Muscles need to be worked hard to grow. It is a simple idea. Somehow you need to stress a muscle enough to create a state of hypertrophy. Then while you rest, the muscles will heal and you will become like the 6 Million Dollar Man – better, stronger, and faster.
But past that simple idea there have been various schools of thought over the years about how to make this occur. Back in the bodybuilding days of Arnold it was all about volume of work. People would be in the gym morning and at night for a few hours per session doing a lot of sets and reps. That is not to say that they didn’t do quality work and tremendous effort, but the line of thinking was that you needed both to overload the muscles.
Of course there has been much discussion over whether or not steroids played a large part in the ability of those people to recover and make gains as they did.
It was in the 1970’s that High Intensity workouts became popular lead by Mike Mentzer and his followers. He felt that doing one set of perfect quality was all you needed to work a muscle. His physique certainly backed that up. Mentzer would focus on working the full range of motion of each exercise, going slowly, and working to absolute exhaustion and beyond when possible.
So Which is Better?
It is a hard argument to make either way because science has a hard time supporting either method as better. There is a balance point between too much training and too little. If you consistently work too hard, too often your body does not have the time it needs to rest and grow (unless there is a chemical supplementation which is never recommended). On the flip side, not enough work will not spur the type of muscle breakdown that you need for proper growth. Many people have a hard time maintaining the level of intensity Mentzer recommended for every workout.
The Balance Point
After reviewing both sides it seems the most logical thing to do is split the difference. You need to hit the gym regularly for consistent opportunity for growth. While you are there you should strive to be done with your workout in 45 minutes which is the optimal time your body can effectively perform muscle building exercise. There should be a serious focus on each exercise that you are performing to ensure that you are getting to absolute muscle failure on at least 1 or 2 sets per body part.
By utilizing serious quality in this manner you can ensure that muscle growth can occur after each workout. If you are having a hard time breaking down your muscles and creating hypertrophy then add more high-intensity methods to a set as well as mix up your rep counts by doing low for 1-2 weeks then switching to high for a week. Don’t just add more sets and reps, instead make what you do more effective.
It isn’t always about who can lift the heaviest weight when you are talking about muscle size and growth. Those guys who grunt and groan during a bench press while bucking their hips and using momentum like to ‘say’ they benched 315 pounds, but they are getting a pretty sad workout in no matter how many sets they do. Check your ego at the door and focus on the quality of doing some nice, slow reps in perfect form until as much of your muscle as possible is fatigued. This method will make that muscle grow back thicker and stronger. The results will speak for themselves over time.