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July 18, 2023

212 | Training to failure, defining trash volume, high loads, and hypertrophy

Today we are talking about the subject of hypertrophy, and how training to failure, trash, volume, and high loads can possibly play a role in that. And I want to be clear that trash volume does not play a role in hypertrophy. So we will define what trash volume is as well as what higher volume in general can do for hypertrophy potentially.

As I’ve explained on multiple platforms, but for any of you who might need a refresher, hypertrophy just refers to an increase in muscle cell size. When that happens collectively in multiple muscle cells, the overall size of the muscle increases. And we have hypertrophy. So muscle growth, and hypertrophy are and can be used interchangeably.

Hypertrophy is a goal for most people who lift weights in someway shape or form. People either want to put on muscle size because having muscle mass is great for metabolic health, because muscle mass is the potential for strength output if performance goals are what you were into, and, of course, from an aesthetic standpoint, if you want to have a toned appearance, then building muscle would be a goal you have. Probably the primary one.

Training to failure 

There was a point in my own training career that I followed a specific program that took the last set to failure on every exercise. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I put on a large amount of muscle mass during that time. I was also like 19 years old and very much so in a muscle building prime. I was also working out six days a week, and eating like a linebacker. So there were a lot of factors at play there. But I do think that training to failure was one of those significant factors in my muscle growth.

There’s plenty of research that supports, turning to failure and the stimulus of muscle protein synthesis, which we need in order to build muscle. But then we have a question of how often you need to be training to failure, or if you even need to be, or can we get the same effect from trading close to failure. For instance, within 1 to 2 reps of failure. that is my personal philosophy based on experience and the research that I have read. It’s the same as volume which we will get into. There is a point of diminishing returns.

It’s clear that you do need to train close to failure in order to build muscle.

If that is the approach you were taking. The reason behind this is that by training close to failure, you are recruiting as many muscle fibers within that muscle as possible. Range of motion does play a role here as well. But as a general rule of thumb for hypertrophy, one effective approach will be to train many of your working sets, until 1 to 2 reps are left in the tank. That would be an RPE of eight or nine, and an RIR of one or two. Not every set needs to be like this on every single lift. But for a good portion of your working sets, I would argue this does need to be the case.

Specifically for accessory work. Where there is less risk involved training to near failure. On the contrary, I would not suggest this approach for many of your main compound lifts, depending on your training age. Your training age refers to how many years you’ve been consistently lifting weights for. If you have a lot of experience under a heavy, barbell, or moving a heavy barbell, I would be less concerned with you trading close to failure on every set. But even then I might not advise it. I’m just not positive that it’s needed in order to build muscle if that is your goal. There’s definitely research that supports high-volume training as well as high load training for building muscle. And there may be less risk involved with training at the higher volumes with lighter weights. That’s just one perspective. Personal preference also comes into play. And like I said, in trained athletes, there was one study that showed with back squat, that the high volume low load group, as well as the high load low volume group both significantly increased muscle size.

I will also make an argument for training to failure for one phase of training. Not even a full meso cycle, which would be 3+ months. A lot of training is determined by subjectivity if you are not using exact percentages. So that means that you are depending on an RPE need to know what it feels like to have one or two reps left in the tank. I would argue that most people are not training at high enough intensities for the results that they want. So they would need to train to actual failure on a set of given lifts in order to actually feel what it’s like to experience muscle failure.

And to be extra clear, when I say muscle failure, I’m talking about the point at which velocity slows completely to a stop. Form doesn’t break, there’s no pauses. The movement is performed in a controlled manner until the trainee literally just simply cannot complete the rep. That is true muscle failure. And it can be quite safe if performed correctly.

Trash volume

Not all volume is trash volume. But a lot of it is. German volume training is one of the best examples of where we hit diminishing returns with volume. You never want to do more work than you have to to get the results that you want. This is referred to as the minimal dose effect. 

There’s a version of German volume training that uses 10 sets of 10, there is also a cousin of that training programs referred to as the hundreds work out. It can be broken down into sense of the 10, or just accumulating 100 reps as quickly as possible. The certainly may have a hypertrophic effect. But the question remains, could you get the same hypertrophy by only doing 60 reps, or 40 wraps?

Research would suggest that you only need 4 to 6 sets of 10 at the same load in order to get the same hypertrophic fact has 10 sets of 10 with the same load. The extra sets did not actually do anything for hypertrophy. I may be flaws in the study that I am aware of, but it certainly makes sense to me. Have you experienced both 10 x 10 German volume training and the hundreds work out.

The premise of any high-volume training is either to build capacity from work standpoint. Hopefully, having carryover into your ability to do more at higher intensities. Or strictly to build muscle. You’re attempting to achieve that muscular fatigue.

Trash volume refers to anything over that threshold. This is not a definite answer, it’s more of a question that I want you to ponder. When I see workouts that have eight exercises in them I just question if that is absolutely needed. And if it’s eight exercises at 30 reps per exercise, for instance, 3 x 10 on everything, across-the-board to make things easy, That’s 24 sets. And according to one study I read recently they found that 12 to 20 sets is the threshold needed working at challenging loads in order to maximize hypertrophy. I would question if you could do four exercises with three sets each at a challenging load, Maybe over five reps, and achieve hypertrophy. Is that not better than having to complete 30 reps of eight different exercises? Of course, there is context, and those other factors would need to be considered. Maybe someone does need to hit one muscle group from 6+ different angles, I don’t know. But if that was the case, I would then challenge, if maybe they could get away with two sets of eight working until 1 to 2 reps in the tank on every set. Still more efficient than three sets of 10.

That is all I will say about trash volume. One, a lot of programs have it, and it’s not needed. And two, if more people worked closer to failure in their working sets, extra volume is definitely not needed.

Again, I do want to make a note about training age, because someone with a higher training age may actually require higher volume at the same higher loads because they’ve accumulated that work capacity. And their body demands that in order to adapt and achieve further hypertrophy. That’s where the combination of high loads and higher volume might come into play.

High loads

I mentioned a article earlier about trained men who tested back squat, and there was a high volume low load group and a low volume high load group. Both saw hypertrophic effects in the lower body from these different approaches. That was not true, however for benchpress. The Highland group actually saw greater gains. Which could suggest that as training age increases higher loads might be beneficial for hypertrophy. Take that with a very large grain of salt. As there is still a lot of research needed on that. Most research, interestingly, enough is done on untrained individuals. Which never made a whole lot of sense to me, but more studies are coming out with trained athletes, and how they adapt to these different methods.

I think there is a level of individuality that comes in here. I personally have always adapted best from hypertrophy standpoint to higher loads and lower volume. Perhaps that is because I have a larger amount of type two and ANB muscle fibers. That’s complete speculation, but it would make sense hypothetically.

Because I adapt well to this style of programming, it’s also what I tend to enjoy. There was a time in my life where I literally hated doing more than six reps of anything. But from an overall health and training standpoint, that’s not the best approach. Even if you do enjoy and adapt, wild hi load, low-volume training, you will likely benefit from even the metabolic adaptations that come with higher volume training.

But don’t forget that I’ve mentioned several times in this episode that I don’t think most people are training at high enough loads. Even in there high-volume training. Often times I think people associate high load with automatically being low volume.

When I say high load, in terms of low volume, so near maximal loads – then you are training strength potentially more than hypertrophy. It’s not definite. But a likely scenario.

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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.

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