When it comes to physical fitness, conditioning and resistance training, it is important to remember a couple of key principles. The SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demand) principle stipulates that adaptation is based on the stimulus applied. The second, progressive overload is that the training stimulus should remain static, but that the training variables should evolve over time to elicit a response. When programming your workouts, these principles should be kept in mind and the variables for manipulation include load (weight lifted), number of sets, number of reps, the resultant total volume, rest times between sets and between exercise bouts and training frequency. While there is a large volume of information available including scientific and non-scientific, the principles remain the same: the body adapts to the stimulus applied and this stimulus should change over time to continue to elicit a positive response.
Specific to resistance training and its influence on strength and size development there is support that training with a heavier load results in positive strength gain, but does not enhance muscle growth over lighter loads (Fink et al., 2016). The majority of improvement in the first few weeks of training is related to improve neuromuscular efficiency and as the body adapts to the exercise, the parameters of training have to evolve (Schoenfeld, 2020). However, strength can also be achieved by training to momentary muscle failure where it is difficult to perform another repetition at the given weight. This type of training elicits both strength and size results as many of the muscle fibers are recruited. Thus, training can be performed with lighter loads in a repetition zone of 6-20 repetitions and still result in positive strength and size gains (Baz-Valle, Fontes-Villalba, & Santos-Concejero, 2018). There may be an individual response based on muscle fiber type that plays a role, but is hard to make generalizations.
When it comes to improving muscular size, the muscles worked need to have sufficient overload to stimulate adaptation. That overload comes in the form of increased volume. Tracking volume can be done by counting the number of sets performed per muscle group per week as long as the repetitions are performed to momentary muscle failure (Fisher, Steele, Bruce-Low, & Smith, 2011). While the ideal recommendation is not available, it does appear that muscle gains are achieved with at least 10 sets performed per muscle per week (Schoenfeld & Grgic, 2018). However, performing more sets do not necessarily result in a greater muscle response indicating that there is probably a point of diminishing returns (Aube et al., 2020). Whether obtaining training volume is done in a single workout, split routine or whole-body workout does not seem to matter, as long as the volume for each program is matched. As the body adapts it becomes more important to organize the workouts to continue the positive adaptation and progression, so a split routine may be helpful in organizing workouts to obtain higher volumes in each session. There is also support that for aging individuals, the training frequency of at least three days a week is of importance (Polito, Papst, & Farinatti, 2021).
Many strength coaches have adopted periodization, or the organizing of workouts to achieve adaptation, as a means of programming performance, however, it does not appear that this is important to the stimulation of muscle growth (Polito, Papst, & Farinatti, 2021). The key variable appears to be weekly volume, so periodization of the workouts can be done to prevent monotony of training, as well as overtraining, if desired. For training purposes, it can be helpful to organize the exercise in terms of movement and choose an exercise that fits that movement. The main movements are squatting, deadlifting lunging, horizontal pushing and pulling and vertical pushing and pulling. This then allows for a large variety of exercises that fall into those specific categories. A sample program is provided below. For specific muscles, it is also advisable to include additional sets and exercises, as needed and as tolerated.
In general, it would appear there is a relationship between weekly volume and muscle gain, where at least 10 sets per movement are necessary to stimulate growth. It is important to train each set to momentary muscle failure to maximize the response and to progressively improve over time. This last part is where periodizing and organizing the workout may be of assistance, however not necessary so long as the weekly volume per muscle group is obtained.
Aube, D. et al. (2020). Progressive resistance training volume: Effects on muscle thickness, mass, and strength adaptations in resistance-trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1-8.
Baz-Valle, E., Fontes-Villalba, M., & Santos-Concejero, J. (2018). Total number of sets as a training volume quantification method for muscle hypertrophy: A systematic review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1-9.
Fink, J., Kikuchi, N., Yoshida, S., Terada, K., & Nakazato, K. (2016). Impact of high versus low fixed loads and non-linear training loads on muscle hypertrophy, strength and force development. SpringerPlus, 5, 1-8.
Fisher, J., Steele, J., Bruce-Low, S., & Smith, D. (2011). Evidence-based resistance training recommendations. Medicina Sportiva, 15(3), 147-162.
Polito, M.D., Papst, R. R., & Farinatti, P. (2021). Moderators of strength gains and hypertrophy in resistance training: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 39(19), 2189-2198.
Schoenfeld, B. J. (2020). Science and development of muscle hypertrophy. Human Kinetics.
Schoenfeld, B., & Grgic, J. (2018). Evidence-based guidelines for resistance training volume to maximize muscle hypertrophy. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 40(4), 107-112.
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