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The Basics of Training for Size, Part 1: The High Rep Approach

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The First of a Four Part Series

I’ve often said that while gaining muscle can be very difficult, it’s also pretty simple—at the heart of it, you just need to take in more energy than you expend, and use an intelligent program. This is especially true for beginners.

The problem comes in when trying to figure out what intelligent program to use. You’ve most likely read a variety of training articles, each of them claiming to have the best formula for muscle growth. And while some are better than others, most of them work pretty well.

Along similar lines, there are a thousand books out there outlining methods or providing complete programs, and while some of them are fantastic, the truth is that a lot of what’s out there is based on an exciting fad, rather than tried and true methods centered on the basics. While they can work, they won’t help you build a solid foundation that you can work from for continued progress. For that, you need to focus first on the basics.

Over four posts, we’re going to cover six different training methods that will help you get bigger and stronger. At the end, you’ll have a number of new training modalities to use on your quest for size.

And today, we start with the basics.

Photo: Anita Robicheau

Photo: Anita Robicheau

Back to Basics

When it comes to gaining mass, beginners don’t have need to focus on things like alternating max effort and dynamic effort training days. The most advanced thing you need to focus on is learning how to appropriately manipulate training volume and frequency to allow for optimal growth and recovery. We’ll get to frequency in a bit, but let’s start with volume.

In the training context, your total volume is Sets X Reps. In order to make changes to your training program, you would then either add or subtract sets, reps, or exercises in order to achieve a high or lower total volume.

This of course, begs the obvious question, which set and rep scheme is best for muscle growth?  Well, as mentioned above, most programs work pretty well, and so the simplest answer to that question is: “all of them.” Unfortunately, that is also the most complicated answer.

You see, it’s like this: your muscles are made up of various types of fibers, and which rep ranges you respond best to is going to be a factor partially determined by your particular fiber make up.

Of course, without dissecting you (which, while undoubtedly fun, would not be very efficacious in terms of your training), there really isn’t any way to tell you what your general fiber make-up is, or what type of rep and set schemes you’re going to respond to. None of which really answers the question, of course.

Thankfully, most people will respond fairly well to various approaches to training volume. Looking at it from a different angle, we can begin to decide on set and rep schemes based on goal—some are better for pure growth, and others for a mix of both strength and size.

We’re going to cover two options below, both of which have a place within the context of a split routine. In such a training schedule, each session is devoted to training just one or two body parts. Speaking generally, workouts will consist of 3 or 4 exercises per body part.

With that in mind, we have a general idea of volume, from which we can work in terms of manipulation for various goals.

Option 1 – Size and Nothing But Size

Let us assume for a moment that the training focus is entirely on growth, and not at all on strength. In that case, your concentration should be on the higher rep ranges: sets of 10-12, 12-15 or even as high as 20 are on the menu. As for the number of sets: well, that will be determined by the number of exercises you allocate for a particular body part.

It helps to think of things in terms of total volume.

For training programs that utilize sets of higher reps, I would try to limit a specific muscle group to around 120 reps per work out.

Here is an example using chest:

Bench Press – 4×15 (60 reps)
Incline Dumbell Press – 3×12 (36 reps)
Dumbbell Fly – 2×10 (20 reps)

We’re looking at a total of 116 reps there, give or take any extras your were able to squeeze out, or reps you were unable to complete.

The reason for the high reps if your focus is primarily on hypertrophy is, once more, fiber make up. You are training for what is known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, or fluid hypertrophy.

High rep training is the simplest, fastest, and most visibly obvious way for beginners to pack on mass. The drawback is that the higher rep schemes used in this type of training necessitate very light (in relative terms, at least) loads to complete the set.

That being the case, strength tends not to increase. In fact, in some cases you may even notice a decrease if you attempt heavier training.

This is typical “bodybuilder” type training – all show and no go, as they say. You’ll look strong, but you won’t be strong. However, if all you’re going for is a good look in a tight shirt, this may sound like something you might be interested in.

In most cases, when new trainees hit the gym, they do some incarnation of this. They progress a bit, and then stall out. As with all things: when it comes to training everything works, but nothing works forever.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss another way to structure your sets and reps to increase not only size, but also allow for rapid gains in strength.

Don’t miss the other installments in this series: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 – read and pass along!

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

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  • Tishoy

    Great info! I have a site that is on a similar topic:

    but is not a 1/10th as good as yours

  • Hi John – good post how long would you propose to be in hypertrophy phase? Do you go from hypertrophy to a strength phase?

  • Bj

    @pablito(pabz) cardinez –

    well at first aim at a high protein intake and if you workout 3/week aim at 1 workout for strength and 1 for mass the other do whatever you like or you aim to gain mass at first and than go for strength.

    so it would look something like this for mass 2-3 sets (bench) with 12-15reps with a high weight and for strength you take a weight you can just lift for like 6 times and you try to get it up to maybe 10-12 reps than you pack on more weight so that you start at 6 reps again…

    hope i could help you :)

  • pablito(pabz) cardinez

    how can i apply the different methods and techniques in having a muscle growth the fact that iam a very thin person?and what are the recommended suppliment in oeder to gain some muscles?

  • Sean

    Some natural bodybuilders will go through phases where they do some strength training, but mainly stick with volume training. High Intensity training should be done carefully since you will be pushing your body's limits on every set. I would also reduce the sets on this type of training and give yourself more rest time. When I do this kind of training, I find myself only working out once to twice a week, so a variation on what I said above is better for the long-haul.

  • Richard

    Now were talking. Its about time someone started explaining how this all works

    Thx

  • Eric Colburn

    Come it coming!

  • Bj

    Great post,

    but even if you gain more mass with “high reps/high weight” you will also become a lil bit stronger :)

    so i would give everyone the tip to do it like this and than to focus on strength.

    well cant wait to read your next post Björn

  • Sean

    You can also mix it up with a heavy initial set after warm-up, then lighten it up for the remainder of the sets or do 5×5's so that you can get the overall reps in with heavy weights. You can also use moderate weight and rest for 10-15 seconds in between with 4×6 rep set scheme. Time under tension and the math behind Force (Force = Mass x Acceleration). So, fast concentric (up) and slow and controlled eccentric (down) give you an added benefit of more muscle growth via more microtrauma induced by the slow eccentric reps. While concentric training does induce some

    microtrauma, eccentric training is more effective for promoting muscle growth.

    You can them mix up time under tension, time between sets, reps, rep speed and amount of weight to get the most out of each workout.

  • Lambo

    I like what you said in the second last paragraph. Good post

  • Anup

    A typical circuit training consists of lighter load (70% of maximum load) and higher rep.

    I am doing that as I follow NNMB programme.

    I am trying to figure out how does that fit to my overall target of building up muscle mass.

    This article shed a new light in my understanding. Probably in your next article I'll get my answer.

    Looking forward to that.

  • Good post John, looking forward to tomorrows one!

    Just one thing – you said that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is in the higher rep range, i had thought it was in the lower range (4-6 reps) and that the higher rep range (10-12) was myofibril hypertrophy?

    Could you clarify that please?

    My info could be wrong and id like to know, thanks John.