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The 4 Most Important Training Variables for Muscle Growth

volume frequency intensity progressive overload

I don’t care how great your nutrition is, how “hard” you go in the weight room, or how many times per week you check into the gym on Facebook – if these 4 variables aren’t in order, you’re not building muscle maximally.

Truth is, muscle hypertrophy has very little to do with what exercises you’re doing or how slow and controlled you’re moving a weight. What really matters is work, and how much of it you’re doing.

Once you’ve understood why and how these variables play a vital role in muscular development, putting together an effective training plan that fits your needs, becomes a cakewalk.

On the other hand, if you ignore these principles, you’ll end up stuck and confused, wondering why you’re not getting bigger or stronger, no matter how hard your train.

If you’re ready to take your training – and your physique – to the next level, then it’s time to take the next step in your journey; learning the basics of workout programming.

1. Volume

The amount of exercise you perform over a given time.

Some experts define volume as the total number of sets and reps performed in a single training session (sets x reps = volume).

Others, on the other hand, like to factor in the amount of weight lifted (sets x reps x weight = total volume).

Either way we look at it, though, volume refers to the amount of work we do in our training.

Why Is Volume Important?

You’ve heard it before: 6-12 reps for size, 1-5 reps for strength, and 15-20 reps for endurance. We use this model because the rep range regulates the amount of time we spend under tension. The duration of the set thus dictates what energy system(s) we use. The energy system we use will then determine whether we’re training for strength, endurance, size, and so on.

Another reason we utilize rep ranges is because they attribute to our overall workload (total volume).

Here’s what I mean: We stimulate the muscle using a given stress, our body then adapts to the stress by building new muscle tissue in order to meet the demands placed on it.

For example: If we perform a 225 pound bench press x 4 sets x 8 reps, our total volume is either 32 reps or 7,200 lbs (depending on how you want to gauge volume). If we go in the gym again the following week and perform the same total volume on the bench press, our body has no reason to adapt.

If we want to increase the total volume, we have a couple of primary options:

  1. Increase the amount of weight used without sacrificing sets and reps.
  2. Increase the amount of reps performed without sacrificing weight and sets.

And before you assume that more sets equate to more hypertrophy, consider this: A meta-analysis comprised of 19 treatment groups within 8 different studies, suggested that the difference between 2-3 sets (per exercise) and 4-6 sets (per exercise) were insignificant. Meaning that, although one could continue to add sets, it’s only possible to a short degree before you’ll experience diminishing returns.

They did, however, conclude that multiple sets are associated with 40% more muscle growth than single set training, in both trained and untrained men.

A more recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research took 48 untrained men and, at random, assigned them to one of 3 training groups; 1set; 3 sets; and 5 sets. They concluded that multiple sets per exercise where superior to a single set per exercise for strength, muscle endurance, and hypertrophy.

I think the evidence is pretty clear that, if we’re looking to maximize muscle hypertrophy, we should be regulating volume.

And before you assume that you could maximize muscle growth by simply doing more and more push ups, each week, to increase volume, let’s jump into the next important training variable – intensity.

2. Intensity

The amount of physical power that the body uses when performing an activity.

Gauging training intensity is typically done using a very simple method: with a percentage of your 1 rep max.

Here’s an example of using a percentage of your 1RM: Your program calls for 80% of your 1RM for 5 sets of 5 reps. If your 1RM is 315 pounds, this might translate to something like 252x5x5.

315 x 0.8 = 252

This may be a bit harder to gauge with smaller isolation lifts such as biceps curls and lateral raises – most of us have no clue what our 1 rep max is for a front raise (as we shouldn’t) - in that case, I’d recommend using RM (Rep Maxes).

For example: If your 10RM for barbell curls is, say,  70 lbs, then perhaps using 60-65 lbs for sets of 8-10 will ensure you’re training with sufficient intensity.

Simple enough, right?

Why Is Intensity Important?

According to another study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, you would have to perform 3x the total volume, when using a lighter weight, to get the same exact results you would from a moderate load. This isn’t to say that building muscle with lighter weight isn’t possible, but it’s certainly not practical.

Another study showed similar findings when they compared a low, moderate, and a high rep group. The difference here was, the low and moderate rep groups produced significantly more hypertrophy than the high rep group. Again, not because you can’t build muscle with a lighter load, but because intensity is critical for maximizing growth.

