Is intensity or volume more important for building muscle? That’s this podcast’s topic and it’s been a matter of ongoing controversy and debate.
If you asked a panel of fitness experts about intensity versus volume, you’d hear a lot of squabbling.
Some would say you should mostly train heavy and focus on using weights as heavy as possible. Others would say the weight you’re using doesn’t matter as much as simply training a lot and putting in the reps.
Both arguments can sound convincing, so which method should you apply?
While you can’t neglect volume or intensity, one of the two is slightly more important than the other. You’re going to learn why in this podcast!
Lastly, if you want to support the show, please drop a quick review of it over on iTunes. It really helps!
5:17 – How do you calculate volume? What is volume load?
10:34 – What’s the best way to track volume?
11:36 – What is intensity?
14:28 – How close should you get to failure during a set?
15:33 – Should you use a percentage of your one-rep max (1RM)?
16:32 – Is volume or intensity better for muscle growth?
24:31 – Do you have to keep getting stronger to gain muscle?
27:00 – How heavy should you lift?
30:17 – How do you get stronger?
31:59 – Why do we have to keep adding weight to the bar over time? Why is strength gain correlated with building muscle?
33:58 – Should you do very high-rep sets? Do high-rep sets increase muscle tension?
38:39 – How should you program your training?
Mentioned on the Show:
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Hey, Mike Matthews here and this is Muscle For Life. Thank you for joining me today. Quickly, before we get into the meat of today’s episode, if you like what I’m doing here on the show, subscribe to it because then you’ll be notified when new episodes go live, so you’ll never miss the latest and greatest stuff, and it’ll help me because it raises the rankings.
The show. And that of course increases visibility and makes it easier for new people to find their way into my orbit. All right, so what are we talking about Today? We’re gonna be talking about a matter of ongoing controversy, ongoing debate. This is something that has been a discussion at least as long as I’ve been in the fitness space.
And that is intensity or. Volume, which is better for building muscle, which one is more important? And if you were to go to a fitness conference and ask a panel of experts that question, you would hear a lot of squabbling, but the responses would probably generally sort themselves into two different buckets.
You would have people who are saying, You should mostly just train heavy. Focus on using maximally heavy weights, even if that means you have to reduce volume. And then the opposite school, the opposite philosophy of training, which is you should just train a lot, you should just do a lot of volume, and how heavy those weights are doesn’t matter as much as just putting in the.
Putting in the reps and you may have a hard time deciding which you want to apply in your training because both arguments can sound pretty convincing. For example, proponents of high intensity training, not in the sense of high intensity interval training, just training with very heavy weights exclusively training with very heavy weights, like never doing more than sixes or eights, for example.
They may say. That is best for producing maximum tension levels in your muscles, and that’s really what we need to achieve. Progressive tension overload to get bigger and stronger. But then the people touting volume may say, Yes, you do need to achieve progressive tension overload, but putting more weight on the bar.
Isn’t the only way to accomplish that. You can accomplish that with just doing more sets and doing more reps, and in fact, that’s a better way to progressively overload your muscles. And so who’s right? As you have probably already guessed, the truth is somewhere in the middle, as is often the case.
Not always. Sometimes the maximalists are correct, but in this case, the current weight of the evidence is that between these two factors of intensity and volume, One is slightly more important than the other, and I’m gonna leave that as a cliff hanger. So you’ll listen to the episode. But you can’t neglect volume or intensity.
If you focus too much on one, which would then be at the expense of the other, you are not going to progress as quickly. You are going to be handicapping your gains. And so I’m going to be unpacking all of that in this podcast and sharing my current position on intensity versus volume, and my current understanding of the literature and best practices for getting bigger, leaner, and stronger her horror.
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Okay, so let’s start this discussion with volume. What is volume? Volume is simply the amount of work that you’re doing over a period of time. And in weightlifting, in strength training, in body building, you can measure volume in a few different. Ways. So one popular way of doing that is simply multiplying the weight that you use for an exercise by the sets that you do and the reps that you do, and that’s referred to as volume load.
