Hypertrophy Periodization and Programming - Programming Variables - Part 1 Posted on 7 May 17:55

Justin Swinney – May 7, 2020


I introduced my theoretical framework of periodization and programming for hypertrophy training to provide individuals an outline of fundamentals to consider during the evaluation of their current and future programs. In the overview, I mentioned the essentiality of understanding the resistance training variables. The variables are inseparable, complex, and interrelated. Proper understanding of each variable and their interrelationships with other variables provides the cognitive capacity for organizing a progressive phase potentiated plan for optimal results. In hypertrophy periodization, the ten minimum variables to consider in the programming process.

(1.) Volume

(2.) Effort (Relative Intensity)

(3.) Load (Absolute Intensity)

(4.) Frequency

(5.) Exercise Choice

(6.) Exercise Order

(7.) Tempo

(8.) Rest Interval

(9.) Type of Muscle Action

(10.) Range of Motion

I will define and describe each variable through a series of articles dedicated to the foundational understanding of resistance training variables for skeletal muscle hypertrophy. 


What is Volume?


Volume is a term used to describe the total amount of work (Work = Force x Distance) performed during the specified time parameter. Volume can be prescribed and tracked using total sets, total reps, or sets multiplied by reps. Another method of prescribing and tracking volume used by some strength coaches and powerlifters is "Total Load Lifted" or "TLL" (sets x reps x external load). TLL can be a useful metric for an individual to track progress on exercises throughout specific training cycles, blocks, or career. (1.) However, TTL may be limited in its practical application for hypertrophy specific training. In programming for hypertrophy, the most straightforward way of using volume is as total sets per session and per microcycle (week). (2.), (3.)


If volume is the total amount of sets performed per session and per microcycle (week), then how are the sets assigned value for the volume equation?  Are all sets of equal value?  Do I count warm-up sets, work-up sets, and work sets?  Do I only count work sets?  


It is extremely important to have accurate and consistent methods for assigning value to each set for calculating current volume status, identifying adaptive range of volume thresholds, and applying progressive overload.  In order to evaluate and/or assign value to each set, an individual must possess an understanding of an appropriate rating scale or system. 


            How are the sets assigned value?


Sets are assigned a value through the next two variables on our list of hypertrophy programming variables, “effort” and “load”.  Effort and load are under the umbrella of intensity.  


What is intensity? 


The word intensity is typically used to communicate the measure of something.  But the lack of clarity provided when only using the word intensity caused confusion in the fitness industry.  It has been suggested to remove the singular use of “intensity” from the lexicon when discussing resistance training. (28.)


What is Effort (Relative Intensity) and Load (Absolute Intensity)?


The variable known as “intensity” has been converted into two separate variables relative intensity (effort) and absolute intensity (load).   Proper understanding of these variables is essential for applying an appropriate rating scale or system to accurately quantify volume per training session and per microcycle (week).  


The terms “relative intensity”, “effort”, and “intensity of effort” are used interchangeably and are typically used as a method for prescribing the relative effort and level of exertion required to complete the desired exercise for a specific number of sets, reps, or sets x reps. 


The terms “absolute intensity” and “load” are used interchangeably and are typically used as a method for prescribing loads based on a percentage of a one-repetition maximum of the desired exercise. 


Years ago, I deleted the singular use of “intensity” as a resistance training variable and adopted the words “effort” and “load” as my primary choices for precise communication.  But due to the amount of residual influence provided by the word “intensity”, I also use the terms “relative intensity” (effort) and “absolute intensity” (load) in hopes of preventing any misunderstandings.


If we apply basic thinking skills, it makes sense to use the term “load” to describe the amount of weight on the bar in relation to a one-repetition maximum and the term “effort” to describe the magnitude of exertion/effort applied in relation to performing the exercise. 


Using “Effort” and/or “Load” for Hypertrophy Specific Programming.


It would be extremely difficult and potentially harmful to obtain an accurate 1-Rep-Max (1RM) for all exercises used in hypertrophy training, it may be best to use “effort” as the rating scale or system for quantifying hypertrophic volume per session and per microcycle.  This does not mean that “load” does not have a place in programming.  It means that using a percentage of 1RM to program volumes (sets and reps) for hypertrophy specific training is difficult without an accurate 1RM on the specific exercises being performed.  The percent of 1RM can be used in periodizing and programming specific exercises, but it may be better used as a way to help guide your weight selection within specific barbell exercises and possibly serve as a motivational tool for progressive overload.  


