I stumbled across your site about 6 weeks ago and read the articles concerning low volume training. I was a little unsure about the approach, but I figured I'd give it a try. It's now 5 weeks later, and I've seen faster strength gains than I have in years along with a much faster recovery time! You've made a believer out of me!! :) I used to do 5 sets per exercise (1 warm-up, 3 progressive sets and one exhaustion set), and I never saw the results I'm getting now. I'm curious as to what recommendations you can offer for effectively building muscle mass? In the "old days," I would go with 5-6 sets of progressives, lowering the reps as I increased the weight and no exhaustion set. Would something similar apply in a low volume version? Thanks again for all of the great work and informative information you have provided to us all!
Thank you for your kind words on the ExRx site. Important practices for building muscle mass include varied workouts, proper diet, and objective progress assessments.
Your diet will be paramount in your goal of muscle mass gain. There is a very fine line between eating enough calories and eating too many. Also, make sure you are consuming enough quality protein and unrefined carbohydrates throughout the day. See Dietary Guidelines.
Regular changes to your weight training program will be vital for continued progress independent of your goals.
Continue to change your exercises every month or two but favor heavy basic exercises. Choose auxiliary exercises sparingly. In the context of a split program, an additional auxiliary exercise is appropriate for a second exercise for larger muscles groups or for "weaker", or under par muscles. The problem many people fall into is classifying all their body parts as "weak" and end up include too many exercises or sets. Continue to limit your weight training workouts to one hour or less.
Within an individual, strength is highly correlated to muscular size. Muscular hypertrophy should not be expected if you continue to us the same old 50 lb dumbbells workout after workout, month after month. You must strive to ultimately increase your strength for maximum muscle gains. For a beginner, resistance can be increased quite frequently whenever a certain number of repetitions are achieved. Periodically changing exercises typically allows for continued progress for a number of years. Advanced weight trainee's increases typically occur far less frequently. Strength and subsequent lean body weight gains occur more rapidly with diverse workouts. This can be accomplished by slight or gradual alterations in the other workout variables.
An analogy can be made between exercise progression and climbing a mountain. Our ascent begins quite easily with only periodic deviations in direction. As we climb higher the terrain becomes steadily steeper. Climbing further toward the summit requires more frequent alterations in direction; slightly to the left then a bit to the right. Sometimes we can climb fast, other times more slow, and every once in a while we may even need to descend slightly in order to climb to a higher level. Many years ago, I used to make a similar analogy with a frog jumping across a pond on lily pads, but for some reason it did not make the same impact :-/
Even with these deviations, do not stray too far from your major goal. For example, if your goal is just muscular size, there would be little value in performing 50 repetitions (or 5 sets) for an endurance day and plyometrics for a power day. Instead make subtle variations from workout to workout. The transfer of muscular endurance or power to strength, and subsequent muscle mass gains may be diminished if the variations are too drastic. Also see Interdependence of Performance Fitness Components.
Strength gains are greater with altered workload every workout compared to alterations in workload every month (Rhea 2002). Scheduled varying workloads based on percentages of a one repetition maximum (1RM) can be used for experienced lifters, but beginners can make faster progress by increasing workloads every time they can perform an upper repetition range (eg.: 8-12 reps).
Alternatively, the repetition speed or recovery periods between sets may also be varied. Again be sure to strategically place workouts with more normalized repetitions speeds and rests between sets for a carryover to strength.
Even when following a low volume program, variations in training volume can still be considered if planned properly. More sets, by its self, may only yield marginal, if any greater improvements in strength and muscle growth. On the other hand, varying the number of sets periodically may allow for opportunities of incremental strength and muscle mass gains. After adapting to an additional set(s), strength will increase when fewer sets are later performed. This transfer of muscular endurance to strength can even be observed with single set training; progressively performing more repetitions until an upper range is reached, weight can then be increased with a subsequent decrease in reps. You will find you will have to decrease intensity somewhat what during higher volume training periods. This is acceptable as long as it is ultimately followed by a period of higher intense, lower volume training. During higher volume periods, still choose the lowest number of sets variations (eg.: one set difference), monitor overtraining symptoms closely, and implement recovery workouts accordingly.
A similar strategy can be used by adding an additional exercise temporarily, particularly when targeting a "weak" or under par muscle group. Typically this involves adding an additional auxiliary exercise (for muscular endurance) after your basic exercise (for strength and muscle mass). Pre-exhaust is an alternative advanced technique where an isolated exercise is performed directly preceding a compound exercise for the same muscle group, typically in a super set fashion with minimal rest between the two exercises. A strength transfer can be achieved when the pre-exhaust is ceased. To avoid overtraining, perform these more advanced techniques only periodically and sparingly. The order of the exercises in a workout can also be altered somewhat to achieve a similar effect.
You may also choose to specialize on a particular "weak" or under par muscle by changing the order in which you preform your exercises. Choose a split program that you can place your under par muscles a closer to the beginning of the workout since you are typically stronger earlier into your workout.
Monitor your progress objectively. Find someone who can take your body composition (7 site skinfold measurements) every month or two, ideally someone who is very experienced with this procedure. Make sure they take at least 2 if not 3 skinfold measurement from each site (see techniques). Take an accurate body weight at the same time of day each time you test so you may more accurately calculate and compare lean weight and fat weight along with your body composition over time. On this same day you may also want the tester to take circumference measurements of various body parts (eg.: chest, waist, arm, thigh calf, etc.). If you are not making lean body weight increases or gaining too much body fat, trouble shoot your program and make the appropriate changes to your program right away. Continue with these changes until your next body comp test.
Any program will lose its effectiveness over time. A beginner and intermediate exerciser may only need to change exercises periodically for continued muscular development. Advanced exercisers will need to incorporate more complex variations in intensity, volume, recovery, and exercise programming. Adjust your diet and exercise practices in accordance to regular assessments of fat and fat free body mass.