How to Build More Muscle With Less Work and Less Fatigue
A science-based guide to tailoring your muscle-building program to your individual needs, capabilities, and recovery capacity
There’s now a growing consensus among exercise scientists that total training volume is the main driver of muscle growth. If you want to build bigger muscles, you need to spend time in the gym, and the number one thing you can do to get better results is probably just train more often.
However, this shouldn’t be seen as supporting the sort of fitness nihilism that says nothing other than sheer effort matters and that there’s no way to make your workouts easier without sacrificing results. Volume is the primary factor underlying muscle growth — but not the only factor.
In fact, there are quite a few ways you can train smarter, getting better results with the same amount of time in the gym, if not less.
Just as importantly, you can build more muscle while suffering less fatigue for your efforts.
Here are five ways to do just that, explained.
Train at Your Ideal Intensity
Popular wisdom holds you should perform sets of 4-6 reps for strength, 8-12 reps for hypertrophy, and 15+ reps for endurance. Popular wisdom is wrong.
For starters, let’s consider the nature of those three criteria: Strength and endurance are performance-based metrics, while muscular hypertrophy (growth, in plain English) is a morphological characteristic. So hypertrophy doesn’t really fit in with strength and endurance.
In fact, a multitude of studies have found low-rep sets build just as much muscle as sets of 8-12 reps — sometimes even more. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising; after all, there’s obviously a fairly strong correlation between being strong and having big muscles.
But what about strength and endurance? Common sense dictates that lifting heavy should build more strength, and lifting for high reps should be ideal for endurance. After all, lifting heavy is literally what strength is, and maintaining physical exertion for a longer period of time is literally what endurance is.
That isn’t necessarily the case, however. Amazingly, some people build more muscle mass — and yes, even more maximal strength — on high-rep sets.
In what might be the most underappreciated resistance training study of all time, 16 college rugby players were tested on four different workouts: a powerlifting-style workout with heavy weights and low reps, a bodybuilding-style workout with moderate weight and reps, an endurance-style workout with low weight and high reps, and a power-style workout with low weight and low reps (but high velocities).
After each workout, the researchers tested the athlete’s testosterone/cortisol ratio, which is considered to be the most reliable biomarker for recovery from exercise. The subjects varied in terms of which workout gave them the highest and which gave them the lowest T/C ratio.
For each athlete, the workout after which they had the highest T/C ratio was labeled their “best” protocol, and the one after which they had the lowest T/C ratio was labeled their “worst” protocol. Following this, half the athletes were put on their best protocol for eight weeks, and half on their worst protocol for eight weeks. Then after a three-week break, the two groups switched, so each subject spent eight weeks on both his best and worst protocol.
The results contradicted one of the core assumptions of modern exercise science: Every single subject gained strength and mass on their best protocol, even if it was the endurance or power workout. Twelve of the 16 either made no progress, or even lost strength on their worst protocol, even if their worst was the strength workout.
The researchers continued to test the T/C ratio throughout the experiment, and found that 12 of 16 subjects showed consistent responses; the ones with inconsistent responses were the ones who gained strength on their worst protocol. That supports a person’s best and worst protocol are, indeed, consistent, rather than being artifacts of random chance.
The upshot of all this is many people can build more strength by lifting light weights than by lifting heavy weights.
Incidentally, volume wasn’t equated between groups. The power workout had the lowest training volume and the endurance workout the highest; some people also do better with more or less volume than others.
Of course, the researchers in this study did a whole lot of blood work to identify the best and worst protocols. So how can you do this on your own?
Remember the T/C ratio is a measure of your recovery status. In the absence of blood work, you can simply take note of how hard it is for you to recover from a given workout by a) measuring how well your strength and endurance have recovered/improved two days later when you do your next workout, and b) taking note of how tired a given workout makes you both immediately afterward and a few hours later.
Note that I’m talking about tiredness, not soreness; soreness isn’t a good indication of recovery status.
Without blood work, you’ll want to test each protocol 2-3 times, rather than just once like they did in the study. But over time, you should be able to figure out which training style invigorates you and which one kicks your butt.
Note that this totally contradicts that common “broscience,” which says that being sore and tired is the sign you had a good workout. This study suggests that, in fact, fatigue is at best a necessary evil and at worst a sign you’re doing the wrong kind of workout for your body. More training volume with less fatigue should be the goal.
A cluster set is a set that’s broken down into several minisets, with short intraset rest periods between them. The weight is reracked or put down during these short rest periods, allowing the muscles a brief respite before the next miniset.
For instance, you might perform three reps, rerack the weight, rest 20 seconds, grab the weight and do three more reps, rerack and rest 20 seconds, and then pick up the weight and do two more reps before ending the cluster set. After that, you’d take a much longer rest — at least three minutes and sometimes more than five — before doing the next cluster set.
So why do people do sets this way? Because it lets them do more reps at a given weight. In the above example, eight reps were performed, but because of the intraset rest periods, you could use a weight that’s around your four- or five-rep max and instead do eight reps with it.
