Designing a good workout plan that gives you optimal results is something that needs a good deal of thought. I hear ya, your local gym trainer has an impressive physique and he just recommends hitting one muscle group a day as hard as you can. It worked for him, right? Isn’t that enough?
Well, not really. Sure, training like that will give you results if you do it right. But it can also keep you out of the gym more often than it keeps you in, if you don’t know why you are doing what you are doing.
Any workout plan, be it a good one or a bad one, is basically just a combination of 3 training variables – Volume, Intensity and Frequency. You can train sub-optimally and get results and be happy about it, and that’s all good. But my guess is that you want the best results out of your time and efforts. You sir, don’t wanna leave any gains on the table. Well in that case, you must understand what these training variables are, and how you can best tune them to train in the most optimal manner.
This article will equip you with all the basic understanding about the holy trinity of training variables – Volume, Intensity and Frequency (VIF).
First things first
If you follow me on Instagram then I assume you are familiar with Dr Eric Helms Training Pyramid.
Just like the nutrition pyramid, the levels here are stacked in the order of increasing priority (from top to bottom) to get the best results out of your workout plan. The bottom most level i.e. Adherence, is by far the most important factor that determines how successful your training program will be.
Makes sense right? If you can’t adhere (stick) with a training program, then it just simply is not gonna work. It will rot in your unused cupboard drawer. That means a training program which you can stick with and gives you 80% of the results is far better than the one you can not stick with but could give you 100% of the results in an imaginary world.
After Adherence, VIF are the most important factors in regards to making optimal progress specific to your goals. This might be shocking for some of you but in terms of priority and impact on progress, VIF is way more important than which exercise you perform, the rest periods and the tempo.
In fact, the bottom 3 levels of the pyramid (Adherence, VIF, Progression) will give you 80-90% of the results, if not more. Hurts me to see that bros out there are still hung up on optimizing rest periods, tempo and seeking special exercises when they have not got the basics (Level 1-3) right in the first place.
Moving on, the three variables (VIF) are not independent of each other as you will soon see. One needs to pay serious attention when it comes to manipulating these variables in order to get the required results. This is the basics of programming for strength and hypertrophy. Even though Strength (how strong you are) and Hypertrophy (how much muscle mass you have) are interrelated and a lot of principles remain the same, this article is geared towards hypertrophy i.e. how to make the most gains.
To quote Menno Henselmans –
“Muscle primarily grows or exclusively grows due to mechanical tension on the muscle fibers and this mechanical tension needs to have a certain magnitude which means you need to train with certain intensity and the weights need to be heavy enough or you need to be very fatigued to make a lightweight produce high mechanical tension and needs to be of sufficient duration which is where volume comes in.”
Worry not, if you didn’t get what Sir Menno said here. Keep reading. 🙂
Here are the 3 training variables you must keep in mind while designing your workout plan, a “good” workout plan-
Simply put, Intensity refers to how much stimulus the weight provides your muscle fibers. You see, your muscles don’t know what weight you are lifting. At the end of the day, your muscle only understands, responds and adapts to the external stimulus it faced.
The intensity in regards to training is further divided into two categories- Relative Intensity and Absolute Intensity.
Arnold close to hitting failure on his set.
Relative Intensity refers to your proximity to failure and is expressed in terms of the RPE/RIR scale. RIR (Reps in Reserve) is the opposite of RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion), but both convey same fundamental meaning – “how close you went to failure”.
Example- Consider a set of bench press with a weight where you can do 10 reps at most and the 10th rep is an absolute grinder, meaning you couldn’t do the 11th. That final rep is considered to be an RPE 10 or RIR 0.
In the same set if you stopped at the 9th rep instead, knowing you still had one more rep left in the tank, then we consider that set as an RPE9/RIR1. That’s how relative intensity works.
RPE AND RIR scale. (Source:muscleandstrengthpyramids)
Relative Intensity is immensely important when it comes to hypertrophy (building muscle). In order to signal muscle fibers to grow the set must be sufficiently intense and close to failure, which means leaving just 2-3 reps in the tank. (RPE 7 or above)
Not all reps have equal hypertrophy potential. (Source: Weightology)
Getting this RPE/RIR terminology now? Good. 🙂
Arnold lifting some heavy ass weight. Doesn’t looks like he is close to failure here. 😛
Absolute Intensity is measured as a percentage of your 1 Rep Max. Say, you can squat 100 kgs for an all-out grinder for a single rep, then 100 kg is your 1 Rep Max (RPE 10). So if a coach or a training program recommends you to do 3×5 at 75% of 1RM, it means you are supposed to do 75kgs (which is 75% of your 1RM) for 3 sets of 5 reps.
As you can guess already, higher the absolute intensity, lower the reps you can do. This brings to the table the age-old question of “Should I do low reps/high intensity or high reps/low intensity”?
When it comes to hypertrophy (gains), current scientific evidence seems to show that hypertrophy can occur across a variety of rep ranges as long as there is sufficient proximity to failure (relative intensity). After all, your muscles ain’t got a clue about the weight on the bar (absolute intensity). Stimulus is the only language they understand.
High Reps/Low Intensity– Contrary to popular belief, muscle can grow with intensities as low as 30-40% (meaning 25+ reps) as long as the relative intensity is high . The main downside of training at this low intensity is that one is more likely to just get tired and out of breath before your muscles are fatigued to any significant level.
Low reps/High Intensity– On the other end of the spectrum, training with low reps (<5) and heavy weights (>80% of your 1 RM) will produce similar hypertrophy as well. But also produces more stress on your joints and poses an increased risk of injury if you mess up the exercise form.
So the answer for low-reps vs high-reps debate?
To get the best of both worlds, most of your hypertrophy work should be done in the 60-80% absolute intensity range (6-12 reps). In terms of relative intensity, RPE 7-8 ensures enough stimulus.
Not that there is anything magical about this rep range, but going 2-3 reps short of failure in this range is much more practical and convenient and gives you the desired stimulus for gains!
P.S – Did you note how I never recommend going to failure, and instead ask you to stop 2-3 reps shy of failure. Well, that’s because going to failure fatigues you much more without giving any significant added gains. The unnecessary fatigue can then negatively effect the rest of your workout.
That being said, there is a place for training to failure. But let’s leave that for another day.