Effort, volume, and load-based training strategies all work. But which is right for you? Here’s everything you need to know.
Previously, I presented three different philosophies for building muscle:
Effort-Based Training: Focus on maximizing the effort (how hard you push each set) to get results from a small number of work sets. Often called low-volume training or High Intensity Training (HIT).
Volume-Based Training: Use a higher number of sets – but not pushed as dramatically hard as with effort-based training – to accumulate enough effective reps to maximize hypertrophy.
Load-Based Training: Use mostly heavy lifting. The goal is to build strength and size equally. Also referred to as powerbuilding.
All three approaches work pretty much equally for hypertrophy. But how well an approach works depends on the situation you’re in and other factors, like your level of training experience.
Which approach should you use? Can you combine more than one approach in a program? Let’s dig in. And remember, all three approaches are part of my Hypertrophy training system.
The effort and volume-based approaches are very effective during a fat loss phase, but for different reasons. Load-based training can also be used, but only until you drop down to around 10% body fat, where lifting heavy becomes more potentially dangerous.
Volume-based training has the advantage of burning more calories. The drawback? When you’re in a caloric deficit caused mostly by food reduction, your capacity to recover from training is decreased. Food is anabolic. More food equals more anabolism through an increase in insulin, IGF-1, mTOR activation, and lower cortisol. More anabolism allows you to build more muscle, repair damage, and recover better. The less food you eat, the less volume training becomes a valid option.
Notice how I said that volume-based training can become problematic if the caloric deficit is mostly from eating less. That’s because not all caloric deficits are the same.
A deficit is when your daily energy expenditure (number of calories burned) exceeds your daily caloric intake (amount of food eaten). The more energy you spend during your day – either through lifting, cardio, or background physical activity – the less you need to reduce food to be in a deficit. The less you need to reduce food, the better you can recover from workouts.
So, volume-based training can be appropriate if food/caloric intake is only slightly reduced and you use exercise and background physical activity to create a more significant deficit. If you reduce food more significantly, volume-based training becomes problematic.
Effort-based training is a more appropriate training option if you use a greater food intake reduction to create a deficit.
The diet used during a fat-loss phase also influences which training strategy to use. If you use a low-carb approach, effort-based training is the better option. Fewer carbs means less muscle glycogen. That decreases the amount of lifting volume you can do with maximum efficacy. If you diet down with more carbs (at least 150-200 grams per day), then the volume-based approach is a valid option.
Effort-based training can be used with any diet, type of caloric deficit, and deficit magnitude. But it’s the best option with low-carb dieting or if the deficit comes mostly from food reduction.
Volume-based training is a good option if you can create a deficit while keeping food and carbs higher. However, it can lead to potential recovery problems (and even muscle loss) when using a large food reduction and low-carb approach.
Load-based training can be used in the earlier phases of a fat-loss plan. When you get really lean (which leads to reduced water retention), you lose the passive stability caused by having more pressure on the joints created by fat, water, and more “inflated” muscle (higher glycogen storage). This loss in passive stability reduces your capacity to lift heavy weights and increases injury risk. If you use a load-based approach during a fat loss phase, consume more salt (as well as creatine) to create some water retention to help with passive stability.
By “bulking,” I’m referring to consuming a significant caloric surplus, like 25% or more above maintenance. Ideally, this should come from quality foods, not junk foods. Consuming a caloric surplus helps any lifting program produce better results, including these three approaches.
However, load-based and volume-based benefit the most from a large surplus:
Load-based benefits from the added water retention, glycogen storage, and even fat gain – all of these improve passive joint stability and, therefore, heavy lifting. And since it also has a decent amount of volume, it requires more fuel than the effort-based approach.
Volume-based training requires more fuel, and it’s harder to recover from. A higher caloric intake also lowers cortisol, which is normally more elevated during a high-volume routine. Plus, a higher volume of work, due to its higher energy expenditure, helps somewhat limit fat gain from a big caloric surplus.
“Maingaining” refers to trying to build muscle without adding a significant amount of fat. It’s the step between recomping (attempting to lose fat and build muscle simultaneously) and bulking. And while it probably isn’t the best option to build a maximum amount of muscle, it’s still a lot better than recomping, which is rarely successful unless you’re a newbie or steroid user.
