What’s best for size gains? Effort, load, or volume-based training? Here’s everything you need to know.
Note: We looked at effort-based hypertrophy training in Part 1 of this series. In Part II, we took a deep dive into volume-based training. Now, let’s examine the load-based approach to building muscle. All three, by the way, are part of my new Hypertrophy training system.
I’ve worked with thousands of clients, so I know what people want from their training. Building muscle and losing fat are the top two goals, but not far behind is getting stronger.
You can and should get stronger as you’re building muscle. Combining strength and hypertrophy works well. This combo goal is often called “powerbuilding.” I call it load-based training. Here’s how to apply it and why you might want to use it either as your main lifting approach or as part of a training cycle.
Load is the average weight used on the work sets of an exercise. In scientific literature, they use the term “intensity” – a percentage of your 1RM or 1-rep max. But intensity can be confusing because most gym rats equate intensity to effort, not to the weight used. So, I use “load” to make it easier to understand.
Load-based training is where you perform a good portion of your exercises with heavy weights (80-95% of 1RM). The goal is to add weight to the bar every week (or at another set frequency) either through progressive overload or a programmed reduction in reps per set to allow you to use heavier weights.
There are several ways to do load-based training, but the most common is using one main lift per workout, trained for maximal strength using a gradual load progression throughout the training cycle. The main lifts are typically bench press, squat, deadlift, and military press.
Then, you do one primary assistance exercise to strengthen a weaker part of that lift. This assistance exercise is also trained for strength.
Next, you do hypertrophy work for the muscles involved in the main lift. This work is also trained with fairly low reps (5-8).
Let’s review the “effective reps theory” of muscle growth. It’s based on accumulating enough volume of effective reps to trigger growth. An effective rep is a repetition that significantly stimulates muscle growth. To be effective, a rep must:
Recruit a large number of fast-twitch fibers, which have the greatest growth potential.
Reach a point in the set where speed during the concentric/lifting portion is slow despite pushing as hard as possible. This maximizes tension in the recruited fibers.
During traditional lifting, the fast-twitch fibers are recruited when a very high level of effort is required to overcome a resistance. This can be either because the weight is heavy or because accumulated fatigue during the set makes you weaker, thus making the weight feel heavier and requiring greater effort. (Lifting explosively also targets fast-twitch fibers, but explosive work provides lower tension, so it’s not very effective for hypertrophy.)
The fast-twitch fibers come into play when the load represents over 80% of your maximum at the beginning of the rep. Using weights 80% of your true max creates fatigue during the set. You fatigue by around 3-4% per rep during a set of 6-15 reps. Also, once the load reaches that 80%-plus range, speed is fairly slow, causing both conditions to trigger growth.
For example, if the weight on the bar is 70% and you go to failure, your set looks like this:
- Rep 1 feels like 70% (no fatigue)
- Rep 2 feels like 73%
- Rep 3 feels like 76%
- Rep 4 feels like 80%
- Rep 5 feels like 83%
- Rep 6 feels like 87%
- Rep 7 feels like 91%
- Rep 8 feels like 95%
- Rep 9 feels like 99%
- Rep 10 is failure
Only reps 5-10 stimulate hypertrophy.
Now, if you start your set at 85%, it looks something like this:
- Rep 1 feels like 85%
- Rep 2 feels like 88%
- Rep 3 feels like 92%
- Rep 4 feels like 96%
- Rep 5 feels like 100%
In this case, all reps are effective at stimulating growth.
If you’re using heavy weights (85-100%), all the reps trigger growth. As such, getting the maximal hypertrophy stimulus from low reps/heavy weights training is perfectly feasible.
Good question. Some powerlifters and Olympic lifters don’t have big muscles, right?
For powerlifters, it’s due to an insufficient volume of effective reps. For example, the maximal effort method (performing 3 heavy singles up to your max for the day) might provide you with 3-5 total effective reps. That’s not enough by itself to promote growth. That’s why powerlifters using the Westside Barbell approach use assistance work to build muscle.
Russian programs like the Sheiko approach provide a high number of total reps per lift in a workout (up to 30 reps of bench press, squat, or deadlift). However, this system uses mostly submaximal weights (70-80%) with the main goal of optimizing technical and neurological efficiency. This training style might also be insufficient to accumulate enough effective reps per muscle to get max growth – at 70-80%, “only” 15-20 of the 30 reps would be “effective.”
Powerlifting plans that focus almost exclusively on the competition lifts include very little assistance work. The big lifts by themselves aren’t the best options for building muscle because the work is divided over many different muscles. This allows you to lift more weight but not fully stimulate any specific muscle. (See my Not the King series for more info.)
