Interested in starting a strength program?
Where do you start? How heavy? How often? What volume?
Research shows that untrained individuals can attain strength gains at 60% of their 1-rep max (1RM) when lifting 3x per week, performing 4 sets per muscle group; whereas, those that are more trained require a load to be 80% of their 1-rep max when lifting 2x per week, performing 4 sets per muscle group to attain strength gains. However, for those who are competitive athletes, they benefit most from load at 85% of their 1RM, 2-3x per week, 8 sets per muscle group.
Why is this?
The initial gains in strength (especially by those who are new to lifting) are due to changes in their neuromuscular firing patterns. This means that the muscle is not changing in girth (i.e. muscle hypertrophy), but it is learning how to activate more efficiently in order to attain the desired result. For those who are more experienced, they require higher intensities of lifting to elicit an appropriate muscle response due to their prolonged training experience.
The discrepancy of eight vs. four sets per muscle group is noted in the competitive athlete due to the concept of progressive overload. Loading a muscle group in a progressive manner is needed in order to attain strength gains; this principle is applicable to all aspects of training. Competitive athletes already have a high level of fitness; in order to progressively load their neuromuscular system, increases in volume and intensity need to occur for gains to be made.
It is important to take note that this study pointed out the number of sets “per muscle group” rather than “per exercise”. When starting a new training program, it is important to understand how to load a muscle and be cautious of not overloading it to the point of injury. Keeping an eye on the number of sets and repetitions given to a specific muscle group can help you to objectively note the volume that is being placed on that specific muscle to minimize risk of injury.
When starting or progressing a strength program, it is important to take into account what your goals are and how experienced you are with lifting. These two things can assist you in your approach to how you want to lift and how often you will incorporate it into your weekly training.
This information is not intended to be medical advice. Consult with your physician or physical therapist before beginning any exercise program.
Reference: Peterson M., Rhea M., and Alvar B.Maximizing strength development in athletes: a meta-analysis to determine the dose-response relationship. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2004, 18(2), 377–382.