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Categories of Weight Training: Part 5

So last time in Categories of Weight Training: Part 4, I continued with the discussion of hypertrophy by addressing the issue of volume.  In that article, looking at a recent review paper by Wernbom, I threw out a value of 30-60 repetitions as giving the apparently maximal growth response.  Before I move on to other topics, let me clarify a few issues.  Then I’ll look at training frequency and exercise selection.

Training Volume Revisited.

First and foremost, something I idiotically left out of the article but got asked about on the forum and in the comments, that volume recommendation of 30-60 reps is PER MUSCLE GROUP.  Not PER WORKOUT total.  So if you were working 4 muscle groups or something in a workout, that’d yield a total of 120-240 repetitions.   How many sets that would end up being would, of course, depend on the reps per set.

Now, one complication here is the issue of overlap between muscle groups since most people aren’t training single muscles at once.    Make no mistake I’m sure they exist but most people will be doing some amount of compound exercises, hitting multiple muscles at once (i.e. bench press hits pecs, delts, triceps and others, rowing hits midback, lats, biceps, etc.)

And this becomes relevant when you try to start adding up volumes to achieve the 30-60/40-70 repetition per muscle group value from above.  Now, one approach to this is to not worry about it.  Certainly some people find that doing sufficient work on nothing but the big movements is fine (usually they have good levers for those movements ensuring that all of the involved muscles get hit more or less evenly).

But this doesn’t describe everyone and  I’d say that most can usually benefit from doing work for muscles that are otherwise hit “indirectly” in the big movements (i.e. direct triceps/biceps work after chest/back respectively).  I’ll touch on exercise selection a bit more below so bear with me.

The question then becomes “How much volume should I do for the smaller muscles?”  Some of that will, of course be answered by how training is split up (a topic for another day).  If arms or whatever have their own day, hit them for full volume on that day.  But what if you’re training arms or delts after compound chest or back work?  In that situation, the smaller muscles groups can usually get by with less volume.

This is more an empirical/logical thing; if it’s ever been researched I haven’t seen it.  But if someone has already done say 40-60 reps of compound chest work and wants to hit triceps after that, I might suggest 20-30 total reps of direct work (2-4 sets).   Certainly I don’t think you need the same full volume and you might get away with less.

The same would hold for back and biceps.  I’d suggest about half the volume of direct biceps work when they are trained after back.  Shoulders are their own complication since there are three heads (anterior, medial and posterior or front, side and rear delt) and and massively variable overlap depending on your other exercise selection and you have to decide things like whether rear delts are trained with shoulders or back (or train front and side delts after chest and rear delts with back) and maybe it’s just easiest to give delts their own day and…

Generally, I think that front delts tend to get sufficiently stimulated by all compound pressing movements and I rarely see much need for direct work there in the first place.  Maybe for powerlifters.   I do think training rear delts after back makes the most sense, using about the same half volume recommendation as above (follow compound pulling work with 20-30 direct reps for rear delts).

Medial delts are usually the hold up and a lot of it just depends on where you train them.  If you’ve got shoulders on their own day, a combination of heavy compound pressing followed by some isolation work seems to work best to get the 30-60 total repetitions.  If you do shoulders after chest, well…that’s complicated.  I’d probably say skew towards the lower end of the range (perhaps 30-40 repetitions).  Certainly medial delts are involved to some degree in compound pressing but I’m not sure the overlap is as direct.

And now that I’ve thrown this article into total disarray, let’s move on.

Loading Parameter 3: Training Frequency

.The next topic I want to talk about in terms of hypetrophy training is training frequency, another place where I feel that the influx of steroids led a lot of people down a bad road.   I’ve written about training frequency before and I’d refer readers to that article for more detail; I’ll only note here that what I put in that article is in keeping with the Wernbom mega-review I cited before.

My experience (and that of many other successful coaches I know in the field) is that the majority of trainees from intermediate on up do best hitting a body part somewhere between twice/week to perhaps once every fifth day (Dante Trudell’s DC training uses this frequency).   As I’ll discuss later in this series, other work such as the Rhea meta-analysis on strength support that as optimal for strength gains as well.

That slightly reduced frequency of once every 5th day can especially be useful if very heavy loads are being used or the individual has poorer recovery due to being older or having a very stressful life.  Beginners still seem to get the best strength and size gains from hitting everything three times per week (this also gives them more of a chance to practice the exercises which improves motor learning) and when you get to a very advanced level (after perhaps 3-4 years of proper training), things can go a variety of different directions.

Again, the above is referring to what I think is optimal for the majority.  Certainly you can find individuals with impressive muscular size who only train a muscle group once per week and succeed. I  But, in my experience and based on the research, that doesn’t seem to be optimal for the majority.  In recent years, there has been a trend towards high frequency training for hypertrophy, hitting a muscle group 3 or more times per week.  Not only does the research not support this on any level, I think it’s ultimately pointless.

As well, often when you look at the overall routine of such folks, muscle groups are actually getting hit more frequently than it appears because of how the body is being split up.  Finally, I know of some coaches who have worked with such trainees and invariably, they still grew better training slightly more frequently.

