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Categories of Weight Training: Part 4

In  Categories of Weight Training: Part 3 I continued with a look at hypertrophy training by talking a bit about the impact of anabolic steroids (which has caused a lot of very silly ideas to come into vogue) and then began to talk about loading parameters focusing on intensity (with a bit of related commentary about repetition ranges).

As I discussed in that article, due to the variety of pathways involved in stimulating growth (which may act independently or interact somehow) combined with the potential for different “types” of growth and the further potential of fiber type specific growth, you tend to see the widest range of intensities being at least potentially useful for stimulating at least some kind of muscle growth.

On average, intensity for the hypertrophy range is typically given to be anywhere from 60% to 85% of 1 repetition max, yielding an effective repetition range of anywhere from 20 reps per set (at 60% 1RM) down to about 5 (85%).  Some use a bit of a narrower range, more along the lines of 70-85% 1RM (about 12-5 reps or so), just for the record.  Even lower repetition sets have been used to generate growth (again, I’ll address the new study by Brad Schoenfeld at the end of the series) but it takes a lot of sets and is often very time inefficient.

So with that background, I want to continue on with that discussion of loading parameters for hypertrophy by looking at the issue of volume.  Other topics such as frequency, exercise selection and the rest will get discussed in the next parts of the series.

Loading Parameter 2: Volume of Training Part 1

Training volume has been used over the years to refer to a variety of different, albeit related, issues and I want to define some terms first.  In the very vaguest of senses, volume can refer simply to the number of total sets done.   So if you did 8 sets of a given exercise, that’s a higher volume than someone who does 4 sets and a 20 set workout is a higher volume than a 10 set workout (or whatever).

But just looking at sets in isolation isn’t terribly useful.  Clearly 8 sets of 1 (8 total reps) isn’t necessarily more work/volume/whatever than 4 sets of 10 (40 total repetitions).  Really, they just aren’t comparable in any meaningful way.  Certainly within some range set counts are probably comparable but I still don’t find it as accurate as counting total reps done.  Even that has limitations since an easy set of 10 and a set of 10 to near failure are clearly not identical.  But built into my use of reps is the assumption that sets are being taken within 1-2 reps of failure or even to failure.

I’d mention that there is a huge interaction of intensity here. Someone doing the 8 sets of 1 might be using a load near 90% of their maximum, the person doing 4 sets of 10 might be using 70% or so.  There would also be differences in rest interval (perhaps 3-5′ on the single as opposed to 60-120 seconds on the sets of 10) and all of this adds up to drastically different training stimuli.

The first workout might be much more neurally demanding (without having nearly the impact on metabolic or mechanical issues) and the second the exact opposite (more metabolic/mechanical stress, less neural stress).  This is due to both the length of the sets (you get more metabolite accumulation with sets of 10 than sets of 1) along with the sheer amount of mechanical work done.

However, even total reps (even if intensity is taken into account) can be misleading due to the differences in weight on the bar between different exercises.  Now, in some sports, coaches will look at total tonnage as a marker of overall training volume.


Tonnage is sets times reps times weight (e.g. 3 set of 5 with 300 lbs is 3 * 5 * 300 = 4,500 pounds) on the bar and that is used to calculate the overall training load and many Eastern European sports training manuals are filled with lists with the expected tonnage of weight to be moved in a given week or month for athletes of different qualification in different sports.  More recently this is being referred to as volume load.

But tonnage has its own set of problems (see Arthur Dreschler’s The Weightlifting Encyclopedia for perhaps the most detailed discussion you’ll find on the topic).  Some movements (such as calf raises and shruge) lend themselves to massive loads which, coupled with short ranges of motion, desperately skew tonnage calculations.

For example, you can move a ton of weight on calf raises but that doesn’t mean that the tonnage contributes as much to your workload or metabolic/mechanical stress as half as much work on full squats although this can often be avoided by only including certain key exercises in the calculations.

It’s also possible to generate monstrous tonnage numbers with a high-volume of low intensity work but that doesn’t mean that it generates a better (or even the same) training stimulus than a higher tonnage with a lower volume of high-intensity work (or a moderate volume of moderate intensity work which might give the best response of all).

Mind you, there is usually an assumed lower intensity threshold cutoff here so some of the above is pedantic nitpicking.   Probably the biggest question, which I won’t address, iswhether or not the tonnage values actually correlate with anything in the first place (Dreschler discusses it at length as I recall in his Weightlifting Encyclopedia).

Loading Parameter 2: Volume of Training Part 2

.Even ignoring all of that that (again I’ll focus mainly on total reps and assume a certain intensity level between about 60 and 85% of maximum for this discussion), training volume has long been a place of major argument in the world of strength training with some arguing rather vehemently for low-volumes (often asserting that “no evidence has shown higher volumes to lead to more growth”) and others for very high-volumes (usually asserting that “This is how Arnold trained so nyah, nyah, nyah.”)

