I’ve spent 23 years analyzing program design. In the beginning, I would read Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding and peruse the muscle mags. Then I stumbled upon HIT Training, then HST Training, and finally T-Nation. Eventually I learned how to use Pubmed and investigate the research. I’ve also talked shop with probably over a thousand lifters, coaches, personal trainers, and physical therapists.
Program design was always a complicated topic for me. I went through the typical “I have to include every single exercise imaginable into my routine” phase, as well as the “just focus on the basic big five exercises” phase, and everything in between. I’ve examined the routines of all of my favorite bodybuilders and powerlifters over the years, in addition to attempting to decipher the rationale behind various Soviet and Bulgarian periodization schemes. Program design can be highly complicated, but it can also be fairly simple.
In this article, I would like to throw something your way in efforts to make it easier for the common lifter to understand how to best design their training program. What I would like to discuss is how to best allocate volume in order to maximize muscular hypertrophy. You very well might disagree with my conclusions and examples below, but the point of this article isn’t for you to agree with me, it’s to get you thinking about your program design.
Pick a Muscle and Determine the Optimal Volume
Pick your favorite muscle group. Yours might be pecs or quads. Take a guess what mine is? Glutes! It really doesn’t matter though. You would like to maximize your muscle growth, and you want to perform the optimal volume to tease out the most hypertrophy. Most individuals have a muscle group that is considerably lagging, one that causes them to feel particularly self-conscious about, and one that they would desperately like to improve. Since it is not easy to bring up a lagging bodypart for us natural, typical lifters, I argue that each of our routines should be heavily skewed toward our personal weaknesses, assuming that the goal is primarily based on aesthetics. But I digress…
I realize that I need to provide more details up front in order to ask the question I pose in the following paragraph. Let’s say that 33% of your volume is in the 1-5 rep range, 33% of your volume is in the 6-12 rep range, and 33% of your volume is in the 13-30 rep range. And let’s say that 30% of your volume is at a 5-7 RPE, 60% of your volume is at an 8-9 RPE, and 10% of your volume is at a 10 RPE.
With those details provided, how many sets would you perform per week for your favorite muscle group? 10 sets per week? 20? 30? 40? 50? 100? 1,000? Ten sets per week probably won’t be enough. Obviously 1,000 sets would be overkill and counterproductive. I would guess that for most people, the ideal number of sets per week would be somewhere between 15 and 30 depending on the muscle group in question, the exercises chosen, and the inherent recovery ability of the individual. For purposes of simplicity, let’s just set optimal volume at 24 sets per week.
Allocating Volume Throughout the Week
So we’ve got 24 sets per week to hammer a particular muscle group. Now we need to determine how to best distribute that volume. Would you perform all 24 sets on one day? Or would you do 12 sets on one day and 12 sets on another day? Or would you do 8 sets on three separate days? Maybe you would choose 4 sets on 6 days during the week. Here are your basic options:
- 24 sets on one day
- 12 sets on two days
- 8 sets on three days
- 6 sets on four days
- 4 sets on six days
Based on my experience as a lifter and personal trainer, I would say that these two options would deliver the best results:
- 8 sets on three days
- 6 sets on four days
Let’s go with the 8 sets on three days option, just because it’s simpler and easier to program.
We’ve decided to perform 8 sets for a particular muscle group on three training days per week, and now we’re trying to determine the best exercises to perform.
It is very important to note that not all exercises are created equal in terms of how they tax the body.
- Some exercises tax the hell out of the CNS and cannot be performed as frequently (think of exercises that use ultra heavy loads and heavily load the spine such as deadlifts)
- Some exercises create significant soreness and cannot be performed as frequently (think of exercises that stretch the muscles to long muscle lengths such as the RDL or walking dumbbell lunge)
- Some exercises distribute joint stress very well and can be performed more frequently (think neutral grip inverted rows)
- Some exercises don’t create significant soreness and can be performed more frequently (think of exercises that don’t utilize heavy loads such as face pulls or exercises that work the muscles mostly at short muscle lengths such as band hip thrusts)
- Some exercises target unique portions of muscles (think front raises versus lateral raises and rear delt raises)
With this knowledge, it is apparent that one exercise alone isn’t going to maximize the hypertrophic response to training.
