Here’s a trap that has so far stood the test of time. Have you been hammering your biceps, but they haven’t budged in the last year? It’s simple, just swap out the second leg session for an extra arm day, and put them on full blast with 12 sets of various drop sets, supersets, from every angle you can think of.
There’s a ton of sweat and tears to get through, but you know it’ll work, because the big dude hogging the preacher curl told you so. When you need a muscle to grow, just throw more crap at it.
More Isn’t Better
Here’s the thing: this switch up to your programme could end up paying back in profit. Your sleeves could emerge from the chaos, stronger and tighter. But it could just as easily result in nothing besides losing 10kg on your squat.
More volume won’t reliably make muscles grow bigger. There’s no reason for it to, because volume isn’t what drives hypertrophy. What you should be doing is going heavy, hard, relatively brief, and ensuring that you apply progressive overload.
Let’s say you did 4 sets of 12 on lat pulldowns. Even if you also revealed the weight you lifted, that would give little to no impression of the quality of those sets. Take any weight to failure, until you couldn’t bust your way through another full concentric, and it’s going to be the last five reps that kick off the cascade of mechanisms that result in the synthesis of new muscle fibers. In other words, that’s where the gains are.
4 sets of 12 doesn’t tell you whether you took those sets till you hit that brick wall. 12 extra sets on biceps doesn’t imply you threw 12 quality sets into the mix. It could easily be a heap of junk volume that does little to stimulate the muscle fibers. They need a reason to grow, and tension in itself isn’t enough.
So Should You Just Train To Failure On Everything?
Let’s assume you remedied the situation by taking each set to failure. While that’s certainly an upgrade on the junk volume, there are plenty of ways that such a training design can fall flat on its face.
One of the issues here is that if you’re not applying progressive overload, by adding weight or reps to your best lifts, then the stimulus becomes predictable, and there’s no reason for the muscle to grow. You maintain sufficient tension by improving the weight, so that the adaptations don’t catch up.
Training to failure on every set, adding drop sets like they’re going out of fashion, lifting twice a day: each of these are classic techniques used by those who using smelling salts on the shoulder machine and subscribe to the ancient pearl: “Train insane or remain the same.”
Unfortunately that hardcore style doesn’t sync up well with progressive overload, since all that volume creates excess fatigue and muscle damage that dents the stimulation that the muscles are getting, and you end up lifting subpar weights because you’re still recovering your last set, or your last workout.
You’d also be more likely to tear your rotator cuff by benching your max two minutes after getting past the turnstiles, so there’s that.
So while you’d be correct in assuming that you should go to failure, it just shouldn’t be every set. 4 sets of 8 shouldn’t be 4 sets to failure. If anything, you’d be best off spending the first two sets getting into the groove, ramping up the weight, then training to failure on the last two.
Here’s an example of how that could work on the lat pulldown.
Set 1 – 8 reps at 8 RIR*
*RIR means Reps In Reserve, the reps that would still be in the tank unused at the end of the set.
Rest for 45 seconds – Since this wasn’t a challenging set, there’s no need to kick your feet up.
Set 2 – 6 reps at 4 RIR
Rest for 120 seconds
Set 3 – 6 reps at 0 RIR*
*This will be the heaviest set, and you’re taking it to failure.
Rest for 180 seconds
Set 4 – 8 reps at 0 RIR*
*This is a back-off set, where you’re reducing the weight by 10-20%, while still going to failure.
If you repeated that trick over 4-6 reasonably well-chosen exercises, you’d end up with a fantastic session that hammered all the boxes that were begging to be checked off. It’s simple, and it’s exactly what works.
Quality Over Quantity
In layman terms, progressive overload ensures you get enough stimulation from each workout. You ensure progressive overload by taking key sets to failure, resting adequately between those sets, taking rest days when needed, deloading periodically, and prioritising the heavy compounds. All things that lifters enthusiastically avoid.
You’ll hear of plenty of people that build impressive physiques while using hardcore high volume techniques. But you could easily argue they’d have seen even better results by cleaning up all the fluff. And perhaps they’re just stretching the truth anyway, and they’ve only been doing high volume for the past few months after training sensibly for a decade.
Quality doesn’t just matter more than quantity, unless quality is assured, quantity is irrelevant, even harmful. That’s why the volume of your workout is a meaningless measure.
The measure that would matter, would be the amount of effective sets that you perform, which means sets taken either to or to the brink of failure. 8-10 of those sets in a workout will be plenty, and going beyond that could well result in worse growth due to the impairing effects of fatigue.
Like with most things, the sweet spot isn’t going to be far above the minimal effective dose, and pushing beyond that leads to diminishing results. For many gym zealots, it isn’t just that more volume doesn’t result in more growth. Actually lowering their volume often leads to better results.
7 Key Ingredients For Optimal Muscle Growth
So if you’re wondering how you can incorporate this wandering tangent into your programme, then consider doing the following before you opt to add more sets to force a stubborn muscle back into growth mode.
1. Choose exercises that actually target the muscle – All chest exercises aren’t created equal. Hex presses won’t be creating anywhere near the same stimulation that a converging chest press machine would. So choose them wisely.
2. Reduce the reps – 5-8 reps is the sweet spot for maximising the stimulating reps of a set, but going as low as 3 can be useful for improving coordination and explosive strength.
3. Reduce the sets – 6-8 working sets (taken within 2 reps of failure) per week will be more than enough for getting a muscle to grow. The arms are also getting plenty of work during compound movements, so you’d only need 2-4 sets of isolation movements.
4. Go to failure – This should go without saying. The closer you are to failure, the more stimulating reps you get, the more you grow.
5. Rest for 3 minutes between working sets – This will help mitigate the buildup of fatigue and ensure each set of your workout actually creates some stimulation.
6. Aim to add a weight, or add a rep, every session – It won’t always happen, but the impetus needs to always be there. Even if you don’t care about how much you’re lifting, you need to apply progressive overload in order to ensure that the stimulus remains sufficient for forcing growth.
7. Make sure you’re in a surplus – Even if you’re a rank beginner, you’re going to see better results by staying in a small, steady, caloric surplus. You could do both at the same time, but it’s simply going to result in slower progress. And if you’ve already got a few years of training under your belt, then muscle gain in a deficit simply isn’t going to happen. Recomp is fiction, forget about it, and get those calories up.
More Reading – 12 Mistakes Everyone Makes While Trying To Build Muscle