This is a post on how I usually go about setting up my workout plan for muscle gain.
Note: As of November 2022, I have made modifications to this system. The modified-system has been added to the end of this post as a new section.
Over the past year, I have largely shifted to a Rating Perceived Exertion (RPE) based system which allows for a more flexible approach to training.
With the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down all gyms, I got together a bunch of free weights which I bought online and some of which had been collecting dust for ages in the storage room.
My earlier style of training was based on the standard fixed sets and reps routines. I would plan my training block beforehand with a certain number of sets-per-exercise in the plan. The rep ranges would be fixed and I would move up the weight when I crossed the upper limit of my rep range over time.
So, the only variable in this form of training was the weight.
If I was easily breaking through all of my rep goals, I would just bump up the weight a notch. If I struggled to even hit the lower rung of the rep range, I would drop the weight a notch. Rinse and repeat.
Then I came across Eric Helms‘ and Dr. Mike Israetel’s works on training and hypertrophy and learnt that the RPE style of training could be superior to what I was doing. I decided to incorporate it starting my next training block but then the pandemic hit. Oh well. But it turned out to be the perfect opportunity to test out this new system. Here is why.
The Rating Perceived Exertion (RPE) based system is a subjective style of training. It relies on the individual’s perception of exertion during a set, and uses autoregulation to determine number of sets and reps.
It uses a scale ranging from 1-10 to let the lifter estimate how much effort they put into the last set. However, this system is not appropriate for a novice lifter because of this very reason.
Novice lifters may not be the best judge of their own strength, and can end up over or underestimating their RPE leading to subpar training results.
The RPE system has been also adapted into the Reps in Reserve (RIR) system by champion IPF Powerlifter Mike Tuchscherer. Here, 0 Reps in Reserve (RIR) corresponds to 10 RPE, 1 RIR corresponds to 9 RPE, 2 RIR corresponds to 8 RPE and so on.
This is the method that I have adapted towards my training protocol. Regarding why this method is perfect for my present state of at-home training, I’ll talk about in a moment.
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The factors that determine an efficient workout program
It is the total work performed. It is technically measured by (Sets x Reps x Weight) which equals tonnage. For convenience, the most widely accepted definition of volume is the total number of hard sets that you perform. Volume is a key component of building muscle, that is hypertrophy training. Hypertrophy tends to increase as volume increases but it has diminishing returns after a certain point. Beyond a limited number of sets, hypertrophy may even regress. So more sets isn’t always better.
It refers to how often you train each muscle group within the course of a week. It is useful in distributing your volume over a week. Instead of blasting your chest with 10 sets in one workout, you could split it into two workouts of 5 sets each. In fact, a frequency of 2 times a week has been shown to be much superior to training each muscle group just once a week.
It is the load or weight that you use as a percentage of your 1 Rep Max. Higher percentages are usually great for strength development while for hypertrophy, both high and low intensities work just as well. However loads under 30% are usually considered suboptimal for muscle building.
Any form of hypertrophy or strength training is built on the foundation of progressive overload, that is you must increase the amount of work you do over time. This can be done in many ways: by increasing volume, by increasing intensity, by reducing rest periods or by decreasing Reps in Reserve (RIR). For my setup, I rely primarily on decreasing RIR week to week while only slightly increasing my weights (which corresponds to intensity). This is the very reason why RIR has been a godsend during this lockdown. Even with limited weights, I can still progressively overload with the same weight, just by decreasing my RIR over a period of weeks.
On optimal weekly volume
Dr. Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodization provides certain guidelines on the weekly volumes that different muscle groups require for optimal growth. We wouldn’t discuss the entire theory in depth. Let us however look at just the key aspects. He mentions 3 kind of volumes.
MEV or Minimum Effective Volume is the minimum amount of volume per week that is required by the average athlete to make decent gains in terms of muscle mass. So while setting up a training plan, we should ensure that we are at least hitting our MEV goals for every muscle group that we plan to grow.
MV or Maintenance Volume is the number of sets required to maintain your existing muscle mass and strength.
MRV or Maximum Recoverable Volume is the volume beyond which your recovery suffers and instead of getting stronger, you are more likely to suffer setbacks and if unlucky, an injury. MRV can vary according to training experience, genetics and other factors. But for the purpose of this post, we’ll just focus on MEV so as to not overcomplicate things for beginners. If you’d like to read more about the system, I’ll leave a link at the bottom of the page to Dr. Israetel’s work.
