Eric Helms is a pro natural bodybuilder, raw powerlifter and a coach at 3D Muscle Journey. He is based in Auckland, New Zealand.
Training volume, intensity and frequency are the three big picture elements of maximising muscle mass.
When I say volume, what do I mean? It’s basically total reps times total sets times weight lifted. In other words, is the total amount of work you do in a session.
Volume, out of all the individual training variables you can control, is the one most intrinsically linked to muscle mass growth. That’s worth reemphasising: total volume is the big one and it needs to be monitored, tracked and increased to promote hypertrophy.
But frequency, intensity and volume are all inter-related. If you go from training twice per week to four times per week, keeping to the same programme, you’re doubling your frequency and doubling your volume. And if you increase the sets, or reps, or weight, then volume will go up, so you can’t separate these three big picture pieces at all.
We have a pretty good idea of the ideal training volume, in relation to frequency and intensity, which gives the best hypertrophy results for most intermediate or novice lifters. So if you aren’t too advanced, and you aren’t sure where to start a good place would be to complete between 40 to 70 reps per muscle group, per training session. Training frequency should be two to three times per week per muscle group, which is actually a pretty broad range, anywhere from 80 to 210 repetitions per body part per week (there is a lot of individual variation).
As for intensity, most of your lifting – around 80% of it – should be in the range of 70%-85% of your one-rep max. That’s going to be roughly your five to 12 rep max range. It’s the nice sweet-spot of lifting heavy enough to get a stimulus while also doing enough volume to maximise it. These broad guidelines are probably going to put maybe two-thirds of people in the right range; from there you need to individually adjust. Here’s a more in-depth look at why these three factors matter so much.
Let’s take an example. Say you have a 140kg 1RM. You can either lift five by five with 120kg or three by ten with 100kg. The volume load in both cases is exactly the same: 3,000kg. What do you think the difference in adaptations will be in these two scenarios?
In the first case you get better at doing sets of five reps of 120kg and you gain more muscular strength. In the second you get better at hitting tens at 100kg and you gain more muscular endurance. The reason I’m putting that in such simple terms is that hypertrophy is not like muscular endurance or muscular strength, which adapt in a specific way to specific training. On the other hand, and from an evolutionary standpoint, hypertrophy does not have an effect on the survival of the individual.
If you are chased by a cheetah you run as fast and as long as you can because you don’t want to die. So you get improved muscular endurance. You get to a tree and you jump up out of the predator’s reach to stay alive, to do so you have to have strong legs to jump high. Strength and muscular endurance are useful adaptations for our species to have that have allowed us to be here today talking about bodybuilding.
How does increased hypertrophy help us survive? It doesn’t. It’s a side effect. A combination of bigger muscle fibres and more ‘muscle fuel’ in the muscle to support muscular work. Our bodies don’t want to be carrying around excess muscle mass. It increases our need for energy and doesn’t provide any survival benefits in the way that improved muscular endurance and strength do. But training for muscular strength and muscular endurance both increase hypertrophy.
Going back to the example of doing 100kg for 3 x 10 or 120kg for 5 x 5, yes you will get more muscular endurance in the former and more strength in the latter, but both loads are heavy enough to stimulate muscle growth and with equal volume they will produce equal hypertrophy. Point being, volume is important and thus you need to track volume so you know what to do to keep gaining size.
There are a number of ways to track volume. We can simply track sets per body part, but there are pros and cons to this approach. It’s a quick and easy way to get a good idea of total volume, but sets only give an accurate indication of volume if you always stick to a similar rep range. Look back at the earlier example of five sets of five versus three sets of ten – the total volume is exactly the same despite the different set totals.
So we need to narrow it down. Reps per body part is another way. Again, using the above example we have 25 reps versus 30 reps, which gives us a slightly better approximation of workload, but isn’t perfect.
Another consideration is range of motion and exercise selection. You can’t compare the volume from a squat to a bench, because there is a far greater range of motion – and consequently greater volume load – when squatting over bench pressing.
Not only should you be able to squat much more than you bench but the true physics calculation of volume includes the distance the bar travels. So tracking volume only works in relation to how much you did in a previous session of the same lift. When I look at a client’s programme to see what I want to change, I think about reps per body part, and volume load (reps x sets x load) depending on their goal.
The first is useful for tracking volume in a hypertrophy programme or for accessory movements. The second (volume load) is a great way to track progress on specific lifts that you want to improve, if you are a powerlifter for example.
A bodybuilder might use heavy loads, and does want to get stronger over time to encourage progressive overload, but strength is not the explicit goal, so the load on the bar is less of a concern. Rather, you want to use loads that are heavy enough to produce a stimulus, and then just track total repetitions. For a powerlifter though, total volume load on the main lifts might make sense to track.
You can do too much in a single session to the point where the quality degrades and you make slower gains. This is the simple idea of quality over quantity. Therefore, it sometimes makes sense to spread your volume over more sessions versus piling a lot of volume into a single session. Frequency also is about opportunities to practice your lifting skill set. When do you gain the most amount of strength? When you first started lifting. I bet you could have nearly doubled your strength in the first 12 weeks, but did you double your size?
