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The Best Workout Program For Muscle Growth?

June 04 2009

I am often asked if I have tried this particular exercise program like P90X, MaX-OT, Crossfit, HST & so forth. And I say you don’t have to try each and every program to see if it works. As long as the program is based on the fundamental physiological principles of muscle growth (or fat loss) they all work. Or they should work.

So let’s look at the key elements of an exercise program to increase muscle growth?

Weight Lifted: The load or the weight lifted is one of the most important determinants for muscle growth. It is usually expressed as the number of reps.

For muscle growth, 6-12 reps with proper form is considered optimal. If you are doing 20 reps or higher, it is too less weight to cause any significant damage or stretch to the muscle which is what ultimately kicks starts the process of muscle growth.

I have come across come across a lot of programs revolving around light weights and bodyweight exercises. They do burn a few more calories but is below par for stimulating muscle growth. And it doesn’t matter how good the model look – you can’t just change human physiology.

Volume: Not just the weight or load, but how many times you lift the weight or the “time under tension” matters too. Volume is inversely related and secondary to the weight lifted or the load.


Figure: Graph showing how volume and frequency is inversely related to weight lifted

A good exercise program will ensure the right volume; that is, not too much or not too less. So what is that right volume? It can be anywhere from 1-3 sets per exercise. So if you are doing 3 exercises for chest the total volume comes around 3- 9 sets for chest in a workout.

If you are doing 20-25 sets per bodypart per workout, you better be chemically- assisted or someone with incredible genetics. Most people who do a high volume sacrifice load or weight lifted, which is probably the number one priority for a natural lifter.

Periodization: Periodization is based on the simple fact that nobody can workout at their 100% in every single workout. They will soon get hit by fatigue and overtraining symptoms. The harder you workout, the sooner you will hit by symptoms of overtraining.

Periodization helps us to manage or prepare for this fatigue (both muscular & CNS fatigue). A good program will have some sort of periodization built into to it take care of the fatigue.

Some common periodization strategies include changing the weight used, changing the sets & reps, taking a week off, and so on.

Frequency: How many days should you hit a body part in a week?  There is some anecdotal and scientific evidence to show that twice a week for a body part or a higher frequency is better than the typical once- a -week routine.

That been said, there might be a subset of people who do well exercising one body party a week. The problem with using a higher frequency is that you just cannot go all out in both the workouts. Periodization becomes absolutely necessary with a higher frequency program.

Progressive Overload: This is the cardinal rule in weight lifting. All the above rules matter the least, if you cannot increase the weight you are lifting. It is also the very reason we use “weight” training.

This is probably the most ignored rule in the gym or exercise programs. If you increase the weights you lift, your muscles can’t help but grow.


There are a lot of programs using a lot of unnecessary scientific jargon and fairy tale theories which might need a background in exercise physiology and research to analyze critically. I feel like the more I know about the field, the harder it is to find a decent program or a fitness expert who is more concerned about improving his knowledge than just marketing and profits.

It may not be the best, but a program which sticks to the above elements will not be too far from the best.

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Anatoly | Thu June 04, 2009  

Peoples often concentrate on training, while completely forgetting the fact that success in body mass building depends much more (3/1 I guess) on how do they eat and sleep, and not how they trains.

Of cause it’s out of scope of this article, I guess.
Thanks, Anoop

Anoop | Fri June 05, 2009  

Hi Anatoly,

I agree 100% about diet. I wanted to write something about diet too but was getting too long.

Thanks for the comment!

Jim@TBF | Sun June 07, 2009  

You know, this article ruins your chances on writing a book on Anoop’s Super Secret Training Program.

On another not, great article summarizing solid principles that you have been so hard working to teach all of us!

pattybirk | Fri September 04, 2009  

Thanks - Good stuff. PS…I would buy your book!

J Dawg | Thu September 10, 2009  

Anoop, thanks for all the great information on this post and the others.  I especially liked the post about why one shouldn’t change exercises often.

Anoop | Thu September 10, 2009  

Thanks Patty & J Dawg for taking the time to comment.

Don’t forget to send the articles to your friends.

pattybirk | Thu September 10, 2009  

I’ve included you in my facebook, and forwarded the website to my fitness contacts. They know I respect you. However - I find most (non-fitness)people want the cool, fast and easy way to be fit. They don’t seem interested in solid facts. I guess that’s why fitness and exercise is a muti-million dollar industry and the industry preys on the these false hopes….
ps - where is the post about “why one shouldn’t change exercises often”.

Anoop | Sat September 12, 2009  

Hi Patty,

That’s very true. People care the least about the science or an evidence-based approach.

You will find those articles under Category “muscle Growth”. Or they are all under the “Training page”. Let me know if you can’t find them

highstandards | Mon November 28, 2011  

You said: “For muscle growth, 6-12 reps with proper form is considered optimal. If you are doing 20 reps or higher, it is too less weight to cause any significant damage or stretch to the muscle which is what ultimately kicks starts the process of muscle growth.”

What about inducing muscle fatigue by doing a high number of reps with 60% of 1RM? Shouldn’t that make the fast twitch muscle grow as well?

rohit jain | Thu May 02, 2013  

Hi anoop,iam a regular reader and ran across lots of articles of yours. U serves undoubtly realistic approaches.

Anoop | Sat May 04, 2013  

Thank you Rohit. Hope you liked on facebook or twitter.

Terry Callaghan | Fri September 11, 2015  

Hello Anoop

I’ve just found your site and it’s very interesting.

I’m a 62 year old male and started at a gym in May this year after spending three weeks on a course devoted to getting people active. All those on the course had chronic back pain. The course was run by an orthopaedic hospital.

At the gym I do 8 different exercises covering arms, back, chest and legs. I do 3 sets on each exercise. I start with a lower weigh @ 20kg and do 20 to 30 reps then increase the weight each time and lower the reps. I go to the gym twice a week. I am gradually trying to get to a point where I will be doing 3sets of 8-15 reps with higher weights. Is this method ok or should I be going for 70% of 1RM straight away. I also do 30 mins cardio at the same gym sessions.
King regards Terry

Anoop | Fri September 11, 2015  

Thank you, Terry!

What you are doing is good. You are slowly moving to heavier weights. Just make sure you stick with it for long.

Also, if you have pain, try this article: http://www.exercisebiology.com/index.php/site/articles/what_should_fitness_professionals_understand_about_pain_and_injury/

What do you think?



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