The short and sweet Borge Fagerli guide to getting bigger and stronger

Borge 22 Apr , 2019 33 Comments Training

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.

So e.g:
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) :wink:

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):

Bench Press:

2 sets @ 8RM – 1RIR (7, 5 reps)

paired with:

Face Pulls

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)

Loaded Pushups

2 sets @ 10RM – 1RIR (9, 7 reps)

paired with

Shoulder Pulls

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)

paired with

Chinups

3 sets @ 8RM – 1RIR (7, 5, 5 reps)

Lat Rows

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.

Written By Borge

33 Comments on “The short and sweet Borge Fagerli guide to getting bigger and stronger

  1. Iron de Paula Reply

    April 23, 2019 at 7:46

    Hi Borge, long time reader.
    So, for this population (average trainee, with a regular busy life) a frequency of 4-6 times per bodypart a week is overkill? Assuming low volume per session (2-5 sets) of course.
    Also, I was somewhat curious about your hint that advanced trainees may not need to go towards these higher frequencies. Can you comment a bit about it?

    • Borge Reply

      April 23, 2019 at 7:54

      I think someone with a busy life should be careful with frequency, as we have good data and experience showing how any training stimulus takes longer to recover in a high stress state – even if it’s just one set close to failure.

      So I would generally advise that an intermediate lifter stays in the 2-3x/week range (per muscle group, so this could be an upper/lower split 4 days per week), and spread the weekly volume across those workouts. I.e. I think 4 sets 2x/week beats 2 sets 4x week, and 3 sets 3x/week is probably going to be pretty close to 4 sets 2x/week but some may find it slightly more productive from a skill-based perspective (getting stronger).

  2. Ricky Reply

    April 26, 2019 at 3:19

    I love all the work you put out! I always go hunting in the comments for your back and forths with other people. Haha. But I have a quick question with regards to understanding research. If in a study it shows that x muscle csa increased by 5% what does that actually equate to in practice? Like if you had a 15 inch bicep. Does that mean you’ll see a .75 inch increase? I know when you measure your arm you’re measuring your tricep as well but I’m just trying to think of the simplist way to ask the question. Thanks again!

    • Borge Reply

      April 26, 2019 at 7:05

      It’s a very difficult question to answer, since – as you so correctly state – the arm is made up of more than just the biceps muscle. There’s also the brachialis, the triceps, the humerus, the skin and the subcutaneous fat layer. So a 5% CSA increase, which is an increase in the circumference of the biceps itself, wouldn’t necessarily register on the total arm measurement – since it is also a relative increase, i.e. if the original measurement was 10cm^2 a 5% increase would make it 10.05cm^2 and not push that measurement tape out to any visible degree.

      I seem to recall one study in women showing that an increase of 5cm^2 over a 6 month training program, which would be up to a 50% increase in CSA for some, translated to a 1cm increase in circumference. That’s the closest estimate I can give. 🙂

  3. Sascha Reply

    April 26, 2019 at 9:22

    Great article and good to see you writing again. It’s a rare combination of scientific understanding, real world coaching experience, and common sense that makes your work outstanding in this “industry”.
    Keep it up!

    Btw: Did you remove the large client testimonial page from your norwegian site? It was awesome and inspiring.

    • Borge Reply

      April 26, 2019 at 3:00

      Thank you for the kind words 🙂

      I removed the testimonials as to not clutter up the page too much, but working on new pages where I will put testimonials on a separate page instead of on the Coaching-page itself.

  4. Per Reply

    April 28, 2019 at 9:07

    Hey Børge. I had you as a coach back in 2015. You designed a 6 day full-body split, which i have followed since. I consider myself intermediate, but in the upper range for a few exercises. Will you now instead advise me to follow e.g the upper/lower split or flexible split? (from the myo-reps e-book) The question is whether I get as much benefit from the training with less volume? I will also add that i work as a 100 % fulltime nurse, with day and evening shifts.

    • Borge Reply

      April 29, 2019 at 8:51

      For 6 days per week, go with an upper/lower – especially if you have that type of stress in your life. Depending on work capacity and volume tolerance (i.e. whether you see a typical set as 10,6,4 or 10,10,9) – the latter may indicate you should do a push/pull/legs split, so lower frequency and slightly higher volume per workout. Gaining strength consistently from workout to workout is the best proxy for what to do here.

      • Per Reply

        April 30, 2019 at 3:55

        Thanks for answer Børge, really appreciate it. After reading your comment from Myoreps e-book: ” Are your gains in the gym the last few months or years, in line with the time and effort spent there?” you got me to put things in perspective. I have been training almost everyday for years, just taking days off now and then (rarely). I have been gaining for sure, but not enough for the time spent there. Depending on job and the shifts (Late–>early), which give bad sleep, my recovery varies a lot. But to the point: If i can get same results by reducing volume or frequency, i would really like to try that. I would prefer 5, minimum 4 days per week. Would you recommend upper/lower then? Monday-friday, weekend off repeat? Or should i go for the flexible program?

        • Borge Reply

          May 1, 2019 at 7:38

          Yes, also see other comments here, an upper/lower or push/pull 4 days per week is plenty.

  5. Jan Reply

    April 28, 2019 at 10:22

    Borge which are the differences between myo reps and Dante’dc rest pause?

    Dante’s one reach failure generally for 3 times.. and myo reps is autoregulated.

    But other differences?

    • Borge Reply

      April 29, 2019 at 8:49

      DC training chases fatigue, Myo-reps manages fatigue to get in more effective reps – that is the main difference. You don’t need to go to failure on Myo-reps, and proper fatigue management requires you to stay within 1RIR at all times – whereas failure is encouraged in DC training. Myo-reps also uses slightly shorter rest periods (3-5 deep breaths vs 10 in DC-training) to maintain the muscle activation levels high (as they tend to drop off when you go to 30sec rest periods).
      Generally speaking, DC training is used at lower reps (8-12RM) whereas Myo-reps is used at 12RM+ most of the time (although you can obviously use it successfully at lower reps, too).

      • Jan Reply

        April 29, 2019 at 11:08

        Normally how much times is required for lower down the activation of a muscle when we reach failure (or near to it)?

        If I remember correctly, with a 10″ rest, atp is recharged about 50%. 🤔🤔

        So probably of you want to mantain an high activation, drop sets with no rest is the best way..

        • Borge Reply

          April 30, 2019 at 7:45

          Activation from the last set, if you approached failure, will subside after 20-30 secs and you will need to do more reps to get back up – but the same rules as stated above will apply, i.e. the final 4-5 reps of any set taken to failure (or 3-4 reps of any set taken 1 rep from failure etc) will be “effective/stimulating” so both strategies will work:
          10 +3+3+3+2 (managing fatigue, 1RIR, 15 effective reps) vs. 11+5+3 (reaching failure, 13 effective reps)

          – but as you can see, by managing fatigue you will most likely get in slightly more effective reps and also recover faster.

  6. Christian Reply

    April 29, 2019 at 10:44

    Hello and well met from Germany!

    I am a 36 year old father of 2 children, with one child still waking us up at nights on a more or less daily basis. So I am usually a bit sleep deprived yet I am still motivated to train and I really like to workout, yet the gains are coming very slowly. Arms for example basically have stopped growing after like 4-5 months of training and I started training like 16 months ago. Gotta admit though that I spent quite a lot time dieting since I was a fat slob at 1,87cm 100kg at some point 🙂

    So I am wondering what kind of full body workout you would recommend for my circumstances?
    I like the concept of full body since I can’t hit the gym more often than 3-4 times a week.

    I would love to put on more size, but yet I still like to get stronger. So naturally, I prefer barbell movements and body weight movements. Dips, Chin Ups, Benchpress, Rows, Military Press and stuff like that.

    Would you still recommend the modified push/pull for example which was published on t-nation in 2018?