Maingaining relies on eating at a maintenance level on average. This can either be done by eating at maintenance every day of the week or including days where you consume a small deficit, a small surplus, or a maintenance level so that it still averages out to maintenance over the week. In this situation, all three approaches can be used, each with benefits and drawbacks:
Effort-based training is adequate because a higher volume of work requires a higher food intake. Since you’re eating at maintenance, a lower volume of work is easier to recover from and progress smoothly. The drawback? The lower volume of work leads to less energy expenditure, which may make it a bit easier to gain fat. That’s why it’s smart to add some low-intensity cardio into the mix.
Volume-based training has a slightly higher energy expenditure, which helps minimize fat gain and helps with maingaining. However, it’s possible that the lower food intake will make it harder to sustain that training approach for more than a few weeks. After that, progression becomes more difficult.
Load-based training can be used in this situation, too, but it’s my least favorite approach. It can be used when maingaining at a moderate or high body fat level, but not when you’re already shredded.
Eating maintenance every day of the week? Go with effort-based training.
Using a calorie or carb-cycling approach? Go with volume-based training and eat more on workout days.
Recomping – losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time – is extremely hard for a non-gifted, natural lifter to pull off. I don’t recommend it if gaining muscle is your priority. Most people who try to “recomp” end up losing fat and maintaining muscle. They look better, but they didn’t really build any muscle.
Want to try it anyway? Fine.
Over the course of the week, your caloric intake needs to be in a small deficit. Ideally, do this by having days where you eat at maintenance, days where you’re in a slight deficit, and one day a week where you’re in a slight surplus:
- 3 days per week eating at maintenance (on three of your training days)
- 3 days per week eating a slight deficit (on off days where you do cardio/conditioning)
- 1 day per week eating a slight surplus (on your most important workout day)
Which training approach is best? Considering the lower food intake, use effort-based training and cardio (on their own days). The effort-based approach is easier to recover from, and low-intensity cardio won’t interfere with your gains while allowing you to lose some fat.
The two best options for the person who strictly wants to improve his physique while also practicing a sport are effort-based training or a lower-volume load-based approach.
For the latter, stick to four exercises per workout: one main lift and one main assistance (both trained heavy), and two minor assistance exercises – targeted work for the muscles involved in the main lift.
Practicing a sport, especially something physical like MMA, a few times per week adds to the overall training stress. Doing a lot of lifting volume is very likely going to be hard to recover from and could lead to stagnation and even regression. It also negatively affects sports performance. So, the goal is to get a proper hypertrophy stimulus with minimal lifting volume to favor recovery.
Effort-based training offers something important to a beginner: learning how to train hard. However, a volume-based approach is, overall, a better course of action for several reasons:
More volume means more practice – practice for the movements and practice contracting your muscles.
Because of lower neurological efficiency, it’s harder for beginners to perform truly effective reps. As such, they need more sets to accumulate enough of these effective reps for maximum growth.
Beginners are weaker and can’t use as much weight. Volume with lighter work is less systemically stressful than volume with heavy weights.
More volume improves work capacity. This is important for beginners, especially those without a sports background.
I recommend a volume-based approach for beginners. After a few months of training, once they’ve developed a good mind-muscle connection and movement efficiency, they can switch to an effort-based plan to add the “capacity to train hard” to their skill set.
People under a lot of stress, physical (hard labor job) or mental (nagging wife), have a lower capacity to handle training volume. Stress is stress. The more non-training stress you’re under, the less training stress you can have. So, an effort-based approach is best.
Mixing effort-based and volume-based training is a hard no, but load-based can be combined with effort-based. My Best Damn Strength Plan for Natural Lifters is one example.
Load-based and volume-based are easy to combine. Generally, do your primary work (main lift and main assistance lift) with load-based training. Do your minor assistance work with a volume-based approach.
Yes, you can. That’s the best way to use a combination of all three approaches: use them in a periodized manner. That’s how I designed my new Hypertrophy program: doing an 18-week training cycle with three blocks of six weeks. Each block uses one approach.
Does the order matter? Simply alternating the programs works great, but you can arrange them in a specific order to suit your situation:
For beginners, use this sequence:
Volume Based – Effort Based – Load Based
Effort Based – Volume Based – Load Based
For advanced lifters, I use a slightly different approach. The main difference is to do four-week phases rather than six weeks, and have four of them instead of three:
Effort Based – Volume Based – Effort Based – Load Based