Before you read this article, ask yourself- why should you trust me? Why should you listen to my advice on training? Isn´t there already a myriad of “6-week-programs” out there? How can you be sure that this isn´t just another one? Could it be that I’ am just a random guy who has heard one or two things about fitness and now wants to blog about it?

The essential question is: how can you tell if something is a thoughtful article or just bullshit advice? Here are my arguments, 1. Scientific references: When I claim something, it is backed up by scientific studies and facts. 2. I don´t excessively promote things that I want to sell you 3. There are no ridiculous claims, like this diet will make you lean, strong, successful, charismatic, …      4. No extremism: There isn´t such thing as the one correct answer. If you disagree with something just comment and we´ll discuss about it.    

Now we are going to talk about building up muscles. If you are a woman you may think “nah, I don´t want to become bulky,” but this topic is relevant for men and women alike. Because when girls say they want a better shape, that means nothing else than reducing body fat and building muscle mass.

In this article I will break down what science currently says about how we should train. Whereby the topics listed in the pyramid below will be covered. The pyramid also structures them into how meaningful they are for muscle growth. If you don´t have time to read everything, just read the first few – they are the most important. 

After you finished reading, you will be able to tell which strategies are proven to work for building a great physique. Also, you should be able to create a scientifically based workout plan in a few minutes and finally you will find terrific resources for additional information. So let´s get started.

What kind of training should you do?

Undoubtedly, there are numerous ways to get an athletic body like doing Crossfit, track and field or bodyweight exercises. However, we are going to talk about lifting weights and using training machines, because those tools are better suited for the job of building muscle mass. For one, they allow you to constantly work near muscular failure. If you become stronger, you can just add a few pounds. Also, you can target every muscle individually with a constant resistance curve. That´s were machine training comes in as very handy. And last but not least, you get your training done in a shorter period of time.

How much should we train?

This question is not about how long you should train. Instead, it´s about how much you do in this time frame. For instance, you could do only a few exercises in 2 hours when you rest a lot between your sets. Likewise, you can squeeze a very intense workout into an half an hour. You see, we need another metric to describe the amount or quantity of your workout. In scientific terms, this is called your training volume. By strict definition that means the number of reps x the weight you have been lifting. But to keep it simple we will only refer to training volume as hard sets. That is, a set which you had to put real effort into, to perform the last repetitions.[1]

Now, what does science tells us about the number of hard sets we should perform in each week? (Note, it is important to count your sets per week instead of counting your sets for each training day. That makes it much easier to compare different training programs whit each other.)

When we look at recent findings [2] we can see that the amount of sets is closely linked with the rate of muscle growth. This means that up to a certain point, the more hard-sets you perform in one week, the more you are going to grow. Therefore, we can assume that there is a dose response relationship between training volume and muscle growth.[3]

However, there is a point were the rate of muscle growth slows down. Put simply, the trainee who performs a moderate amount of sets, will built mass faster, than the trainee who does a high number of sets.[4]  We see it is a bell curve (there is a sweetspot) rather than an exponential one (the more you do the better).

Unfortunately, we can´t exactly tell what the optimal amount of volume is. But we know that the more advanced you are, the more volume you need to do. In contrast, a beginner can tolerate a much lower number of sets.[5] Moreover, anyone responses very differently to training itself. Taking myself as example, I feel trashed if I do more than 10 sets for each muscle group per week.

This is in line what experts currently recommend. With 10 sets for each body parts per week for beginners and intermediates, Eric Helms gives us a reasonable starting point.[6] Keep in mind that this is no hard number! Let your mood, energy level and performance guide you whether you should try to perform more/less volume.

  • This depends on the individual. Training volume is like a bell curve on muscle growth. The optimal amount of set numbers is unknown but 10 sets per week per body part is a reasonable starting point but needs to be individualized.

Resources

[1]Thoughts On Counting Training Volume – By Greg Nuckols, https://muscleandstrengthpyramids.com/counting-training-volume-greg-nuckols/

[2]Schoenfeld et al.(2019),Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men, https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/01000/Resistance_Training_Volume_Enhances_Muscle.13.aspx, Haun et al. (2018), Effects of Graded Whey Supplementation During Extreme-Volume Resistance Training, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2018.00084/full, Radaelli et al (2015), Dose-response of 1, 3, and 5 sets of resistance exercise on strength, local muscular endurance, and hypertrophy.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25546444

[3] Schoenfeld et al. (2016), Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02640414.2016.1210197

[4] Eric Helms, Is Overtraining a Myth?, https://3dmusclejourney.com/overtraining-myth/,https://mennohenselmans.com/upper-limit-training-volume/

[5] Menno Henselmanns, New science on the optimal training volume: extreme training for extreme gains?https://mennohenselmans.com/optimal-training-volume/[

[6]Eric Helms, The Muscle & Strength Pyramids, https://muscleandstrengthpyramids.com/

How often should we train?

Let me rephrase that question into the terms of research: how frequent should we train. To clarify, when you train one muscle three times per week, you have a frequency of 3 times a week for this muscle.

