In this guide, you’ll find out how to progress your training for size along the key variables of load, volume, frequency, and exercise selection.
Preface: I’m honoured to publish this article as part 1 of a 3-part series on progression for hypertrophy with Dr. Mike Israetel. I have huge respect for Mike’s work, and feel it’s a privilege to explore this question with him. Mike has already published part 2, where he presents his thoughts on Progressing for Hypertrophy. In 1-2 weeks, in part 3, we’ll present our joint position statement, critique, and guidelines. Follow Mike or me on Facebook to get part 3 when it’s out.
I’m guessing you’ve been there:
You want to build muscle. You start lifting weights. During your first few weeks, you get bigger and stronger fast. You’re happy.
But after a few months, you notice your gains have slowed down. You don’t lift that much heavier, and your body has stopped getting noticeably more muscular. You wonder if your program is still working. What’s going on?
Well, congratulations: you just leveled up. You were a beginner, and almost any kind of training allowed you to make progress. But now, you’re an intermediate lifter, and you need to start training well if you want to continue growing.
In this article, we’ll look at the major training variables, and how you should change them as you progress if your goal is to continue building muscle.
Training Variables to Progress When You’re Training for Size
According to Schoenfeld (2016), the major training variables in hypertrophy are:
- Exercise selection
- Type of muscle action
- Rest interval length
- Repetition duration
- Exercise order
- Range of motion
- Intensity of effort
In this article, we’ll focus on the first 4 (volume, frequency, load, and exercise selection). In my opinion, those are the most important. I would rank them in this order:
- Exercise selection
When You Progress Your Training for Size, Load Is King
I believe that the #1 variable you should focus on when you progress your training for size is load. That is, how heavy you lift (for any number of reps you’re doing). Progress in load (for the same reps) is king, bar none.
Show me a lifter who’s lifting 135 lbs for 2 sets of 10 reps today in the bench press. Now imagine that same lifter 1 year later, under 2 conditions:
- 315 lbs for 2 sets of 10 reps (major progress only in load)
- 135 lbs for 8 sets of 10 reps (major progress only in volume)
Which condition would you say leads to the most muscle hypertrophy? I’m positive that the first condition (major progress only in load) would win. This leads me to conclude that when you progress your training for size, load really is king.
How to Progress Load When You Are Training for Size
The best resource I’ve found on progressing load over the course of your training career is Practical Programming for Strength Training (Rippetoe and Baker, 2014). It’s based on the authors’ extensive experience training athletes from strength sports.
In that book, they divide all trainees into 3 groups:
- Beginners (you’re making gains every workout)
- Intermediates (you’re making gains every week)
- Advanced (you’re making gains every 2+ weeks)
Then, they present a variety of training strategies to continue increasing load as you become more advanced. Training at the advanced level gets really complex, so we’ll just focus on making progress at the beginner and intermediate levels here.
How to Progress Load When You Are Training for Size as a Beginner
Remember: as long as you can make gains every workout, you’re a beginner. That’s great: this is the fastest progress you’ll ever make. Enjoy it!
I’ve covered this topic on an interview with Juma Iraki:
In short, you can:
- Increase weight on the bar every workout for the same number of reps
- Increase reps for the same weight on the bar every workout
As long as you can do this, you’re a beginner, and you’re making fast gains. You should also notice your body is getting more muscular quite fast to keep up.
When you get stuck (no progress for a week), you can:
- Deload (reduce weights 10% and work back up slowly)
- Train less often (e.g. 1 day on, 2 days off instead of Mon, Wed, Fri)
- Do fewer sets (e.g. 2 sets instead of 3 per exercise)
See Practical Programming for Strength Training for more strategies to prolong your fast gains at the beginner level.
In any case, at some point, you’ll get stuck again. This happens because you’re starting to lift weights so heavy that each workout becomes too hard to recover from in 48-72 hours. You start needing to recover with easy workouts, and you’ve reached the intermediate level. Congratulations!
How to Progress Load When You Are Training for Size as an Intermediate
At the intermediate level, each workout is now too hard to recover from in 48-72 hours. But you still need to progress in load to continue building muscle. So what do you do?
You aim for progress week to week, instead of workout to workout. A good program for that is the Texas Method (Rippetoe, 2010). I won’t copy the full program, but here’s the basic idea:
“In its basic form, the workout consists of a volume day for the major lifts on Monday, a lighter recovery/variety day on Wednesday, and a high-intensity day on Friday for the major lifts.”
On that program, you try to make progress every Monday (vs. the previous Monday) and every Friday (vs. the previous Friday). So, in essence, you’re making progress 2x a week.
