By Adam Bisek
We all want the magic formula to building muscle, after all, who wants to waste their time in the gym haphazardly moving cast iron. When you’re a newbie to the muscle-building game simply putting in any time under the bar will result in measurable gains in strength and muscle size, however, as one tallies up years in the gym details begin to matter. The immense totality of variables that govern muscular hypertrophy (building) makes it hard to give any hard, fast recommendations as to what’s best for everyone, but that’s what I am about to try and attempt!
As a standard of procedure, and because I know my limits, I always like to articulate a set of qualifications whenever diving into research as it applies to practical application. When it comes to muscle-building research much has been done to date, but there are still many holes and even contrasting data. I liken this conundrum to a puzzle; every piece of data/research is a piece of the puzzle, while they may look different, they still make up the same puzzle, and we’ve simply not found all the puzzle pieces. Also, and because of this, the use of anecdote and pragmatism is essential to fill in the gap research leaves when making practical recommendations for the masses.
In this narrative, I will cover the amount and effort of training that is needed to build muscle. While many other variables help to paint the final picture, such as training frequency, repetition ranges, rest periods, etc., I will leave those for another article, there’s certainly enough to weed through when talking about the aforementioned. The “how much” can be most easily represented as total sets per week for a given muscle group or body region.
I am going to cut straight to the point, the consensus amongst most leading researchers in this area is that ~10-20 sets per week per muscle group seems to be the optimal range for hypertrophy (Schoenfeld and Grgic, 2017). Not only that but some recent research has also shown that up to 30-45 sets per week per muscle group, upper and lower limbs respectively, may be warranted for optimal muscle building (Schoenfeld, 2017). However, I would caution most that this is pretty high. While this data is fantastic because it shows that the upper limits for some may be pretty high, most simply are not experienced enough nor can recover from this amount volume especially if the effort is high and sets are taken to failure.
So, what constitutes as a set? Well, it seems a certain amount of “effort” is needed for a set to count. Greg Nuckols, a leading mind in muscle-building academia, has proposed the idea of “hard sets” to count towards total weekly volume. To qualify as a “hard set” one must come to or be within several repetitions shy of technical failure; the inability to complete any more repetitions with proper form. By using the handy effort-measuring tool Repetitions in Reserve (RIR), which is one’s subjective number of repetitions left before technical failure, this would mean a set carried out to an RIR of 0-3 constitutes as a “hard set” and counts towards weekly total volume. As an aside there is a fair amount of data to show training to near failure and not to total failure may result in even better muscle gains (Sampson 2015, Schoenfeld 2019), and thus it’s quite sensible and currently efficacious to recommend one carries out their sets to an RIR of 1-3, and not hit complete failure at any great frequency. Considering that taking sets to failure, especially on larger, compound movements creates a much larger systemic and local taxation, recovery and thus frequency would be improved with stopping just shy of failure. I would also be remiss if not to point out that failure sets have a larger risk of injury, and as any veteran would elucidate muscle building is a marathon, not a sprint, “live to lift another day.”
We should also be clear that not all exercises are created equal. Exercises that take a muscle through larger ranges of motion and create a greater amount of tension in lengthened positions would pose a greater demand on a muscle than ones that are shorter in ranges of motion and tax the muscle most in a shortened position. For example, a Romanian Deadlift will result in great taxation for the hamstrings (and body) than lying leg curls by and large. Also, in general, larger multi-joint, compound movements such as the back squat pose a greater systemic (whole-body) demand, but theoretically would be counted as the same amount of volume for your quadriceps as a set of leg extensions taken to the same RIR. For anyone who has truly taken those two movements to the same level of effort knows they create a much different demand.
Another tricky issue with counting volume is exercise overlap. For instance, a bench press theoretically works the pecs, anterior shoulder, and triceps and thus counts towards weekly volume for all of the muscle groups. However, we know that an isolation movement for the triceps like a cable press-down creates a different, and most likely greater, stimulus on the triceps than the bench press when brought to a similar RIR. Almost all research covering this topic would consider both counting towards the triceps weekly volume similarly. So, do we count movements where a given muscle is an “accessory” mover as half a set? A third of a set? This is where there’s no clear, correct answer and where the art and science intersect with the real-world practical implementation of the data.
As I type, I’m realizing a bit more information may be needed for you to walk away with something to take to your logbook today, the stuff I said I was going to save for a later time, like repetition range. When it comes to the number of reps per set one should do, research to date shows that a range of 6-20+ reps can be used to build muscle optimally (Baz-Valle, 2018). That’s a large range, but the caveat is that these sets are still taken to near failure, remember all that “hard sets” talk from earlier? Also, this seems to jive with my understanding of Brad Schoenfeld’s current explanation of the multiple mechanisms of muscle growth; mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress (Schoenfeld, 2010). Because this wide range would encompass stimuli that touch on all three of these aspects it seems quite fitting, and therefore, at this time it would be prudent to use a variety of rep ranges within this continuum to elicit the most muscle growth.
Frequency, or the number of times a muscle group is trained, is seemingly the last rogue variable for us to cover and should help piece everything together. Again, I will keep this short and to the point. Current research points to training a muscle group 1-3 times per week is ideal for muscle hypertrophy given that a requisite total weekly volume is met (Schoenfeld, 2018). The pragmatic (there’s that word again) practitioner in me leans towards recommending the 2 times per week, and possibly even 3 times per week, for most experienced lifters. The simple rationale here is that splitting up volume would very likely create a higher quality of movement. If trying to fit a great amount of total volume for a given muscle group all in one day (per week) accumulating fatigue would most certainly decrease performance and possibly quality. Splitting up these sets over a couple of sessions rather than one would allow for greater intensity and quality of movement.
Bringing it all together
If you’re anything like me the lengthy verbiage that preceded this wrap up spread out the useful information too much, I like things consolidated and easy to consume (just like my meals). First, understand that your training experience, genetics, diet, hydration, sleep, stress, and overall recovery MASSIVELY impact how effective the recommendations to come will be for you, I cannot make that crystal clear enough. And remember, I’m a meathead too, this is only my educated interpretation of the literature to date. Let’s make this bullet-pointed for even easier digestion:
Total Weekly Volume: ~10-20 “hard sets” per muscle group, per week
Effort: ~1-3 Repetitions in Reserve (RIR) each exercise
Rep Range: 6-20+ Repetitions per set
Frequency: each muscle group ~1-3 times per week, 2 is probably best for most
While many in the muscle-building research community may point out there is more nuance to which my brief scratch of the current data’s surface didn’t cover it’s important to note that what I am trying to do is practically distill what we know into something easily implementable. Terms such as “Minimum Effective Volume (MEV)” or “Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV)” will be tossed around casually in higher-level discussion but their value, much like all the other smaller details, needs to be scaled to the individual context. When it comes down to it experience will render the best lens through which to view and utilize all the numbers I previously outlined. By this point, I hope you were able to take away some muscle-building nuggets, a refined perspective as to how to approach your routine and that translates into a larger pair of glutes, or guns, your choice!
Baz-Valle, E., Fontes-Villalba, M., & Santos-Concejero, J. (2018). Total Number of Sets as a Training Volume Quantification Method for Muscle Hypertrophy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0000000000002776
Sampson, J. A., & Groeller, H. (2015). Is repetition failure critical for the development of muscle hypertrophy and strength? Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 26(4), 375–383. doi: 10.1111/sms.12445
Schoenfeld, B. (n.d.). How much volume do you need to get stronger and build muscle? Retrieved from https://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/how-much-volume-do-you-need-to-get-stronger-and-build-muscle/
Schoenfeld, B., & Grgic, J. (2017). Evidence-Based Guidelines for Resistance Training Volume to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 1. doi: 10.1519/ssc.0000000000000363
Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., & Krieger, J. (2018). How many times per week should a muscle be trained to maximize muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of resistance training frequency. Journal of Sports Sciences, 37(11), 1286–1295. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2018.1555906
Schoenfeld, B. J., & Grgic, J. (2019). Does Training to Failure Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy? Strength and Conditioning Journal, 41(5), 108–113. doi: 10.1519/ssc.0000000000000473
Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857–2872. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181e840f3