Loading Parameter 4: Exercise Selection

.The final topic I want to look at today is exercise selection and again recall that we’re still talking about muscle growth right now.  Honestly this is a topic that really needs (and will eventually get) a full article or series of articles since I have a lot more to say about it.

Right now I’m going to give sort of a truncated version of my feelings about it (inasmuch as I ever give truncated thoughts on anything).  In the same way that hypertrophy training tends to have the widest variety of loading parameters (high to low reps and intensities ranging from 60-85%) and training approaches that can “work”, it’s not uncommon to see folks gaining muscular size from an immense variety of exercises.

And while there are hard-head dogmatists everywhere, ranging from folks who think that nothing but heavy compounds are best to folks who think that only isolation exercises on machines are best, my take is that it simply depends on the specifics.  The individual’s mechanics, whether or not they have a spotter, the overall structure of the training all interact to determine what might be the best exercise for a given individual in a given situation.

This is a topic that I addressed to one degree in Squats vs. Leg Press for Big Legs and you can see good examples of the dogmatic attitudes in the comments section.  What is the ideal  exercise for muscle growth for one individual may or may not be the ideal exercise for another trainee (and there is a tendency for people to assume that the best exercises for them are what’s best for everyone).

Intensity and Repetition Range

One of the big issues that determines exercise selection for hypertrophy is your choice of intensity and repetition range which, as you’ll recall, has the largest range for hypertrophy training.  It should be somewhat obvious that the optimal exercise for someone trying to do 4 sets of 12-15 on a short rest might be different than someone doing 5 sets of 5 with a longer rest.  Some generalities about exercise selection follow.

For low repetitions (5-8 reps), heavy compound exercises (squat, bench, row, overhead press, leg press, etc.) tend to be the better choice.  Isolation exercises (leg extension, flye/pec deck, lateral raises) tend to cause too much joint stress, especially at the lower part of that range.

Can isolation exercises be done for sets of 5?  Sure.  Should they by most people?  Probably not.

For higher repetition training, (12-20 reps) heavy compounds can become problematic for some people.  Form tends to break, the risk of injury goes up, smaller muscle groups become more limiting (i.e. low-back gives out on squats, triceps/biceps give out on pressing/pulling movements).  Certainly some people can do high-rep heavy compound work.  Usually they have good mechanics and no major weak point muscles.  This isn’t everyone and for most picking exercises that eliminate limiting muscle groups and/or don’t have the major danger if form breaks is the better choice.

In the middle repetition range (6-12 reps and yes I realize I’ve overlapping things), there is also overlap in exercise selection which heavily depends on the trainee, their leverages, the rest of the workout, and their overall skill with the exercise (i.e. someone who is relatively new to squatting may suffer severe form breakdown doing sets of 15 but someone with years under the bar and good levers may have no problem with it)

Individual Biomechanics

Of course there are other issues that go into exercise selection.  Another issue is individual biomechanics, something I find many don’t take into account when they talk about this topic.  In my experience, most tend to project what works best for them and assume it’s ideal for everyone else.

So if someone says that “Bench press is best for building pecs” they are invariably built to bench well; if someone says “Bench presses suck for building pecs” it means that they aren’t built to bench press (or never learned to bench with the pecs).   But this becomes a problem when someone who is built a certain way is coaching someone who isn’t.

I addressed this in the leg press article I linked to above and will touch on again here.  Because the reality is that folks who tend not to be built well for strength training in the first place (e.g. very long limbs or what have you) often find that the heavy compounds that work for people well suited to the weight room aren’t the optimal choice for them, especially in terms of hypertrophy.

At the very least, for folks who aren’t built fantastically to do well with the heavy compounds, there is almost always a need to do additional, more isolation work to deal with weak points.  Invariably, for those folks, certain muscles fail early in the movement making an exclusive use of heavy compounds a losing proposition.  That guy with the very long arms trying to use bench press to grow big pecs will either find that their shoulders get wrecked (unless they modify the movement) or triceps give out way too early.  Or both.

Pre-exhausting with an isolation movement (flye/pec deck) or following heavy bench press with flyes/pec deck usually works better than simply adhering to “Heavy compounds or go home, noob” approach to exercise selection for hypertrophy.  Sometimes you have to even get more creative (with one trainee I used bottom half incline bench on the hammer machine to target pecs without triceps being limiting; so I only had her do the part of the movement from chest level to about half way up to keep the focus on the pecs).

Alternately, because of how they are built, folks with poor mechanics for lifting  they find creative substitutions to use other muscle groups rather than the target muscles.  Certainly good technique and cueing can fix some of this but often the best solution is to pick an isolation movement that can’t be cheated on; it’s often the only effective way to target the muscle.  I find this more productive than taking a “bang your head against an ineffective movement” approach to exercise selection.

The Fundamental Guide to Exercise Selection for Hypertrophy

Because, at a fundamental level, the only requirements for muscle growth in terms of exercise selection are this:

  1. Lets you load the muscle effectively with either tension, fatigue, or both to trigger growth
  2. Works the target muscle effectively (i.e. uses pecs if your goal is to train pecs)
  3. Can be progressed in load safely
  4. Doesn’t injure the trainee

That is your muscle doesn’t “know” at any fundamental level what exercise you’re doing (yes, your nervous system may “know” but that’s an issue of skill, not growth).   The muscle sense tension, metabolic stress/fatigue and damage and that’s what triggers growth.  The exercise is only as important as its ability to let any given trainee apply those factors.

