So who wants more muscle?
Everyone? Yup, thought so.
Sure, there are exceptions. But for the most part, muscle is the catalyst for three things that are highly valued by most people: Better appearance, better athletic functioning and better health.
Given these compelling benefits, it seems wise to know how to train in a way that will most efficiently build additional muscle mass. When you watch how most people train however, it quickly becomes clear that hypertrophy training is largely misunderstood.
In this article, I’ll first explain the most important training parameter to exploit for the purposes of growing new muscle, followed by 3 training strategies to ensure you’re getting the most out of it. Let's get started...
Volume: The Linchpin Of Muscle Growth
When muscular hypertrophy is your only (or primary) goal, your decision making should be organized around a single pivotal training parameter: volume.
Just so we’re all on the same page with respect to this term, volume refers to the total amount of work you perform per unit of time (day, week, month, etc.), expressed as weight x total reps.
So as a quick example, if you bench press 200 pounds for 5 sets of 5 reps, your volume for that exercise is 5000 pounds.
Now, there’s one little caveat to what I just stated: the volume of work you do must be relatively “difficult" volume, which means two things:
- The weight you lift must be at least fairly heavy — probably at least 60-65% of your 1RM. After all, if this weren't the case, ultra-marathoners who rack up much more volume than any lifter would be the most massively muscled athletes on Earth.
- Regardless of how much weight is on the bar, you must take your working sets close to (or sometimes right up to) failure, which is defined as the inability to complete another repetition without your technique breaking down.
A few words on whether or not (or when) you should train to failure might be in order here.
Taking a set to failure leads to a (slightly) more effective training stimulus than staying a few reps away. But that slightly enhanced training stimulus comes at a cost — the fatigue it generates will likely limit the ability to perform additional sets, which of course will limit your total volume.
So while it’s fine to train to failure, do so sparingly — perhaps on the last set of an exercise or on the last exercise in a workout. Most sets should be taken 1-3 reps shy of failure.
Now that we have a better sense of the importance of training volume, let’s explore 3 training strategies that will help maximize the amount of volume you can chalk up during your training sessions.
Strategy #1: Optimize Repetition Brackets
Earlier I mentioned that the work you perform needs to be at least fairly heavy in order to be optimally effective for hypertrophy purposes. This would seem to beg the question: “Would it be even better if I went really heavy?”
While heavy (>85% 1RM) weights can certainly contribute to muscle growth (not to mention strength), they’re not optimal for a very simple reason: the heavier the weight, the fewer reps you can perform (per set, per workout, etc.), and therefore, the less volume you’ll be able to rack up.
Remember the example I gave earlier about benching 200 pounds for 5x5 leading to 5000 pounds of volume? That might sound like a lot, but you can manage a lot more volume using lighter weights. Anyone capable of hitting 5x5 with 200 could easily manage 5x8 with 175 — in the same period of time, if not less —and that nets 7000 pounds. That’s a 40% improvement in volume.
And, the benefits don't end there — it takes less time to warm up to 175 than it does to warm up to 200. And 175 takes a smaller toll on your joints than 200 pounds.
Finally, lifting heavy, while it has its benefits, takes a psychic toll — sometimes bordering on the “fight or flight” response — that can significantly hamper recovery, which again limits chronic volume accumulation.
Bottom line for optimal hypertrophy training: While occasional (every 4th month or so) use of heavy loads is definitely productive, most of your time should be spent in the 60-80% 1RM range.
Hypertrophy Block #1 (5 Weeks): Perform all work sets in the 10-12 repetition bracket. Start the first week with sets of 12, and each week gradually increase load (which will bring about a loss of reps) until you’re performing sets of 10 on week 5.
Hypertrophy Block #2 (5 Weeks): Perform all work sets in the 7-9 repetition bracket. Start the first week with sets of 9, and each week gradually increase load (which will bring about a loss of reps) until you’re performing sets of 7 on week 5.
Strength Block (5 Weeks): Perform all work sets in the 4-6 repetition bracket. Start the first week with sets of 6, and each week gradually increase load (which will bring about a loss of reps) until you’re performing sets of 4 on week 5.
Active Rest (1 Week): Take a week of very light lifting, and/or light recreational exercise, then rinse and repeat.
Strategy #2: Maximize Range Of Motion
There’s actually an under-recognized and rarely-discussed component of volume that I’d like to address next: range of motion (ROM).
The literal definition of physical “work” is displacing a mass over a specific distance. Therefore, when quantifying the amount (volume) of work performed, range of motion must also be considered.
Going back to my earlier bench press illustration... if you bench 200 for 5x5 down to a 2” thick board on your chest (which is called a “board press” for those unfamiliar), you’d arrive at the same amount of volume (at least in the way that lifters measure it — weight x reps) as you did benching with a full ROM.
Now, it’s cumbersome to account for ROM in weight room volume calculations, which is why no one does it. Just know that an exercise done through greater ROM will be more effective (for muscle-building purposes) than the same exercise done with less ROM.
The best way to account for these differences is to classify less ROM exercise variants separately from larger ROM versions. For example: “parallel squat” vs. “half squat” and so on. And needless to say, never shorten your ROM on a rep just to say you got it...when you shorten the ROM, you’re now doing a different exercise.
One final point about ROM before moving on to our third strategy: when you use more ROM, you’ll be forced (in most cases) to use less weight. Read: less orthopedic trauma.
Strategy #3: Emphasize Eccentric Muscle Action
My final strategy might seem a bit misplaced because on the face of it, it doesn’t seem to be a way of increasing volume. But it IS a way of making your volume more result-producing...and that’s exactly why I’ve included it.
In the scientific community, it’s long been understood that the eccentric (lowering) phase of resistance training leads to the lion’s share of the overall training stimulus, especially regarding hypertrophy. The eccentric component of muscular activity leads to much greater muscle damage/homeostatic disruption than the concentric aspect (which, just as an aside, might be why swimming doesn’t tend to lead to significant soreness or conspicuous muscle development).
Now of course, you’re already lowering your weights on each rep (duh). But you’re probably not emphasizing the eccentric phase as effectively as you could be. I’m not going to suggest pure eccentric training in this discussion (it’s effective, but often impractical) nor am I a fan of the “Time Under Tension” (TUT) method where even the concentric aspect is performed slowly.
Instead, I’m referring to prolonging the duration of the eccentric portion of each rep. Rather than simply lowering the weight in the easiest way possible, use a 4 to 5 second eccentric phase on each rep.
For a great explanation of the benefits of slow eccentrics, check out my colleague Dr. Joel Seedman’s article entitled The Best Way To Lift Weights. If you just want the cliff notes, here it is: slow eccentrics are much more effective for muscle building as well as joint health. The only thing they won’t strengthen is your ego.
Implementation: I typically use slow eccentrics about every 3rd or 4th mesocycle, while using “standard” rep speeds the rest of the time. Just like anything else, the longer you use any specific method, the less effective it becomes due to adaptive resistance.
Need More Evidence? Success Leaves Clues!
There’s a great way of fast-tracking your way to success in any endeavor — seek out and study the greats in the area you’re interested in. Don’t look at isolated instances of high performers, but instead, observe what most of the greats do and mimic these behaviors.
In the case of muscular hypertrophy, we need to look at high-level bodybuilders. For most of us, it is even better to study the great bodybuilders of the 50s and 60s — before anabolic steroids and other PEDs became commonplace.
When you study these individuals, you’ll find that the vast majority of them built their physiques using the 3 strategies I’ve outlined above.
And you have an additional advantage — today we know much more about nutrition and recovery. So with some dedicated work, you should be able to do even better than they did!