The New Approach to Training Volume

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What you’re getting yourself into:

~3500 words

12-24 minute read time

Key Points

1. Studies across a variety of populations have demonstrated that muscles grow in a very broad variety of rep ranges.

2. When training protocols are matched for number of sets, even with very different training volumes, they generally result in similar levels of muscle growth.

3. Gains in strength and muscular endurance are still very much tied to the rep range used.

4. At least when talking about hypertrophy-based training, it’s more useful to think of “training volume” as “total number of hard sets per muscle” than “sets x reps x load.”

Mr. Universe bodybuilding
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Greg’s Note:

I’m really glad Nathan wrote this article – this is a subject we’ve been chatting about for quite some time now, and this article agrees strongly with my own thoughts on the matter.  There are some major drawbacks to the way people usually calculate training volume (sets x reps x weight):

1) Inherently heavier exercises seem necessarily better than lighter ones (i.e. you can accumulate more volume doing leg press than you could squatting, and more squatting than you could front squatting).

2) Training with a lower percentage of your 1rm almost always seems superior to training with a higher percentage (3×10 with a challenging load will mean a lot more volume than 3×3 with a challenging load).

Simply counting hard sets is a much simpler way of accomplishing the same purpose, without unnecessarily biasing some exercises or loading schemes over others.  For strength + size, it’s a simple issue of the number of heavy (80-85ish%+) sets you do, for size + muscular endurance, it’s a matter of the number of relatively light (65% and below) sets you do, and for a blend of the two, it’s just about the number of hard sets you do in the intermediate intensity range.

Enter Nathan

Disclaimer: I’d like to start this article with a disclaimer. What I have written about here are the patterns I have personally seen both in recent strength training literature and in real world strength training. However, I am by no means the most knowledgeable person about physiology or research interpretation, nor am I especially strong or experienced compared to many competitive strength athletes. The patterns I see also seem to be a little bit at odds with what many very smart, very educated people in the strength world seem to see, so it’s possible I am incredibly, horribly wrong about all this. I don’t believe I am, or I wouldn’t be writing this article, but it would be arrogant to not have some doubts. The following is probably best considered as a potentially flawed, but useful model.

Introduction

For as long as I’ve been lifting, I’ve heard the recommendation that 1-5 reps is for building strength, 8-12 reps is for increasing muscle size, and 15-20 reps is for increasing muscular endurance. Several variations on this theme exist.

The concepts of myofibrillar hypertrophy and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, usually used to explain strength and size differences between strength athletes and bodybuilders, say that the heavier weights build actual contractile proteins in muscles (myofibrillar hypertrophy), and higher rep ranges (8-12) create more of a focus on increasing sarcoplasm, or the fluid, in muscles. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, however, is completely unsupported by any sort of scientific literature (unless Supertraining counts as scientific literature or you count transient increases in fluid as hypertrophy), and strength differences are much more easily explained through other ideas the evidence actually supports.

The American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations for hypertrophy are that novice trainees perform 8-12RM for 1-3 sets per body part, resting for 1-2 minutes and training 2-3 times/week; whereas, advanced trainees are directed to use 70%-100% of their 1RM for 3-6 sets, with varying rest periods depending on goals, and a 4-6 days/week frequency.(1) Strength training recommendations are similar. However, research over the last few years (and decades of successful methods seen in strength athletes and bodybuilders through time) has demonstrated that while these recommendations likely work, they are only a small part of the total picture.

More recently, Fisher et al wrote a position stand that recommended maximal intensity of effort (lifting to momentary muscular failure) for each set, using a load and frequency that corresponds to the trainee’s goals, and performing a single set per exercise.(2)

Finally, Brad Schoenfeld, my current favorite exercise researcher, published a meta-analysis (a paper that combines the results of multiple studies to find larger patterns in the literature) on the effects of different rep ranges on strength and hypertrophy. The meta analysis compared low loads (<60% 1RM) to high loads (>65% 1RM) and found that there was a greater effect size for hypertrophy in the high loads than the low loads, and that strength improvements were much higher in the high load groups.(3) However, a closer examination of the included studies shows that 6 of the 8 studies examining hypertrophy had the high load groups performing more sets than the low load groups. If you’ve kept up with Strengtheory at all, then you probably know that more sets stimulates more strength and size gains, so this is an obvious confounding variable.

The Size Principle

Before we can dig into the real meat of the subject, it’s important to understand some basic physiology of muscle recruitment. During any set in which you lift a weight to failure, your nervous system will first recruit small/slow motor units and then begin to recruit larger and faster motor units until the force demands are met (or cannot be met).(4) For example (and I’m just making these numbers up to facilitate understanding of the concept), let’s say I can curl a 50 lb. dumbbell 10 times. During the first 3 reps, I might only be using small/slow motor units and muscle fibers. By the 6th rep, the smaller fibers have fatigued a little and can no longer produce enough force to move the weight, and I begin recruiting larger muscle fibers. By the 10th rep, all the muscle fibers in my biceps have been recruited and have experienced enough fatigue that they can no longer produce enough force to move the weight, and I fail the 11th rep. The size principle is more complex than this in actual practice, but this explains the basic concept.

Now, what happens if instead of a 50 lb. dumbbell, I pick up a 25 lb. dumbbell and lift to failure at 20 reps? The exact same pattern repeats. The same basic thing also happens if I pick up a 75 lb. dumbbell and lift to failure at 3 reps. As far as the muscle knows, the same thing has happened each time: All the muscle fibers were recruited and eventually something happened to make them less able to produce force.

Now, there is some recent EMG evidence that calls into doubt whether the biggest/fastest motor units are recruited during high rep sets to failure in trained lifters, but there are several possible explanations for the lower EMG readings with low loads,(5) and the size principle has thus far stood the test of time. It could be that while the largest fibers were indeed recruited during low load lifting to failure, less fibers were being recruited simultaneously, so the peak EMG was lower. It could also be that trained lifters who have been lifting in a certain rep range for a long time are able to put forth more effort in that rep range (typically a heavier load), and if they had trained for a few weeks with the lighter load, they would have learned to put forth equivalent effort.

What causes the muscles to fatigue?

Fatigue during resistance training is still a very slippery concept. However, we do know that when a muscle contracts, metabolic byproducts are created. In addition, during a contraction or any time a muscle is under tension, blood flow to and from the muscle is restricted, and the metabolites are cleared more slowly. When the metabolite production is greater than the cardiovascular system’s ability to remove them, the concentration increases and begins to interfere with muscle contraction. It is also likely that they stimulate the sensation of pain, and your brain might take that pain and decide to put less effort into motor unit recruitment. Whatever is happening is almost certainly a combination of effects at the muscle and the central nervous system.

This concept is probably best exemplified by a technique called blood flow restriction training. In it, a tourniquet is applied to a limb in order to reduce blood flow for the duration of a set. Significantly less weight and fewer reps can be done with this method, but it has been shown to produce the same muscle growth as heavier weights without blood flow restriction.(6)

So why is this concept important? Because, at least at this point, it seems as if muscle fibers must be recruited and experience at least some fatigue in order to grow larger. Something about the fatiguing process signals hypertrophy to begin. I like to envision each instance of fatigue as stimulating a small amount of hypertrophy, so multiple instances of fatigue – multiple sets to failure – builds up a large amount of hypertrophy stimulation.

Effect of Different Rep Ranges on Hypertrophy

Now that we have an understanding of some general background information, we can examine the effects of different rep ranges on muscle growth.

First, we need to find studies that control for the effort per set so that we don’t have a group doing sets only halfway to failure (and thus not recruiting and fatiguing all available fibers) versus a group doing sets all the way to failure.

Next, we need studies that control for training volume (weight x reps) or number of sets. If one study has a group do a single set to failure and another group doing 10 sets to failure, we won’t be able to tell if differences in strength and hypertrophy are due to the rep ranges used or due to the difference in number of sets.

Luckily, we have a decent number of studies available that have done what we need. I’ve summarized the results in the following table. All sets in all of these studies were performed to failure.

Studies examining rep ranges and their effects on hypertrophy, strength, and endurance.

Digging into these studies, several patterns appear.  In the Campos study, the light loads did not produce as much (if any) hypertrophy as the heavier loads. However, the light load group also did fewer sets than the groups with heavier loads in an attempt to match volume-load. Assuming the loads don’t make a difference (possibly a dangerous assumption, but safer when the whole body of literature is considered), this seems to indicate that number of sets might be what determines hypertrophy. However, in the Schoenfeld 2014 study, one group did exercises for 3 sets of ~10 reps and the other group did exercises for 7 sets of ~3 reps (again, matching volume-load). If number of sets is what matters, the 7×3 group should have had more hypertrophy, but they didn’t. Digging deeper, though, the lighter load group actually did 9 sets to failure per week per body part, and the heavier group did 21 sets to failure per body part per week. When the total number of sets that stimulated each muscle are taken into account, it seems possible that 9 sets to failure per week or less may have stimulated the maximum amount of hypertrophy in this specific training population, and the additional 18 sets per week done by the heavier group contributed little if anything to extra hypertrophy.

The Van Roie study also used volume-load rather than number of sets, but saw no differences in hypertrophy.

The rest of the studies generally matched the number of sets between groups, and they help to fill out the pattern: Different rep ranges seem to have the exact same effect on hypertrophy. Not only that, but these studies represent untrained, well trained, and even elderly populations, so the similarities in hypertrophy hold true wherever we look.

The next pattern that appears is that heavier weights make the participants better at lifting heavier weights, and lighter weights make the participants better at lifting lighter weights, even though muscle growth is the same. This could be due to a variety of factors that as of yet are unexplored in the literature: neural adaptations to specific loads, fiber type specific hypertrophy, aerobic/anaerobic adaptations in muscle fibers, and so on. I personally lean toward the effect being mostly neural in nature, with actual differences in muscle adaptation being minimal, but that’s abject speculation on my part and it remains to be seen what the real answer is. I’ll believe that lighter loads preferentially stimulate type I fiber hypertrophy when I see actual measurements of individual fibers like in the Campos study. There are a couple of studies looking at muscle fiber types in drug-free competitive weightlifters(15) and powerlifters,(16) and the fiber type ratios are very similar. A few more studies have looked at bodybuilder fiber types and found a very high ratio of type I fibers,(17,18) but they were done on high-level, untested competitors and had exceedingly small sample sizes, so the likely drug use and other factors such as different muscle groups in the different studies make it difficult to draw conclusions. In addition, none of the studies examining fiber types are training studies, so the actual effect of certain rep ranges on the fiber types would be impossible to know anyway.

The third pattern that emerges, at least to me (and this is mostly based off studies not included in the table) is that a higher number of sets increases the effects on strength and hypertrophy.(19) In the Campos study, for example, the two heavier groups did more sets than the lighter group because they attempted to control for volume-load, and there was no hypertrophy seen in the lighter group. However, in several of the other studies, we can see that the lighter loads do actually stimulate hypertrophy when more sets are done.

Main Takeaways

So what does this all mean? I believe there are several main principles that can be derived from these patterns.

  1. From the size principle, we know that sets must be high effort to recruit and fatigue all fibers. We don’t know the exact threshold for the effort needed to stimulate hypertrophy, and there are plenty of people who experience considerable muscle growth never lifting to failure, but generally it’s probably necessary to push sets within a few reps of failure.
  2. Rep range does not matter for hypertrophy (at least up to 30 reps/set for trained lifters and 100 reps/set for untrained old people), so long as the effort per set is equal. Muscles seem to grow the same whether you lift 3 reps to failure or 100 reps to failure. It remains to be seen whether muscles grow the same with something like 70% effort matched between groups rather than lifting to failure, but I believe they would.
  3. Strength increases are highly specific to the rep ranges used. If you want to get better at one-rep max attempts, you need to lift loads that are close to that. If you want to get better at high reps, you need to lift lighter loads. You can likely get better at both by doing both rep ranges. Think of the strength increases as studying specific material for an exam.
  4. Doing more sets or volume (it’s still a little unclear which better predicts gains, although I lean toward more sets) gives you more results.

With this information, it’s easy to answer a question from earlier in this article: Why is there a strength and size difference between strength athletes and bodybuilders? The answer to the strength difference lies in the rep ranges used. Strength athletes generally include heavier rep ranges, and many bodybuilders stay in a less injury-prone rep range. However, many bodybuilders compete successfully in powerlifting by adding in heavier work.

The size difference is a little trickier; I do not actually believe there is a muscle size difference between bodybuilders and strength athletes at similar levels. The difference is an illusion caused by different levels of body fat and a focus on muscles that primarily enhance aesthetics versus muscles that enhance strength. Muscles that both groups work hard, such as legs, back, and chest (I’m generalizing in order to get the concept across) should be similar in size.

To put it more simply, strength training is bodybuilding, and bodybuilding is strength training for whatever rep range you are using.

Holes In This Boat

There are a few concepts that the literature has yet to examine satisfactorily. The first, as mentioned earlier, is what causes the strength adaptations to specific rep ranges. Do type I fibers get stimulated more with high rep ranges? Do more aerobic adaptations occur with higher rep ranges? Is the difference entirely due to neural adaptations and motor learning? We just don’t know yet.

The second is the degree of effort necessary per set to maximally stimulate hypertrophy; do we actually need to lift to failure, can we stop short of failure, or can even very low-effort sets stimulate some hypertrophy? In the real world, it looks as if even very low effort can cause some muscle growth, but the matter is yet unresolved. In addition, adding more lower effort sets might decrease any differences.

