When someone first starts going to the gym, they usually seem lost. You can’t blame them considering there is so much information out there but so little direction. Before focusing on doing resistance band bicep curls with a myo-rep protocol and a chest fly superset, you need to understand the fundamental training principles. Otherwise, you could end up “working hard” without “working smart”.
Before I tell you the principles of muscle growth, I have to tell you that none of this even matters if you are not consistent. If you have the most optimal program in the world but cannot stick to it, you will not get the results you want. If you can only train 2 days per week, don’t do a 6-day per week program. Your program must be “optimal” for your context. It should not only be a good program on paper, but also be enjoyable for you and fit your lifestyle.
Here are the 5 most important training principles in the order you should prioritize them.
Specificity, the act of training to support a specific athletic goal, is the number 1 training principle. If you are a basketball player, practicing free throws by throwing footballs is not very specific. Likewise, if your main goal is to build muscle, you should be lifting heavy weight and pushing for increasing your training volume over time, not prioritizing other sports or activities that do not have a great transfer to muscle growth.
A common misapplication of specificity would be doing 1-rep maxes too often. They can have their place but doing them every week is pointless and will decrease your volume and thus muscle growth. Another example is doing too much cardio. Cardio may help you increase your work capacity or stay healthy, but it can interfere with muscle growth if you do too much.
The bottom line is that if you want to build muscle, every action you take should support that goal to some degree. Prioritize increasing your training volume over time. You want to be specific to bodybuilding in the graphic below without straying too far away to other goals.
Whenever you train and impose adequate stress, you may adapt. After that point, you must impose greater demands or else there won’t be another stimulus to adapt to. Increasing the work done over time is called progressive overload and is absolutely necessary to continue making progress.
Progressive overload is often misunderstood. It does not mean that you will be doing more work every single session. If you could add 5 lbs to your bench every session, then you’d be breaking world records in a few months. Rather, progressive overload means that you do more work on average over time.
Why? Well, because adequate stress causes an adaptation (muscle and strength gain). Adequate stress may be accumulated in 1 session for novices or maybe in 3 mesocycles for advanced lifters. Once you adapt, then you must increase the training stress so you can adapt again.
The 3rd most important training principle to get jacked is a little more complex. Programming includes organizing multiple training variables to elicit results for a specific goal. There are so many aspects of programming, so let’s discuss the most fundamental factors, your volume, intensity, and frequency (VIF) of training.
Volume is defined as sets x reps x load, essentially the total amount of work you are doing. A major meta-analysis by Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, the leading scientist in muscle growth, analyzed individuals lifting less than 5 sets, 5-9 sets, and at least 10 sets per week for each muscle. The higher the number of sets an individual did per week, the greater the amount of muscle hypertrophy. This mean that the more volume, the more muscle growth up to a point.
Think of your optimal volume per muscle group being a dynamic range that is not too low or too high, but rather in a sweet spot. I recommend beginning training a muscle group with 10 sets per week as a starting point, and then you can slowly add or remove sets as needed over time.
Intensity can mean 2 different things:
- Absolute intensity- The load, the percentage of your 1RM
- Relative intensity- Your effort, how close to failure you push yourself
Both types of intensity have significance in the gym. Let’s talk about absolute intensity first. A study compared 2 volume-equated programs, one group lifting 7×3 and the other lifting 3×10. Obviously, the 7×3 group is lifting much heavier weight and is more similar to traditional powerlifting training. At the conclusion of the study, both groups gained the same amount of muscle! It is important to note that those who lifter heavier gained more strength as well but also felt more aches and fatigue.
A more recent meta-analysis showed that loads lighter than 60% (around a 15-rep max) of your 1-rep max elicit similar muscle growth as loads greater than 60% of your 1-rep max, confirming that you can build muscle equally as well in a variety of rep ranges. However, in order for the sets using under 60% of your 1RM to be as effective as heavier loads, you must take the set to failure.
We can conclude that volume is more important than the actual load lifted. You can accumulate volume in a variety of rep ranges but lifting very heavy weight (>80% 1RM) is fatiguing and makes it harder to accumulate volume. Lifting very light weight (<60% 1RM) is less practical since you do not get much strength gains from it and you must push yourself to take it to failure. It makes most sense to lift in the 6-15 rep range for most of your training but using heavier and lighter loads as well.
In terms of relative intensity, people tend to be at extremes. Some like to lift to failure every set while others struggle to push themselves and end up leaving 6 reps in the tank. It is important to push yourself hard so that you recruit all your muscle fibers. But going to failure too often will cause intra-session fatigue as well as residual fatigue that carries on to subsequent sessions. Research shows that there is no difference in muscle growth when taking a set to failure vs. stopping short of failure. I recommend you keep 1-3 reps in the tank most of the time.
