The Secret Ingredient to Muscle Growth: It's Not Just Volume, It's YouFeb 01, 2024
Training for muscle hypertrophy is a topic that fascinates me deeply, and if you’re reading this I will assume you share that fascination.
However, the journey to achieving this goal is not as straightforward as it might seem, or you wouldn’t still be reading. Whether you're a seasoned bodybuilder, a fitness enthusiast, or someone just starting out, my goal with this article is to delve into the nuanced relationship between training volume and muscle growth.
It's a common misconception these days, looking at the current online debates and content, that more training always leads to better results, or that less effort is insufficient for growth.
The reality is far more complex and individualized.
So I’d like to delve deeper into the contrasting training philosophies of legendary bodybuilders like Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman, some relevant scientific findings, and explore the dynamic interplay of factors that you probably haven’t considered could contribute meaningfully to your muscle building success.
I will attempt to provide a "missing link" in the dynamic interplay of training variables - volume, intensity, and frequency - and how they interact with personal factors like genetic makeup, personality traits, and individual responses to training.
Let's begin by exploring one of the most debated topics: the impact of training volume on muscle growth.
Training Volume and Muscle Hypertrophy
The relationship between training volume and muscle hypertrophy is not a straightforward one. It's a dynamic interplay where more isn't always better, and less isn't necessarily insufficient. The key lies in understanding how our bodies respond to different training stimuli and adapting accordingly.
Consider the two ends of the spectrum: low-volume, high-intensity training versus high-volume, moderate-intensity training.
This is simply a false dichotomy, as both ends of the spectrum and everything in between have their place in a well-rounded program, but their effectiveness can vary greatly depending on the individual.
Some just thrive on the intensity of pushing their limits in fewer sets, finding that their muscles respond best when training close to failure.
Others might see better results from a higher volume of work, even if it means not every set is taken to the brink of muscle failure.
I get e-mails and messages daily from people who can’t figure out this seemingly unsolvable conundrum of training volume and intensity.
What usually doesn’t work is trying to find the answer online, thinking that if you want to look like your favorite bodybuilder or fitness idol you should just copy what they’re doing.
Understanding the theory behind training volume and muscle growth provides a foundation, but examining real-world examples, such as the contrasting approaches of successful bodybuilders can offer some insights - but not the kind of insight most people think it offers...
This started way back in the 70s-80s with Mike Mentzer vs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former known for low volume/low frequency (I’m not talking about the craziness he promoted at the end of his career), the latter known for some pretty insane 2+ hour, 2-a-day workouts:
Now I’ll admit, these can only show us how vastly different training approaches can work, but in more recent times there is a more relevant example to this discussion:
Dorian Yates vs. Ronnie Coleman.
Dorian did 4 workouts per week at the peak of his career.
Day 1: Shoulders, trapezius, triceps, abs
Day 2: Back
Day 3: Rest or cardio
Day 4: Chest, biceps, abs
Day 5: Rest or cardio
Day 6: Legs
Day 7: Rest or cardio
According to Yates, he did 2 "warm-up" sets (or more) per exercise and then a single working set. The “working set” was often done with inhuman intensity, employing forced reps, negative reps, dropsets and partial reps.
Here’s an example of his back workout, working sets only:
- Underhand Pulldown or Machine Pullover: 1 set 8-10 reps
- Bent-over (Yates) Row: 1 set 8-10 reps
- Dumbbell Bent-over Row: 1 set 8-10 reps
- Cable Seated Row: 1 set 8-10 reps
- Rear-Delt Hammer Strength Flyes: 1 set 8-10 reps
- Dumbbell bent-over lateral raise: 1 set 8-10 reps
- Back Extension: 1 set 10-12 reps
- Deadlift: 1 set 8 reps
The back is comprised of several muscle groups, so the number of "working" sets for each individual muscle is on the order of 4-6 sets, depending on how you count volume (rows will hit lats and biceps, pulldowns will hit some upper back muscles and biceps etc etc.