For Olympic lifters, the nature of the lifts makes them inefficient for building muscle. Explosive movements provide less tension, greatly reducing their impact on muscular development. These movements are also pretty much devoid of eccentric/negative tension, again reducing the growth stimulus.
This doesn’t, in any way, mean that you can’t build muscle with heavy work. It’s just a matter of accumulating enough effective reps by combining the big lifts and assistance work.
Goal: Gradually increase the weight used every 1-3 weeks.
Mean of progression: Combine organic increases in weight/progressive overload (adding weight and keeping the same reps when a load is too easy) and a programmed increase (lowering the reps to allow for more weight). I’ll provide examples below.
Number of exercises: Do 4-6 exercises per workout.
Number of work sets per exercise: Typically around 3-6 sets for the big lifts and 2-3 for the hypertrophy work.
Type of exercises: Usually, one big lift, one multi-joint assistance with a greater focus on adding weight, and then 2-4 single-joint or machine exercises for the muscles involved in the big lift.
Rest periods: Use longer rest periods (3-4 minutes) on the load-dominant lifts to maximize performance. Use shorter rest periods (2 minutes) for the hypertrophy work.
Effort level: Normally, leave 2 reps in reserve. Proximity to failure is less important with heavy loads.
Training splits: Use a lift-specific split, which can also take the form of a body part split:
- Day 1: Squat Day (squat, quads, glutes, hamstrings, biceps)
- Day 2: Bench Day (bench, pecs, delts, triceps, rear delts/mid back)
- Day 3: Deadlift Day (deadlift, glutes, hamstrings, traps, lower back)
- Day 4: Military Press Day (military press, delts, triceps, rear delts/mid back)
Note: Biceps aren’t important to the squat, but we have to put them somewhere. Deadlift day works, too.
Or use a lift-specific + gap workout split:
- Day 1: Squat Day (squat, quads, glutes, hamstrings)
- Day 2: Bench Day (bench, pecs, delts, triceps)
- Day 3: Deadlift Day (deadlift, glutes, hamstrings)
- Day 4: Military Press (military press, delts, rear delts)
- Day 5: Gap Workout (biceps, triceps, rear delts, traps, abs)
Increases strength and hypertrophy: To be fair, any properly performed hypertrophy program leads to strength gains, even if it’s an indirect effect. However, with load-based training, we have an equivalent improvement in neurological and muscular factors – strength and size gains simultaneously.
Makes subsequent training phases more effective: A recent study looked at two different eight-week training protocols. (1) The first one was eight weeks of traditional hypertrophy training. The second used a three-week strength phase (heavy weights for 1-3 reps/set) and then the same hypertrophy program as group 1, but for five weeks.
The group doing the strength work first gained not only more strength (big surprise) but also more muscle mass than the group doing only hypertrophy. That’s likely because the improved neurological factors during the strength phase improved fast-twitch recruitment and allowed the subjects to use a greater load for their hypertrophy work, creating more tension and, thus, more growth stimulus.
Improves neuromuscular efficacy: Strength work develops the capacity of the nervous system to send a strong activation signal to the muscles. A stronger signal means recruiting the growth-prone, fast-twitch fibers is easier.
Provides future “protection” against central fatigue: The capacity to send a stronger signal also protects you against central fatigue. Central fatigue is a protective mechanism of your body. The body protects itself against perceived harm (discomfort and pain) by reducing the strength of the excitatory drive to the muscles, reducing their capacity to perform. If you have a nervous system that sends a stronger signal, it’ll be less affected by any potential inhibition. This improves work capacity and reduces the neurological stress from lifting.
Improves muscle tone: This is more of an observation: lifters who use heavier weights and include strength work have a “harder” looking physique and higher muscle tone even at rest. “Pumpers” look softer and smaller at rest but blow up like balloons when training.
It’s motivating because you see the weekly progression: Strength is gained faster than size. More precisely, you notice strength gains more easily. Muscle growth is very slow for the non-beginner natural lifter. Gaining 0.5 to 1 pound of muscle in a month is extremely good. That amount of muscle spread over the whole body is hardly noticeable. It takes several months to confirm that what you’re doing is working. With a load-based program, you’re adding weight at frequent intervals, proving that what you’re doing is working.
Higher injury risk: Load-base training isn’t dangerous, but heavier loads represent a higher risk of injury than lighter loads, at least when performed at a similar effort level.
Requires that you already have good, stable technique: “Stable” is the keyword. Only use weights with which you can maintain proper form. Doing heavy work with poor technique is dangerous.
More demanding on the nervous system, tendons, and joints: Not every lifter is structurally built for strength. Individuals with more frail bone structures, smaller joints, and weaker tendons are at greater risk when doing load-based training.
