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Which Parts of Training Should You Prioritise?

Dec 08, 2023

“The reason people aren’t getting to where they want to be is that they don’t have a system. They don’t have an understanding of prioritization, and they can’t differentiate between big rocks and pebbles.”

Eric Helms, The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid

When it comes to getting results in the gym, understanding which variables to prioritise is crucial.

One of the most common mistakes I see is people spending 90% of their attention on the things that only bring 10% of results.

Think of your training as a jar that needs to be filled.

To fill it, you can use Big Rocks and Pebbles.

The Big Rocks are the most important training variables. Factors like how hard you train, and how often.

This is where most of your progress will come from.

The Pebbles, like exercise selection and rest times, won’t have as much of a bearing on your results.

If you try to fill your bucket with Pebbles first, you won’t have room for the Big Rocks.

But get the Big Rocks in place first, and there is room for the Pebbles around them.

So, here’s a breakdown of the Big Rocks: the most important training variables for building strength and muscle.

1. Intensity

Intensity is how hard you train.

To see results, you need to train hard enough to stimulate progress.

Intensity can be measured in a couple of ways, but in my opinion, the most practical is measuring intensity of effort — otherwise known as proximity to failure.

Failure refers to muscular failure — the point within a set where your muscles can no longer produce the force required to lift a weight, and you can’t do one more rep.

Proximity to failure is how close you are to that point.

The closer you get to failure, the more muscle fibres you recruit and stimulate, and the more growth you elicit.

It doesn’t really matter how many reps you do (within, say, 5–30). So long as you take those reps close to failure, you will grow muscle.

So, how do you make sure you’re training hard enough?

That’s where RPE comes in.

RPE stands for Rating of Perceived Exertion. It’s a subjective measure of intensity.

RPE usually exists on a scale from 1 to 10, with an RPE 1 being close to rest, and an RPE 10 being muscular failure.

To use RPE in your training, rate each set you do out of 10.

If you couldn’t do one more rep, that set was a 10. One rep left in the tank would be an RPE 9. Two reps left would be an RPE 8, and so on.

For maximal strength and muscle gains, you should aim somewhere between an RPE 7 and 9 on your working sets.

The problem most people have is that they’re wildly inaccurate at gauging effort. They think they're working much closer to failure than they actually are.

They’ll rate a set as an RPE 9 when they could’ve completed another 10 or 15 reps.

So how can you make sure you don’t fall into this trap?

Pick an exercise in your program with a low skill and aerobic requirement where you can safely reach muscular failure. Machines work great here.

Then, complete a set of 6–10 reps at an RPE 8 (two reps from failure).

Rest for 2–4 minutes, until you feel completely recovered, and then complete a set of As Many Reps As Possible (AMRAP).

If your RIR was accurate, you should only be able to achieve two more reps on your AMRAP set.

If you’re achieving a lot more than that, you need to reconsider your perception of effort and keep practising.

As a good rule of thumb, your reps should start slowing down involuntarily at around RPE 7. By RPE 9 and 10, you’ll really have to grind them out.

If your first and last rep move at the same speed, you‘re not working hard enough.

2. Volume

Volume refers to the total amount of work you do. This could be across a session, week, or program.

For simplicity and practicality, I measure volume in hard sets per muscle group per week.

There is a clear dose-response relationship between volume and improvements in strength and hypertrophy.

In other words, the more hard sets you do, the more muscle and strength you will gain (up to a point).

Hard is the operative word.

Remember, proximity to failure is extremely important. Sacrificing intensity for the sake of doing more work is not helpful.

The biggest mistake I see with volume is people doing too much of it at the expense of intensity. They fill their workouts with 15 sets for each body part but don’t push any of them close to failure.

You’re better off doing 2 sets at a true RPE 9, than 6 sets with no intent.

The research shows that 10–20 hard sets per muscle group/movement per week is best for muscle growth.

This is best split up into no more than 6–8 hard sets per muscle per session to ensure fatigue doesn’t impact training quality too much (which I’ll explain in more detail in the Frequency section).

If you’re new to the gym, or not currently seeing progress, start at the lower end of the recommended ranges and push those sets close to failure.