And while a heavy compound exercise may be the best choice for one trainee, that doesn’t make it the best choice for another and that’s all I have to say about that.  And with that I’ll wrap-up for today.    Next time I’ll finally wrap up hypertrophy training and talk about some specific programs that are out there.

Read Categories of Weight Training: Part 6

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11 thoughts on “Categories of Weight Training: Part 5

  1. Best part:

    “And while a heavy compound exercise may be the best choice for one trainee, that doesn’t make it the best choice for another”

  2. Have you come across any studies showing that a muscle group (triceps, for example) is worked harder in a compound movement (bench press) than in an isolation exercise (Skull Crusher). EMG or anything similar???

  3. great series, just a quick question – do I remember right that the 30-60 recommendation was based on a 2x per week frequency? Eg back 30-60 per session, 2 sessions per week, so 60-120 total per week? I ask because I have used the weekly number to arrive at 20-40 when doing 3x full body workouts. FWIW I have had good results cycling volume throughout the month as follows:

    week 1: H (100 reps/bodypart total)
    week 2: M (80 reps/bodypart total)
    week 3: VH (120 reps/bodypart total)
    week 4: L (60 reps/ bodypart total)

    This requires some temperance – not all sets can be close to RMs, and heavy work in particular benefits from a single top set, several backoff sets at 90% of top set loading.

  4. Hey lyle,
    Do you think there’s much truth to Poliquin’s often espoused theories about different reps being optimal for different trainees based on their muscle fibre types (slow twitch or fast twitch)? So that an assumed fast-twitch oly lifter would hypertrophy on lower reps (sets of 5 as you mentioned), but someone who was more of a mix or slow twitch would do better on relatively higher reps? Does the fact that slow-twitch fibres have limited hypertrophy potential tie in with how you were saying high rep stuff doesn’t normally work well for naturals, or is that just more of a function of tension and the light loads required for high reps?
    I remember Poliquin used to say he would test the 1RM of something like the weighted chinup, then 10 minutes later have the trainee do max reps at 85% of their chinning weight, and the number of reps they got would be the rep range they would hypertrophy those muscles best in for that exercise, again going back to their fibre types. This would be assuming that 85% is best for hypertrophy, but makes an interesting distinction between people who may be able to get 3 reps with 85% vs. people who may be able to get 20 reps with 85% (as you’ve probably encountered in training people).
    Sorry for the long-winded and open ended questions, as well as the loliquinisms, but I was just wondering about your take on the issue. Cheers.

  5. Jared, I’ve seen a few EMG studies around on the internet (Melo & Cararelli 1994, Kobayashi Matsui 1983, Moritani 1986, DeLuca 1982) I have a book called “Serious Strength Training” (isbn 0736042660) by Tudor Bompa, PhD and Maura Di Pasquale, MD that has a section outlining which exercise produces the greatest amount of stimulation within each target muscle group. But as Lyle illustrates, there’s a lot more to stimulating a muscle in an individual than watching a meter….

  6. It seems like the devil’s in the overlap. You try to address this, but it seems almost impossible to plan this out ex-ante like a recipe, especially for those of us who like compound movements. I currently try to minimize time in the gym and like single-arm dumbell clean and presses, 30 on each side in six sets of ten (alternating arms each rep). That matches perfectly with your 30-60 recommendation, where my arms get 30 and legs/back get 60. Then I do 50 pullups (5×10) and some decline dumbell presses (because it simulates BJJ positions) and go home. Time in the gym: 35 minutes.

    The one-arm clean-and-press doesn’t work the quads as well as a squat, but if I added squats on, I’d be going well over the 60 mark. I’m just doing maintenance work now, so this seems ok, but if I were trying to gain strength, I wouldn’t want to leave out squats or deadlifts, and this would quickly get confusing. Do you recommend just playing around with different combinations while keeping the 30-60 number in the back of your mind as a guideline?

  7. so i have understood that 30- 60 reps is the optimal rep range for each muscle group but is this an optimal rep range for the week or per session????

    currently i follow your training frequency protocol lyle ,and i hit each bodypart twice a week. for big muscle groups (chest, legs, back) i do 48 reps a workout and for smaller muscles (biceps, triceps, delts and traps) i do 30 reps per workout. over a week this equates to 96 reps for big muscles and 60 reps for small muscles. is this optimal????

  8. Dave: havent read it before but just did and although interesting, would of loved if it had been done under more controlled, ‘experimental’ conditions.
    wrkt: i actually have that book as well. I was just keeping my fingers crossed that there was a study which perhaps compared the two modalities. Maybe ill just have to wait 🙂

  9. Nitpicking Alert. “(i.e. direct biceps/triceps work after chest/back respectively).” I think that’s enough for you to figure out the error.

  10. Good catch, Dexter. Thank you.

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