I have previously written a few posts about what I consider the optimal program and excessive volume, and I thought it was time to do another one. As more research is done, we are getting more information about what works for most people to build a muscle bigger and stronger – and on an individual level, I have a few insights on what will work specifically for yourself when the general guidelines don’t.
I don’t think it is very productive to get lost in the math of lifting, where some start looking at how much weight you are lifting in total (i.e. tonnage or volume-load as a function of reps x sets x load).
Tonnage or volume load doesn’t necessarily equate to hypertrophy.
Depending on various factors, it has been shown in research these last few years that regardless of load, as long as it is within the 40-85% of 1RM range, you will achieve hypertrophy on the last 5 or so reps of a set to failure.
I coined the term “effective reps” many years ago when I created Myo-reps (link to my e-book), and other fitness authorities in the field have later adopted it or similar terms (e.g. stimulating reps) – see this article by Chris Beardsley of Strength and Conditioning Research and the accompanying image:
So from a mechanistic standpoint, you get equal growth from a set of 5 reps of 5RM as you will from a set of 20 reps of a 20RM, since you get 5 “effective” reps in both scenarios.
In practice, most people will notice that they get more growth out of certain rep ranges (as long as you don’t conflate the transient pump from higher reps with actual muscle growth).
As higher reps generate more fatigue (15-20+) and lower reps (1-5) will put more strain on joints and connective tissue, most people will gravitate towards the 6-12 rep range as a good compromise.
I would also add that picking exercises you enjoy doing will increase your gains, rather than sticking with some preconceived notion of what is the most effective.
Now, since going to absolute failure may require a lot more recovery time, you may be better off at 1 Rep In Reserve (RIR) as a general rule. You can easily compensate for the loss of effective reps by doing an additional set.
3 sets of 10 @ 10RM (5 effective reps per set) = 15 effective reps (in practice, you might get 10,8,7,6 reps due to accumulated fatigue)
4 sets of 9 @ 10RM (4 effective reps per set) = 16 effective reps (in practice, you might get 9,8,8,7 reps due to accumulated fatigue)
(or 1 Myo-rep set of 9 +3+3+2 @ 10RM = 15 effective reps)
Unless you are doing Myo-reps and taking advantage of fatigue, you would want to keep fatigue from set to set limited by having at least 2-3mins of rest between sets.
Powerlifters may do several submaximal sets at higher loads to get in sufficient volume without putting excess strain on recovery, so that they can work at higher frequencies (as strength is also dependent on skill).
Example: 6-8 sets of 1-2 reps at 3-5RM
The infamous Norwegian Powerlifting Frequency Project showed the best gains in both strength and hypertrophy from training each lift 6x/week – but this was also a high volume study where the 3x/week group spent 3hrs per workout in the gym AND they were elite lifters.
As each workout generates a certain amount of fatigue (both local and central, or peripheral and CNS as they are usually referred to as), there will be a dose-response relationship that looks like a bell curve vs. a straight line that just tapers off – i.e. as you go beyond the 4-6 set per muscle group range you may incur a host of negative effects.
This was shown in the German Volume Study where 5 sets outperformed 10 sets:
So although some recent work has shown better gains from volumes in the range of 30-45+ sets per week, it may only work for a specific subset (younger men in low stress environment) for short periods of time (6-8 weeks), most other research AND my own experience shows that most lifters get way more gains out of way less time spent in the gym in the long term.
Conclusion and practical recommendations
For most lifters, each movement or muscle group can be worked around 2-3x/week at 3 hard, or 4 moderately hard (1RIR), or 5-6 submaximal sets each workout, in the rep range you prefer – but for most people it will be in the vicinity of 6-12 reps.
I do think spending some time at both higher than 12 and lower than 6 reps is wise on occasion, though.
Let your instincts guide you.
If you don’t yet have any instincts, try a training phase where you go from 20+ reps down to 1-3 reps in a progressive manner, to get the needed experience.
Lifting closer to a 1RM with low reps will usually yield the best gains in 1RM due to the principle of specificity, and skill (practicing the test more often) plays a big role in the ability to display true 1RM strength.
If you for various reasons want or need to get in a higher weekly volume (which may or may not be necessary as you get more advanced, a point of contention I won’t dig into here) you would probably be better off increasing frequency instead of volume per workout.
If you’re not consistently getting stronger (improving reps or adding weight) AND generally feeling under-recovered, you should reduce volume, frequency or both.
This goes for all of you who for whatever reason are suffering from compromised recovery, whether it be:
- sleep deprivation (personal experience from being a dad of a 1-year old who still wakes frequently through the night)
- calorie deficits (planned diets or unintentional undereating)
- poor stress management (work/study habits, not being able to say no, generally being a pessimist etc etc).
Hope you got something useful out of this, and let me know in the comments section if you have any questions.
Example of an upper body workout for someone who prefers low-medium reps (i.e. myself):
2 sets @ 8RM – 1RIR (7, 5 reps)
2 sets @ 12RM – 1-2RIR (10, 9 reps)
I increase the load next time when I hit a given upper range in reps (7 reps for bench, 11 reps for Face Pulls in this case)
2 sets @ 10RM – 1RIR (9, 7 reps)
2 sets @ 8RM – 1RIR (7, 5 reps)
OHP (delts have already been hit with Face Pulls and Shoulder Pulls)
2 sets @ 8RM – 0-1RIR (8, 6 reps)
3 sets @ 8RM – 1RIR (7, 5, 5 reps)
1 set @ 12RM – 1RIR
I will also auto-regulate volume by reducing sets if my performance drops (e.g. if I get 9 reps on the first set and only 4 reps on the second set), or stop all work for that muscle group if have regressed since last time (e.g. if I got 120kg for 6 reps on the first set of the previous workout and only get 5 reps this workout).
I may add in a set of arms if I feel like it, but contrary to popular belief – biceps and triceps actually take longer to recover than most other muscle groups and are already indirectly involved in pushing and pulling work, which is why some studies show no additional arm growth from adding e.g. biceps curls to a chin-up routine.