We’ve literally rewritten the book on hypertrophy training in the past five years. A collection of studies has now shown that variations in training intensity [1-4], tempo  and rest intervals [4,6-9] impart little to no hypertrophic benefit over any of the other possible combinations.
Consistent with that human desire to simplify everything, we tend to view strength training adaptations as a binary system, responding to variations in either intensity or volume. If we’ve established that comparable growth can occur at opposing poles of the intensity continuum [1-4], then surely it must be volume in the hypertrophic driver’s seat?
The problem with establishing volume as the prime determinant of muscle hypertrophy is that we don’t use the same terms to define what volume is. Comparing one set at the same intensity to multiples is a clear-cut comparison of differing volumes, favoring multi-set protocols to a point [10,11]. Unfortunately, defining volume as simply the number of sets is woefully inadequate, as drastically different work outputs can occur dependent on the training intensity. Completing three sets to concentric failure at 90%-1RM and three sets at 30%-1RM will have much more work completed in the low intensity condition . Even this is an over simplification, as cumulative training volume is the result of the interaction of load, sets, reps, number of exercises, and if you consider work, distance as well.
Muscle growth at widely varying volumes
Many took the recent investigations of the comparable growth that occurs with training at different intensities as telling solely on the relationship between training intensity (%1RM) and growth [1-4]. There is nothing wrong with this; it’s the obvious conclusion, and one I’ve written about previously.
But these studies also tell us about the role of volume, or work, on muscle hypertrophy. When training to concentric failure at either high or low intensity, work output varies significantly, being much higher at low training intensities . And yet, when training studies have been completed comparing low and high intensity, comparable growth has been shown across various muscle groups in both trained and untrained individuals. In these cases, not only did training intensity differ between the groups, but work (volume) as well.
In fact, the ability of low intensity training to stimulate comparable hypertrophy may actually depend on completing more work. When you equate volume between conditions (high and low intensity), not only do we see a failure of low-intensity training to stimulate an acute protein synthetic response , there is a hypertrophic advantage to higher load training [13,14]. There may be a threshold to this relationship, as Schoenfeld et al  recently demonstrated comparable hypertrophy at matched volume loads when training with either 3RM or 10RM loads. This is consistent with previous data from Campos et al , who found comparable growth without significant differences in training volume between what they deemed to be heavy (3-5RM) and intermediate (9-11RM) loads.
Ultimately, understanding the relationship between the variables matters most. When training at lower intensities, work must increase to achieve a comparable hypertrophic response, yet it’s possible that there is a threshold to this response. At this time, it’s impossible to really say where that threshold is, as much of the literature has compared extremes (80-90%-1RM to 30%-1RM), with relatively few testing narrow intensity ranges [4,14].
What do our recommendations actually mean?
As practitioners, when we tell someone that they must focus on training volume to satisfy their hypertrophic desires, what are we actually saying?
Are we favoring multi-set over single set, without consideration for intensity? Or are we really just saying, in a round-about way, that you don’t need to focus on load to grow ?
Given the vagueness of the recommendation, and that we’ve done a poor job of defining optimal volume ranges (outside of the number of sets), it’s probably time to reevaluate our practices when it comes to volume recommendations for hypertrophy training.
- Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, West DWD, Burd NA, Breen L, Baker SK, et al. Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Physiol. 2012 Jul;113(1):71–7.
- Ogasawara R, Loenneke JP, Thiebaud RS, Abe T. Low-load bench press training to fatigue results in muscle hypertrophy similar to high-load bench press training. International Journal of Clinical Medicine. 2013 Feb;4:114–21.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of Low- Versus High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Apr 3;:1.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, Contreras B, Sonmez GT, Alvar BA. Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Oct;28(10):2909–18.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn DI, Krieger JW. Effect of repetition duration during resistance training on muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2015 Apr;45(4):577–85.
- Buresh R, Berg K, French J. The effect of resistive exercise rest interval on hormonal response, strength, and hypertrophy with training. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):62–71.
- Ahtiainen JP, Pakarinen A, Alen M, Kraemer WJ, Hakkinen K. Short vs. long rest period between the sets in hypertrophic resistance training: influence on muscle strength, size, and hormonal adaptations in trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):572–82.
- de Souza TP, Fleck SJ, Simão R, Dubas JP, Pereira B, de Brito Pacheco EM, et al. Comparison between constant and decreasing rest intervals: influence on maximal strength and hypertrophy. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jul;24(7):1843–50.
