In a Hurry? Have some highlights. (TL;DR)
- Training volume is highly correlated with gainz
- However, there is more to the picture, and seeking to always be increasing volume every workout indefinitely is not sustainable (nor would doing so necessarily be “optimal”)
- Instead, we can take a cyclical approach and aim for increasing average volume over time during similar training blocks/phases
- To do this consistently, we need to keep records (preferably complete records, but even just jotting down rep records such as “squatted 315 lbs for 10 reps” is a good start)
- We also need to carefully define what actually constitutes an increase in volume when it comes to comparing different exercises or the same exercises in different contexts
Training volume is a crucial determinant of a body’s adaptation to training-induced stress (i.e. gainz). If you’ve been reading much about training either here or elsewhere, this is probably not a newsflash to most of you, but just for posterity, let’s refresh ourselves on a few findings before we get to the meat of today’s topic.
It has been pretty well established that doing multiple sets of an exercise is superior for eliciting both hypertrophy and strength gains when compared to the doing a single set. Additionally, this appears to be a dose-dependent relationship, whereby doing more volume—at least up to a certain point—leads to more gainz.
But what about rep ranges and loads and such?
Partially addressing this question—or at least a subset of it—this study showed similar increases in hypertrophy for trained individuals completing either a “low-load routine” (sets of 25-35) or a “high-load routine” (sets of 8-12, which did lead to larger gains in 1RM strength than the low-load routine) when both groups did the same number of sets.
On the other hand, this study reported no significant difference in hypertrophy (albeit determined by biceps measurements alone) in trained individuals that completed programs that were not specifically set-equated but were volume-equated and categorized as either “bodybuilding-type” (3 sets of 10 with a split that worked each body part once per week) or “powerlifting-type” (7 sets of 3 with full body workouts) routines. Similar to the previous study, it is worth noting that while there were no major differences in hypertrophy, the group working with heavier loads (7 sets of 3) demonstrated superior gains in 1RM strength.
While this isn’t intended to be an in-depth review, I also feel inclined to mention that I am a little bit cautious about this last study given that the hypertrophic comparisons were made by biceps measurements alone (not that this means it is unreliable; more data would just be more convincing) and also that the three-fold increase in training frequency (for each body part) in the full-body, “powerlifting” group may have posed a bit of potential confound, although it was introduced (as far as I understand) to try to minimize metabolic stress within individual workouts (on account of them only doing one exercise per body part as opposed to three) in the powerlifting group, which was something the group was concerned might be a potential confound in and of itself.
At any rate, as these findings and others resolve into an overarching theme, we can see that—while we certainly can’t completely discount things like training frequency, rep ranges, programming, and so forth—the influence of total training volume on both size and strength gains is pretty compelling.
If we think of the total stress load of training being more or less proportional to (training volume x training intensity), it seems reasonable enough intuitively that, at a given intensity, assuming we do not surpass our ability to recover, greater training volume equals greater gainz. Basically, as has been stated quite well before, more is more.
As I pointed out before though, this probably isn’t a revolutionary concept for most lifters. What I want to talk about today pertains more to how one might go about actually increasing training volume in ways that are conducive to long term progress.
Time to Turn it up to 11?
Okay. Assuming we’re all on board at this point with the idea that increasing training volume is probably the most reliable way to induce gains in both strength and muscle size, let me tell you why you might not want to go hog-wild with your volume all at once (or all of the time).
Considering what I just discussed, you might begin to wonder (if you haven’t already wondered before) the following: if training volume is so all-important, why don’t we all just rep out light weights all of the time? Why putz around with something like 5 sets of 5 with 400 lbs when you could instead just stick with plates and probably achieve more total volume doing, say, 5 sets of 25 with 135 lbs?
(5 x 5 x 400 lbs = 10,000 lbs of training volume, whereas 5 x 25 x 135 lbs = 16,875 lbs of training volume)
Well, there are several reasons. For one, we have to think about sustainability. In a nutshell, if you just immediately hop into doing all of the volume, that doesn’t really leave you with anywhere to easily go from there. To reference this to the Spinal Tap clip above, you’ve gone and turned it up to 10, and you’ve basically nowhere left to go beyond that in the short term. You know, unless you can turn it up to 11 like Nigel above, but I suspect he may have overlooked a scaling issue there. Hmm…
Anyways! The lesson to be learned here is to simply do as much (or—really—as little) work as you need to make progress and to increase the amount of work you’re doing just enough that you continue to make progress without unnecessarily expediting your arrival to the point where you will inevitably hit a wall.