Finally, and this is likely the biggest and most important question, but what exactly stimulates hypertrophy? There are hypotheses out there, some of which are supported by evidence, but in my opinion, it is still inconclusive.(20) Tension on muscles themselves might be enough to stimulate hypertrophy, but when you get tension, you also get ischemia and increased metabolite build-up. The pump you get from lifting weights might contribute, but heavy weight/low rep sets tend not to elicit much of a pump, and hypertrophy has been shown to be the same as for higher rep sets. Metabolic byproduct concentration might be the main stimulator, but there isn’t much evidence examining the idea yet. At this point, we can only conclusively look at muscle growth on a large scale and say that picking things up and putting them down a lot makes muscles get bigger.

Conclusion

Upon examining the history of strength and physique sports, a nearly infinite number of strategies can be seen to have been successful. However, the most successful strategies appear to follow a few basic rules very similar to the takeaway principles mentioned earlier. Keep effort high, keep number of sets high, and tailor your rep ranges to your goals or whatever keeps you motivated, and progress shouldn’t be a problem.


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References

  1. American College of Sports Medicine. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687-708.
  2. Fisher J, Steele J, Smith D. Evidence-based resistance training recommendations for muscular hypertrophy. Med Sport. 2013;17(4):217-235.
  3. Schoenfeld BJ, Wilson JM, Lowery RP, Krieger JW. Muscular adaptations in low- versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis. Eur J Sport Sci. 2014;:1-10.
  4. Carpinelli, RN. The size principle and a critical analysis of the unsubstantiated heavier-is-better recommendation for resistance training. J Exerc Sci Fit. 2008;6(2)67-86.
  5. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Willardson JM, Fontana F, Tiryaki-sonmez G. Muscle activation during low- versus high-load resistance training in well-trained men. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2014;114(12):2491-7
  6. Loenneke JP, Wilson JM, Marín PJ, Zourdos MC, Bemben MG. Low intensity blood flow restriction training: a meta-analysis. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012;112(5):1849-59.
  7. Weiss, LW, Coney HD, Clark FC. Gross measures of exercise-induced muscular hypertrophy. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2000;30(3):143-148.
  8. Weiss LW, Coney HD, Clark FC. Differential functional adaptations to short-term low-, moderate-, and high-repetition weight training. J Strength Cond Res. 1999;13(3):236-241.
  9. Campos GE, Luecke TJ, Wendeln HK, Toma K, Hagerman FC, Murray TF, Ragg KE, Ratamess NA, Kraemer WJ, Staron RS. Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002;88:50-60.
  10. Alcaraz PE, Gomze PJ, Chavarrias M, Blazevich AJ. Similarity in adaptations to high-resistance circuit vs. traditional strength training in resistance-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(9):2519-27.
  11. Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, West DW, Burd NA, Breen L, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Physiol. 2012;113:71-77.
  12. Schoenfeld BJ, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, Contreras B, Sonmez GT, Alvar BA. Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(10):2909-18.
  13. Van Roie E, Delecluse C, Coudyzer W, Boonen S, Bautmans I. Strength training at high versus low external resistance in older adults: effects on muscle volume, muscle strength, and force-velocity characteristics. Exp Gerontol. 2013;48(11):1351-61.
  14. Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of Low- Versus High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015.
  15. Fry AC, Schilling BK, Staron RS, Hagerman FC, Hikida RS, Thrush JT. Muscle fiber characteristics and performance correlates of male Olympic-style weightlifters. J Strength Cond Res. 2003;17(4):746-54.
  16. Fry AC, Webber JM, Weiss LW, Harber MP, Vaczi M, Pattison NA. Muscle fiber characteristics of competitive power lifters. J Strength Cond Res. 2003;17(2):402-10.
  17. Macdougall JD, Sale DG, Elder GC, Sutton JR. Muscle ultrastructural characteristics of elite powerlifters and bodybuilders. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1982;48(1):117-26.
  18. Tesch PA, Larsson L. Muscle hypertrophy in bodybuilders. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1982;49(3):301-6.
  19. Krieger JW. Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(4):1150-9.
  20. Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(10):2857-72.
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290 thoughts on “The New Approach to Training Volume”

  1. Great article. Thx for the info. I only feel sad that this site doesn’t existed 10 years before. Regards

    1. My “vision” for the site was basically to put out the info that would have kept me from making a lot of the dumb mistakes I made in my first 5 years of training, so it makes me happy to hear it’s accomplishing that purpose! Thanks Adriano!

      1. I Have been reading a LOT of your articles, I’m 24 and have been lifting for a few years now and I can say your articles along with others I read but more from you have drastically changed they way I train now and I’m making great progress from them, I am a personal trainer and currently as doing a bachelor in exercise sport science and feel as if I have learn more reading your stuff then I have in any of my courses thus far. (Except anatomy haha)

    2. Somewhere in the article Nathan asks what’s better? More reps or more sets? Did he forget both Reps and sets are part of the same equation for volume (sets x reps x weight) = volume ? both are tied to volume. In conclusion, doing both 65% or 85% of your 1 rpm is good. It’s important to understand you guys can do a higher volume at 65% of your 1 rpm over 85% of your 1 rpm, For example, let’s say my 1 rpm on bench is 200lb and 85% of that is 170lb. Let’s say I plug 170lb into the volume equation, and I read a routine telling me I should do 6 sets for 3 reps at 85%, you will end up w/ (6 x 3 x 170) which makes a total volume load of 3,060 lbs. Ok, now the goal another workout day is to break my 3,060 lbs volume threshold I did at 85%. However since 85% is very taxing on my CNS, my nervous system needs a break and I won’t be able to break that threshold any day soon at 85% so I do 65% instead. So I do another routine explaining to do 65% of my 1 rpm for 2 sets at 25 reps. Ok, so we have (2 x 25 x 130). That routine may have been easier for me to complete because it’s less taxing on my CNS than the heavy weight used at 85%. And bam! What do you get w/ (2 x 25 x 130)? You get 6500 lbs volume load. All these different rep ranges and volume loads are important because they all work off each other. The heavier weight used at 85% will better prepare my CNS to push further with the 65% rep range routines. But at the same time the endurance gained from the 65% higher rep range routines may help me push past for one more rep during the heavier routines. People should follow what’s called a ‘daily undulating periodization’ routine. Look it up online and follow a routine from there, in the meantime figure out what your rep ranges are to fit the routine. There’s charts you can find online that explain what weight you should be at for different rep ranges based off your 1 rep max. You can also look up the epley formula which these charts are based from. Hopefully this helps!

      1. I think you may be missing the overarching point of the article. The traditional way of calculating volume (sets x reps x weight; volume load) doesn’t really do a very good job of predicting hypertrophic response. There are a lot of examples of similar volume load not resulting in the same amount of growth, and of similar growth of dramatically different volume loads. I dug into that a lot more in these three articles:

        http://strengtheory.com/can-we-predict-muscle-growth/
        http://strengtheory.com/hypertrophy-range-fact-fiction/
        http://strengtheory.com/hypertrophy-range-stats-adjustments/

        1. Did that dude even read the article? Or, just reflexively spit out a way too long of an explanation for a 1st grade concept of old volume load equations?

  2. So Greg (and/or Nate), are you suggesting that the oft maligned approach of training to failure is actually a more effective one than say a Sheiko low rep, never get too uncomfortable approach?

    Take Average to Savage, would you suggest to do main exercises as written and push the accessories towards the realm of failure?

    1. It all depends on context, and there’s probably some tradeoff. For example, lets say in a workout that you can do 8 sets at RPE 8, or 3-4 sets to failure or very close to failure – fewer due to the fact a set to failure will cause more acute fatigue. On one hand, with the Sheiko-esque approach you have more sets (good), but they’re not quite as challenging (bad, at least on a per-set basis). So does it end up ultimately being better? It’s hard to say.

      Also, rep quality plays a role, moreso for strength acquisition than size acquisition (at least in the short to medium term) when you’re dealing with the big 3.

      But for accessories, yes – push them to or pretty darn close to failure.

  3. So, if you reach failure on the 100th rep of pushups you could achieve the same hypertrophy as you could if you reached failure at the 5th rep of a bench press?

      1. Wow thank you! There is so much crap on the net saying that high reps is just for bodybuilders on juice! Im all natural and I love the pump feeling from high reps. I probably what get as strong as wit how reps but I don’t really care.

        1. Amazingly, bodybuilders (you know, the guys whose entire sport revolves around gaining as much muscle mass as possible) know a thing or two about gaining muscle. 😉

          1. For sure Greg, but what I’m hearing you say is that high reps is not just for body builders on steroids…. Yes? Great article thank you for going beyond broscience!

          2. Hi Greg, what is your advice on how many days a week to lift. I often go up to six days per week doing one muscle group per day, so arms one day, shoulders, chest, back, legs

      2. Considering that lifting to failure seems to be a key to maximizing hypertrophy (regardless of whether it takes 5 reps or 25 reps to reach that point), is there any sort of recommendation that can be made regarding the *number* of sets to failure someone should do per muscle group per week? For example, as Nathan states in his article, Fisher recommends doing just one set of each exercise to failure. However, if someone does 4 chest exercises during a typical chest workout, do you think they’d be doing enough volume to maximize hypertrophy by only doing 4 sets per workout?

        1. I think I’m going to contest the premise of your question. I don’t think we have compelling evidence that lifting to failure is key for maximizing hypertrophy. I do think you need to be at least reasonably close to failure, but I’m not aware of any good evidence that actually going to failure is necessary.

          As for a number of sets – it really depends on a myriad of factors, but somewhere between 10 and 20 seems to be a decent starting point.

  4. Isn’t a further implication that linear periodization may be the best system for hypertrophy if sets are kept at least constant?

  5. Great article! I have two questions:
    1. What are your thoughts on the reverse pyramid scheme in light of this article?
    2. There is this new squat program going around called “The Squat Everyday Challenge”. If you have heard of it, what are your thoughts regarding that?

        1. I think it can certainly work, but that volume and frequency are probably a bit too low to be optimal. I also have reservations about people going to failure on multiple sets of squats and deadlifts every week.

    1. I think this was the first thing he wrote for something other than a school assignment (just got out of PT school not too long ago). He trolls people on reddit constantly though.

  6. Really nice article guys, thx for sharing!

    How do you think eccentric training and eccentric overload training fits into this? Can you cheat on volume or number of sets by the reversal of the size principles, higher tension and structural damage using ecc overload?

  7. I think the variable not mentioned in this article is time. Its going to be the volume per unit of time that rest really has an affect on hypertrophy.

    1. You mean like per week or per day or whatever? I agree. I think that adding up total number of sets per week is a more accurate predictor of gains.

    2. Nicholas Deacon

      Could be wrong, but I think he’s referring to we could call density rather than accumulated weekly volume.

  8. Great article.

    Where would you say bodybuilder techniques such as drop sets or cluster sets fit into this picture? These approaches might reduce overall volume, but they are additional working sets.

  9. Phenomenally great article – I’ve been re-reading this continuously and it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for now that I’ve graduated from 5/3/1 and want to start programming myself.

  10. I do high reps 15-30. How many sets do you recommend? I’m just trying to gain muscle and look good!

  11. Great article!

    I am however a little confused by the statement in Key Point #2 in the beginning of the article.

    Consider the Schoenfield study with comparisons between 3×10 and 7×3 = equal hypertrophy. Here 3 hard sets had the same effect on hypertrophy as 7.

    What do you make of that?

    1. You basically get a decreased return on investment for each set you do. From Kreiger’s 2010 meta-analysis:

      “In a dose-response model, there was a trend for 2-3 sets per exercise to be associated with a greater ES than 1 set (difference = 0.09 +/- 0.05; CI: -0.02, 0.20; p = 0.09), and a trend for 4-6 sets per exercise to be associated with a greater ES than 1 set (difference = 0.20 +/- 0.11; CI: -0.04, 0.43; p = 0.096). Both of these trends were significant when considering permutation test p values (p < 0.01). There was no significant difference between 2-3 sets per exercise and 4-6 sets per exercise (difference = 0.10 +/- 0.10; CI: -0.09, 0.30; p = 0.29)." http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20300012

      Essentially, you’d expect 1 to be a whole lot better than 0 (obviously). You’d expect 3 to be noticeably better than 1. You’d expect 7 to be better than 3, but not to a huge degree.

      Also, if you look at *most* of the studies Nathan cited, the “heavy” group was 5-8ish reps and the “light” groups usually didn’t go more than 30ish reps (except for a couple with elderly people). If I had to make an semi-educated guess, I think this idea of “more hard sets=more hypertrophy, regardless of intensity/volume” probably is MOST applicable for sets of 5ish-30ish, trailing off with really heavy or really light weights at least for trained subjects. i.e. I think you can still grow from 3 hard triples, but not quite as much as 3 hard sets of 8 (and that 3 triples would probably be better than 3 singles for hypertrophy), and I don’t think you’ll grow as much from 3 sets of 100 as you would from 3 sets of 8. So you MAY need a few more sets of 3 to get the same growth as 3 sets of 10.

      At least, based on my experience, that’s how I’d nuance this concept a bit.

      1. I would also nuance it by adding that these effect sizes are based on a 2x/week frequency, and I think both science and practical experience is pointing towards 3-4x/week frequencies (and even higher the more advanced you get) is more productive. Hence, a more moderate volume (2-4 sets or thereabouts) at twice the frequency as 4-8 sets, should for all intents and purposes be more productive.

