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How Much Does It Take For Muscle To Grow?
Your Guide To Effective Training.
What does it actually take to trigger muscle growth?
This question can only be answered with the time-old “it depends” response.
This is going to be completely individual, depending on your genetics, lifting experience, training methods, and much, much more.
However, the human body is not all that unique. We each have the same sets of organs, cells, muscles, and other basic biological setups.
For this reason, we can infer and draw conclusions of what will work for most people as muscle growth is a very physiologic function all humans are capable of.
So what is the “optimal” amount to stimulate growth?
What Does It Take To Stimulate Muscle Growth
On paper, the answer is 2 to 20 sets a week. Okay… that’s a huge range and really doesn’t give us a concrete answer or really any type of framework to build a program.
A lot of literature points to volume as being the main driver of growth; however, this is out of context and all depends on how hard our sets are.
Conversely, we have seen programs like Mike Mentzer’s High Intensity Training, Dorian Yates, DC Training, and numerous other programs that produce absolutely massive results with as few as 1 set per body part a week.
What we should then do is see what middle ground and underlying factors we can draw to determine what we need to actually stimulate muscle growth.
When you look at both the literature, anecdotal and empirical evidence, and real world results, you can start to draw conclusions.
What we come to find is quality of sets and how intense we work will determine how much work we need to do.
This will be rather individual dependent - how hard can you push sets and how long does it take to recover between sessions?
If you are the type of person who can take sets to failure and even push beyond failure then you likely need very little volume to stimulate muscle growth.
If you just don’t enjoy intense workouts and like to take it easier—to achieve the same result—you’re going to need more volume.
So where does that leave us in terms of an answer to this question?
Setting Up and Adjusting Your Training
So, if we break this down in a logical and methodical manner, we can see that this question doesn’t have a definitive answer but rather a “blueprint” of how we should set up training.
For the average person, 8-16 sets per body part a week is going to be what we’re going after for muscle growth.
We’ll also assume you train with adequate intensity as we know intensity is the driver of muscle growth.
How you set this up will be completely dependent on a few factors:
What Is Your Training Experience
I won’t leave this as nuanced as this post has been so far—I have general advice for how to cater this to your own goal.
Beginners are likely not going to have the training and recovery demands as advanced lifters.
For you, your focus is going to be on developing proper form and movement patterns and mastering the basics.
You likely will not be doing very specified work and will be focusing on the “biggest bang for your buck movements”—things like getting good at the compound lifts.
The logic behind this is that you do not need to work more specific body parts like a push day or even a day for individual body parts—a bro split.
You will see results (and there is only so much muscle we can put on in a certain time period due to a chemical called myostatin) from the basics, so we don’t need to worry about doing additional work or stimulus on specific body parts—less is more.
How you break this down will come down to how frequently you want to go to the gym and how well you recover. If you can’t walk for 2 days after leg day, it doesn’t make much sense to due a Full-Body Split every other day, an Upper/Lower would work better as there is more time for recovery between sessions.
Ideally, you want to start with the minimum effective dose, so you would want to opt for lower volume - say 8 total sets per body part a week vs pushing to the upper limit of 16 sets per body part a week.
If running a 3 day Full-Body, you simply need 2-3 sets per muscle per workout to reach this minimum effective volume.
If running a 3 or 4 Day Upper/Lower Split then you are, on average (the math doesn’t work out perfect), hitting each muscle twice a week, so 4 sets per muscle a workout session.
From this point you will adjust based on feedback.
Are you feeling crushed after session or are you recovering relatively quick?
If the former, you might need to reduce frequency or do less volume.
If the latter, then you can increase frequency or add slightly more volume (1 additional set per body part until you feel challenged).
If unsure, you can almost ensure muscle growth is happening as long as the weight in the gym is increasing session to session, week by week.
What defines as intermediates is typically someone who has achieved their “newbie gains”, understands basic movement patterns, and has started to realize they have more certain demands that need to be met.
Typically by this time you have somewhat of an understanding of how you should be lifting and how much volume you need.
An issue a lot of intermediates run into is they think because their growth slowed down from their “newbie gains” they need to throw more and more volume to keep getting results.
The reality is that muscle growth HAS slowed down and will only continue to do so the longer you lift. This makes it ever so more important to listen to feedback from your lifts (increasing weight and reps) and your body (how recovered you are after sessions).
At this point you are actually starting to move REAL weight, so you can even potentially dial back volume or even frequency a bit—say going from a 3 day full-body split to a 3 day upper/lower split.
This is because you will have more recovery demands simply from the fact you are pushing more weight.
My suggestion is to find the happy-medium between volume and recovery—you’re doing enough to be challenged in the gym, but not enough that you are sore for days after a session.
You likely will increase volume and maybe even specify your split more (more focus on specific body parts).
Simply adding an additional movement, like an isolation or accessory movement, for each body part will likely supply the extra little volume you need and the additional stimulus on the muscle to continue growth.
Most will be doing 10-12 sets per body part a week, and splitting that between 2-3 movements, for 1-3 sets, and hitting that body part twice a week.
If you get to advanced, by definition this means you understand your body, your recovery capabilities, and how you need to train.
However, it’s nice to have a friendly reminder as we like to get lost in our own heads and fall into thinking traps (fallacies like more = more).
It’s important to remember that you are advanced and likely pushing serious weight, your recovery demands have greatly increased.
You might find yourself doing even less volume as you get even more advanced.
A difference will be you will likely have to make your training split even more specific to accomodate the needs for stimulus.
This is where splits like Push Pull Legs, or even individual body part splits (The Bro Split) come into play as it breaks down the body to even more specific muscle groups.
This does a few things for us:
It allows more rest between sessions per muscle group to accommodate recovery demands (our demands are higher as we’re moving more weight/causing more stress).
Allows us to really dial in and focus on specific body parts and provide them the stimulus they need for further muscle growth.
At this point your logbook and feedback is going to play a larger role as muscle growth will be even slower and less apparent. We must focus on the numbers and make adjustments based on this feedback.
Again, if the numbers are going up, you can be pretty damn sure you are growing muscle, especially as making weight increases gets even harder at this level.
What To Do With This Information
Truly, you can never be successful with your fitness journey if you don’t learn what specifically works for you.
As we can see, what triggers muscle growth is a huge range that almost makes no sense (2-20 sets per week).
This means it comes down to you, your training style, and your feedback to determine what is going to work best for you.
Fortunately, I’ve been around the block and have seen what typically works and how this process goes. We can have a blueprint of sorts that can help guide us in the right direction towards our physique goals and continued muscle growth.
At the end of the day, as the old adage says “there’s a thousand ways to skin the cat” so it is your responsibility to figure out which way of “skinning the cat” works best for you.
This is not Legal, Medical, or Financial advice. Please consult a medical professional before starting any workout program, diet plan, or supplement protocol. These are opinions from a Cartoon Ox.