- Souza-Junior TP, Willardson JM, Bloomer R, Leite RD, Fleck SJ, Oliveira PR, et al. Strength and hypertrophy responses to constant and decreasing rest intervals in trained men using creatine supplementation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. BioMed Central Ltd; 2011 Oct 27;8(1):17.
- Krieger JW. Single Versus Multiple Sets of Resistance Exercise: A Meta-Regression. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep 1;23(6):1890–901.
- Krieger JW. Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1150–9.
- Burd NA, West DWD, Staples AW, Atherton PJ, Baker JM, Moore DR, et al. Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS ONE. 2010;5(8):e12033.
- Holm L, Reitelseder S, Pedersen TG, Doessing S, Petersen SG, Flyvbjerg A, et al. Changes in muscle size and MHC composition in response to resistance exercise with heavy and light loading intensity. J Appl Physiol. 2008 Nov;105(5):1454–61.
- Campos GER, Luecke TJ, Wendeln HK, Toma K, Hagerman FC, Murray TF, et al. Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. 2002 Nov;88(1-2):50–60.
- Burd NA, Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, Phillips SM. Bigger weights may not beget bigger muscles: evidence from acute muscle protein synthetic responses after resistance exercise. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2012 Jun;37(3):551–4.
- photo credit: Warp speed (167/365) via photopin (license)
Nice article, Dan!
Dan– You cover it beautifully. Thanks for the details that matter. Cheers! –doug
I just came across your website when searching for articles on tempo benefit to muscle gain, and as an engineer I really appreciated your evidence-based approach. I am interested in taking training with you but as I am a bit of a beginner I’ll follow your advice with regards to spending at least a year training first. But with that in mind, I did a lot of search on programs that mix compound and isolated movements along with different reps (in line with your suggestions) and reached this: Jim Stoppani’s 12-Week Beginner-To-Advanced Bodybuilding Plan.
Do you think this is a good beginner program to follow for the first year or do you have any other recommendations? Bearing in mind my intent is primarily hypertrophy with strength as secondary.
Unfortunately I am unfamiliar with the program you mentioned, and it would be hard to recommend without knowing more about your situation.
I do also offer Skype consultations where I can make a few brief recommendations regarding your program selection. If you fill out the form under the “Training” section of my site we might be able to work out a solution for you.
Being a meso-endo with low natural muscular endurance, It always felt “right” to me that 8 reps and less was the way to go. It seemed to fit in well with my natural strength and endurance curve. Throughout my youth, I rarely did over 10 reps – ever. And that was for a warmup set.
Sadly, as I get older (I’m 48) I’m looking for ways to continue with gains that put less strain on my joints, most of which are pretty worn out at this point.
I came across your articles highlighting the research suggesting that higher frequency and volume can deliver the same, or better, results if the perceived total exertion is comparable.
But the issue I have with training at higher reps ( low %RM) to fatigue ( ie failure) compared to a lower rep range to failure is that annoying little bit of extra fun known as SEVERE PAIN.
The excruciating pain of training muscles with higher and higher reps, to me, pretty much cancels out the theoretical advantages it confers. Just going from 6 reps to 15+ and the pain felt seems to increase geometrically with each rep.
I find that if I train to failure around 4-7 reps, while the pain does build throughout the set, I manage to hit failure just as the pain becomes unbearable. Whenever I opt for a high volume, high rep day, my mind gives out before my body truly does. Squirming in utter pain on the leg extension, the debilitating pump and ache from calf raises etc. I know I have more to give, but my desire to end the pain makes me give up.
I’m no wimp, and we all know pain and suffering is a core part of power-lifting and bodybuilding. I have no problem with that, but there’s pain.. and then there’s PAIN.
Is this a by-product of my personal fiber complement? I can do 4 reps with 80% of my 1RM. Am I doomed to suck at higher rep work? I’m guessing that repeated training in this style will create a neurological adaption to the stress and hopefully confer some additional improved pain tolerance, but I’m not sure if it’s possible to alter the inherent fiber-type ratios through training.
great freaking blog by the way.. so much good stuff to delve into.
There could be a few factors at play, and I have to admit that the RPE literature for high/low and high/low occlusion can be somewhat mixed. At the end of the day, from a hypertrophic standpoint, you’re covered either way, so train in a way that’s most likely to get the job done.