By John Romaniello
I’ve often said that while gaining muscle can be very difficult, it’s also pretty simple—at the heart of it, you just need to take in more energy than you expend, and use an intelligent program. This is especially true for beginners.
The problem comes in when trying to figure out what intelligent program to use. You’ve most likely read a variety of training articles, each of them claiming to have the best formula for muscle growth. And, and, while some are better than others, most of them work pretty well.
Along similar lines, there are a thousand books out there outlining methods or providing complete programs, and while some of them are fantastic, the truth is that a lot of what’s out there is based on an exciting fad, rather than tried and true methods centered on the basics. While they can work, they won’t help you build a solid foundation that you can work from for continued progress. For that, you need to focus first on the basics.
Over the course of the next week, we’re going to cover six different training methods that will help you get bigger and stronger. At the end of the week, you’ll have a number of new training modalities to use on your quest for size.
And today, we start with the basics.
Back to Basics
When it comes to gaining mass, beginners don’t have need to focus on things like alternating max effort and dynamic effort training days. The most advanced thing you need to focus on is learning how to appropriately manipulate training volume and frequency to allow for optimal growth and recovery. We’ll get to frequency in a bit, but let’s start with volume.
In the training context, your total volume is (sets x reps). In order to make changes to your training program, you would then either add or subtract sets, reps, or exercises in order to achieve a high or lower total volume. This of course, begs the very obvious question, which set and rep scheme is best for muscle growth? Well, as mentioned above, most programs work pretty well, and so the simplest answer to that question is: “all of them.” Unfortunately, that is also the most complicated answer.
You see, it's like this: your muscles are made up of various types of fibers, and which rep ranges you respond best to is going to be a factor partially determined by your particular fiber make up.
Of course, without dissecting you (which, while undoubtedly fun, would not be very efficacious in terms of your training), there really isn’t any way to tell you what your general fiber make-up is, or what type of rep and set schemes you’re going to respond to. None of which really answers the question, of course.
Thankfully, most people will respond fairly well to various approaches to training volume. Looking at it from a different angle, we can begin to decide on set and rep schemes based on goal—some are better for pure growth, and others for a mix of both strength and size.
We’re going to cover two options below, both of which have a place within the context of a split routine. In such a training schedule, each session is devoted to training just one or two body parts. Speaking generally, workouts will consist of 3 or 4 exercises per body part.
With that in mind, we have a general idea of volume, from which we can work in terms of manipulation for various goals.
Option 1 – Size and Nothing But Size
Let us assume for a moment that the training focus is entirely on growth, and not at all on strength. In that case, your concentration should be on the higher rep ranges: sets of 10-12, 12-15 or even as high as 20 are on the menu. As for the number of sets: well, that will be determined by the number of exercises you for a particular body part.
It helps to think of things in terms of total volume. For training programs that utilize sets of higher reps, I would try to limit a specific muscle group to around 120 reps per work out.
Here is an example using chest:
- Bench Press – 4×15 (60 reps)
- Incline Dumbbell Press – 3×12 (36 reps)
- Dumbbell Fly – 2×10 (20 reps)
We’re looking at a total of 116 reps there, give or take any extras your were able to squeeze out, or reps you were unable to complete.
The reason for the high reps if your focus is primarily on hypertrophy is, once more, fiber make up. You are training for what is sometimes called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, or fluid hypertrophy, a term that is sometimes debated.
Either way, high rep training is the simplest, fastest, and most visibly obvious way for beginners to pack on mass. The drawback is that the higher rep schemes used in this type of training necessitate very light (in relative terms, at least) loads to complete the set.
That being the case, strength tends not to increase. In fact, in some cases you may even notice a decrease if you attempt heavier training.
This is typical “bodybuilder” type training – all show and no go, as they say.
You’ll look strong, but you won’t necessarily be strong. However, if all you’re going for is a good look in a tight shirt, this may sound like something you might be interested in.
In most cases, when new trainees hit the gym, they do some incarnation of this, although in many cases it’s as simple as three sets of 10 reps for four exercises. (As an aside, even in this case, they’re hitting 120 reps.) They progress a bit, and then stall out. As with all things: when it comes to training everything works, but nothing works forever.
From there, trainees look to change it up, bring us to option two.
Option Two – Size AND Strength
On the other hand, if you’re looking to get both big and strong, you have a more difficult road ahead of you, but with a greater goal at the end. In this case, we’d be talking about training with heavier loads and lower total volume.
