I have in my previous article about hypertrophy already cautiously hinted at the fact that volume is not the most important factor for growth, to make you cautiously get used to that idea. Kick a little bit against a holy house, when you hear all the literature and all the trainers and trainees read. Yet I can make a good argument why volume itself is not the leading factor for hypertrophy. In any case, this is not the whole story.
What has already made the story a bit more complex is the fact that there are apparently several forms of hypertrophy and that these different forms are apparently trainable with different train approaches. You can read more about this in the article about 'different forms of hypertrophy". Many bodybuilders have been calling this for years and years, but the literature has now actually done research and found evidence for this.
In all the years that bodybuilding and strength training have existed (and there are already quite a few) there have been very diverse theories about which training approach was decisive for muscle growth. A culprit who was in charge for decades was 'we don't know what causes hypertrophy' and with that a license for the most diverse schemes and approaches, from 1 set per muscle group per week to dropsets to super low, etc etc.
What history has 'taught' us ...
For a long time it was thought that the damage that was caused in muscle tissue by training was the cause of muscle growth. The body recovered a little more through supercompensation than it had before, and tadaa, muscle growth. Others think / thought that muscle pain meant that a good growth stimulus had been delivered. Both ways of thinking do not seem correct, since there are known cases of growth without damage and of damage without growth [Source]. Others, on the other hand, thought that the pump, or 'cell swelling', was the reason for muscle growth. Everyone knows Arnold's quote: "The pump feels better than cumming".
The acute spikes in hormone levels due to training also have the honor, according to some, to cause hypertrophy. Therefore "you must train underlying muscle groups after you have done your legs"; the peak in growth hormone would cause more hypertrophy in the muscle groups that were trained after a large muscle group. Research also questions this.
We can go on and on, but you get the point. Many completely different causes or factors of hypertrophy have been described in the past, but time and again it did not seem a satisfactory answer.
The cause of muscle growth
Yet for decades it has been nice to well known, which means that muscles grow, namely tension. The definition of tension according to the dictionary is, among other things, 'tension' and that is a good description of what tension actually means: the amount of tension in / on a muscle. Each muscle attaches with origo and insertion (I've written about this in the past) on different bones and when this muscle contracts the skeleton will move. Curling an arm with an empty hand takes less force and therefore produces less tension than curling an arm with an 10 kilo dumbbell in your hand. Before we continue, I want to pause for a moment load en volume.
Load and tension
Since tensie is very difficult to measure and impossible to measure in the gym, we will have to use a different method. Everyone does that unconsciously, namely with load. Load is nothing but the number of kilos on the rod. However, our body does not have a built-in scale. For that reason, kilos do not say anything in themselves, otherwise a dumbbell fly would always be a much worse choice than a barbell bench press; after all, with a bench press you quickly push more than 100 kilos away. The first person to do a good fly with 50 kilo dumbbells I have yet to come across.
This is where tensie comes in. The difference between these 2 exercises can be explained better on the basis of tensie. After all, with a fly the moment arm is a lot larger than with a bench press, because the weight is a lot further from the point of rotation / joint. In addition, the load with a benchpress is distributed over much more muscle mass than with a dumbbell fly.
In addition, I want to record the definition of volume for a while before the story becomes more technical.
Which workout has added up more tension? (Let's not be childish, I am talking about the exact same exercise / exercise pattern here)
- 2 sets of 100 reps on 100 kilos?
- 5 sets of 6 reps on 250 kilos?
The answer is this question is of course the first example (2 * 100 * 100 = 20.000; 5 * 6 * 250 = 7500).
If we ask the question differently, and ask which training provides the most muscle growth, giving the correct answer becomes a lot more difficult. When we use the 'volume is determining' approach we will therefore never have to train close to our 1RM for optimal hypertrophy. Often the nuance is given to stay at least above the 60% 1RM, but even then the answer is not very satisfactory. According to this approach, there is simply no place for heavy training in a hypertrophy program.
However, if this approach worked so well, why do we see people losing pounds and pounds of mass year after year as soon as they start cutting? In the article about different forms of hypertrophy you have been able to read that muscle protein build up is fairly permanent. Apparently the usual training method (volume is leading) results more in sarcoplasmic hypertrophy; we have already seen that this form of hypertrophy is very 'fleeting'.