The topic of frequency is paradoxical. We know that it is effective for hypertrophy (muscle growth) to train a muscle more than once a week[1]. Also, high frequent training protocols have shown to be slightly better or at least equal, compared to workouts with low frequency[2]. Therefore, it is wise for a normal gymgoer, to not cram all his sets and all his exercises into one training session. Instead, perform the same exercises on multiple times per week.

We can see, it´s superior to train with higher frequency but meanwhile we can´t explain why this is the case. Moreover, there is quite a debate about how impactful training frequency is. It depends on how you choose to evaluate the results. Different evaluations produce different conclusions how impactful a high frequency (3+ times per week) is.[3]

But there is even more nuance. The fact that you are a beginner or an experienced trainee, makes a difference as well in how often you should train. For example, training with high frequencies (three times a week up to six times a week), is more beneficial for advanced lifters than newbies. Additionally, we see that cramming in too much sets into one workout, isn´t the best way to go[4]. So, the amount of sets (Volume) shouldn´t be too high in one workout. Therefore, the more set´s you do per week, the more training sessions you should do.

  • Train every muscle group at least two times per week. The higher your Volume, the higher your frequency should be/ The more advanced you are, the higher your frequency should be.

Resources

[1] Schonefeld (2016), https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8

[2] New training frequency study: 5x beats 2x, https://mennohenselmans.com/high-resistance-training-frequency-enhances-muscle-thickness-resistance-trained-men/

[3] Greg Nuckols, Training Frequency for Strength Development: What the Data Say, https://www.strongerbyscience.com/training-frequency/

[4] Menno Henselmanns, What’s the upper limit of training volume for your gains? https://mennohenselmans.com/upper-limit-training-volume/

How hard should you train?

High intensity training vs. high volume training is a debate as old as lifting itself. The first camp supports to only perform a few sets for each body part but taking every set near or beyond muscular failure. Muscular failure describes the state of not being able to perform one more repetition (even when the guy of Full-Metal-Jacket would be shouting at you).

The second camp, high volume, proposes to leave a few rep´s in the tank. That is, stopping an exercise when you could have done three to two more repetitions. As the name suggests, this philosophy also advocates to perform a high number of sets.

Based on what we learned in the previous chapter about training volume, it is tempting to assume that high volume training is the superior training method. However, there are also fascinating findings in favor of high intensity, low volume training programs.

There are studies which show that training with a high intensity produced greater gains as training were sets were not taken to failure.[1] Here comes a new concept into play called effective reps.[2] It states, that the last five repetitions in one set trigger muscle growth the most. Therefore, if we train to failure, we get 5 effective repetitions. But if we stop and could have done two repetitions more, we only got 3 effective repetitions.

Training with high intensities may produce a greater muscle growth response than training with moderate intensities. However, the big downside of training to failure is that it takes longer to recover from it. [3] That means, when you are training with very high effort and thus intensity, you cannot perform as many sets as someone who trains with a moderate intensity. Thus, if we not go insane in every set, we can perform much more volume and therefore get more hypertrophy.

Thank you for sticking with me through this theoretical part. As reward, we´ll put those findings finally into context. Let´s assume that you are a student with a fund of time and you love to be in the gym. In this scenario you should try to perform as much sets as you can recover from but not train to failure. (remember 10 sets per muscle part per week is a good place to start from) With 10-14 sets a week, you´ve got 30-42 effective reps for each muscle group.

Now consider scenario two. Imagine you are a parent of three and you can only spend 2-3 hours per week in the gym. In addition, you like to train but it isn´t you´re passion. In that case you would be wise to go hard in every set and have a higher intensity. With this approach you may only be able to do 5 sets per muscle group per week, because the high intensity limits your recovery capacities. However, due to your time constraints, you wouldn´t be able to do more sets anyway. So, with only 5 sets, you could achieve 25 effective reps for each body part.

  • The intensity depends on how much time you are willing to spend. The more time you have got, the lighter the intensity and the higher the volume. In contrast, the less time you can afford, the higher your intensities and the lower the amount of sets.

Resources

[1] Revive Stronger Podcast, Carl Juneau – The Science of Effective Reps & Rest Pause Sets, http://revivestronger.com/2018/03/31/podcast-096-carl-juneau-the-science-of-effective-reps-rest-pause-sets/

[2] Chris Beardsley, What is training volume?, https://medium.com/@SandCResearch/what-is-training-volume-286b8da6f427

[3] Nobrega (2018), Effect of Resistance Training to Muscle Failure vs. Volitional Interruption at High- and Low-Intensities on Muscle Mass and Strength., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29189407

How to periodize your training?

Do not worry. We won´t go into detail here and the topic isn´t complicated at all. The reason for this is that we haven´t got much conclusive data on periodization[1]. Moreover, the studies we have got are suggesting that periodization isn´t paramount, when improving once physique is concerned.[2]

You may think, “heck, can you explain what periodization is, before you start to talk about it´s relevance?” – Well, fair enough. When I talk about periodization, I just mean that you change your training over time, systematically. Periodization can be for instance: to change the exercises you are doing, changing the rep ranges or altering the intensity over a period of time.

