Which is more important for muscle growth? Volume or intensity (weight lifted) ?
Hypertrophy, Strength gains. What’s the difference and how to do what? High weight few reps? Lower weight more reps? What’re we to do! Let’s have a nice lil chat about that, shall we? And I’m going to reveal my new fitness approach to help me get those muscle mass gains and strength gains. You with me? Let’s get it.
Dr. Layne Norton recently put out an analysis of the study asking the question “does the number of reps matter for building muscle?”
This is an age-old debate similar to the chicken and the egg situation.
Fewer reps with heavier weight or more reps with lighter weight? Which one’s better for building muscle?
They did a study with three different levels. One is lifting at 90% of your Max weight, meaning if your max weight is 100 you’re lifting 90 pounds for four reps. The next one is 80% of your max for 8 reps, that means 80 pounds for 8 reps. And the last one was 12 reps at 70%.
The point is in each of these cases you’re reaching the point of failure. That’s the idea. In each of these cases it’s the same amount of exertion. It’s just, how are you achieving that exertion? Are you achieving it through fewer reps with heavier weight, or more reps with lighter weight.
But the total wattage output is going to be the same. In any three of those scenarios you’re going to generate the same amount of watts and power.
Yes, so now we know it’s the same wattage of power. So the question is, do you get different results on your muscles?
The study ultimately finds that there’s no real difference between those three groups in terms of overall results.
So what matters then for hypertrophy and strength building?
What matters is the volume, the training volume. And that’s what we’re talking about with total exertion.
So, what's training volume?
Think of training volume as the total exertion.
And you can exert your body in a variety of different ways.
What number of reps do affect, though, is how you build the strength. Specifically, what kind of results you’re going to get.
In one scenario, you’re going to get better strength. In the other scenario, you’re going to get more muscle mass, more bulging muscles.
So in the heavier weights, fewer reps, that is the best way to build strength. ANd so you’re going to get more strength gains from doing that. So if your goal is to increase the amount of weight that you’re lifting, you need to incorporate into your workout heavy weight, few reps, low number of reps.
If your goal is purely just to have bulging muscles, the most efficient way to do that instead is lighter weights, more reps. So a Caroline Girvan program is perfect for that. She does relatively light weights but tons and tons of reps. You’re going to seriously create hypertrophy that way.
The concept of training volume is a bit nebulous so let’s dive deeper according to Dr. Layne’s terminology.
When Layne talks about volume he’s talking about total wattage output. Wattage output is how much you exert yourself, meaning your total exertion. So you could have a huge training volume with little time under tension. And that’s essentially what lifting heavy weights is, with the power rack and barbell. You’re only doing four reps and you bang them out pretty quick. But each of those reps is generating huge power. And you can only do four reps before your muscles say “stop this immediately, are you crazy?” You get to failure pretty quickly with few reps and max load.
Ok what about time under tension?
Time under tension is how much time is there load on your muscles, meaning the duration for which your muscles are under load.
Alright, now let’s talk about why Caroline Girvan’s program is so amazing for hypertrophy, building that muscle mass and increasing the size of your muscles. Caroline’s program is all about time under tension. It’s for 40 minutes to 1 hour straight, with very little break your muscles are constantly under tension, your muscles are constantly under attack. They’re not necessarily heavy weights. You’re not using big heavy barbells, you’re using simple dumbbells that for one rep you could easily lift, even four reps. In her sessions, you’re basically using weight that you could do 12 to 15 reps in each set. So if you can’t do 12 to 15 reps with the weights you’re using for Caroline’s sessions then your weights are too heavy, that’s a good way to tell if you’re using the correct weight that’s still going to challenge you. If you can’t complete one of her sets, complexes, or circuits using the weight you’ve chosen for yourself then it’s too heavy, drop to a lower weight because those muscles are going to be under attack in the session! So you’re using a medium weight, really.
A heavy weight is getting those barbell power rack plates out. It’s insane. You can lift way more than you realize if you train for it. People who squat regularly typically can lift their weight and more. So someone who weighs 130 pounds can squat and deadlift 130 pounds. Again, that’s if they train for it and know the form and build the courage.
So the point is Caroline’s programs, which are some of my absolute favorite programs, are all about time under tension. And time under tension is the best way to build hypertrophy, which means the more time with your muscles under load. It doesn’t have to be extreme load, but the cumulative effect of that time under load, creates an enormous amount of fatigue on the muscle which ultimately generates the majority of your hypertrophy.
Now it’s not necessarily best for gaining strength. What does that mean? It means that you won’t necessarily be progressing using that kind of hypertrophy program. Meaning you won’t necessarily be progressing to heavier weights as fast as you might, if you supplemented with some serious heavy lifting.
And that is what I personally am missing from my current exercise program.
