle group/body part 2-3x /week. 
Why more frequent training?
There’s an interesting study by McLester that compared training 1x per week versus 3x times per week – interesting because the weekly volume was equated between both groups. The study found that training three times per week produced superior gains in lean body mass.
While the authors didn’t publish why this was, two reasons come to mind.

  1. Muscle Protein Synthesis.
  2. Volume and Quality

Muscle Protein Synthesis is simply a fancy name given to the process the body goes through when building new muscle.
Research has shown that MPS stays elevated [your body building new muscle] for around 24-48 hours after you finish lifting.
So, if you trained chest on Monday, by Thursday your chest is ready to be trained again; and if you’re leaving a whole week between training the same body part, you’re missing out on the opportunity to maximise muscle growth.
The second reason for more frequent training is the amount of volume being done versus the quality. You could try to do all your weekly volume for each body part in one workout [like chest on Monday, back on Tuesday etc], but that would require a lot of time, energy, and a decrease in performance in the latter part of your training session as you begin to fatigue.
My general recommendations for frequency are:

  • Anywhere from 3-6 weight training sessions per week. Beginners staying near the lower end, intermediates and advanced trainees near the higher end. This allows for a good distribution of training volume over the week; leading to better performance and quality at each workout. 
  • Each muscle group/body part to be trained at least 2x per week. To take advantage of MPS.

With all of that said, however: this doesn’t mean that bro-splits are silly or useless. In fact, if used properly and in the right way, they can be a very useful tool [see end of article for how]. 

Before Moving On.

A quick note before we move on.
While the suggestions from the Krieger study was 4-6 sets per muscle group per session, based on the optimal frequency I discussed above, I prefer looking at total volume over a weekly period. This allows for better distribution of training volume per body part.
Based on personal experience and reading the literature,  – these are my general recommendations for volume per week, per body part for hypertrophy.  

muscle-group-sets

Beginners near the lower end, intermediate and advanced trainees near the higher end.

A Balancing Act.

Recovery is a prerequisite for growth. No matter how hard you train if you’re not giving your body a chance to recover you’re not going to grow.
The body only has a limited supply of reserves it can draw from, and if your programming has you lifting hard all the time with insane amounts of exercises, reps, and sets: it’s only a matter of time before the body runs out of those reserves and progress comes to a screeching halt [along with increased risk of injury, and burnout].

To overcome this you need to balance the trio.

Generally, Volume and Intensity lie on separate ends of the training spectrum.
If you increase intensity, you should be decreasing volume. 
intensty-volume
Conversely, when you increase volume; intensity should decrease.
volume-intensity
Frequency and volume go hand in hand: when you increase frequency, you’ll naturally increase volume.
Frequency-volume
This is what I mean: let’s assume you’re training chest 2x per week, aiming for 5 sets per workout: your total training volume for chest is 10 sets over the week. 

workout-table-10

This is just an example workout to help aid the example.


Eventually, you decide to train chest 3x per week, adding an additional 5 sets in the third chest workout of the week.
workout-table-15

Once again, a visual aid.


Your total volume for chest has now increased from 10 sets to 15 sets per week. 
So by simply adding an additional workout into the week you’ve automatically bumped up the volume [number of total sets done].

A Word of Warning on Frequency

People will hear that more frequency is better and suddenly increase training frequency, completely forgetting about total weekly volume.
When you increase frequency you still need to ensure that your weekly volume lies inside the recommendations I gave earlier.
Meaning: regardless how many times per week you choose to train; 3x, 4x, 5x – your weekly volume should still fall within the 12-24 sets per muscle group range, distributed over the number of training sessions you’ve decided on.
Got it? Good.

So, how do you do this?

The best way to make both strength and muscle gains while not overwhelming your body and halting progress is to periodise your programming. 
Meaning, having periods where you train with a higher volume and frequency, and lower intensity; and, conversely: periods where you train with a higher intensity and lower volume with the option to increase the training frequency or keep it as is. 
But, this article is already a lot to take in, so we’ll explore periodisation in the second part of this series.

Random Notes

Things I couldn’t fit into, or thought about after and couldn’t be bothered to go back and add in [:-)] to the rest of the article but are important.

  • On Bro Splits

I find ‘Bro Splits’ – one muscle group per workout style splits – to work well in place of the traditionally prescribed deload’s [most of the time]. To allow for recovery we either need to reduce the volume or the intensity. I often find when intensity is reduced, people come back to the normal routine complaining of being weaker than before the deload. To remedy this I recommend reducing volume while keeping intensity as it is – put simply: drop the number of total work being done while lifting the same amount of weight. The bro split accomplishes this with the added benefit of the trainee feeling like they’re still training hard.
Uh, What? 
Ok, Ok. Let me illustrate:
Let’s assume our hypothetical trainee is lifting 4 x per week, with a weekly volume of  20 sets per muscle group, per week, and hitting every body part twice per week.
Now, let’s assume during his deload week he decides to use the traditional Bro-split: hitting one muscle group per session, like so:
Monday: Chest
Tuesday: Back
Wednesday: Shoulders
Thursday: Legs
Fri: Arms
Sat & Sun: Off
Due to the drop in training frequency from twice per week to once per week, he’s automatically reduced his weekly volume by 50% – from 20 total sets per muscle group, per week to 10 total sets per week – allowing the body to recover and grow.

  • On Progression: the main thing to know is that all of this is moot if you aren’t progressing over time. This means, in a week, month or year from now you should be lifting more and doing more total volume than you are currently.

Footnotes:

  1. A special thank you to Greg Nuckols of Strengtheory who pointed out some suggestions.