Even though periodization is more important for gaining strength than muscle mass, in fitness we must ensure one thing with it: progression

Meaning, we should increase the weights or the number of sets from time to time, otherwise we are just stagnating. To do so you follow a progression scheme. Herby you increase the training stress when you reach a targeted performance. For example, you are aiming for three sets of squats with 9 repetitions in each set. At first your performance may look like 9/8/7 but over the weeks you will improve to 9/9/7 and finally reach 9/9/9. At this point, you´re training must become more challenging.

There are a few methods to do so, relative to how advanced you are. Beginners (people who get better from week to week/ usually 0-1,5 years of training) should try to increase the weight in the next week. In the scenario from above, a beginner would add 2,5kg to 5kg to the bar the next training session.

Intermediates (people who are able to progress weight from month to month/ usually 1,5 to 3 years of training) should try to increase repetitions further before adding more load. E.g. add weight when you are able to perform even more reps than targeted. Returning to our example with three sets of squats, once you reached 9/9/9 you would try to get to 11/11/11 in each set and only thereafter increase the load on the bar. This should approximately result in adding weight from month to month.

For advanced athletes (people who can´t increase load even from month to month), I recommend checking out Mike Isreatel´s MAV, MRV concept.[3]

  • With periodization, you should make sure that you progress over time. Depending on your how advanced you are, you should aim to increase load from week to week or month to month.

Resources

[1] Eric Helms, The Muscle & Strength Pyramids, https://muscleandstrengthpyramids.com/

[2] Greg Nuckols, Periodization: What the Data Say, https://www.strongerbyscience.com/periodization-data/

[3] Mike Isreatels Training Volume Landmarks, https://renaissanceperiodization.com/training-volume-landmarks-muscle-growth/

In what rep ranges should you train?

This is also a question of how much load we should use, because the heavier the weight, the less repetitions we can perform, thus the lower the rep range. Basically, it is possible to gain muscles regardless of how much repetitions are performed. The only requirement seems to be that your sets are taken near to failure.[1]

This is in line with the effective rep´s concept, discussed above. A set of 10 and a set of 40 both contain roughly 5 highly stimulating repetitions. But as you can imagine, you reach those 5 reps a lot faster when you train with heavier loads. Herein, lies the disadvantages of training with high loads. It takes much longer and is more challenging, because it feels almost like endurance training.

So why not just train with heavy loads and sets of 5? This turns out to be not ideally as well. Training with such high loads takes much longer than training with moderate loads as well. In this study[2] participants trained either with 10 sets of 3 or 3 sets of 10. Both groups performed the same amount of volume (repetitions x weight) and therefore gained the same amount of muscle mass. But there were two differences between groups.

One, the group who did 3 repetitions in each set had to rest longer between sets and every session lasted 3 times longer compared to the group who did 10 reps each set. Second major difference, the heavy group complained about injuries, fatigue and a few participants had to drop out of the study. The opposite was true in the light group (10 reps). Participants in this group felt recovered and could complete the study.

 It turns out that training with heavy weights (1-5 repetitions) deals much more damage to your joints and connective tissue than training with moderate or light loads (8-15+ repetitions). Furthermore, with moderate rep ranges, you can perform the most volume in a given time.

  • Train with moderate to light loads so that you can perform 8-15 reps for the bulk of your exercises.

Resources

[1] Eric Helms, Low-Load Training for Hypertrophy Works in the Lab. Will It Work in the Gym?, https://www.strongerbyscience.com/low-load-training/

[2] Schonefeld (2014), Effects of Different Volume-Equated Resistance Training Loading Strategies on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men, https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2014/10000/Effects_of_Different_Volume_Equated_Resistance.27.aspx

What exercises?

This topic is for mathematicians – straight forward without many nuances. Take exercises you feel comfortable with, whether they´re machines or free weights. For the minimalist, make sure that you contain in your workout:

If you want optimal proportions, add the following:

If you want to optimize your exercise selection further, visit Jeff Nippards Youtube channel. He has a series where he presents the best way to train each body part according to science and recommends suited exercises. [1]


Resources

[1] Jeff Nippard, The most effective way to train shoulders/ science explained https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyTAraGimfE&t=363s

What else to consider?

It should be self-evident that training is not the only variable when it comes to building a great physique. I´m talking about topics like

  • Sleep qualility, quantitiy
  • Nutrition
  • Hormones/Genetics

But hence we´ve almost reached 3000 words I guess that I can´t allow myself to digress even further. To wrap things up, remember the introduction of the text.

Now conclude for yourself, what were my arguments, what evidence did I present and finally,

Is this very article bullshit advice or profound?

 I`m awaiting your conclusions in the comments below.

Featured Image by Meghan Holmes on Unsplash

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