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The Complete Guide to Programming for Muscle Gain: Part 2

Shiva Best – Avatar Nutrition Science Editor

October 7, 2017


In Part 1, we discussed the nuts-and-bolts of creating a hypertrophy program, including why it’s important to build muscle, exercise selection, rep schemes, and progressions.

Now we will go a little deeper, answering some common FAQs and honing your mastery of the details. Let’s get right to it.


How Long Do You Need to Train?

Maybe you think you need to spend hours hacking away with cables and dumbbells, piling sets on reps on plates until you’re drenched and exhausted. Or you might believe you can do a 20-minute circuit of exercises you saw in a magazine, a couple of times per week, and catapult into a jacked near-future. It might be easy to shrug these off as extremes, but many people make the mistake of falling into one of these camps, at some point in their training career. And while there’s not much science to say what exactly is best, it stands to reason that there’s a happy middle in there somewhere.

If you’ve read Part 1, you should already understand why doing very short sessions—where the volume of training is limited—won’t be optimal for building muscle.

But if volume is the primary driver of hypertrophy, it can be difficult to understand why more time, and more work, isn’t always better. That can be a hard message to hear, especially for new lifters worried about missing out on the progress they think they could get by spending another hour in the gym. But it’s important to appreciate that after a certain point studies show that doing more work (like extremely high volumes of training) adds little to no improvement over doing less (like a moderate amount of volume). This is why doing 10 sets of 10 reps (“German Volume Training”) isn’t better than doing 5 sets of 10 [1].

So, spending two to three hours collecting set after set with dozens of exercises likely isn’t much better than a 45- to 90-minute session, getting some protein, and going home. Whatever the amount of time you have to train, you can make it work for you and your budding muscles.

TAKEAWAY: Any time between 45 and 90 minutes can be optimal for muscle growth.


Will Cardio Kill Your Gains?

The short answer is: If you’re doing it right, probably not.

The long answer is: There has been a lot of research looking at the “interference effect” between cardiovascular (or endurance) training and resistance training for muscle and strength. Do they contradict each other? Yes, to an extent [2]. A marathon runner will have a lot of trouble building appreciable muscle, and an advanced bodybuilder would likely lose some muscle training for a marathon. This happens for a couple of reasons:


Cardio doesn’t build muscle and instead takes energy away from the systems that might otherwise be adding size. Cardio tends to increase hormones (like cortisol and other stress-related molecules) that are catabolic—meaning they cause a breakdown of energy in the body [3].

Because of this, it’s easy to see why hard-gainers might fear using a little cardio in their programs. But, as they say, a little cardio never hurt anybody. While we do see that cardio can interfere with the ability to gain muscle and strength, small to moderate amounts of cardio training will likely affect muscle-growth very little, or not at all, allowing you to continue to gain mass—albeit at a slightly slower rate [2].

How much is too much? It isn’t quite clear, but if you’re set on doing cardio, then being smart about your choices is the key: try mixed-modal training (switching from one “style”, or mode, of cardio to another, like rowing, cycling, and swimming); choose low-impact modes of training (like cycling or swimming instead of running) to mitigate how beat-up you get from your cardio sessions, which might affect your workouts; and keep your cardio training as far from your resistance training as you can in the week to allow yourself time to recover for more muscle-focused work.

TAKEAWAY: If you want to incorporate cardio, try mixed-modal, low impact modes of training and give yourself enough time to recover before resistance training again.


How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?

Older recommendations—which you can still find in textbooks, web articles, and the abundant words of sleek personal trainers—went something like, “If you want to build muscle, you have to rest 30-90 seconds” or “no more than two minutes.” This is based on what is fast-becoming outdated science: the idea that muscle damage (the literally tearing of muscle fibers) and metabolic stress (like lactate buildup during a hard set) are just as important as muscular tension (which we discussed in Part 1) for building muscle.

But recent research disagrees [4]. If you take short rest-periods between sets and exercises, you’re limiting your ability to recover from one set to the next. That’s fine if you’re trying to tax your recovery capacity, but if you’re trying to build muscle—in which case volume is king—you’ll quickly find that you cannot use as much weight, or do as many reps, as you could if you took longer rest periods. If your primary goal is to gain muscle, your avenue is to accumulate training volume, meaning that the weight, sets, and reps are your main tools. And while short rest periods might not affect your performance with bicep curls, they will kill your chances of hitting the same intensity and volume in the back squat.