Now let’s look at Mr Light Weight Babyyyyy:
Here was his exact split:
- Day 1: Back/Biceps/Shoulders (focus: back thickness)
- Day 2: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, and Calves
- Day 3: Chest and Triceps
- Day 4: Back, Biceps, and Shoulders (focus: back width)
- Day 5: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, and Calves
- Day 6: Chest, Triceps, Calves, and Abs
- Day 7: Rest
- Deadlifts: 4 sets of 6-12 reps
- Barbell Rows: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
- T-Bar Rows: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
- 1-Arm Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
- Barbell Rows: 5 sets of 10-12 reps
- Seated Cable Row: 4 sets of 10-12 reps
- Machine Pulldown: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
- Front Pulldown (underhand): 3 sets of 10-12 reps
While the frequency per muscle group was higher, here is where it gets interesting:
Ronnie Coleman’s was pyramiding up to a heavy top set - so Dorian’s "warm-up" sets could be counted as fairly equal to Ronnie’s "working" sets.
This essentially means that the volume isn’t all that different if you control for proximity to failure on each set. Now, Dorian’s training frequency - both per muscle group and in terms of sessions per week was much lower - but the point wasn’t to show that both are doing the same thing, just that the differences between their training programs might not be as dramatic as they seem on the surface.
Even if this analysis was interesting, I just want to emphasize that we shouldn’t necessarily try to emulate or copy any of these approaches, or whatever our bodybuilding or fitness idols are doing.
Not only do these specimens have elite genetics and insane work ethic, but they also use substantial dosages of PEDs (anabolic steroids and growth hormone).
That being said, if we assume that they are working off of equal ground in terms of genes and pharmaceuticals, the takeaway from their training success is this:
They have figured out what works best for THEM, and you should go through the same process if you want to be successful.
"Well, then how about we go look at the research?" you might ask.
The answer is that it’s not much better if you don’t understand how to interpret and contextualize it and apply it to an individual.
Individual Differences in Training
Here’s how scientific studies are performed:
- Find a representable cohort of people with no, some, or a lot of training experience (the definition of "trained lifter" can be blurry here)
- Randomly allocate them to 2-3 groups (rarely more to avoid noise in the data) doing different training protocols - trying to not introduce too many variables at once. I.e. if a study is varying both rep ranges, rest periods, and volume, how do we determine what variable is the determining factor?
- Run the study for 8-24 weeks (longer studies are too expensive)
- Collect the relevant data, measuring muscle growth through various means with highly variable error margins
- Use statistical and mathematical wizardry to tease out the differences between groups, because they are sometimes not immediately apparent. And we need funding to do more research, so we can’t just say "it all works the same", right?
- Conclude what the most effective training protocol is, based on criteria that sometimes had to be altered after the fact, in order for the data to show any difference whatsoever.
Consider all the noise, errors, and flawed assumptions that can be introduced at each of these steps, and also that the range of responses can vary from someone LOSING muscle to someone gaining a LOT of muscle, the outliers - and the average tells us close to nothing about what works for you and me. Are you the one losing muscle or the outlier? No way to tell without actually trying it out for yourself.
Look at the following illustration, demonstrating individual responses to the same training program:
On average, 10% gains is pretty good, so we should all be doing this training protocol, right? The truth is that there are 8 hyperresponders who are pulling the average up. Most lifters are only around 5%, and there are 8 participants who either lost muscle (!) or barely gained anything (what is referred to as “statistically insignificant”).
So should those bottom 8 let their training be dictated on the top 8? In reality, this is usually what happens when you read the study conclusions and then go off and set up your training program accordingly.
I have built a reputation for getting those bottom 8 results they didn’t even believe was possible, but figuring out just what these people need is both an art and a science.
Compare that to a within-subject design where each subject is their own control, such as in this study (1) where one leg did multiple sets (3) and the other leg did single sets:
- The leftmost grey dot is a subject who gained +1.8% on the leg doing multiple sets but lost -1.8% on the leg doing single sets.
- The rightmost black dot gained +8% on multiple sets but +11.5% on single-set training.