So let’s say you do three sets of five reps of squats with three 15, your volume load would be 4,725 pounds, three times five times three 15. So that would be your volume load for that. In that workout. And then if you moved on to the leg press, you would calculate that and you would add that to the volume load of the first exercise of the squats.
And then let’s say you moved on to some hamstring curls and you’d calculate that, and then you could sum them up and calculate your volume load for the whole workout and that formula. Is fun because it produces big, impressive numbers, right? And those can be neat to track. But changes in volume load don’t correlate well with muscle hypertrophy, muscle growth, or strength gain, unfortunately.
So volume load is what I, as a marketer or a business owner, what I might call a vanity metric, it’s something that makes you feel good, but it doesn’t really help you understand. If the underlying performance is where it needs to be, if you are moving toward the goal that you’re trying to accomplish, and of course then that can lead to bad decisions.
That can lead to decisions that make the numbers look better, but that don’t actually sell more product. For example, in the case of business or grow the business faster, or in the case of weightlifting, help you get bigger or stronger. So to give you an example of this, let’s say you switched from doing your three sets of five reps on the squat with three 15 and you started doing three sets of 12 with 185 pounds.
That bumps up your volume load quite a bit. You are now up to 6,660 pounds. You are squatting a Range Rover. That’s a 40% increase. And those sets will be pretty hard too. If you go fiddle around with a one rep max calculator like you can find [email protected] Go to learn in the menu and then tools, you’ll see that if you can squat, let’s say three 15 for seven, right?
Cause if you’re doing sets of five in your training, you’re probably. Leaving at least one or two reps in reserve, reps in the tank, you’re not going to absolute failure in each set. At least you shouldn’t be. And so let’s say you can squat three 15 for seven. If you go play around with a one rep max calculator, that also gives you estimated reps for different percentages of your one rep max, You’ll see that if you’re doing sets of 12, 180 5 is gonna be.
Pretty hard. That is not going to be as easy as it may sound. If you’re someone who can squat three 15 for five and you haven’t done higher rep stuff, if you’ve never gone above eight reps in a while, 180 5 may sound way too easy, but. Go try doing a set of 12 with 180 5 if you normally squat through 15 for five.
And you may be surprised. So my point was saying that is your volume load has gone way up and those sets are hard. Those are not warmup sets, right? Research shows, several studies show though that change is not likely produce more muscle growth and will probably result in less strength gain.
So going from the lower volume. Three by five with three 15. By going from that to the three by 12 with 180 5, a 40% increase in volume load, it will probably not help you gain muscle faster and will probably result in less strength gain. And the reason for this is that any. Set any weight lifting set, taken close to failure in the range of, let’s say six to 20 reps or so, will produce about the same amount of muscle gain.
So a set of six taken to within a rep or so let’s say, of muscular failure will produce similar. Results in terms of muscle growth as a set of 20 reps taken to within a rep or two of failure. And so what that means is that wildly different volume loads can produce more or less the same amount of muscle gain.
So how are you supposed to use those numbers to optimize your muscle growth? How are you supposed to try to play around with your volume load to find that Goldilocks zone? It just doesn’t work like that. You can’t. Now another way to track your training volume is total reps, but that’s flawed for the same reason.
Because let’s take the example I just gave you, three by five. That’s of course 15 reps. That’s 60% fewer reps than three by 12. 36 reps. Yet studies show that both of those approaches, both of those scenarios are likely produced about the same amount of muscle growth. So with that being true, then how are you supposed to optimize your training for maximum muscle gain and maximum strength gain when you’re only looking at total reps, when you can have a scenario where 60% fewer reps produces just as much muscle growth as the larger.
So then what is the best way, what is the most productive way to track your volume, to think about your volume? It is hard sets, and those are sets that are taken to within, let’s say one to three reps of muscular failures or pretty close to failure. Hard, they’re hard sets. However, there. Caveats that I’m gonna share with you in a few minutes.
