We’re fortunate to live in an era where folks like Dr Brad Schoenfeld and other researchers are consistently working on practical research to answer specific questions that lifters want to know. We’re also fortunate that folks like Greg Nuckols and James Krieger are doing analyses outside of the peer reviewed research to keep the community on the cutting edge of data-informed training.
In the last couple years, there has been a veritable renaissance of publications designed to assess what are the appropriate ranges for big-picture training variables like volume, intensity and frequency, for the purpose of maximizing hypertrophy and strength. In this article I’m going to take the findings as they relate specifically to hypertrophy, and help you create training programs that utilise this information. First, let me summarise the most important findings in recent years:
- Higher volumes are generally associated with greater hypertrophy , with the caveat that doing excessively high volumes can actually slow your rate of gains [2, 3].
- What “excessive” is, is likely related to your training age, i.e. the closer you are to your muscular ceiling, the more you must do to keep advancing. This is shown when contrasting recent studies on German Volume Training [2, 3], in which novice lifters doing fewer sets gained more muscle mass than those doing more, with the dose-response relationship of volume and hypertrophy among well trained subjects shown in a soon-to-be published study by Schoenfeld and Krieger (to see how this new study impacts the relationship between volume and hypertrophy, become a Weightology subscriber and you can get access to James’ in house meta-analysis).
- Higher volumes may also be useful for those who are poor responders to resistance training. In a recent article by Brad Schoenfeld in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, Brad speculates that much like is the case with endurance training and the effect on VO2 Max, higher volumes of resistance training can help poor responders get a “normal” hypertrophy response to training . Additionally, James Krieger has hinted that their unpublished data suggests this to be the case as well. Also, he speculates that a practical solution to reaching the requisite high volumes needed to see progress in advanced lifters and poor responders, is muscle group specialization cycles (more on this in a bit).
- Intensity of effort (proximity to failure) is more important than intensity of load (percentage of 1RM). Unless you are working with less than ~30% of 1RM - which is simply too light to effectively induce hypertrophy, even training to failure – or if you are working with loads heavier than ~5RM - which prevents a set from lasting long enough for it to maximally stimulate hypertrophy – a decent proxy for ”hypertrophy inducing volume” is the number of “hard sets” (6 RPE+) completed. Thus, you can likely count the number of working sets in the 6-20 rep range to quantify volume as a bodybuilder (not that lighter and heavier sets do nothing, rather they just do less in a set to set comparison).
- We have pretty solid data showing that muscle group training frequencies of 2-3x/week provide superior hypertrophy when compared to volume-matched frequencies of 1x/week . Additionally, there may be a dose response relationship between frequency and hypertrophy, even when volume matched, going above 2-3x/week (check out Greg’s in house meta).
- With that said, frequency is largely useful because it allows session quality to be maintained when performing higher volume training by preventing marathon sessions.
- When considering high volume, high frequency training, exercise selection becomes critical such that movements that cause any soft tissue or joint stress are not candidates for increased frequency and/or volume.
- All in all, performing 10+ sets working sets in the 6-20 rep range, per week, per muscle group, and training each muscle group at least twice per week is a good starting point. If you plateau for an extended period (can’t increase load or reps at the same load) while following these guidelines, and form, nutrition, sleep and recovery are all optimized, it may mean that to keep progressing volume needs to be increased. Based on the data, I suggest a decent top end recommendation is 20-30 sets per muscle group.
So, let’s say you are plateaued, and you’ve ensured your technical proficiency with your movements is in place, you aren’t chronically training at too low of an RPE (consistently more than 4-5 reps from failure on average), you also aren’t chronically training to failure (average RPE chronically around 9-10+), you are getting 8+ hours of sleep per night, you are eating at least 0.7g/lbs of protein per day, and you are in a slight surplus (100-300kcals), it might then be worth attempting a volume increase. How do you do that? Trust me, in my years as a coach and an athlete, doing 30 sets per muscle group per week using primarily compound movements and pushing moderate to high RPEs is a recipe for burnout or an injury for most people. Thus, you need to be savvy and tactical rather than hardcore and stubborn to do so in a safe and effective manner. This where like James suggested, body part specialization comes into play.
In Part 2 next month I’ll actually outline what these cycles look like! Stay tuned!
[Update: here is part 2!]
- Schoenfeld, B.J., D. Ogborn, and J.W. Krieger, Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.J Sports Sci, 2017. 35(11): p. 1073-1082.
- Amirthalingam, T., et al., Effects of a Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength.J Strength Cond Res, 2017. 31(11): p. 3109-3119.
- Hackett, D., et al., Effects of a 12-Week Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy—A Pilot Study.Sports, 2018. 6(1): p. 7.
- Schoenfeld, B. and J. Grgic, Evidence-Based Guidelines for Resistance Training Volume to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy.Strength & Conditioning Journal, 2018. 40(4): p. 107-112.
- Lasevicius, T., et al., Effects of different intensities of resistance training with equated volume load on muscle strength and hypertrophy.Eur J Sport Sci, 2018. 18(6): p. 772-780.
- Schoenfeld, B.J., et al., Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men.J Sports Sci Med, 2016. 15(4): p. 715-722.
- Schoenfeld, B.J., D. Ogborn, and J.W. Krieger, Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.Sports Med, 2016. 46(11): p. 1689-1697.