Training is the first piece of the puzzle. Nutrition and recovery will also be important, but if you’re not actually working out sufficiently, they won’t result in strength or muscle gain.

The process of building muscle is somewhat like making a pizza. Your protein intake and diet are like the dough, the essential building blocks. Above that, you can add toppings and sauces for flavor. Once all those ingredients are assembled, the raw and mushy dough needs to go into a very hot oven to bake, gaining strong structure and flavor.

If you didn’t provide enough heat, or only put it in for a few seconds, the pizza would not get formed. In this case, stressing your body with resistance training provides similarly intense conditions to “bake” all your available amino acids into new muscles. This can’t just be done once by lifting weights for a few minutes, but needs to be done consistently and intensely for weeks or months to get the desired results.

Strength, Hypertrophy or Endurance?

Your ideal training program will be influenced by your goals. Though all exercise will provide health benefits, there is no “best” program or “one size fits all” solution here.

Strength is the maximal force you can apply against a load. With this in mind, is lifting the same weight 12 times in a row a measure of strength? You certainly have to have an element of strength to do so, but you could probably lift more if you were only lifting the weight once or twice. Therefore, maximum strength is generally measured in what you can handle for 1 rep, refer to in short as your “1RM” (1 Rep Max). For this same reason, when training for strength, we tend to focus on lower rep ranges and higher rest periods. For example, 1-3 reps followed by 3-5 minutes of rest to allow the CNS to adequately recover from the high level of stress that maximal loads place upon it.

Hypertrophy is the increase in size of an organ or tissue — in this case an increase in the size of your muscles. Hypertrophy mostly focuses on total volume. Research tells us that around 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps with around 2 minutes or less rest between sets will produce the most hypertrophy. Some research also suggests that volume and proximity to failure is more important than load. This means if strength isn’t your main goal, it is possible to build mass and maintain your physique with relatively low loads so long, as intensity is sufficient.

Endurance is the ability to remain in a state of exertion for a long period of time. It is generally not the primary goal for most people, but it still deserves a mention. Not much strength is obtained through endurance work, but some hypertrophy can be produced. Work capacity and lactate threshold is also increased, which will benefit your overall fitness and, in turn, may benefit your heavier lifting abilities. Endurance resistance training tends to focus on significantly lighter loads and reps of above 15 up to 25 and beyond.

There is some cross-over between each of these. Training for strength comes with some muscle, and adding more muscle through hypertrophy will also boost strength and endurance. Each utilizes slightly different energy systems in the body, hence the different training protocols.

Energy Systems

Your body powers itself with 3 main systems that provide energy for different types of activity and movement. All energy systems run on a chemical called adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). It fuels all metabolic activity in your body, from breathing to running. Most ATP is made from the food you eat, by way of your glycolytic and oxidative energy systems. A small amount also is stored in your muscles for utilization by your adenosine triphosphate/creatine phosphate (ATP-CP) system.

For sudden and intense activities, your ATP-CP system kicks into play. Think sprinting, jumping and very heavy lifting. It is the fastest energy system to respond, but its speed in activation is almost matched in it’s duration. You can only store a small amount of ATP in your muscles, enough for about 6-10 seconds of max effort. Training using the ATP-CP pathway more often will improve strength, speed and power, but you can’t increase the size of your stores. Supplementing with creatine can help slightly, but more on that later…

For lower intensity weight training with higher rep ranges, your ATP-CP will still be the first responder, but after those initial 6-10 seconds your glycolytic system (also referred to as the lactic acid system) will kick in. This can keep you going for another minute or so.

Glycolysis is fuelled by converting carbohydrates into ATP. In this zone, you will start to feel the “burn” caused by a build up of hydrogen ions, a by-product of glycolysis. This is the type of energy source most people want to use when exercising, as it is the most effective at both producing muscle and burning fat.

For long duration and steady state exercise (like long bike rides, running, or low-load strength training for endurance) your oxidative system will take care of things. It is always working in the background, whether at rest or moving, and is fuelled mainly by fats and glucose. It is the only energy system that directly requires oxygen to function.

Regardless of your primary goals, the three main variables that you can control are volume, frequency and intensity.


Volume is defined as The total amount of work performed.

There are three common ways to quantify this:

Volume Load = Sets x Reps x Load


Number of Repetitions = Sets x Reps


The total number of sets at a given intensity

The latter is the most useful way to measure volume with regards to strength training, as the results are far more stable, therefore more easily correlated to progress. Research has shown that for the most part, when the number of sets is increased, both strength and hypertrophy also increase. In fact, studies have found that when intensity is equated — that is, you’re lifting to near failure - 3 sets of 6-8 would produce similar hypertrophy results to 3 sets of 15-20.

How much volume is needed to effectively build muscle?

This is where smart programming is vital. The ideal training volume for building muscle is around 9-18 sets, per muscle, per week.

This is a wide range, since it is so individualized. For example, different people may be stronger or weaker in different lifts for different reasons. Some of the bigger, heavier compound lifts will tax your CNS a lot more than isolation work.

However, if you’re following a well designed program and lifting with good form, doing 2-4 sets of 6-20 reps per set, and bringing those sets within 1-3 reps of failure, the bottom end of this range (9-10 sets) is usually enough to elicit muscle growth.

Doing the least amount of work required to stimulate a response (muscle growth) is where most people want to be, most of the time.


How often should you actually workout?

Frequency is largely down to personal choice, schedule and goals. 3 well programmed workouts a week, around 45-60 minutes in length, is generally accepted as a good starting point. More is an option if you prefer. If the goal is maximal strength over actual hypertrophy, then even less than this could be beneficial, due to the high amount of stress placed upon the CNS. The more pertinent question to ask would be:

How often should you train each muscle group?

Most research suggests that for maximul muscle growth (hypertrophy), each muscle group should be trained at least twice a week.

If you train 3 times a week, this could be achieved with 3 full body workouts. You’d train every muscle group at least once in each workout.

Or you could do 1 upper body, 1 lower body and 1 full body workout. You’d have more time to focus in on specific areas in each workout, but the frequency per body part would be more or less the same.

If you train 4 times a week, 2 upper body and 2 lower body workouts would do the trick.

5 times a week may be push, pull, lower, upper, lower.

And 6 times could be push, pull, legs, push, pull legs...

When you start hitting 5 or more workouts a week, varying the intensity is also a good idea. For example, 2-3 with a strength focus and 2-3 endurance and hypertrophy sessions.

Whatever “split” you choose, what matters the most is that the frequency suits you and your schedule.

The best program in the world, is the one you can stick to.