5 min read

How to build muscle and strength: Becoming built different

How to build muscle and strength: Becoming built different
Photo by Luis Reyes / Unsplash

Some of my patients have been asking me “Kevin, I am struggling to make some gains, how do I become built different?” I have to tell them that it isn’t that complicated, but with everything out there, it is easy to get swamped with information. For this article I will be discussing what the evidence says about how many sets and reps you have to do, how many times a week you should train, and how heavy you have to lift in order to achieve your goals.

The line between training for hypertrophy and strength is actually quite grey, and the training doesn’t have to be too different. This is likely why the people who can lift a lot of weight are typically jacked and stacked and vice versa. With that being said, every powerlifter and weightlifter secretly wants to also have huge muscles, so I will start off talking about hypertrophy. In terms of the biggest driving factor for hypertrophy, it seems to be that weekly 'hard sets' for each muscle group is the most influential variable1. So what is a hard set and why is it important? Well a hard set would be a set where you do enough reps to achieve failure or at least get close to it. This means that no, your warm-up sets don’t help, and if you are doing back down sets that don’t get you anywhere near failure, then those also won’t help you to build muscle. Finally, the sweet spot for optimal amount of sets is in the 12-20 sets per week range1, or 7-10 if you are an older adult2,3. This range is good for most people, with diminishing returns going past this, but some people may actually find benefit from doing up to 32 sets per week4; however, the study that found this was quite small and may only represent a small portion of people who would have this benefit. Now, when it comes to strength gain, there is also more benefit with doing more sets, and it is found that doing 10 or more weekly sets seems to be what is best5. All-in-all, to be built different you should be hitting somewhere between 12-20 HARD sets per week.

If we go back to discussing what a hard set is, does the amount of weight matter for this? The short answer is no, as long as you are getting close to failure1, hypertrophy and strength gains have been seen with low loads and very high reps even1,6,7. This is great, because it can allow for a lot of freedom and variation to make the program most enjoyable for yourself; however, the nuance is that hypertrophy has no difference between all loads, but there may be a small difference favouring high loads when it comes to strength1,6-8. Now the question is, what is a high load? Well the barrier for this is actually quite low at 60% of your 1 rep max (1RM) which is where most of the benefit is seen, but using loads that are 80% or higher could potentially have a small benefit over loads less than that7,8. Bringing this all together, a hard set that would get you to achieve gorilla status in the gym would be one where you lift at least 60% of your 1RM to or close to failure, with some potential benefit of doing sets with 80% or more of your 1RM.

Some of you may now be wondering how many times per week you should train each muscle group to hit these targets? Well, in terms of strength, there doesn’t seem to be a benefit to training each muscle group more than once when volume is adequate (as discussed above) and equal between groups1,5,9-12. Although, this may be a lot of sets for one muscle group in a workout if you aren't used to it. Now for hypertrophy, the results are mixed and therefore a strong conclusion can’t be made. There may be a small benefit for some people to do each muscle group 3 times per week1,10-12. This may have you thinking that more is better so doing even more sets should get you more gains, right? Wrong. There does not seem to be a benefit from going above a frequency (per muscle group) of 3 times per week13. So training each muscle group 3 times per week should maximize the amount of muscle you put on, but only doing each muscle group once per week is still sufficient for both strength and hypertrophy.

In conclusion, the breakdown to truly become different would be to do 12-20 hard sets per week of at least 60% 1RM for each muscle group, while also training each muscle group 3 times per week.

Now that you have achieved some brain gains for the day, you can go out there and lift some weights!

  1. Baz-Valle E, Balsalobre-Fernández C, Alix-Fages C, Santos-Concejero J. A Systematic Review of The Effects of Different Resistance Training Volumes on Muscle Hypertrophy. J Hum Kinet. 2022 Feb 10;81:199-210. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2022-0017. PMID: 35291645; PMCID: PMC8884877.
  2. Borde R, Hortobágyi T, Granacher U. Dose-Response Relationships of Resistance Training in Healthy Old Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2015 Dec;45(12):1693-720. doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0385-9. PMID: 26420238; PMCID: PMC4656698.
  3. de Santana DA, Castro A, Cavaglieri CR. Strength Training Volume to Increase Muscle Mass Responsiveness in Older Individuals: Weekly Sets Based Approach. Front Physiol. 2021 Sep 30;12:759677. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2021.759677. PMID: 34658936; PMCID: PMC8514686.
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  7. Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Van Every DW, Plotkin DL. Loading Recommendations for Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Local Endurance: A Re-Examination of the Repetition Continuum. Sports (Basel). 2021 Feb 22;9(2):32. doi: 10.3390/sports9020032. PMID: 33671664; PMCID: PMC7927075.
  8. Lopez P, Radaelli R, Taaffe DR, Newton RU, Galvão DA, Trajano GS, Teodoro JL, Kraemer WJ, Häkkinen K, Pinto RS. Resistance Training Load Effects on Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gain: Systematic Review and Network Meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2021 Jun 1;53(6):1206-1216. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002585. Erratum in: Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2022 Feb 1;54(2):370. PMID: 33433148; PMCID: PMC8126497.
  9. Brigatto FA, Braz TV, Zanini TCDC, Germano MD, Aoki MS, Schoenfeld BJ, Marchetti PH, Lopes CR. Effect of Resistance Training Frequency on Neuromuscular Performance and Muscle Morphology After 8 Weeks in Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Aug;33(8):2104-2116. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002563. PMID: 29528962.
  10. Schoenfeld BJ, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, Contreras B, Tiryaki-Sonmez G. Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jul;29(7):1821-9. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000970. PMID: 25932981.
  11. Gomes GK, Franco CM, Nunes PRP, Orsatti FL. High-Frequency Resistance Training Is Not More Effective Than Low-Frequency Resistance Training in Increasing Muscle Mass and Strength in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Jul;33 Suppl 1:S130-S139. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002559. PMID: 29489727.
  12. Zaroni RS, Brigatto FA, Schoenfeld BJ, Braz TV, Benvenutti JC, Germano MD, Marchetti PH, Aoki MS, Lopes CR. High Resistance-Training Frequency Enhances Muscle Thickness in Resistance-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Jul;33 Suppl 1:S140-S151. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002643. PMID: 31260419.
  13. Saric J, Lisica D, Orlic I, Grgic J, Krieger JW, Vuk S, Schoenfeld BJ. Resistance Training Frequencies of 3 and 6 Times Per Week Produce Similar Muscular Adaptations in Resistance-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Jul;33 Suppl 1:S122-S129. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002909. PMID: 30363041.