The interesting takeaway here isn’t whether high or low volume works better on an individual level, which it obviously did, but that the difference between subjects was 40x greater than the difference between higher and lower volumes of training.
The complexity of interpreting research leads us directly to the heart of why individual differences play a critical role in training outcomes:
- Genetic Makeup: Just like we all have unique fingerprints, our genetic composition plays a significant role in how our bodies respond to training. Some people might have a genetic predisposition that allows them to gain muscle more easily, while others may find it more challenging.
Training Experience: An individual's history with training also shapes their response. Beginners often see rapid progress, commonly known as 'newbie gains', whereas experienced lifters might have to put in more effort for smaller improvements.
Lifestyle Factors: Factors such as diet, sleep quality, and stress levels can dramatically influence training outcomes. Good nutrition and adequate rest can enhance muscle growth, while poor habits can impede it.
Biological Variations: We all have different hormone levels, metabolic rates, and muscle fiber compositions. These biological variations mean that a training program yielding excellent results for one person might not be as effective for another.
Study Limitations: Scientific studies give us general guidelines, but they often cannot account for the vast array of individual differences. Most studies use average results from groups of people, which might not apply to everyone.
Personal Preferences and Motivation: Finally, individual preferences in exercise types, routines, and motivations play a significant role. Enjoying your workout routine is crucial for long-term adherence and success. We’ll get back to this one, as it’s important.
Understanding these individual differences is key to realizing why there's no one-size-fits-all approach in training. What works for one person might not work for another, making personalization important for optimal results.
Now, let’s look at the interplay between volume, intensity, and frequency.
Balancing Training Variables
When it comes to training, there are 3 main variables:
- Volume (how many sets and reps)
- Intensity (the load you are lifting, but also how close to failure you’re training)
- Frequency (how often you train this muscle group/movement)
There’s an interplay between them, where balancing these three variables is key in a productive training program. One or two of these can be high at the same time, but not all three - that’s a recipe for disaster.
My "Training Volume Redux" conclusions from both the current evidence, my own almost 3 decades of training and coaching clients, and discussing this with both great coaches and professional natural bodybuilders - some of which you can see on my YouTube-channel - is the following:
- Proximity to failure needs to be taken into account before we can even begin to discuss the number of sets. This is what my Effective Reps Model is based on - you get a more effective growth stimulus out of each set the closer to failure to train.
- If we predefine a "hard" set as within 0-1RIR, 1 set provides about 50% of the maximal growth stimulus for a muscle group in a session (no, don’t ask me for a study reference quoting this exact number, it’s a qualified extrapolation from pretty much all relevant studies).
- You need 4-6 sets to get close to 100%, i.e. each set provides marginally less until it begins to taper off into a point of diminishing returns beyond that. Which essentially means that you need an additional 3-5 sets to get the same added stimulus (50%) as the first single set.
If you leave 1-4 reps in reserve, you can probably double that volume to 8-12 sets, but that doesn’t mean you will get more muscle growth. Each additional set may induce more fatigue in proportion to the stimulus it generates, and you may have constraints preventing you from optimally growing and recovering from the volume you just did.
I provide more nuance in my previous article The Muscle Growth Plateau: A Troubleshooting Guide - highly recommended read when you’re finished with this one.
The main takeaway is that in theory, you will get the same growth out of a few hard sets as several easier sets, but in practice, this might not always pan out.
1. There’s a fatigue cost to doing more work since you’re also doing several reps in the first part of each set to get to the most growth-promoting reps in the last part of each set, and...
2. You need to recover from fatigue to be able to stimulate that muscle to grow again - which ties in with training frequency.
I’ve personally experimented across the spectrum of 1 hard set to failure on a 3x/week full-body split to 10-20 less hard sets 1-2x/week on a so-called "bro-split", and concluded that everything works to some degree - but not for everyone, all the time.
Knowing how to adjust training variables is crucial, but achieving long-term success also requires an understanding of how our personality traits influence our training preferences and motivations.
