Contrary to popular belief, training for optimal muscle growth can be broken down into four, relatively-simple to understand, factors. Or, rather, pillars.
Though there are many intricacies and ways to tweak your training to squeeze that extra bit of gym progress, the majority of your results over the years are going to come from paying attention to these four pillars and being consistent with your workouts.
With that said, let’s jump in.
Pillar One: Training Volume
Training volume refers to the amount of work you do at the gym within a given week or training cycle. There are many ways to measure it, with one of the least complicated ones being the hard number of sets you do.
Now, research and anecdotal evidence both suggest that training volume is the most critical factor for muscle growth. If you don’t do enough, you won’t progress. There’s also the issue of doing too much, but most people shouldn’t worry about that.
As far as recommendations go, the consensus is that we need ten or more hard sets per week for each muscle group to grow. I believe that this estimate is a bit conservative, and most people should do a few more sets, spread intelligently within the training week, to progress effectively.
Pillar Two: Effort
Training volume is critical, but there also needs to be a level of effort in your workouts. It’s one thing to complete fifteen half-hearted sets in a workout, and it’s a whole other thing to do the same number, but to push yourself hard, almost near failure on each.
Now, much like in the case of volume, we also need to strike a balance when it comes to effort. Too little is bad; too much can be worse.
One right way to gauge your effort is through the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale. This scale is simply a measure of how difficult a given set was. For example, an RPE 10 set would be one to failure. An RPE 9 set would be one where you had one repetition in the tank. An RPE 8 set is one where you can do a couple of more repetitions. You get the idea.
Whether you choose to employ RPE is up to you – it does take some time to grasp well. But, even if you don’t, follow this simple rule of thumb for your gym effort:
Mostly avoid training to muscular failure – always leave a couple of repetitions in the tank. But do aim to improve your performance over time progressively:
- More weight on the bar;
- More repetitions with the same weight;
- Smaller rest periods between sets;
- More total sets;
So long as you put the effort in and progressively improve, you don’t have to push yourself to your absolute limits to build muscle optimally.
Pillar Three: Training Intensity
Many folks mix intensity and effort up, but these are different elements. Training intensity refers to the amount of weight you are using relative to your one-repetition max. So, for example, if you can bench press 300 pounds for a single, a set with 270 pounds would be 90 percent of your 1 RM. This is an excellent example of a high-intensity set.
If you were to do a set with 180 pounds, that would be 60 percent of your 1 RM or a low-intensity set.
The consensus for muscle growth is to do the majority of your sets in the 65-85 percent of your one-repetition maximum. This would allow you to perform 6 to 12 repetitions on most exercises. But why is that important?
Well, in the first pillar, we covered the importance of volume, and, for the sake of simplicity, I suggested that the simplest way to track volume is by counting hard sets. While that still holds, it’s also essential to do enough repetitions within those sets. And, of course, with a high enough level of effort.
You can do 16 weekly sets for your chest, but if each one is a 1 or 2 RM, don’t expect significant muscle growth. You still need repetitions. And research seems to suggest that 6 to 12 repetitions (particularly on multi-joint movements like the bench press) is the sweet spot for optimizing muscle growth.
In some cases, more or fewer reps can also be beneficial – for example, 12 to 20 repetitions on isolation movements like chest fly (to maximize metabolic stress – a factor for muscle growth). Or, 3-6 repetitions on compound lifts during a strength cycle to increase your strength – an adaptation that would later be beneficial for hypertrophy training.
Pillar Four: Frequency
Frequency refers to how often you train a given muscle group, or, if you’re a strength athlete, a lift, within a given week.
And while many love to argue as to which the optimal frequency is, there isn’t one answer for everyone. Frequency itself isn’t a determining factor because research has shown that, so long as training volume is equated, the number of times you train your muscles within a week doesn’t make a difference. This further suggests that volume is the most critical factor for muscle gain.
Still, frequency is an essential pillar because it’s precisely the thing that allows us to organize our training and allocate our volume appropriately.
For example, if you need to do 16 weekly sets for your chest, you can do all of them in one go, so the frequency for that muscle group would be once per week. But, you can organize your training, so you split these 16 weekly sets into two or three sessions. That way, you’d have 8 or fewer sets to do in one go.
This is a great way to keep fatigue (and muscle soreness) lower and maintain an overall higher performance on each individual set. Rather than burn your chest out in a single workout, you can spread your volume more evenly, do a bit more work for the week, and tire yourself out less.
Frequency isn’t a magical factor that will make you gain more muscle itself. It’s only a tool that allows you to organize your training smartly to maximize performance and minimize fatigue and soreness.