The preponderance of scientific evidence now suggests total training volume is the main driver of muscle growth. The more you lift, the more you’ll grow, at least up to the point where you start to have trouble recovering from your workouts. There’s such a thing as too much training volume, but in practice, that’s rarely a problem unless you’re truly hardcore about your training — and even then, it shouldn’t be a problem if you’re doing your best protocol, as described above.
Total training volume seems to have a less consistent benefit for strength than for hypertrophy. For strength, lifting heavy is more important than lifting a lot (for most people, anyway), but you do need to at least hit a certain minimum level of volume.
However, there’s another factor at play regarding strength and power: skill training. Each exercise is its own skill, in the sense you can get better at it by practicing that specific movement. Cluster sets help you get more skill practicing a certain movement by doing more reps at very high intensities. At least one study shows cluster sets help you gain more strength and power without compromising hypertrophy but don’t necessarily increase hypertrophy compared to traditional straight sets.
All of which is to say cluster sets are likely to help with strength more than hypertrophy and are more likely to be helpful if you’ve determined lifting heavy is the best training modality for you.
You can perform cluster sets with higher rep ranges, like three subsets of six at a weight you could do ten reps with. However, in this case, you’ll want to keep the intraset rest periods shorter, like 5-10 seconds.
As a final note, cluster sets may be less fatiguing than straight sets, even when work volume is higher. In one study, cluster sets produced less of a cortisol response than straight sets, indicating faster recovery.
Cluster sets are also great for unilateral movements — those where you work only one side of your body at a time, like one-legged leg curls. You can alternate sides, lifting with one limb while the other one rests.
They also tend to be ideal for barbell exercises like the bench press. Note, however, that muscle failure can sneak up on you with cluster sets, so it’s good to have a spotter if you lift heavy barbells cluster-style. Using accommodating resistance — described in the next section — does make this safer since it makes it easier to rerack the weight without getting trapped under the bar in bench presses and squats.
Accommodating resistance is a set of techniques for modifying the resistance (that is, the weight) of an exercise such that the resistance curve of the exercise matches your body’s strength curve for that exercise.
That probably didn’t make sense to you, but I’ll explain. With many exercises, the actual amount of resistance varies at different points of the exercise. With a barbell curl, for instance, you’re lifting the weight almost horizontally near the bottom and top and straight up near the middle of the exercise — thus the resistance is highest at the midpoint of the exercise.
Compare that to a squat or bench press, where the resistance is about the same throughout the movement since the weight goes straight up and down, at the same angle the whole way through.
This is the exercise’s resistance curve.
The strength curve of an exercise refers to how strong the active muscle groups are at various points of the exercise. Muscles are strongest around the midpoint of their active range of motion. Your bicep and tricep, for instance, are at their strongest when your elbow is about half bent.
This is why the hardest part of the bench press is the bottom of the movement, when the bar is on your chest: The weight is the same throughout, but you’re weakest at the bottom. Near the top, your pectoral muscle gets weaker again, but the shoulders and arms are more able to help than they were at the bottom.
By the same token, pull-ups and chin-ups are hardest near the top because the involved muscles reach the ends of their range of motion. That’s why people can often get 80% of the way up fairly easily yet not get their chin over the bar.
This is the exercise’s strength curve.
The reason many exercises have sticking points, like the bottom of the bench press, is because the strength and resistance curves don’t match. Accommodating resistance alters the resistance curve to match the strength curve.
There are several ways to apply accommodating resistance to an exercise.
First, you can attach elastic bands to the weight you’re lifting. This is most commonly done with barbell bench presses and squats using a pair of identical elastic bands, one attached to either end of the barbell. The lifting of the weight stretches the bands, causing the resistance to increase as the barbell goes up.
This video shows how to attach the bands for a bench press, and this video shows how to do it with squats. You can also use just a single band for the bench press as shown in this video; that isn’t possible for squats, though.
As a general rule, you should aim to replace 30-40% of the total weight with band resistance — so if you squat 155 pounds, you should instead squat something like 95 pounds plus a pair of bands that each add 25-30 pounds of resistance.
Note that because the resistance provided by the bands varies throughout the exercise, all bands will be labeled with a range, like 10-35 pounds of resistance. Base your calculations on the highest resistance the bands will provide. Since you won’t usually stretch them all the way, this will usually be a bit lower than the highest number listed — i.e., a 10-35–pound band may actually provide a maximum 20 pounds on the bench press and 30 pounds on the squat. Your calculations won’t be totally exact, but they don’t need to be.
As an added bonus, the use of bands makes squats and bench presses safer, since eliminating the sticking point means you’re not likely to get trapped under the bar. That makes them a great safety practice for those who lift without a spotter.
Note, however, that the bands do change the angle of the exercise somewhat, which means the muscles are worked in a slightly different way, and your technique has to adjust accordingly.
You can achieve the same effect by attaching chains to the ends of the barbell. At the bottom of the movement, most of the chain rests on the floor, and as it lifts, more of the chain is lifted into the air, increasing the weight.
