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- For hypertrophy, it's better to track volume as total sets done instead of volume load (Sets x Reps x Weight).
- Consider performing higher frequency training to make volume accumulation much easier.
- Not all muscles can be grown maximally at once due to recovery limitations, therefore a proper understanding of prioritization is important.
- Choose exercises that produce the most stimulus with the least fatigue accumulation.
- Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to strength train to build muscle. Learn to put very heavy training (<5 reps) on the back burner.
- Avoid using momentum or too much cheating on exercises. Momentum can shift the focus off of the muscles an exercise is designed to target.
It's common for those who want to focus solely on building muscle to still fall into the trap of training like a powerlifter or not doing everything they can to maximize muscle growth. Either because they believe the misconception that you have to maximize strength to get bigger or they just haven't been exposed to some of the concepts in this article. Below, I will explain a few of the most important things to know if your goal is purely gaining muscle size and how you can maximize the process.
Track volume as "hard sets" instead of volume load.
In our article The Truth About Rep Ranges we discuss how all rep ranges build roughly the same amount of muscle as long as you take a muscle near failure during those sets. Because of this, tracking volume in terms as "volume load" (Sets x Reps x Load) may not be the most practical way to track volume for hypertrophy specific goals. A more modern approach to tracking total volume for hypertrophy is to track how many "hard sets" you perform - a hard set being defined as a set taken at least 4 reps from failure or closer.
A baseline recommendation for volume requirements for hypertrophy is to train a muscle with a minimum of 10 sets per week. There are benefits to going higher than this, but eventually you will run into diminishing returns and if you perform too much volume, you can actually slow down progress due to difficulties recovering.
A good recommendation is to start out with a base of 10 sets per muscle and then to slowly increase the amount of sets you're doing each week. Do this until you feel as though you're reaching a point where the volume levels being performed are starting to cause recovery problems, then take a deload. After the deload you can increase the load on the bar or add reps, and then reset volume levels back down to it's old baseline, then start adding sets over the weeks again.
Train with enough frequency to perform adequate volume.
In our article Training Frequency: How often should you train?, we discuss how research shows that training a muscle more than once per week is ideal, with anything over two times a week providing the same returns as twice a week. It is much easier to perform higher levels of volume when training with higher frequencies.
Consider training a muscle 2-3 times per week so that you not only gain the benefits of training your muscles more than once a week, but you make it much easier to increase volume levels over the weeks without your workouts becoming excessively long and tiring.
Imagine that you need to train chest with 20 sets this week. If you only worked chest once a week, you'd have to perform 20 sets in that one workout. Not very probable and if you do manage to do it, odds are your latter sets may produce a sub par stimulation because of a lack of performance due to fatigue. Training two or three times a week, however, makes getting these 20 sets in much easier. Each session would only require you perform 10 sets for twice a week frequency and 6-7 per session for three times a week - much more manageable!
Understanding the importance of prioritization
Each muscle requires a certain minimum amount of sets per week to grow at all, and any sets above this will cause it to grow more, up until a certain point. This is often referred to as Minimally Effective Volume (MEV) and Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV). MEV is the minimum amount of volume required to make a muscle grow. MRV is the amount of volume you can perform while still just barely recovering, meaning that any volume above this level and you won't be able to recover at all. A muscle can grow in any set range that is between it's MEV and MRV, while the closer you train a muscle to it's MRV, the more it will grow.
The closer you train a muscle to it's MRV, the more training fatigue you will accumulate due to the higher overall volumes. This means that you can't train every muscle near their MRVs at the same time without running into recovery issues. If you attempted to train every single muscle with volume levels near their MRVs, you'd quickly dig yourself into a recovery hole and be unable to properly recover between workouts, thus lowering your long term ability to build muscle.
To alleviate this problem, you need to prioritize muscle groups in each training cycle. I'd recommend choosing 1-3 muscle groups that you want to grow maximally, and train those muscles near their MRVs, while every other muscle can be trained with slightly less volume that is further away from their MRVs, but still enough to grow at a decent pace.
Choose exercises with a good SFR
SFR stands for Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio, a term coined by Mike Israetel. SFR refers to the ratio in which an exercise produces hypertrophy adaptations versus how much fatigue it generates. Some exercises such as the deadlift will generally have bad SFR for all/most lifters, while most other exercises will have different SFRs for different individuals. This means that each individual should test out many different variations of exercises so they can discover which exercises provide the best SFR.
An example of an exercise with a bad SFR would be someone who performs the bench press only to build the pecs and triceps who doesn't ever feel fatigue in their pecks and triceps after doing bench press, even if they use good form. This would mean that while the bench press is a great movement, for the sole purpose of growing this particular lifter's pecs and triceps, it may not have the best SFR, because the bench press in their case would generate more fatigue than it does hypertrophy.
Another thing to look for in terms of fatigue generation is just overall discomfort. If a movement gives you aches or pains when you do it a lot, you may want to consider different movements that stimulate the same muscles without the additional wear and tear.
Put strength on the back burner
While there is nothing wrong with expecting and looking forward to making strength gains, you should put training very heavy on the back burner. Avoid training in rep ranges lower than 5-6 reps. While most rep ranges build similar amounts of muscle, training very heavy produces much more fatigue and will therefore have a very poor SFR for hypertrophy.
It's a common misconception that you have to get stronger in order to build muscle. It's actually quite the opposite. Getting stronger is a side effect of your muscles growing (as well as other things such as neural adaptations and technique improvement). So while you don't need to get stronger in order to get bigger, getting stronger can be a great sign that what you're doing is indeed paying off. You will still need to add load to the bar over time in order to maintain the correct proximity to failure as you get stronger, but because you don't NEED to strength train in order to maximize muscle growth, you shouldn't train in very heavy rep ranges due to their bad SFR.
This also means that you shouldn't obsess over the "big 3" (Bench, Squat & Deadlift) like many lifters do. These movements, while great, are not requirements for hypertrophy training, especially if they don't have a good SFR for you personally. The deadlift, for example, is often one of the most commonly left out compound movements for hypertrophy specific routines because it has such a bad SFR for most lifters.
Avoid using momentum and cheating on exercises
For hypertrophy training, the goal of any exercise is specifically to target a muscle or muscle groups and take them close to failure. It's not to lift a certain amount of load or to reach a certain amount of repetitions. Because of this, you want to make sure that when you perform an exercise you avoid using momentum.
Take a bicep curl for example. Often times people become obsessed with their strength on an exercise and want to lift a certain weight on the bar or they want to hit a new repetition PR, so instead of focusing on strictly moving through the range of motion in order to stimulate their biceps, they begin swinging their bodies and using momentum just for the sake of saying they were able to lift x amount of weight or perform y amount of repetitions. When this happens, they no longer stimulate the biceps nearly as much and thus their biceps growth will drastically decrease, despite them lifting more weight.
When you start bringing momentum into exercises, you take the focus off of the muscles that the movement was intended to target and increase your chance of injury. You are essentially wasting time and putting yourself at a higher risk of having to take time off from getting hurt.