Personality Traits and Training Preferences
Now, I’ve made a career out of figuring out what works best on an individual basis, so even if a wide range of volume, intensity and frequency can work for most lifters for many months or years of their training careers, I am convinced that we need to look at people as "unique snowflakes" to move past the intermediate stages.
As outlined in The Last Program, I recommend a step-wise, systematic process of starting at a low volume and higher frequency, and then gradually increasing volume while reducing frequency, closely tracking progress and adjusting accordingly.
There are many nuances involved that are beyond the scope of this article, many of which have been covered in other articles and on my content on Instagram.
The point is that sure - we’re all flesh and bones, and that flesh just contracts against a load. The degree of stress from the tension induced inside the muscle fiber will induce adaptations to better tolerate that stress if it happens again - aka muscle growth.
But the organism where that muscle resides is a complex entity where perceptions and the neurochemistry of the individual psychology also play a major role. Now, I’m not saying you should "embrace your feelings", because feelings are most of the time unreliable since we’re so full of biases.
The brain, responsible for coordinating and sending nerve impulses to the muscle is also getting a barrage of feedback from nociceptors responding to tension, pressure, stretch, temperature, and all kinds of sensory inputs.
It regulates the neural drive accordingly and decides what’s most efficient by adjusting up or down the signals to individual muscles.
We have research (2,3,4) showing that preference for rep ranges and exercises can dictate training success, or broadly speaking - you have to enjoy your training or you won’t get results from it and it will become negative instead of positive stress.
This is where personality traits can tell us a lot about how to set up the most sustainable programming strategy.
Now, this is a hugely complex interplay between neurobiological factors and personality traits.
I have discussed this at length with both Lyle McDonald back in 2009, and in more recent years with Christian Thibaudeau who went on to create his Neurotyping Model.
Based on Cloninger’s Psychobiological Model of Temperament and Character, and the Five Factor Model of Personality (5), these personality types have relevance for training and nutrition preferences:
- Novelty Seeking (low dopamine) - NS: Individuals with this trait might prefer varied, high-intensity workouts that provide a sense of novelty and excitement. They may become easily bored with repetitive training routines and could benefit from constantly changing workout styles or incorporating new exercises. Usually drawn towards more explosive and varied activities. These are your sprinters, weightlifters, downhill mountain bikers, and parachuters.
- Harm Avoidance (low serotonin) - HA: These individuals may exhibit higher levels of anxiety or stress in response to training. They can be obsessive and intensely focused, and prefer more structured, predictable workout routines. HA types tend to tolerate repetitive, long-distance work due to their above-normal work capacities. These are your typical endurance athletes, but curiously - some professional bodybuilders can also be found in this category.
- Reward Dependence (low norepinephrine/noradrenaline) - RD: These people might be more motivated by external validation or social aspects of training, such as group classes or team sports. They could find it challenging to maintain motivation in solitary training environments unless they have a feedback system that tells them they are on the right path (hint: use a training log).
- Persistence and Self-Directedness - SD: The balance between these traits can also influence training preferences. For instance, individuals with high persistence might stick to a rigorous training program despite challenges, while those with high self-directedness could be more adept at setting and achieving personal fitness goals.
As is probably clear from reading this, both you and I will resonate with several of these traits depending on context - i.e. you will most likely be dominant in 1-2 of these traits but have elements of all of them.
It may also change over time as your training, nutrition, and lifestyle can push you into high or low levels of the different neurotransmitters. There are some obvious implications for supplement selection and pharmaceutical interventions, but that is a topic that I won’t cover here or now.
Neurotransmitter receptor sensitivity may also up- or downregulate according to the magnitude and duration of activation. This explains why an NS will enjoy stimulants, nicotine and alcohol, as it drives their dopamine levels up - but then experience soul-crushing comedowns and crashes if they do overdo it.
There is also crossover and transference between NS and RD types, which makes sense given that dopamine can convert to adrenaline/noradrenaline.
I am most definitely NS dominant, but can also be intensely focused and OCD (traits of HA), usually followed by a period of anhedonia - lack of interest, enjoyment, or pleasure in anything - if I don’t have enough self-awareness to stop myself from overdoing everything.