It’s hard to upgrade within her program to heavier weights. Don’t get me wrong, it’s one of my favorite programs and I’m still going to be doing her sessions because I adore them but I need to add some heavy lifting with the barbell.
I’m not saying you should add the barbell, I’m sharing my thoughts about this which are in line with my health and fitness goals.
To be clear, you’re going to be building strength no matter what, on Caroline’s program and other time-under-tension sessions that we love and do. It’s just that if you want to OPTIMIZE for getting to heavier weights you should really be working in the barbell, meaning some heavy plated weights at 4 to 8 reps. Again, Caroline’s program is optimized for hypertrophy, not necessarily for strength. It still generates a huge amount of strength, but it’s not optimized for it, it’s optimized for hypertrophy for building muscle.
Something that I recently became aware of and hadn’t previously known is that just because you have muscle doesn’t mean it’s strong muscle. People utilize the percentage of the muscle differently. For example, someone can have massive muscles, but not use 100% of that muscle mass.
With that, I want to share with you my new and improved hybrid approach to get both hypertrophy and strength gains.
My hybrid approach therefore, to get the best of both, is to alternate from week to week.
Sometimes I find Caroline’s stuff psychologically exhausting and on my CNS, my central nervous system it’s totally exhausting. So doing it weeks and weeks consecutively, even two or three weeks back to back, I don’t have enough time to recover. And more importantly when I’m not fully recovered I cannot go full power or to my max. And with Caroline I like going 90% or 100%, like full on power mode. And like I said I don’t recover well, I can see it in my metrics, if I do it weeks upon weeks. So those are the reasons why I think doing an intense program like that can be problematic if you’re not recovering well. And as much as I would like to be doing her programs and sessions every single week because I enjoy them so much and want to do everything she releases, it might be better for me to do this hybrid approach. I have been doing Caroline’s programs and sessions back-to-back since September 2020. However, I’m starting to see that I have given my body and CNS time to properly recover and I think my CNS is over-taxed. I can see it in my data, and I have a hunch that it has something to do with my sleep efficiency being lower than I’d like, also resulting in bouts of restless sleep. And then it becomes a vicious cycle so it’s time for a change. And that brings me to this new hybrid approach.
Ok, drumroll please, let’s talk about the new hybrid approach.
One full week of Caroline that’s focused on hypertrophy and time under tension. Then the following week I’m going to lift heavy weights and a few reps (meaning 4 to 8 at 80% to 90% of my max) with the barbell. So my heart rate will not be getting that high, but I am getting to muscle failure, I’m just doing that with much heavier weight.
Ok so with the barbell I'm aiming to do 4 to 8 reps each set at 80% to 90% of my max weight. Because I’m fairly new to the barbell, I don’t know what my max rate is yet. The way to figure out max weight is to get a spotter, someone who can help you. For me, it’s going to be hard to figure out my max because I’m brand new to this type of training. Ok so to figure out your max, you get a spotter, then put weights on a plate and see what you can lift. If you can’t lift it at all, then that’s above your max. And you can also tell your max weight with the number of reps you do. For example, if you can do 5 reps with the weight you choose then that’s not your max. If you can do it 5 times, that would be 80% - 90% of your max. After you get past 4 reps with that heavy weight, you’re closer to 80% of your max. So your max weight would be you can only do 1 rep at that weight. Meaning, if you tried to do a second rep, and lift it again, you couldn’t do it, you would not be able to do it. That’s your max.
I recently lifted 95 for squatting and deadlift. That was a lot for me. I’m going to increase the weight if I can next time and see what that feels like. Progress, not perfection!
I’m on the look for a good barbell program. One of my power lifting friends who’s a rockstar and lifting all through her pregnancy, recommended Meg Squat’s program Stronger by the Day. I am going to be doing a trial week of this program and see how I like it.
I haven’t found any dedicated barbell programs on YouTube, if you stumbled across anything please share that with me in the comments. I’d greatly appreciate it :)
So yeah, with the hybrid approach, one full week of Caroline’s program (or something like that) because Caroline covers the full body over the entire week and doing just one or two of her sessions I’d miss out on training the other muscle groups at that caliber. So a full week of Caroline. And then a full week of barbell training the following week. And then back to Caroline and on and on we go.
And I’ll say one more thing on this. Since I do love trying out new trainers and new sessions and types of training, I will still be incorporating that into my current configuration. With the hybrid approach though what I might do is tag on some other trainers during my hypertrophy training with Caroline and/or swap out an entire Caroline week for a full week of full body training with another trainer, so like maybe a week from Sydney Cummings' program or Heather’s or NML’s program but making sure that I target all the muscle groups, not leaving anything out, not even pushups get left behind!
So this is my hybrid approach :) What do you think?
How are you training these days? Share that with the IgnyteFit community in the comments!
Ok, that’s all from me today :) See you in the next IgnyteFit! Ciao for now.