The Trinity of Gains: Volume, Intensity, and Frequency
The people are confused.
- Slamming the weights after ripping through a heavy set to the applause of their fellow ignoramus on Instagram.
- Marathon training sessions that’ll leave you crawling out of the gym.
- Hitting a muscle group every day in hopes of spurring extra growth.
And chances are, what’s their goal?
Last week, I spoke about the Principle of Specificity for Muscle Growth and how critical it is to understand when it comes to making your best gains.
In this article, I’ll take things even further and discuss how achieving harmony between the elements of volume, intensity, and frequency is the key to maximizing muscle growth as you march towards your goals of the aesthetic physique.
With this understanding, you’ll be in better position to create your workout routines and see why the examples at the beginning of this post fall flat when your goal is to maximize muscle growth.
Let’s get to it.
The Trinity of Gains: Volume, Intensity, and Frequency
Hypertrophy (muscle growth) is accomplished through several factors to varying degrees including mechanical tension, the metabolic stress, and muscle damage, with mechanical tension being #1 and the biggest factor.
To keep things clean and crisp, in practical terms, every workout program is going to come down to a beautiful balance between training:
These 3 factors are all important and very closely related. Each has its role in the optimal program for muscle growth, thus the equilateral triangle. No one could truly be said to be more important than another for achieving your best results.
Intensity and volume form the base of the program (and the triangle I’ve shown here) and are the most important by both defining the adaptation and the magnitude of that adaptation.
Frequency has more of a connecting role and helps you to manage those two for optimal results (hence being the point at the top of the triangle.)
Achieving harmony here is the key to making great gains.
Now let’s look at each in further detail.
We will start with Intensity, as it makes most sense logically due to its downstream effects with regards to the other two factors.
can primarily be defined by weight/reps (intensity of load) and proximity to failure (intensity of effort).
There is a direct relationship amongst these factors (weight used will impact the reps, etc). The type of exercises performed here also plays a role in determining the intensity of a workout.
Most often, intensity is simply talked about in terms of the load being lifted and the subsequent reps performed, but here I choose to include other variables such as proximity to failure because of its usefulness in explaining the trinity between intensity, volume, and frequency for making the best gains for aesthetics.
Intensity can be thought of as a modular knob when it comes to muscle hypertrophy.
It is permissive and at the same time restrictive, meaning that you simply want to ensure that it’s checking the boxes of what you need it to do without sucking too much energy and frying the system.
Like the stereo on a road trip.
You want it just loud enough to feel the bass and get into the music. Cranking it up is fun and you enjoy it more, but if you keep it like that, then you’ll get ear fatigue and have to turn it off and cut off the fun before you arrive at your destination (aka drop the weights in your workout or deload in the middle of your mesocycle).
So what is the goal of intensity in the weight room?
Well, for a muscle to grow maximally, you will need to both:
- Recruit as many muscle fibers as possible and
- Sufficiently expose them to the stress you desire to cause it to grow and adapt (load/time under tension)
And as you’ll see, the more volume of this you do, the better (up to a point).
Therefore in line with the honored goal of muscle growth, you should be picking the intensity level that enables you to perform the most volume at an optimal frequency over the course of your training cycle while maximally stimulating the musculature.
But what intensity is that, exactly?
Truth is, all rep ranges will get you similar amounts of muscle growth when volume is equated and provided you’re taking them close enough to failure.
Therefore, we want to find the optimal sweet spot to carry out that goal.
Lifting heavy is better for strength, but muscle fiber recruitment is topped out at about 85% 1RM (5-6 reps), therefore severely crippling the rationale for going any heavier for the explicit goal of muscle growth.
In addition, heavy loads are more reliant on technique, are more draining per unit of volume, are less time efficient in terms of necessary warmups and length of training session, and can be tough on the joints and mind. This study is a classic example.
Lighter loads will still recruit the full motor unit pool when taken to failure, so going lighter is still fair game and may confer the additional benefits of heightened metabolic stress and enhanced growth of Type I fibers.
However, going too light can be very draining on the cardiovascular system and induce extreme amounts of metabolic stress that can make training excessively uncomfortable or even practically infeasible due to fatigue of supporting musculature.
Intensity for Muscle Hypertrophy
Given these considerations, most often the majority of your work should be in a moderate rep range (6-15) with 1 or 2 reps in the tank, as you’ll see below in my recommendations.
This is very practical and accessible for accumulating large amounts of productive volume.
is king of the jungle when it comes to making juicy gains on your frame and refers to the total amount of work being performed over a period of time (week/workout).
In its simplest form it can be thought of as:
WEIGHT x REPS x SETS
This also called total tonnage or volume load, and for ease of use it can often be used to refer to just the number of sets you’re doing since a minimum intensity level of weight being used is often a given (as expressed above) and obsessing over the calculations is nothing more than a pain in the ass that has little practical significance in the context of a training program with mixed rep ranges.
