How to train for MAXIMAL Muscle Growth!

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Reading time: ~12 minutes

Key takeaways

  • Volume recommendations for beginners are 5-12 sets/week/bodypart. For intermediate/advanced trainees, recommendations tend more towards the 20-30 sets/week/bodypart range.
  • Frequency recommendations are made here.
  • Most of your sets should have between 5-20 reps, but feel free to have a small proportion going heavier/lighter than that.
  • Most of your training sets should be close to failure – between a RIR of 5 and 1, roughly – while the rest can be distributed around that range.
  • Rest for as long as it takes you to physiologically and psychologically be ready to perform the next set. The exact rest time is hard to say, since the recovery demands vary between circumstances.
  • Lifting cadence/tempo is largely irrelevant, though it might be better to train with relatively fast (1-4 seconds) rep tempos for practical reasons. Feel free to have some slower tempo (4-6+ seconds) in your program as well, but that probably shouldn’t constitute the bulk of your program.

This will be a two-part series on how to train for hypertrophy. The aim is not to provide strict, dogmatic commandments; rather, it is to give people an idea of roughly how they should be training. Many programs can fit that description. Based on individual response, the program should then be adjusted and optimized. Keep in mind that you want to assemble all of the variables below so that you can create yourself a good, sustainable program – be reasonable, but don’t be afraid to experiment a little within the guidelines given. It’s also entirely possible, though unlikely, that your optimal program doesn’t fit within the recommendations given.

How to train for hypertrophy

Hypertrophy training is a lot less specific than strength training. When training for strength, you usually have a very specific aim in mind: you want to get stronger at a movement/a set of movements (like in Powerlifting/Weightlifting, for example). While training for hypertrophy is also a very specific goal, training for hypertrophy isn’t quite as specific. You can make hypertrophy gains on a relatively varied set of programs, whereas to increase strength in a movement beyond the novice level, you better be setting up your training in a very specific manner. In fact, for hypertrophy training, there seems to be a range of things that work roughly equally well. Much in line with that principle, while there are good exercises for hypertrophy, no one exercise is required. In strength training, however, if you want to improve a certain lift, performing that lift in training is almost a requirement for success.

I’ll now be discussing each of the big variables for hypertrophy.

Volume

First up is volume. Volume is crucial for hypertrophy. In fact, don’t take my word for it; just read the title of the following meta-analysis. Note that the following meta-analyses consider a set of a compound movement a set for each of the working muscles; for example, a set of bench press would count as a set for chest, tricep and front delt.

Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis” Schoenfeld et al. (2016)

As you can see, most studies favoured higher volumes over lower volumes. This meta-analysis included both studies on untrained and trained subjects, so take the results with a grain of salt. Higher volumes led to more hypertrophy. This effect is valid up to at least 10+ sets a week (see graph below)

Bayesian Bodybuilding Meta-Analysis:

The best fit trend line reveals that, for beginners, increased training volume does not have as big of an effect on hypertrophy as it does for trained subjects. Hence, volume recommendations for beginners are as follow:

  • Start training with 5-12 sets/week/bodypart and see how you respond. If you feel recovered and make good progress, you could try increasing volume a little for more gains. Conversely, if you feel like you’re underrecovering, you could try sleeping more/eating more/reducing stress in your daily life and/or reducing weekly training volume.

This best fit trendline reveals that trained individuals benefit from much more volume than beginners. Moreover, though more prominent here, the same dose-response relationship is apparent as in Schoenfeld’s meta-analysis. As they note in their article on volume, the limiting factor for how volume tolerance is likely to be connective tissue/joint integrity. Performing a lot of volume can lead to some wear and tear. Hence, as a consequence of this practical consideration, my volume recommendation may seem a little low compared to a theoretical “optimal” recommendation for volume:

  • Start training with 15-30 sets/week/bodypart and see how you respond. If you feel recovered and make good progress, you could try increasing volume a little for more gains. Conversely, if you feel like you’re underrecovering, you could try sleeping more/eating more/reducing stress in your daily life and/or reducing weekly training volume.