You’ll be able to make gains with relatively little volume at this stage, so you might as well pick off the low-hanging fruit now.

As you become more experienced, you might need more volume to see progress.

Of course, completing 20 sets for every muscle group every week isn’t feasible for most people.

Apart from the reduced quality, that much work will be incredibly time-consuming.

This is where it can be useful to use specialisation phases—focusing on a couple of muscle groups or movements you want to progress and pushing the volume on those.

3. Frequency

Frequency refers to how many days per week you train.

Frequency matters, but mostly because it allows you to do more volume at a higher intensity.

Remember, for best results, you want to hit between 10 and 20 hard sets per muscle group per week.

Imagine trying to fit in between 10 and 20 sets of squats in one workout.

Apart from the time it would take, those sets will drop off in intensity quickly. The fatigue you accumulate would render most of your sets pointless.

Plus, it would be mentally tough to push through every week.

Organising your training sensibly will ensure you tick off your volume requirements without sacrificing intensity or jeopardising your recovery.

So, how many days per week is best?

Well, there’s no right answer.

The research suggests training each muscle group or movement twice per week for the best results.

But the more important consideration is: how many days can you realistically commit to, week-in, week-out?

If you only have time to train twice a week, aiming to train each muscle group twice per week is setting yourself up to fail.

Stick to the two sessions. You can always add more once you start building the habit.

So long as you spread your volume relatively evenly across the week, you’re good to go.

If you prefer longer sessions, you can choose a lower frequency or vice-versa if you like getting in and out of the gym quickly.

4. Progressive Overload

Your body is great at adapting to the stress you place on it.

By nailing intensity, volume, and frequency consistently, you will make progress. Your body will react to the increased stress placed on it by getting bigger and stronger.

This principle is known as Progressive Overload.

Progressive Overload is not an action, per se. It is an adaptation. A result that comes about from nailing the previous 3 Big Rocks.

This is why it’s not enough to keep lifting the same weights for the same reps, week in, week out, and expect to keep making gains.

As you get stronger, you need to gradually increase this stress to make sure it’s sufficient to elicit progression.

That doesn’t mean you should expect to see progress linearly every week.

But you should chase it.

My favourite way of doing so is via a technique called Double Progression.

This involves picking a rep range and starting at the bottom of it. Let’s say you choose a Dumbbell Bench Press for 3 sets of 6–10 reps at an RPE 8–9.

That means you need to choose a weight that allows you to complete between 6 and 10 reps, with 1-2 reps left in the tank by the end of your set.

Let’s say you pick up the 20kg dumbbells and hit 7 reps on your first set before you get to an RPE 8.

You’re within the prescribed rep range (6–10) at the prescribed RPE, so that’s now your working weight.

You go on to finish the next two sets and hit another set of 7, then a set of 6.

Because your training is hard enough to be stimulative (intensity) and you do enough of it (volume & frequency), you elicit Progressive Overload.

So next week, when you return to do your Dumbbell Press, 20kgs for 7 reps is now an RPE 6. Seeing as that’s below your prescribed RPE, consider that set a warm-up and add reps on your next set.

You might lift 20kgs for 9 reps before you hit RPE 8. Then, the week after, 10 reps.

So long as your technique is standardised, this is a surefire sign you’re making progress.

Once you hit the top of the rep range (i.e. 10 reps) for all three sets, you can add weight to get yourself back in the prescribed rep range at a stimulative weight.

In this scenario, that means going up to 22.5kg and aiming for 6–10 reps at an RPE 8.

Now that the weight is heavier, you’ll be back toward the bottom end of the rep range, and you continue the cycle to keep progressing.

Of course, it might go without saying, but consistency is the real key to long-term progress.

None of these variables matters if you don’t actually get into the gym and do the work regularly. Stringing together quality sessions over weeks, months, and years, is the only way to see significant change.

If you struggle to get into the gym each week, you need to address why that is. No program, no matter how perfect, can help you if you’re not doing it.

If you have no trouble consistently showing up, but you’re still not seeing reward for effort, then get your Big Rocks in place.

I can guarantee you’ll start to see results.

If you’d like to know more to get started in the gym, you can follow me on Instagram here.