Recently training volume caused a lot of discussion in the evidence based fitness scene. People started fighting each other over the seemingly simple question: How much should I train? High volume zealots and low volume purists collided, leaving no definite answer behind. So let’s take a look at the data and figure out ourselves how much to do at the gym!
First of all, there are different measures that are refered to as training volume, but the most common type is the amount of sets that are performed in a definite amount of time (usually a week). This is what most literature refers to and also the measure I will stick to for this blog post.
More is better, right?
On one side of the controversy you have high-intensity training (HIT) adherents, who generally preach that a single set of an exercise is all that’s required to grow. Proponents claim exceeding this dose, not only isn’t beneficial but actually can cause regression due to overtraining. Nautilus founder Arthur Jones is often credited as the champion of this movement, and bodybuilder Mike Mentzer helped to popularize the concept in the late 80’s and 90’s. Yes, those guys really only trained with one working set. But this single set was so high on the intensity scale that it still allowed them to achieve significant muscle mass.
On the other end of the spectrum are high-volume advocates who state that multiple sets are essential to fully stimulate muscle development. The vast majority of competitive bodybuilders subscribe to this theory, as shown in a recent survey whereby 95% of respondents reported to train with multi-set protocols. And this is also what I would recommend to everyone: single set training isn’t up to date, especially if you aren’t a genetic freak, extremely pain resistant and/or using special “sport supplements”.
If you see the graphic above, it is easy to conclude that more training volume leads to better gains. You can clearly see a strong dose-response relationship between the subject groups. And this is also what scientific literature says:
In summing up the literature to date, the one thing that appears clear is that volume plays a fairly prominent role in maximizing growth, but nevertheless significant hypertrophy can be obtained at fairly low volumes.Dr. Brad Schoenfeld
He further points out that every training program should be tailored to the needs of the individual, which leads us to the next point. Because if we only conclude that more is better, we all should train with as much training volume as our time allows for, right?
When more is too much
As most of us know, training is fatiguing. Not only while you are training, but also in the hours or days following exercise because our body has to repair muscle and structural (joints, ligaments, tendons…) damage. More training leads to greater fatigue, which has to be handled by your body via a variety of recovery mechanisms. To turn it around: your ability to recover determines the volume you are able to manage.
Which leads us to the major criticism of the high volume studies: most of them are relatively short term interventions, which is understandable as long term studies are expensive and research funds are always scarce. What study participants are able to endure over twelve weeks can be very different from a training you want to stick to over twelve months!
Fatigue can build up over the long term, leading to accumulating tissue damage or other overuse problems. Most of the time ligaments and tendons start acting up if too much volume is applied for too long. Those structures are less able to adapt to any given training stimulus, making them prone to underrecovery, leading into problems. Being injured leads to not training at all, probably negating any benefit of extremely high training volumes.
When more becomes less
When you look at exercise science literature, you often see the following picture in one way or another. Many biological principles work like this, but it is especially true for training volume. The law of diminishing returns:
Yes, more training leads to more hypertrophy, but a the more you push, the less you are getting back. This leads to a worse return-on-invest rate the more effort, in this case sets per training session, you put into your training.
Sadly nobody can tell you how this curve looks for you. But by tracking your workouts, taking progress pictures and managing your fatigue, you can at least get a feeling for a volume load that is optimal for you. This is a process that takes some time, but can be the missing puzzle piece for many “hard gainers”. I also see that often with my clients: it takes a few months of trying out different training volumes, but as soon as I know how much they have to do and how much they can handle, things get better and better consistently.
Per session volume
When Chantal and I were at London for the Revive Stronger seminar, Dr. Mike Isratel from Renaissance Periodization talked at length (and with great humor) about how much volume per session should be done.
First of all, why can’t we split up our training into many training sessions with very low volume? Let’s say your volume goal is 10 weekly sets and we split this over 5 training sessions, this leads to two sets per session. Two sets are very easy to recover from, leaving you and your connective tissue always fresh and happy. But there are a few problems with this and to keep a long story short, most of us probably need at least three to four sets per session. This helps with mind-muscle connection, allows for a better “pump” and increases training efficiency by not having you warm up for every lift too often.
On the other hand, we could just pack all the training volume into one big session, a.k.a. “the bro-split”. Dr. Isratel made a point that this is possible, but as soon as you overcome the 10 sets per session landmark, you probably are just doing too much volume for the chosen bodypart. Again, this is subject to individual preferences and genetics, but usually about ten sets is the upper limit. You just do too much damage in this monster training session for your body to recover from and build muscle mass.
Finding the sweet spot
Choosing the right volume can be daunting, but do not worry. Just take into consideration what we know:
- Beginners can profit from 6-10 hard sets per week per muscle group. Most people after this initial stage need 10-20 sets for optimal growth.
- Train each muscle group about two times a week.
- Do anywhere from 3-10 sets per session per muscle group.
The rest is basic mathematics, individual preference and a lot of experimenting. Be aware that different muscle groups may need different volumes to grow!
If you need help with your training, take a look at my online coaching service and let me know if you are interested. Please do not hesitate to ask any questions down in the comment section, and don’t forget to like and/or share!