Do I count warm-up sets, work-up sets, and work sets?  Do I count only work sets?


In the process of using rational judgment towards the sets of an exercise, it is sensible to view warm-up sets as being easier than work sets.  The amount of effort applied during a warm-up set is vastly different than the amount of effort applied during a work set. This does not mean that the warm-up sets are useless and shouldn't be tracked or taken seriously. Warm-up sets are essential in preparing and priming the human body for resistance training. But they most likely don't provide an appropriate amount of a stimulus to induce the desired adaptation. Tracking warm-up sets and taking notes can be an excellent way to monitor fatigue and recovery. Warm-up sets provide value, but they should not count towards the volume calculations (per session or per microcycle). Given that, to ensure maximum accuracy, it may be best to only consider work sets of a pre-determined effort level as adequate for hypertrophic volume calculations.  Work sets are typically to failure or near failure and should require a hard level of effort to complete. (4.)  



What level of effort is considered hard enough to count as a work set?


Unfortunately, in hypertrophy training, effort (relative intensity) is often misunderstood and not applied in the most effective manner. It is crucial to understand how to monitor the perceptual response to training. The variable known as "effort”, “relative intensity", or "intensity of effort" can be monitored with a numeric scale known as "RPE" (Rating of Perceived Exertion). (5.)  But the ability to accurately rate the perception of effort can potentially be affected by the interrelationship of discomfort and effort. (32.)  The afferent neural feedback of discomfort can indirectly affect the perception of the efferent neural feedback of effort. (33.)  Thus, the use of RPE alone may not be the best method to accurately gauge effort. (34.)  The addition of another scale “RIR” (Reps in Reserve) or “RTF” (Reps to Failure) can be used in combination with RPE to add an intuitive approach to rating effort based on the proximity of momentary muscular failure.  In my anecdotal experience, the application of RPE and RIR or RTF simultaneously in programming/training create a synergistic effect towards increasing the accuracy of rating and communicating effort.


When was I introduced to RPE?


I was originally made aware of the RPE scale in Dr. Joyce McIntosh's class of Exercise Prescription in 2006 at the University of North Alabama. She introduced me to the work of Gunnar Borg and the original RPE scale of 6 to 20 for use in the Exercise Science Lab's VO2 testing. 


Borg created the 6 to 20 scale (~50 years ago) to roughly match heart rate with perceived exertion during aerobic exercise. (6.) The original RPE scale of 6 to 20 was followed by Borg developing the CR10 scale (Category Ratio Scale) to provide a rating of 1 to 10. Then the CR10 scale was followed by the OMNI scale, which was the first visually aided RPE scale 1 to 10. (7.) I briefly mentioned my introduction to the RPE scale by Dr. McIntosh in 2006, because I want everyone who reads this to understand the importance of studying, learning, and applying education. I am grateful to the professors that participated in my undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of North Alabama Exercise Science Department (2003 – 2008). I have used the RPE scale of 1 to 10 with my training clients since 2006. Everyone who has trained with me knows that I continuously ask questions during sessions in an attempt to better understand their fatigue and recovery per set, per exercise, per training session. It is imperative to understand the importance of properly using a method to measure or rate exertion.  


What is RIR or RTF and how does it create a synergy with RPE?


“Reps in Reserve” (RIR) scales were created to provide a better method of understanding the intensity of effort performed in close proximity to muscular failure and provide accurate methods for assessment, communication, and control of programming submaximal efforts. (28.), (29.), (30.), (31.)   The emerging patterns in clinical research seem to support effort as the primary determinant in providing value to training volume. (35.)  Research has displayed similar muscular adaptations between groups when effort is matched. For example, repetition duration effect on hypertrophy (36.), (37.), (38.), load effect on hypertrophy (39.), advanced intensification techniques effect on hypertrophy, such as pre-exhaustion, drop-sets, and blood flow restriction (40.), (41.), (42.), (43.) and they all produced similar physiological adaptations when effort was matched at momentary muscular failure.  This does not mean that the other variables or modalities are not important, and effort is all that matters.  It only provides context to better understand the foundation of resistance training for hypertrophy.  It also does not mean that an individual must train to momentary failure to produce a hypertrophic adaptation.  It means that an individual must produce a high enough effort to meet their minimal hypertrophic stimulus threshold per set, accumulate enough hypertrophic sets to meet their minimal hypertrophic stimulus threshold per session, and continuously apply sufficient effort through a progressive pattern until fatigue accumulates or progress stalls.  If an individual can learn how to use RPE and RIR or RTF as a means of rating training volume, then the individual can systematically track training sessions and create an opportunity to accurately calculate their hypertrophic stimulus thresholds.


