Brad Schoenfeld is a leading author and researcher on exercise and sports nutrition. He is based in New York.
Humans are creatures of habit. We like doing things we know, things that feel familiar, and things with which we are comfortable. That’s why so many men spend their gym time doing those lifts they know and love and, consequently, excel at.
It’s not just that they do the same exercises week in, week out. It’s that they do them in the same set and rep ranges – typically three sets of eight to 12 reps – all with the same inter-set rest periods. This approach is not the end of the world when you are new to training because you will likely see positive results, both in terms of your one-rep max and in muscle mass gains, because the stimulus in new.
But it’s a bad idea to keep it up once you get beyond the initial benefits, especially if adding lean muscle tissue is your primary training objective. If this is what you have been doing, you shouldn’t be surprised that you are no longer making the same gains as when you first started working out.
Plan to periodise
The only way to continually improve your physique is to periodise your training. What if you don’t periodise? Two things will happen. Either you will never push yourself hard enough to progress, or you will keep pushing beyond your capacity without sufficient time to recuperate, which is the surest way to reach a state of overtraining, where your gains either plateau or begin to subside. There is no one single cookie-cutter way to periodise your training. It will all depend on your genetics, training experience, diet, sleep patterns, hormonal profile and a host of other factors unique to you. But there are some simple guidelines you can follow to ensure that you maximise your potential by pushing yourself to your limit, easing off to recover, and then pushing even harder again.
Manipulate the variables
Any training variable perhaps should be manipulated on a regular basis to keep progressing, but the two key workout variables that it are mandatory to adapt for a successful periodisation programme are training volume and training frequency. Most bodybuilders and serious physique athletes have a tough time backing off training volume because they want to keep pushing their limits and ego is often involved. But learning to do so is critical to being in tune with your body so you can push it when you are fresh, and capitalise on that progress when you need to do by reducing volume and/or frequency.
The importance of volume
I recently conducted an eight-week study examining the impact of volume on biceps hypertrophy with a group of bodybuilders and a group of powerlifters. The bodybuilders followed a split routine – focused on the chest, upper back and thighs – where each muscle was worked once per week with three exercises per session, performing three sets of ten reps with 90 seconds of rest between sets.
The powerlifters performed a total-body protocol where each muscle was worked three times per week with one exercise per session, performing seven sets of three reps. Both groups performed each set to the point of momentary concentric muscular failure. The volume load – so sets times reps times load – was equated so each group lifted about the same amount of total weight per week. Strength was measure by one-rep max in the squat and bench press, while muscle thickness of the biceps was measured by ultrasound, both at the start and end of the study. Both groups significantly increased biceps muscle thickness by 13%, with no notable difference reported between groups.
The top-line suggests that muscle hypertrophy is similar if total training volume is the same, regardless of lifting protocol. So you could assume that total volume lifted is the key definitely element behind hypertrophy, not the set and rep range you deploy. However, the devil is always in the detail.
Putting it into practice
The total training time per session was 17 minutes in the bodybuilder group opposed to 70 minutes per session in the powerlifter group. So from a time-efficiency consideration, one group achieved the same hypertrophy benefits in about a quarter of the time of the other. More significantly, and perhaps unsurprising, in exit interviews the powerlifter group reported being fried at the end of the eight weeks. Almost all of them complained of sore joints and general fatigue, while the bodybuilding group all felt like they could have worked substantially harder and done more volume.
While it mechanistically it appears that it doesn’t matter whether heavy or moderately-heavy weights are used for hypertrophy, from an application consideration it is just not practical to train consistently with very heavy loads employing the volumes used in the study on multiple body parts. Wear and tear on the joints and central nervous system fatigue that comes from repeated exposure to heavy loads will ultimately negative impact the lifter, whether through injury or overtraining.
The findings ultimately reinforce that the best approach to building muscle is to vary between heavy and moderately-heavy loads and re-emphasises the importance of periodising your training programme so you cycle in periods of deloading amongst periods of heavy lifting.
The importance of frequency
As creatures of habit, it’s equally tempting to fall into the pattern of training three times per week, or four times per week, each and every week indefinitely. Remember, avoiding over-training should be at the forefront of your mind. Even the most advanced lifter will eventually reach the point at which insufficient rest will result in accumulated fatigue where muscular microtrauma damage outpaces the reparation process. This won’t only stall your hypertrophy gains, it will also adversely affect your neurological system. That’s why tweaking training frequency, by changing how often you work out per week, is important, so long as you keep the total weekly volume where it needs to be to maintain progress.
I always advise alternating the frequency at which you train. It could be that you do a month of three sessions per week (designed to be a strength phase), then a month of four sessions (designed to be a hypertrophy phases), followed by a month of six sessions (designed to be a conditioning phase), with the volume you lift each session adjusted to reflect how many sessions you do in each week.
Change is as good as a rest
Ultimately, there is no secret, one-size-fits-all approach, otherwise we’d all be walking around looking like Arnold, so you need to be fluid and flexible in your approach. Play around with volume and frequency and learn to listen to your body, and know when you need to take your foot of the gas with a period of deloading to recharge your mind and muscles so you can attack the next stage of your periodised training power with complete focus.