But as a general rule, tracking the number of hard sets that you do, and you can look at that in terms of individual muscle groups in individual workouts. You can look at it in terms of muscle groups per week. You can look at in terms of individual exercises, depending on your programming, depending on your goals.
But that is, The generally most productive way to track your volume, to plan your volume, to think about training volume. All right, so now let’s talk about intensity, and then we will talk about intensity versus volume and get into some practical programming tips. What is intensity? This is how hard you’re training.
So whereas volume is the total amount of work that you’re doing, this is, that’s like a quantitative thing, right? You could think of intensity as a bit more of a qualitative aspect in weightlifting and strength training. You can measure intensity in a few different ways. One of the simplest and most useful ways to express how hard you are working in sets is to use a simple system known as reps in reserve, which is how many more reps you could have done in a set before failure.
That number is your reps in. Reserve. And just to be clear, when I say failure, no more good reps left. Maybe you could get one more rep of something that doesn’t even look like the exercise anymore. But certainly no more reps left with good form. So then if we think of a set of an exercise in the context of reps in reserve, what we are looking at is how.
Reps we could have done, but we didn’t do. And how close to that limit did we end the set? And what’s nice about this system is it’s very intuitive. It is how we naturally think about and how we naturally express the intensity of our training. If, for example, we just wrap up a real tough set of squats or deadlifts or bench press, one of the bigger exercises, it was a grinder, right?
We would say, holy. Fish sticks, maybe something else. But I’m gonna keep the show family friendly. That was hard. I could do maybe one more rep, maybe. And if we were to translate that into reps in reserve, you would say, Oh, it was a zero to one r i r. It was a zero to one reps in reserve. And if you wanna start implementing this immediately in your training, and I would recommend that you do, I actually posted a podcast on this a couple of weeks.
On why you should start tracking your reps in reserve. Go back and listen to that podcast if you haven’t. But if you wanna start using this simple little system, all you have to do is as you approach the end of a set, as it’s starting to get hard, you just ask yourself, if I. Absolutely had to. How many more reps could I have gotten with good form?
How many good reps do I have left or could I have gotten left? If you just racked the bar and if you have any weightlifting experience, your intuitive answer is going to be. Pretty accurate. This has been shown in research, and if you’re brand new, just get into the habit of it, and as you get better at weightlifting, your r estimates are going to get better as well.
So how can you use this to help you build muscle? How does this relate to regulating training intensity in a productive way? By taking note of your reps and reserve at the end of each set, you can ensure that you’re using heavy enough weights to maximize. Muscle growth. Now, scientists are still debating and researchers and experts are debating how close you should train to failure and how often you should do that, and on which exercises you should do that.
But what we do know is that if you end most of your sets, 1, 2, 3 reps short of failure. You are getting most of the muscle building stimulus that’s available. Most of the potential muscle building stimulus of the training. And if we look at that in terms of reps and reserve, so one rep shy of failure would be zero reps in reserve, right?
Cause you’re saying next rep, I fail. I have zero good reps left. Now if you are three reps, shy of failure, that is two reps in reserve. So what you’re saying is, I think I could have gotten two more reps and then I would’ve failed. So that is three reps Shy of failure, right? One good. Two, good. Three fail.
Okay, so that’s it for reps and reserve. And again, if you wanna learn more about that system, go check out the podcast I posted recently all about tracking reps and reserve. Now two other ways to measure weightlifting intensity that you should know about are percentage of one rep max. So maybe if you are following a program like My Beyond Bigger Leader, Stronger Program, it’s going to tell you.
85% of one rep max on the bar and do sets of four, for example. So that’s percentage of one rep max. And then we have rpe rating of perceived exertion, which is a numerical measurement of how hard an exercise feels similar to reps in reserve. There are different RPE scales out there. The. Simplest one.
The most useful one for weightlifting ranges from one to 10, and it was designed for measuring intensity and endurance exercise. And RPE scales are probably still best for that. I prefer reps in reserve, which is a proxy for rpe. Basically, I prefer that for weightlifting. And so that’s it for intensity, at least for the preamble on intensity.