The base understanding Effort and use of RPE and RIR or RTF.


RPE and RIR or RTF provide the ability to manage perceived exertion and measure the quality of volume. 


Proper use of RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) and RIR (Reps in Reserve) or RTF (Reps to Failure) ratings will provide the necessary information to determine if the set was hard enough to consider a work set and add it to the training volume. Assigning the minimum RPE of 8 or using the target RIR/RTF of 2 provides a potentially reliable method to help monitor effort and decide if the set was hard enough to elicit the desired stimulus.  


Volume seems relatively easy to understand, why has it been the subject of so many heated debates throughout the years?


The nuances and misconceptions surrounding volume debates are due to people not using the same language or definitions. The improper use of terminology and frivolous claims made with the inappropriate use of the terminology can lead to miscommunication and erroneous debates.  


The base understanding of Training Volume.


The number of sets performed at an appropriate effort (relative intensity) per session and per microcycle (week).


If you have made it this far, then you probably have a pretty good understanding of training volume and effort.  With that in mind, I am going to explain my views with a little more detail to add depth to the topic.


What is the C.H.A.M.P. approach to training volume?  


I, Justin Swinney, prescribe, and monitor volume using a strategic amount of sets executed at specific efforts within particular rep ranges per training session. Then, I judiciously use the interconnected variable, frequency, to tactically distribute efficient set volumes of precise rep ranges within effective efforts during the microcycle (week), progressing and potentially autoregulating throughout the mesocycle (4 to 8 weeks).


Why mention the variables "effort" and "frequency" in the description of "volume"?


I mentioned "effort" and "frequency" in my description of "volume" because it is paramount to understand how to rate, monitor, and distribute the required levels of exertion stimulus necessary to produce a hypertrophic adaptation. I use "effort" and "frequency" to consistently and frequently provide a sufficiently challenging "volume" stimulus within an individual's adaptive threshold to elicit robust anabolic adaptations, ensure adequate recovery, and maximize skeletal muscle hypertrophy.


It is vital to understand that not all volume is created equal. In periodization and programming for hypertrophy, the dose-response relationship can vary significantly between inter-individual (differences observed between various people) and intra-individual (differences observed within the same person over different time periods or in different body parts). Genetics, training age (number of years performing consistent hard training), nutritional strategies, supplement protocols, sleep, and psychological/emotional stress can significantly affect the individual volume thresholds per session and per microcycle (week). The purpose of this article is to increase the depth of understanding for the resistance training variables within my theoretical framework of periodization and programming for maximizing hypertrophic adaptations, while simultaneously encouraging coaches/athletes to conceptualize the relationship of volume (within thresholds of minimum to maximum), effort (pre-programmed and potentially autoregulated), and frequency (as a tool for strategic organization) for optimizing and facilitating the appropriate individual progressively overloading stimulus to induce specific hypertrophic adaptations.


This is an example of how the improper use of training terminology can muddy the water of volume conversations.


Example: Person (A) is a proponent of high-volume training and claims to perform 30 to 40 sets per muscle group per week. But when Person (A) 's training program is analyzed, it only contains 1 work set [(RPE of 8+) or (RIR/RTF of 2 or less)] per exercise and 3 to 4 work sets per session. Person (A) 's training volume is 90% warm-up sets or work-up sets at a relative intensity of RPE 5 or 6.  


Person (A): Example Exercise = Bench Press:

Set 1 = 45lbs (bar) x 10 reps,         Set 2 = 95 lbsx 10 reps

Set 3 = 135 lbs. x 8 reps,                Set 4 = 185 lbs. x 6 reps

Set 5 = 225 lbs. x 6 reps,                Set 6 = 275 lbs. x 3reps

Set 7 = 315 lbs. x 10 reps.  


Person (A) claims to have performed 7 work sets bench press, but in my opinion, Person (A) only performed 1 work set of bench press. This example exercise is from Person (A) 's chest training session, where he claimed to have performed 30+ work sets during the training session. But when I review the data and apply the appropriate definitions to the terminology, my calculations result in Person (A) performing 3 to 4 work sets per training session. Unfortunately, Person (A) does not understand the terminology used in periodization and programming, which allowed misguidance by countless gym bro's throughout the years. The generic misguidance from a gym bro to Person (A), "If you want to get big, you have to do workouts like Pro X with 30 to 40 sets"… "constantly changing exercises to confuse the body" and "go hard and chase the pump"… this poor advice has led Person (A) to make very little progress.  


I have witnessed similar situations of bodybuilders "chasing the pump" or copying a pro's "high volume/short rest break" routine and performing ridiculous amounts of volume, smashing the body part of the day, every day for years, achieving zero or very little muscle growth. Performing exercises at low rates of exertion and leaving countless reps in the tank (in comparison to how they could have performed with proper rest and recovery between sets) results in a minimal amount of hypertrophic stimulus. If we add an inadequate application of frequency (typical bro-split) and the lack of phase potentiated periodization, then we have the formula responsible for stalling progress and creating plateaus of gym bros and bodybuilders alike. Unfortunately, I have witnessed many bodybuilders compete in the same weight class or within the same ~5 lbs. of stage weight, year after year. The dedication to detailed nutrition programs and extensive supplement protocols saturate the environment for extreme muscle growth, but the lack of periodization and programming knowledge prevents the strategic progression of stimuli/stress required to captivate the anabolic potential.  


In bodybuilding or hypertrophy training, there has to be attention to detail in nutrition, supplementation, recovery (sleep), and training. It is accepted and well known that coaches/athletes apply a considerable amount of detail to their nutrition plans with specific macronutrients per meal, particular times, specific food choices, and specific supplements per meal. It is also accepted for the same coach/athlete not to have a periodized or structured resistance training plan. The comments "all you have to do is train hard," or "train big, eat big, rest big and repeat to get big" are as uneducated as the comments "confuse the body" and "train by feel." I completely support the idea of implementing detailed and specific nutrition programs and supplement protocols, but I don't agree with the randomized training, "training by feel" or following along with someone else's random workout for the day. I don't understand the logic of tracking every macronutrient and supplement but not tracking the training session variables and results (sets, reps, load, effort, exercises, etc.). I can't fathom dedicating hours to grocery shopping, cooking, prepping and weighing meals at specified macronutrient calculations, while ignoring the importance of committing a few minutes to writing exercises in a logbook to track the performance of each session throughout training career. If the goal is to maximize skeletal muscle's hypertrophic adaptations, then resistance training must be intelligent and well informed.  


In the quest for maximum hypertrophy, an individual must be competent and proficient in the skills relating to the application and integration of a structured, progressive plan. 

In an effort to maximize skeletal muscle hypertrophy, it is necessary to meet the stimulus requirements with sufficient magnitude and duration of tension within each muscle fiber's impulse threshold, recruiting of as many muscle fibers as possible (8.) and imposing force at satisfactory velocities throughout a full range of motion.   


Wait, before we go any farther…
I need to take a step back and clarify a primary element of hypertrophy.
Muscle Protein Synthesis > Muscle Protein Breakdown


In terms of hypertrophy, the ultimate physiological goal is for muscle protein synthesis (MPS) to exceed muscle protein breakdown (MPB). (9.) The statement of MPS > MPB is so simple and basic that most coaches/athletes often neglect it. You may be thinking, "Yeah, I hear you, Justin, but everyone knows that." If everyone knows that, why do most bodybuilders compete year after year in the same weight class and at a similar weight (after they have lost the offseason fat and water)? If everyone knows that, why do so many people claim to be training to gain muscle tissue, but stay roughly the same size for multiple years? If you are telling me that everyone understands the importance of MPS > MPB, then why is their lean muscular bodyweight almost the same, after years of training, eating and supplementing.  I understand that once an athlete is at the advanced level or over a certain age, gaining muscle tissue is difficult. I also understand, if an NPC bodybuilder competes at a similar weight (within ~5 lbs.) and similar conditioning for more than two years, the MPS > MPB equation was ignored or not understood.  Unfortunately, many coaches/athletes lack the mechanistic understanding of the MPS and MPB relationship.  Consequently, this results in the creation of a walking talking logical fallacy with nutrition, training, and supplementation tactics rooted in anecdotes.  


It is crucial to understand the connection between resistance training elevation of MPS and the hypertrophic specific response to the training-induced MPS elevation (10.), (11.), (12.), (13.). The specific magnitude and duration of impulse that must be supplied in order to stimulate the cellular signaling cascade to promote an increase in MPS can vary significantly between individuals, especially as they progress in training age (14.). It is understood that as an individual advances in muscular development, progress slows, and it becomes more difficult to continually increase skeletal muscle mass. 


Research has consistently demonstrated an inverse correlation between training age and MPS response. Beginners and Novices are able to stimulate an increase in MPS for up to 72 hours (15.), but intermediate trainees seem only to increase MPS for 24 to 48 hours (16.), (17.), (18.). The compatibility between sustaining MPS > MPB (stimulated by sufficient resistance training volume at an appropriate effort) and potential skeletal muscle hypertrophy provides support for increasing training frequency to satisfy adaptive requirements necessary to enhance muscle hypertrophy (19.).


It is pivotal to understand the importance of operating within the individual volume thresholds per session and per microcycle. Dr. Mike Israetel and Dr. James Hoffman were able to provide distinct terminology for communicating basic training concepts in the eBook "How much should I train? An Introduction to the Volume Landmarks" (20.). The concepts, definitions, and terminology present a precise language to communicate intricacies of training theory and program design.  Many coaches, trainers, and athletes have used the terminology minimum, maintenance, and maximum to describe various aspects of their nutrition or training programs throughout the years.  The simple addition of the adjective "effective," "adaptive," and "recoverable" with whatever noun you are describing, in this case, "volume," provides the ability to paint a beautiful picture of successful information exchange. The terminology of maintenance dose, minimum dose, and maximum dose has been used for decades in training and possibly hundreds of years in other areas of medical and pharmacological study. But Dr. Israetel and Dr. Hoffman were the first to promote dedicated definitions to the terminology concerning training volume and provide a detailed understanding of the concept of training volume landmarks. In resistance training, using the volume landmark terminology to be specific in conversation provides a quick and accurate way to communicate.  


In examining, understanding, and explaining the magnitude of stimulus for hypertrophy specific training, this example use of similar terminology will help elucidate the spectrum of stimulus provided within hypertrophy focused periodization and programming.


(A.) Maintenance Stimulus (lowest stimulus to maintain current tissue), 


(B.) Minimal Effective Stimulus (minimal stimulus to cause adaptive response), 


(C.) Maximal Adaptive Stimulus (maximal stimulus to cause adaptive response), 


(D.) Maximal Recoverable Stimulus (maximal stimulus allowed to cause recovery response, any more stimulus will disrupt the system and inhibit the recovery response).  


In resistance training, the maintenance, minimal, and maximal amount of hypertrophic stimuli required varies per individual. Numerous factors (nutrition, supplementation, sleep, recovery, psychological health, emotional status, etc.) can have acute and chronic effects on the trainability and recoverability within the hypertrophic stimulus landmarks. If the purpose of training is to cause a robust hypertrophic stimulus and produce as many hypertrophic adaptations as possible, then an individual must put forth their best effort to create an anabolic environment and provide substrates for the imposed hypertrophic demands.


If an individual is trying to supply an anabolic environment for the hypertrophic stimuli to accumulate as much skeletal muscle tissue as possible, then a diligent application of the SFRA Model (Stimulus-Fatigue-Recovery-Adaptation) and the Fitness-Fatigue Model will provide substantial benefits towards the pursuit of hypertrophy.


SFRA (Stimulus-Fatigue-Recovery-Adaptation) as a Volume Concept


The SFRA (Stimulus-Fatigue-Recovery-Adaptation) concept demonstrates how the magnitude (volume) of stimulus, causes a proportional accumulation of fatigue and reduction in performance capacity. The duration of time it takes for fatigue to dissipate and performance capacity to return is based on the magnitude (volume) of training stimulus and accumulated fatigue.  Once the recovery processes are complete, adaptation has occurred, and the performance capacity has returned; theoretically, the body should be ready for a progressive stimulus (21.), (22.), (23.).


Stimulus-Fatigue-Recovery-Adaptation Theory graph. I sketched this version of the SFRA graph based on information and images from Verkhoshansky and Siff (24.) and Stone, Stone, and Sands (25.).


The Fitness-Fatigue Model as a Volume Concept


The Fitness-Fatigue Model may be better than the SFRA theory for conceptualizing the relationship between volume and hypertrophy. (26.) Fitness can be used to represent muscle hypertrophy. Fatigue is generated by the stimulus provided during training (and also increased by poor nutrition, inadequate sleep, and negative life stressors). 

Performance is the result of fitness minus fatigue and all other stressors (psychological, environmental, etc.). 


This model can be used to demonstrate the effect of a training session, microcycle, and mesocycle. It is also useful for understanding how the accumulation of residual fatigue will eventually progress into a state of overreaching (functional or non-functional) and if ignored overtraining.


The SFRA and Fitness-Fatigue models can be used to visualize the stimulus and fatigue provided by the interactive relationship volume, intensity of effort, and frequency. The goal of hypertrophy specific training is to initiate a sufficient magnitude and duration of an impulse to create an anabolic stimulus, recover, adapt, and repeat.  


I created the Fitness-Fatigue-Performance model above to provide a basic visual representation of how each training session stimulus causes acute fatigue that requires sufficient recovery and adaptation to prepare for the next training stimulus to be applied. 


As Fitness/Hypertrophy increases and performance capabilities rise, there is a small amount of residual fatigue per session that is accumulating throughout the mesocycle. In this example, the fitness-fatigue paradigm is used to demonstrate and explain how each training stimulus causes two types of fatigue (acute and residual). Recovery from acute fatigue is essential for the athlete to display readiness and perform at their highest potential. In the case of hypertrophy, readiness associated with being able to complete the muscle actions at their highest potential, recruiting all of the muscle fibers, to provide a maximal hypertrophic stimulus to each fiber. In summary of the fitness-fatigue-performance paradigm, fitness represents the hypertrophic morphological adaptations and physical capabilities achieved as a result of training. Fatigue represents acute fatigue (per session), residual fatigue (throughout the microcycle and mesocycle), local/peripheral fatigue, axial/spinal fatigue, and central fatigue. Performance typically represents fitness minus fatigue, but we must consider external factors and stressors that could affect readiness for the application of progression/overload for maximal hypertrophic stimulus.


The logical interpretation of the hypertrophic process is as follows initiate stimulus, recover from fatigue, adapt to the stimulus, initiate progressive stimulus, and repeat.  Hypothetically, if an individual decided to initiate a set progression protocol of 1 set per week, at the end of a year, the individual would be performing 52 sets per week.  Does the weekly increase in volume provide equal hypertrophic results throughout the 1st year?  What about a 2nd year, progressing up to 104 sets per week?  I can’t say definitively, but I highly doubt the individual would have steadily produced a detectable hypertrophic progression throughout the two years.  What if the individual was able to provide a nutritional, supplemental, and recovery/sleep environment that allowed adherence to the SFRA Model and sufficiently recover before the next session without overlapping soreness?  I still can’t say definitively, if the individual would have steadily produced a detectable amount of skeletal muscle hypertrophy over the time-period.  Why do I say that, even when it seems the individual has checked all the boxes necessary for hypertrophy?  If the individual in applying a linear progression of sets to increase volume in hopes of increasing hypertrophy, then they need to consider the percentage of progression or the value of the progression.  For example, compare the percentage of volume increase from 4 sets to 5 sets (~ 25% increase) to 30 sets to 31 sets (~ 3% increase).  Logical thinking provides reason to believe the progression provided by ~25% is going to elicit a stronger hypertrophic stimulus than a ~3% progression.  But this is not to say that a 3% increase is useless.  There are some advanced level trainees who strive to provide a small percentage of progression and drive a hypertrophic stimulus.  In general, it is very difficult to achieve long-term hypertrophic adaptations and it may be beneficial to conceptualize the relationship between set volume and hypertrophy for the progressive development of microcycles, mesocycles, and macrocycles.


The Inverted U Hypothesis of the Relationship Between Volume and Hypertrophy


Research consistently demonstrates that volume is a potent stimulator of skeletal muscle hypertrophy.  Currently, in the evidence-based fitness industry, the relationship between training volume and hypertrophy is referred to as an inverted U hypothesis. The inverted U hypothesis can be described as an increase in training volume will increase hypertrophy, until it reaches the top of the inverted U, then further increases in training volume will regress and reduce hypertrophy to the point where it returns to baseline.



But the inverted U may not be the best representation of the highest training volumes. It is hard to believe that increasing training volume would reduce muscle tissue, as long as there were adequate nutritional caloric intake and quality sleep (and sufficient supplementation). It sounds a bit ridiculous to consider an individual performing such an excessive amount of volume that it would result in muscle loss. 


Perhaps, if there were an individual executing such an incredible amount of volume that nutritional calories and sleep had to be sacrificed to accomplish the volume task, then it would seem possible to lose muscle tissue as training volumes increased continually. 


In a specific situation of sacrificing a significant amount of caloric intake and quality sleep, excessive training volume could reflect the appearance of an inverted U relationship to hypertrophy. The muscle loss would be most likely attributed to the substantial caloric deficiency and inadequate accumulation of sleep to recover (or insufficient supplementation).  Interestingly, the concept of training volume's inverted U hypothesis reducing hypertrophy appears to be faulty. 


I developed a model for explaining the relationship between training volume and hypertrophy. In an effort to form a consilience between multiple academic resources and over twenty years of anecdotal observation, I distilled complex theoretical concepts of training volume's relationship to hypertrophy into a simple graph for practical application.  


The base version of my graph is similar to the volume inverted U hypothesis graph. Hypertrophy is located on the y-axis (vertical), and training volume is positioned on the x-axis (horizontal). The graph has two lines with a positive gradient that converge into one line, at the individual's point of maximal adaptable stimulus or volume ceiling. Then the line separates into two lines, one line with zero slope (running parallel to the x-axis) and the other line with a slightly negative slope to represent the possible decrease in muscle tissue from ridiculous amounts of training volume interfering with nutrition, supplementation, and sleep.  



Please forgive my lack of graphic design skills. The graph above was quickly sketched on my iPad and placed in this article to provide a clear representation of my thoughts regarding the relationship between training volume and intra-individual variances in hypertrophy.


This concept of intra-individual variance in response to training volume was initially developed during a conversation with my Dad many years ago. We were discussing our client's current training plans, updating their programs for the next training progression, and I asked my Dad a few questions about how he progressed the training of his IFBB Pro bodybuilding clients from the early to mid-1990s. He started describing some of his most successful programs and progressions, then after I replied with a barrage of questions, he began to divulge numerous ideas and thoughts as to the why "x" amount of training volume resulted in "y" for IFBB Pro A vs. the same "x" amount of training volume resulted in "z" for IFBB Pro B. In an attempt to keep this article on task, I am going to save the other things we discussed about the genetic response to training, satellite cells, mitochondria, ribosomes, capillaries, fascial layers and structural matrix of each muscle for another article.  


During the discussion, I had the vision of using a cartoon type sketch of a DNA strand horizontally on a graph to represent the relationship of training volume and hypertrophy. I immediately grabbed a marker and outlined my hypothetical graph on the whiteboard. As soon as I had the rough design complete, I showed my Dad how each line represented the genetic differences between individual responses to training volume. He looked at the graph, squinted one eye and raised the opposite eyebrow (those who knew my Dad, know exactly his deep thought expression that I am referring to…), and said, "Yes, that makes sense. It can be used to represent a variety of responses in the general population. But you may be able to get more use from applying this type of graph to individuals for explaining intra-individual variances and factors that could affect their hypertrophic response, instead of using it for the inter-individual genetic variance in our population." Instantly, thoughts aligned, and multiple pages were filled with notes about intra-individual volume thresholds with the potential factors that modify those thresholds.  



Hopefully, the graph compliments my thoughts on the intra-individual variances in the relationship between volume and hypertrophy. For example, If an individual "X" typically performs 5 to 7 work sets per training session and 15 to 20 work sets per microcycle (week) to get result "A," then individual "X" begins a competition prep diet (caloric deficit and lower carbs) the typical 5 to 7 work sets per session and 15 to 20 work sets per microcycle will result in "B" (not "A").  The same 5 to 7 work sets per training session and 15 to 20 work sets per microcycle will produce less of a hypertrophic stimulus for muscle growth.  


In the example, the change in caloric intake was used to represent a factor that can potentially shift the intersection point on the curve of volume and hypertrophy. This example may be simple and obvious, but it is rarely discussed in conversations regarding periodization and programming for physique athletes.  To summarize this key point about intra-individual differences in hypertrophic response to training volume, many acute and chronic factors (nutritional intake, sleep, supplement protocols, psychological status, emotional stress, epigenetic factors, and more…) can affect the volume thresholds to varying degrees.  The ability to understand the effects of nutrition, supplementation, stress, sleep, etc. on hypertrophic MPS > MPB stimulus provides essential knowledge to properly manipulate the quantitative parameters of training routines, exercises choice, exercise order, and frequency to possibly increase the hypertrophic stimulus enough to counteract the negative factor that caused the decrease in hypertrophic response.  The addition of an autoregulatory component to your periodization and programming may be beneficial and potentially be able to address any relevant negative issues that arise.


Wrapping it up

In this article, I described my method of prescribing and monitoring volume as using a strategic amount of sets executed at specific efforts within particular rep ranges per training session. Using frequency to distribute efficient set volumes of precise rep ranges within effective efforts during the microcycle (week), progressing, and potentially autoregulating throughout the mesocycle (4 to 8 weeks). I have built my framework with a solid foundation of clinical evidence combined with the anecdotal and empirical information gleaned from my collegiate and professional career. In essence, the hypertrophy specific periodization and programming recommendations for training volume require proper use of frequency (to maximize MPS > MPB to time ratio) and effort (to evaluate the exertion threshold of each set = work set vs. warm-up set). In summary, I propose using the information provided in the practical application section as a guideline for hypertrophy specific periodization and programming. 


Training Variables - Practical Application for Hypertrophy:


  • Training Volume, Work Sets per Training Session = 6 sets to 8 sets


  • Training Volume, Work Sets per Training Microcycle (Week) = 12 to 24 sets


  • Training Volume, Work Sets Minimum Rate of Perceived Exertion = 8 RPE


  • Training Volume, Work Sets Minimum Reps in Reserve = 2 RIR


  • Training Volume, Work Sets Minimum Reps to Failure = 2 RTF


  • Training Volume, Work Sets, Rest Between Sets = 2 to 3 minutes (3+ minutes, if needed)


    • Rest Between Sets = How do you know if you have rested long enough?


      • Have you recovered your cardiorespiratory system and breathing under control?  


      • Are you focused and mentally prepared to give 100% in your next work set?


      • Do you have fatigue in synergist or supporting muscles?

(for example: Back Exercises – Will your grip, forearm, or biceps limit or hinder performance on the upcoming set?)  


      • Are you recovered enough to perform the set within the prescribed rep range?


When do all of these questions not apply? 


        • Rest-Pause, Timed Sets, AMRAP, AFAP, Myo-Reps, Drop-Sets, and other intensification techniques.


  • Training Volume, Body Part Minimum Frequency = 2 sessions per week


  • Training Volume, Body Part Average Frequency = 2 to 4 sessions per week


  • Training Volume, Body Part Maximum Frequency = 4 to 6 sessions per week


  • Training Volume, Body Part Supramaximal Frequency = 10 to 20 sessions per week  (Typically only used in advanced rehab/injury techniques or skill training)


  • Training Volume, Microcycle Progression = ~ 20% total volume increase (add 1 set per session)


  • Training Volume, Mesocycle Progression = Increase volume 3 or 4 times over 4 to 8 weeks, then lower volume for one week, for “deload phase” or “re-sensitization phase” or “priming phase”.  


    • Example: 
    • Week 1 = 10 sets (Day 1 = 4 sets, Day 2 = 3 sets, Day 3 = 3 sets)
    • Week 2 = 12 sets (Day 1 = 4 sets, Day 2 = 4 sets, Day 3 = 4 sets)
    • Week 3 = 14 sets (Day 1 = 5 sets, Day 2 = 4 sets, Day 3 = 5 sets)
    • Week 4 = 16 sets (Day 1 = 6 sets, Day 2 = 5 sets, Day 3 = 5 sets)
    • Week 5 = 18 sets (Day 1 = 6 sets, Day 2 = 6 sets, Day 3 = 6 sets)
    • Week 6 = 9 sets (Day 1 = 3 sets, Day 2 = 3 sets, Day 3 = 3 sets)
    • Week 7 = 10 sets… Repeat the process of 10 sets, 12 sets, 14 sets, 16 sets, 18 sets, 9 sets.


  • Training Volume:

 Maintenance to Minimal to Maximal Thresholds: Can be affected by nutrition, sleep, supplementation, local fatigue, peripheral fatigue, systemic fatigue, accumulated fatigue, joint/connective tissue fatigue, recoverability, trainability, psychological stress, emotional stress, hormones, medical conditions, genetics, epigenetics, and more… 


  • Training Volume Parameters:

Specifically designed for specific situations and goals. Individualized and modified for particular circumstances and objectives. Monitored and autoregulated as needed by altering sets, reps, load, effort, frequency, tempo, range of motion, muscle action, intensification techniques, exercise selection, and exercise order.



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