So when the question becomes: Which is more important – volume or intensity? The answer is always neither. If you want to maximize muscle growth, they must both be in order.

3. Frequency

When we talk about training frequency, we’re talking about one of two things:

  1. The number of times we’re training per week.
  2. The number of times we’re training a particular muscle-group per week.

Both are of equal importance but because I will assume that you’re already training more than once per week, we’ll discuss the latter.

Why Is Frequency Important?

Here’s what we know: When we equate for volume, training 3 days per week produces greater muscle growth than training once per week. That’s enough to solidify the importance of frequency when the goal is to maximize muscle hypertrophy.

I’d be willing to bet that these results were due to two mechanisms:

  • Repeated Bout Effect: the adaptation whereby a single boutof eccentric exercise protects against muscle damage from subsequent eccentric bouts.

It’s been shown that, when training a muscle-group more frequently (to a degree), we increase our ability to recover and adapt.

  • Muscle Protein Synthesis: the driving force behind adaptive responses to exercise and represents a widely adopted proxy for gauging chronic efficacy of acute interventions, (i.e. exercise/nutrition).

Studies suggest that MPS is more than doubled at about 24 hours following a workout. By the 36 hour mark, however, it has dropped back to baseline. It’s not hard to see that, despite volume being equal, the person spending more time in this anabolic state will produce greater muscle growth.

Now before you decide to start hitting your biceps 7x per week, consider this. A recent meta-analysis by Brad Shoenfeld concluded that frequencies of training twice per week promoted more muscle growth than once per week, on a volume-equated basis; however, they also added, “whether training a muscle group three times per week is superior to a twice-per-week protocol remains to be determined.”

Now before you ditch the idea of training a muscle-group 3x per week because you’re unsure of whether or not there is any added benefit, consider the fact that this meta-analysis only accounted for higher frequency with volume being equal. That said, training at a higher frequency can be a great way to accumulate volume once you’ve reached a certain threshold in your training.

4. Progressive Overload

A gradual increase in volume, intensity, frequency or time in order to achieve the targeted goal of the user.

Although the list of ways to achieve progressive overload is long, I’ll leave you with the ones I find are the primary and more practical methods.

  • Lifting the same load for more reps
  • Lifting a heavier load for the same number of reps
  • Doing the same amount of work (total volume) in less time
  • Doing more work (total volume) in the same time
  • Lifting the same weight, faster
  • And on and on and on…

Ultimately, the goal is to get stronger and the methods listed above are all viable options for doing so.

Why Is Progressive Overload Important?

It’s no secret that progressive overload is the most critical pathway to building muscle mass.

As long as we can continue to add stress, over time, we’ll force an adaptive response that results in growth.

Tying Them All Together

By now you should have a pretty firm understanding of why - and how - these 4 principles play a vital role in muscle hypertrophy. In order to produce the best results possible, these 4 training variables must work synergistically – neither one is more important than the other.

That said, I’d like to leave you with some practical recommendations for each one. I will add, though, that there is no black and white - just guidelines that will ensure you’re in the ballpark of what is necessary for maximizing your efforts.

Reps: Try to keep about 75% of your work in the 6-12 rep range and the other 25% in the 1-5, using heavier loads.

Sets: These set numbers are based on weekly volume. For example, if the recommended sets are 12 and you are following a 3x per week full body routine, then 4 sets per session (per muscle) may be ideal. On the other hand, if you are on a 5 day split and hitting each muscle group once per week, then perform all of your sets in the one session.

Intensity: Use 65-80% of your 1RM for about ¾ of your training. 82-90% of your 1RM can make up for the other ¼.

Frequency: Train at least 3x times per week and schedule your training in a way that allows you to target each muscle-group, twice (per week).

Progressive Overload: Focus on increasing the workload (sets x reps x weight). Use an app on your phone to track your lifts and aim to (1) increase the reps (without sacrificing load) or (2) increase the load (without sacrificing reps).

Final Thoughts

The point of this article is simple: to give you a very basic understanding of the 4 most important training principles for muscle growth. To provide the tools necessary to make better, more informed decisions when creating or following a given training program.

If you’re looking for a well thought-out, proven program for maximizing muscle growth, then grab my free 12 week course: Mass In A Flash.

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