Anything outside the 6-12 rep range is a total waste of time if you want to make gains in size.
Hit 1-5 reps and you’ll be working solely on strength and anything above 12 reps is virtually cardio. Right?
What about muscle confusion? Don’t you have to switch things up to keep your body guessing?
And if your training doesn’t make you sore then you might as well go back to sitting on the sofa right?
^^^ Those are just some of the nuggets of nonsense that plague the fitness world due to misunderstanding of the principles of lifting I covered last time, and the most important variables of training that I’ll be covering today.
- Exercise selection and form
By correctly applying these variables, you can design your personalised programme for building muscle. Below I explain how.
Quite simply, volume is the amount of work you do and can be calculated by multiplying the total number of reps by the weight lifted.
So 4 sets of 8 reps at 100kg equals a volume of 3200 kg.
Over time, the amount of volume you do is the most important factor determining muscle growth and it has to go up if you want to make gains.
This should come as no surprise if you’ve already read part 1 as you’ll understand that if you don’t do more work over time, you won’t give your body a reason to grow.
It doesn’t mean that your volume has to go up session by session or week by week though. More on this another time.
Now, whilst volume is a combo of the reps and weight you lift, to keep things simple, I’m going to echo the volume guidelines from Brad Schoenfeld and Eric Helms which are based on total reps.
So a nice practical guideline is to aim for roughly 40-70 reps for a given muscle each time you train it (1-4).
Keep in mind that when you do compound exercises, you involve lots of muscles so there is some overlap that you need to consider here. For example, when you bench press, the main emphasis is on the chest but your triceps and shoulders will also get some work in. This means that bench press will contribute to your chest, tricep and shoulder volume.
This guideline is based on a big ass study by Wernbom et al., who found this volume resulted in the greatest gains for intermediate lifters. It is with the caveat that your training intensity and frequency is on point too though (3).
Don’t worry, I’ve got those covered for you too:
Unlike the colloquial meaning of intensity that refers to how much you work up a sweat, in lifting terms, intensity is a way of expressing the weight lifted relative to your 1 rep max (ie: how heavy the weight is).
So 80% of your 1 rep max is a greater intensity than 70%.
Whilst over time, the amount of volume you do is the most important factor determining muscle growth, there is an intensity threshold you must work at for the vast majority of the time to make gains.
If there wasn’t, you could make the same gains doing a tonne of air squats in one of those pump n’ tone classes as squatting heavy with a few plates on either side of the bar provided you hit the same total volume. Common sense will tell you that you won’t get jacked by going to pump n’ tone.
With that said, the intensity threshold you need to work at to make gains is most likely lower than has previously been thought as recent research has shown similar gains in size at both low and high intensities when volume is matched (5).
So you can build muscle lifting outside the 8-12 rep range provided your volume goes up.
Even so, you generally want to lift at least moderately heavy weights to maximise gains in size and fit your lifting into your session efficiently.
So, if your main aim is to build muscle (in preference of a more strength orientated goal), lift at around 60-80% of your 1RM for the most part. This will equate to lifting mostly in the 6-12 rep range (1,2,6). That doesn’t mean anything outside of this range is a pointless though, and provided you nail your overall volume, you’ll still grow.
You can see this visually on the figure below. The darker the shade of blue, the more time you should dedicate to lifting in that rep range for the goal of muscle gain (hypertrophy).
Frequency is the number of times you train and I delved into it recently so I recommend you go give my previous blog a read once you’re done here.
In short though:
- Shoot for 3-6 sessions per week with beginners starting at the lower end (3-4 sessions/week) and more advanced lifters using the mid to higher end (4-6 sessions/week).
- Hit each muscle group 2-3 times a week. This will help maximize gains by improving your training quality and allows 24-48 hours or so for muscle growth to return to baseline levels before being re-spiked by another gym session.
With the above in mind, you can determine which training split will work best for you.
For example, if you train 4 times a week, an upper/lower split would be a good shout as it enables you to hit each muscle group twice per week.
(For more on choosing the best split for you, hit this link: www.tommycole.co.uk/best-training-split)
From the above you’ve got some solid guidelines to go by:
- Hit 40-70 reps each time you train a given muscle. When combined with the intensity guideline below, this equates to around 4-10 sets per muscle.
- Lift at an intensity of 60—80% of your 1 rep max for the most part. So in the 6-12 rep range most of the time.
- Train each muscle group 2-3 times per week. That means around 80-210 reps per week in total for each muscle.
Whilst the above is a great place to start, it is all completely useless if the exercises you do suck.
For example, if all your shoulder volume came from lateral raises and all your chest volume came from cable flyes, sure, you’ll get a sweet pump, but you won’t get far on your quest for gains as you won’t put enough tension on your muscles to cause growth.
Similarly, if your squat is higher than Leo after a couple of ludes, then no matter how many reps you do, your gains will suck.
So there are two primarily factors to consider when it comes to the exercises you do:
- Your exercise selection.
- Your exercise form.
Curls, lateral raises and chest flyes are great, HOWEVER, as painful as it may be for a bro to hear, they shouldn’t be the main focus of your training.
And if you’re serious about getting jacked you should focus primarily on compound exercises that involve movement and co-ordination of multiple joints. These exercises provide the most bang for your buck and a greater muscle building stimulus.
A good rule to go by is to pick 1-3 compound movements for each muscle group you’re working per session.
I suggest choosing from the following types of compound movements:
Obviously you’re not limited to these exercises only – they’re just examples.
Then finish off with an isolation movement or two to make up the rest of your volume and to zone in on a particular area you want to develop (guns, obviously).
So on a day you’re training chest, you might do bench press, incline dumbbell bench and cable flys.
Or incline bench press, chest press machine and pec deck.
This should go without saying but put simply, you should strive to use the full range of motion throughout your lifting and control the weights safely and without risking injury.
Sure, there is a time and a place for a couple of cheat reps at the end of a taxing set of curls, lateral raises or other light isolation exercises.
However, most of the time you should use strict and controlled form, otherwise you’ll risk injury and screwing up any chances of making gains altogether.
The most common exercises people have issues with are squats, bench press and deadlifts so here are some solid tutorials from Layne Norton and Mike Zourdos to guide you:
Credit goes to bodybuilding.com and shreddedbyscience.com for the great videos.
Muscle confusion, progression and variation
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, then chances are you’ve come across the term ‘muscle confusion’ and the idea that you should switch up your exercises as much as every session in an attempt to stimulate growth.
In short, this is nonsense, and constantly changing your exercises will come at a hefty cost:
- It will increase muscle soreness and therefore cause your performance drop. This will come at the cost of reduced training volume, which as you well know is the main driver of gains.
- It makes the application of progressive overload more difficult as you’ll have no idea if your volume is going up. For example, you could squat 100kg one week and then change to leg press the following week and do 105kg. Whilst that’s 5kg extra, leg press is a completely different exercise so the load on your muscles will be different.
- After introducing an exercise, it takes time to get your muscles to fire in coordination with one another and therefore learn how to execute the exercise properly. Only once you have nailed the form and made initial strength gains can you start to progressively overload your muscles to cause growth.
Ultimately the above means that changing your exercises the whole time in an attempt to confuse your muscles will cost you gains.
So instead, you should focus on mastering and gradually progressing on the same exercises in your programme over weeks and months.
But how should you progress your lifts?
Set a rep range for each exercise such as 6-8, 8-10 or 10-12. Choose a weight that you can lift and hit the upper end of the rep range with 2-3 reps left in the tank on the first set. For example, for an 8-10 rep range, use a weight you can lift for 12/13 reps on the first set. Once you can hit the upper end of the rep range for all sets, increase the weight by 1-5 kg next session.
If your progress stalls for 3 weeks on your main compound lifts (ie: you’re unable to work up the rep range), take a deload by doing half the number of sets for all exercises for a whole week whilst using a slightly lower weight (eg: drop 2.5-5kg). Restart with the same weight you deloaded with the following week. For exercises you didn’t stall on, go back to the weight you were lifting at before the deload.
