When most people walk into the gym, they want to put on muscle in some way or another. This might come in the form of wanting to tone up, or just to get jacked bro. For the most part nutrition is going to determine which route you take. I would estimate that nutrition is upwards of 80% of the battle and probably much more so we are focusing here on the other 20%. There is so much information out there and honestly most of it is just over complicated. Many people think that the only way to get in shape is to do complicated exercises until you fail.
Others tell you to do endless sets of curls. Curls definitely have their time and place but if all you needed to do was curl to get huge, high school me would have been jacked out of his mind.
So let's start out by organizing typical set/rep schemes for various goals:
1) Traditionally those who train strength focus on the 1-5 rep range and often do somewhere between 5-8 sets at this rep range.
2) Next is the hypertrophy (muscle growth) rep range which is often defined as 6-12 reps and is usually 2-4 sets.
3) Finally we have muscular endurance which is going to be anything greater than 12 and I have seen protocols call for around 30 reps.
To get a better idea of how to best reach aesthetic goals , there are two studies that stand out because they used lifters that have trained for at least a year. These studies compare the typical strength focused programs vs hypertrophy focused programs and measured which ones actually improved strength and hypertrophy the best.
The first one controlled for volume so one group did a 7x3 for strength and the other did a 3x10 and the total weight moved per week was similar (Schoenfeld et al, 2014). The strength group, as expected, improved more on strength than the hypertrophy program but also had similar improvement in hypertrophy. Now this does not mean that low reps and high weight will make you fill out that smedium better.
The strength groups workouts took significantly longer and were much more taxing than the hypertrophy groups program. A normal hypertrophy program is going to allow for more volume than a strength program but this study does help show that strength training DOES play a significant role in hypertrophy. Also applying common sense to this study we can assume that adding more strength to a person via a more strength focused phase can help them lift more weight in a future hypertrophy focused program.
Another study was done with experienced lifters that compared a strength based rep scheme vs a hypertrophy focused rep scheme (Schoenfeld et al, 2016) . This study each person did only 3 sets, so the hypertrophy group had a higher volume than strength based group. The hypertrophy group had better muscle growth but much less strength. The most interesting part about this study is that improvements in the arms were much smaller relative to the improvements in the thigh.
Taking this a step further there is a third, but quite different study, that was done recently that measured growth of a muscle with no loading (essentially flexing through a full ROM) compared to a traditional loading (Count et al, 2016). This study was only done on the biceps but showed greater growth than the other group that used curls. Assuming this study holds up over future research, this could show how important the mind muscle connection really can be for specific muscle groups. This also shows why as a trainer, I should match the exercise to my client and not try to get my client to fit the exercise. If a person wants bigger biceps but overuses their forearms with curls then we should find an exercise or variation that they feel in the correct spot or improve upon technique. Ask 10 experienced trainers what their favorite exercise is for a specific muscle group and you will get 10 different answers. What it comes down to is what movements our clientele needs based on their anatomy/goals and how well we can coach that specific exercise.
With the power of the results combined you can take on the world like Captain Planet or at least get jacked like John Cena.
Strength appears to improve universally better in the lower rep ranges (1-5) and hypertrophy seems to be more dependent on total volume than on what rep ranges we use. What this does is gives us a few different options on how to program things out. Lets hypothetically say that we are 8 months away from an event such as a wedding or bodybuilding competition and you want to put on a gun show, here are a couple approaches that could get you there: