One often-misunderstood ingredient in a bodybuilder’s training program is the correct dosage of exercise needed for optimal muscle growth. In other words, the question of number of sets and reps and how often to train. The temptation is to follow the belief that more is better… if “x” amount of sets and reps are working, then more will work better-right? The goal should be to find the optimum amount of training needed to elicit the best results in both muscle growth and conditioning.
There are two points to consider, the first is the frequency of training for an individual muscle group and the overall rate of training and the effect that it has on the CNS, the central nervous system.
If your program is based on the high volume approach, and you are a natural bodybuilder, a small muscle group such as the arms should be trained hard once per week, with a more moderate session several days apart. This is due to the fact that your arms are involved in training every upper body part and receive a lot of work as a result. Larger muscle groups such as the chest, legs and back can handle a much more rigorous workload due to their size. Therefore, they can be trained pretty hard twice per week with the high volume approach.
When using a HIT, high intensity protocol, which is the type of training I specialize in, we must shift gears substantially. This method trains muscles with maximum intensity most of the time. About the only time it doesn’t is during intensity cycling, a period when sub-failure training is used to confuse the body to make the maximum intensity efforts more effective.
There are several stages of training, beginning, intermediate and advanced. During the beginning stage, small muscle groups such as arms are trained with 3-4 total sets and large groups such as chest, legs and back are trained using 4-5 total sets with sub-failure training. At this stage, it is more important to learn proper form in all of the exercises and not worry about making gains.
As soon as the exercises are mastered one moves into the intermediate stage where the set count is reduced to 2-3 sets for small groups and 3-4 sets for large groups. The number of sets used depends on the ability of the trainee to generate maximum intensity. It is best to train harder with fewer sets. All sets are taken to the point of momentary muscular failure, that is until no more full reps can be completed. In all exercises use smooth form with no momentum.
After training for 4-6 months, one progresses to the advanced program. Small muscle groups are trained with 1-2 sets while large muscle groups are trained using 2-3 sets total.
All sets should be taken to the point of momentary muscular failure. After that a high intensity variable such as forced reps should be used every other set to push the effort past failure.
Now that we have established the outline for progression in HIT, we will focus on the proper frequency of training. Since HIT taxes the muscles and central nervous system so much, it is often necessary to reduce the number of times that each muscle group is trained.
A trainee’s recuperation level must be taken into consideration as each person’s body has it’s own capacity for work. A lot depends on an individual’s conditioning and the intensity of effort put forth during training. Some trial and error will have to take place, but the overall guidelines are to train each body part once every seven to ten days.
After resting your muscles for seven days, attempt another session. If you are dragging a bit or the weights used during your exercises have dropped try adding an extra 2-3 days between workouts. Since you will be training each group once every 7-10 days, your body should be able to recuperate fully. Depending on your training split, the entire body should be trained in 2-3 sessions over the 7-10 days. This is enough to keep your conditioning high and your muscles growing both larger and stronger.
Now, let’s look at some sample training programs. The first one is a great leg program.
Leg extensions, 1 set of 15-20 reps to failure
Without rest, jump into the leg press machine and do:
Leg presses, 1 set of 12 reps to failure
Negative-only leg press. Load the weight approximately 40% heavier than you normally use in this exercise. Using the assistance of a partner, or your own arms, press the plate to the point of full extension. Using your left leg only, lower the plate down to the start position. Repeat this with your right leg and keep alternating legs until you can no longer control the downward motion of the machine safely.
The following is a great arm routine:
Incline dumbbell curls, 1 set of 8-10 reps to failure
With no rest, grab a pair of dumbbells for the following exercise:
Standing dumbbell curls negative-only, 1 set of 8 negative reps until unable to control the downward movement. Use a set of ‘bells heavy enough to allow you to get a maximum of 8 negatives. Have a partner lift the weights for you or cheat them up, then lower them to a count of 8, repeat.
Triceps cable press-downs,1 set of 8-10 reps to failure.
Make sure to keep your elbows against your sides throughout the exercise to keep the tension on your Triceps.
Close-grip bench presses,1 set of 10 reps to failure. After completing the 10 reps, have your partner give you just enough assistance to enable you to complete an additional 3-4 reps. These are forced reps and give you the capability to take your set past the point of normal failure which is a great way to hammer your Triceps to new growth!
Seated barbell or dumbbell wrist curls, 1 set of 12-15 reps to failure, followed by 1 set of reverse wrist curls, 12-15 reps.
You should get a real burn in your forearms after completing these two sets.
These training routines are a great example of productive HIT programs and give an example of a typical outline for a large muscle group and one for a small one. Other large muscle groups are chest and back. They should follow similar routines to what you did for your legs, just insert the appropriate exercises for each. Abdominals, lower back, traps and neck are examples of small muscle groups and should have routines that are similar in structure to the arm program.
Planned training layoffs
After you have been training for months, it is a great idea to take a break from training to allow your body to completely recuperate from the intense training. Many bodybuilders will tell you that you will lose strength and size, but in most cases you won’t. In fact, most if not everyone will gain some size and strength after a 1-2 week layoff. This is because many people are over training and need to rest their muscles so they have a chance to grow and recuperate. Another by-product is your body will no longer be used to the intense training and will begin to respond very positively once you resume training.
Your body is very efficient at adapting to stresses placed on it and quickly gets used to training at maximum intensity. By resting for a short time from your workouts, you disrupt the status quo and your body quickly adapts to your lack of training. Resting also allows your muscles to completely rebuild and reload with glycogen, creatine and other energy boosters.
After the layoff, when you resume hard training, your body will no longer be used to training and you will begin to make gains again, such as you had when you first began training.
Alteration of volume and intensity
As mentioned before, your body quickly becomes accustomed to high training intensity, usually in 4-6 months of steady training. When this happens gains in muscle size and strength will cease or at least slow considerably.
To restart gains, we must lower the intensity by taking our sets to the point of sub-failure-in other words- end our sets one rep prior to momentary muscular failure. We will also need to slightly increase our set count to reflect the lower intensity of effort.
A sample arm workout is as follows:
Dumbbell Curls-1 set of 8 reps
Dumbbell Concentration Curls-1 set of 12 reps
Do two complete super-sets
Lying Barbell Triceps Extensions-1 set of 10 reps
Cable Triceps Kickbacks-1 set of 8 reps
Do two complete super-sets
Do both super-sets with no rest between exercises and carry them to one rep before muscular failure.
Continue training your arms with this program for 3-4 weeks then cycle them back to maximum intensity by carrying the sets to failure.
In future articles, I will go into more detail on how to properly cycle intensity to stimulate new muscle growth after hitting a sticking point or plateau. Until then, continue hitting the iron!