Training For Maximal Muscle Mass, part 1.

It's the age-old question:

 “What is the best way to train in order to build muscle?”

While on an individual basis there are so many variables that will affect the answer to this question, we can look at the evidence and discover, all things permitting, the optimal way to train to maximize hypertrophic gains.

As always, when looking at programming, we will talk about volume, intensity and frequency. These three variables exist in an eternal relationship and cannot be separated.

When wanting to progress, everyone considers higher volume (doing more work, i.e. increasing reps and/or sets) and higher intensity (doing harder work, i.e. lifting heavier). This leaves frequency as the neglected sibling. But, rather like Cinderella, frequency holds a hidden beauty that may be the key to unlocking new gains. 

Before we go any further, let’s quickly define these three terms so we are all clear on what we are speaking on. 

Volume: How much work you do (sets x reps), often also incorporating Volume Load (sets x reps x weight lifted).

Intensity: How heavy you lift in relation to your 1 rep max (1RM), expressed as a percentage, e.g. You have a 1RM bench press of 100kg and the program calls for you to lift 3x5 @ 82.5% - you will be lifting 82.5kg for 3 sets of 5 reps.


Frequency: How often you train per week, and more specifically, how often you directly train a muscle group each week.


Typically, trainees with the goal of maximizing hypertrophy will train each muscle group with a direct frequency of once per week, with some muscle groups being trained indirectly on a second day*. This is the traditional body part split - chest/back/legs/shoulders/arms. *A dumbbell row trains the lats and upper back muscles directly, with the biceps getting a secondary stimulus - this is indirect training.


We now know that that a direct frequency of 2-3 times per week is better than once for muscular hypertrophy [1], but why is this?


Is increasing training frequency magic?


Will it stimulate new muscle growth all on its own?


There is the theory that by training a muscle more often protein synthesis will be heightened for a greater portion of the week meaning the muscle is in an anabolic state for longer, but this is not the primary reason.


Higher frequency is not effective due to the increased frequency alone, but what that allows us to achieve. Training at an increased frequency allows for a greater weekly volume on each muscle group and a higher quality of volume at that.


If volume is equated over the higher frequency there will be little-to-no additional benefit [1]. Increased frequency alone is not the driver of greater gains, rather it is what this higher frequency allows us to do with volume and intensity.


It will allow us to train at a higher relative intensity each week due to the volume distribution. On your typical chest day for example, you may train 4 heavy sets of bench press before moving on to incline dumbbell bench presses, then dips, then chest press, then cable flyes. By the time you get to your chest presses and flyes you are done, the level of fatigue built up means it is sub-optimal volume performed at a low intensity.


Now imagine you train your chest twice per week.

Day 1: bench press and dips

Day 2: incline dumbbell bench press, chest press and cable flyes


Your dips are done at a higher quality and with an extra 10kg strapped on as they are now second in your workout instead of pushed down in third place with two heavy compounds prior.


Your incline dumbbell presses are done at a higher quality and with heavier weight as they are now first in your workout meaning you are fresh and can approach them with extra energy and focus. You are not as fatigued afterwards as you have performed only one compound exercise instead of two, meaning your chest presses and cable flyes are also done with more quality and vigor.


This illustrates what I stated previously about volume, intensity and frequency; they live together. And while volume and intensity can be thought of without frequency - it is essential for getting the most out of them.


So, what does this mean from a programming perspective?


You need to rethink your training day division. The traditional body part split will be effective for so long (or remain so if you are enhanced), but there is only so much quality volume that can be done in a single training session. If you are an intermediate or advanced trainee who is looking to bust through a plateau and see new gains, one of these splits may be a better option:



3 Day Split (ABA BAB rotation)

Monday: Full body, higher intensity (3 sets of 3-6 reps) [A]

Tuesday: Rest

Wednesday: Full body, higher volume (3 sets of 8-12 reps) [B]

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Full body, muscular endurance (3 sets of 3-6 reps) [A]

Saturday & Sunday: Rest



4 Day Split

Monday: Lower body, higher intensity (3 sets of 3-6 reps)

Tuesday: Upper body, higher intensity (3 sets of 3-6 reps)

Wednesday: Rest

Thursday: Lower body, higher volume (3 sets of 8-12 reps)

Friday: Upper body, higher volume (3 sets of 8-12 reps)

Saturday & Sunday: Rest


5 Day Split

Monday: Lower body, higher intensity (3 sets of 3-6 reps)

Tuesday: Upper body, higher intensity (3 sets of 3-6 reps)

Wednesday: Rest

Thursday: Legs, higher volume (3 sets of 8-12 reps)

Friday: Push, higher volume (3 sets of 8-12 reps)

Saturday: Pull, higher volume (3 sets of 8-12 reps)

Sunday: Rest


In part 2 I will discuss the optimal volume and intensity and include a full sample training week to give you an idea of how this looks when it all comes together. Look out for it in the coming weeks!


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[1] Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of resistance training frequency on measures of muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review & meta-analysis. Sports Medicine 2016