It’s not sexy (as I seem to find myself saying all too often), but if it’s big, sexy changes that we’re after, we have to give a lot of consideration to playing the long game with training and nutrition rather than solely thinking about where we want to be next week or next month.
Beyond potentially capping yourself early, though, there are a couple other reasons I want to discuss—namely the specific adaptations different styles of training can elicit (and their usefulness in future training) and the body’s relative sensitization and desensitization to these different styles.
I italicized “at a given intensity” earlier on when stating the “more is more” concept of training volume because it is a pretty important bit to consider. As I have discussed before (and as was pointed out in some of the studies mentioned above), training intensity can govern training outcomes in several ways, two of the major ones being: 1) lifting heavier things tends to translate more directly to getting better at lifting heavier things, and 2) lifting heavier things also tends to reduce (relative to lifting lighter things) the amount of total work you can handle both within a single workout and also from one workout to another (unless you are an indefatigable robot).
For the purpose of this particular article, the reason that we care about these two items is that, respectively: 1) getting better at lifting heavier things (stronger) generally increases the amount of volume you can complete with submaximal weights (less heavy things) in the future (e.g. next training block, cycle, etc.), and 2) training volume and training intensity need to be balanced against one another in some manner of inverse relationship if we want to avoid beating the holy hell out of ourselves.
As for sensitization, the idea is that our bodies can become desensitized, or unresponsive, to training stimuli when we do very similar things (e.g. benching 3 sets of 10 with roughly the same weight) for long periods of time (it’s qualitative, but let’s say for more than a month or two). Basically, you initially have some adaptations (gainz) in response to a given training stimulus, but these adaptations begin to taper off and eventually halt if the nature of the stimulus stays somewhat constant and unchanged.
Discussions of this desensitization phenomenon usually also include mention of the repeated bout effect, whereby the magnitude of skeletal muscle tissue damage following an initial session (or bout) of eccentric exercise (i.e. any movement involving a “negative” phase where the muscle is stretched whilst contracting; AKA pretty much everything we do in a gym aside from a few exceptions like sled-pushing and cycling) is greatly reduced following subsequent bouts of similar exercises. In other words, our musculature adapts pretty readily to protect against damaging activities.
While mechanical muscle tissue trauma is not the only inducer of hypertrophy, it does appear to be an important one, especially for enhancing our capacity to gain more muscle in the long run as Greg Nuckols lays out awesomely in this article. So, given that muscles quickly adapt to avoid being damaged (repeated bout effect), we can see how this at least in part explains our eventual desensitization to a given training stimulus.
This is far from being the entirety of the picture, but it leads us to the idea that we might re-sensitize our muscles to certain kinds of stimuli by avoiding them for some amount of time (thus allowing the repeated bouts effect to diminish).
In application, this can take two forms: 1) periodically cycling between different modalities or styles of training (e.g. alternating between hypertrophy blocks and strength blocks) to reduce desensitization to whichever style you are not doing at the time, or 2) simply taking a couple weeks off, or switching to doing something else like gymnastics or swimming for a bit.
If I haven’t been clear about it, I love lifting, so I lean more towards option 1, but the point is that, while we want to increase the training volume we’re handling over the long haul, it’s actually probably advantageous to allow for peaks and troughs to occur to keep us moving in the desired direction.
Considering this alongside the intrinsic, inverse relationship between volume and intensity, we can how different manners of training periodization sort of organically arise as good ways to try to maximize progress while attenuating the threats of injury and/or stagnation (fancy that!).
Keeping It in the Family
Before we go any further, I want to point out that we need to be careful with exactly how we define volume and compare it both from workout to workout and from exercise to exercise. You may have already realized that focusing strictly on volume as defined by (sets x reps x weight used) can lead to the portrayal of certain exercises as being “superior” to others.
If we consider, for instance, the leg press, where you can probably use “more weight” than you could on the back squat for a given number of reps, it would seem that the leg press is “better” than the back squat in that it allows for “more volume” to be completed in a workout. Additionally, a similar train of logic would allow one to infer that front squats are inferior to back squats, as people can almost always handle more weight on the latter exercise.