If glutes are the muscle group you chose, maybe you would want to go with this program for a few months: Monday – 4 sets of deadlifts, 2 sets of front squats, and 2 sets of single leg hip thrusts; Wednesday – 4 sets of hip thrusts, 2 sets of Bulgarian split squats, and 2 sets of cable kickbacks; Friday – 4 sets of back squats, 2 sets of back extensions, and 2 sets of single leg RDLs. Yes, you could throw in some lateral band work at the end of each session too – those are pretty much freebies.
If quads are the muscle group you chose, maybe you would want to go with this program for a few months: Monday – 4 sets of back squats, 2 sets of deficit Bulgarian split squats, and 2 sets of leg extensions; Wednesday – 4 sets of leg press, 2 sets of front squats, and 2 sets of leg extensions; Friday – 4 sets of high bar back squats with chains, 2 sets of high step ups, and 2 sets of leg extensions.
If pecs are the muscle group you chose, maybe you would want to go with this program for a few months: Monday – 4 sets of bench press, 2 sets of decline press, and 2 sets of low pulley cable crossovers; Wednesday – 4 sets of incline press, 2 sets of push ups, and 2 sets of pec deck; Friday – 4 sets of dumbbell bench, 2 sets of weighted dips, and 2 sets of dumbbell flies.
In each of these examples, you have a variety of compound and isolation exercises, you have exercises that work the muscles at long lengths and short lengths, and you have exercises that combine to thoroughly work the entire spectrum of muscle fibers.
Is this the absolute best way to build muscle? I think about this question all the time, and I admit to not knowing the answer. For example, I wonder if I had my clients buy a hip thruster and perform band hip thrusts 7 days per week, would they see better results than if I had them do squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, lunges, back extensions, and lateral band walks 2 days per week? Band hip thrusts do activate the upper and lower gluteus maximus incredibly well. They produce a ton of tension and create some serious metabolic stress, but they don’t produce much muscle damage (which is good when training with high frequency, but might not be optimal when trying to maximize hypertrophy). Until I know more and can conduct training studies on this topic, I’m going to have to go with the variety approach and include a wide range of exercises in my hypertrophy programs.
Wrapping it All Together
Now we’ve determined the best approach for one muscle, but can we just duplicate this approach for every muscle group? Considering that we have 11 primary muscle groups, including:
There is simply no way that you could pull this off. You’d need to perform 24 x 11 = 264 sets of exercise per week, which is overkill. This is why it’s important to specialize with your programming, rather than just give each muscle group equal attention. Unless, however, you are happy with your proportions and perceive yourself to be highly symmetrical. In this case, you might want to allocate 12 sets per week for delts, pecs, lats, glutes, quads, and hams, and 4 sets per week for traps, bi’s, tri’s, abs, and calves (there will be some overlapping of sets of course).
How would you round out the routines listed above in the previous section? With the glute example, you’ll already be hitting the quads and hams pretty hard, so you could possibly just add in some leg extensions and leg curls on those days if additional quad or ham mass was desired. And on Tuesday and Thursday (and possibly Saturday, but 6 days per week is too much for many lifters), you could train upper body. Same goes for the quad example – you could add in some additional glute and ham work on lower body days, and perform upper body on Tuesday, Thursday, and possibly Saturday. In the pec example, you could add in some upper body pulling and delt work to the upper body days, and do lower body on Tuesday, Thursday, and possibly Saturday.
Your training should therefore be skewed toward your individual weaknesses. Prioritize 1 or 2 muscle groups that you most want to improve, but still make sure you’re training the entire body. Many women care about their glute development around a thousand times more than they do their trap, biceps, or calf development. Their training should reflect this preference.