So now let’s talk about volume versus intensity, which is better for. Growth and the answer is neither. You need both. Many people make the mistake of thinking that building muscle is all about how much muscle you lift, or all about how many sets or reps or volume load you can get away with. You can cram into your workouts and your weeks and your individual muscle groups, but both of those approaches.
Wrong headed. And my understanding of this has evolved over the years because I was all about intensity. Early on when I published the first edition of Bigger, Leaner, Stronger back in 2012 I didn’t. Completely neglect volume, but I did think that intensity was more important, that the amount of weight that you’re putting on the bar was ultimately more important for building muscle or far more important for building muscle than the number of sets that you’re doing or the number of reps or volume load or any other.
Method of calculating volume and my understanding has evolved over the years. And fortunately, I got enough right with that first edition of Bigger, Leaner, Stronger, and the programming was solid enough to help a lot of people gain a lot of muscle and strength. But I am currently wrapping up what will be a fourth edition of Bigger, Leaner, Stronger, and Thinni Lean Stronger.
Another rewrite from scratch as I am want to do. And while the programming hasn’t changed all that much over the years, I do think it has gotten better. But fundamentally, bigger, lean, stronger and thin or stronger are still push pull legs, strength through teens with some body building work thrown into the mix.
The theoretical explanations about why the programs are set up the way they are, have changed a bit and have become more accurate. As research has continued and as people who know more about this stuff than I do have made that research accessible and understandable. So then let’s talk about why you need both volume and intensity.
And for that, I’m gonna quote a buddy of mine, Eric Helms. He said, Muscle growth occurs due to cumulative tension stimulus over time. So in other words, you build muscle by contracting those muscles at a sufficient intensity for a sufficient duration. Over time and the process of increasing the amount of tension that your muscles are exposed to, that they are generating overtime is known as progressive overload.
And you can increase that tension stimulus in two ways. You can increase the amount of tension produced in each rep by lifting heavier weights. So that is where intensity helps. And you can extend the amount of time that your muscles are exposed to tension by doing more sets or. Reps, and so that’s where volume comes into the picture.
Now, with the first option with heavier weights, you are forcing your muscles to produce very high amounts of tension, right? They have to contract very hard, but for relatively brief period of times. Now, with the volume approach, you are using lighter weights if you’re doing more reps, for example, and that doesn’t mean that those sets are easier.
In fact, they may even feel harder, but you have lighter weights for. Reps and that forces your muscle to contract moderately hard, not as hard as the heavy weights, but still hard or the heavier weights for a longer period of time. Now, if you just go for more sets, let’s say the weight doesn’t change, but you just do more hard sets.
Per week for that exercise or maybe for the muscle group, then you haven’t changed the maximum amount of muscle contraction that’s occurring in your training, right? You haven’t increased the weight, which would then cause your muscles to contract even harder. You haven’t decreased the weight. Which would cause them to contract less hard.
You are keeping the maximum level of contraction the same. You are just contracting them more because you are doing more sets. And as I mentioned earlier in this podcast, research shows that. Emphasizing intensity works fine in your training. You can gain muscle that way. Emphasizing volume works fine as well.
You can gain just as much muscle that way so long as you are working hard in those sets. Again, that’s why research shows that if you take your sets, Close to muscle failure, let’s say within one to three reps or so of failure. Then anything in the range of probably six to 20 reps is going to produce about the same amount of muscle growth.
And let’s just go through a simple example to illustrate that. So let’s say you are squatting 225 pounds for five reps and the. Muscles in your lower body have to work hard. That’s one rep shy of failure, let’s say, is you’re like redlining to get those five reps. But that set lasts, I don’t know, 15 seconds or so.
