The "optimal gym workout plan" seems to be the holy grail in the fitness community. The best rep range, the best exercises, the best gym workout split; everyone has a different opinion on what the best way to go about training when it comes to muscle growth and fat loss. As a result, trying to figure out the answers for yourself can be more than a little overwhelming.
We're here to tell you, though, that the optimal gym workout plan comes down to just 3 variables: intensity, volume, and frequency. There is no special workout for chest, workout for back, or leg workout that unlocks massive muscle growth; but rather the combination of factors across all of your body parts.
Sound too good to be true? Read on. We're breaking down the meaning of each of these variables, and how you can implement them in any workout plan to achieve the results you're looking for.
One variable to consider when constructing a workout for optimal muscle growth and retention is intensity. In resistance training programs, intensity is the amount of weight lifted or resistance used in an exercise.1 To adjust intensity, you can increase the amount of weight you are lifting or using as resistance.
Statistical analyses revealed that the 20% improvement in maximum strength by the high resistance-low repetition group was greater than the 8 and 5% gains reported for the medium resistance-medium repetition and low resistance-high repetition groups, respectively.
In layman's terms, this quote explains that if you lift with more weight, you will get stronger faster (but be careful not to do more weight than you can handle).
It is common for intensity to be measured as a percentage of the 1 rep maximum (1RM), or the maximum amount of weight an individual can lift for 1 repetition*.1 For example, if your 1RM for squat is 200 lbs, squatting 100 lbs would be 50%.
While you can figure out your 1RM the old fashioned way in the gym, there are also calculators that you can use to get an estimate. We recommend this calculator from symmetric strength!
It is generally recommended that exercises utilize intensities of 60-80% of your 1RM.2,3 Temporarily going above or below this intensity is commonly practiced in periodized workout plans, especially in advanced lifters.4-7
Another important variable to consider when building your training regimen is volume. In resistance training programs, volume is the total number of repetitions performed during a training session at a given intensity.22 You can adjust the volume by adjusting the total repetitions you are performing during an exercise.5, 23
Resistance training volume is a strong contributor to muscle adaptations, with dose-dependent effects. When equated, volume seems one of, if not the, most important factors affecting muscle hypertrophy, as long as training has sufficient intensity.
To break this down further, volume is one of the most important factors to muscle growth. If you do not work your muscles out enough, they will not grow.
Volume is typically measured on a weekly basis by exercise or muscle group. For example, if you do 3 sets of 10 squats with 100 lbs on Monday and on Friday, your weekly volume for squats is 60 reps at 100 lbs.23
While you could technically get granular in tracking volume for each specific exercise or muscle group in your body, it's more practical to break down volume by major muscle group. There is no agreed-upon division of major muscle groups, but we recommend breaking it down by major compound movements:
- Horizontal push movements (e.g. bench press, chest fly, incline press)
- Horizontal pull movements (e.g. barbell row, incline row, single arm dumbbell row)
- Vertical push movements (e.g. military press, tricep dip, push press)
- Vertical pull movements (e.g. pull up, chin up, rope climb)
- Hip hinge movements (e.g. deadlift, barbell hip thrust, kneeling squat)
- Squatting movements (e.g. back squat, front squat, pistol squat)
We recommend this breakdown because combined, these movement types and their involved muscles cover the vast majority of muscle groups in the body.
In general, major muscle groups show the greatest growth when there are 40-80 repetitions per week per exercise for any given muscle group.23, 28-30 The lower end of this range would be appropriate if you are lifting more weight, and the higher end if you are lifting lighter weight.
The final variable to consider when constructing your training plan is frequency. In resistance training programs, frequency is defined as the number of times a muscle group is exercised within a training week.5
Similar to measuring volume, frequency is typically measured in terms of specific muscle group or exercise. For example, if you do squats on Monday and Friday, your frequency for squats is twice per week.
When comparing studies that investigated training muscle groups between 1 to 3 days per week on a volume-equated basis, the current body of evidence indicates that frequencies of training twice a week promote superior hypertrophic outcomes to once a week.
Research generally suggests that a frequency of 2-3 times per week has been correlated with optimal muscle growth.
When constructing a workout for optimal muscle growth and retention, you should consider intensity, volume, and frequency.
Monitoring your intensity is critical to make sure you are putting forth enough effort to get results, but not too much effort so that you burn out or hurt yourself. Try to keep your intensity in the range of 60-80% of your one rep maximum.
Volume is important to assess whether you have hit your muscles hard enough to get results. Calculating volume is a mix of the repetitions you hit your exercise and the intensity (weight/resistance) applied to the exercise. In practice, if you were to bench press 5 sets of 5 repetitions of 225 lbs, this is weighted comparably as doing 3 sets of 10 repetitions with 180 lbs. Hitting optimal volume ensures that you give your muscles the right amount of work without overdoing it. The ideal weekly volume is in the 60-80 repetitions range.
Frequency measures how often you are targeting a specific muscle group. Science shows that targeting a muscle 2-3 times per week leads to the most muscle gains; however, ultimately it is up to you and how your body responds to determine this. Some people get plenty of results hitting a muscle 1 time a week, others prefer 2 or 3 times, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
- Fry AC. The Role of Resistance Exercise Intensity on Muscle Fibre Adaptations. Sports Medicine. 2004;34(10):663-679. doi:10.2165/00007256-200434100-00004 Link
- Cureton KJ, Collins MA, Hill DW, Mcelhannon FM. Muscle hypertrophy in men and women. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1988;20(4):338-44. Link
- Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA. Fundamentals of resistance training: progression and exercise prescription. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36(4):674-88. Link
- Anderson T, Kearney JT. Effects of three resistance training programs on muscular strength and absolute and relative
endurance. Res Q Exerc Sport. 1982;53(1):1-7. Link
- Campos GE, Luecke TJ, Wendeln HK, et al. Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002;88(1-2):50-60. Link
- Stone WJ, Coulter SP. Strength/Endurance Effects From Three Resistance Training Protocols With Women. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 1994;8(4). https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/1994/11000/Strength_Endurance_Effects_From_Three_Resistance.5.aspx. Link
- Weiss LW, Conex HD, Clark FC. Differential Functional Adaptations to Short-Term Low-, Moderate-, and High-Repetition Weight Training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 1999;13(3). https://journals.lww.com/nsca jscr/Fulltext/1999/08000/Differential_Functional_Adaptations_to_Short_Term.10.aspx. Link
- Tran QT, Docherty D, Behm D. The effects of varying time under tension and volume load on acute neuromuscular responses. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006;98(4):402-10. Link
- American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med
Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687-708. Link
- Figueiredo VC, De salles BF, Trajano GS. Volume for Muscle Hypertrophy and Health Outcomes: The Most Effective Variable in Resistance Training. Sports Med. 2018;48(3):499-505. Link
- Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomeé R. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports Med. 2007;37(3):225-64. Link
- Ferreira DV, Gentil P, Soares SRS, Bottaro M. Recovery of pectoralis major and triceps brachii after bench press exercise. Muscle Nerve. 2017;56(5):963-967. Link
- Ogasawara R, Yasuda T, Ishii N, Abe T. Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013;113(4):975-85. Link
- Dankel SJ, Mattocks KT, Jessee MB, et al. Frequency: The Overlooked Resistance Training Variable for Inducing Muscle Hypertrophy?. Sports Med. 2017;47(5):799-805. Link
- Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016;46(11):1689-1697. Link