Almost every single guy I meet is doing a body part split in which he trains a muscle group only once per week. There are a couple reasons you should train your muscles more often. Research suggests that muscle protein synthesis only lasts for 24-36 hours and then significantly drops off after that point. If you train a muscle group once per week, you are leaving 5-6 days without much additional muscle growth.
Another reason to train more frequently is because, depending on the individual, you want to train a muscle once it has recovered and adapted from last session. So if you wait too long, you can experience fitness decay in which you actually get weaker.
I recommend you train most your muscles 2-3 times per week most of the time.
The first 3 training principles will cover most of your muscle growth if implemented properly. As you get more advanced, however, you will have to make your training more complex to provide enough variation and management of fatigue to elicit max results. This is where periodization comes in.
Periodization is the manipulation of training variables over time to promote long-term adaptations and help prevent plateaus and injuries. In general, periodization consists of periods of different goals focusing on different capacities.
Here are some different periodization models:
1) Linear periodization– volume decreases as intensity increases over time
2) Block periodization– divides macrocycle into blocks focusing on different goals
3) Daily undulating periodization (DUP)– altering variables on a session to session basis
You don’t have to just choose one model or the other. Rather periodization is broad term to describe different models you can adapt to your context. In fact, you could combine all 3 of the aforementioned periodization models because they are not specific programs; they are paradigms you must apply.
Ex: A block, DUP, linear-periodized program for bench press
You do not have to train a lift or muscle group 3x/week as shown in the above example. There is no one way of organizing your training. I could write a book on periodization let alone part of an article, so I will leave it at this: Do not get married to training in any one specific way. You should have periods of higher volumes and periods of lower volumes, periods of higher intensities and periods of lower intensities, active rest periods (deloads), periods focusing on slightly different goals or capacities, etc.
At the tip of the iceberg is individualization. I wish I had a penny for every time I heard “Bro. Everyone is different. What works for you may not work for me.”
The thing is, this has some truth to it. But if you try to make your program so unique because you think you are such an anomaly, then it could be detrimental if your individualization interferes with the more important principles I mentioned. For instance, if you think you respond well to ultra-slow, constant tension bench press with a triple drop set, you have to understand that this protocol would be taxing and affect your total training volume. Individualization should not undermine practical programming (the #3 principle).
Once all the more fundamental scientific principles are accounted for, you can begin to worry about individualization. Individualization may depend on your training age, genetics, preferences, pre-existing injuries, and work-life balance among other things. Due to these aspects, here are some factors you are going to have to consider when catering to your individual needs:
- Exercise selection
- Exercise technique
Everyone has a different max recoverable volume (MRV), the amount of volume they can do and recover from. Some people may be able to train their back for 20 sets per week while others may only recover from 12 or so. Volume is the largest contributor to fatigue as well as the largest contributor to muscle hypertrophy. Therefore, it is crucial to do enough volume so you can progress but not too much so that you cannot recover and adapt.
Depending on your goals, you will want to train in different rep ranges. For example, a powerlifter will bias lower rep ranges while a bodybuilder may bias higher rep ranges.
Another reason to individualize intensity could be due to your genetic pre-disposition towards a rep range. For example, you may feel that your quads grow really well from 6-10 reps when squatting. Well, another person may respond better to 4-6 reps per set. With that being said, everyone should be working in a variety of rep ranges anyway.
The frequency at which you train depends on a few factors. If you are at an earlier training age, you may optimize results by only training 3 days per week while a more advanced lifter may need 5 days per week to split their volume across.
The frequency at which you train a specific muscle group also varies. Some women I train may be hitting some muscle groups up to 4 or 5 times per week. On the flip side, some people cannot train a muscle too frequently at even low volumes without residual fatigue affecting subsequent gym sessions. Find your frequency sweet spot for your current situation.
D. Exercise selection
The exercises you choose depend on which support your goals, which do not aggravate injures, and which you respond best to. If you are a powerlifter, you will focus on the squat, bench, and deadlift. If your lats are a weak point, you may do a lot of weighted pullups. If you experience shoulder problems during a bench press, you may be better off benching with dumbbells. There are no magic exercises. But there are exercises that are more advantageous depending on your context.
E. Exercise technique
Everyone has a different anatomy and anthropometry. Thus, everyone’s squat will look slightly different. Some lifters squat with a narrow stance and toes pointed forward. Others may have a wide stance and toes very pointed out. Another reason your exercise technique must be individualized is if you have an injury. If bench pressing with a 60-degree elbow flare hurts your elbows, you could benefit from tucking your elbows a little more.
Bottom Line: There is a lot of information to consider when designing your own training program. One thing you must remember is that not all training factors are equally important. Prioritize the primary principles before less important principles, and you will be on your way to getting jacked.
About the Author
Hamaad is the owner & founder of IQphysique, an online training business focused on bridging the gap between research and fitness. He is focused on using science to educate others on how to build muscle and get lean.
You can contact him at-