No, because you got better at lifting thanks to neurological adaptations. You became better at getting your muscles to move a weight. You could produce more force. This happens every time you start a new thing – you get better neurological recruitment and motor learning. You’re not gaining a ton of new muscle, you are just getting better at executing the movement pattern and are becoming less neurologically inhibited.
This is why choosing the most efficient exercises to perform is so important. You want to get really good at the bang-for-your-buck moves, so you know that when you do start lifting heavier weights it is because you are getting bigger and stronger, and not just because you are getting more efficient at performing that movement.
It doesn’t really matter whether you are a jack of all trades or a master of one, so long as the moves you regularly perform are the most efficient at increasingly muscular size and strength and that you focus on improving your ability to perform them. For this reason, it makes sense to frequently practice your primary movements, and two to three times per week (with the appropriate volume and intensity) is a great place to start if you are an intermediate or novice lifter.
Intensity is a tough one for bodybuilders to define because it’s commonly used as a subjective term.
The definition I want you to think about is weight on the bar. Intensity is the load. One way to calculate the intensity you are lifting is the percentage of your one-rep max or an estimated one-rep max.
Another way is perceived rate of exertion or RPE, but this is more subjective. If you do want to use RPE, I would advise using a scale that is based on repetitions in reserve (how many more reps you could have done) versus simple ‘perceived effort’. A 10 RPE means no more reps left, 9 means 1 rep left, 8 means 2, etc.[7,8]. Point being, absolute intensity isn’t the main consideration, it is relative intensity.
Why do we care about relative intensity? Say a guy squats 700lb. That’s impressive. But let’s say his one-rep max is 1,000lb. Actually, he’s only lifting at 70% intensity. Elderly obese sedentary women put on a walking programme might potentially gain muscle because for them, walking is a hypertrophy programme since they are not used to moving their own bodyweight.
But take the guy who can squat 1,000lb and get him to squat 400lb in his training and he might actually get smaller since that’s only 40% of his 1RM. That’s why relative intensity is so important. For some walking is a high enough relative intensity, for others, 400lb squats isn’t high enough. If intensity wasn’t important we could just do curls with a pencil to get bigger, but muscle activation (even when training to failure) is lower with very light loads.
While it is true that you can grow with light loads in the 50-70% 1RM range, it is also true that you might have to do as much as three times the volume to get the same growth if you’d used moderate or heavier loads (70%1RM+).
So the take home is you can use a variety of rep ranges to grow, but if the goal is hypertrophy a good chunk of training should be in the six to 12 range because the load is heavy enough, and it’s easy to accumulate volume doing so. Some high rep training and some heavy training will also be beneficial, but that shouldn’t take up all of your time.
Additionally, considering relative intensity, a simple way to do so is to stay one to two reps shy of failure on most sets, or the equivalent of an 8-9 RPE with a scale based on repetitions in reserve. Later in this article I’ll talk about training to failure.
Time under tension
Where does time under tension come into play? It depends on the intensity at which you are working.
If you lift too light it doesn’t matter how much time you spend under tension, because the magnitude is too low to stimulate hypertrophy (consider that we are under the pull of gravity 24/7 yet we aren’t continually growing!). I’m not saying time under tension doesn’t matter. I’m just saying that the magnitude of the tension matters as well.
So what does this mean as far as how to train? Don’t try to slow down your rep speed to the point where you would have to lift lighter. Some argue that eccentric contractions (the lowering phase) should be performed slowly, but if you do so make sure you don’t go so slowly to as to reduce the number of reps you can perform or the load you can use.
Just make sure that you are the one lowering the weight, not gravity. If you let gravity lower the weight for you, you’re doing half reps, not full reps, because for half of the rep the bar is in freefall and there’s no tension on the muscle. Which means half the volume.
The simple point is that if hypertrophy is your training goal then your muscles need to be in control of the weight. Call it increased time under tension (with adequate magnitude) or increased volume or increased workload, it’s all pretty much the same thing – your muscles have to perform the work and that’s what we want.
Simply put, lift with a forceful contraction on the way up with perfect form, and make sure you, not gravity, control the weight on the way down, but it doesn’t need to be slow. Just lift the weight and make sure you are in control of it.
Don’t stress over tempos too much. So long as you are the only factor moving the weight you’re doing ok. And remember if you slow down tempo so much, you’ll have to reduce the weight significantly, which then reduces total volume, which is not what we want when chasing hypertrophy.
Training to failure
Other factors can influence total training volume, and training to failure is a key one. Take two lifters. One trains very hard. The other trains very hard and smart. Ten-rep max is 100kg for both of them. Both lifters have to do four sets. The hard worker takes every set to failure, and gets 10, then seven, then five, then four. The hard and smart worker does four sets of eight, and only the last set hits failure.
Who’s done more volume? The first guy might feel as though he has worked harder, because he took every set to failure, but his total volume is way down on the guy who only went all-out on his final set: 26 reps at 100kg versus 32 reps at 100kg. Do the math, who will grow more?
I’m not saying don’t ever train to failure, but I am saying that if you are going to do some work to failure, do it in a way that won’t negatively compromise your total volume. Don’t put the cart before the horse, focus on the big picture goals.
Remember, what you want to achieve is getting as much efficient and effective work done as you can, that’s appropriate for your training age, so that you grow at the maximum rate possible.
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