Now, what if we were to bring the weight down and let’s say it were 185 pounds and you could do 10 reps. That math, those numbers may not be perfect, but let’s just say that’s what it was. Right now, your lower body muscles, they don’t have to contract quite as hard on any individual. Rep when you’re doing the sets of 10 with the lighter weight, but they’re now under tension for a longer period of time, let’s say twice as long, and that then results in more or less the same amount of total tension as the 2 25 for five.
Therefore, technically, Volume is the primary driver of muscle growth because it’s the volume of tension over time that makes your muscles bigger. That is what we are trying to accomplish with progressive tension overload, is increasing the total tension in our muscles. Over time. Okay, so let’s summarize quickly what we’ve learned here.
We’ve learned that we want to be taking our sets fairly close to failure. One to three good reps left is a good target. You’re gonna want to have maybe two reps left in general on your compound exercises, and you can push closer two or three in your compounds. And then you can push closer to failure in your isolation exercises, your accessory exercises, because it is safer that way.
And if you don’t push yourself hard enough in your. Then you’re just not going to generate enough tension to stimulate muscle growth. We’ve also learned that you have to use sufficiently heavy. Weights. So I’ve been mentioning this rep range of six to 20 reps. Research shows that while untrained people can get away with very lightweights, 30, 40% of one rep max and they can gain muscle with that.
As you become bigger and stronger, the amount of weight that you need to use in terms of. Percentage of one rep max two get an adequate training stimulus to continue getting bigger and stronger goes up. So research shows that in people who have at least a few months of good weight lifting under their belt, the weights really should be no lighter than probably about 60% of one rep max.
And most people will probably find that they can do 15, maybe 16 reps with 60%. And then we have this point of doing. Are sets in the range of six to 20 reps and 20 is high. I’m gonna talk a bit more about this in a minute, but that’s a good evidence based range for gaining muscle. If you do more reps than 20, you’re probably gonna have to use weights that are just so light that they just.
They don’t generate enough tension in your muscles to move the needle, and if you are doing a lot of your training in the, let’s say, 1, 2, 3 rep range, you’re not really ever going above six reps. You are going to be significantly reducing the amount of time that your muscles are forced. To produce tension, and that is probably gonna slow down your progress as well.
Now let’s talk a little bit more about that, because many people know that the best way to continue getting bigger as a natural weight lifter is to continue getting stronger. You have to see your one rep maxes on your big exercises going up. You have to see your whole body strength going up over time to continue gaining muscle.
And so they figure maybe I should just train like a power lifter, right? The more weight I can lift, the bigger I’ll be. Power lifters are stronger than bodybuilders. I’ll just do that. And the problem with that line of thinking is it’s putting the cart before the horse. Getting stronger is not what causes muscle growth.
Muscle growth causes strength gain because bigger muscles are stronger muscles. So as you get bigger, That should eventually result in your strength going up, but you can’t get so hung up on chasing strength that you neglect volume, which is needed to cause hypertrophy, which is then needed to increase your strength if you only use really heavy weights.
Let’s say most of your training is ones, twos, threes the occasional four, but mostly heavy stuff. If you were to do a lot of fours and fives and sixes, now you’re getting into. The more effective range, the range that is probably just as effective as doing a lot of sixes or eights or tens because with fours, fives, and sixes, if it’s a, if it’s a mix of those, like in bigger lean or stronger, for example, you actually do rack up enough tension to gain considerable amounts of muscle.
And strength. But again, if all you do is the lower rep ranges or the majority of your training is ones two, three is the occasional four, you are, again, you are going to force your muscle to contract very hard for short periods of time, and you can’t. Make up for that by just doing more sets. You might be thinking, Okay, if it’s a, if it’s a lot of tension, it’s a brief period of time, why don’t I just do two or three times the hard sets and I can try to split them up across.
Five, six training days. And if I do that, then I can rack up enough total tension to equal the amount of total tension that I would get out of higher rep training. That is not a bad line of thinking, but it’s not practical because your body won’t be able to do it. Your joints are going to fall apart.
It’s just not possible, unfortunately. So what do we do then? We use weights that are sufficiently heavy to generate high levels of tension, and that allow us to do enough volume to cause our muscles to grow, which, for example, in the case of an intermediate or advanced weightlifter, maybe as high as 15 to 20 hard sets for an individual muscle group per week.
So let’s say you have someone like me who’s been lifting for a long time and doesn’t have much muscle, Strength left to gain if I wanna put some muscle onto my biceps. If I wanted to specialize, let’s say, do a specialization routine for my arms, where I’m gonna do a lot of arm volume and I’m just gonna cut down volume in other places simply because I don’t wanna sit in the gym for two hours a day.
And it also, of course, helps a little bit with recovery. An arm specialization though is not nearly as difficult as a lower body, but let’s say it’s an arm specialization. And that means that I’ll have to use weights that are heavy enough to be effective, but not so heavy that I simply can’t do that amount of volume for more than, let’s say, a couple of weeks before my wrists start hurting or my elbows start hurting.
For example, if all I were going to do is. Fours on all of the exercises, all the different curls and all the triceps exercises. I’m just gonna do fours heavy weights. I wouldn’t be able to do that. My joints wouldn’t be able to do that for more than a couple of weeks. So what I would do is I would periodize that training, which I don’t wanna get into in this podcast.
I’ve recorded a podcast all about periodization. It was actually taken from my book Beyond Bigger Leaders, Stronger. So you. That out, you can check out an article on periodization of legion athletics.com. But what I would end up doing is I would do some fours, but then I also would probably do some eights and I would do some tens.
And again I don’t wanna get into the details of how I would set that up, but one of the reasons for doing that is that would allow me to. Get in the volume I need to get in. And then research shows that approach probably is going to be more effective for building muscle over time than just doing, let’s say eights or tens, which I could get away with.
Those are not as hard on your joints, obviously, as the heavier sets and all of what I just explained there is even more applicable with the bigger muscle groups, the muscle groups that have to handle the larger loads. The more difficult exercises, let’s say lower body, for example, you wanna do a lower body specialization routine, you wanna do 15 to 20 hard sets for your lower body each week.
You are not going to be able to do that training just like a power lifter or a strength athlete doing sets of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, maybe on the squat with very heavy weights. You simply won’t be able to do it. It’s gonna wreck you. But if you were to periodize your training, if you were to do some heavy squatting, let’s say one day, and then do some lighter squatting or maybe some lighter accessory exercises on another day, and then maybe you do some moderately heavy work on another day, that can work quite well.
If you like what I’m doing here on the podcast and elsewhere, definitely check out my sports nutrition company Legion, which thanks to the support of many people like you, is the leading brand of all natural sports supplements in the world. So anyway, getting back on track here, you get stronger by getting bigger.
That’s the bottom line, and that is especially true when you are no longer a newbie. When you are just starting out, you can gain a fair amount of strength without gaining much muscle because you’re learning the exercises, you’re getting better at the exercises. No neuromuscular things are happening, but after the first maybe six months or so, most of those adaptations.
Are as good as they are going to be. You’re going to gain most of your skill and the exercises in your first six months or so. And after that, if you want to keep getting stronger, you have to keep getting bigger. And to keep getting bigger, you have to make sure that you are generating enough total tension in your muscles and that is going up over time.
That’s the overload aspect, right? So as you progressively. Overload your muscles with larger amounts of tension. Of course, we’re talking about a very gradual increase over time. But if you do that, then your muscles respond by getting bigger. And then those bigger muscles can they, you could look at it as they have more potential for strength.
You can now express that strength by, let’s say, being able to lift more. On an exercise at the same number of reps and reps in reserve. So if you start a training block at 2 25 for five with one rep in reserve on whatever exercise, let’s say it’s a bench press, and then you end that training block at two 30 or 2 35 for five, one rep in reserve, you have gotten stronger.
Or you may notice that the end of a training block 2 25, now feels lighter. Instead of one rep in reserve, you have three. Ah, you’ve gotten stronger. So then why do we have to keep adding weight to the bar over time? Why is that strength gain correlated with the ability to continue gaining muscle? One reason is to ensure that we are still taking our sets close enough to failure.
