The Basics of Training for Size: From High-Rep, to Low-Rep, to Full-Body Training

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Fools, it's time for hypertrophy school.

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 (we’re biased towards our program, The Super Hero Workout), most of them work pretty well.

Along similar lines, there are a thousand books out there outlining methods or providing complete programs. In 2013, I wrote such a book, the New York Times bestseller,  Engineering the Alpha.

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 the next few 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 the Basics Building Muscle

When it comes to gaining mass, beginners don’t 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: Higher Reps for Max Hypertrophy

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.

Option 2: Lower Reps to Combine Size and Strength

Strength increases are the result of training with heavy weight, which by default will place a pretty stringent limit on the amount of reps you can perform on a given set.

Strength-oriented training relies on performing sets using anywhere from 1-5 reps, with the average being 3.

Heavy training is not only optimal for strength gains, but it can also be used to accrue a serious amount of muscle. Training with high weight recruits what are known as type IIb muscle fibers, which are the densest fibers and have the most potential for muscle growth. By lifting heavy, we activate these bad boys faster than I turn on sorority girls, which can potentially lead to gaining mass. Heavy lifting that is, not sorority girls.

As you might imagine, it becomes necessary to change things around in a given workout to meet our goals. As we’ve seen, it’s quite possible to increase size without strength, and the reverse is true here: you can get a lot stronger without getting bigger.

Once more, we need to look at things from the perspective of overall volume. In order to allow for the necessary weight, we need to keep the reps per set pretty low.

If you followed the same set prescription from the high rep workout, the upper limit for sets would be 3 or 4 per exercise. With heavy training, this would leave you at about 9-15 total reps; your strength would increase, but for most people, this is just not enough volume to stimulate growth.

So, to bump up the volume to a level that will be optimal for growth, we increase the number of sets.

However, because of the heavier weight and the toll such training takes on the body, it is better to aim for just about half the total volume of the previous type of training we discussed. Or, simply put, around 60-75 reps.

Once again, here is an example using chest:

Low Incline Bench Press 10×4 (40 reps)

Weighted Dip 8×3 (24 reps)

Flat Dumbbell Bench Press 2×5 (10 reps)

So we’re topping out at only 75 reps, but the heavy weight makes each set draining, and stimulates a lot of muscle.

Training in this way is, in the long run, generally more effective than high-rep training. Not only will you be stimulating type IIb fibers growth, but the constant exposure to heavier weights will lead to much greater strength increases; which, in turn, will allow you to continue to push out more reps with heavier weight should you ever decide to return to high rep training.

The main drawbacks here are the effects on your body.

Firstly, it must be mentioned that constant use of heavy loads puts you at much greater risk of injury, particularly if you’re training any sort of pressing movement in this way. (Read our injury prevention guide to mitigate this risk.)

When you use heavier weights (as in lower reps), the stress on your joints and connective tissue is greater by far. For this reason, it becomes more important to employ proper warm-up techniques and practices nearly every workout, especially as you reach the upper levels of strength work.

If you find yourself prone to tweaks, and need some support with the warm-up, our program Exercise Foreplay: 5 Minute Warm-Up Routines to Prevent Injury and Improve Performance, is right up your alley.

Exercise Foreplay

Exercise Foreplay

Bench Press Tzar Dave Tate stressed the importance of warm-up sets saying, “Don’t leave the weight and jump up until you’re absolutely ready to. There’ve been times at Westside where we used the bar for eight sets. These are world-record holders who aren’t ready to go to 95 pounds.”

And if there is anyone worth listening to with regard to benching, it is, as he is known in the industry, Dave Fuckin’ Tate.

On Frequency

This brings us to our discussion of frequency, or how often you train. As alluded to above, the time between your training sessions is based on how taxing those training sessions are. Both high volume training (Option One) and high load training (above) are draining in different ways, and will necessitate different recovery times.

Generally speaking, when you’re training with lighter weights and higher daily volume, you can generally perform a given workout every 4-5 days—meaning that if you trained chest Monday, you can perform that workout again on Thursday or Friday.

Contrast this with heavier training; this is slightly more taxing, and so I recommend one training session per muscle pairing per week. As an example, if you train chest on Monday, you wouldn’t train it again until the following Monday. Because of the less frequent—albeit more intense stimulation—while you certainly stand to gain a significant amount of muscle, it may be a bit longer in coming.

Option 3: High-Intensity Training

Full-body training for size is one of the most underrated methods out there. 

Instead of performing two to three exercises of up to five for a single body part (which can total up to 120 reps, as we discussed last time), you will perform one or two sets for every body part, totaling maybe 20-40 reps per workout. The daily volume is lower, but the weekly volume is similar and sometimes greater.

These are great at busting plateaus for advanced lifters, but I also like full body workouts for beginners. For those without a lot of experience training, the frequent exposure to movement patters will facilitate increases in motor learning and neurological efficiency, which will have a tremendous impact on results. Here are two approaches.

High-Intensity Training

HIT for short, is a hot button in the training community.

Developed by Arthur Jones in the 1970s, HIT at its core is a system of training each muscle with one set to the point of momentary muscular failure.

The workouts were brief, intense, and infrequent. In the 70s, when Arnold and Company were advocating training twice per day, six days per week for nearly two hours at a clip, this wasn’t just controversial—it was heretical.

You see, the fundamental principles of High-Intensity Training (HIT) are that exercise should be brief, relatively infrequent, and intense. This was in direct opposition to what was considered standard bodybuilding training.

