Decoding the Science of Exercise Order and Volume for Muscle Growth

Exercise order and volume play pivotal roles in muscle development, with interactions between variables like intensity, rest intervals, and choice affecting outcomes. To optimize hypertrophy, it's crucial to consider the total weekly volume for each muscle group, aiming for a minimum of 10 working sets per week, while also ensuring a balanced approach between upper and lower body exercises.

When it comes to designing an effective workout routine, understanding the principles of exercise order and volume is paramount. These elements play a pivotal role in the outcome of your training sessions, influencing both strength and hypertrophy gains.

Exercise Order and Choice:

Exercise order can be described as the sequence in which you perform exercises during a workout. While there is some flexibility in this aspect, it's crucial to understand the underlying science to maximize your results. Traditional strength and power protocols advocate for starting with compound movements — those that engage multiple muscle groups. Examples include squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. These exercises are often more demanding and thus are typically done at the beginning when energy levels are highest.

However, when targeting muscle hypertrophy (growth), the rules can be more flexible. One popular approach is "pre-fatigue," where an isolated exercise targeting a specific muscle is performed before compound exercises. For instance, one might start with isolated biceps curls before progressing to pulling movements like rows or pull-ups. By pre-fatiguing the biceps, they are ensured a rigorous workout even when they act as secondary muscles in subsequent exercises.

Understanding Volume:

Volume, in fitness parlance, refers to the total amount of work you do. It's generally expressed as the product of repetitions and sets for a particular exercise. There's a direct relationship between volume and intensity: lifting heavier weights (higher intensity) typically means you'll perform fewer repetitions.

To optimize muscle growth, you need to hit a certain volume threshold for each muscle group. Research suggests a baseline of 10 working sets per muscle group per week. However, for intermediate to advanced athletes, aiming for 15 to 20 sets might be more beneficial. Those who are highly trained might even push towards 25 sets, although it's essential to note that exceeding this could be counterproductive.

Direct vs. Indirect Activation:

A key consideration is understanding direct and indirect muscle activation. For instance, while chin-ups primarily target the back muscles, they also indirectly engage the biceps. So, if one were to perform 10 sets of chin-ups in a week, would that count towards the volume for biceps training? The answer lies in how effectively an individual activates the target muscle during an exercise. Some might engage their biceps more during chin-ups, while others might engage their back predominantly.

A Common Mistake:

One widespread error in exercise programming is not giving adequate attention to the lower body. Labeling the entire lower body as "legs" and dedicating just one day to it can lead to imbalances. The lower body comprises multiple muscle groups, each deserving individual attention. A more balanced approach would be to allocate equal training days to the upper and lower body or even split the "leg" day into more specific muscle group days, like quads, hamstrings, and calves.

The Takeaway:

While there's no one-size-fits-all approach, understanding these principles can guide individuals in crafting workout routines that align with their goals. Whether you're aiming for strength, hypertrophy, or both, being informed about exercise order and volume is a game-changer.

more insights...