Eg: you’ve stalled on your squats (4 x 8-10 @100kg) and have been hitting:
- 100kg x 8, 8, 8, 8 for the last few weeks.
Next week cut all your sets in half and hit the lower end of the rep range with a slightly lighter weight:
- 95kg x 8, 8
After your deload, restart at 4 x 8-10 @95kg and work your way back up again.
Simple as that.
Rotate some of your exercises
Wait, what? Didn’t I just tell you the complete opposite?
Well yeah. Sort of, I guess. But that was just to drive the point home that you need to stick with your exercises for a while so you can progress with them rather than changing them up the whole time.
That doesn’t mean that some exercise variation/rotation isn’t a good thing though
And by altering some of your exercises every now and again, you’ll hit different areas of your muscles and stimulate more growth (7).
It will also keep your training fresh and stop it from becoming monotonous and boring, which is damn important as a training programme is only any good if you enjoy it and can stick to it.
I suggest that you change complex compound movements like bench press, squats and deadlifts very infrequently, if at all, as they require a lot of skill to master. You have more freedom to play around with less complex isolation exercises like bicep curls and leg extensions though as they don’t take a great deal of time to learn. So rotate them after 6-12 weeks or so if you would like. For example, you might switch out preacher curls for standing dumbbell curls or regular cable tricep extensions for overhead cable tricep extensions. Don’t do this for the sake of it though; remember, the aim of the game is progression.
Have heavy and light days
I also suggest you vary the rep ranges you work in over the week for some of your compound exercises. I will delve into this in more detail at some other point, but for now, a simple guideline to go by is to have one heavier day where you lift more at the lower end of the 6-12 rep range recommendation and then a lighter day where you lift at the upper end.
So you might do sets of 8, 10 or 12 for squats on your light day and then 4, 6 or 8 on your heavy day (yeah, I know, 4 isn’t in the 6-12 rep range but remember that these aren’t strict rules and some training outside of 6-12 reps is a good thing).
Putting it all together
So now you have pretty much everything you need to build your own programme for getting jacked. I’ve covered the fundamental principles of lifting and now you know how to manipulate the most important variables of your programme:
- Hit 40-70 reps each time you train a given muscle.
- Lift in the 6-12 rep range most of the time.
- Train each muscle group 2-3 times per week.
- Focus primarily on compound exercises, but don’t forget about isolation exercises for increasing volume and zoning in on a particular area you want to develop.
- Have heavy and lighter days for your compound exercises.
- Rotate less complex exercises every now and then.
Here is an example of how to put it all together for a 4x/week frequency, using an upper/lower split.
Keep in mind that the above is just a quick example to show how you can apply the guidelines. It’s not THE programme I advise you to follow as it won’t fit your wants, needs and preferences.
And in reality, there is no one programme that is suited to everyone like some will have you believe. There are just training principles and guidelines that can be used to mould the right programme for you.
If you want me to take the reins for you and cut out any guesswork, follow this link to apply for coaching.
But what next?
What about nutrition?
And aren’t there supplements you can use to take your gains to the next level?
Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered and those are the topics I’ll be covering throughout the rest of this series. Here’s the next part.
References and reading
(1) Schoenfeld, B. (2016). Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy.
(2) Eric Helms – Muscle & Strength Pyramids (www.muscleandstrengthpyramids.com)
(3) Helms, E. R., Fitschen, P. J., Aragon, A. A., Cronin, J., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2015). Recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: resistance and cardiovascular training. Journal of Sports Medicine Physical Fitness, 55, 164-178.
(4) Wernbom, M., Augustsson, J., & Thomeé, R. (2007). The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports medicine, 37(3), 225-264.
(5) Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., Sonmez, G. T., & Alvar, B. A. (2014). Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(10), 2909-2918.
(6) Mike Israetel, James Hoffmann and Chad Wesley Smith – Scientific Principles of Strength Training (www.store.jtsstrength.com/products/scientific-principles-of-strength-training)
(7) Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.
(8) Hoffman (2012). NCSA’s guide to programme design