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A Scientific Approach to Training for Maximum Growth

hypertrophy

When writing a new training program, it’s likely you’ll be asking yourself questions such as “how am I going to set this up?” “How many sets?” “At which intensity?” “How many times per week?”

One guy at the gym tells you that you have to do X amount of sets for each exercise, X amount of sets for each muscle group, while the muscle magazine you read says a completely different thing. You are tempted to listen to the big guy at the gym - he must know what he is talking about, right? What you don’t know is that he may have been using some ‘Mexican supplements’ to achieve those results, while the only thing you use is creatine.

All of this could confuse you; who should you listen to? Research would be the best and most objective place to find the most appropriate answer. While research only shows the average results, it’s worth mentioning that some are low- and high-responders, and yes you may fall in one of those categories. That said, most fall into the average category, thus research can give you some good guidelines.

Another limitation with resistance training research is that most studies are carried out on untrained individuals, lasting only for a relatively short period of time. So, if you have been training consistently for years, it may not fully apply to you. However, we can only use the best information we have and extrapolate from that.

Let’s dive into the research.

Training Volume

Training volume is defined as set x repetitions x load. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1-3 sets per exercise for beginners and 3-6 sets for trained subjects. Krieger completed a meta-analysis in 2010, looking at training volume and muscle growth. A meta-analysis is a “study of studies”, where data from all previous studies that fit the inclusion criteria are analyzed. In this analysis 8 studies were included, which raises the statistical power compared to only 1 study, because there are now more data and more subjects. This makes it easier to find a difference if there really is one.

2-6 sets per exercise (per session, not weekly!) was shown to have a higher muscle growth effect compared with 1 set, with a 40% greater growth in both untrained and trained individuals.  There was no significant difference between 2-3 sets and 4-6 sets per exercise. However, a slightly higher effect size was seen for the 4-6 sets per exercise.

Now, 6 years later, a new meta-analysis has just been published. This time 15 studies were included. The results are in sets per week for each muscle group:

<5 sets 5.4% increase in muscle mass
5-9sets 6.6% increase in muscle mass
10+ sets 9.8% increase in muscle mass.

As can be seen, 10+ sets per muscle group per week had the highest increase in muscle growth. Worth mentioning is that most of the studies were carried out on untrained, with only 2 studies involved trained subjects. Many of the subjects were also middle aged and older. What’s more, the training volume will increase automatically in a trained person since he/she is stronger and uses a higher load. The authors also mention a dose-response relationship, unfortunately there were not enough data to compare >12 sets per week so the threshold is yet to be found.

Recommendations:
Beginners: 5-10 sets per muscle group per week
Intermediate: 8-12 sets per muscle group per week
Advanced: >10-x sets per muscle group per week

Training Frequency

Next step is to divide the training volume into X amount of training sessions per week. Should all sets be performed in one session, like a typical bro split with chest one day, legs one day etc? Or should they be split up and divided, so that 1-2 sets per muscle group are performed each day, or perhaps something in between? Recently,  a review and meta-analysis was done to explore this, which included 10 studies . A higher training frequency was shown to have a higher effect for muscle growth compared to a low frequency. There were not enough studies included that had a weekly frequency of 3 or more, so it is not known if a training frequency of 3 or more is better than 2. The authors recommend a frequency of at least 2 times per week. This is in line with American College of Sports Medicine references above.

The above recommended frequency makes a training program more practical, as the volume now can be divided between at least two days, instead of fitting it all in to only one. If there is any difference in training frequency between a beginner and an advanced trainee, then it is yet to be determined.

Training Intensity

A well-known ‘fact’ is that one should perform a training intensity of between 60-85% of 1RM for optimal hypertrophy. However, in previous years this has been challenged. Intensities <50% 1RM to failure have been shown to produce substantial increases in both strength and hypertrophy; however, a trend of superior results with >50% 1RM have been shown in a recent meta-analysis. This meta-analysis was also in untrained individuals. However, studies in trained individuals have showed equal results. Worth adding is that when performing high rep/low intensity sets, they must be performed to muscular failure in order to reap substantial benefits. The method which proves to be the most practical and time efficient is another question, taking that into account there would be an advantage of >50% 1RM.

In Summary

Beginners: 5-10 sets per muscle group per week

Intermediate: 8-12 sets per muscle group per week

Advanced: >10-x sets per muscle group per week: with a frequency of 2-3 sets per week and an intensity of >50% of 1RM. However, if you prefer lower load and higher reps that can bring great results too!

About The Author

Fredrik Tonstad Vårvik is an online coach, writer and researcher with focus in the areas of resistance training and nutrition.

Fredrik has completed a bachelor's in nutrition and a bachelor's in sports science.

He is the owner of FredFitology.com.

You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter

 
 
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