Although I am a fan of heavy lifting I am really starting to believe frequency and volume are much more important for hypertrophy and body comp than intensity.
Yes you need to lift heavy to increase strength because you need to train synchronization of motor units but even at the end of a 20-rep set you will still recruit the high threshold motor units.
If your goal is hypertrophy you just need to recruit and fatigue as many motor units as possible.
Studies are now showing similar gains in hypertrophy with loads as low as 30% of 1RM when compared to traditional protocols using 80% of 1RM.
Does that mean you should not train heavy at all? Not exactly, after all there are multiple pathways to stimulate hypertrophy.
However, by not going heavy all the time you can train more often with more volume which means faster progress and less chance of injury.
You just have to be smart about how you balance volume, frequency, and intensity in order to manage fatigue effectively.
For example with most of my male clients I like to have them average 12-16 sets per body part twice a week. One workout is heavy and taken to failure with some shock methods thrown in. The other is typically a lighter workout not taken to failure.
I personally like using a 3 on 1 off split as follows:
Day 1 – Chest & Back
Day 2 – Legs
Day 3 – Shoulders & Arms
Day 4 – Rest
During a higher volume phase, I might have them do 6 days on 1 day off using the same split and increase them to 15-20 sets per body part. This is typically followed by a transition week where volume is drastically reduced in order for super-compensation to take place.
When I prepped for my last bodybuilding show I experimented with hitting each body part 3 times a week while averaging 15-20 sets per body with great success.
That allowed me to keep my calories quite high and maintain my strength and muscle mass as I leaned out. As a result, I came in looking fuller and harder than ever before, and placed 1st in my division.
I came in 3kg heavier than in my previous show and placed 1st in the over 90kg division.
Obviously I had to build up to that workout load in a progressive and systematic fashion over the course of my 5-month prep as well as manage fatigue throughout the week by alternating between heavy, medium, and light days.
However that will be the topic of another article.