Conditions for muscle growth
When the body is exposed to significant tension (and a significant volume thereof), this in turn will lead to a signal cascade, allowing muscle growth to take place if the circumstances are present.
These 2 conditions are important for the further meaning of this story. Most people know that a significant amount of volume is needed.
The other condition is what this article is about, namely significant tension. If we only use the volume rule, 100 times 1 kilo curls would have the same effect as 10 times 10 kilo curls. Or 1 times 100 kilos.
The latter example is a kind of researched [Bron]. This research shows that frequent 1RM attempts alone are not a good strategy for muscle growth, even if the attempts are successful. Apparently a certain amount of volume is therefore needed in any case.
It is also clear that this dimension must be of a certain intensity; this is precisely the reason that cycling or running alone will not lead to any comments on the beach about skipping legdays.
So we now know the following:
- We must have a certain intensity.
- we have to turn a certain volume of this significant tension.
Without going into too much detail about the control of muscles, muscle fiber type, etc (since this article is getting quite long now), I just want to leave it at the moment that full recruitment (all muscle fibers of a muscle participate in the movement) takes place from around 80 to 85% of your 1 RM. If you lift at a lower intensity, you will only get 100% recruitment after making a number of repetitions. (This is also how, for example BFR / Occlusion training works).
And now we come to the heart of the story; since the aim is to optimally address and grow a muscle, we want all muscle fibers to cooperate in a muscle and therefore be burdened. At lower loads this will not be from the 1e repetition, but depending on the intensity, perhaps only after 10 reps. Only the repetitions that are then made, ie under full recruitment, will contribute well to a stressor and therefore indirectly to growth. Let these reps, under full recruitment, effective repetitions to mention.
According to this explanation, the number of sets that you play does not matter. The number of reps you make does not even matter. The only thing that matters are your effective repetitions. This could be a good explanation for the fact that many lose their 'hard earned mass' as soon as they start cutting, as I mentioned above in the example about cutting.
Volume is not volume
The implication of this explanation is therefore that there is definitely a substantial difference in volume. When 100 kilo is your 1 RM, there is certainly a difference between 4 sets of 6 reps on 85 kilo, or 4 sets of 12 reps on 42.5, even though the training volume is exactly the same.
As everyone who does strength training knows, fatigue plays a role as the training progresses. If rest is not complete, and you start a next set with accumulated fatigue from a previous set, full recruitment will take place sooner than with a fully equipped system. Again a reason to time your rest times, like me in a previous article have described! A shorter rest period can, after all, lead to fatigue still being present, which results in 2e set for full recruitment no 80-85% 1RM is required, but perhaps only 70%.
This approach does not mean that training with less than 80% of your 1RM is completely useless; this does mean that 'cowardly workouts' with low intensity, who stay far away from failure, and long rest breaks for applapping or chatting, will most likely leave a lot of progress untapped!
Make sure your training counts!
The implication of this explanation may even be that when intensity and density are both (too) low during your workouts, there is a chance that you will literally not make a 1 significant repeat, even if you run a whole schedule of 8 exercises, each 4 sets of 12 reps.
This explanation can also be 1 for the reasons why research into different training methods almost always ends up in 'it doesn't matter so much what you do'. Indeed, if a decent amount of effective repetitions is never achieved or measured during a workout, it will indeed not matter how many reps or sets you do.
This is also the reason that studies in which a certain reprange is brought to failure (actual muscle failure), there appears to be no difference found in hypertrophy and both groups seem to score equally well. The number of significant repetitions will, after all, be virtually the same. However, the low intensity group needs a good number of repetitions before the first significant repetition is made, while a research group that trains above 80-85% of their 1 RM from repetition 1 is already doing significant repetitions. (Note: This certainly does not mean that every set must fail.)
I hope this article has made the story a little clearer for you. If interested, we can go much deeper into this material, but for now I want to leave it at this information. Questions or reactions are absolutely welcome!
Jan Willem van der Klis