Because we need to do that to maximize tension in each workout. So we have to maintain the effectiveness of each set in terms of building muscle. If we just use the same amount of weight, we will get strong enough to where that weight is just not that difficult anymore. We may be ending our last, our final sets on an exercise with 3, 4, 5, 6 reps in reserve.
That’s. Hard enough to generate a large enough training response. We need to be ending those sets a bit closer to failure. How do we do that? Add weight to the bar. We also want to improve our ability to move those heavy loads, which then of course allows us to rack up more tension more easily during our workouts.
Again, we’re looking for that sweet spot where the weight is heavy enough to cause our muscles to. Hard but not so heavy that we can only do maybe one or two or three reps. We wanna be able to do enough reps in each set to rack up enough tension. And we also want to be adding weight to the bar. We want to see our one rms going up to gauge how well our program is working if our one rms of our whole body strength.
Has not gone up for a while. It is a sign that the program may not be providing enough tension to drive the muscle growth that then allows us to add weight to the bar. So that’d be under training. Maybe it’s providing too much. Maybe it’s trying to get you to do too much and you are not fully recovering, so you are overreaching.
Or it may be a recovery issue. Maybe your programming is good and you are not sleeping enough. For example. That alone can. Halt progress in its tracks. And so those are the primary reasons why, again, we need to be seeing weights going up over time. Now, I wanna finish by talking a bit about volume, because I have commented on this a little bit.
But I think it deserves its own treatment because if you look in muscle magazines or you look around online, you can find a lot of workouts that call for a lot of sets, lightweights, high reps. And often the justification, the rationale for that style of training is that’s how you rack up a ton of tension.
You bomb and you blast each muscle in each workout. And the problem with that is it neglects the qualitative. Element of tension. So if the weights that you’re using are too light, they will not produce enough tension to stimulate in appreciable amount of muscle growth, even if you do a lot of reps, unfortunately.
As an extreme example here, you have a professional cyclist, right? They may do 30,000. Pedal strokes, 30,000 reps during a long workout, and that produces way more total tension in their muscles than any body building workout you could ever imagine. But is that ideal for building big legs? No, of course not.
Many professional cyclists, of course, they have big legs, but is that the best way to build big legs? No, because the degree of tension produced by each pedal stroke is too small to stimulate. Muscle growth. Now, the same principle holds true for very high rep weight training. It really just doesn’t count toward your tension in the same way that the heavier weight lifting does a couple of other problems with very high rep, low intensity training, or it’s very time consuming.
So if you train with 40, 50, or 60% percent of your one rep max, you’re gonna be doing 35, 25 or 15 reps set. And that takes a lot of time. You’re gonna be resting a lot in between sets If you’re doing that on compound exercises. And if you don’t have the cardio to do it, your recovery, your intra set recovery is going to suffer.
And another problem is that type of training sucks. Who likes to train like that? Go do a set of just 10. On the squat with, let’s say, one to two reps in reserve. So one to two reps shy of failure. That is hard. Now do a set of 21 to two reps shy of failure and ask if you ever wanna do it again. , for example, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that although people doing three sets of 25 to 35 reps per set gained just as much muscle as people doing three sets.
- They rated their workouts as far more uncomfortable and often threw up during their workouts. , no pain, no gain. Finally, another issue with very high upsets is on certain exercises, the most important ones, like the squat, the bench press, the deadlift. That can be dangerous because your form starts to fail as you get more fatigued and you get very fatigued when you’re doing anything over 10 reps really on a squat.
A deadlift, a bench press, and the squat in the deadlift are. More of, there’s more potential for injury there. Of course, when you are exceeding 10 reps, like I for example, would never recommend a set of 20 reps on the deadlift unless the person is very skilled and they’re probably a competitive strength athlete.