Strength increases are the result of training with heavy weight, which by default will place a pretty stringent limit on the amount of reps you can perform on a given set. Strength-oriented training relies on performing sets using anywhere from 1-5 reps, with the average being 3.
Heavy training is not only optimal for strength gains, but it can also be used to accrue a serious amount of muscle. Training with high weight recruits what are known as type IIb muscle fibers, which are the densest fibers and have the most potential for muscle growth. By lifting heavy, we activate these quickly, which can potentially lead to gaining mass—and fast.
As you might imagine, it becomes necessary to change things around in a given workout to meet our goals. As we’ve seen, it’s quite possible to increase size without strength, and the reverse is true here: you can get a lot stronger without getting bigger.
Once more we need to look at things from the perspective of overall volume. In order to allow for the necessary weight, we need to keep the reps per set pretty low. If you followed the same set prescription from Option One, the upper limit for sets would be 3 or 4 per exercise. With heavy training, this would leave you at about 9-15 total reps; your strength would increase, but for most people, this is just not enough volume to stimulate growth.
So, to bump up the volume to a level that will be optimal for growth, we increase the number of sets. However, because of the heavier weight and the toll such training takes on the body, it is better to aim for just about half the total volume of the previous type of training we discussed. Or, simply put, around 60-75 reps
Once again, here is an example using chest:
- Low Incline Bench Press 10×4 (40 reps)
- Weighted Dip 8×3 (24 reps)
- Flat Dumbbell Bench Press 2×5 (10 reps)
While we’re topping out at only 75 reps, the heavy weight makes each set pretty draining, and stimulates a lot of muscle.
Training in this way is, in the long run, generally more effective than high-rep training. Not only will you be stimulating type IIb fibers growth, but the constant exposure to heavier weights will lead to much greater strength increases; which, in turn, will allow you to continue to push out more reps with heavier weight should you ever decide to return to high rep training.
The main drawbacks here are the effects on your body. Firstly, it must be mentioned that constant use of heavy loads puts you at much greater risk of injury, particularly if you’re training any sort of pressing movement in this way.
When you use heavier weight (as in lower reps), the stress on your joints and connective tissue is greater by far. For this reason, it becomes more important to employ proper warm up techniques and practices nearly every workout, especially as you reach the upper levels of strength work. This is often time consuming and boring sometimes multiple warm-up sets with just the bar, but it is of paramount importance.
In fact, Bench Press Tzar Dave Tate stressed the importance of warm-up sets saying, “Don’t leave the weight and jump up until you’re absolutely ready to. There’ve been times at Westside where we used the bar for eight sets. These are world-record holders who aren’t ready to go to 95 pounds.”
And if there is anyone worth listening to with regard to benching, it’s Dave Tate.
Secondly, another consequence of heavier training is how very draining it is; not only during the workout itself (necessitating longer rest periods and thereby slower paced workouts), but also after. Training with weight so heavy you can only perform it 3-4 consecutive reps is phenomenally taxing on your body, and so there needs to be more time between training sessions to allow for adequate recovery.
This brings us to our discussion of frequency, or how often you train. As alluded to above, the time between your training sessions is based on how taxing those training sessions are. Both high volume training (Option One) and high load training (Option Two) are draining in different ways, and will necessitate different recovery times.
Generally speaking, when you’re training with lighter weights and higher daily volume, you can generally perform a given workout every 4-5 days—meaning that if you trained chest Monday, you can perform that workout again on Thursday or Friday.
Contrast this with heavier training; this is slightly more taxing, and so I recommend one training session per muscle pairing per week. As an example, if you train chest on Monday, you wouldn’t train it again until the following Monday. Because of the less frequent—albeit more intense stimulation—while you certainly stand to gain a significant amount of muscle, it may be a bit longer in coming.
To Be Continued…
Again, while they are both exceptionally effective, the options discussed above are intended for use as part of split routines, where you train only a few body parts at once. Therefore, you’re only hitting those muscles once per week, two at most.
As the old saying goes, however, there is more than one way to skin a cat, and split routines are not the only workouts available to you. In fact, they may not be the most effective for you—some people respond better to higher frequency. For these people, there are other options; there are training methods that allow you to train the same muscle groups three or even four times per week.
Come back tomorrow when we look into another of the basic templates for size, one that allows for high frequency: full body training.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Romaniello is an angel investor, the author of two upcoming books with HarperCollins, and the founder of Roman Fitness Systems, a training and online coaching company based in NYC. Romaniello regularly works with all types of clients, from youth athletes to social media moguls.
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