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Training Volume For Strength and Hypertrophy – A Guide in Plain English

muscle strength training volume Nov 06, 2019

Training Volume For Strength and Hypertrophy – A Guide in Plain English

Training Volume Definition - What is training volume?


One of the primary variables we need to think about when training for strength and muscle growth is how much training to do in the first place. We need a way to quantify how much work we’re doing in the gym, and then we can work out what the best dose is to make our training effective.

Training volume is simply defined as the amount of work done over a period of time. This could refer to a single workout or a week of training (or even longer).

Why does training volume matter?


It has implications for how much work we can do and how much we can recover from. The ideal situation is to do as much work as we can, but still recover and adapt. This means we can make optimal progress without stalling.

We need to know how much volume we’re doing to work out how much we can recover from, and to identify any patterns in fatigue or progress.

For strength and muscle gains, there is a positive relationship with training volume. I’ll talk more about this in the section on how much volume to do below.

How is Training Volume Calculated?


We can measure this in a couple of ways. The traditional method is to work out absolute training volume by using a simple formula: multiplying sets x reps x load.

For example, bench pressing 3 sets x 10 reps x 100kg = 3000kg of training volume.

You could use this formula and add up all the sets and reps you did in a session and get the total amount of weight lifted, then compare that across workouts or weeks of training.

This has some drawbacks, though. It doesn’t take into account how hard those sets were, so you could be counting volume that doesn’t really contribute to making you stronger or bigger. For example, you wouldn’t expect that doing lots of easy sets with light weight would make you significantly better, but it can add up to a lot of volume on paper.

The other main way of calculating training volume was championed by Greg Nuckols. This involves simply counting the number of hard sets you do. A hard set can be defined as one where you get reasonably close to failure, and this means it can work well across a variety of rep ranges. Usually we consider a hard working set to be within 4-5 reps of complete concentric failure (ie you physically can’t lift the weight any more).

Training Volume vs Intensity

One of the problems of the total tonnage method of calculating volume is that heavy sets tend to produce less overall training volume as light sets, but they can be just as taxing on the system.

Let’s use the bench press example again in a hypothetical situation.

For someone who can lift 100kg for one rep, we might expect a working set for 10 reps to be at about 70kg.

Let’s say a working set for 5 reps is around 85kg. Now we can compare the total volume between them for 3 working sets.

Remember the formula of sets x reps x load.

3 sets x 10 reps x 70kg = 2100kg

3 sets x 5 reps x 85kg = 1275kg

Both sets are similarly difficult, being close to a max effort for this individual, but the total training volume is wildly different and favours the lighter load with more reps on paper.

Here’s the problem – previous research has shown that as long as we’re getting close enough to failure, any rep range between 30% 1RM and 80% 1RM is likely to cause similar muscle growth.

This means for hypertrophy, neither one of these is worse even though the total volume is much higher in one situation.

For strength, we know that we should be practicing lifting heavy loads if we want to get stronger. If all you focused on was total tonnage, you’d never lift heavy and never get strong.

This is why the method of using hard sets is so handy – we can roughly equate difficult sets across various rep ranges and compare them for muscle growth.

How much training volume should you do?

From the current evidence, there is a positive relationship between training volume and progressions in strength and hypertrophy. In other words, the more you do the faster you progress.

However, this isn’t a 1:1 ratio and diminishing returns definitely exist. Doing more volume past a certain point will not continue to net you noticeable gains, but it does come with a cost: fatigue.

At some point after training you can repeat a physical performance, but there’s a delay in your fitness returning to 100% after training – it takes time to recover your physical abilities. Fatigue is accumulated when we train and dissipates over time.

The more volume you do, the greater the stimulus and therefore the greater the fatigue generated.

I have a separate article on fatigue you can look at here. The crux of it is that if fatigue gets too high, performance will tank, injuries are more likely to occur and you might start to experience negative effects like low mood, disrupted sleep and poor appetite.

This means that there’s a sweet spot for training volume. We should do enough to stimulate progress but not so much that fatigue ramps up too quickly. It’s also worth noting that as you improve, you might need to increase training volume to continue to progress.

As you get bigger and/or stronger, minimum training volume will be higher than when you started out. This is the same concept as with training load - as you get stronger, the weights you used to lift won’t be as stimulating as they used to be.

This means that the range for effective training volume is very individual. You need to consider your ability to recover (how good is your sleep, nutrition and general stress?), your training age (are you a beginner, intermediate or more advanced?) and what your goals are.

As a general recommendation, each week you need to do around 10-20 sets per bodypart or movement pattern per week. This is obviously quite a broad range, but unfortunately, it’s a variable number depending on the individual factors listed above.

It takes less than this for beginners or if you want to maintain your training progress.

But how much volume is too much?

You’ll know if you’re doing too much volume if:

  • Your fatigue accumulates quickly
  • You get niggles or injuries often
  • You can’t repeat last week’s training performance for two or more sessions in a row
  • You consistently find it psychologically difficult to get through your workouts
  • You’re trying to do the same amount of training volume on every single muscle group

Your system can only handle a certain amount of training volume before fatigue accumulates, and this overall systemic fatigue threshold is possibly lower than the maximum amount each muscle group could handle individually.

To give a rough example with made-up numbers, let’s say your overall training volume tolerance is 100 sets per week across your whole body.

Let’s say each main muscle group can handle 15 sets.

Pecs, lats, upper back (rhomboids and traps), triceps, biceps, shoulders (deltoids), quads, hamstrings, calves. That’s 9 different muscle groupings times 15 sets = 135 sets.

This means you’re exceeding your system’s capacity by 35 sets per week. It might be smarter to focus on 3-4 muscles you really want to improve on and pull back to the lower end of the range for all the others. You can always put these on maintenance later and work on the remaining muscles in another training phase.

Now, you might not need to group muscles that way – this is just a trough example to try and illustrate the point.

We don’t yet know the upper limit for training volume from research. It’s actively being looked at, but it seems that it’s pretty individual when we look at variability between subjects.

What does the research say about training volume?

Schoenfeld, Ogborn and Krieger. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. (2017)

This meta-analysis looked at 15 applicable studies. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of very high training volume research, but they did find that as subjects approached 10 or more sets per muscle group per week, muscle growth linearly increased.

This means that on average, at least 10 sets per muscle group per week should be the target for maximum progress.

How do you calculate training volume for compound lifts?

Most exercises hit more than one muscle group. For example, although squats are traditionally thought of as a quad exercise, they stimulate your glutes, quads, lower back and adductors. This means we should count hard sets of squats towards all these muscle groups.

Not every muscle that’s involved in a movement gets enough stimulation to warrant counting. Hamstrings are involved in squats, but since they don’t change length it’s unlikely squats stimulate them to grow larger or stronger to any appreciable extent.

Pushing and pulling exercises use the arms and shoulders, but they’re not the main contributors. It’s really difficult to quantify this sometimes and can depend on the variation you use - a close grip bench press or a dip could be considered both chest and triceps, but a wider grip doesn’t stimulate the triceps to the same extent.

What many experts like Lyle McDonald recommend is counting upper body compound moves as contributing half a set to the arms. For example, a set of rows = 1 set for back and 0.5 sets for biceps

This amount of volume might be enough for maintenance but using specific isolated moves for these muscles is best if you want to grow them.

What about “junk volume”? Why German Volume Training is probably not ideal.

There’s a concept called junk volume that I first heard about from Dr James Hoffman from Renaissance Periodization. The idea is that you can do too much volume in one session, because past a certain point your ability to perform high efforts will drop due to simply being too tired.

For example, attempting 10 hard sets of squats in one workout is not ideal for most people. However, many people can handle 10 hard sets of squats in a week if they spread it out over more than one session.

The other part to this idea is that the system only has a limited amount of resources to continue to adapt. Pushing past the point of what you can handle in a given session does not mean you will continue to progress - you start to get diminishing returns. Muscle protein synthesis doesn’t keep climbing linearly the more sets you do.

Should you include warmups sets in training volume?

Since warmup sets are not likely to contribute significantly to fatigue or stimulating progress, it’s not necessary to include them. Doing an excessive number of warmups could hinder your ability to do perform at a higher level in your working sets.

Training volume when cutting

Logically, if you have less energy coming in it might be harder to get through high volume training. While this might be true, it’s also best to try and maintain a similar stimulus to the muscle that built it in the first place.

There are multiple factors that go into the body’s decision to build or maintain muscle. Some of these are nutrition related (are there enough amino acids around from protein to build muscle? Is there enough energy to build and maintain new tissue?) and some are training related (is there enough tension on the muscle? How much work does the muscle have to do?).

If there’s a calorie deficit, your body is looking for places it can cut down on energy expenditure. Since muscle is energetically expensive tissue to maintain, it’d love to break down some muscle. If we have enough training stimulus coming in, we can convince the body to hang on to it instead since we obviously need it for the physical tasks we’re doing. Then all you need is enough protein to provide the building blocks to repair muscle tissue.

For this reason, it’s best to try and maintain the amount of training volume in a calorie deficit if your goal is to hang on to muscle mass and strength.

Examples of training volume

I’ll give some basic examples here to try and achieve at least 10 hard sets per week for chest and triceps. I’d pick a couple of different exercises per muscle group to make sure I get some variety in how the muscle is stimulated.

To get at least 10 sets on chest, I might pick 2-3 different exercises

Bench press 4 sets

DB chest press 3 sets

Cable pec fly 3 sets

Remember, these don’t have to be all in the same workout. This is total weekly volume and can be split up over two or more sessions.

Two of the above movements contribute to triceps, using our 0.5 set rule of thumb for arms.

Bench press = 2 sets

DB chest press = 2 sets (rounded up)

Now I just need an extra 6 sets for my triceps

Triceps pushdown 3 sets

Skullcrusher 3 sets

How do I know how much volume I should do for each muscle?

The answer is that you need to go by experience. One way of working out how much volume to do per body part is to methodically increase training volume week by week until you experience too much fatigue. Over time you’ll learn how much you can handle for various movement patterns and muscle groups.

You might start with 8 sets per week for a muscle and increase it by 2 sets per week until you feel you hit an unsustainable level. You average weekly volume should be below this level, but sometimes you might go a bit lower and sometimes a bit higher (eg you could do a week of higher volume then do a deload to dissipate some fatigue before starting over).

Some people feel that certain movements or muscle groups can handle less volume than others. There isn’t much data on this at the moment, so the best thing you can do is keep a training log and check it regularly for patterns. Over time you may learn that you can handle high volume for shoulders, for example, but your legs can’t take much before your knees start hurting and you get really fatigued.

Summing up training volume

Generally speaking, the more volume we can perform and recover from, the faster we will achieve strength and muscle growth. For most intermediates/advanced, 10-20 sets per week per muscle group is considered optimal. By “working sets” we mean sets that are taken to within around 4-5 reps of failure. Warmups don’t count. Less than this is required for maintenance or slower gains.

There’s plenty more we can learn about training volume, and it’s a growing area of research. I’ll update this article with any new developments.

Thanks for reading,


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