This post is taken from the Vitamin. Every Thursday, I drop some knowledge bombs on your face to help you reach your goals faster while avoiding all the bullshit.
I’m biased, but I think everyone should be resistance training. Obviously exercise in all forms is great, and you should do the type of exercise you enjoy. But nothing matches resistance training for improving body composition and strength, maintaining your metabolic rate, and improving bone density (among a bunch of other things).
Problem: Where the hell do you start? How many reps and sets should you do? How long should you rest? How often should you train, and what exercises should you pick?
Well, that’s what we’re discussing today.
If you aren’t training hard enough, nothing else matters. This doesn’t mean lifting the heaviest weight possible until you can’t do another rep. Rather, you want to select a load that gets you anywhere between ~1-3 reps before you hit mechanical failure; where you can’t complete another rep with good form.
So if you can lift a weight for a maximum of 10 reps, anywhere between 7-9 reps will be stimulating enough for muscle growth to occur.
To grow and get stronger, you need to increase the demands placed on your body during successive workouts for improvements to occur.
Practically, this means you should be trying to improve your performance over time.
While there are several ways you can implement progressive overload, the simplest is to focus on lifting more weight or completing more reps than you did in the previous session.
Finally, just remember you won’t always be able to make progress every time you train, especially once you’re past the beginner stage. What matters is the intent to make progress. Some weeks you’ll make progress, and other weeks, you might not. That’s fine as long as progress is happening over time.
Training volume = the number of hard sets per muscle group/week.
The latest research on the topic suggests anywhere between 12-20 sets/muscle group/wk is likely optimal for muscle growth. 1
That said, studies only tell us about group averages, and you, as an individual, might need more or less volume than the above.
So it’s a good idea to start slightly lower and increase training volume over time as long as you’re recovering properly. For example, a beginner might start with 10 sets/muscle group/wk and work their way up to 12 sets over time.
Finally, and most importantly, don’t get so caught up in training volume you forget to train hard. Tacking on a bunch of “junk” volume will be counterproductive if you’re half-assing your training.
All rep ranges can build muscle as long as you’re getting close to failure, so you can use a wide range of reps in your training.
However, if the goal is muscle growth, most of your training should occur in the 6-12 rep range. Not because there’s anything inherently special about this rep range, but:
- Constantly training with lower reps means lifting heavy weights really close to your maximum, which can increase the risk of injury, and generally leave you feeling more beat up.
- Doing too much high-rep training can increase fatigue and recovery. It also fucking sucks, and most people aren’t going to push themselves to an intensity for high-rep training to be productive. 2 3
The 6-12 rep range is a nice sweet spot between super low reps and super high reps.
The research as a whole tends to favour longer rest periods for muscle and strength gains. 4 5
Likely because longer rest times give your body a chance to clear out waste, replenish ATP (which is needed for muscular contractions), and allow any fatigue to dissipate. As a result, you can maintain better training intensity in each set.
That being said, longer rest periods seem more important for multi-joint “compound” movements, while you could probably get away with shorter rest periods for single-joint “isolation” movements.
As one paper notes: 6
Rest intervals of 2 minutes between sets are sufficient for the MCF (machine chest fly) and 3 to 5-minutes for the BP (bench press). Thus, it appears that longer acute recovery time is needed for a multi-joint (core) exercise like the BP versus a single-joint (assistance) exercise like the MCF.
As a general rule, my recommendations for rest intervals are as follows:
How often you train per week seems to matter far less once weekly volume is equated. 7
However, I still think a higher training frequency trumps a lower training frequency because it allows for a better distribution of weekly volume, which in turn means better performance at each session.
For instance, if you’re aiming for 12 sets per muscle group/per wk:
You’ll find you’re better able to maintain training intensity and performance when spreading volume across the week versus cramming all your volume into one session.
Don’t listen to the free weight purists who’ll claim if you’re not lifting a barbell, you’re not serious about training or leaving gains on the table.
Both free weights and machines can build muscle. 8
Further, your body doesn’t “see” equipment, it only recognises mechanical tension. And you can apply mechanical tension with all types of equipment.
As such, pick exercises that you feel confident performing, that you connect with, and that allow you to progress safely over time.
- Don’t want to back squat? Use the leg press or hack squat
- Don’t want to bench press? Do a dumbbell or machine variation
- Don’t want to do burpees? Good, because fuck burpees.
1. Training intensity: Train hard but don’t go full YOLO. Anywhere between 1-3 reps from failure is more than enough.
2. Progressive overload: Aim to progress your training over time. Either lift more weight or do more reps.
3. Training volume: Anywhere between 12-20 sets per muscle group/week seems to be optimal for muscle growth. But how many sets you need to do is an individual thing––so start lower and build up over time.
4. Reps: All reps can build muscle but the majority of your training should likely occur in the 6-12 rep range.
5. Rest times: Longer rest times are better for muscle and strength gains. Anywhere between 3-5 mins for multi-joint exercises and 1-2 mins between single-joint exercises.
6. Training frequency: Instead of cramming all your weekly volume into one session, spread it over 2-3 sessions.
7. Exercise selection: All types of equipment can build muscle, so select exercises you enjoy, connect with, and can safely progress over time.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, you’d love the Vitamin
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