Same Volume, More Variety
Notice that in my examples above, there were exercises that were performed for 4 total sets and exercises that were performed for 2 total sets. The decreased volume per exercise allows for more exercise variety. If I was trying to maximize my back musculature, and I could perform 10 total sets, I would much rather go with 2 sets of 5 exercises, such as deadlifts, chin ups, bent over rows, wide grip pulldowns, and seated rows, rather than 10 sets of 1 exercise, such as deadlifts or chin ups. This is especially true for muscles that perform multiple joint actions and have distinct subdivisions.
A nearly infinite number of configurations can work for strengthening and growing muscles. However, many lifters’ routines do not optimally target their weaknesses. Many lifters simply copy the routines of their idols, or perform a well-rounded routine that they see in the magazines. This won’t maximize their progress, since every lifters’ training should be individualized and skewed toward bringing up their weaknesses. Many of my female clients prioritize glute development, but they can only train with me twice per week. I prescribe around 12 sets of glute exercises on both training days, and they’ve seen excellent results. I personally feel that they’d see better results if they instead came three days per week and performed 8 sets per training day for glutes, but this is conjecture and might depend on the individual. Nevertheless, I would like for the reader to consider variety and training. It is okay to perform just 2 sets of an exercise; you don’t have to perform 4-5 sets for every single movement in your training. This allows for more variety, increased motor unit recruitment, and greater total hypertrophy.
Very well said, Bret. I agree that the training variety you explained allows for increased motor unit recruitment. And, I feel, subsequently, this (increased motor unit recruitment capability) can allow for a greater ability to cause muscle damage (micro-tearage) even while still maintaining the exercise volume and variety over time (and, therefore, still reaping the benefits of the metabolic stress from including the various exercises). I think this has been my underlying training theme most of my life. It is nice to hear someone lay it out in a way that makes sense.
Thanks Troy, you make an interesting point, that I’d agree with as a hypothesis.
That seems like a very high volume to me…Dorian yates did far fewer sets and he was one of the largest bodybuilders ever…I also think if you go to failure, which I think is necessary for maximum growth, you cannot do that much volume without burning out quickly…
Lately, my training has gone more in the direction of fewer exercises and more sets. For some reason, performing only two sets of an exercise just feels wrong. But when you put it in the broader context of using the exercise in conjunction with several others for the same muscle group in order to maximize hypertrophy, it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for getting me thinking!
Trust me Travis, I’ve gone this route too. I toggle back and forth depending on my goal. If it’s powerlifting related, then I’m going to perform many more sets of squats/bench/deads. If it’s hypertrophy though, I like getting in my variety, so I can’t go as high on the # of sets per exercise.
Great artcile!! Just the refreshing point of view I was aiming for!!!! Gonna give it a try. Just one question … how many reps per set? I’ve been doing high volume training laately and has worked fine but i wanna try something new aand exciting!
Vica, you want to incorporate all rep ranges. Do some heavier work in the 1-6 ranges, some medium work in the 7-12 ranges, and sometimes bust out some high rep sets up to 30 reps. At the end of my sessions, I’ll throw in some high rep band hip thrusts or back extensions for metabolic stress, but in the beginning of my sessions I go heavier and usually work up to a heavy single, double, or triple, usually with a big exercise like squats or deads.
So what is your conclusion volume for non targeted muscle groups?
Depends, but maybe 2-12 sets. For example, 2 sets of grippers for the forearms, or 2 sets of single leg calf raises for the calves seems to maintain them quite well. 6 sets of biceps and triceps per week does the job too. Many muscles get hit pretty hard during compound movements so they don’t require quite as much volume, especially if they only do one primary role (such as elbow extension in the case of the triceps).
How about taking it even further and performing just 1 set of each exercise (but having even more variety)? Would this work?
Sure Sven, it could definitely work. I’ve done this and I loved it. I would do one hard set (I would sometimes do one lighter warm-up set just to get the feel down and prepare the body if it was a big compound movement) of around 10 exercises, and my sets were very productive since I wasn’t too fatigued for each one. I suspect that you’d do this for a few months and love it but then you’d get bored and find yourself going back to 2-4 sets per exercise. But it’d be good to incorporate from time to time.