Hopefully you are with me when I say that I don’t think this way of comparing volume from exercise to exercise makes that much sense. The question, then, is how do we keep track of and control our volume to ensure we are progressively improving?
Nathan Jones made a pretty compelling argument in this Strengtheory article (yes, that’s the 3rd Strengtheory article I’ve linked here… it’s not my fault that they pump out so much fantastic information over there) that the number of reps one completes (and thus the weight used and the conventional definition of volume per set) is not the critical determinant (or at least the best predictor) of hypertrophy so much as the number of hard sets (to failure or at least close) one completes in a workout.
As Nathan points out, whether or not this idea holds perfectly for sets ended short of failure (e.g. leaving 2 or 3 reps “in the tank”) is less clear, but either way, thinking of volume as the number of hard sets completed in a workout seems like a pretty decent strategy for at least being able to kind of compare the amount of work you did in, say, a front squat workout and a back squat workout.
Even so, we still need to gear our training intensity towards our goals (e.g. strength development) as discussed above. One way to accomplish this within the “number of hard sets” framework could be by further breaking down these hard sets into, say, light (e.g. 60-70% 1RM), medium (e.g. 70-80% 1RM), and heavy (e.g. 80+%) sets, and to organize the training as desired from there.
All of that being said, I still feel that totally ignoring the “sets x reps x weight used” concept of volume would be a mild case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as this framework does give us a high level of accuracy when it comes to monitoring progress within an individual exercise.
(NOTE: I am not saying that this is at all mutually exclusive to the take-away of Nathan’s article. I don’t know him, but I’m pretty sure he would agree that there is value in keeping records of how many reps/sets you have done at given weights to serve as a reference later on when you want to check your progress on individual exercises. Both accounting methods have merits, and both could be utilized very well together.)
Teach Me How to Volume
What I propose, then, is basically keeping track of volume on a per-exercise/context-dependent basis and aiming to improve upon that amount either in the short term (e.g. within that training block) or at some point in the future (e.g. during a similar training block if you were to repeat the same cycle or one like it).
Don’t worry, I’m not about to tell you to bring a calculator to the gym and crunch out your total volume every workout. Instead, the idea is to simply consult your records from the previous week (or the last time you were doing a similar training block) to establish what you have done so that you can aim to do a little more.
For instance, let’s say you’re in a 6 week training block (let’s say it’s a designated hypertrophy block) and you deadlift 300 lbs for 3 sets of 8 at the beginning of the block. Throughout that block, you will try to increase the amount of volume you’re handling, whether it’s by adding more sets (e.g. 4 sets of 8 with 300 lbs on your next deadlift day, or even something like 3 sets of 8 plus 1 set of 4 or 5), adding more weight (e.g. 3 sets of 8 with 310 lbs), or adding more reps (e.g. 3 sets of 10 with 300 lbs).
You could even do some combination of the above (e.g. stay at 3 sets with 300 lbs until you can get 10 reps on each set, and then drop back to the 8 rep target and add either weight or another set on your next deadlift day).
The possibilities are vast, but that’s not really the point. The point is to try to do more than you have done before, but in a controlled, systematic fashion.
Now, let’s say that you conclude that block of training doing 5 sets of 8 with 320 lbs and move on to doing some heavier strength work for the next 6 weeks. Your aim is to do sets of 4 on the deadlift, and you figure you can pull somewhere around 370 lbs for 4 reps.
If your goal was to continue building volume at this point, you’d have to do 9 sets of 4 with 370 lbs. Aside from taking quite a while, doing 9 heavy sets of deadlifts (and then 10, 11, 12, etc. in the following weeks if you wanted to keep increasing) is probably going to be pretty rough on your body, which is why—as I mentioned earlier—it’s probably advisable to allow your total training volume to actually decrease as the intensity increases.
As a bonus (and as discussed above), this decrease in volume will likely allow your body to begin re-sensitizing to the effects of higher training volume so that you’ll be more primed to make sweet gainz when you return to another hypertrophy block.
In short, you will be well suited in allowing total training volume to fluctuate according to the focus of your current training. Instead of trying to continue increasing volume when moving from, say, a hypertrophy block to a strength block as in our deadlift example, a good goal would be to shoot for doing more volume the next time you’re doing something similar to what you had been doing before.
So, continuing the above example, let’s say you are beginning another hypertrophy block after your strength block. This would be the time to strive to beat your old record for sets of 8 (5 sets of 8 with 320 lbs). Of course, you don’t have to walk in on day 1 and crush those numbers, you just want to exceed them throughout the course of the training block.
Now, if this whole “keeping track of all your sets and reps and weights” thing sounds like too much work, you could still keep decent track of your progress by simply keeping a running list of your rep records for your main lifts and aim to break records set in certain training blocks the next time you are doing something similar. This could be as simple as having a list from 1 to, say, 15 reps, with each number corresponding to the most weight you’ve ever done for that many reps (e.g. 400 lbs for 1 rep, 380 lbs for 2 reps, 370 lbs for 3 reps, and so on up to however-so-high you are inclined to go)
Lastly, if you decided to switch to doing different variations of a lift (e.g. switching from conventional deadlifts to sumo or Romanian deadlifts), it would become less sensible to compare your training volume with the new variation against what you did originally, as you are probably going to have somewhat different levels of absolute strength on different exercise variations.
While it might sound like more work, I’d recommend simply keeping records for any exercise variation that you plan on using regularly.
(NOTE: I’ll point out again that you don’t actually have to sit down and calculate volume as sets x reps x weight at any point to make this system work. All you need to do is know what you have done before and aim to do a little bit more. Again, if this all seems too tedious, you can simplify it to merely keeping a running list of rep records for your main lifts.)
The Big Deal
If you’re wondering why you should even bother with trying to keep track of these things (it sounds like a bother, I know), it pretty much boils down to this:
Keeping records is one of the most reliable ways to assess whether you are actually making progress.
This is not necessarily hard set fact/rule, as there are a lot of moving parts to consider, but for the most part, if your previous record for sets of 10 on the squat was 4 sets with 280 and you end up squatting 315 for a few sets of 10, you can probably assume that you have gotten better at squatting (and chances are your physique will reflect this at least somewhat).
This all might sound delightfully obvious—doing more to get better and tracking what you have done so that you can check back later down the road to make sure you have made progress—yet I see an alarmingly small number of people actually doing these things.
If you just generally enjoy working out and don’t necessarily have any desire to, say, improve a lift further or build your physique beyond what it is, then by all means, do your thing and have a good time! However, if you do aspire to a specific goal and neglect to track your progress in any way, there’s not much of an excuse to get frustrated if you become stagnant in your efforts, just as there wouldn’t be much of an excuse if you were undereating and only getting 4 hours of sleep a night.
Now, that’s not to say that keeping a training log is going to magically make you stronger. Not at all. It’s just pretty darn hard to organize your efforts and ensure consistent progress without doing so in some fashion, be it a physical notebook, a note on your phone, a spreadsheet, etc.
So that’s pretty much it, folks. If you want to get better, do more (over time), and if you want to quantify whether that’s happening, write some stuff down! If you’re wondering exactly what to write, I’ll make another post in the near future to give you some suggestions.
As always, thank you so much for reading! I apologize for the long stint of relative inactivity over the past month or so. My schedule moving ahead is going to allow for more writing time, though, so expect to see new material soon!
If you like my work, please share it and spread the word, and if you have any questions or requests, please let me hear ‘em in the comments below or via email, social media, etc.
Krieger, James W. “Single Vs. Multiple Sets of Resistance Exercise for Muscle Hypertrophy: A Meta-Analysis.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24, no. 4 (2010): 1150-1159.
Marshall, PWM, M McEwen and DW Robbins. “Strength and Neuromuscular Adaptation Following One, Four, and Eight Sets of High Intensity Resistance Exercise in Trained Males.” European journal of applied physiology 111, no. 12 (2011): 3007-3016.
Nosaka, Kazunori, Marcelo Saldanha Aoki and Kazunori Nosaka. “Repeated Bout Effect: Research Update and Future Perspective.” Brazilian Journal of Biomotricity 5, no. 1 (2011): 5-15.
Schoenfeld, Brad J, Nicholas A Ratamess, Mark D Peterson, Bret Contreras, GT Sonmez and Brent A Alvar. “Effects of Different Volume-Equated Resistance Training Loading Strategies on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 28, no. 10 (2014): 2909-2918.
Schoenfeld, Brad J., Mark D. Peterson, Dan Ogborn, Bret Contreras and Gul T. Sonmez. “Effects of Low- Versus High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research Publish Ahead of Print, (2015).
Follow me for updates and other shenanigans: