One of the biggest areas of debate in the world of training to build muscle is that of workout intensity and volume—the many ways to distribute these factors.
Does one approach reign at the top of the hill? Or is this more a matter of personal preference, body type, body chemistry or some other variable unique to the trainee? How does one figure out which loading scheme will work best for building muscle?
One must experiment with different approaches and see what happens.
It’s important to first understand how the body recruits muscle fiber. This all begins with the three main types of muscle fiber:
- Type I. These fire slowly, are small, designed for endurance and do not get bigger.
- Type II. These fire rapidly and are designed for power and strength. They grow in size with the right training and get fatigued easily.
- Type IIa. These are somewhat in between the first two fiber types; they are fatigue-resistant yet are fast.
During a weight lifting set, the first fiber type to be recruited are the type I fibers. The body recruits only what it absolutely needs. As the resistance gets heavier, the body begins recruiting the bigger, stronger type II muscle fibers.
This is the order of fiber firing: slow and fatigue-resistant first, followed by (and only when absolutely necessary) the bigger, stronger fibers.
The old standard of three sets for 10 reps has been around for years and years as a template for building muscle size. Suppose someone decides to do three sets of 10 reps of a bench press, setting the load so that failure is achieved at around the tenth set.
The type 1 fibers will immediately get recruited, along with some type IIa (intermediate) fibers. Further into the set, perhaps around the seventh repetition, fatigue starts kicking in, and the type II fibers (the biggest, strongest ones) get involved.
In theory, come the tenth rep, all the fiber types should be fatigued, stimulating hypertrophy. It won’t take a whole lot of volume to induce this effect in a beginner.
For advanced individuals, it will require more volume to provoke the fibers into a training response. What one set can do as far as stimulation for a beginner, three sets may be necessary for the advanced.
Waiting too long between sets will sabotage hypertrophy efforts, because it’s best to begin the next set before the muscle fibers are fully recovered. This will provoke the most stimulation for hypertrophy. Rest periods should be 60-90 seconds.
Different Kinds Of Volume Training
1. German Volume Training
The scheme is 10 x 10 with 60 seconds between sets. Imagine doing 10 sets of bench press for 10 reps to failure with a mere minute of rest between all sets.
This means that the starting load won’t be the same as the concluding load, in order to stick to the 10 x 10. To achieve the full volume, one will need to reduce the load as the routine progresses, making sure not to over-reduce it. The variable in German volume training, then, is the load.
2. Tabata Training
Though this name is strongly associated with cardio intervals, the concept can be applied to weight lifting. This is similar to German volume training except that the load stays the same. Pick a load that’s too heavy, and you’ll end up performing only three or four reps for most of the sets.
If you can do 10 x 10 all the way through, with the 60 second rests, the load is too light. The load should be difficult but suitable to get through the entire routine with 10 or so reps for 10 or so sets (some Tabata enthusiasts go up to 12 sets).
High intensity training with weights refers to just one scorching set to scathing failure. To achieve this in the truest sense, one should use a machine, to guard against form breaks that can lead to injury, and form breaks that result in muscle substitution patterns.
The number of reps isn’t etched in stone, and even 20 reps can stimulate hypertrophy, depending on the exercise. For example, take the horizontal leg press. Make sure the legs are bent a bit past 90 degrees in the start position.
Set the resistance so that upon pushing the first rep, you can feel a challenge, but not so much that you must strain. Force yourself through 20 reps, bringing the weight stack to within one inch of the rest of the stack, but not letting it touch. If you’ve broken a sweat by the last rep, you’ve chosen the correct load.
Different Kinds Of Strength Training
Strength training in this sense refers to training for strength more than for hypertrophy. Lifting for strength as the primary goal means that usually, one does not go to failure, as in that painful burn.
Nevertheless, the goal is to tap all the muscle fiber types. Training for strength means recruiting the type II and IIa fibers. This is done with intensity rather than volume.
Venturing into the fatigue territory means stimulating growth in size due to the increase in the mitochondrial contents of the muscle cell. You don’t want this emphasized if you want strength more than hypertrophy.
To avoid fatigue based sets, make the rests 3-5 minutes between sets. To get the most out of reps, the rep number should be six or less per set.
To make this approach even more ideal, the sets should be in ascending fashion, such as 1 x 6, 1 x 4, 1 x 2 and 1 x 1— with increasing loads.
This way, by the time the two heaviest sets are performed, there’ve been only 10 reps—not enough to fry the type II fibers.
1. The 5 3 1 Workout
The formula is based on a four week plan if you train the muscle group once a week, using low sets and increasing percentages off the one rep max. If a person is struggling to make gains in strength from a traditional approach (straight progressive resistance), then they should try the 5 3 1 routine.
Using the bench press as an example, you need to determine your 1 RM. The scheme looks like this:
- Week 1: 3 x 5
- Week 2: 3 x 3
- Week 3: set of 5, set of 3, set of 1
- Week 4: Deload 3 x 5
How Much Weight Is Lifted?
Week #1 for the three sets is 65 percent, 75 percent and 85 percent, respectively, of 1 RM. Week #2 is 70, 80 and 90 percent of 1 RM, respectively. The prescribed number of reps for only the third set is a minimum.
So if the prescription is three reps, then on the third set, do at least three, but if you can do more, go to failure. Week #4 is 65, 75 and 85 percent.
The 1 RM should increase over time, so you’ll need to keep on top of this so that, though you’re still working off of percentages, the actual weight lifted keeps getting heavier.
2. Descending Pyramid
This is also called the Oxford method. The advantage of this is that the first set is the heaviest, so that this allows the type II fibers to fire maximally before they ever get fatigued, as they would in an ascension plan that begins with 1 x 10 or 1 x 8 or even 1 x 6.
This plan looks like this: 1 x 1, 1 x 2, 1 x 3 and 1 x 5.
The load for the five rep set may be 100 percent of the max for five reps, or 95 percent. Stay within these rep ranges for your maximal lift. The goal is to lift as heavy as possible in those rep ranges, rather than to increase number of reps.
There are many more loading schemes for maximal volume to build muscle, but the approaches described here are a superb start to jump-start a stalled program and take your progress to the next level.