Training Hierarchy – What is the Most Important?

by DeanMcKillop 4292 views Training

Training Hierarchy – What is the Most Important?

So many questions asked and arguably just as many answers to give depending on whom you talk to. The reality is that all of the above factors play a role in stimulating muscle growth, of which they can all be used at one point or another to achieve a result. All factors of training have relevance to increasing muscle growth but based on the research we currently have as well as looking at anecdotal history or what's known as empirical evidence, we can definitely begin to rank their hierarchy.

What matters most in the training hierarchy?

Do we need to…
  • Lift more weight
  • Train with different rep tempo
  • Do more reps
  • Do more sets
  • Get a pump
  • Train more frequently
  • Train less frequently
  • Train at a higher intensity

muscle and strength

And so I give to you the Muscle and Strength Pyramid from Eric Helms: 

Personally, I like to reference this pyramid in two parts as they both have their validity, however, part 1 is of primary concern whereas part 2 is secondary and therefore can be referred to as the extra little “5% ers”.

Primary/Fundamental Techniques - Adherence/Volume/Intensity/Frequency/Progression

Secondary/Intensity techniques - Selection/Rest Periods/Tempo 

For this article, I’m going to be focusing solely on the primary fundamental techniques and will briefly mention the secondary intensity techniques, as these 3 facets of lifting are only effective once the fundamentals have been mastered.  For example, manipulating rep tempo, changing exercise type or changing rest periods are only beneficial for muscle and strength improvement when done in conjunction with an improvement in the fundamentals. Without the fundamentals the intensity techniques on a scale of importance are essentially null and void.

I'd also like to note that the recommendations below are not specifically taken from Eric Helms Muscle and Strength workbook but instead are an extrapolation of the data available in multiple papers of scientific literature. For a complete comprehensive outline on the 5 fundamental principles below I would suggest reading his book in full.

Find out more about Eric Helms

Now to the fun part - application.

Fundamental Technique #1 – Adherence

There really isn’t much to say about this principle other than that compliance is hands down the #1 factor for achieving any result. If you want to illicit a change in your physique, you must first create a protocol to achieve that and then above all adhere to that protocol in order for you to determine whether or not it was an effective one.

Without adherence you simply have a bunch of guesswork that may or may not create change.

A non-compliant client is not a coachable client and is a client who will not achieve the desired outcome so be sure to focus on adherence if you wish to achieve the desired outcome of any given program.

Fundamental Technique #2 – Volume

Volume has long been the go to training modality for hypertrophy in the bodybuilding world now for years and its fair to see why. Volume can be looked at in multiple ways including:

  • How many sets you achieve in a workout
  • How many reps you achieve in a workout
  • How many kilograms you lift per plan of movement (push/pull)
  • How many kilograms you lift per session
  • How many kilograms you lift per week

Current recommendations suggest that 3 sets will induce a greater hypertrophy response than 1 set in the lower limbs but makes no difference in the upper extensors when intensity is maintained (3,4, 6). Meaning the upper extremity muscles respond equally as well to volume as they do intensity so increasing volume may not be necessary.


It should however be noted that training status needs to be considered as well, whereby 1 set is seen to be just as effective as 3 sets per session for beginners (6). Over time it is suggested that volume must rise for the stimulus to be maintained, however, I would hypothesise that this may be eradicated if you manipulate the other fundamental principles to progress outside of volume as well, such as frequency.

Aim for 30-60 repetitions per muscle group per session for a general guide to achieving adequate volume, with the lower limbs requiring the higher end of the threshold and smaller limbs the lower (1).

Fundamental Technique #3 – Intensity

Intensity can be defined by the percentage of a 1 rep maximum achieved or may also be referenced to an individuals RPE score, of which refers to their Rate of Perceived Effort.

Aim for an RPE of an 8-9 each session, meaning 1-2 reps off of true repetition failure or more specifically work in a percentage range greater than 60% of 1RM or 70-85% for the most optimal range as this has shown to be the best ‘bang for back’ in eliciting a hypertrophy response (1).

For those who have also read my blood flow restriction article HERE, working at 20% of your 1RM under BFR has also been shown to achieve the same desired response for muscle hypertrophy.

Fundamental Technique #4 – Frequency

The current position stance suggests a training frequency of 2-3 times weekly is optimal for achieving maximal muscle growth with some indications to a rapid hypertrophy response for a frequency of 4+ sessions per week (1), however studies looking at this higher frequency were short term 2-3 week studies, so it is unknown if this result translates to longer periods of super-high-frequency training.

For long term adherence aim for a muscle stimulation frequency of 2x per week as this will allow adequate recovery and also allow you the ability to manipulate training intensity and volume more effectively.

Fundamental Technique #5 – Progression

For me this is the key to ensuring the above 3 fundamental training modalities are maximised as it measures your ability to be better. The easiest way to reference progression are as follows:

  • An increase in intensity – did you lift more weight per set
  • An increase in volume – did you lift more kilograms in the exercise
  • An increase in frequency – can you hit the muscle more frequently

The American College of Sports Medicine currently recommend an intensity progression of 2-10% (100kg to 102-110kg) once the desired repetition goal is beaten by 1-2 reps in total.

To put this in perspective it would look like this:
Week 1: Bench Press Week 2: Bench Press Week 3: Bench Press Week 4: Bench Press
(3x10 reps @100kg) (3x10 reps @100kg) (3x10 reps @100kg) (3x10 reps @105kg)
Set 1: 10 reps Set 1: 10 reps Set 1: 10 reps Set 1: 10 reps
Set 2: 10 reps Set 2: 10 reps Set 2: 10 reps Set 2: 10 reps
Set 3: 9 reps Set 3: 10 reps Set 3: 11 reps Set 3: 9 reps

This allows for a consistent progression of intensity and volume without putting the system at risk for injury given the increases are small, measurable and achievable.

Final Notes


Whether you are looking to get stronger or increase muscle mass, focusing on the 5 fundamental principles of lifting is the key to achieving an optimal environment for muscle growth. Whether you are manipulating intensity, frequency or volume, none of them currently appear to out perform the other (2), so your goal should be to progress through one or two modalities as consistently as possible.

Set up your program with sufficient frequency at 2x per week per muscle group, aim for 30-60 repetitions per working muscle group per session and ensure you set the intensity of your training at the relevant percentage you need.  Aim to either increase the per session volume through a repetition increase or by increasing the intensity by working at a higher weight and attempt to progress on a consistent basis.

Should this approach have you begin to feel burnt out, beat up and sore, drop the intensity down a single notch and up the frequency. In doing so you will be able to reduce the total workload and intensity per session, which will allow faster recovery, but you will still be able to increase the volume over the week with a higher frequency.

Similarly, if you hit a stall point in your training throughout any of the 3 fundamental modalities, this is when you can start to implement other strategies such as the secondary aspects of the strength pyramid in order to try and force a change in performance.

Whichever way you look at it, manipulating 1-2 of the 3 key factors of lifting are single handedly the best way to ensure you are progressing in your training and achieving optimal hypertrophy.

Train hard, but above all train smart!

Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomee R. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Journal of Sports Medicine, 2007; 37 (3): 225-64.


RHEA, MATTHEW R. et al. "Three Sets Of Weight Training Superior To 1 Set With Equal Intensity For Eliciting Strength". J Strength Cond Res 16.4 (2002): 525. Web.

"Progression Models In Resistance Training For Healthy Adults". Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 41.3 (2009): 687-708. Web.

Wolfe, Brian L., Linda M. LeMura, and Phillip J. Cole. "Quantitative Analysis Of Single- Vs. Multiple-Set Programs In Resistance Training". J Strength Cond Res 18.1 (2004): 35. Web.



Exercise Scientist

I completed my Exercise Science Degree at the University of QLD and have worked in the fitness industry for over 8 years, including a short stint at the Brisbane Broncos in 2010 as a student. I also hold my Level 2 Strength and Conditioning Coach accreditation (ASCA) and have competed in 1 bodybuilding season, placing 2nd at the IFBB u85kg Nationals.

ViewDean's Articles