What is one of the primary indicators of muscle growth? Some will argue strength is most important, others may argue for specific rep ranges to be the most optimal and some will argue that intensity is the most important.
But are they truly the best indicators for hypertrophy?
According to the scientific literature available, the greatest determinant for ensuring myofibrillar hypertrophy occurs is to ensure the volume of training is increased over time. So because of this, I will focus solely on volume today, but first, let's get some definitions sorted:
Volume – The amount or quantity of something
Or in training terms, the amount of total work completed within a training bout or week, of which can be defined by the amount of reps, sets or more accurately, the amount of kilograms lifted in a given time. So looking at volume we could look at it like the following and choose one of the two options:
12 sets of chest training per session Mondays and Thursdays
18 sets of chest training in 1 session every Monday
One situation has a higher volume per session (b), but the total amount of set volume achieved in a 7-day period for the session (a) is higher.
Similarly, we could compare 2 equal sessions a week apart and look at volume progression:
|Day 2 - Legs VOL|
|Hack Squat - Amrap (80% of 4 Set)||1.0||X||60.0||15.0||900||1.0||X||60.0||25.0||1500|
|Total Volume||20700||Total Volume||21782|
In this example, we can see the same sets are completed in week 1 versus week 2 yet the total volume in kilograms lifted is increased (total reps x weight lifted = volume).
So whether we are working on a repetition volume, a set volume or a weight volume, the best indicator to look for from an intensity standpoint is the total volume of kilograms lifted and its relative change compared to the previous session or block of training.
Hypertrophy – The enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in the size of its cells.
- Myofibrillar: Refers to the increase in actin/myosin size, which is actual muscle fibre growth.
- Sarcoplasmic: Refers to the increase in cross-sectional area of a muscle as a result of cell hydration or fluid content.
The primary distinction between the two types of hypertrophy is functionality versus aesthetic appeal.
While both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy offer aesthetic benefits as the muscle size is increased irrespective of how it is achieved, myofibrillar hypertrophy offers a distinctive performance and functionality benefit due to there being an increase in actual tissue.
Which brings us to the point of this article, whereby we will be figuring out how we maximise hypertrophy as a whole and why volume progression is the most important aspect of training when compared to strength, intensity and frequency of stimulation.
James Krieger looked at the stimulus effect of volume training in 8 different studies (meta analysis), comparing 1 set of training to 4-6 sets on the same muscle group and found a 40% greater increase in muscle hypertrophy when comparing 1 set versus 2-3 and a further small percentage increase when 4-6 sets were performed.
Wolfe, Lemura and Cole also found other interesting data using meta-analytic research (an analysis of multiple existing studies), finding that there was little difference between volume and intensity on hypertrophy for beginners, indicating beginners can achieve hypertrophy with essentially any stimulus.
However for intermediate lifters, higher volume stimulus was a necessity for eliciting a hypertrophy response when compared to intensity.
Likewise, Munn, Herbert, Hancock and Gandevia (2005) found 3 sets produced the highest causation on muscle hypertrophy when compared to 1 set and that a faster-lifting speed ranked higher than slow tempo repetitions for hypertrophy. Similarly, Peterson et al (2005) looked at both volume and intensity on beginners versus intermediate lifters and found that as training age grows, the volume of training must also grow for hypertrophy to continue at a similar rate.
Not sure what all that even means… well Eric Helms wraps it up in one swift diagram with this:
- If you can't adhere to the program then you can't expect optimal results
- You need to increase the volume over time to increase hypertrophy
- Intensity can be referred to as an RPE, whereby a ranking of how hard the session was, is ranked on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being complete failure and 9 being 1 rep off failure
- For longevity of volume, frequency and progression aim for an 8-9 RPE
- Intensity can also be referred to as a percentage of your 1 rep max (1RM) of which it is theorised that >65% is necessary to achieve a hypertrophy response.
- Increasing frequency stimulation is important and can be seen in the example written in the beginning of this article showing that 2 days a week with less volume per session, actually achieves greater volume in 7 days when compared to 1 session. Aim for higher frequency on lagging body parts.
- You must progress in strength, volume, intensity or frequency in order to force new tissue to be grown (myofibrillar hypertrophy).
- But it is also important to remember that with training age increasing, volume appears to have the greatest effect on hypertrophy when compared to intensity.
Those are the top 3 things to consider when looking to optimise your training to allow for maximum hypertrophy. Don’t get caught up in the gimmicky drop sets, supersets, tri-sets, giant sets, slow reps, pause reps, activation sets, time under tension sets or any other training modality you can think of until the first 3 principles are perfect.
Yes, all of these principles have their place in a program and can be utilised to enhance intensity or volume one way or another, but until you have maxed out the basics of strength and volume progression in your major compound sets, don’t fuss over the minor details.
Causing maximum myofibrillar hypertrophy requires the muscle to be put under greater load over time.
That load can be referred to as volume and can be achieved through increasing the total set volume or ideally the total kilograms lifted in a session. Focus your training on being athletically minded and train to perform better first, which in turn will result in your looking better as well.
Train smart - Be efficient - Reap the rewards
Krieger, James W. "Single Vs. Multiple Sets Of Resistance Exercise For Muscle Hypertrophy: A Meta-Analysis". Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24.4 (2010): 1150-1159. 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.
MUNN, JOANNE et al. "Resistance Training For Strength: Effect Of Number Of Sets And Contraction Speed". Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 37.9 (2005): 1622-1626. Web.
Peterson, Mark D., Matthew R. Rhea, and Brent A. Alvar. "Applications Of The Dose-Response For Muscular Strength Development: A Review Of Meta-Analytic Efficacy And Reliability For Designing Training Prescription". J Strength Cond Res 19.4 (2005): 950. Web.