As you become more advanced on that program, the authors suggest aiming for progress on Friday’s workout only. At that point, you’re making progress 1x a week.
Finally, when you stop making progress even just 1x a week, you’ve reached the advanced level. At that point, training becomes very complex, and I’d refer you to their book for full details.
When You Progress Your Training for Size, Volume Is Queen
Volume is the second most important training variable to make progress on when you train for size, in my opinion. First, make sure you progress on load. Next, if you can handle it, and you have more time to train, you can also progress on volume.
In a meta-analysis, Schoenfeld et al. (2017) have found a trend for an effect of weekly sets on muscle size. Similarly, in another meta-analysis, Ralston et al. (2017) found that medium or high weekly sets lead to more gains in strength (than low weekly sets).
In other words, the more sets you do, the more gains you make. Up to a point, of course, where adding sets to your workout will burn you out.
How do you find out the exact number of sets you should be doing? Israetel (2018) gives the following guidelines:
- Start your mesocycle with low set numbers.
- Add 1-2 sets per body part per week.
- Note when rep strength drops below baseline levels. Deload.
- Raise your starting volume by 1-2 sets per body part on your new mesocycle, repeat steps 1-3.
- Repeat steps 1-4 two to four times, take the average sets per week at which step 3 occurs. This is your current maximum recoverable volume estimate.
How to Progress Frequency When You Are Training for Size
Next up is frequency. Looking at the data:
- In a meta-analysis, Schoenfeld et al. (2016) found that “the major muscle groups should be trained at least twice a week to maximize muscle growth”
- In another meta-analysis, Grgic et al. (2018) found “a significant effect of [resistance training] RT frequency as higher training frequencies are translated into greater muscular strength gains. However, these effects seem to be primarily driven by training volume because when the volume is equated, there was no significant effect of RT frequency on muscular strength gains.”
- In two open source meta-analyses, Nuckols found that “each additional day of [weekly training] led to 22% more hypertrophy” (Nuckols, 2018) and that for strength, there was no significant differences between training 1-2x a week vs training 3+ times a week for lower body exercises, whereas for upper body exercises, “the higher frequency groups gained strength about 42% faster than the lower frequency groups” (Nuckols, 2018).
So, based on the available evidence and my experience in the field, I would recommend that:
- You start working out each muscle 2-3x a week
- For upper-body muscles, you progress to 3-4x a week while including easy workouts (this lets you add volume without burning out)
- For lower-body muscles, you stay at 2-3x a week while also including easy workouts
With that in mind, here’s a sample progression. For a beginner:
- Mon: full body
- Wed: full body
- Fri: full body
Once that beginner levels up to intermediate:
- Mon: upper body (easy) + lower body (hard)
- Wed: upper body (hard)
- Thur: upper body (easy) + lower body (hard)
- Sat: upper body (hard)
How to Progress Exercise Selection When You Are Training for Size
In my experience, as a beginner, the easiest way to get started is to use machines. They’re safe and easy to use.
After a few weeks of training, when you find you can stick to your program, I would start learning a few multi-joint lifts that work several muscles at the same. Some of the most popular ones are:
- Bench press
- Shoulder press
- Barbell rows
Once you’ve mastered these exercises and your gains have slowed down with them, I recommend adding in new exercises in rotation.
This strategy is based on the idea that if you want to hypertrophy your muscles in full, you should do multiple exercises that stimulate growth in different regions of your muscles (Antonio, 2010).
With that strategy, you add new exercises to your program as you max out old ones. You do the old and the new exercises in rotation, to maintain load on exercises you’ve already maxed out. As you progress on your new exercises, you’ll gradually hypertrophy all regions of your muscles.
Once you’ve mastered a few multi-joint lifts and covered all regions on your muscles with new exercises in rotation, I believe you don’t need to change exercises again. As long as you can perform your current set of exercises without joint pain or incomfort, I would keep the same exercises and focus on increasing load and volume on them over time.
In my experience, trying out new exercises once in a while (that you never return to) only distracts you from your #1 goal: increasing load and volume on your core set of exercises.
Summing Up: Guidelines on How to Progress Your Training for Size
Increase load and volume on a core set of exercises that you perform in rotation. Specifically:
- Load: Increase load every workout for as long as you can. When you can’t anymore, use easy workouts to recover.
- Volume: Add 1-2 sets per body part per week until load drops. Take a step back. This is your maximum recoverable volume.
- Frequency: Start working out each muscle 2-3x a week. Progress to 3-4x a week for upper-body muscles and 2-3x a week for lower-body muscles.
- Exercise selection: Start with machines. Learn a few multi-joint lifts. Add new exercises in rotation as you max out old ones.