    1. Are you referring to Borge’s “effective reps” idea? It’s an idea I find intellectually satisfying, but I’m not quite sure the formal evidence supports it yet.

      For example, here (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25303171) you’d expect the rest paused group to see greater improvements than the momentary muscular failure group, but the opposite was true. But I don’t think it’s anywhere close to a closed case by any means.

      1. I think it should be mentioned that the RP protocol in this study is not at all like Myo-reps. They used 90% of isometric max loads and only did single reps with 5-20secs between reps, so it would be more like Dan Moore’s Max Stim protocol or even the German PITT Force.

        Myo-reps shines at 15RM and lighter loads, where the last 3-5 reps reach 100% fiber recruitment, then you intersperse short rest periods in order to maintain this level of recruitment while “repeating” those 3-5 reps over and over again until failure. There are various data from Wernbom’s lab showing it to be more effective than e.g. 20-30 reps to failure, 1-2mins rest then 15-25 reps (reps dropping due to fatigue) on satellite cell activation, metabolic effects via hypoxia/occlusion, and even mechanotransduction (due to exposing fibers literally bathing in metabolic stress to tension).

      2. I think that might be what I was getting at, unintentionally. I’ve always preferred tracking # reps at intensity per movement instead of tonnage / work. Mainly because it’s hard to compare volume between bench and deadlifts.

        It kind of ties into HIHF where I track all reps/sets with velocity and correlate intensity to them. But after reading the article a bit more, and the comments, it seems that the back off sets would have to be higher than 2-4 reps.

        Then again, since I track the data, I can easily track hard sets by just looking at the slowest rep for the set and the correlated intensity.

  12. I loved this article! I agree with literally everything. I currently lift 3 sets to failure once every five days for each body part. I admit I lose a little sleep whether or not I would be better off with an increased frequency or if I would be better off hitting 9 total sets per week.

    My main question is this. I completely agree that strength based training equals similar hypertrophy. Now if you follow Pavel/Dan John philosophy. They recommend on working no where close to failure. Using a 75%RM and doing a max of 5 reps. If this equates to the same hypertrophy then this would seem to be the best approach no? You’re staying clear of failure so you’re not overworking your CNS and the chances of you getting injured are greatly reduced. You normally get injured in the range closest to failure. People rarely get injured on the first 5 reps of a 10RM. I’m curious of your thoughts? This style almost mimics that of blue collar labor. They’re never lifting to failure but they are lifting a heavy load frequently. I have a love hate feeling with failure training. Even with deloading. Training to failure leaves me fried. And I always think to myself, will this be the day I tear something by pushing that last rep out.

    Sorry for such a long response!

    1. To be honest, I’m really not sure. I don’t think true failure is a prerequisite for growth, but there’s not a ton of literature about that right now. I use more of a hybrid approach, personally – generally staying far from failure on my main lifts, but pushing closer to failure on my accessories most of the time.

  13. This website is great, i am still young (24) but have effectively wasted the best years to make progression doing pointless routines, dieting and generally useless training. If this site was around when i started the gym it would have been a life changer!! Another great article and i love the content you provide Greg, really do appreciate and enjoy the way you explain complicated subject matter (in my opinion). Long may it continue. Thanks.

    PS. i wish my beard game was as strong as yours.

    1. Scott, you are young still! don’t worry 🙂 I am 35 and have just now started trying to train PROPERLY after years of half-assing it. Stay on course. Be consistent. You’ll reap big rewards!

  14. Nice article. Thanks for sharing!

    Greg, you just said “Periodization doesn’t make much of a difference when it comes to hypertrophy”. From a practicle standpoint does this mean you simply have to lift 4-8 sets (near) to failure and you will grow?

    I just don’t quiet understand, because I also read an article like this:

    http://rippedbody.jp/intermediate-training-greg-nuckols

    For me it’s very confusing to read good information that can mean different things in practise. Is there a way you can clearify? Also from my experience, growth simply stops or slows down a lot when you only try to add weight on the bar or go for 1 extra rep. You end up doing the same reps with the same weights every training just hoping that someday you can do an extra rep.

    I would really appreciate if you can clearify!

    Thanks!

    1. Ahh yes. I can understand your confusion. As far as straight hypertrophy goes, you’re right – it doesn’t matter too much. Simply be consistent, do enough sets fairly close to failure (near your ability to recover), move up in weight as you’re able, and that’s 80-90% of it.

      The article on Andy’s site was laying out some periodization basics for people who want to parlay those size gains into strength gains. The higher reps recommended initially are simply because MOST (not all) people have an easier time doing sets of 8-12 regularly, but burn out if they’re constantly pushing an equal number of equally hard sets of 3-5. However, that heavy work is necessary to get specific practice to maximize strength gains (in the short to medium term), so volume decreases and weights increase over time, leading to a new “peak” followed by another phase aimed at growth.

      You could probably accomplish the same thing going heavy the entire time and just manipulating number of sets, but handling those 85-90% loads year-round tends to burn people out (physically and mentally).

      1. I tried this in my last training cycle. We started at 20 sets of 5, and then increased weight on the bar by 5 kilos every week and reduced the number of total sets by 2. Once we got to 4 x 5, we increased the weight once again, changed to 6 x 3 and then did 6 x 4 and 6 x 5 over then next weeks with the same weight, and then reiterated that part again three more times. It all worked very well, the scheme improved my squat PR by 20 kilos (I am an intermediate lifter) but it was very hard, both physically and mentally.

  15. Does that mean I should/could use increased number of sets per week as the goal of a program? For instance your article elsewhere suggesting as an example to go from 3 sets of 8 to 5 sets of 15. Why stop at five sets?

    1. You don’t necessarily need to. If you look at Kreiger’s and Wernbom’s metas on # of sets necessary to maximize hypertrophy, Kreiger was finding diminishing return on investment with 4-6, and Wernbom found that up to 8 was useful for trained folks. So since the audience was mainly beginners transitioning into intermediate, I stuck with the middle of those recommendations as what you should shoot for (with the rep number having to do more with strength endurance and general work capacity moreso than hypertrophy)

  16. What about EMOMs and training volume? Is there a difference in the rate of muscle mass gained between a program that is based on the old body building standard 3 x 10 @ 70 – 80% intensity, and a program that prescribes 20 reps of something EMOM @ ~85% intensity? Or, in other words, can we avoid glycolysis and gain muscle mass at the same or a similiar rate?

    1. I’m not entirely sure, really. We have a lot of evidence for protocols that are equated based on effort (i.e. to failure or close to failure), but not much for protocols where all the sets are taken close to failure vs. ones kept farther from failure.

      1. Tell you what: Starting Monday I’ll do four weeks of EMOMs, five days a week, at moderately-high to high effort (80-90% 1RM), with rep ranges from 10-25, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

        Broscience to the rescue!

        1. At the end of the day, science is AWESOME for finding out what usually works for a lot of people, most of the time, but it’s your own N=1 tinkering (which people like to call bioscience these days) that finds what’s best for you.

  17. Great article! If training to failure is such a potent stimulus why does isometrics to failure not equate to similar growth? Anecdotally I trained high rep 30 plus to failure and made some gains. But when I deloaded and stopped with them I lost roughly a 1/4 inch on my bicep in two weeks.

    I’m also curious your thoughts on spacing out the reps. Lets say you do 3 sets to failure. For easy math purposes we’ll say 10 reps for each set at 100 pounds. Do you think if you took those same 30 reps at a 100 pounds and did them in say sets of 5 or maybe even less you’d get the same hypertrophy since your doing the same volume? Obviously I know you’re just speculating and are more strength based but I’m curious as to your input.

      1. This is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing that study with me. Do you think the 3×10 on the assistant lifts affected the variables being measured? I find this so freeing if this works out in a real world setting. Naturally I want to reach my potential, but training to failure of even a rep shy or 2 really takes a toll on me. It’s like my body can handle it but I always find myself hating the gym. And this is coming from someone who would rather sleep in the gym then his own bed!

        If the gains were virtually the same wouldn’t this be a better way to train? I read some comments above and seems like a few people have similar questions about it. I actually met Jame Steele at a health conference and he told me that he’s shown in his lab that training to failure leads to gains while not training to failure lead to no gains. Which to me doesn’t make sense because there’s literally a million athletes out there that never come close to failure and have strength and physiques that trump most gym goers

        1. There are a LOT of variables in play. What if we compared training to failure doing 3×20 to doing the same weight for 4×15 (same volume, but all sets 5 reps shy of failure)? My hunch is that you’d get a lot more growth from the 3 sets to failure, because with a fairly light weight, tension is low, so the main driver of growth is going to be accumulating sufficient metabolic stress (which requires being pretty close to failure). But when if we compared 3×5 (all sets to failure) to 5×3 (all sets with 2 reps left in the tank)? My hunch is the you’d get pretty similar growth, because you’re not going to have tremendously high metabolic stress in either condition, and they both allow for a lot of muscular tension.

          That sort of mirrors what most lifters have done through time. Leave a couple in the tank on the main lifts, but pretty much go to failure on lighter accessory lifts.

          1. So then I guess you really do need to be within a few reps of failure. I thought that study above had the 8×5 group working pretty far from failure. Especially since they were working in the 60%-75%RM range

          2. By the end (with rest that short), they’d probably be fairly close to failure. But I mean, you don’t need a study for everything. Sheiko programs live around 80% for sets of 2-3 (80% is usually about an 8rm) so staying a long way from failure definitely CAN work if you’re doing enough sets.

          3. First off. I respect you so much for how well you respond. It honestly blows me away. And I guess to your point about Sheiko programs at 80% percent with a lo of volume you’ll eventually be taxed as well. So pretty much you have to tax your muscles and CNS pretty hard to achieve growth. Nothing like above and beyond but taxing them none the less.

            I wonder if doing sets to failure in the 15-20 rep range or maybe even higher would be less taxing on the CNS then say sets of 10 or lower. I have a psychology background so I know the results of long term abuse on your CNS . I’d also assume the chance of getting injured in that high of rep range would be pretty slim even with training to failure

          4. I think it would depend on training background more than anything. Nothing beats you down more than novelty, and the body’s adaptive mechanisms are pretty good at coping with basically any stressor they have to meet regularly (provided sleep/nutrition are adequate).

            For example, a very high volume program (similar to how legit bodybuilders train) would absolutely destroy me. Lower training percentages, but way more sets and way more reps. Let’s say “leg day” included 12 sets in the 8-20 rep range with 60-75%1rm for the exercises used. I would be crushed.

            On the other hand, I can pretty effortlessly squat multiple 1rm attempts every day, and feel perfectly fine. That wasn’t the case at first, but after 6 months of Bulgarian-inspired training, my body got used to it, and I can now handle very high intensity efforts with ease. On the other hand, that bodybuilder who could grind me to dust with volume may feel just as worn down his first time hitting 5-6 sets in a workout with 90% of his 1rm.

            All of which is to say, if you grabbed 100 people off the street and had them do 3 sets to failure with 3-5 reps, 8-12 reps, or 15-20 reps, I bet the people in the first group would have the highest injury rate, and the people in the third group would have the least “CNS fatigue” (although that’s very very difficult to quantify). However, if you train in a particular style for long enough, your body does a pretty good job “getting used to it” so that it doesn’t present as a stressor of the same magnitude any more. Then, when you do something different, it will present as a larger stressor, even if “on average” it would be a smaller stressor for a random cross-section of the population.

          5. I think you keep bringing up great points. I just don’t want to feel worn down anymore. But at the same time I don’t want to hamper my gains either. I’ll have to experiment with the 15-20 reps to failure and see how I feel. I want to keep the volume a little lower to roughly 2 sets or so and try to reach a frequency of 3-4 times a week. I think Nathan brought up a great point about the volume being capped at 3 sets and that “total tonnage” is not as important. Last note then I’ll stop bugging you. When you compare both of Schoenfeld’s volume equated studies, you had sets of 3 vs 10 and 10 vs 30. When you compare the 2 separate study groups of sets of 10. One group did 9 sets of 10 while the other group did 18 total sets of 10 to failure. The 9 set group nearly doubled the gains of the 18 set group. I find that highly interesting. I know it’s two separate studies but the exercise selection and muscle group measured were the same. Not to mention he reported gains in the 5-9% range in 8 weeks which is pretty wild in my opinion. That’s like gaining an inch on your bicep! Anyway. I really do appreciate the back and fourth! Can’t say thanks enough.

  18. Great article! What’s your opinion on failure meaning how hard do you have to work? Is it pushing so hard that you try to get that next rep but fail or is it the “feeling” of not wanting to try another rep because you think you’ll fail on that rep. Hopefully that makes. I feel if you constantly push yourself to failing in the middle of a rep you’ll slowly start to reach failure sooner because that point becomes painful and naturally your body wants to avoid pain so you kind of lose that edge to get those next couple reps at.

      1. Makes sense. Do you think high reps to failure would maintain the same amount of muscle mass as lower reps while in a calorie deficit?

          1. Perfect! I was thinking about the 15-20 rep range. Shooting to reach failure by 20 or so reps. So perfect! I guess I can keep that plan in order. Thank you!