Chains are expensive, heavy, and loud. Unlike bands, you can’t travel with them. The advantage of chains is they hang straight down so they don’t change the angle as a band would. This makes chains desirable for competitive weightlifters who are actually squatting to get better at squatting; the rest of us should stick to bands.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, you can get stronger and lift heavier weights by selectively weakening your muscles.
Most of your skeletal muscles are arranged in pairs that act in opposition to each other. The hamstring bends your knee, while the quadriceps strengthens it. Your triceps and pectoral muscles push your arms forward, while your back and biceps pull things toward you.
In exercise science, the muscles used to power an exercise are called the agonists for that exercise, while the muscles opposing them are the antagonists.
Even when you’re not consciously activating them, the antagonist muscles still exert some force. As such, you can temporarily increase your strength on a given exercise by prefatiguing the antagonist muscles of that exercise.
The way this looks in practice is you superset two opposing exercises — movements that move the same body part in opposite directions — by doing one immediately after the other. For example:
- Bench press
- Rest 20-30 seconds
- Barbell bent-over row
Although you might expect the short rest period to make you more tired, fatigue mostly occurs on the level of the individual muscle. In fact, when you perform a set of bench presses right before a set of seated rows, back and bicep activity increases and you can perform more sets of the seated row than you would otherwise.
The order in which you perform the two exercises seems to matter — in one study, bench pressing before rowing worked better than rowing before bench pressing. In another, doing leg curls before leg extensions produced greater performance increases than the other way around.
The takeaway here seems to be that the more fast twitch-dominant muscle group should be worked first. In general, this means that for upper-body supersets, the pushing motion should precede the pulling motion. Lower-body supersets, hamstring exercises, or those which bend the knee and/or extend the back should precede quadriceps-dominant exercises or those which straighten the knee.
A few examples:
- Bench press/chest press before horizontal rows
- Shoulder press before chin-ups/pull-downs
- Dips or decline presses before shrugs or upright rows
- Deadlift before squat
- Leg curl before leg extension
It’s vitally important the rest interval between the first and second set be kept short, as the benefits of agonist-antagonist supersets start to disappear when the rest period is over one minute. In general, 30 seconds is a good guideline.
As an added benefit, even though you do more work, this style of training actually decreases perceived exertion.
No, not car-safety laws. Autoregulation is a class of workout programming techniques that aim to dynamically adjust the amount of training load produced in order to allow a trainee to train exactly the right amount — not so hard as to excessively fatigue themselves but not undertraining so they leave progress on the table.
Now, many people try to do this by “listening to their body,” taking it easy when they feel tired and pushing themselves harder when they have the energy. That’s not what autoregulation is.
There are two shortcomings to the “listen to your body” approach. First, it’s subjective. Second, how tired you feel is mostly related to your central nervous system, whereas training fatigue occurs mainly at the local level, within the individual muscles. Thus, your energy level doesn’t particularly measure how strong you are.
Instead, autoregulation techniques estimate recovery status based on how you perform during your workout, after you’ve started it. This requires you to be recording your workouts — not on video but, rather, writing down how many sets and reps you do of each exercise.
One example of an autoregulation method is reactive deloading. In this method, developed by trainer Menno Henselmans, any time you backslide on an exercise — perform fewer reps at a given weight than you did in your last training session — you lower the weight and perform your remaining sets power-style, at high velocities.
For example, suppose in your last training session you performed four sets of dumbbell presses with 50-pound dumbbells, and your rep counts were 5, 5, 4, 4. In your current workout, you do five reps on the first set — but only four on the second set.
In this case, you’d use 30-35–pound dumbbells for the remaining two sets. You’d lift the weights as fast as possible, but you’d still only do five reps per set, even though you could do more with the lighter weights.
Another approach for autoregulation is based on weekly training volume. Any time you have a bad workout overall — one in which you progressed on less than a third of your exercises — you could take an extra rest day before your next workout.
There are several other ways to implement autoregulation, but it’s a complicated enough subject to merit its own article. Suffice to say autoregulation is always a) objective,and b) dynamic.
In research, autoregulated training programs usually outperform programs that follow a fixed progression. However, this may only be true in more dedicated trainees — it’s conceivable an unmotivated trainee could use autoregulation as an excuse to slack off.
Note also that most approaches to autoregulation, like the two mentioned here, presuppose your baseline training schedule errs on the side of training too much rather than too little. If you were undertraining, reducing your workload in response to a lack of progress would be the exact opposite of what you’d want to do.
Work Harder? If You Want To. Work Smarter? Definitely.
It has now become a cliche to say “work smarter, not harder,” but there’s no need to choose between the two. You can combine these techniques and strategies with a higher training volume to build more muscle if you want.
Then again, you can absolutely choose to take the 80/20 approach, cut back your time in the gym a little bit, apply the advice in this article, and get good results with less time, effort, and hardship. Both approaches are equally valid, and it’s just a matter of what your goals are.
If you take one thing away from this article, it should be this: You should work with your body and design programs based on your individual needs, capabilities, and recovery capacity. However, this isn’t a subjective choice and can’t be based on intuition alone — it should be based on sound principle of exercise science and objective measurements of your performance with various training programs.