How I set up my program using the above guidelines
I plan my training in blocks of 4 weeks followed by a deload week. My RIR progression from week 1-4 looks like this:
Currently, I do an Upper-Lower split with different body parts prioritised on different days.
Right now I am working on my shoulders and arms so you’ll notice that exercises that target these body parts are placed earlier in the session.
As you are fresh at the beginning of any session, it is best advised to set up your program to hit your target muscle groups right then instead of leaving them towards the end. Here’s an example.
In the above example, on week 1, I’d do Barbell Rows with (45+5) KGs (the only bar I have right now weighs 5 KGs) at 3 RIR. On week 2, I would row (47.5+5) KGs at 3 RIR. Week 3 will be at 2 RIR and finally Week 4 ends at 1 RIR.
The gradual progression in RIR ensures that I am implementing progressive overload principles.
However you’d notice that my reps are all over the place for any given exercise. That is because as you train every set with an RIR goal, you’d have lesser and lesser reps in the tank as you progress through sets. This is due to muscle fatigue.
Since muscle hypertrophy has been proven to occur in the entirety of the rep range from 6-30 reps, it doesn’t make any difference to the efficiency of the workout, whether you’re able to perform 7 reps or 27 reps in a set. What matters is if you are able to hit your target Reps in Reserve (RIR).
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Here is another example day from my week.
Since I like my training sessions to be short, I usually keep them under 15 sets per workout. This lets me be done with my entire workout within an hour including warmup and stretching.
If I was someone who couldn’t train everyday, I would have packed in more work per session and done a lower frequency week with 3 or 4 days of training.
However, lower frequency of training means that I’d be at the gym (or right now, at my pseudo “homegym”) for longer, which I’d rather not be. But both training frequencies are equally effective and you can build your own program either way.
The main advantage of this system is that it avoids unnecessary training to failure every session which has been shown to provide similar results over time as training just close to failure.
However, training to failure comes with the added burden of additional local and systemic fatigue and a greater propensity for injuries. So, there is nothing to gain but potentially a lot to lose by training to failure all the time.
So far, the Reps in Reserve (RIR) style of training has been absolutely wonderful.
I am progressing well in terms of strength and size from one training block to the next. If you are a lifter with at least 6 months of serious training under your belt, this is a great system to build your program around. It is backed by research and is used by some of the best athletes in the world for autoregulation.
Here is the link to Dr. Mike Israetel’s work on ‘Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth’. If you want to learn more, go check it out. I hope you took away something useful from this post which will help you tweak your own program for superior results.
New System (updated November 2022)
I no longer run blocks of 4 weeks each. Instead I run 7-day training cycles repeated 6 times as one block, followed by a deload week.
This is what my current split looks like (I still train with limited equipment at home so there are limitations to exercise variety):
Please note that this split is designed taking into consideration my personal strong and weak points. It may not provide you the best results.
I keep number of sets fixed throughout the training block. This is primarily to keep workout time predictable and constrained.
I no longer make progressions from week-to-week using Reps in Reserve (RIR). Instead for every exercise, all final sets are taken to failure every session.
For single-joint exercises, all sets are taken to failure. Sometimes I add drop sets at the end for these.
If there are 3 total sets for a given exercise, here’s what it looks like: First set with 3 RIR; second set with 2 RIR; last set to failure. If there are only 2 sets in total, I’ll do the first set with 2 RIR and the second set to failure.
I train in the rep range 6-20 for most exercises except for those inducing high fatigue like Zercher Squats, Barbell Rows and Romanian Deadlifts. For these I train in the the 6-12 rep range. Once I hit the upper end of the rep range in any set, I bump up the weight for the next session.
The weight used remains fixed across sets of the same exercise during a single training session.
There are no fixed rest days.
Day 1 for me is as good as a rest day. If I feel less recovered, I’d take a complete day off. But no consecutive rest days are allowed.
I made the above changes after completely having taken time off training since January 2022 to focus on other things and resuming after 8 months of de-training in October 2022.
To learn about my experience with muscle loss that occurred during the de-training period and the subsequent regain process, read: How Quick After Having Lost Muscle Mass Will You Regain It Back?
What does your current program look like? Are you looking to make a change?