    1. This was supposed to be part of the “volume per unit of time” discussion in the middle of the page.
      I guess NoScript screwed that up for me. Emergency browser to the rescue

  19. Do the same principles apply when trying to preserve muscle while in a calorie deficit, ei. is 3×10 as protective against muscle loss as 5×5, assuming adequate protein intake? Recovery capacity is down while cutting so obviously a lot of volume is counterproductive, but mentally gearing up for heavy sets of 5 when you have less energy is tough as well. I’m thinking higher reps in the 15-20 range is not the answer and could lead to muscle loss, but just wondering about the 8-12 range and whether it would make much of a difference in the end as long as you’re working hard.

    1. I don’t really think there’s enough data to say for sure one way or the other. And honestly, purely from getting an anabolic stimulus to counter muscle loss, I doubt there’s really enough of a difference between sets of 5 and sets of 10 for your body to really care.

  20. Steve Maddison

    Interesting article! – however there are many who champion the idea that training high rep is unnecessary when training purely for strength as your endurance capacity with light weights will increase accordingly with your rate of strength increase.

    What’s your take on this?

    1. Your performance with any percentage of your max will probably be unchanged. So if you can do 12 reps with 70% of your max, and your max goes up 20%, then you could probably do about 20% more weight for 12 reps, and be able to do more reps with your original 70%.

      However, strength endurance is also a trainable skill. i.e. if you could initially do 12 reps with 70% of your max, you may be able to do 15-18 reps with the same weight with some dedicated training without your 1rm improving.

      However, that wasn’t necessarily what the article was about. It was primarily dealing with hypertrophy, and for that, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between low and high rep training.

  21. So I’ve been a huge fan of Eric Helms for a while. And I find it interesting that he recommended a total volume of 40-70 reps per workout with no talk of sets. I mean to look at volume in terms of reps seems futile. What do you think the recommended volume should be to optimize hypertrophy? It seems like this article is recommending that 9 total sets per week maximizes hypertrophy. I know James Steele says no more then 1 set per workout needs to be done then you have Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras who recommend like 24 sets a week.

    1. Man, that’s a tough question, and it really depends what evidence you weight more heavily.

      Helm’s recommendation comes from Wernbom’s review/meta. The recommendation from this article comes from Kreiger’s meta on # of sets and hypertrophic response. Of course, with higher frequencies (iirc Kreiger’s was looking at studies with twice weekly frequency), 1 set to failure 4-5 times per week may work just as well as multiple sets a few times per week (since 1 set caused 60ish% of the growth of 4-6 sets based on Kreiger’s meta, getting that one “money set” in more frequently could potentially give you the same hypertrophy with fewer total sets).

      24 total sets would be more on the high end of “better safe than sorry.” For example, the study I reviewed in this article (http://www.strengtheory.com/more-is-more/) found a trend for 8 sets to failure, twice per week (16 sets total) being being better for strength than 4 sets to failure, twice per week. Toss in some accessories on those days, and you could pretty easily get to 24 sets. Probably more than a newer lifter would need, but certainly not out of the question for someone more experienced.

      Then, on the pure strength side of things, you have Sheiko-style training where you do approximately a shit ton of sets per week (though not to failure), and it’s pretty hard to argue with the success of his athletes.

      All of which is to say, it’s a pretty messy picture. I think the “# of sets to, or close to failure per week” idea is better supported than the 40-70 reps per week idea because, in the vast majority of the studies in Wernbom’s meta, sets were taken to failure anyways; so the total number of reps is, I think, an artifact of the rep ranges generally used in studies assessing hypertrophy – 4-6 sets of 8-12 reps will put you around 40-70 total reps.

      From a pure efficiency standpoint, I think you can get some pretty impressive growth from a low total number of sets doing 1 set to failure for each muscle/movement almost every day of the week, but that’s not to say that there’s not still room for more growth past that point with a higher total number of sets – looking at observational evidence, you see a lot more successful powerlifters and bodybuilders doing something closer to 24 total sets (or more) per week.

      1. Greg, if one were to try out the 1 set to/close to failure 5-6 days per week, what rep range do you think would be best?

        Its something I’d like to try out, and I love my 5’s lol. Would 8-12 reps be better in this scenario though?

        How about something like this:

        Flat Bench: 1×10
        Squat: 1×10
        OHP: 1×10
        Deadlift: 1×10
        Pullups: 1×10

        Also, what would be the best way to progress, adding weight to the bar once per week?

        I’m guessing this would also be a very temporary thing right? Because once you’d stall you’d have to increase volume, and would eventually end up having to do multiple sets every day which would just burn you out……

        1. Honestly, I just wouldn’t really recommend that approach to training at all. Volume, frequency, AND intensity would likely be too low to make progress for anyone except someone completely new to lifting.

  22. It really does seem like you might be right, but if I try to be as skeptical as I can I still end up suspicious. Note – I don’t know what I’m talking about (just in case it’s not obvious).

    The Campos study doesn’t say there is a significant difference between the high/moderate load and low load groups, just that there isn’t one between low load and no load. And if there is a difference between high/mod and low load groups, there are quite a few similar studies out there with p-values of 0.05, mostly showing no effect (as you demonstrate in your table). This makes me think it may be a false positive – though this seems much less likely when I look at the large volume differences in some of the studies that match no. of sets and show no significant differences between groups, so I’m very uncertain.
    It’s also notable that none of those studies test high load against moderate load while keeping number of sets constant – maybe if they did this they’d find a significant difference. This would suggest that whether you count your volume as work or no. of sets depends on the rep range you’re using (not a good conclusion to jump to with the current state of the evidence, but it sounds like a possibility that’s worth testing).

    It’s a while since an article has made me think that hard. Thanks. I’d love to see this tested. (I suppose a test could probably be done with three groups, one moderate load, one high load match no. of sets, one high load match total work; but they might need a lot of subjects to find significance).

    Am I being unreasonable or missing something?

    1. I think that’s reasonable. I think the idea of growth = # of hard sets per week becomes less true on the “edges.” My hunch is that there’s probably a range from ~5-8ish rep max loads (80-85%1rm) to 30rm loads (40-50%) where the concept is most applicable, and that it would be less applicable for loads heavier or lighter than that.

      i.e. I think if you did 5 sets of 6-8 to failure, 5 sets of 12-15 to failure, and 5 sets of 20-25 to failure, you’d probably get similar growth. However, I think you’d get a bit less if you did 5 sets of 2-3 or 5 sets of 80.

      That’s just my educated guess because, like you said, there’s not much data yet comparing really heavy or really light loads to more moderate loads with number of sets equated. However, it seems to make sense of both the data we currently have available, and what you see working for people in the real world. Even the lower rep programs people promote for hypertrophy tend to include a lot more sets (Waterbury’s 10×3 programs come to mind), and even bodybuilders generally consider 20-30 reps in a set as “high rep,” and you don’t see many successful people regularly promoting sets of 100.

  23. So if we were comparing an LP strength program like SS (3×5) to SL (5×5), SL should induce more hypertrophy because it has a higher number of sets at close to failure throughout the week. Is that correct?

  24. Great article and comments Greg and Nathan, enlightened me but also left me a bit more confused haha.

    If rep ranges aren’t the determining factor in the size differences between bodybuilders and powerlifters, what is? Is it the rest times between sets? I know Nathan stated that most of the perceived size difference is actually just bodyfat distribution and emphasis on different muscle groups, but every day in the gym I see powerlifters lifting tremendous weight, who look quite skinny and honestly don’t even look like they’ve ever lifted a day in their life. Perhaps among higher level bodybuilders and powerlifters the size differences are minimal, but for average lifters in the gym, I see anecdotal evidence for significant size differences every day. So if rep ranges don’t account for differences in size, is it the rest times (less metabolic buildup density and therefore less hypertrophic response for longer rest intervals with strength training)?

    Thanks for any clarification 🙂

    1. Diet is a big one as well. A lot of powerlifters have a fear of gaining weight (they think their best weight class will be the smallest one they can possibly get into), whereas most bodybuilders are constantly trying to move up in weight classes because you look silly if you’re the tallest and lankiest guy on stage (especially in lighter weight classes)

      1. Thanks! I never thought of that. Also, just clarifying, when you say diet is a big factor “as well,” do you mean that the rest times (my last sentence above) are indeed a factor? Just want to make sure haha, this article is very intriguing to me.

          1. Very interesting indeed 🙂 I am looking forward to reading those in depth as soon as I have the time. It’s good to know though that I can feel a bit better about taking slightly longer rests between sets to catch my breath and be able to give more effort for more results in each next set.

    2. Just to clarify, rep range doesn’t make a difference in muscle growth, but it 100% does for strength. Skinny DYEL powerlifters lifting huge weights have probably just about maxed out their nervous system potential, whereas enormous bodybuilders who aren’t as strong (with their 1RM, but I bet they’re “stronger” with higher reps than the skinny powerlifters) have probably spent very little time lifting heavier loads. Some bodybuilders who do lift heavy and cross over into powerlifting are incredibly successful once they train their nervous systems to use all that muscle for heavy weights (Amit Sapir, Matt Kroc, even Ronnie Coleman).

    1. Convicts are all roided up! 🙂

      I have a question about a program that was developed by Chad Waterbury. He writes to find a 12-15 RM. Then you do sets of essentially half of that. So lets say you can do 12 pull ups 12th being failure, you do sets of 6 then everyday you add a rep slowly building volume but obviously coming nowhere close to failure. Would a program like this actually work for hypertrophy? He goes on to say that this program is the most effective hypertrophy program out there.

      https://www.t-nation.com/training/new-high-frequency-training

        1. You think this would feasibly lead to measurable hypertrophy gains? I would think this would be more along the lines of neural grooving The intensity is virtually nonexistent! Granted you are increasing volume slowly overtime but you’re not pushing your sets. You’re essentially doing a rep here and there. I tried to look at the three main mechanisms of hypertrophy and you would barely have any mechanical tension, zero metabolic stress, and I suppose minimal muscle damage. I don’t know. Just confused me because I am a fan of chad waterbury. I’m just not sure how that training protocol would truly work

          1. I mean, if you look at sheiko-style programming, you see a lot of sets of 2-4 with 80% (generally a ~8rm), a lot of sets of 1-3 with 85% (usually a ~5rm), and a lot of sets of 4-6 with 70-75% (generally a ~10-12rm). None of his lifters have issue putting on mass. I’m not saying it’s optimal for hypertrophy, but I think it would work to some degree.

  25. Nick Abrahamson

    Greg, my apologies if youve gone over this but ive poured through the website and document emailed to me and didnt see what i was looking for…which is, how do you suggest going about deloads? As one feels? Every 4 weeks? And testing 1rm? Every four weeks? as one feels strength improving and the reps becoming easier? I’m doing the option 1 for intermediate programming.

    1. Reloads – as needed. Generally every 4-12 weeks. Ditto for testing maxes/rep maxes (more often if you’re weaker and can gain strength faster, and conversely if you’re stronger to start with).

  26. Quick question. Do you think drop sets count as multiple sets? Like if you did 1 set to 10 and reached failure, then dropped the weight by 50% then repped out again for another 10 reps or so could that be considered 2 sets? Kind of hitting your type 1 and 2 fibers in the same set? I’m playing around with the idea. I heard on a podcast that Schoenfeld did a meta analysis with Kreiger showing that 12 sets was superior to less then 10 sets. And that a lot of research is leaning towards being able to stimulate your type 1 fibers with high rep sets coming from Russia.

  27. How important do you believe systematically increasing the number of sets over time is for hypertrophy? For example:

    Person A and B both take a month of training to decondition.

    Person A starts back with 3 sets of 10 reps, each set a rep short of failure, and follows that protocol for 10 weeks.

    Person B starts back with 1 set of 10 reps, a rep short of failure, and over the course of 10 weeks they build up to 5 sets of 10 reps, each set a rep short of failure (matching the total volume and effort of Person A over the 10 weeks).

    Would person B be likely to have a greater hypertrophy response over the 10 weeks?

    Is there actually likely to be an ideal range for hypertrophy or is that ideal number of sets for hypertrophy basically ‘one more that you’re accustomed to doing now’ until you reach a point where adding more work isn’t practical (which is time to strategically decondition in some way)?

    Personally, I lean towards thinking that the volume someone requires to elicit hypertrophy is likely to be highly dependent on their training history and there probably isn’t an ideal ‘range’ for hypertrophy without taking that into account. If someone were accustomed to doing 1 set of 10 reps and jumped into 5 sets of 10 their response to that wouldn’t be likely to be substantially greater than going from 1 set of 10 reps to 2 sets of 10. They would be better off building slowly and systematically up to 5 sets of 10.

    My view is that it’s probably a case of, *a bit* more volume *than you’re accustomed to* is better rather than just “more volume is better”.

    1. It’s hard to say for sure. The literature on hypertrophy is pretty basic. There’s a lot of “if you do this for 8 weeks, it’ll probably be better than doing this other thing for 8 weeks,” but not much of, “progressing this way at the end of those 8 weeks will probably be better than progressing this other way at the end of those 8 weeks.”

      I think it’s a mixture of both (there are plenty of studies showing that more volume is better than less, even for people entirely untrained, but there’s also no point in making a huge jump when a smaller one would do the trick)

  28. Man! This thread got more in depth then the article itself! 😛 Since rest periods have been shown to not matter, do you think Rest Pause sets would count towards total sets. Like doing a set to failure of say 15 reps, then resting for 15-20 seconds, then doing another set of 5 to failure rest 15 seconds then 5 to failure, would that be 3 sets? Pretty much myo reps but to failure to ensure true effort. Based on the research I wouldn’t see why not right?