Absolutely great article. I was just planning my next training phase, to start by jan/2015, and this article came right in the bullseye to help me. Very very welcome. Thanks!
Great article Bret as always. I actually intuitively began to start training two sets per exercise with negatives as per your request!. I hope you do your daily hip thrust experiment soon because ironically I’m experimenting with a high frequency routine as well. Currently I’m doing one set per body part in 8-12 rep range with two rounds of drop sets. I don’t go to failure so this ensures that I can do them 6 days a week without burn out. I do 3 on 1 off full body. So far I think I’m seeing great results. Based on the current body of research I’m starting to really jump on the high frequency train. It’s interesting that power lifters have larger type 2 fibers and bodybuilders have larger type 1. I feel as if the extra volume is what targets the type 1 fibers because they are so fatigue resistant but at the cost of hammering the type 2 excessively . To me it seems obvious that type 2 fibers don’t need a lot of volume and I think powerlifters have proven that.
By utilizing drops sets I’m giving both type 1 and 2 fibers a chance to grow while getting a great metabolic stress kick as well. And by not going to failure I can do them daily without any ill affects. I’m really trying to take advantage of the dose response with volume and “stimulate not annihilate” ideology.
I know that research shows roughly 40 percent increase in hypertrophy of 1 set vs multiset. I’m hoping that with the drop sets I can account for maximum hypertrophy because in a way I’m doing 3 sets in 1 and by doing the minimum amount of daily volume I can take advantage of the high frequency advantages such as increases in protein synthesis and less soreness!
So in a nutshell go do your high frequency routine and get back to me! 🙂
And if all else fails I’ll be happy to hit my lagging body parts with 24 sets a week!
@Vica Bret used the breakdown of 33% 33% 33% sets from 1-5 6-13, and 13-30. This would equate to roughly 185 reps a week 45 reps in 1-5 60 reps in 6-13 and 80 reps in the 13-30
@K Bret said 12 sets for delts, pecs, lats, glutes, quads, and hams, and 4 sets per week for traps, bi’s, tri’s, abs, and calves with some overlap.
Woops, no idea where that math came from, it would actually equate to roughly 300 reps a week 40 reps in 1-5 80 reps in 6-13 and 120 reps in the 13-30
Julian, careful about your hypotheses…the research isn’t comparing equal volume spread out over different days. My guess is that it’d be very similar and probably greater. For example, doing 1 set of bench on 3 occasions during the week compared to doing 3 sets on 1 occasion during the week. In addition, there are indeed pro bodybuilders who thrived on one top set (they’d warm-up but only one set would be very high in terms of effort) – Dorian Yates being the most popular example. So I think your approach would work very well. Glad you’re thinking about both type I and type II fibers as they’re both important for maximizing hypertrophy. I like the way you think!
Quick question, are you saying that you think my layout would lend itself to a greater hypertrophic response by disturbing the volume like in your example 1 set three times a week vs 3 sets 1 times a week?
Thanks so much,
Bret, what are your thoughts on the importance of periodization for hypertrophy? Do you think it’s as important as it is for strength? It appears from your example above (and I know it just for illustrative purposes, so probably not a complete reflection of your philosophy) that you may favor training in all intensity and rep ranges at the same time.
And the issue with frequency is an interesting one. It seems the “science-y” guys always favor more frequency (2x/week or greater) and “meathead” guys seem to favor a little less (1x/5-7 days). From the overviews that I’ve seen from guys like Beardsley or meta-studies from guys like Wernbom, I can see where the science-y guys are coming from. But then Schoenfeld’s study comparing a typical bodybuilding routine to a typical powerlifting routine with more frequency, shows the hypertrophy results were similar and that the bodybuilding routine had room for more volume, potentially resulting in more hypertrophy. I know in your experience with yourself and your clients, more frequency is better, but have you ever trained your clients or yourself like a typical bodybuilder, using lots of volume, less frequency, and short rests?