Frequency

Whoa, lucky you! I just so happen to have written an entire article on the topic.

The main points were:

  • A higher frequency (4+ x /week) is probably better for hypertrophy than a lower frequency (1-3x/week), though the paucity of research and methodological differences make a firm conclusion hard to draw.]
  • A frequency of 2-4 times a week likely outperforms a frequency of 1-2 times a week.
  • If you want to try high frequency training, keep weekly volume the same at first. After a month or so, if you respond well, and don’t feel like you’re overdoing volume, try increasing it slowly and see how you respond. If you feel under-recovered and/or your performance is decreasing with the same weekly volume as when you were training with lower frequency (and you aren’t more stressed, eating less and/or sleeping less than before) then high frequency training might not be for you.
  • There might be a benefit to training more often than less often on a volume-equated basis, all the way up to 6+ times a week.
  • Arguably, one of the main reasons to use a higher frequency is because they are permissive of higher volumes for most people.

Intensity/Reps

In resistance training, intensity is commonly defined as % of 1 Rep Max. Your 1 Rep Max is how much weight you could lift for one rep in an all-out effort. So, if you can lift 100KG for 1 rep, your 1 Rep Max is 100KG, and 50% of your 1RM is 50KG and so forth.

Intensity is also a proxy for how many reps you perform (and vice versa). Usually, most people can perform around 10 reps with 75% of 1RM. This means that if you take 75KG, you can perform 10 reps.

As long as Intensity/Reps is between certain limits, it has been shown to be largely irrelevant for hypertrophy.

Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis” Schoenfeld et al. (2017)

This meta-analysis looked at both hypertrophy and strength outcomes in relationship with training with low or high % of 1 rep maxes.  For now, we’re only interested in the hypertrophy outcomes. In short, there were no differences between load conditions for hypertrophy. Now, there are a few practical caveats to this.

  • On a set per set basis, using more than ~85% of your 1RM (less than 5 reps/set) or less than ~25% of your 1RM (too many reps to count) seems to be worse than using between ~25 and ~85% of your 1 RM.
  • Practically, you probably won’t have an easy time taking a set with ~30% of 1RM to failure. Truth is, when you have to do 50-100+ reps per set, you sometimes just end the set because of the uncomfortable burning sensation, the cardiovascular fatigue and how hard you’re breathing. Thus, on some exercises, it’s probably harder for you to reach the same proximity to failure using a very light (~30% 1RM) load than you would if you used a more moderate (50+% 1RM).
  • There is probably a benefit to doing sets across various rep ranges. I don’t remember which study found this, but usually, performing sets across the rep spectrum (some at 1-5, many at 5-20, some at 20+ reps) will be superior to just performing all of them in one area (ie 20+ reps) for hypertrophy.

Recommendations

  • Do sets of 5-20 reps/~50%-85% for the vast majority (>75% of your sets) of your training if hypertrophy is the goal. This is primarily for practical reasons. If you really wanted to, you could do all your sets between 30 and 50% of 1RM.
  • For the rest of your sets, feel free to do <5 reps or >20 reps.

Relative Intensity

Relative Intensity refers to how close you are to failure on any given set.

For illustration, let us imagine the following. You do do an all-out set to failure, with 100KG, and you perform 10 reps.

If you came back tomorrow and (assuming the same strength levels) performed 8 reps with 100KG under the same conditions, that set would have been 2 reps shy from failure.

One useful concept with regards to gauging Relative Intensity is RIR.

RIR stands for “Reps in Reserve”. Using the same previous example, if you were to perform 8 reps with 100KG, that set would have a RIR value of 2 – because you had 2 Reps in Reserve.

Why am I telling you all of this?

I’m telling you all of this to convey one thing. As long as a set is taken within ~4-5 reps of failure – a RIR of 4-5 points – a set can be considered stimulating. The difference in hypertrophic stimulus between a set where you go to failure and a set where you stay about 4-5 reps shy from failure is small. The fatigue and injury risk difference between these two sets, however, is bigger. Hence, few of your sets should be taken to failure.