    • Borge Reply

      April 30, 2019 at 7:46

      Stress and sleep deprivation -> lower frequency, so if you want to hit the gym 3-4x/week I would try the push/pull or upper/lower split depending on what muscle groups you want to focus on.

      Arms or any muscle group for that matter will not grow optimally while dieting, but arms are – as mentioned in the article – already hit indirectly from all the pushing and pulling, so you could actually try not training them directly for a while and see what happens.

  7. John Reply

    May 4, 2019 at 7:49

    Borge great article!
    Well done!

    I’m in the SSD group (Abel) and Hypercarnivore (Don) so in this last year I’ve follow a lot of your work!

    One thing that you ever not mentioned, do you think that myo reps are usefull with slower speed of movement?

    I use a slow cadence due to joints problems, so I can use less weight.
    Using a slower cadence (4-5 second up, 5-6 seconds down) I can train without pain, and for me is a good way to progress.
    Using this slow cadence I use lower reps, around 4-6 total, this permit me to use a TUT of 40-60 seconds.

    Myo reps with slow cadence, mantaining costant tension on the muscle, and without failure.. yes or useless?

    • Borge Reply

      May 4, 2019 at 8:49

      Yes. I do lean towards more explosive concentric and slower eccentric, but with Myo-reps I think the explosive concentric is less important.

      • John Reply

        May 4, 2019 at 3:37

        So I can use the same principle of myo reps with slow cadence?
        Basic guidelines
        Do the activation set with 1RIR, then
        Stopping the mini-sets always 1 rep before failure, and stopping the “global” set when I can’t repeat the same reps of the previous mini-sets.

        Probably with a slow cadence, something linke this:

        5 reps (activation)
        3-5 breath
        2 reps
        3-5 breaths
        2 reps
        3-5 breath
        1 rep
        Stop

        Is it right, or I’ve forgot/err something?
        I ask this because I dont know if with slow cadence the need for rest between mini set is the same, or something else would be different.

        Thanks Borge!

        • Borge Reply

          May 5, 2019 at 7:43

          Yes, that’s fine. The slower speed doesn’t change anything.

  8. Pat Reply

    May 5, 2019 at 11:53

    Long time reader, and very long time trainee 😉 Looking to myo reps to be a joint and fatigue saver. I train 4 days on an upper lower split using injury friendly compounds on a heavy/medium rotation and plan on incorporating myo reps. Would appreciate your critique on the below setup

    Push
    Floorpress 3×5-7 Alternated with Incline Bench for 3x 8-12 on medium day
    DB Bench 3×12-15
    Lateral Raise Myo Reps
    OH Tri Ext Myo Reps/Pushdowns Myo Reps

    Legs & Back
    TBDL 3×5-7 on Heavy Day 3×8-12 on medium day
    KB Swings 3 Sets
    Leg Ext Myo Reps
    Pulldowns/Seated Rows Myo reps
    Hammer Curls Myo Reps
    Calf Raises Myo Reps

    After 30 plus years of training I’m hoping one upper body strength move and one lower body strength move combined with myo reps allows me to continue training – Realistically as I’m in my fifties I hope to hold what I have gained in LBM.
    Some days are tight for time so I can split the legs and back workout into two days if need be.

    • Borge Reply

      May 5, 2019 at 1:45

      I know nothing about you, e.g. training age/level, your work capacity and volume tolerance, your power profile – so a training consult is beyond the scope of this comments section. I wouldn’t set a program up like this, but that’s just me. If you have my e-book you will see how I program Myo-reps from a meta perspective, that’s the best tip I can give you, and – if you keep getting stronger and bigger without any aches or pains, then that is your best indicator of how well the program is working for you.

  9. Pat Reply

    May 5, 2019 at 2:04

    Ok Borge, thanks for the reply.