This is my cross to bear, I guess, but it has also made me keenly aware of how to tune my training and nutrition for both myself and my clients demonstrating dominance in these character traits.
So just to make it clear before we dig in: I do NOT think that this is the end-all-be-all of how you should set up your training as there’s a lot of variance, overlap and transfer between types!
...But it’s still a useful guide, where being self-aware and seeing where you currently are on the spectrum may impact your programming (and nutrition).
The Novelty Seeker (NS) and Harm Avoidance (HA) Types
Exploring the broader implications of personality on training, we now zoom in on two specific types, Novelty Seekers and Harm Avoiders, to see how these traits manifest in our approach to fitness, as they are the most applicable to the discussion of training volume.
Laying some groundwork:
Traits of high NS (low dopamine):
Quick/short-tempered, curious, easily bored, impulsive, somewhat disorderly, loves to explore and experiment with new shiny objects, may be prone to anger outbursts, drawn to things that are fast and furious.
Overwhelmed by too much detail, prefer a more global understanding - the big pieces.
Tend to be more extroverted in social situations (depending on serotonin levels), but can also burn out if they spend too much time with others.
Tend to have poor sleep quality, and running low on dopamine will wake them several times during the night.
Fairly certain there are quite a few NS types in this formation.
Traits of low NS (high or normal dopamine): Even-tempered (relaxed), stoic, reflective, reserved, tolerant of monotony, don’t get as easily bored from repetitive tasks, very meticulous and organized.
May or may not have high serotonin, which is related to Harm Avoidance (HA).
Traits of High HA (low serotonin) = Shyness, vulnerability to criticism, fear of being disliked.
Careful planners especially when a situation represents potential harm/risk and may have problems adapting to unexpected changes/dangers. Tend to be more introverted.
Traits of Low HA (high serotonin) = Carefree and courageous, energetic, outgoing and extroverted, optimistic and confident in the face of danger and uncertainty.
It's fascinating to see how these traits can directly influence one's training style and outcomes. Let's explore what this means in a practical sense.
Training for NS
- May need a longer warm-up to get going. Excessive activation (from being stressed out and adding stimulants on top of that) will deplete them early and impact work capacity. May burn out halfway through a workout.
Tend to do better on lower reps (and naturally gravitate towards it), 4-6 reps being a sweet spot but also do well in weightlifting and powerlifting which is dominant in 1-5 rep work. A running joke is that 5 reps is high rep training for a powerlifter.
Can rapidly deplete their dopamine when making maximum effort attempts and going to failure, in which case they need several days to replenish dopamine levels.
- Volume tolerance and work capacity may also suffer, as each additional set tends to deplete them. Tell an NS to do 3 sets of anything, and it will tend to look like this: 8 reps, 5 reps, 3 reps.
By extension, they don’t do well in endurance sports, as repetitive actions kills their focus and motivation. If serotonin is low as well, they MAY have a greater work capacity for strength work, and combine that with often having a competitive nature and they can force themselves to do the volume - but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them.
- Resting may further deplete dopamine levels, so the natural conclusion is that NS tend to do better on shorter, more frequent sessions - if they stay out of the gym for too long they lose their edge and perform worse. 3-4 workouts per week is probably the best if they’re all high intensity. 3 hard and 2-3 more submaximal workouts for a total of 5-6 workouts per week is also possible.
- Restoration should be focused on low-stress activities, so with a higher frequency per muscle group, some "feeder" workouts with submaximal loading are probably a good idea as mentioned in the above example. They probably still want to push hard, but shouldn’t.
- Require more training variety and novelty, both in rep ranges, exercise selection, training splits and overall programming changes. Bored out of their mind if they have to do the same program for months on end and will most likely quit.
These are the lifters that will be drawn to the higher intensity, lower volume training. Intensity is their middle name, so to speak - and they are drawn to and thrive on all-out, balls-to-the-wall training such as HIT, DC training, Jordan Peters (@trainedbyjp) training style being well-known examples.
