What is the key to growing muscle? Is it the number of reps or sets? It is spending more or less time in the gym? Arnold Schwarzenegger believed in 3 hour workouts with upwards of 20 sets per workout. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Dorian Yates believed in 45 minute workouts with 1-2 true failure sets. Two very different methods of training yet they both share the key ingredient that is often lacking in most individuals workouts – intensity.
The first thing that individuals tend to key in on when describing a successful workout is the length of time they spent in the gym. However, it has been well documented and proven that muscle growth does NOT occur while training but rather in the hours and days following the workout. The less time you spend in the gym leaves more time for rest, recovery, growth, and adaptation of the muscle and the nervous system. The key is to make the workout as INTENSE as possible regardless of the length of time as it is the intensity that makes your body adapt. Arnold may have spent 3 hours in the gym and Dorian may have spent only 45 minutes but both of those men trained extremely hard for every single minute while in there so they could go home and recover properly.
The next argument for a good workout is usually by comparing numbers such as the number of reps, sets, and exercises that were completed during the workout. Any number of reps and/or sets can easily be completed with little stress on the muscle and if the muscle isn’t stressed, it has no reason to grow and adapt. For example, Arnold could rep a 225lb bench press 5 times easily and his chest would have very little reason to adapt or grow. However, if Arnold could rep a 225lbs bench press 20 times reaching almost complete failure then his chest have to adapt and grow in order to handle this new stress. No matter what rep or set structure that is used, if it isn’t performed with a level of intensity then the body has zero reason to adapt and grow. When it comes to exercise selection, each individual will have their own preferences as the key ingredient is again, performing those exercises with the appropriate intensity to stimulate growth.
So the next time you head to the gym, instead of worrying about how long your workout needs to be or how many sets you need to do – focus on making your workout as hard as it can be with every single rep and set aimed at making your body change. Intensity is the biggest yet most overlooked key to changing your body composition so make use of it the next time you hit the weights.
CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist, Lifestyle & Contest Prep coach.