    • Borge Reply

      May 5, 2019 at 3:14

      Sorry I couldn’t be of more help, but I think the number 1 mistake people make is thinking that there is a program (or diet plan for that matter) out there that will fix everything. Not only do you need to do a lot of experimentation with the principles mentioned in the article, but you also need to monitor and adjust over time. When I’m working with a client, I will do 2 weeks of testing, then the remaining 6-10 weeks of just that – looking at how things are progressing and making the proper changes along the way. So showing me a random program with no further context is – as you hopefully understand – impossible to troubleshoot.

  10. Pat Reply

    May 5, 2019 at 5:20

    Yes, fair point re context and I fully understand.

  11. Denis Reply

    May 6, 2019 at 6:30

    Hello Børge, I’ve recently discovered your website and I’ve been reading your articles like crazy ever since.

    I’ve been on Push/Pull/Legs 2x a week for 3 years now and since you mentioned 6x a week full body split, I’ve been interested in it. How would you go about it?

    • Borge Reply

      May 6, 2019 at 6:42

      Most of the time, I wouldn’t recommend it – as it both requires you are at least intermediate-advanced with 2 years consistent training, and also that you have everything in your life in order (stress management, sleep, nutrition, hormones, health).

      But if you fulfill all these criteria, then you would simply divide the exercises and volume from your current split into the full-body split. Depending on how you feel and how progress is, you can consider adding volume here and there.

      So e.g. if you are doing 4 sets of bench press and 3 sets of incline DB press 2x/week currently (14 sets/week), then you would set up an A/B program of 3 sets of bench press for the A program and 2 sets of incline DB press for the B program (yielding 15 sets/week).

      • Denis Reply

        May 6, 2019 at 9:55

        Thanks for the reply, I’m gonna have fun with designing the routine.

        • Denis Reply

          May 7, 2019 at 7:22

          Hey Børge! I’ve almost designed the routine but I have a question regarding myo reps since you are expert on them. I’ll definitely use them on biceps, been also thinking about chest flys, medial/rear delts, shrugs and maybe on lats and some variation of rows. What do you think? What are the muscle groups you’d use them for? Thanks for answer.

          • Borge

            May 8, 2019 at 7:41

            They can be used for all muscle groups, but I’d prefer you have some strategic approach, here are some suggestions:

            – For the first 2-4 weeks of an 8-12 week training phase
            – Every 4-6 weeks of an 8-12 week training phase, for 1 full week
            – On selected exercises or workout days in the weekly cycle

            What I would recommend would require knowing more about you, but like I said to Pat, a program consult is beyond the scope of a comment section for a “short and sweet guide” to training 😉

  12. Robert Reply

    May 8, 2019 at 6:30

    Probably there is nothing wrong to use myo reps all year long.
    The principle of autoregulation is perfect with all different rep range, or more simple:
    Stick with same rep range and add weight only when you can hit you myo reps target.

    Simple

    Probably you progress slow.. but no one can tell that.

    But 100% if you are consistent with autoregulation and adding “stress” only we you can tolerate it.. you can hit you genetic potential.

    Sometimes we search the most complicated things, when the simple truth is under our nose.

    Thanks borge for your imputs.

    Simplicy is the highest form of complexity

  13. Michael Reply

    May 16, 2019 at 4:51

    Hey borge, good advices.
    I’ve read a comment in this article by John:

    Really is possible gain muscle and reach genetic potential use slow speed of movement?

    And if the answer is yes, how we can apply it to autoregulation in the SSD program?
    Now I’m in my 3rd cycle of ssd, but there is nothing to do, I need slow movement for not feel pain in my joints.

    Especially with clusters in week 7 and 8.
    How we can use slow cadence with cluster?

    I’ve ever think that for muscle growth, especially some techniques (like clusters) are absolutely necessary HEAVY loads.

    Thanks man, best regards from France

    • Borge Reply

      May 17, 2019 at 8:30

      If you reduce movement speed, every rep takes longer to complete – so nothing really changes, a slow rep equals 2-3 normal reps so you simply drop the rep count down to accommodate the slower speed of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *