Here I am going to compile some of the rare facts about weightlifting that exercise science has actually given the world. I don’t claim any expertise, this is just from reading sites like Suppversity and words from world class trainers. Also most of this research is done on complete noobs and therefore might not be as pertinent to a more advanced trainee.
Reps: It is well established that lower number of repetitions (<6) build strength and higher (8-12) reps are for hypertrophy and even higher enhances muscular endurance. Research has also shown that the most benefit from working out is usually achieved working with 80% of your one rep maximum. This corresponds to somewhere in the 5-8 rep range. So don’t be a pansy and lift heavy.
Sets: A meta-study concluded that 40% more hypertrophy is accrued with three sets over one set and that further sets have marginal benefit. Some argue you can get strong with just one set, but this is not conclusive. Another study compared groups doing 4, 6 and 8 sets and found that those doing more sets plateaued more slowly. If you look at bodybuilding routines there is a lot of volume so I am inclined to believe that advanced trainees need more sets for each bodypart.
Time Between Sets: One study showed no difference in hypertrophy for different rest times, but found greater strength increases with longer (up to five minute rests). Another found decreasing rest times across workouts increased hypertrophy but hurt strength gains. I would say three to five minutes is good, maybe mix in some lower rest times for cosmetic muscles (forearms, calves, maybe arms).
Workouts per Week: Short answer is three per a bodypart for noobs and 2 for advanced.
Which exercises: There are EMG studies on this, but it is not really an exact science. Just make sure you hit everything with a reasonable exercise that you like.
Noob Routine: Go with some variation of Starting Strength to learn the big lifts and build some strength. Getting strong quickly on SS and then shifting to hypertrophy focus is going to make you bigger faster than hypertrophy from the beginning since you wont be able to lift anything at first.
SS is usually something like every other day alternating the following routines
The original Starting Strength has Power Cleans instead of barbell rows, but the program is woefully lacking in back work and power cleans are hard and not really hitting any muscle not hit by squats and deadlifts. I would also add chin ups/pull ups to get some more bicep and back work.
Deadlifts are one set of five and everything else is three sets of five. If you complete that at a weight, add weight next time. You may need to decrease deadlift frequency once it gets heavy.
You will notice that it by happenstance follows most of the research in how you would construct a strength program for a completely untrained individual.
Another option I am pondering follows research that undulations of training volume (i.e. rep ranges) elicit the most gains. Here is my take that combines Layne Norton’s PHAT, Texas Method Advanced and other upper/lower splits. I modified Norton’s because it is an enormous volume of work and I want daily undulation rather than between workout undulation. TMA is very powerlifting oriented and so I want to add a bit of volume for hypertrophy.
Upper Day 1:
Bench Press 3×5
Horizontal Row (Barbell, Cable, etc.) 3×5
Seated DB Shoulder Press 3×8
Chin Ups (high rep bodyweight for three sets)
Any additional arm work
Lower Day 1:
Miscellaneous (calves, forearms, abs)
Upper Day 2:
Overhead Press 3×5
Chin Ups (weighted for 3×5)
Bench Press 3×8
Horizontal Row 3×8
Lower Day 2:
Miscellaneous (calves, forearms, abs)
As you can see we are doing each muscle group twice a week and we are hitting it in different rep ranges. This is about as close to that ridiculous “muscle confusion” that infomercials talk about that you want to get. The goal here is to lift heavy first to increase strength and then add high rep volume for mass gains. It is just another instance where exercise science and bro wisdom coincide.
If you don’t care about vanity muscles you can put back work on Lower Day, but I find that after squatting and deadlifting I am really tired and vanity muscle exercises are relatively easy.
Next up is supplements and nutrition.