Therefore, it’s better to take as long as you need, which usually ends up between three and five minutes between sets of compound exercises [5].

Shorter, and you compromise recovery and performance; longer, and you risk cooling down between sets, or wasting time when you could be training more. Smaller-muscle and isolation movements (like tricep press-downs, leg extensions, and calf raises) are more fluid, and you can get away with those shorter rest-periods—especially if you like to “feel the burn.” But don’t short-change yourself with short rests between big movements.

TAKEAWAY: If your goal is to build muscle, it’s best to take as long as you need to recover between sets.


Is Training to Failure the Key to Success?

“Training to failure” means performing a set until you cannot do any more reps with that weight, or doing set after set until you cannot reach a predetermined rep-range. Just like short rest-periods, you’ll hear lots of talk about how “necessary” it is that you train to failure to make gains.

While training to failure is a way to build muscle [6,7], it certainly isn’t necessary, and it may even be detrimental in the long-term.

training to failure

Why isn’t it necessary? Well, for one, intensity simply doesn’t need to be that high: you can make progress while staying 2-3 reps away from failure (if you could only possibly do 10 reps, then doing 7-8) on most exercises [6,7]. What’s more, if you’re starting a weekly progression in which your goal is to add weight to your compound movements each week, then starting off at failure on Week 1 leaves you nowhere to go in Week 2. If you had instead begun the program staying 2-3 reps from failure, you know you can add weight (and therefore some volume) to next week’s training, leaving you room to make progress over time.

Perhaps more importantly: it’s not always safe to train to failure, especially with heavy compound movements. The more fatigued you are (and failure demands absolute fatigue), the more likely you are to have a technique breakdown that hurts a muscle or joint; and failing a rep with a bench press or overhead press can leave hundreds of pounds floating over you with nowhere to go but down.

Yes, you can mitigate the danger with the right equipment and supervision (such as having safety catches and a spotter), but training to failure will always carry higher inherent risks. And the effort (spotting), time (set-up, extra warm-ups), and money (equipment) required to consistently train to failure is simply excessive… why waste it?

There are useful ways to train to failure that (mostly) avoid the pit-falls discussed. Drop-sets are a great example: if you are doing a light exercise (like tricep rope extensions), you can start with the weight you would normally do for 10 reps and do 8, then drop the weight down a peg on the cable machine and do another 6-8, then drop the weight again, repeating the process until you’re using a very light weight and cannot reach 6-8 reps anymore. Here, you’ve successfully trained to failure, but with a relatively safe exercise and with such a light weight that it’s very unlikely you’d be injured.

TAKEAWAY: Training to failure can be dangerous and is not necessary for muscle gain. Incorporating drop-sets into your training are a safer way to train to failure.


Building a training program for muscle-growth doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, the more you learn about the process, the more you should realize that many of the dogmatic “rules” you’ve been told to follow (long sessions, short rest-periods, training to failure, cutting cardio) don’t matter as much as you thought. Instead, focusing on the core ingredients of mass-building—the right exercises, training splits, rep schemes, and progressions—will keep you training and growing for years to come.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series should have answered most of the basic questions about how to follow this road. If you’re curious about how quickly these strategies will help you gain muscle, check out “How Quickly Can You Gain Muscle Naturally?“. Many swift gains to you.



[1] Amirthalingam T, Mavros Y, Wilson GC, et al. Effects of a modified German volume training program on muscular hypertrophy and strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Nov; (e-publication ahead of print).
[2] Leveritt M, Abernethy PJ, Barry BK, et al. Concurrent strength training and endurance training. Sports Med (1999). 28(6): 413-427.
[3] Bell G, Syrotuik D, Socha T, et al. Effect of strength training and concurrent strength and endurance training on strength, testosterone, and cortisol. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (1997).
[4] Damas F, Phillips SM, Libardi CA, et al. Resistance training-induced changes in integrated myofibrillar protein synthesis are related to hypertrophy only after attenuation of muscle damage. J Physiol. 2016 Sep; 594(18): 5209-5222.
[5] Schoenfeld BJ, Pope ZK, Benik FM, et al. Longer interset rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul; 30(7): 1805-1812.
[6] Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2010). 24(10): 2857-2872.
[7] Willardson JM. The application of training to failure in periodized multiple-set resistance training programs. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2007). 21(2): 628-631.