With so many fad workouts circulating the internet and so much uncertainty about what to do once you step into the gym it’s easy to see how your training can lack direction.
Just walking into the gym picking up some weights and lifting them isn’t going to cut it.
Having a clear understanding of the science and mechanisms of training we can then plan and structure a program to reach our goals. To help you understand this I’m going to break it down into 3 variables you should manipulate in your resistance training routine:
If you are going to take one thing from this blog post it is the importance of volume in your training program, hence it’s the first variable I will discuss. Before I explain why it is important and how to manipulate this variable in your training you must understand what it is.
Put simply it is the total amount of work performed in a training session for a given muscle group, which can be calculated by multiplying Sets x Reps x Load. For example if you performed 3 sets of 10 reps of squats at 50kg the total volume would equate to 1500. From each session you would work out total weekly training volume by adding the total volume from each session. Volume is often manipulated to increase the acute fatigue stimulus, neuromuscular, hormonal and protein signalling which are all important stimuli for training adaptation following resistance exercise.
Now that we understand what it is, it’s important to understand how you can manipulate it in your training. It’s no secret the more volume you perform overtime the greater the training effect, which is called progressive overload. This however is only true to a certain extent as to much volume you may run the risk of not being able to recovery which results in an overreaching stimulus (overtraining).
How much volume you perform in a session or as a weekly total will depend on multiple factors including training age, genetics, nutrition strategies and stress levels. For a novice with no training experience it will be vital to start at the lower volume end to ensure they can recover and not overtrain. Most novices will respond to little volume anyway so start at the lower end and slowly progress each week. While volume progression is important for beginners the focus should also be on making it fun, enjoyable, and forming good habits, movement patterns and technique.
As you progress in your training and become more experienced you will require larger volumes of work to force adaptation, bearing in mind the possibility of overreaching. The more volume you can lift and then recover overtime is the key to a better training stimulus.
As mentioned this will vary from person to person so there is no exact guarantee number for how much volume is required but these are average sets per week I recommend as a starting point: Beginners 4-8 sets per muscle group and trained individuals 10-14 sets per muscle group per week with larger muscle groups (quadriceps) at the higher end and smaller muscle group (biceps) at the lower end.
The key is to start with a base volume with which you can recover from, and work on increasing slowly from there through the principle of progressive overload each week in your training. Volume progression each week can be increased through sets, reps or load.
This is defined as the load lifted (weight) relative to the percentage of 1 rep max (1RM) and not effort given or how hard you are working. To simplify intensity I’m going to break it down into three different loading bands:
•Heavy load: 85-100% of 1RM
•Moderate load: 60-85% of 1RM
•Low load: <50% of 1RM
So which band should you work in? Just lift super heavy and you will get bigger and stronger right? Unfortunately problems will arise if you take that approach, or even if you take the only lifting light loads all the time approach.
Research indicates that when volumes are matched, intensity is important however if you allow volume to become higher intensity is not as important. Research also indicates we get a greater training stimulus >60%. This means we can work in the moderate effort band (60 to 70%) with any rep range (10-20RM) to maximise overall training gains as long as we manipulate volume as discussed previously.
As discussed in my previous blog post maximal motor unit recruitment is achieved with loads above >60%. So when lifting lighter loads volume must be maximised and training to failure may be needed. Further understanding on how how to manipulate light loads can be found here: TRAINING TO FAILURE - SHOULD YOU OR SHOULDN'T YOU?
When do we use the heavy load then? Firstly increasing large training volume at a high intensity (typically with volume above 87.5%) induces acute central fatigue and does not appear to lead to training adaptations and instead results in an overtraining stimulus. If however you are looking to increase strength some volume in this heavy band (above 80%) will be required. Strength outcomes become more pronounced in compound movements so I would recommend an average of around 30 reps per week (4-6rep range) in this maximal loading band for strength gains.
With untrained individuals it doesn’t matter what intensity you use to initiate training gains with accumulation of volume being more important to enhance training outcomes. I would recommend lifting in a low to moderate band with the focus on technique and ROM as a novice will get fast strength gains regardless of the load.
General recommendation: Look to accrue volume at a variety of intensity’s anywhere between 60-85% of 1RM, with a progressive overload structure in load overtime. If strength is a focus/ goal look to accumulate a safe amount of volume in the heavy load band above 80% of 1RM.
The third and final variable is frequency which refers to the number of sessions you perform or how many times you train a specific muscle group in a week. It links in with both volume and intensity and will provide you a clear structure and organisation within your training week.
Our goal for muscle hypertrophy is to be in a positive net protein balance overtime so we must stimulate the target muscle groups more frequently then only once per week. Although it would be nice to only train once a week it’s not going to work, especially if you have taken my advice on volume and intensity and how many sets is needed per muscle group each week.
Research demonstrates that training more frequently is superior to low frequency training and indicates training 2-3 times per week, per muscle group provides an optimum stimulus. This takes into account volume needed, recovery, fatigue and how long your sessions will be.
The Central nervous will need time to recovery between workouts which takes about 2-3 days, particularly if volumes and loads are high. This recovery period is vital so allowing enough time between each muscle group is needed and will impact how frequently you train them.
For example if you trained the quadriceps on Monday you would take roughly two days rest and then train them again on Thursday. Now I’m not here to tell you what program or split is best such as, push pull or back and biceps, the focus should be on being able to train each muscle group 2-3 times per week. Whatever program you do choose you should be able to recover from session to session particularly when training the same muscle group. When trying to get optimum results with the three variables above you will definitely need a program that is structured and takes into account the three principles I have spoken about in this blog post.
General recommendation: Hit each muscle group 2-3 times per week and allow enough time for recovery between muscle groups and you will maximise training adaptations.
If you are a complete Beginner, intermediate or advanced in your training, following these variables and incorporating them in your training takes out the guess work and gives you the results you desire.