Most men come to the gym with the goal of improving their aesthetics. Often they look for guidance through various channels of information, the most common being Google, YouTube, or a fitness blog.
These can be a great place to start, but all beginners and many intermediates run into the same fundamental problem. They don’t have a pre-existing understanding of nutrition and exercise and therefore have no way to evaluate the quality of the information being shared.
A common trend is to look to the professionals who have accomplished a great deal in an attempt to learn from their experience. But this poses an additional problem since even accurate information applied incorrectly will be ineffectual.
This article will explore critical aspects of the development of an athlete and mechanisms of hypertrophy to elucidate the unseen pitfalls of following the advice of professionals. We will then summarize the findings to come up with practical, actionable steps to improve your own training and hypertrophic gains.
Understanding the Novice Body Building Athlete
It’s common among novice athletes to see increases in work-set load during every session. This can go on for weeks and even months as the athlete is developing.1 There are several reasons for this.
The first is an inability to exceed the athlete’s recovery capacity which is commonly observed in novice athletes. Due to the relative inexperience of the athlete, motor skills are undeveloped which prevents the use of heavy loads.2 Thus positive adaptations in strength primarily result from improved motor performance.3
The increased difficulty in exceeding the trainee’s recovery capacity means that common features in more advanced program designs such as deloads are inappropriate. Additionally, percentage-based programs that take a non-linear approach to load progression become ineffective since the rate of adaptation is rapid and unpredictable.
For this and several other reasons, research on youth and novice athletes often recommend higher repetition ranges to increase exercise exposure, improve skill acquisition, and indirectly manage load.4,5
During the initial training process auto-regulation is an effective method to adapt each training session to the athletes level of preparedness.4 However, since novice athletes cannot accurately assess difficulty, the efficacy of this method relies exclusively on the guidance of an experienced coach.6
As trainees progress from novice to advanced, training variables shift significantly. A 2004 study by Kraemer et al. found: “The resistance training program design should be simple at first for untrained individuals but should become more specific with greater variation in the acute program variables during progression.”7
These findings are in line with the larger body of research showing the high adaptive potential of novice athletes compared to their advanced counterparts who require greater specificity and structure.
Due to undeveloped motor ability, the novice lifter should avoid loads or repetitions in reserve approximating failure to minimize risk of injury.7 Even loads as light as 45-50% 1RM have been shown to significantly increase muscular strength in novice lifters7 due to improved motor learning and coordination. Beyond that, the volume requirements are much lower for novice lifters than advanced.7
For this reason, it’s often recommended that 2-6 exercises are implemented per workout.8 A meta-analysis determining the dose-response relationship for strength development found: “Untrained participants experience maximal gains by training each muscle group 3 days per week. Four sets per muscle group elicited maximal gains in both trained and untrained individuals.”9
Distributing volume across more exercises can allow you to maintain higher volumes without accumulating excessive specialized fatigue and produce greater hypertrophic responses. 10,11 This can be a valuable approach since the work capacity of a novice lifter is significantly lower than advanced athletes.7,12,13
Training frequency is also an important factor, with novice lifters typically requiring less recovery time between training bouts when appropriate loads are selected.14,15 Research on training frequency seems to support the recommendation of three sessions per week.7
Since the intensity often prescribed to a novice lifter is between 45-50% 1RM the athlete can maintain a high frequency of exercises to increase exposure and improve technical proficiency.3
The use of androgenic-anabolic steroids and other pharmacological interventions is a stark reality in sports.16 As several studies have found, the impact of these substances can be dramatic.17
Unsurprisingly, the use of sports supplements can dramatically impact hypertrophy, strength, recovery, speed/power, and several other athletic qualities.17 The use of sports supplements for athletic development is a highly complex subject and one that I am not qualified to speak on.
Suffice it to say that training and nutrition protocols differ between natural and enhanced lifters. Therefore, training tactics and strategies used by enhanced athletes have diminished application to natural athletes and especially novices.
Understanding the Principles of Hypertrophy
Although there are several factors mediating the hypertrophic responses, by and large, the two most significant are mechanical tension and volume.18 Mechanical tension can be thought of as stretch under load (intensity of 1RM), and volume, in this case, can be calculated as:
Volume = Reps x Sets x Load18
General Guidelines For An Intermediate Lifter:18
Intensity: 60-80% 1RM Repetitions: 6-15 Rest Between Sets: 2-3 minutes for compound exercises Sets Per Exercise: 6+ Proximity To Failure: 2-3 RIR (repetitions in reserve)
General Guidelines For A Novice Lifter:7
Intensity: 45-50% 1RM Repetitions: 10-12 Rest Between Sets: 2 minutes Sets Per Exercise: 2
Close Proximity to Failure Should Be Avoided
As you can see there is a substantial difference in what can generally be deemed an effective protocol for novice and intermediate lifters. This gap only increases as the lifters become more advanced.
Studies consistently show that higher volumes produce greater hypertrophic responses than low volume interventions.18 An important consideration is that advanced athletes have developed a greater tolerance to both volume and intensity that a novice lifter simply does not have.7
There is also a significant observable difference between a novice lifter and a professional bodybuilder. An elite professional bodybuilder is likely close to their absolute genetic potential.18
Because of this, extra emphasis needs to be placed on selecting the appropriate exercises to perfect their physique. Novice lifters, on the other hand, are quite literally the farthest possible distance away from their genetic limit.
This distinction is critical to make because while a professional bodybuilder may emphasize specific exercises or body parts, the primary concern of a novice lifter should simply be to build as much muscle mass globally as possible. This means emphasizing compound movements where load and volume intersect for optimal hypertrophic adaptations.7,18
To the advanced lifter, rear deltoids may be a weakness, but to a novice lifter, everything is a weakness. By understanding this we can apply the principle of overload effectively to produce superior adaptive responses.
Understanding the Overload Principle
The overload principle states that training must become progressively harder in order to elicit positive adaptations.19 Commonly used practices to induce overload and progressive adaptations are to increase volume and/or intensity. 18,19
When we look at the potential overload stimulus presented by various exercises it presents a definitive case for preferencing compound movements like bench press, squats, deadlift, pull-ups, etc. over supplementary exercises.18
For example, let’s compare the dumbbell chest fly to the barbell bench press. Since we know that mechanical tension and volume are the primary drivers of hypertrophy we can determine with ease which will transmit better outcomes.
Volume = Reps x Sets x Load
Bench Press Exercise:
Reps: 8 Sets: 6 Load: 345lb
Total Exercise Volume: 8 x 6 x 345 = 16560lb
DB Chest Fly Exercise:
Reps: 8 Sets: 6 Load: 50lb (per DB)
Total Exercise Volume: 8 x 6 x 100 = 4800lb
The figures above represent my individual training values, however, the relative scale to a novice athlete would be similar. In the example above, the barbell bench press accrued 3.45 times as much volume as the DB chest fly exercise at similar relative intensities. The absolute mechanical tension was also significantly higher in the barbell bench press since the load was also 3.45 times higher than the DB chest fly.
This does not mean the DB chest fly is a useless exercise. I’m simply using an anecdote to convey that a hierarchy does, in fact, exist within exercise selection based on their ability to present an overload stimulus.18 Thus exercises that present greater potential for overload should form the foundation of the training program in both novice and advanced athletes.20
The difficulty for novice lifters to exceed their recovery capacity is multifactorial. Some primary influences are muscle size, strength, and motor control. More muscle means more contractile tissue to repair following an intense bout of resistance training.18
Training with heavier loads requires greater motor control and generates more localized damage to contractile tissue while increasing stress on the peripheral nervous system which increases recovery requirements.18 In practice, this is reflected by the common body part split approach to bodybuilding adopted by many pros.
A squat workout of an advanced athlete generates substantially more homeostatic disruption compared to a squat session of a novice.21 So although it may be more practical for an elite bodybuilder to have just one leg session per week, it’s entirely inappropriate for a novice.
The stimulus to fatigue relationship shows a clear preference for the higher frequency of training exposures in novice lifters.7 The same extrapolations can be made for many other training strategies observed in advanced athletes that have little practical application to novices.
Considerations and Practical Recommendations For a Novice Athlete
It has been demonstrated that intensities as low as 45-50% of 1RM show robust improvements in strength. Since most of the strength development of a novice is a result of improved motor learning, emphasis should be placed on developing technical mastery of the main compound lifts during this period.
Individual training sessions should focus on 4-6 compound exercises done for 2-3 sets each for roughly 8-12 repetitions per set to increase skill practice and optimize the adaptive response.
Since the novice will find it difficult to exceed their recovery capacity a higher frequency of training should be adopted to improve skill acquisition and training exposures. Developing a single full-body routine and repeating it 3-4 times per week is a viable option in this circumstance. Conversely, adopting a traditional bodybuilding split where each muscle group is only trained once weekly is unlikely to yield optimal results.
The rate of adaptation for a novice is rapid and unpredictable. As such, programs that apply a non-linear approach to load/volume alteration and the inclusion of deloads are inappropriate. In this case, a simple linear progression of load, volume, or both over time is better suited.
Because novice lifters are generally lacking in everything, their programs should be more general in nature. As the athlete develops over several months and years training should progress congruently and become more specific. This means for a novice the vast majority of training should be based on compound exercises.
Mechanical tension and volume are the two primary drivers of hypertrophy. As such, to maximize progress a program should emphasize the use of compound exercises that allow for maximum accruement of volume and intensity. Supplementary exercises should (at least in the initial stages of training) be limited or excluded unless specific circumstances dictate otherwise.
The efficacy of autoregulating novice lifters is dependent on the presence and guidance of an experienced coach, and should otherwise be avoided.
In closing, I want to clarify that I think it’s important to learn from the experts. But it’s equally important to understand the context in which the advice was given.
1. Hoffman, Jay R., et al. “Comparison Between Linear and Nonlinear In-Season Training Programs in Freshman Football Players”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 17, no. 3, 2003, pp. 561–565., doi:10.1519/00124278-200308000-00023.
2. Wulf, Gabriele, et al. “Motor Skill Learning and Performance: a Review of Influential Factors”. Medical Education, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2010.
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6. Steele, James, et al. “Ability to Predict Repetitions to Momentary Failure Is Not Perfectly Accurate, Though Improves with Resistance Training Experience” PeerJ, PeerJ Inc., 30 Nov. 2017.
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13. Kraemer, W J, et al. “Influence of Resistance Training Volume and Periodization on Physiological and Performance Adaptations in Collegiate Women Tennis Players”. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2000.
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16. panel Heiko Striegela Rolf Ulrichb Perikles Simonc, Author links open overlay, et al. “Randomized Response Estimates for Doping and Illicit Drug Use in Elite Athletes”. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Elsevier, 8 Sept. 2009.
17. Sinha-Hikim, Indrani, et al. “Testosterone-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy Is Associated with an Increase in Satellite Cell Number in Healthy, Young Men”. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 1 July 2003.
18. “The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training: The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research”. LWW.
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20. Campos, Gerson E R, et al. “Muscular Adaptations in Response to Three Different Resistance-Training Regimens: Specificity of Repetition Maximum Training Zones”. European Journal of Applied Physiology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2002.
21. Kajaia, T, et al. “THE EFFECTS OF NON-FUNCTIONAL OVERREACHING AND OVERTRAINING ON AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM FUNCTION IN HIGHLY TRAINED ATHLETES”. Georgian Medical News, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2017.