HIT workouts tend to be less than an hour long and performed only two to three times per week.

HIT principles use the word intensity differently than the rest of the training world: in most weight training contexts, “intensity” refers to the amount of weight you’re using relative to your 1-rep max; whereas in the HIT model “intensity” refers to how “hard” an exercise is, as determined by approaching or achieving momentary muscular failure. In HIT, it is known that there is an inverse relationship between how intensely and how long one can exercise. As a result, high intensity workouts are kept brief.

While many typical HIT programs comprise a single-set per exercise, tri-weekly, full-body workout, many variations exist. Furthermore, in HIT, tempo is generally stricter than most other types of training.

This refers to the cadence of a lift (how quickly it’s lifted and lowered), which will be very slow compared to a non-HIT weight training routine. Advocates of HIT stress the importance of controlled lifting speeds and strict form, paying special attention to avoid any bouncing or jerking during a set.  Rather, as soon as it becomes impossible to perform a rep with good form, the set is terminated.

While there is a certain skeptical streak in me that instinctively shudders at the dogmatic, “This Is The Best Way To Train” approach on which some HIT’ers take a hard line, I simply take a pragmatic approach to things and use whatever tools seem applicable to the job at hand.

It is for this reason I like to use HIT (or modified HIT principles) with clients who can only train once per week. Because you are training to failure on multiple exercises, your recovery is supremely compromised. So, for someone training once per week, with the exercises performed intensely and in good form, there can be enough stimulation of muscle tissue to allow for growth.

I wouldn’t really recommend this for people who are able to train or want to train more than twice per week. It’s simply too draining.

For a change of pace or someone with time constraints, I think HIT is an excellent option.

Option 4: Hypertrophy-Specific Training

HST is another training program based around full body training programs. Like HIT, Hypertrophy Specific Training incorporates training to failure, but only once every two weeks.

With HST, you pre-test your maximum weight for 5, 10, and 15 repetitions. You then subtract from these, and work up to them over a two-week period. So, for two weeks you are training in a 15-rep program, then two weeks at 10 reps, and then 5 reps.

Although you are going to failure only once every two weeks, you’re working with near-maximal weight the entire duration of the program.

HST differs from HIT philosophically in that HIT maintains the act of going to momentary muscular failure to is necessary to illicit muscular growth; whereas HST asserts that the stimulation of muscle tissue through the use of near-maximal weight is enough.

I include HST mainly because I have used it with great success. Its structure makes it somewhat ungainly for use with clients, but for the average guy trying to pack on mass, I think it is a great program.

One of my favorite things about HST is the inclusion of an off week for what is called Strategic Deconditioning. The theory behind this is that by taking periods away from the training effect, the return to training will allow for a greater amount of super-compensation to occur—in this case, more muscle growth.

Even though I rarely find myself going back to Hypertrophy Specific Training, I still schedule myself a period of deconditioning every 9-12 weeks. I believe this single change has done more for my growth than nearly any training program I have tried.

I’ll Be Back….

One of the main advantages of full body training is the increased flexibility that comes from performing a single workout multiple times per week—if you miss a session, it’s easy to make it up.

Further, as mentioned previously, these training methods allow for greater frequency, and you’re often working muscle groups three or even four times per week; for many people, this is surest path to growth.

There are others, of course, some of them very advanced. So far, we’ve covered manipulating volume and frequency, but there are many variables that can be adjusted to allow for greater growth. Don’t miss the next installment of this series to learn ’em.

Training for Size FAQ

When it comes to building muscle, I get a ton of questions. I’ll try to answer some of the most common here.

Is Gaining Size All About Eating More Than You Burn?

Well, sort of. If your goal is to put on the weight, then you have to eat more calories than you burn. However, if the goal is building muscle (which is really the goal), you need to put stress on the muscles themselves and encourage them to grow. If you have a weak body part, it might be because you haven’t taught your body how to do that. This is where practicing the mind-muscle connection can come into play. 

Are Free Weights Better Than Machines for Building Muscle?

In order to put tension on muscles, there needs to be resistance. It could come from your bodyweight, dumbbells, barbells, machines, bands, or whatever. There are practical benefits of both machines and free weights. Some machines allow you to hit angles betters suited for building muscles. However, if you’re an athlete free weights will transfer to your sport much better. Purely for building muscle, not one is better than the other. Most of the best programs have both.

Should I Take Supplements? If So, Which Ones?

Okay, typically trainers do not recommend people take supplements. We tend to have a different philosophy, which we outline in this article on pre-workouts for beginners.

Most people in general should take basics like vitamin D or omega-3s. If you’re trying to gain muscle, a post-workout protein shake may help you get in the protein you need. However, talk to your healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement.

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

    March 31, 2011 at 7:16 am

  • Luke H

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

    January 21, 2011 at 1:22 am

  • 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 :)

    March 31, 2010 at 7:13 am

  • 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?

    March 30, 2010 at 10:09 pm

  • 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.

    March 30, 2010 at 6:40 pm

  • Richard

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

    March 30, 2010 at 2:50 pm

  • Eric Colburn

    Come it coming!

    March 30, 2010 at 1:21 pm

  • 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

    March 30, 2010 at 7:10 am

  • 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 5x5'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 4x6 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.

    March 30, 2010 at 1:23 am

  • Lambo

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

    March 29, 2010 at 10:57 pm

  • 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.

    March 29, 2010 at 9:33 pm

  • Allan Fleming

    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.

    March 29, 2010 at 2:18 pm

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