This is not helped by the fact that I mentioned in Part 3, invariably you can find a trainee who has made just about any type of training work.  I’d note there is some evidence that some trainees respond better (at least in terms of strength gains) to lower volumes while others get a better response from higher volumes.

But beyond that, what does the science actually say about training volume and muscle growth?  In a relatitvely recent massive review paper, titled The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans, a semi-answer was developed.

I was actually going to try to a research review on this paper but it was just too big to really look at.  In any case, I’ll simply cut to the chase on Wernbom’s conclusion about volume and muscle growth (note this was within the range of intensities I’ve been talking about and the comments between brackets are mine):

Overall, moderate volumes (≈30–60 repetitions per session for [Dynamic External Resistance] training) appear to yield the largest responses [in terms of muscle growth].

Anybody who knows me or who read my examination of training volume and muscle growth has seen me throw around the idea of ~40-70 repetitions per workout and that value is also cited within the paper.  Once again that is within the intensity range I talked about in the previous part of this series or roughly 60-85% of 1 repetition maximum.

A Tangent on Fitness and Fatigue

.I’d note that, in this analysis, other volumes clearly generated growth.  Even studies using the lowest of volumes (i.e. 10 reps total) showed some growth.  As well studies using the highest volumes (100 reps per set) also showed growth.

It was simply that the maximal growth response was seen, on average, with a total volume of 30/40-60/70 reps per muscle group).  That alone would seem to explain some of the argument that goes on in this issue.  Because clearly both the lowest and highest volumes of training generate growth.  It’s just that moderate volumes gave the best response.

This actually makes a certain sort of logical sense in terms of the physiology of how we respond to training.  Training tends to generate both positive (fitness) and negative (fatigue) effects on performance.  At low training volumes you get less fatigue but also a smaller stimulus to fitness.  As you increase training volume, you’re getting an increased stimulus to improve fitness although you’re also increasing fatigue.

But beyond some certain point, you’ve stimulated all the fitness ins you can and more work just generates more fatigue, decreasing the overall training response in the long-term (yes, sometimes you can use this type of deliberate over-reaching to generate more gains but I’m not getting into that in this series).  In the context of muscle growth, there is assuredly a per-workout limit to how many sets can be done before further work has no more benefit.

All of which is just a complicated way of saying that more work, up to a point, gives a better training response.  And this is borne out in terms of the muscular growth response to different training volumes in Wernbom’s review paper.

Loading Parameter 2: Volume of Training Part 2

.And interestingly that value, derived from collecting all of the available research data actually squares with a lot of different empirical suggestions and observations about optimal volume to stimulate growth that have come about over the years.  Some examples follow.

I mentioned in an earlier part that an early training recommendation was simply 3 sets of 10 (30 reps) per exercise.     Other coaches have recommended training volumes along the lines of 4-8 sets of 6-8 reps which yields a total of around 32 (4 sets of 8) to 64 (8 sets of 8) repetitions per workout.

If we even go back further to Bill Starr’s recommendations in The Strongest Shall Survive, he often recommended adding 40 total reps of “beach work” to the classic 5 sets of 5.  That gives 25 heavier reps plus 40 reps of beach work or ~65 total repetitions.  And I’m sure there are other examples but I think you get the idea.

Of course, there are a massive variety of ways to achieve this volume depending on what the trainee wants to do and the specific training program being followed (I’ll talk about some specific programs a bit later in the series).   If you did the same reps on each set, the most generic approach might be 3-6 sets of 10 (so 3 sets of 10 on two exercises per muscle group).

If you wanted higher repetitions, you could so 3-5 sets of 12-15 (36-75 reps).  If you wanted lower reps, that’d be 4-8 sets of 8 (8 sets of 8 being Vince Gironda’s Honest Workout, amusingly enough).  For 5’s you’re looking at 6-12 sets of 5 and I think you get the idea.  All of these different time-tested empirical approaches to maximum muscle growth end up being very close to what Wernbom’s analysis found.

In practice you typically see a mixture of repetition ranges and you could generate the 30-60 total repetitions per muscle group with something like 4-6 sets of 6-8 (24-32 total reps) followed by 3 sets of 10 (30 reps for a total of 54-63) or 2 sets of 12-15 (24-30 reps for a total of 54-62 reps). Note that this is roughly my own generic bulking program.  Or any other combination you can come up with.

Again I’ll mention some specific programs (and talk about things like overlap and smaller muscle groups) later in the series but first I need to talk about some other topics like exercise selection, training, frequency, etc.  And that’s where I’ll pick up next time.

Read Categories of Weight Training Part 5

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