Less of a pump: The pump isn’t a big factor for growth, but to many people, not getting a pump hurts their motivation and enjoyment, which could hurt the quality of their workouts.
Longer workouts: This is because of the fairly high volume, fairly high number of work sets (especially on the main lift), higher number of required warm-up sets, and longer rest periods. That’s why I limit exercises to four for load-based training.
Tendency to overdevelop the dominant muscles: When performing the big lifts, you’ll bias the muscles best suited for the job. For example, if your delts and triceps dominate your pecs, these two muscles do more work and keep getting more dominant, leaving the pecs lagging. This is even more true when using heavy weights. You can force yourself to use your lagging muscles more when using lighter resistance. But the heavier you go (or the closer to failure you get), the more your body will switch to its “default setting” and switch the work to the dominant muscles. This understimulates the more stubborn muscles.
With load-based training, progression is via an increase in weight. You increase the weights used with a combination of progressive overload and a planned reduction in reps per set.
When we reduce the number of reps in a set, we often increase the number of sets to keep the same amount of (or more) effective reps. That’s the main difference between load-based training and powerlifting. In powerlifting, we typically keep the same number of work sets or even decrease them as we lower the reps (to recover and peak better for a competition). Load-based training still aims to maximize muscle growth, so you can’t lower the number of effective reps during a cycle.
Here’s an example of an intermediate’s 12-week cycle consisting of three blocks of four weeks:
Week 1 = 3 sets of 8 reps (work sets)
Week 2 = 3 x 8 with a bit more weight
Week 3 = 3 x 8 with a bit more weight
Week 4 = 3 x 8 with a bit more weight
Week 5 = 4 sets of 5 reps (work sets)
Week 6 = 4 x 5 with a bit more weight
Week 7 = 4 x 5 with a bit more weight
Week 8 = 4 x 5 with a bit more weight
Week 9 = 5 sets of 3 reps (work sets)
Week 10 = 5 x 3 with a bit more weight
Week 11 = 5 x 3 with a bit more weight
Week 12 = 5 x 3 with a bit more weight
Week 1 = 3 sets of 8-10 reps (work sets)
Week 2 = 3 x 8-10 with a bit more weight
Week 3 = 3 x 8-10 with a bit more weight
Week 4 = 3 x 8-10 with a bit more weight
Week 5 = 3 sets of 6-8 reps (work sets)
Week 6 = 3 x 6-8 with a bit more weight
Week 7 = 3 x 6-8 with a bit more weight
Week 8 = 3 x 6-8 with a bit more weight
Week 9 = 4 sets of 4-6 reps (work sets)
Week 10 = 4 x 4-6 with a bit more weight
Week 11 = 4 x 4-6 with a bit more weight
Week 12 = 4 x 4-6 with a bit more weight
An advanced lifter’s plan would look similar but incorporate some cluster sets.
Load-based training uses the least amount of special methods. Set-extension methods, like drop sets, just aren’t needed because the weights are heavy and the volume is decently high, so it’s already easy to get enough effective reps.
The most effective special methods for load-based training allow you to get enough effective reps with very heavy weights without adding sets. You have two options:
Clusters: Use clusters to get 5-6 reps in a set using a weight with which you could normally only get 2-3 reps. Clusters refer to performing your set as a series of singles with 20-40 seconds of rest between reps. You’ll get more effective reps: lots of fast-twitch fiber recruitment and muscle tension due to the slower movement speed.
Heavy rest/pause: Using a load that allows for 3-5 reps, perform 6-8 reps using 15-second breaks:
- Do 5 reps
- Rest 15 seconds
- Do 2 reps
- Rest 15 seconds
- Do 1 rep
For best results, have a day of rest prior to the heaviest workouts. This maximizes your recovery, giving you the best chance of turning in a great performance. I like a Monday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday schedule with the most demanding workouts performed on the first three days.
Because of the high stress provided by the fairly high volume of heavy work, as well as the potentially long workouts, use a minimal assistance-exercise selection. Do assistance only for the lagging muscles. Your stronger muscles will dominate in the heavy lifts and receive enough stimulation.
I typically use six exercises in a workout with load-based training but don’t hesitate to use only four, especially if you find yourself shutting down and losing focus/motivation at the end of a session.
Avoid cutting your rest periods for the heavy work (main lift and primary assistance). If you need to save time, either cut rest periods only for the minor assistance work, do the minor assistance work as supersets, or even drop some of that work. Reducing rest periods on the main lifts (or removing warm-up sets) leads to poor performance on the heavy work – the most important part.
In the last part of this series, I’ll discuss which style (effort, volume, or load-based training) is best for you, how to periodize all three into a longer training cycle, and more. And remember, all three are part of my three-phase Hypertrophy training program. Feel free to ask questions below or in my Community Coaching Forum.