How much do we have to lift to get bigger muscles?

So, you’ve decided you want to get swole, how much work do you need to put in to see results?

It seems like the evidence-based fitness folk have come to a fairly strong consensus that optimal volume for building muscle mass is between 10-20 sets per muscle group. But how much time do you (and not a generic human based on a mean) need to spend in the gym to build meaningful muscle? Science can’t tell us that and may never have the answer. And optimal for you has to happen in the context of what you can do consistently without harming yourself and your quality of life in other areas.

I’ve been thinking for a while now about the limits of evidence-based fitness information. I think one of my biggest concerns is that when folks go to science to tell them these sorts of answers to these sorts of questions, they are letting go of the individualization that comes from listening to our own bodies.

But just because there are limits to the science, that doesn’t mean I’m about to argue that it’s all bunk.

Science can’t tell you about your unique needs and circumstances, but that doesn’t mean there’s no utility in gaining the knowledge. I certainly don’t want you to decide how much training is necessary for your goals from pop influencers or someone trying to sell you equipment on late night television. Bowflex–only 20 minutes a day, three days a week, and you too can look like a fitness model!

Science can give us a good starting point–a safe guess for what is more likely to be true. Most of us would probably see very good results from 10-20 sets a week. But it can’t tell us where we land in that fairly large spectrum, and more importantly, it can’t tell us how to fit all that volume into our busy lives. I would argue there’s even more variation in external factors that influence our training time, recovery, and ability to take regular, consistent action towards our goals than in our physiologies.

For example, getting sufficient sleep is important for building an optimal physique. Being well-rested is necessary for our body to rebuild after a training session. However, science cannot tell us how to put down our phone and stop scrolling in bed. Science can show us that eating sufficient protein and calories is essential for building muscle, but it can’t tell you how to navigate getting at least 30 grams of protein at breakfast every day if you’re on a limited income, lactose intolerant and allergic to eggs.

Programming based on evidence-based research is important but individualizing that programming to the athlete/weekend warrior is essential. Assigning someone a set volume may not include checking with what’s realistic for them–what they are ready, willing and able to do at that time. Have they had successes in the past in this area or do they need to build up to it? The best program might include hitting a muscle group at least twice a week, but it might not be the best for you if you can only get to the gym for 30 minutes at a pop. I think seasoned lifters learn this variation and reality check over time (or they’re at increased risk of leaving the work and don’t become seasoned lifters in the first place), but I’m most interested in keeping people in the gym once they’ve had the courage to show up and less interested in the folks who seem to gravitate to it and stick around regardless of external factors.

We could take the same data we use now to give advice on how to optimize and use it to see how flexible we can become and still see results. Analysis of individual variation can tell us the range in which folks were able to have success, and reporting on that range helps to contextualize our own experiences in the gym. So, in that way, the research being done isn’t the problem but rather the questions we’re asking and how the results are being presented. This point was recently made by Iron Culture guest, Martin Refalo, in his discussion of training to failure.

On a related note, another element to evidence-based fitness conversations that makes me uncomfortable is the constant micromanagement of seeking optimal results. How many sets do I need to meet my maximum potential in as short a time as possible? Making use of the answers to this question requires a willingness and ability to do whatever it takes to push to the max.

The focus on optimal training, according to this conversation from Jeff Nippard, comes from the fact that many fitness communicators are maximalists, and they mostly hear from other maximalists on their channels. I can see how a professional bodybuilder like Jeff would be a maximalist, and I’m glad he seems to be developing an appreciation for the huge audience out there for more minimalist training.

What we also learn in this conversation are some guidelines for how little training, again on average, folks can expect to do to still see some kind of progress. Strength can be built on doing a few heavy singles a week, with a high chance of growth for most folks when they add a few back-off sets. Muscle can be built on a few hard sets a week for each movement pattern.

Frankly, I’m thrilled to hear Jeff talk about moving some of his communication in this direction. I bought his Powerbuilding workout programs, looked at the details, scoffed, and never gave them a try. It would be at least 90 minutes each workout in a well-equipped gym (hopefully without having to wait too long for each piece of equipment) for me to complete them. I should have noticed he never gave an approximated session duration or list of necessary equipment in the sales materials. From what I could tell, no consideration was made to make them fit into the typical 1 hour-ish session that most of the other programs I’ve purchased consider to be reasonable and normal.

Of course, these days, even 1-hour lifting sessions performed 3-5 days a week are not reliably available to me. And that brings me back to the limitations of evidence-based information as it is currently being presented–it can’t tell me what I can do today in my current circumstances. Only through trial and error, realistic identification of my current barriers and abilities, and a willingness to run the experiments can I finetune the “optimal” lifting volume for myself at this moment in time. That’s how I came to my current training strategies that I shared last month.

And that’s the scientific spirit I would love to see and hear more of in the evidence-based fitness space. Less focus on optimization and minutia and more focus on learning to take a scientific approach to personalizing our own practice. What questions do I need to ask to steer myself in a more beneficial direction? How do I take the data I have and make meaning out of the noise? How do I decide if something isn’t working for me, or if I’m using the wrong measure of progress? Because studies will never tell us what is best for us, but maybe it can help us figure out which experiments to run and how to think about the results.

Maybe the Bowflex ads had it right? Depending on our goals and life circumstances, 20 minutes a day, three days a week may be all some of us need.

3 thoughts on “How much do we have to lift to get bigger muscles?

  1. You’ve posted about this a few times now and I am amazed more people don’t. Like you I was sort of forced into it due to injuries and other priorities and I had to reassess why I was training and what I hoped to achieve.

    Turns out, arbitrary weight on the bar or being shredded isn’t really that important to me after all, being there for my family and my employer is a somewhat bigger deal, and getting uninjured and being pain free is also right up there.

    Nowadays I write a reasonably sensible program for myself but allow myself flexibility. If I get in the gym three or four times a week and do something close to the plan, that’s a win, but if I want to swap lifts or go lighter or even occasionally take a short break, I do that. But 99% of the time I get in there and do something pretty dang close to the plan. Usually I’m done in well under an hour (probably average 45-50 minutes). Although I’m still injured.

    Too many recreational lifters consume a bunch of advice from bodybuilders and think they have to live like that. It took me a few years to figure it out but that life ain’t for me and I don’t think it’s for most people, honestly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Too many recreational lifters consume a bunch of advice from bodybuilders and think they have to live like that.” Yes!
      I guess I find myself worrying/wondering who the most intense bodybuilder content is for–so much of it can feel like a cynical attempt to get folks when they’re new and naive (or feeling urgency for change). Where’s the stuff helping people keep going when life throws stuff at them?

      It sounds like you have found out, like I have, that flexibility and consistency really are the winning attributes to continuing to do the work. I’m so glad you’ve found a way to work around your injury! Yay!

      Like

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