In short, the hypertrophic stimulus you gain from going to failure is disproportionate to and often outweighted by the fatigue going to failure causes.

Recommendations

  • Keep most (>75%) of your training sets between an RIR of 1 and a RIR of around 5. Never allow technique to breakdown.
  • For the rest of your training sets (<25%), feel free to go to failure or even a RIR of >5. Going to failure is probably safer and less systemically fatiguing on isolation exercises than compound exercises.

Rest times

“The Effect of Inter-Set Rest Intervals on Resistance Exercise-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy” Henselmans & Schoenfeld (2014)

None of the studies included in this review article suggested that short rest periods outperformed long rest periods for hypertrophy. Moreover, longer rest periods have been shown to facilitate strength development. Thus, the authors recommend longer rest-periods (2-3+ minutes) over shorter rest-periods (30-60 seconds) for hypertrophy.  Additionally, they advise for rest periods to be autoregulated – the next set should be performed when the athlete feels psychologically and (to a degree) physiologically ready to perform another set.

Longer rest periods are probably superior to shorter rest periods because they are permissive of greater volumes. If you rest for a minute between sets, you’ll be able to do less repetitions than if you’d rested for 10 minutes between sets.

However, we must ensure that recommendations remain practical. While resting for 15 minutes vs 5 minutes between sets may allow you to perform an additional rep on your next set, you could have performed several more sets in the time it took you to rest for that set. Hence, in this example, resting for 5 minutes between sets would have resulted in a greater volume being performed (in the same time) than resting for 15 minutes.

What does all this mean?

Recommendations

  • Rest for as long as it takes you to be “comfortable” with doing the next set. For some exercises, like calve raises, that might mean resting for a minute or two. For other exercises, like high rep squats, that might mean 4+ minutes.
  • Rest for as long as it takes you to recover psychological and physiological readiness, but don’t take it too far.
  • The primary reason longer rest periods outperform shorter rest periods for hypertrophy is because they allow more volume (reps, in this case) to be performed.
  • The previous point entails that if you are time restricted, things change. You might benefit from resting far less, and performing more sets instead, as this would be superior when viewed with an efficiency concern.

Tempo

Effect of Repetition Duration During Resistance Training on Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” Schoenfeld et al. (2015)

This meta-analysis included 8 studies, including a wide variety of tempos. The tempos included were either fast (0.5-4s for one rep), medium (4-8s) or slow (>8s) tempos. The authors concluded that there was no significant differences between any of the groups. The authors noted that tempos of >10 seconds were unlikely to be optimal for hypertrophy.

From the meta-analysis itself

What does this mean for us, practically?

Well,

  • There’s no hypertrophic benefit to using a particular tempo when reps last under 8-10 seconds. Unless you train really, really slow, you’re probably not missing out on too much, though larger effect sizes were seen for fast training (0.5-4s) as opposed to slower tempos. So, if anything, keep most of your sets pretty snappy – don’t intentionally slow things down very much.
  • Practically, it’s a lot less cardiovascularly fatiguing to slow down tempo on isolation movements than it is to slow down tempo on compound movements. Hence, if you want to do any slow lifting, it might be best to do it on isolation movements.
  • Anecdotally, I’ve found slightly slower tempos to be helpful when dealing with injuries. They allow you to use less load to get the same training stimulus, and that can sometimes be helpful. They might also help you prevent injury if you have a joint that gets injured a lot – then it might be worth a shot slowing down the tempo a little on lifts involving that joint.
  • Since there might be a benefit to using different tempos in your training, you might want to consider using slower (4-6 seconds, perhaps) tempos every now and again on some isolation exercises. They really aren’t necessary, so, if you decide to incorporate them, they should only constitute a small part of your training.

This was part one of a two part series. Next week, we’ll be discussing a few more variables, including Exercise Selection, Special Techniques and Periodisation.

 

 

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