High intensity? Low intensity? High volume? High frequency? Which training style is best for natural lifters looking to put on as muscle as possible? And which element is the most important in a training program? This topic remains to be one of the hottest topics in the fitness realm. And, rightfully so. Even some of the top experts in the field advocate one of those elements versus the others. But where is the truth? Let’s see what science has to say.
Hierarchy of Training Elements
As you can see in the picture above, adherence is the most crucial element of any training program. A mediocre program that you follow consistently and adhere to will be superior to an optimal training program that you don’t adhere to.
Adherence aside, we want to examine which training element is the most important when it comes gaining as much muscle as possible. The answer is volume. The more work you do, the better your results will be. Given that you are not overtraining or overreaching. Another factor is the amount of volume you can recover from. Realistically, we cannot do an infinite amount of volume and expect to recover from it; however, there is a sweet spot for every individual.
In this study by Schoenfeld et al. (2014), volume was equated between two groups of well-trained men. One group performed 3 sets of 10 repetitions and the other group performed 7 sets of 3 repetitions (power lifting style). Results showed no significant differences in muscle hypertrophy, however, strength gains were better in the power-lifting style group. Brandenburg JP et al. (2002) recorded the same observations.
Before I can make any suggestions, let me lay out some basics first.
- Newbies do not experience any significant muscle growth until the 3rd to 5th week mark. However, they experience rapid and significant strength gains primarily due to neural adaptations.
- Newbies’ muscles (or, lack thereof) are more susceptible to damage. Thus, doing tons of volume will cause some serious muscle damage and potentially hinder recovery.
- Newbies are more susceptible to injuries due to lack of neural drive as well as proper technique.
- More volume = more hypertrophy.
- The more muscle damage you cause, the more recovery you’ll require.
- Muscle hypertrophy primarily occurs due to mechanical tension.
- The more advanced you are, the harder it’ll be to cause muscle damage AKA Repeated Bout Effect (RPE).
- Heavy loads stimulate more bone gains. Yes, you can gain bone mass, too! The heavier the load is, the more bone mass you gain. Thus, intensity would yield better bone gains.
- Higher intensity will yield better strength gains.
- One mechanism by which muscles grow is satellite cell fusion. Satellite cells are cells that surround muscle fibers and help repair muscles after exercise by donating their myonuclei.
- Each myonucleus supervises a certain volume of sarcoplasm within the muscle. That volume is called myonuclear domain. Since there is a limit on how much volume each myonucleus can oversee, once you reach that limit, the only way to make more significant gains would be to add more myonuclei to muscle fibers.
- Exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis (the anabolic window). How long muscle protein synthesis stays elevated for varies between lifters based on their training experience. The “anabolic window” can last as long as 72 hours in beginners and decreases as you become more advanced.
After establishing those basics, let’s see how each point would apply to every weightlifting stage.
Beginners will always see results no matter what they do. They’ll also experience significant strength and muscle gains fast. Since they lack the “repeated bout effect” (RPE), they need not worry about high volume. An ideal beginner program should be comprised of:
- High Frequency.
- Low-Moderate volume (based on individual recovery threshold).
- High intensity. However, intensity will be inherently low in the beginner stage because newbies aren’t very strong to begin with. With that said, intensity (heavy) is a relative term.
During the beginner stage, a newbie’s main goals should be to learn proper technique, gains tons of strength, and learn about his/her body’s biomechanics as well as recovery tolerance. A beginner must build a strong foundation if he is interested in building an impressive physique. Not only will a strong foundation yield better gains, but it’ll also protect the lifter from injuries.
High Frequency: The reason why beginners should do high frequency training is to reap the benefits of quick neural and muscular adaptations. During this stage, the lifter’s body is primed to gains tons of mass and strength at a rapid rate. Thus, it would be foolish to do a certain movement once per week. You would be leaving a whole lot of gains on the table. Although you will be stimulating muscle protein synthesis for up to 3 days, but it’s not just about protein synthesis. Training more frequently will make you better at whatever exercises you’re performing and you’ll gain a lot of strength fast.
High frequency training will also allow the lifter to learn proper technique quickly. After all, the more you do something, the better you’ll get at it and exercise is no different. You’ll also spend more time practicing certain movement patterns/exercises, and you’ll gain more strength than if you were to do that exercise once per week. For example, if you squat 3 times per week, that’s 3 opportunities to improve and gain more strength than someone who only squats once per week!
Low to moderate volume: The reason why beginners should do low to moderate volume is because high volume would cause significant muscle damage and it would be hard to recover from. As usual, there are people who will be able to recover from more volume than others, and vice versa, therefore, individual volume tolerance and recovery abilities play a key role here. Learn your body. While muscle damage is one pathway for muscle growth, more damage doesn’t mean more gains. Once again, every person has a threshold of how much volume they can recover from. Anything past that threshold is counterproductive and has the potential to burnout your central nervous system (newbies). Thus, the point of low to moderate volume to provide enough stimulus to induce hypertrophy and strength gains without causing too much damage.
High intensity: During the newbie stage, intensity will be inherently low due to lack of strength. However, since strength/heavy is a relative matter, newbies should spend most of their time lifting heavy ass sh*t. As laid out above, heavy loads will help beginners stimulate significant muscle hypertrophy and gain tons of strength quickly. Additionally, since heavy loads have been shown to have a higher osteogenic effect (new bone gains), high intensity will help beginners strengthen their bones as well as gain more bone mass. This, logically, will be your foundation for future gains. It’ll protect the lifter from future injuries and help them make more gains in the future even through their intermediate and advanced stages.
Since beginners have not exhausted their myonuclear domain yet, it wouldn’t make any sense to deload. In fact, continuous training would yield better results. Deloads have other benefits, such as getting a physical and mental break from constant exercise and letting your body and nervous system recuperate, but given the nature of inherently low intensity and not so much volume, the likelihood of a beginner burning out his CNS is quite low.
During the intermediate stage, our lifter has already gained a substantial amount of strength and size but not enough to be considered a role model. By the time a lifter reaches the intermediate stage he will have exhausted all his newbie gains. The rapid results he once got won’t are long gone. But, don’t feel bad because you are at a much better condition than you were before.
Because of the substantial amount of strength and size our lifter has gained he will now be able to lift heavier weights. His muscles are primed to take some beating and weights will be high enough to be generate high intensity. Our lifters’ muscles have also adapted to withstand damage (Repeated Bout Effect) and causing muscle damage requires more volume/intensity than a beginner. Additionally, our lifters’ muscles have expanded enough within their domain; however, they haven’t exhausted their myonuclear domains just yet. Our lifter in question has also learned enough about his body to know what exercises suit his individual biomechanics and what exercises give him the best results. He has also learned what exercises bother his joints and make him more susceptible to injuries. Due to these conditions, an intermediate lifter’s program should be comprised of the following elements for the fastest results:
- High Frequency.
- Moderate to High Volume.
- High Intensity.
Although an intermediate lifter has probably learned proper technique on most exercises, his technique is still not as perfect as he thinks it is. Thus, re-learning proper technique is never a bad idea. I am yet to meet a person who executes all exercises with perfect form on every repetition, including myself. We are all human and being 100% perfect won’t happen. That said, have proper technique helps prevent injuries and yields better adaptation.
High Frequency: There is ample amount of research to suggest that higher frequency training is superior to low training frequency. Logically, the more often you perform an exercise the better you become at it. I personally don’t like very high frequency training such as hitting muscle groups 5-7 times per week. It’s not my cup of tea, and research is yet to prove that hitting a muscle group 5-7 times per week is superior to hitting it 2-3 times per week. And frankly, I don’t think the differences will be significant at all. Additionally, just how every person has a volume threshold they can recover from, the same goes for frequency, which of course relates to volume as well. For example, I know if I start doing bench pressing too often, my biceps tendons and elbows start aching and getting in the way of reaching my goals. Moreover, a high frequency approach during the intermediate stage will yield better results since our lifter’s muscles have now adapted to take some beating (RBE) and it’s not easy to cause microtrauma. Thus, a higher frequency approach would cause enough muscle damage to elicit adaptation without causing too much damage. One last thing, intermediate lifters have a shorter anabolic window than beginners (24-48 hours). Thus, stimulating each body part frequently will results in superior gains.
Moderate to High Volume: An intermediate lifter’s muscles and nervous system can handle more work as opposed to his beginner days, thanks to the Repeated Bout Effect. Because of that and the fact that more volume equates more gains, an intermediate lifter will get more results doing moderate to high volume. The reason I don’t recommend either end of the spectrum is because of individual volume tolerance and recovery abilities. Some people have better genetics and can recover from doing more work. On the other side of the coin, other people will get better results doing moderate volume because that’s how much they can recover from and anything more will yield little to no results. Know your recovery abilities and volume threshold and adjust your volume accordingly. Note: since an intermediate lifter should have enough strength to handle heavier loads, the chance of overreaching is a bit high. Thus, adjust volume, frequency, and intensity accordingly.
High intensity: An intermediate lifter has probably built a decent foundation during his beginner days. Things don’t stop there, however. Re-enforcing that foundation during the intermediate stage is crucial for future gains and injury prevention. As you know by now, heavy loads tend to stimulate bones the most. High intensity training will strengthen the lifter’s bones even further and will allow him to gain more bone mass.
Note: Frequent deloading during this stage would greatly help decrease fatigue as well as adaptations that come with Repeated Bout Effect. This should allow you to continue making progress, manage and prevent injuries, and not lose your motivation.
So, you’ve finally made it to the advanced stage. Congratulations, people can now tell that you lift! An advanced lifter has worked hard for his solid foundation and has gained a respectable amount of strength and size. While this all sounds good and dandy, an advanced lifter will find it very difficult to get more results. His muscles have adapted to take some serious beating and due to the gradual decreasing nature of gains, results are slow to come by. Tweaking your program during the advanced stage is crucial to squeeze out more gains. An advanced trainee’s training program should be built on the following elements:
- Moderate Frequency.
- High Volume.
- Moderate to High Intensity.
Moderate Frequency: In my modest opinion, I believe a moderate frequency approach during the advanced stage would be optimal for two reasons; 1) More volume per session would cause more muscle damage. 2) Since intensity will be inherently high, the risk of injury that comes with doing certain exercises with high intensity will be quite high. This is not to say that a high frequency program wouldn’t work for an advanced lifter, in fact, it can and will work, but my main concern would be injury prevention because when you are injured, you can’t! And guess what? You’ll be missing out on some gains. Thus, the extra frequency just isn’t worth it. Muscle protein synthesis stays elevated for 10-36 hours in advanced lifters. Thus, training with high frequency would be better. However, since an advanced lifter has exhausted most of his gains already, any extra gains he would get from super high frequency wouldn’t be worth the risk of injury (high intensity/high volume).
High Volume: An advanced trainee’s muscles are very resistant to damage because of R.B.E. And since more work will yield better results, a high-volume approach would be optimal during this stage. Accompanied with what’s mentioned above about frequency, I would include more volume per session to successfully cause enough muscle damage for further adaptations.
Moderate to High Intensity: Intensity will be inherently high (or, moderate at the very least) during this stage. This can be attributed to the amount of strength our lifter has gained to be promoted to this stage. By the time a lifter makes it to the advanced stage his muscles will have almost reached their maximum myonuclear domain. Additionally, training with high intensity during this stage is important to expand muscles’ myonuclear domain by adding new myonuclei to muscle fibers. In research, high intensity training (heavy loads) have been shown to be effective in adding new myonuclei to muscle fibers. That said, training with high intensity all the time is a slippery slope because the risk of injuries with doing some serious weights increases dramatically. Because of those last points, frequent de-loading is very crucial for 3 reasons: 1) Injury prevention. 2) Decreasing fatigue and R.B.E. “de-adaptation”. 3) Avoiding overreaching and/or burnout.
An intelligently designed program is important for optimal results. As you upgrade from one stage to another, your program should be tweaked accordingly. I would argue that tweaking your program as you make progress is more important than sticking to one program forever. Each lifting stage requires a different and methodical approach if you truly want the best results. This article should provide you with enough information to structure your program properly. In the next part of this series, we will see what variables should change during bulking and cutting. Keep in mind that the above recommendations will work for most people, however, individual differences should be taken into consideration as well!