Periodization is a funny term – I don’t think that any lifter out there doesn’t periodize at all. We all go through different phases, experiment with different things, etc. But I know what you’re asking – am I a fan of detailed periodization schemes for hypertrophy? No, I’m not. I think you get better results with a template and framework in mind but with the ability to adapt it on the fly depending on your instincts and biofeedback. This is what most bodybuilders do, and I do it with my training and with my clients (autoregulation).
When determining volume for glutes, hams and quads, do you classify anything that involves the glutes as a set for glutes. For example, would Back Squats count for quads and glutes, and would Deadlifts could for hams and glutes? Or would you only consider something like Hip Thrusts Glutes?
Great question – yes, I would. Squats and deads are included in glute work. Hip thrusts could be included in quad and ham work. But it’s complicated! It depends on your anthropometry, technique, and variation. So you have to make judgment calls.
I personally believe in hitting each muscle often in smaller doses rather than the more common approach of a 5 day split. Recently i have been doing a lot of research into building routines and mostly take my inspiration from Powerlifters since i find they (often times, not always) have more reason behind their programming. The one parameter i have had trouble finding articles about has been volume and how to divide it between workouts. Your article was just the kind of thing i wanted, and very well written at that! Thank you!
Oh and if you have any tips on further reading on the subject please share! 🙂
Should one incorporate various rep ranges and loads into each session or should each workout have a specific purpose ? Meaning, should I have a strength, hyperthophy, endurance specific workout or should I include all three in one training day ? I am performing the latter currently and it seems to work very well and it keeps me from losing focus. Steven
Thanks, I will stick with training with various loads and reps per session
Thanks for this article, Bret. This is giving me a lot to think about.
Do you have any thoughts about when in the week or session to put your different rep ranges?
I’ve done a hypertrophy program in the past that started with higher rep ranges in the training session and went lower and that worked well. And I’ve also done the opposite, hitting it heavy first and then pumping it out to finish up, and that also seemed good. Or maybe there’s a good argument for having a strength day, a medium day, and a pump day if you’re training 3 days a week as you suggested.
A great article Bret! Really informative and well explained (as we’ve come to expect from you). How would you go about the exercise selection for a back targeted prioritization program? Would you do specific workouts solely based on vertical pulls and other on horizontal pulls (i.e. rows)? Or would you mix them up each workout? Thanks
Bret, would you say that your 12 week gluteal goodness program for advanced lifters follows this template if the focus one desires is placed on the glutes?
Great article thanks, but does it mean that you have to push heavy to reach big volume? I’m training at home 4 times a week but most of the time with bodyweight or ankle weight (feet elevated glute bridges, hip thrusts, single leg glute bridges, quadruped hip extensions, bird dogs, band donkey kicks…)
I’m aiming a bigger glute, but now I’m wondering, if I have any chance without going to the gym? Until now I’ve got some results (more toned and stuff but nothing hudge)…well I’ve only started for 2 months!!!
I want to increase my glute training volume to 3x week (previously 2x week, Mon and Fri). I like your Mon-Wed-Fri split example that you gave in this article but is 8 working sets really enough? I usually do 15-20+ sets every workout…
Also, are the exercises you listed okay for people who are trying to grow the glutes without growing the legs? Because that’s me! Quad dominant lol. Thanks so much for your help!!! 🙂
Bret, how did you arrive at such set volume as optimal? The closest research I’ve seen is comparing 9 sets per week with 27 sets (nearly identical to your 24 sets), and the additional 18 sets provided no additional hypertrophy benefit. To be honest, that set volume seems absurdly high for a natural.
High volume training is definitely the way to go. It is the only way to efficiently and effectively warm, loosen and stretch the fascia so as to allow for the muscle tissue within to expand and grow to it’s fullest potential. You don’t need to train to failure for a muscle to grow and get stronger. Doing so only places undue strain on tendons and bone. Once fascia tissue is loosened, the muscle is allowed to expand within.
I myself have taken HVT a little further and simplified it somewhat in that I only do 2 exercises per body part per day. One basic exercise for 20 sets x 5-7 reps and one more isolated movement for 15 x 5-7 reps, making any necessary downward adjustment of the weight in accordance with the onset of muscular fatigue in order to stay within the allocated rep-range throughout. Why only 2 exercises per BP? One reason is to keep it simple. Another reason is that a muscle only knows ‘relax’ and ‘contract’….it doesn’t give a stuff what exercise you are doing or what angle it is being worked at/from……all it knows is ‘relax and contract!’ All this MUSCLE ‘CONFUSION’ theory is all BULLS**T! How can a muscle get/be ‘confused’ when it cannot ‘think’ for itself……and when all it ‘knows’ (for want of a better expression!) is RELAX and CONTRACT??? Thirdly, performing a high volume of just 1 or 2 exercises places a significantly greater workload on it than doing the same number of sets with 4 or 5 different exercises – not to mention time wasted in setting up/moving to/waiting for other equipment or to become available.
So, this is it for me from now on. 1 muscle group per day…..35 sets….5-7 reps. That brings about the best of both worlds in that you can use HEAVY weight and HIGH volume together. No training to absolute failure (hence minimizing injuries!) 1 set every 90 seconds. In and out the gym in little over an hour. BAM! Then rest the muscle for a week to 10 days until more direct stimulus is applied.
7 days rest per BP sound like too much? Well look at it this way…..Working a muscle PROPERLY once a week means you are tearing down tissue and expecting it to rebuild 52 (yes FIFTY-TWO!) times a year…….So sell me….would you expect a graze on your skin to heal and recover if you grazed the area once a week for 52 times…..I think not……….Training a muscle PROPERLY over 50 times a year is AMPLE…..if not TOO much….at least for the natural bodybuilder. Sometime in future, I might even try 50 sets per body part with 2 WEEKS rest and see how that goes?
The other thing to remember is that you never really do/can train just one muscle, especially when using free weights. Biceps are given plenty of stimuli on back day and triceps get hit too on shoulder and pec day – just to name 2 examples.
Bottom line is, when I hear folk say they train a muscle 2 or 3 times a week, I just cringe! Either they are not training it properly/thoroughly enough per session, or if they are (with high vol) they are waaayyyy overtraining it and by far-and-away exceeding their ability to recover and GROW!
You do need to work a muscle to failure to give your muscles a reason to grow.. if you stop at say 10 reps when you can get 12 -13 reps it’s technicaly called a warm up set. You dont need to do 15 plus reps and loads of different sets either. Hit a muscle with 2 sets to failure between 8-12 reps rest and do same again 48 hrs later adding either reps to 12 or add weight and repeat. Full body workouts work for me 2 sets each body part to failure. Look up musclehack program by Mark mcmanus loads of science behind his methods def with a read. Goodluck ☺
Jonny – your answer is not evidence-based. The literature clearly shows that training to failure is not necessary to maximize hypertrophy or strength. I don’t know this Mark McManus guy but if this is what he pushes then he does not understand the science.
You shouldn’t look at science : science is biased, contradictory and change every years. Look at results !!
Bret I just want to say thank you for all these great articles! I’ve been seeing great results in the past 18 months. I have a great passion for training legs of course specially glutes! It all makes sense why am seeing results more than the average person in my gym. I train with lots of variation and averaging 60- 80 sets pet favorite muscle group. Again thanks so much for what you do ,
Hi Bret! Thank you for all these articles its gold!
Hey, Bret. Does the same rule about volume ( 24 sets per week per muscle group) apply for high frequency periods when I train glutes 4-6 times per week using mostly pumpers? I confuse because it can be as many as 27 sets per workout
I think this type of training is also reflected in the most recent literature for hypertrophy. When total volume is held constant, but the number of sessions are increased you can recover better and ultimately increase your total volume once you become accustomed to the training schedule. This method works very well for crossfitters which is my primary audience.
I have one question.
Can I train glute 3 times a week with total body?
Or do you recommend sperate them from each other?
Is PHAT adequate?
It has mechanical stress, metabolic stress, muscle damage, speed, power.
Thank you for the free information!