Dorian Yates was most definitely NS, as you have probably also figured out by now - whereas Ronnie Coleman most likely had both high dopamine and serotonin - the traits of the perfect bodybuilder being able to train both hard and with high volume.
Instead of always pushing to the edge of insanity, if an NS makes an effort to stay at 1RIR most of the time, it will allow a (slightly) higher training frequency.
I often use an auto-regulation strategy with this type of lifter, where the directions are to end an exercise when they lose 1 or 2 reps (depending on the fatigue we want to allow) from the initial set, at the same RIR.
So if they did 8 reps on the first set and 6 reps on the next, they would stop there and move on.
In practical terms, I recommend staying in the middle to the low end of the frequency spectrum (per muscle group), as NS types are intrinsically able to recruit a higher number of high-threshold motor units, while also tending to have more fast-twitch, explosive fibers with a low oxidative capacity.
This creates more muscle damage and fatigue, which requires more recovery.
Beyond just training, nutrition plays an important role, especially for Novelty Seekers. Understanding the interplay with food can make a significant difference in results.
Nutrition for NS
NS often experience better results and feel more satisfied on diets that are low in carbohydrates but higher in fats, complemented by moderate to high protein levels.
This does not necessarily accelerate fat loss compared to other diets with equal calorie counts from fats and carbohydrates, its real benefit lies in the improved overall feeling and a significant reduction in cravings.
Low levels of the hormone leptin can trigger an overreaction in the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) of the brain, leading to increased dopamine production. This reaction is especially pronounced when the NS type thinks about or anticipates "cheat foods", and makes adhering to a diet extremely challenging.
To counteract this, implement more frequent refeeds or carb cycling strategies (carbs around training as a starting point), which partially prevent leptin levels from dropping too low. Even though they crave cheats, it’s more likely to be their Achilles heel, as high palatability (sugary and fatty foods) overstimulates the dopamine receptors.
I used to employ shorter and more intense dieting periods, ranging from 3 to 6 weeks with a slightly more aggressive caloric deficit, followed by a 1-week diet break or stabilization phase. In more recent years I still think that to get truly lean it might be more effective with longer, more moderate dieting approaches - but by employing calorie/carb-cycling strategies the NS can stay the course for longer.
NS also requires a higher intake of protein, essential for dopamine production. Foods rich in tyrosine and phenylalanine, which are dopamine precursors, should be prioritized. These include wild game meat, beef, eggs, pork, cheese, fish and seafood. Nuts and whole grains such as oatmeal aren’t as significant sources, but still contribute.
You’re probably not surprised to learn that NS tendencies are common in carnivore diet groups.
Here’s a typical NS scenario that should be watched out for:
- Trains and gets a dopamine spike, which feels good.
- Sees visual changes and strength gains.
- Even more motivated and trains (or diets) even harder
- Dopamine crashes and they lose all motivation and will to live
- Eat junk, use stimulants or drive fast cars/motorcycles.
- Look and feel even worse and jump to a different program or diet
Sounds familar? It certainly does to me...
Switching gears now, the Harm Avoiders present a different set of challenges and opportunities.
Training for HA
- Activation is not as important. The HA can be inhibited by fear of injury, especially if they have RD traits, and tend to be more sensitive to pain and sensations. The warmup and preparation should focus on relaxation, full range of motion movement, and several technique-oriented sets to convince them they can execute the desired exercises in the program without risk.
Tend to do better on higher reps, 8-12+ reps, or even more towards the strength-endurance spectrum of 15-20 reps. They can even dislike lower rep training, they either enjoy the sensation of the burn from higher reps more (liking) or fear the injury potential and sensations of muscular/joint stress on heavier weights (disliking). I tend to see women respond better to higher rep ranges than men, in general terms - especially if they also have some OCD/neurotic tendencies and crash hard on low-carb diets (next section).
Have a much higher work capacity, and can pretty much repeat their performance even when going close to, or to failure. Their harm avoidance traits mean that they usually don’t hit true failure, however - so they need the added volume to compensate. A program calling for 3 sets of 10 reps will have them literally doing 10, 10, 10 reps with very little performance drop, even if they swear they hit failure on each set.