    You mention you think that pretty much sets in the range of 5-30 equate to the same thing. So i’m curious if you keep your rest periods short and fail within that range of 5-30 as your rest pause sets would it count as a set. If they do then it would appear that rest pause would be highly desirable/ arguably one of the most efficient ways to train because you’re not wasting your time with the earlier reps, and you can knock out a decent number of sets pretty quickly. Then hitting the range of 12-24 sets as Bret Contreras recommends becomes pretty easy and you’re most likely sparing your joints and such because you’re not hitting yourself with a million total reps.

    1. The theoretical basis behind things like rest paused training are that 1) you can accumulate higher levels of metabolites in your muscles and 2) you get more reps near full recruitment (which plateaus in the 3-5 reps before failure, so if you’re doing 2-3 rest paused mini sets of <5 reps, presumably all of them are very close to full muscle recruitment). In terms of whether or not they actually increase hypertrophy... the literature is pretty ambivalent, but I also haven't seen any studies use them exactly like most bodybuilders do, so it's hard to say for sure.

      1. For sure. I guess I was just speculating of doing a 15-20 rep set to failure then resting just long enough to fail at 5-10 reps or so multiple times if that would equate to the same thing as multiple hard sets with longer rest periods. It would seem logical since rest periods have been shown to not make much of a difference and the fact that we’re seeing that it’s more important for you to be working hard and taking your sets close or at failure.

        1. This is the main question for me too. I’m fascinated with the idea of focusing on sets instead of reps, but what is a set? It seems that we don’t really have a clear definition of what a set is.

  29. Interesting,

    Would the low rep sets to failure have superior power production to the high rep sets to failure group, ie 5 reps vs 20 reps?

    Also if it is sets to failure or near failure rather than total tonnage (sets x reps x load) that influences hypertrophy, how do you explain the hypertrophy exhibited by olifters who rarely do any sets to failure or near failure? (i know bulgarian is an exception to this, but Russian type programs rarely push lifters near their limits)

    Thanks,

    B

  30. Sorry, this turned into a disorganized ramble, but:

    This is a really cool take on muscle growth. I like your definition of “training volume” as “total number of hard sets per muscle.” I don’t really like the term “hypertrophy” as there’s a connotation that it’s just muscle size, and not “increase in muscle” (or muscle growth).

    I may have missed part of the analysis, but assuming that all rep ranges are equal, I think the next question is which rep range offers the least amount of CNS stress?

    I think it’s safe to assume a higher frequency is better as well, so workouts that are less CNS stressing, could be more beneficial over the week/months/years b/c they could be repeated more often. So, heavy workouts twice a week might equal 1+1=2, but less CNS workouts might equal .75 + .75 +.75 +.75 = 3.

    Also assuming that the low rep training is mainly beneficial for the neurological aspects of lifting heavy weight, I suspect slightly higher reps are better for muscle growth b/c there are more “effective reps.” And, then, if someone is doing a meet, they can peak right before with lower reps (or Dan John’s Easy Strength, etc).

    I’m probably repeating some of your other articles, but: The goal should be to add as much muscle (regardless of rep range). Worry about the 1 rep max right before a meet, or after a substantial amount of muscle gain.

    So, does something like 8 (or even 15) reps offer less CNS fatigue than lower reps? I don’t have any idea, but I do know that it seems easier to do reps of 3-8 vs heavy singles (especially the following days after the workout). So, assuming heavy triples (think Borge’s effective reps) are more effective, etc. Perhaps a heavy triple gets three effective reps in, albeit each rep not equaling “100%” of a one rep max. But, if you’re doing partial math, that might be .5 + .5 + .5 = 1.5 points vs 1 point (the one rep max).

    I’d be curious if training most of the time in higher reps (say, 15 reps) would actually increase powerlifting numbers over the long run.

    My assumptions could be wrong, but assume that we all have 20 gallons of gas in the tank every week (of course, we should get more efficient or have a bigger tank as the training accumulates). Also think of lifting as gaining muscle points (more points equal more muscle).

    So, perhaps a heavy 1 rep max squat equals 3 points, but costs 1 gallon. A set of reps of 3 with a 5 RM might equal 3 points as well, but cost less than a gallon b/c it’s not as close to failure. Plus, adding in more sets and a higher frequency per week, may get more “points” at less of a cost.

    This also brings in pause reps or Myo-reps. Does a myo-rep set of (10 + 3+ 3 +3) equal something similar to 3 sets of 10 in regards to muscle growth, but less (or equal) CNS strain? If so, that’s a no-brainer, as I don’t have a ton of time to spend in the gym.

    Back to the higher rep ranges; I think this is why something like Platz’s high rep squats could have been so effective. If he’s doing a 25 reps, perhaps the last 10 (he’s pushing a lot of weight as well), could be “effective reps.”

    I hadn’t looked at any of the research (i.e., haven’t come across any of your blog posts on it), but I’d also be interested in hearing if clustering reps would be more efficient (or better). So take a 5rm max. One option is to do 2 sets of 5 (with breaks, etc), or do a cluster set of 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, etc. Assuming the “effective reps” start at 3, then that might be the same amount of effective reps. But, the cluster set wouldn’t take as much time.

    1. Using your example of Platz, if there were 10 “effective reps,” and those were what drove growth, then you’d expect, say, 3×30 to produce more growth than 3×10. However, they produce about the same amount of growth (now it’s been observed in both trained and untrained people).

      As for CNS stress, that’s actually a pretty ill-defined concept. When you look at contemporary theories for overtraining, something like the cytokine hypothesis would lead you to believe that moderate to high rep training would produce more “CNS stress,” whereas something like the central governor hypothesis may lead you to believe that heavy, low rep training would produce more “CNS stress” (if it takes more arousal to complete the set). Training background factors in as well. Get a bodybuilder to do a workout of heavy triples, and they’ll probably feel like garbage the next day, but feel great after a bunch of sets of 8-12 (what they’re accustomed to). A powerlifter used to low rep would would likely feel great after doing those heavy triples, but doing the same number of sets in the 8-12 rep range would wreck them. But, in spite of limiting training volume, that novelty may actually lead to better muscle growth and strength gains (that’s the most basic idea behind periodization – this is a pretty good article about that: http://www.hmmrmedia.com/2015/08/training-talk-with-john-kiely-part-1/. If you enjoy it, I’d also strongly recommend Keily’s 2012 review article about periodization, which is linked in that article as well, if memory serves).

  31. Oh, and back to your definition for “At least when talking about hypertrophy-based training, it’s more useful to think of “training volume” as “total number of hard sets per muscle” than “sets x reps x load.”

    Perhaps, another definition would be “total number of effective reps per muscle.”

    I don’t know how much the load is in play b/c of the data compiled above. If 2×15 is equal to 2×5, then perhaps “reps x load” are the same thing, even with a different load.

  32. Hey Greg,

    thanks for putting that article together with Nathan. I’m somewhat confused though considering the context and recommendations you give in other articles like “Powerlifters should train more like bodybuilders” and your strength training guide.

    Let me try to sum up what you recommend for an intermediate lifter like me to become stronger as far as I understand it:

    1.) Grow by achieving hypertrophy since muscle mass is the best predictor for strength
    2.) To achieve hypertrophy the number of sets per muscle group/movement per training day/training week is the most useful predictor
    3.) This applies if the sets are “hard”, meaning relatively close to failure. Within a certain rep range per set (5-30 reps) there are no significant differences regarding the hypertrophy inducing potential.
    4.) Hard sets per muscle group per week should be between 12 and 30 sets overall achieved with 2-3 training blocks (6-10 sets for each block).
    5.) Strength gains can be superior when achieving those sets with lower rep numbers/higher percentages of 1RM.

    Given these key points I’m somewhat curious why you recommend rep ranges of 5-10 for the main lifts and 8-15 for accessory lifts in the other article if there is no difference hypertrophy wise but lower rep sets carry additional benefits for strength development?

    I personally am a big fan of a 3 day DUP style programming, do you think a simple plan like Day 1 5×8; Day 2 5×5; Day 3 5×3 for Squat, Bench and Deadlift with Autoregulation or linear progression would fulfil the conditions layed out above or are there additional factors that should be taken into account?

    Also, when performing workouts like these within 1 or 2 reps of failure, do you think it will be necessary to decrease the weight slowly from set to set within one workout to avoid reaching failure before the described amount of reps? Does it even make any difference at all for hypertrophy if you have to finish the set earlier as long as it is a hard set (5 reps in the 5th set instead of 8 reps in the 1st for example).

    Thanks again!

    1. The biggest reason is that for *most* people, number of hard sets they can handle will be somewhat lower with lower reps. Although exercise selection clearly factors in as well.

  33. Great article!

    I’m wondering if you had the chance to check out the recent study by Hoffman et al, “The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance‐trained men”

    Their protocol had the volume group do 70% of 1RM for 4 sets x 10-12 rep with 1 min rest, and the intensity group doing 90% of 1RM for 4 sets x 3-5 rep with 3 min rest.

    And the major findings of this study indicated that 8 weeks of high-intensity, low-volume resistance training utilizing long rest intervals stimulated significantly greater 1RM bench press and lean arm mass gains compared to mod-erate intensity, high-volume program utilizing short rest intervals in resistance-trained men.

    So does this change your recommendations?

    1. It’s just one study, and the ES differences in hypertrophy were pretty small. The overarching recommendation (for hypertrophy, hard sets is the key factor, but heavier is better for strength adaptations) still holds imo.

  34. so would you say that a programme like starting strength which is 3x,3 times a week is inferior?
    you need more volume to grow than that?

      1. what about the person?
        every post i ever post, some one comes back with your article and says how 3×5 is just too low volume and everyone will see superior growth with a more volume intensive program.

        1. I mean, it has to be in the context of an entire training program. In Kreiger’s meta-analysis on # of sets and hypertrophy, it was in the context of twice weekly frequency iirc. 4-6 sets was better than 2-3 sets, which was better than 1 set. However, 1) there wasn’t just a huge difference between 2-3 and 4-6, and 2) higher frequency *tends* to be a bit better. I’d bet 3 sets, 4x per week would tend to be better than 6 sets, 2x per week.

          But you can’t just ask about a single set/rep scheme in isolation. You have to take it in the context of an entire training plan.

          1. well starting strength program is 3x a week, 3×5 for bench,squats,press,chin ups,hyperextensions.
            Deadlifts and power cleans are 1×5.

            detractors say programmes that emphasize more volume,maybe bro programs that have more sets and exercises for the same muscle group 1nce a week are better for growth.

          2. My two cents:

            1) volume is pretty decent for squats. For a beginner, 9 hard sets per week is pretty good. I do think it’s too low for bench, OHP, and DL, though.

            2) imo the lack of variety in the program is an issue. Not saying you need any sort of crazy “muscle confusion” approach, but having a bit more variety (yes, even for beginners) has been shown to cause better strength gains (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24832974)

            3) I’m also not down with just doing sets of 5 for everything, all the time. That would classify as unperiodized training, which *generally* doesn’t produce quite as good of results as periodized training (though the particular periodization model isn’t all that important)

          3. well it’s a beginner’s programme and you increase by 5lbs every session.
            it’s only meant to be run until you’ve exhausted linear gains.
            i wouldn’t think that periodiziation is that important initially.

  35. Fantastic read.

    Would somebody doing body weight training at a high effort, eg 3 sets of push ups till failure, be considered enough for hypertrophy? Eg, their 3 sets of push ups might look like 50, 40, 30?

    Thanks my man.

      1. You are the man. Thank you.

        Would the affects of hypertrophy change/decrease if they started hitting failure at crazy numbers like 100 yet still maintained a high effort? Or would hypertrophy remain the same, with the now added (and obvious) endurance?

  36. Awesome read.

    Where would sacroplasm vs myofirbil hypertrophy come into this? I’ve heard that lower rep ranges targeted more myofibril, while higher reps targeted more sacroplasm?

    Thanks.

    1. There’s really not a meaningful amount of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy that can take place past a certain point.
      The sarcoplasm only expands when intracellular solute concentration increases (water follows solutes). That can happen short-term with something like sodium loading, but that doesn’t stick around for long. Long-term, that can happen with increases in glycogen storage capacity. Glycogen storage capacity DOES increase with higher volume (higher rep) training, but it also increases from untrained levels with basically any type of training.
      So, just to use some illustrative numbers, let’s just say glycogen storage per unit of muscle increases 40% above untrained levels with traditional powerlifting-style training. It may increase another 10% with high rep, bodybuilder-style training, but ultimately that’s not going to make much of a difference – MAYBE 50g of glycogen tops, which draws another 3g of water per g of glycogen along with it. That’s a total difference of 200g (less than half a pound) of “sarcoplasmic hypertrophy” spread across the entire body.
      Even if we use a crazy number like a 100g difference in glycogen storage (which is unrealistically large), that would be 100g of glycogen plus 300g of water, or 400g of “sarcoplasmic hypertrophy” total – less than a pound spread across the entire body.
      Of course, the easiest way to increase your total glycogen storage capacity is just to build more muscle, period, regardless of training style.
      There are a few other ways the sarcoplasm can expand SLIGHTLY. Mitochondrial biogenesis, for example. Mitochondria take up way less than 1% of a muscle’s volume, though, so there’s no realistic way that mitochondrial biogenesis could account for a major change in muscle size. Increased intracellular buffers could potentially draw some water along with them as well, but again, not a ton. You can also get a transient swelling effect just from getting a sweet pump, obviously, but that’s dissipated within 24 hours, or 48 hours TOPS. Finally, you can get longer-term swelling from muscle damage (edema), but that’s still resolved within a matter of 2-3 days at most.
      So, at the end of the day, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can happen and does happen, BUT the amount it contributes to overall muscle size is absolutely miniscule. If I were putting an upper limit on long-term sarcoplasmic hypertrophy when comparing a totally untrained person to a maximally sarcoplasmically-hypertrophied person, it may be up to 5-10% of a muscle’s total size. MAYBE. But 70%+ of that would just come from ANY type of training whatsoever. The extra little bits of glycogen and intracellular buffers you got from training to supposedly target sarcoplasmic hypertrophy would only make, at most, the difference of a couple percents.

      1. Great article, thank you! But what about high loads vs low loads having different effects on Myonuclei and Satellite Cells? From various studies it seems that heavy loads – 65+ RM tend to increase satellite cell activity and myonuclei. Then surely there should be a different mechanism by which low load/high reps cause muscle hypertrophy. The muscle damage is also less with low loads/high reps. What do you think?

        1. I see where you’re coming from.

          If I were a betting man, and you told me you were going to run a study comparing muscle growth with high loads vs. low loads, and instead of running the study for 8-12 weeks, you were instead running it for 2 years, then I’d probably bet on high loads causing more growth over the course of 2 years, for those factors.

          However, my hunch is still that a combination of high and low loads will cause more growth than either in isolation.

          Also, it doesn’t seem like high loads are necessary for satellite cell activation/proliferation/differentiation. The key factor SEEMS to be the local hormonal milieu (elevated local IGF-1 and it’s splice variants, and decreased myostatin signalling). In general, that’s easier to achieve with heavier loads, but a couple studies show that low load training with blood flow restriction, and HIIT can have similar effects.

          1. Greg, have you seen some research lately suggesting that high reps may reduce myostatin? I’ve been considering using a setup that’s a variant of my usual ABA BAB. I train 3x per week so each workout is spaced 4-5 days. But I’m considering adding 2 sets of high reps on what was my “off” day for that group. Let me clarify. If A is upper and B is lower, then I will add 2 high reps sets of a single lower body move on the upper day and vice versa. My thought is that by spacing the higher workload every 4-5 days allows for strength progression and getting a high rep set or two in 48 hours later may help with satellite cell stimulation, overall frequency and volume, and help to blunt myostatin. Thoughts on this Frankenstein stew? Thanks!

  37. All these studies neglect accounting for TUT (Time under Tension) which is relative to tempo. Volume can be increased via fast tempo which brings the help of intertia into play. Try lifting the same weight 3 times slower and see how it effects your volume. Newer, and in my opinion, more valid thinking on this subject for the most part disregards or discounts reps and volume and focuses on TUT and going to failure if the goal is maximum hypertrophy. In fact it has been demonstrated that multiple sets follow the law of diminishing returns. However the average gym rat mentality is “more is better” and time use efficiency is thrown out the window. Most don’t realize you can spend half the time you are probably spending in the gym now lifting 3 or more sets and get essentially the same results, as long as you go to failure. That 3rd or 4th set is essentially a waste of time, unless you simply enjoy spending lots of time in a gym environment despite whether you are achieving any significant additional gains.

  38. Hello,
    This site is gold mine, and this article is answering many of my questions (I’m reading archive arts, thats why I comment now).
    The one thing I’m missing of emphasis on micro-trauma as one of pathways to hypertrophy. You were talking mainly about “metabolic stress” part of hypertrophy.
    What it (warning, hypothesis following this mark):
    – fewer rep sets with higher weight produce more hypertrophy due to microtrauma part
    – more rep sets with less weight produce more hypertrophy due to metabolic stress
    In clinical trials, both groups could have similar hypertrophy, but mixed approach (periodization) could have better results then any of those approach on its own.
    Are those effects controlled in those trials? Is this theory plausible?
    Best regards and thanks for great articles!
    Piotr

    1. Thus far (strangely) there isn’t much comparing multiple rep ranges vs. a single rep range. This study comes up a lot (http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2014/11000/Changes_in_Exercises_Are_More_Effective_Than_in.9.aspx) but the variation in intensity was still pretty small. The groups with constant intensity always trained with 8rm loads, and the groups with varied intensity trained with intensities from 6rm loads to 10rm loads. In other words, basically 80% vs. 75-85%. So still not a ton of difference.

  39. Nathan/Greg,

    If I understand it correctly, you guys suggest that there’s no point in calculating tonnage, since volume is not tonnage-dependent, but depends on the number of hard sets on a given workout/training cycle. So if I stop doing my 5×5 @ RPE8 routine and start doing 4×10 @ RPE8, the volume is going to be lower?

    If so, what do you think this whole tonnage thing came from? Is it a myth that is going to be debunked soon? Do you have any studies that proves that the tonnage is somehow related to the effect of the workout?

    Thanks in advance!

    1. To the best of my knowledge, it just became convention over time, and no one stopped to question it.

      Studies matching tonnage are actually where the idea got started that light weights were ineffective for building muscle. i.e. there were studies that compared something like 3 sets to failure with 80% (let’s just assume it’s 8 reps per set, and your max is 100lbs) to tonnage-matched training with 30%. So that’s 3x8x80=1920lbs, so for 30% it would be 3 sets of 21-22 reps. So, in essence, those studies were comparing 3 really hard sets to 3 really easy sets. When you match effort per set instead of tonnage (like Mitchell and Schoenfeld did in their studies comparing training at in the 8-12 rep range to much lighter training; 25-35 reps for schoenfeld, and 30%1rm for Mitchell), differences in hypertrophy go away.

      1. I see. Could we say that counting and manipulating the numbers of hard sets is useful for hypertrophy, and calculating and manipulating tonnage is useful for strength gains? Or the latter would be a stretch to say?

        1. I think that would still be a stretch. Something more like # of hard sets in any intensity range is predictive of hypertrophy, and # of hard sets of ~5 reps or fewer has the most direct carryover for strength.

      1. So, in some way that would mean that he’s not sure anymore about some of his articles? (for example: 10 Reasons Bodybuilders Are Bigger Than Powerlifters)
        Or do you think that I can still use his advices as “basic rules”

        1. I would assume so. I mean, that article is from 2011. Most people are going to change their minds about plenty of things over the course of 4 years.

          Heck, Brad’s even published research that contradicts things in that article; high reps vs. low reps (he published two studies about that, showing that rep range didn’t matter much), rest periods (he JUST published a study showing that longer rest periods were better, which contradicts what he said in that article), and training splits (he published a study earlier this year showing that full body training with higher frequency for each muscle but lower volume per session was slightly better for hypertrophy).

          So, I’m sure he meant every word of it when he wrote it, but I think he’d probably disagree with parts of it now.

  40. One thing I would love to see addressed is the matter of speed/accelleration; since IIb type musle fibers are used in explosive movements, I would like to know whether dynamic movements where the trainee tries to accellerate at the highest speed possible, using weights at about 50 – 55 percent of 1RM max can be used successfully for hypertrophy while minimizing the risk of injury associated with very high intensity (3RM or more) work (assuming equal total volume, naturally).

    1. You probably don’t need to worry about type IIb fibers, since basically all of them are converted to type IIa with any amount of hard training. And it seems that intent to move the bar as fast as possible matters much more than actual bar speed. In fact, with that light of loads, you’d probably not be recruiting your largest fibers unless you took the set close to failure, since total force (force, not power) output would be so low.

  41. Nathan (and Greg)
    One thing I understand from your article is that Metabolic byproducts causes the burn sensation and that is the reason why one to not able to perform another rep.

    One actually feels this while doing something like 7 reps, or 15 reps, or higher reps.
    Of course this cannot continue indefinitely, since as the load being lifted becomes lighter, (perhaps) the slow twitch fibres alone can take care – and slow twitch are aerobic fibres not fatigable. So definitely there will be a rep limit after which one stops feeling the burn.

    Now moving towards the higher load / lower rep side of the picture.
    When I take a 3RM load, what stops me from doing a 4th rep?
    Is it the metabolic by products?
    I never feel the burn.

    Is it something to do with the fibres having the capacity, but neurons depleted?
    Why does the failure/fatigue at 3 RM load feels SOOO different from failure/fatigue at 20 RM load?

    1. That’s a good question. With heavier loads, it’s a matter of how quickly you can produce the energy required to create enough muscular force. Energy demands scale linearly with force output, and the amount of energy you can create drops off with each subsequent rep (as you deplete stored ATP, stored phosphocreatine, then start hitting a fatigue point for anaerobic glycolysis, and finally are left almost totally reliant on aerobic energy production – each step down comes with a decrease in the rate at which you can produce ATP). So, the amount of force you have to produce with each rep doesn’t decrease, but the rate at which you can produce ATP with each rep DOES decrease – when the rate of ATP replenishment dips below the rate of ATP demands, you miss the rep.

    2. Correct me if I’m wrong, but to my understanding, you can’t do 4th rep in 3RM, because you run your of ATP (and maybe CP) in contracting muscles – and since depletion was so rapid (much faster then while doing 12RM) both aerobic (Krebs cycle) nor anaerobic processes (lactate from the pyruvate) in muscles couldn’t keep up. During longer set (like in 12RM), both systems can run longer (mostly anaerobic thou) so you fill burn from lactic acid build up.

  42. Fantastic article, Nathan. What do you or Greg think the implications are about set volume being the main driver when considering the new research out of Russian on type 1 hypertrophy? Nathan mentioned in the “holes in this boat” section that one thing he wondered about was if high reps were selectively triggering growth in type 1’s, and it appears from this by Brad below that this may indeed be the case. If so, then we may be seeing the same overall amount of growth between rep ranges, but the lower reps (8-12) may be better for type 2’s and the higher reps (25-35) are better for type 1 growth. This could change the core premise that its total set number as the key to focus on. Maybe adding sets isn’t the primary driver that is emerging from recent research. If we assumed that all growth seen in these contrasting rep ranges was equally distributed across type 1s and type 2s then Nathan’s premise seems more solid. But if, as Brad thinks, high reps and low reps are causing growth in different fibers, then its not adding sets that causes growth, but rather adding a few sets directed toward each end of the spectrum. Or not….LOL. Would love to hear what you guys think. Here is Brad’s newest article and the Russian studies he cites at the end. https://www.t-nation.com/training/new-science-of-time-under-tension

  43. Is it reasonable to conclude that as long as RM is 25-30, bodyweight training is just as effective as resistance training?
    So for example, 25-30 reps of push ups to failure result in the same hypertrophy effect as any rep range of bench press to failure?

    1. In theory, as long as taking a set of pushups to failure really does stop you at 25-30 reps.

      There are two problems, though, assuming you’re trying to maximize growth:

      1) It probably won’t be long before you can easily do way more than 25-30 pushups in a set. I’m skeptical that sets of, say 70-80 reps will be quite as good for hypertrophy, simply because mechanical tension relative to maximal tension is so low.

      2) Pushups are a good example of a relatively challenging bodyweight exercise, and when you get too good at pushups, you could always move on to dips to keep training your chest and triceps hard. However, that’s not the case for all muscle groups. With a little training, most people can bust out 100+ bodyweight squats easy. It’s also hard to really train your hamstrings and glutes hard with just bodyweight.

      So, I wouldn’t necessarily conclude that bodyweight training is just as effective as resistance training (especially for lower body strength/growth), but for your upper body especially, it can certainly produce similar results until you get strong enough that you need to start adding quite a big of external resistance.

      More on pushups specifically: http://www.strengtheory.com/band-resisted-pushups-bench-press-for-strength-gains-plus-how-useful-is-emg/

      1. I found this quote in another article:

        “When comparing a WIDE array of training variables (number of reps, rest periods, rep speed, and loading), muscle growth is the same if sets are taken to failure.”

        Doesn’t it mean that once you get strong enough and bodyweight excercises don’t stop you at 25-30 reps anymore, you can start performing them much slower, for example?

        Let’s say someone can perform 30 push ups before failure, at some point he gets stronger and can do 60.
        Will he get the same hypertrophy effect if he started performing slow pushups and hitting failure at 25-30 reps max again?

        1. Possibly. My hunch (though I could be totally off, and I don’t have any science to back this up) is “no,” but at the same time, you do occasionally see some super jacked bodyweight training specialists. I’m honestly not sure one way or the other.

  44. And another question concerning the “more sets = more results” rule – is there an upper limit?
    What do you see as a minimum and a maximum amount of sets per body part per week?
    And also, do we need to distinguish between sets of compound excercises and sets of isolation excercises when looking at the volume?

    I understand there’s no clear answer to this but just a rough guess would be good.

    1. Yep, you can certainly do too much (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16095427)

      Peterson and Rhea did a meta-analysis and their basic findings for intermediate lifters was that four sets, 2x per week was best, and for advanced lifters it was 8 sets, 3x per week (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16287373). tbh that seems about right for advanced lifters, and a little bit low for intermediates (just 4 sets of squats with no accessories twice per week to maximize strength gains? That not SUPER low, but I’ve found that a bit higher than that tends to be better for my athletes; classification may be an issue, though – I may personally classify athletes as intermediate powerlifters who would be termed advanced strength trainees in the scientific literature), but that’s where the evidence points right now.