They know what they’re doing. But for, and I don’t do that myself, I don’t do more than 10 reps on any exercise or on any compound exercise. Again, I follow my beyond bigger leader, stronger program. On the compound exercises you start a training block with sets of 10, and then you progress as you move through a training block into some very heavy stuff.
Sets of two, for example, with 95%. And then on accessory exercises you start with sets of 10 to 12, and then you move down to six to eight. I also do some four to six on accessories as well. If I do another update to beyond a bigger leaders stronger, I may work some of that in, I may actually bring the accessories down to four to six, but I’m happy with where it’s at and I generally follow exactly what’s in the book.
I haven’t needed to change much cuz I was on that program. I followed that programming for about a year before releasing the book. Tweaked a lot of things, had people doing it with. And so anyway, my point with this volume tangent is yes, volume is important, but you don’t wanna do so much volume that you can’t train with heavy enough weights.
Okay, So let’s summarize now the key takeaways in this episode. If you’re still listening, thank you. If you are, where does all of this leave us? What are the current best evidence based guidelines for. Programming our training in light of everything we’ve just discussed here they are. So do 10 to 20 hard sets per major mouse group per week.
If you’re new, you can be closer to 10. If you are intermediate or advanced, you probably need to be in the middle. You wanna be doing probably no. Fewer than 12 hard sets for any individual muscle group per week. And if you wanna progress, you’re probably gonna have to be closer to 15 to 16 or so, at least in your bigger muscle groups.
And if you want to really blast a muscle group, if you want to do a specialization routine, you can push it probably as high as 20 but do not try to do 20 hard sets for. All of your major muscle groups per week, that is going to be very difficult. It’s gonna require probably a couple of hours in the gym every day, and you may be able to get away with that.
If you are in your twenties and you are invincible, essentially you are on natural steroids. But even then I work with a 20. Something year old who did 20 to 25 hard sets per major muscle group per week. He was doing two a days. He was eating 5,000 calories a day. He was eating a thousand grams of carbohydrate per day, keeping his fat under 80 grams per day.
He went all in and again in his twenties. Perfect health. He was able to do that for I think, six weeks. And then he had to call it off. He wanted to do eight weeks, but he had to call it off after six because everything in his body hurt so much that he he chalked it up as an interesting experiment.
So generally though, 12 to maybe 16 hard sets per major mouse group per week. And if you want to really push one muscle group it could be your arms, it could be your shoulders, it could be your lower body, it could be your back. You can go up till, let’s say 20 ish, but you’re probably gonna have to go down elsewhere to make time to make the time to, to get up to what you need to be for your target muscle group and to allow yourself to recover.
So 10 20 hard sets per major muscle group per week. Use weights that are heavy in the range of, let’s say 60 to 95% of everyone, rep max. That’s between two and 15 reps, and exactly how that should Play out in your training is again, a whole nother discussion, but I do recommend checking out my book Beyond Bigger Leaders, Stronger if you want to know about that, because I talk about puritization in detail and you see exactly how I periodize my training and I, I share.
A couple of other principles that you can use to periodize your training. You could just follow the program, but you also learn the first principles. You learn why I set the program up the way that I did, and then you can just use that information to create your own programming. And the last point here is to take all of your hard sets to one to three reps shy.
Of failure. So that is zero reps in reserve. If you’re one rep shy of failure or two reps in reserve, two good reps left if you are three reps. Shy of failure. And one final point actually that I think will be useful to you regarding periodization if you don’t want to check out beyond bigger or stronger, or.
The podcast or article that I put out on Puritization a good rule of thumb that comes from Eric Helms is do most, let’s say two thirds to three quarters of your total sets in the six to 12 rep range, and then the remaining sets in the one to six and maybe the 12 to 15 as well. So you’re doing most of your training in that sweet spot of six to 12, and you also are doing some heavier work as well as some lighter work.
I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful, and if you did subscribe to the show because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you.
And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you have. Ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share. Shoot me an email, mike muscle for life.com, muscle f or life.com and let me know what I could do better or just what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.
I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you.
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