Even with higher volumes they can recover faster than average, and should in theory thrive on high frequency - but since this conflicts with the higher volume workouts, they often gravitate towards (slightly) lower frequencies. They can also take several days off, come back to the gym, and perform equally well - contrasted to NS, which you might recall from above needs several workouts to get back into the groove.
By extension, they do well in endurance sports. Interestingly, serotonin issues are associated with anorexia, OCD, and inflexible thought patterns - so many pro bodybuilders most likely have strong traits of this personality type. Add normal DA tone which provides the work capacity and persistence, and you have someone primed for bodybuilding success.
- HA types do NOT like training variety and novelty, and may even be stressed out if something is changed at the last minute (e.g. if the equipment they planned to use was occupied). They can do the same program for months on end, and probably should if it’s properly structured.
- Tend to analyze and overanalyze every nuance of training, and get stressed out about their own overthinking. Typical paralysis by analysis.
Just as with training, nutrition needs for Harm Avoiders may benefit from specific dietary strategies to complement their training regimen and support overall well-being.
Nutrition for HA
HA types have elevated cortisol levels and respond better to higher carb intakes. Providing carbs pre- and during the workout reduces cortisol production, and should be scaled up proportional to training volume. I also encourage carbs in the final meal or before going to bed.
Due to higher baseline cortisol levels, the conversion of the thyroid hormone T4 to T3 might be impaired, another reason why carbohydrates are needed (improves the conversion rate).
They do better on lower deficits over a longer duration, especially because they tend to overdo the deficit and thus self-sabotage their efforts.
Since they’re also prone to reduce carb intakes, it creates a double whammy of self-sabotage:
-> The excessive calorie and carb deficit leads to even more elevated cortisol levels -> this drives water retention through the roof -> makes it look as if they haven’t lost any weight/bodyfat -> they restrict even further -> the vicious cycle is a reality, and difficult to break out of because they fear the consequences of doing something that is clearly not working anyway. Sigh...
They also don’t need frequent refeeds, but when and if they do it should be on foods they are used to eating.
After exploring the scientific and psychological facets of training and nutrition, keep in mind that the model is far from perfect.
I haven’t even covered the other traits and how to may affect everything - but it’s time to draw things to a conclusion by briefly sharing my personal discoveries and adjustments, which should hopefully tie all this together in a practical sense.
Cracking my personal code
Reflecting on my own training experiences, I’ve had some crazy gains on a 1-2 set, full-body split. I was a trusted member of the old HST forum all the way back in 1999-2001, and have written several articles about high-frequency training since then (link to an oldie, but still good one at EliteFTS).
But I noticed that even though pushing to failure was very enticing and productive for me, I also burnt out on it. Also being blessed with both NS (low dopamine) and HA traits (low serotonin), I would obsess, overanalyze, and stress about finding the perfect training progression, pushing too hard for too long - which inevitably caused prolonged periods of stagnation and regression.
In more recent years, being older and (somewhat) wiser, I have had more success with higher frequency, lower volume programs. I also had a better understanding of how to adjust the different training variables according to various metrics, which led me to develop the framework for The Last Program.
Early 2023 I switched to a lower frequency program with more reps in reserve, and a slightly higher volume. For a few more months, I played with variations of push/pull and upper body/legs splits and had further progress getting close to my peak results ever.
Finally, as part of my "Project 50" - I hired Cliff Wilson to be my coach in September last year, and he agreed to be my guide in getting me into the best shape of my life for my 50th birthday in June this year.
My blind spots prevent me from seeing what I need to do with myself, a typical "The Coaches Paradox" - also known by the proverbs "the mechanic's car is always broken" or "the shoemaker's son always goes barefoot".
From previous discussions with Cliff, I liked his coaching style and also thought he was a genuinely great guy, and on top of that he’s got an impressive lineup of natural bodybuilding client trophies, so I wanted to see what we could do with my physique.
Anyway, after a few weeks of doing my nutrition only and seeing great results from it, I asked him to set up a training program for me.