Now, training volume follows a dose response relationship so in general, the more training volume you perform, the BETTER.
…up to a point.
Volume follows an inverted U-curve whereby each additional set gets you more gains, but after a certain point you are simply taxing yourself too much and will see less growth.
So then how many sets should you do?
The specific volume curve will vary person to person, muscle to muscle, by training cycle, training status (beginner vs. advanced), nutritional status (shredding or gaining?), and lifestyle factors (sleep, stress, etc.), so it will take some trial and error to determine your own, and your approach can be strategically periodized along the curve.
However, ingrain the concept.
See end of post for some recommendations on where to start.
Implications for Training Volume
As discussed, the weight will impact the reps you can perform as well as the volume you can reasonably do within the workout. How close you flirt with failure will do the same.
Outside of the workout, this will impact our next factor of training: Frequency.
deals with how often you’re working out that particular muscle but also to a lesser – yet still important -extent : how often you’re working out in general.
Making the best gains depends on spreading out your volume to allow for the best quality training you can do and ensuring that the muscle is being trained to maximize its growth cycles.
You see, muscle protein synthesis only stays elevated for 24-72 hours following a workout. By only hitting a muscle once a week, you may be leaving gains on the table, even when total volume is equated.
Overall Training Frequency
You must also ensure that your training frequency allows for total body performance to be on point, so living in the gym is not a good idea if you’re truly serious about your training.
Let your lust for the lifting regenerate. You’ll get your best workouts and life balance that way.
You are in it for the long haul. Sustainability and adherence is paramount.
Because of the relationship between volume and frequency, when you factor in the frequency, you get TOTAL VOLUME. As noted, the total volume you do is the biggest determinant of growth.
We’ll now look at the balance between intensity, volume, and frequency before giving you some concrete recommendations to get you started in the right direction.
GET THE BALANCE RIGHT
Any workout program worth its salt is going to find sound balance amongst these 3 factors of volume, intensity, and frequency. If it doesn’t, run far, far away.
Because of this, many programs work, but not all programs are optimal or optimal for you.
- You can go heavy and all out but volume and frequency will suffer
- You can train very frequently but not with a lot of volume (per session) and intensity
- You can do a ton of volume but intensity and frequency will be lacking
- If you go high on none of them, you won’t grow very well at all
- And lastly, if you go high on all of them, you will be visited by the ghost of death and dragged into the Shadow Realm
None of these factors in isolation is the answer, and the most you can really ever push is 2 of these factors before you completely wreck yourself. It takes a charming cocktail of these factors to achieve optimal hypertrophy.
Where you give to one, you must take from another. It may be helpful for you to visualize yourself with a “budget” to allocate to each factor. No one factor should receive too many deposits.
For example, to achieve the best growth:
- You can’t just release the Kraken to crush a 1RM (1 rep max) and call it a day.
- You can’t just grind out 1 grueling set and exit the gym.
- And you can’t skip through the weight room with a set of pretty pink dumbbells and expect to grow (ladies, listen up).
Will these stimulate some growth? Sure, but “some” isn’t what we want here, now is it?
Think about these relationships when approaching your training decisions.
STARTING POINTS FOR AESTHETICS
So there’s the basic framework to guide your mental processes around working out for muscle gain.
…but where should you start?
I go into much further detail on the particulars in the book, but to get you started in the right direction for making gains, here are my general recommendations based on my evidence based fitness model for volume, intensity, and frequency:
- 6-15 reps for ~80%+ of the work subject to movement, programming, etc
- 0-3 reps from failure depending on the muscle, trainee, phase in program. Typically 1-2 RITTs (Reps in the tank) on each set
- 2-3 mins of rest between sets, more if necessary for high quality work to be done (volume and load lifted)
- 8-12 weekly sets per muscle to start – consider overlap
- Increase over time (beginner –> advanced) potentially reaching ~18-22 sets per muscle
- Increase as able to tolerate, consider periodizing volume across training cycles to maximize hypertrophic outcomes
- At least 2x/week per muscle
- Consider 3 or more if required due to volume requirements
- Always factor in total volume and overlap
- 4-5 weekly sessions total
And of course, this discussion of volume, intensity, and frequency is assuming other critical training factors such as the principles of specificity and overload, proper form, recovery, etc.
You must also consider the 3P Framework of what will work best for long term adherence and satisfaction across the physical, psychological, and practical lifestyle levels.
The particulars for doing this and optimizing volume, intensity, and frequency will vary by person and by muscle, so don’t think there’s a one size fits all solution for everyone or even within one person.
Now go make some gains.
This concept was first introduced in my book, Architect of Aesthetics.
Get your copy today on either paperback or Kindle edition available via the cloud to any device instantly worldwide for more details and the specifics of muscle growth for the optimal aesthetic physique.
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