      For strength, I’d distinguish between compound and isolation lifts, but I wouldn’t for hypertrophy.

      1. Greg, I thought that the loading in Rhea’s study was 2x per week for both intermediate and advanced. The only 3x frequency was for beginners. That drops volume to 16 sets per week. Which makes more sense considering Brad s study on bro splits vs full body. He used 7 sets at about 85% done over 3x per week and the guys were getting hurt, burned out, and made no more progress

          1. Hi Greg. Just checked. It is 2x per week for all but beginners. For strength of course. Kreigers work suggests no more than six sets 2x per week for hypertrophy, that is.

    2. Just to reiterate a previous post, Schoenfeld and Kreiger are working g on a meta on weekly volume for optimal hypertrophy. In a podcast on forecast, Brad states that 12 sets per week is significantly superior to less than 10 sets.

  45. I’m confused about your explanation of Size Principle. My understanding is that muscle fibers are recruited based on required force, not fatigue. If I’m lifting 50% of my max then I’ll recruit 50% of muscle fibers up the line (T1 to TII, small to large.. etc etc.) The “bigger” fibers aren’t used at all. Only at a 1RM are 100% of muscle fibers recruited.

    Can you explain this a little better?

    1. Sure! With fatigue, some MUs will fatigue, so more have to be recruited to take their place to maintain force output. So as some of those initial 50% start tiring out, your nervous system has to call upon the next motor units up the chain, then as more drop out, more MUs need to be recruited, etc. So you may never reach full recruitment at a single point in time, but the Size Principle still applies – recruiting more MUs as their needed (in this case, due to fatigue instead of due to increased force output).

  46. In one of your posts, you said that Starting Strength has little volume for Bench, Press, Clean, and Deadlift. Would you suggest 3×8-12 to increase volume?

    So, workout A

    Squat 3×5
    Bench press 3×8-12
    Deadlift 1×8-12

    Workout B

    Squat 3×5
    Overhead press 3×8-12
    Power Clean (or bent rows) 3×8-12

    What do you think?

  47. I am 45 years old and have been lifting for several years. I have always lifted mostly for strength. Now that I’m getting a little older I am wanting to lift for hypertrophy mostly. I am wanting to add this size before I get older and more tired. Anyway by reading your article am I right by saying that I should be lifting in the 8-12 and 15-20 Rep range. As I get older I do get a few more aches and pains lol.

  48. Hi Greg.
    I have 1 question about deadlift.
    Someone said thát: “Deadlift should not train as high volume as squat”
    How do you think about this.
    I’m training deadlift 3 day/week, as high volume as squat:
    Day 1: strength: Sumo DL; total 10-15 rep at 80-95% 1rm (85-100 training max)
    Day 2: hybrid (strength + hyper): conventional Deadlift: total 25-35 rep at 70-75% traning max
    Day 3: Hypertrophy + endurance: romanian DL + hyperextension: total 4-50 rep at 50-65% traning max
    Do you think it is overtraning?

  49. Hey Greg,
    I would like your opinion on some thoughts I have had on volume. They have been based more on muscle building vs strength…I believe. So considering all sets in this example to be done 1-2 short of failure. Is it wrong to assume that 6 sets of 5 reps for a total of 30 reps at a higher weight, would be better then say 3 sets of 10 for a total of 30 reps, closer maybe to failure. but at a lower weight? I kind of thought total reps being equal the heavier weighted ones were better. I understand more time is involved with the reps of 5 even if all the set rest intervals were the same in both groups because of more total sets…but wouldn’t this perhaps be better as you are taking more attempts closer to fatigue then the 3 x 10 grouping? Or do more attempts closer to fatigue even matter.

    Most of the time I try to maintain a rep total goal. As I add weight over successive workouts and the reps drop I just add sets to maintain this total rep goal. Is it possibly better to do this in a lower rep range then perhaps a higher, or would it not matter as total reps would be equal?

    Thank You Sir

  50. Great article that stimulates for even more questions than answers. For what it’s worth here is my take based on my 40 years of bodybuilding experience and being a member of both World Gym and Gold’s Gym for 35 years in Santa Monica and Venice California. I have watched and train with the top bodybuilders of the 80’s and 90’s and I can tell you that over 90% of them when training any body part natural or drug assisted would work up to a hard single set and then move on to another movement for the same body part usually 3-4 movements per body part in that fashion. What that means for example with squats they would start with 135lbs for 12 reps then 225lbs for 10 reps then 315lbs for 10 reps again 365lbs for 10!reps and finally 405lbs for 10 reps to failure. As you can see it would take about 5 pyramid sets to achieve their last set to failure. Strong guys like Platz could easily do it over 4 sets instead of five sets and with some smaller muscles and isolation movements it might require less sets to climb to a final set to failure, the point is that the principle applies to most exercise. This is how most bodybuilders train and they count all sets. So when they tell you they do 20 sets of chest over 4 movements it’s really I set to failure in each movement, all those other sets are a mean to get there. Mike Mentzer’s HIT protocol didn’t count the warm up sets it only counted the final work set since it’s the one that had the most impact on strength. You will rarely see a bodybuilder doing multiple sets with the same weight, it’s either pyramid up or down but never linear. They are some exception to this rule when doing German volume training but most bodybuilders get easily bored with that kind of training.

  51. Thanks a lot for this article. It made me think a little more about my style of training. In the comments I could find some interesting thoughts about rep ranges and CNS fatigue. But what about rep ranges and DOMS? If let’s say the 5-rep range can give you similar hypertrophy results as the 10-rep range, what about soreness? Is it also similar? Or is there more soreness in one rep range because of more time under tension (and mechanical work) or vice versa because of more tension because of the higher weights?

  52. I am trying to figure out if I have dropped too much volume in a cut. I am doing the leangains protocol and doing rpt. Prior to that i was doing 10*10 ala Richard hawthorns advice. The leangains people basically suggest 3 or 4 sets tops… Getting close to max on each lift. My lifts were going up until recently. I am no longer hitting my rep targets. Should I take weight off and try to add more sets? I’m pushing 40 and I feel like my joints feel better in the higher rep ranges.

  53. A great article. I find it funny though how a lot of it hearkens back to what Arnold used to say about muscle building. It was before the net and all, but I used to try and remember little nuggets that I read from his writings such as….The weight is a means to an end to feel a contraction… The muscles do not know weight, just work… It is overload and volume that give the bodybuilder look….Training too heavy teaches the muscles to recruit more fibers at once but only trains a fraction compared to more reps and sets,

    From his book his biggest gains in a year was when he was in the military working out 6 hrs at a stretch. Then after he got out he even grew faster, when out of necessity, started a double split bringing the workouts to about the 3 hr mark but upping the frequency. Many thought he worked the Park 5×5 for most his mass, but this is untrue, From his first year he quickly escalated workouts to 6 days a week trying to stay in the gym as long as possible.

    Clearly Arnold did both heavy and light and recommended both When he worked up heavy he just ran those work up sets closer to failure because the max weight used was not the goal, just heavier failure sets. I read something of his about 20 sets of 5 on curls when younger trying to shock the muscles…but hey it was Arnold…so go figure.

  54. wow….at last some science behind the “bro science.” I have focused on lifting heavy only in the 1-3 rep range. Dude at the gym said i would not get any bigger. Well 2 years on i am plenty toned enough and lifting very heave (compared to average Joe)

    Now you see why most people in the gym do not progress. They treat working out like a social event. Just enough to give the impression of some effort but not too much….dear. More talking and catching up then actually working out.

  55. Greg,

    I %100 agree with your #3 comment found in your link I’m pasting below. Your best off doing the full spectrum of rep ranges to reach optimal growth even though they’re similar in volume loads. Let me add it’s because those different rep ranges, although similar in volume are doing different things on a biological level. For instance, the lighter weights w/ similar volume will have a longer ‘time under tension’ variable than the other rep ranges. However although the heavier weight rep ranges are somewhat similar in volume to your high rep ranges you do, it’s still creating a different stress
    stimulus ‘time under tension’ stimulus & a few other things. Because the stress stimulus isn’t solely based on volume load. As a result, you gain different biological benefits from each rep range despite being similar in volume to that of other rep ranges, those benefits in low range will help you push further in the ‘hypertrophy midrep’ range. The reason mid rep ranges are said to be where most gains in size occur is because it does a little of what the low rep range and high rep range do all at the same time on a biological level. However, doing all rep ranges as you stated in #3 in your link pasted below is equally important, since your performance of your mid rep ‘hypertrophy’ range hinges on how much progress is being made in the low rep and high rep stages of your periodized training. You mentioned I missed the point, I did a little, now I see your article is more about staying in that same rep range whether it be low or high and never changing, just simply trying to make progress with one rep range. Truth is you can’t do that too well, all rep ranges need to be lifted because they all build off each other and biologically your body gains something from each range that will further it in perhaps a growth rep range. If you don’t work on all ranges your gains in size will stagnate. Here’s Your link, agree on #3.

    http://strengtheory.com/hypertrophy-range-fact-fiction/

  56. I’ve always hated high rep sets on squat and dead lift. I can’t lift as large a % of my 1RM on these as other people seem to be able to, and I find them really hard to recover from. I don’t heart them on bench either, but I find it more tolerable. If I see say 3 sets of 10 on Back Squat in a workout I’m much more likely to skip that day or take it easy on that day, but I have no problem doing 10 hard sets of 3, and I seem to recover better from that. I have no idea why, but it’s the way I’m wired, but if I read this right I might actually be better off doing the 10 sets of 3 than then 3 sets of 10 anyway, because that increases the total number of sets done. Am I reading that right?

  57. If you view volume as number of hard sets, wouldn´t it make more sense to view intensity as intensity of exertion rather than intensity of load? Viewing intensity as intensity of load would mean that 5×3 provides a greater stimulus than 5×8, because the “intensity of load” is higher. This means low reps would be far superior. With the traditional approach to volume 5×3 would mean less volume so the plus at intensity is counter-balanced. With volume viewed as hard sets it isn´t. But you can´t do many sets (aka volume) when you go near failure all the time (aka high intensity). Would this approach make sense to be able to programm progress? One could improve their work capacity by doing many sets leaving a bunch of reps in the tank and then express their strength by doing less sets,but going near failure. Also sorry for any grammar or spelling mistakes.

      1. I think I didn´t get through what i wanted to say.. in my experience proximity to failure plays a great role how much volume I can handle, even more than intensity. I recover from heavy loads as well as from light loads. And when I count volume as hard sets it will be even more this way. But what really limits the volume I can handle is proximity to failure.. so why does nobody talk about that?

          1. Thanks for the replys! It isn´t self evident that you take the time to reply to almost every comment. Keep up the good work!

  58. Great content!

    Would you recommend something like Lyle McDonald’s Generic Bulking Routine for an intermediate bodybuilder?

      1. Great content. I am amazed at the depth of knowledge of your readership. I am not an expert but:

        To “train” the lift:
        1. The “size principle” of muscle fiber recruitment may not be relevant to
        rapid contractions, as most muscle fiber units are recruited even at low intensity . Training of the competitive exercise (or a special developmental exercise with a high carry over) increases the muscle unit discharge rate, mostly through neural drive (1). Louie’s dynamic effort?

        To “build” the lift”:

        2. Muscle protein synthesis occurs through load-induced activation of the mTORC1 pathway (2). A practical method is to utilize a wide-variety of exercises, in order to avoid “accommodation” (3). Louie’s repetition method?

        3. Muscle protein synthesis occurs also by recruitment of satellite cells, through damaging, eccentric exercise (4). Louie’s maximum effort?

        These findings suggest that the 2 “master” variables are training load (intensity) (competitive exercise or high-carryover special developmental exercise for neural drive, satellite cell recruitment) and exercise selection (high variety, for mTORC1 activation). If this is true, then volume and training frequency (which seems to be the crux of most periodization schemes) can be seen as dependent variables of exercise selection and the training load.

        (1) Maffiuletti NA(1), Aagaard P(2), Blazevich AJ(3), Folland J(4), Tillin N(5),
        Duchateau J(6).Rate of force development: physiological and methodological considerations. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016 Jun;116(6):1091-116. doi: 10.1007/s00421-016-3346-6.
        Epub 2016 Mar 3.

        (2) The Molecular Basis for Load-Induced Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy. George R. Marcotte, Daniel W.D. West, Keith Baar
        Calcif Tissue Int. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2016 Mar 28.
        Published in final edited form as: Calcif Tissue Int. 2015 Mar; 96(3): 196–210. Published online 2014 Oct 31. doi: 10.1007/s00223-014-9925-9

        (3) Fonseca, RM et al. Changes in exercises are more effective than loading schemes to improve muscle strength. J Strength and Conditioning Research, November 2014.

        (4) Satellite cells in human skeletal muscle plasticity
        Tim Snijders, Joshua P. Nederveen, Bryon R. McKay, Sophie Joanisse, Lex B. Verdijk, Luc J. C. van Loon, Gianni Parise
        Front Physiol. 2015; 6: 283. Published online 2015 Oct 21. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2015.00283

  59. Hello,

    Just came across the site and this article as I was researching re training volume. Amazing site by the way!

    I’m just curious, with regards to total volume (for powerlifting), in terms of strength/hypertrophy would you say that the total volume is at the top priority in progressing? Say for example my 1RM is 100, if I do
    A. 90%x5x2 (900)
    vs.
    B. 65%x2x7 (910)
    vs.
    C. 90%x3x1 plus 65%x1x10 (920)

    All have basically the same volume. A is catered more to strength, high intensity and is more specific (powerlifting), B is moderate intensity but done to failure, while C is a combination of the two. Am I right to assume that as long as I achieve the target total volume then gradually increase it, I would progress?

    Thanks in advance. Shout out all the way from the Philippines here!

  60. Nathan, I’ve been training for 13 years and I tried different training techniques for muscle growth over that time. What has worked the best for me was either increasing the load or lifting lighter but to failure. I have to say increasing the load and doing very low reps and sets worked the best for muscle size and strength. However, you mention something in your article that i think might be the key to hypertrophy and that’s to lift to failure on each set and to do high number of sets like that. This I think forces the body to respond by adapting to the demand put on it and producing more muscle to handle the demand, which is to move a weight for a certain period of time. Great article!

  61. I am a powerlifter in my late 50’s, I am still making gains, I am doing the 5×5 and the weights that I am using are not heavy enough. I would not consider myself a elite lifter as I have been training since the late 70’s I still feel I can make gains but obviously at a slower rate and that is fine, I would like your take on going to failure or continue on with the 5×5, I feel I am leaving the gym without taxing myself enough, what are your thoughts?

  62. Greg,
    Very good article but it didn’t answer some of my questions. Hopefully you have an answer or can direct me.
    1. How do you measure changes in muscle endurance.
    2. What should be the ratio between muscle strength and muscle endurance for difference sports or at least in golf.
    3. I am training for strength and power { 5X5 (3-5 minutes rest)} followed with 3 sets of yielding isometrics for each exercise. What change should I see in my endurance for let’s say a 10% increase in 1RM.
    4. Am I correct in including yielding isometrics.
    5. Any comments on the best % of 1RM to use for yielding isometric exercises
    5. Any thoughts on drop sets.
    Thank you,
    leonard

    1. 1) Typically reps to failure with a fixed load, or a given % of 1rm
      2) It varies sport to sport. For golf, though, I don’t really see why you’d need much muscle endurance unless you just get worn down walking around the course.
      3) Depends how you measure it. If you test it against an absolute load, then probably somewhere around 10%. If you test it against a relative load (i.e. a given % of 1RM), then it probably wouldn’t change with that style of training
      4-6) It depends on your goals, weaknesses, and the context of the rest of your program. It’s impossible for me to say for sure.

      1. Greg,
        Thanks for taking your time to respond to my questions and hopefully you will take time to answer one more question.
        I trying to understand how it is possible for one method to be superior in muscle endurance and not in muscle strength and vice versa. That is I also cant see how a method that is superior in muscle strength is not also superior in muscle endurance.

        If we take a set of people who have the same 1RM for a specific exercise (Which by all the formula I have seen means that for the full range of weights they will all can do the same # of reps). If half of the group performs that exercise with 20% IRM and the other at 80% for a period of time. If we test both groups at the 20% 1RM, the group that has the highest reps by definition has the most improved muscle endurance. However, all the formula for converting reps to 1RM would also say they had the highest IRM and therefore the best improvement in muscle strength. It also implies the test could be done at any weight and we would find the same result that the groups with most muscle improvement would find that true at all weights.
        I appreciate your thoughts.
        Leonard

        .

        1. Like I said, it depends how endurance is measured.

          If it’s reps with a fixed load (especially a relatively heavy load) for each individual, then strength endurance does essentially become a proxy for strength gains. In the lab I’m in, we actually just finished a study that assessed strength endurance this way. Pre-training, the people did a set to failure with 80% of their 1RM, and post-training, they did another set to failure with 80% of their pre-training (not their new post-training) 1RM. Unsurprisingly, the people who gained the most strength also tended to improve the most in reps to failure.

          On the other hand, if it’s reps with a relative load, then the effects of strength gains factor in less. For example, if you assess strength enduring with 40% of pre-training 1RM, and then assess it again with 40% of post-training 1RM, people who get stronger doing low rep sets don’t tend to improve much (or any), while people who were doing high rep sets tend to be able to do more reps.

          tl;dr if you assess endurance with a fixed load, both gains in muscle strength and gains in local muscular endurance are factored into your results. If you assess endurance with a relative load, you moreso capture gains in just muscular endurance (and those are the tests where high rep training tends to produce the markedly better reults).

          1. Greg,

            Again thank you for taking time for replying.

            After reading your reply I happened to read an article (inside the muscle cell by Lou Schiller) in the latest Men’s Health magazine which explains your findings. The article covers the research by Andy Galpin of Cal State Fullerton of chunks of Quad muscle and found that the average untrained guy might contain 40% type 1, 30% type 11a and 30% hybrid. Where the hybrids are all are mixtures of 1 and 11a or 11a and 11x or 1, 11a and 11x. And just sit around until you need them. After you start weight lifting the hybrids start converting to fast twitch. And after endurance training they convert to type 1. After you stop training the converted hybrids start going back to pure hybrids waiting for there next assignments. Included in the article is the study of identical twins where the runner had 90% type 1, the other who no longer had a regular fitness program had 50% type 1, 25% type 11 and 25% hybrid.

  63. Fantastic article… thank you! It’s admittedly difficult to let go of the traditional definition of volume where hypertrophy is concerned. Maybe this can be a useful takeaway:

    It seems both volume and number of high effort sets are significant; therefore, perhaps both should be considered, and as a balance, i.e., a routine with more sets may result in greater hypertrophy if its volume is not FAR outnumbered by the comparing routine, and, a routine with higher volume may result in greater hypertrophy if its sets are not FAR outnumbered by the comparing routine.

    In other words, for the purpose of hypertrophy, whether prioritizing volume or number of high effort sets, it seems wise to make sure the other isn’t far behind. Both should be relatively high.

  64. Great article!

    Greg, what is the recommended way of adding additional sets to an exercise?
    Suppose I’m doing squats 3×8, do I just decide one day to do an additional set or is there some kind of a progression one should take (i.e., adding more reps, and then dropping them back and doing an additional set instead).

  65. Hi Greg,

    What is your opinion on rest intervals ?
    It seems that two training programs with the same number of hard sets but with different rest intervals may lead to different hypertrophic response.

    Thank you !

  66. I’ve been reading a lot here lately and am loving the scientific approach to these topics and how much I’m learning.

    I’ve also been reading a lot of the articles at muscleforlife.com lately, and in one of his articles, he states that lower rep ranges are much more effective at stimulating hypertrophy, whereas this article stated that the rep range seemed to have no effect on hypertrophy.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on his article if you wouldn’t mind
    https://www.muscleforlife.com/guide-to-muscle-hypertrophy-muscle-growth/

  67. Great article! But, I’m wondering:

    If you combine this “hard set method” with the information as derived from the Revive Stronger Podcast with Carl Juneau and Borge Fagerli (rest pause method like training) would every set after an “activation set” count as a hard set?

    That would be an ideal & really time efficient way to get;
    1) All your work in, if you’re really pressed for time.
    2) Your accessory work in.

    Would love to get an answer!

      1. Thanks for the (fast) reply, Greg!

        I know that the literature is pretty hazy as of yet.
        But, if we look at RP training (don’t want to burn myself on the topic of drop sets because of the larger amount of variables), the 2/3 pillars of progressive overload are applicable.

        – Weight on the bar (usable)
        – Reps performed per set (debatable)
        – Total sets performed (usable)

        So, let’s say an individual does an “activation set” + 3 “cluster sets” reaching a total amount of let’s say 20 reps. It would be entirely possible to either increase the weight each week until the deload comes, reset & go at it again. Or increase the total amount of reps to let’s say 30 reps (increasing 2 reps every week), deload, increasing the weight by a fraction & build up from 20 to 30 reps again. Correct?

  68. Greg, thanks for the response. To follow up with you, I was just now reading over your article that analyzes studies investigating workout frequency, and I just had a quick question or two about that. Since it seems to be the case that working out a particular muscle group 2-3x/wk leads to more hypertrophy than training it just 1x/week, would you say that someone who (as an example) typically trains back/biceps on Mondays, chest/triceps/shoulders on Wednesdays, and legs on Fridays would be better off doing the same overall weekly volume, but splitting it up in the form of 3 full-body workouts each on M/W/F?

    In other words, instead of doing all three sets of close-grip cable rows on Monday, one set would be performed on Monday, the second set would be performed on Wednesday, and the third set would be performed on Friday. Other back exercises (as well as exercises for other muscle groups) would be performed in a similar “split” fashion throughout the week as well.

    Do you think it would be a better idea to follow a workout plan like the one I described above if someone’s goal is maximizing hypertrophy? Or do you think that it might not allow for enough recovery time to perform the same exercises on MWF (even if overall weekly set volume is kept the same)?

    Thanks again

    1. “would you say that someone who (as an example) typically trains back/biceps on Mondays, chest/triceps/shoulders on Wednesdays, and legs on Fridays would be better off doing the same overall weekly volume, but splitting it up in the form of 3 full-body workouts each on M/W/F?”

      On average, yes.

      “In other words, instead of doing all three sets of close-grip cable rows on Monday, one set would be performed on Monday, the second set would be performed on Wednesday, and the third set would be performed on Friday. Other back exercises (as well as exercises for other muscle groups) would be performed in a similar “split” fashion throughout the week as well.”

      Why not just do different exercises each day (i.e. close-grip cable rows Monday, barbell rows Wednesday, DB rows Friday, for example)?

      1. Thanks for the tip; I was actually sort of under the impression (based on the general premise that training a muscle 2-3x/wk seems to be better for hypertrophy) that it would be advantageous to literally do the exact same exercises multiple days per week, with the overall weekly volume held the same. Obviously, though, it sounds like I might have interpreted the research findings too literally.

        So on that basis, would you recommend a routine like the following instead?:

        Monday: Lat pull-downs, flat bench press, barbell rows, cable curls, decline bench press, some form of squats, and maybe a triceps exercise.

        Wednesday: Close-grip cable rows, incline bench press, another form of curls, another triceps exercise, lateral raises for shoulders, maybe one more chest exercise and one more back exercise.

        Friday: A similar full-body routine comprised of exercises that weren’t done on M/W.

        I’m actually in a somewhat tricky situation since I have a labrum tear in at least one shoulder (as well as small rotator cuff tears/tendinitis in both shoulders), so for me, one of my goals is to try to get as close as I can to configuring exactly how many sets/reps I need to perform to promote a maximum hypertrophy response and not lift anymore than it takes to do that (purely in light of the shoulder issues).

        Thanks again

        1. Other than skimping on leg work, that looks fine overall. As for your labrum issues, that’s something to discuss with a physical therapist, but it’s probably more dependent on exercise selection than frequency.

  69. I think this explains the effectiveness of rest-pause training, where you can get multiple ‘hard’ mini-sets close to failure in less overall time. For hypertrophy, what counts is how many times you fatigue the full range of muscle fibers in a given session, not how many reps you can do in total.

    1. I’m not so sure about that. The research on rest-pause sets or drop sets (similar concept) generally don’t show them outperforming traditional sets for hypertrophy. I think short rest intervals are a similar concept (you can still hit failure again; it just takes fewer reps). They also don’t tend to outperform longer rest intervals. I think that after each “trigger” of going near failure on a set, you need some sort of washout period before you’re able to register a further hypertophic stimulus.

      1. I agree that there is no evidence that rest-pause sets outperform traditional sets, but they might save time in the gym- arguably you could get much the same training effect that you would from multiple traditional sets in less time. All of this is speculative of course until the research is done.

  70. All things being equal in terms of volume and intensity, shouldn’t progressive over load be the main focus and goal for beginner/intermediate lifters seeking strength and size?

  71. Great article. Thanks for sharing it. What is confusing and counter-intuitive for me, however, is that it would seem to imply that all that one needs to do to build muscle is to increase the number of high-effort sets per muscle group performed, say, over a given week. There is no need to increase load- ever! So the idea that ‘progressive overload’ (i.e., adding weight over time) is necessary for hypertrophy- kind of goes out the window.

    1. It still makes sense practically. If someone just increases reps at the same weight as they get stronger instead of ever increasing load, eventually they’d just be doing reps until they got bored.

  72. Stephen Norris

    HI, this is….still a very good and relevant article that at least questions ‘what we have always done’ in terms of lifting to get bigger or stronger. I have one question or comment, if anyone is still interested, and its not a dig at the article more so a question derived from it and I apologies if this has already been covered in any of the previous comments.

    My question is this: has any researched determined what fails during lifting? Now I know the obvious answer is the ‘muscle(s)’ however there is more to a lift than just muscles and therefore you can fail a lift without maximising muscle fatigue. If smaller muscle or tendons etc are a factor, then this would explain why higher reps and sets cause greater size as the target muscle(s) are more likely to fail at around the same time as supporting muscles/tendons. In contrast when lifting heavier the smaller muscles/tendons are likely to fail before the target muscle(s) which places a huge strain on the entire chain resulting in a stronger chain i.e. a stronger lifter..

    1. That’s a good question. And the mechanism will depend on the rep range you’re training in. For really low rep stuff, it’ probably just a matter of energy (once you get through your ATP/PCr system and maybe some anaerobic glycolysis, you just can’t cycle through ATP fast enough to form as many crossbridges as you need). For moderate rep stuff, probably still energy (but now anaerobic glycolysis specifically is more likely to be the bottleneck). For higher rep stuff, it’s probably more due to things like compromised calcium handling or accumulated free phosphate interfering with force output.

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