When Cliff works with advanced clients, he trusts that they know their bodies so well that they can figure out the workout strategy that works best for them.
Well, that was until he met me...
The volume was way higher than what I had been used to, up to 12-14 sets for a muscle group in a workout, hitting some muscle groups directly just 1x/week, but priority muscle groups on another higher rep day.
From my coaching journey, the most challenging clients are those who come to me for help because they’re not getting results from what they’re currently doing, yet insist on modifying every part of their plan because "they’re used to doing it this way".
They want change, but they don’t want TO change?
As the saying goes "if you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got".
I don’t want to be that guy, so I dived into it head first and followed it to a T. I wanted to give it a fair shot even if it didn't align perfectly with my views. That’s the only way to evolve and learn.
2 weeks in, I was absolutely destroyed. Sore, tired, and regressing - the calorie deficit from the diet not helping either.
I conveyed this to my coach, and he pointed something crucial out to me that I had either missed or ignored:
I wasn’t supposed to train to failure.
The instructions clearly stated that most of the time I should stay at 1-4RIR and once in a while, on a selection of exercises which was color coded on the program, I could take a set to failure.
Essentially, when the program called for 4 sets of 8-10 reps I was supposed to either ramp up the load from set to set only making the last set a "hard" set, or - if doing sets across (using the same load for all sets) I would perhaps reach 1-2RIR on the last set and sometimes 0RIR.
When I started training with more reps in reserve, even skipping some sets here and there, taking an extra rest day when needed...well, let’s just say my gains took off in the next 12 weeks:
Now, just to be upfront about the striking difference - there’s also a photographic illusion at play here.
The lighting is very different, and the visual impact of getting lean and adding muscle fullness from more volume and higher rep training was striking.
I estimate my bodyfat to be around 15% in the before picture and 8-9% in the after picture, just to give you an idea. My bodyweight had dropped 4kg/11lbs, so I’d estimate 1kg added muscle mass + glycogen/water from my previous lower carb diet.
Adding regular cardio training to the mix has also dramatically improved my endurance and work capacity.
If I don’t watch my intensity/RIR and overall volume, I’ll experience several days of anhedonia where I’m completely "flat" and unmotivated - a clear sign that my dopamine level has tanked. I have to implement the various strategies mentioned earlier for NS types to restore it - less volume, more RIR, and some "feeder" workouts to boost without further depleting my dopamine.
I do well with high protein (currently 240g/day at a bodyweight of 209-210lbs), but also can’t go for several months without carbs - my HA side and more obsessive tendencies rearing their ugly head. A relevant demonstration of this is that I sat down and wrote this article in about 8hrs of focused effort, just interrupted by a brief workout and the occasional multitasking (my NS kicking in) yesterday.
Then, I keep remembering things I want to revise or add, such as this paragraph - and here I am at 9PM still obsessing about getting everything right...but I digress.
Let’s finish this thing.
The summary and takeaways
In this comprehensive exploration of the multifaceted relationship between training volume and muscle growth, we have learned that contrary to popular belief, the effectiveness of training programs isn't solely dependent on increasing volume or intensity.
Instead, it's the nuanced interplay of training variables – volume, intensity, and frequency – combined with individual factors such as genetic makeup, personality traits, and personal training response.
We looked at iconic examples from the bodybuilding world, like Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman, to illustrate how different training approaches have many similarities if we dig deeper.
We have also learned how the complexity of scientific studies often fails to capture the wide spectrum of individual differences.
A significant part of the article was dedicated to understanding how personality traits, influenced by neurobiological factors, dictate training preferences and outcomes. Traits such as Novelty Seeking and Harm Avoidance can shape one's approach to training and nutrition, as they are related to dopamine and serotonin levels.
In conclusion, while scientific studies and training paradigms of the experts and pros may provide valuable guidelines if you understand how to contextualize the information, the ultimate key to success lies in personalizing your training (and nutrition) regimen to suit your unique characteristics and preferences.
I would also really appreciate it if you share this article with someone you think will benefit from it.
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