Once you’ve built the habit of training consistently (at least 3-4 times per week) and have conditioned yourself to work hard enough every set (1-3 reps short of technical failure) then your training volume will likely become the biggest variable in your programming.
But why does training volume matter and is there a perfect number of working sets to perform each week? Is more volume always better, or is there a point where you hit the law of diminishing returns?
Read on for the answers to these questions and for a look at the more recent research on training volume.
Armed with this knowledge you’ll more deftly walk the line between enough volume to maximise your gains, and not falling into the trap of junk volume.
This article is part of our muscle building fundamentals series. The series looks to cover all the key concepts you need to understand to maximise your muscle-building journey.
What is training volume?
Training volume is the amount of work you do over a given time period and is usually measured in total working sets.
A working set is one round of a given exercise for a predetermined number of reps. For example, if you bench press 60kg for 10 repetitions, that’s one working set.
Most training programs would then see you resting for 1-2 minutes before repeating the same bench press again (60kg for 10 reps), resting again and then completing one more set.
If you repeated this pattern 3 times per week, say every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you’d complete a total of 9 working sets. This is your weekly chest training volume.
If you were to complete 4 sets of bench press every session, then your weekly chest training volume has increased to 12 sets. If you were to bench press 4 days per week for 3 to 4 sets per session, then your weekly volume would again increase to 12-16 sets.
This counting of the number of working sets you complete over a week is the most common measure of training volume.
But you may also see training volume calculated by multiplying working sets and reps together. Or, if looking at total weight shifted, sets X reps X weight.
Regardless of how you measure it, and we’d recommended just sticking with the total number of working sets completed, your weekly training volume will be a key determinant of the results you’ll see in the gym. This is particularly the case if your focus is more on bodybuilding (hypertrophy) rather than strength.
But why does training volume matter and is there a perfect number of working sets to perform each week?
Why training volume matters (or why it may matter)
Most studies support the thinking that as training volume increases so does muscle protein synthesis (MPS). And, as an increase in MPS leads to an increase in muscle hypertrophy, it makes sense that you’d want to increase your training volume to maximise your gains.
As with most training variables, however, the outcome you are pursuing may affect their individual importance. For example, if your focus is on out and out strength increases your total weekly volume may matter less than if you were focused on hypertrophic gains (an increase in muscle size).
Plus, where you are in your fitness journey, as in how experienced you are and how much strength and size you’ve already built, will make a difference to how susceptible you are to changes in training volume.
As a beginner, the most important thing you can do is to get in the gym and start lifting weights. Whether you complete 5 sets per week or 20, you will see gains.
As your experience grows, however, you will likely find that you have to increase the stresses you apply to your body to continue to see positive changes. Increasing your workload via a higher weekly training volume, specifically by increasing the time your muscles are under tension, is an obvious and effective way to do this.
As we are now 5 paragraphs in and have not answered the question posed in the subtitle, you can probably guess that the research into training volume is as murky and unsettled as many other things in the world of lifting.
That said, research seems to point to training volume being perhaps slightly less of a concern (as in you don’t need that much) for strength gains. But more important (as in more is better) for hypertrophy/bodybuilding training.
What the boffins say......
One of the best analyses in relation to training volume comes from resistance training research supremos Brad Schoenfeld, Bret Contreas, James Kreigar et al and their unambiguously titled 2019 paper Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men
The study took 45 trained males (‘trained’ being defined as consistently lifting for at least 12 months) and split them into 3 groups, a low, medium and high volume group. Other than a difference in total weekly volume all other training variables were consistent. Weight was set so that concentric failure was reached between 8-12 reps for each working set.
The title may somewhat give away the punch line. But, in summary, the research demonstrated that strength increases could be achieved with very low weekly training volume, just 13 minutes, 3 times per week, and that higher training volume didn’t result in significantly greater gains. Hypertrophic gains (an increase in muscle size), however, followed a dose response. That is, the medium volume group saw greater gains than the low volume group and the higher training group saw greater gains than the medium volume group.
The hypertrophic results are in line with what we’d expect, and as per real world experience. That being that when it comes to training volume for an increase in muscle size, more is indeed better.
The findings concerning strength gains and perhaps less expected. But the authors themselves recognise the limitations of their study, principally that sample sizes are small (made worse by, as with many studies, dropouts), time periods are short, and that rep ranges are also a key consideration.
Most real world strength or powerlifting focused training programs will see you predominantly working in the 2-5 rep range rather than 8-12 as per the study. At these lower rep levels, it may be that greater volume has a bigger effect on strength gains.
Real world experience would certainly back this up, as many powerlifting programs will see a relatively high working set count, say 8-12 sets, of very low rep work per session, with 4-5 sessions per week.
So, I should do 600 sets of bicep curls per week to really blow up my arms?
The 2019 study demonstrated that higher training volume (as in more working sets) can deliver greater gains. But is there an upper limit to training volume? Is more always better or can you have too much of a good thing?
Well, most research theorised that gains from training volume followed a bell curve. As training volume increases strength and hypertrophy increase also before plateauing and then actually decreasing as training volume increases yet further.
This ‘diminishing returns’ theory makes sense as we know recovery time is when you reap the benefits of training. If you’re so whacked from a mega high volume that you can’t recover for subsequent training sessions then your gains will suffer. It also feels logical that there must be a ceiling for MPS where any further training wouldn’t reap any additional benefit.
But it appears the most recent research into resistance training volume may suggest that there isn’t a definite maximum volume limit beyond which gains begin to plateau and then diminish. And, when it comes to hypertrophy at least, more is indeed better. More, in this case, being 30-40 sets per week.
But please don’t take this as a green light, or a requirement, to smash 40 sets per muscle group per week to maximise your gains.
Firstly most of us will not need to hit these volume levels to see incredible results. Plus, most of us wouldn’t be able to and would fall apart after just a few days of training at such high intensities.
Mega high set protocols are common in the pro bodybuilding world but remember that most pro bodybuilders have some significant ‘help’ when it comes to managing such high workloads. For us mere mortal ‘non-enhanced’ such high volume training would likely end on the sickbed or A&E.
And, while we may not know the theoretical maximum volume threshold per week for maximum gains, at super high levels (30 sets plus) we will certainly be talking about very marginal gains.
The vast majority of trainees will likely get to 95%+ of their genetic potential working in the 10-20 sets per week range. And, unless you are a professional making a living from your body, you probably don’t need to go to the extreme measures required to ekk out the remaining 2-3%.
But, there is a key takeaway, if you are not seeing the results you want for one or more muscles, then increasing your volume is a sensible thing to do. Assuming that your other training variables (sleep, nutrition, intensity) are all on point
Volume considerations when building your training programs
So, how should you bring this all together and what would your training look like? Well, there are a few key guidelines you should consider when it comes to training volume –
– If your focus is on hypertrophy, increases in muscle size, then a minimum of 8-10 working sets per muscle group per week is a good place to start. A full body 3 day per week plan, such as this one, will check this box.
– To see continued results you want to be increasing your workload over time. Increasing your training volume is a great way to do this. Build your programs in 6-8 week cycles and look to increase your training volume as you progress through each cycle. E.g. week one will see you at 10 sets of chest per week and over the next month or so you’d work up to say 14-16 sets of chest per week.
– Different muscles will react differently to different training volumes. You may see great gains training your chest just 8-10 sets per week. But you may find you need to hit your medial deltoids for 15+ sets per week to see results. This is totally normal and expected and it will take time to see what works for you at different stages of your training (this is why looking at and reviewing your workouts is so important!).
– Once you get above 10-12 sets per muscle group per week it makes sense to split your volume across multiple exercises. Rather than adding more sets of squats in each session, instead, add in additional quad focused exercises such as leg press, leg extension or lunges. So, you may complete 3 sets of squats and then 2-3 sets of lunges for a total of 5-6 working sets per session. Changing things up in this way can help muscle development, as you’re hitting muscle sin different planes, and also with fatigue management. Plus, switching things up every 3-5 sets can make workouts less daunting.
– When increasing volume it’s sensible to focus on one or maybe two muscles at a time, rather than trying to increase volume across your entire body. You still train all of your muscles at your minimum effective volume, but go the extra mile with additional working sets for a particular focus area, be it your legs, shoulders, back or whatever you are working on that cycle.
– As you progress in your fitness journey, and need to increase training volume, you may find that you struggle to fit in all the additional work in just 3 gym sessions per week. This is why the more advanced programs see you hitting the gym 4, 5 or even 6 days per week. More sessions allow you the time to fit in the additional working sets while not having to spend 4 hours a day in the gym.
– Remember that training intensity matters too. Regardless of training volume, every working set (bar deloads and some technique work) should be taxing. Aim to work to 1-3 reps in reserve or call time when your bar speed significantly drops.
– Finally, it can be a good idea to mix up your volume levels between different training blocks. For example, spending a few cycles with a more strength-focused, thus lower volume, program can help to re-sensitise your body to changes in training volume if/when you return to a more hypertrophic focused regime.
It isn’t right to say there is a hierarchy of importance when it comes to muscle building fundamentals.
Training frequency, training intensity and training volume are all equally important considerations. And you’ll need to spend time experimenting with each to find out which numbers are best for you at the various points of your fitness journey.
But provided you are training consistently and training hard enough, training volume is probably the metric to pay the most attention to, particularly as you become more experienced in the iron game.
For the vast majority of the population, who workout for general health and wellbeing, a relatively low training volume, 8-10 sets per muscle per week, will deliver huge health benefits and support muscle strength, bone density and provide a whole host of other benefits.
For those of us that are more dedicated to resistance training, either for competitive strength or aesthetics, greater volume levels are required to maximise our potential.
That said, we’d always recommend reserving the mega high volumes for one or maybe two muscles at a time, rather than trying to increase across your whole body. E.g. If you wanted to major on your chest, you’d still train each of your other muscles 12-15 sets per week but increase your chest volume to 20 for 6-8 weeks. You can then employ the same tactic for a different muscle in subsequent training cycles.
Regardless of the training volume you employ, remember that effort is key and you should be working hard (1-3 reps short of failure) each and every working set. But don’t forget the deload weeks to allow you to recover. This is even more important as your training volume and intensity increase.
It can also be sensible to mix up your training volume between cycles. For example, if you’ve undertaken a few months of higher volume training, switching to a few cycles of more strength-focused lower volume training can help to re-sensitise your body to changes in training volume.