Welcome to the training volume how to guide. This is the third post in the series about the three core variables of all training programs – training frequency (part 1, part 2), training volume and intensity.
In the first part of the article, I will discuss why is volume so important and how it can be measured or calculated. Next I will give some recommendations based on work of great minds of fitness industry like Mike Israetel and Eric Helms. And in the end I will try to summarize the most important points. Let’s dive in:)
Volume For Strength And Hypertrophy
Why is volume so important? Well if you think about it – if you want to be really good at something you need to to do it a lot. And if you want to be even better, you need to do even more. It’s the same in weight training, be it for strength or hypertrophy (muscle gain). Of course, this is true only up to a point where doing more won’t bring you more progress and can cause stagnation. Doing too much can even cause a decrease in your performance which is, in fitness realm, called overtraining.
Now that we know why is volume important, let’s look at ways to quantify it. There are three ways we can count training volume:
- sets x reps x load – this is called volume load. Just take the number of sets and reps you do and multiply it by the amount of weight you’ve used in training. For example, 5 sets x 5 reps x 100 lbs give’s us 2500 lbs of volume load.
- the number of sets x reps – this gives you the number of total repetitions you did for a body part
- the number of sets – in this approach we need to make sure that each set is challenging enough (see below)
What does “challenging enough” means? It means that you push your sets few reps (4 – 1 reps) from failure. Challenging enough also takes into account the weight you’re using, which is called intensity. If your goal is muscular endurance, you should use weight lighter than 60 – 65% of your one rep max (1RM). If you want to train mainly for strength, you should train a lot heavier – heavier than 80 – 85% of your one rep max (1RM). And finally, for hypertrophy, you should use intensity in between the two – heavier than 60% and lighter than 80% of one rep max.
Strength vs Hypertrophy
Whether you’re training for strength or hypertrophy, you’ll benefit from doing more work, if you can recover from it. The biggest difference between the two is that strength is a skill that is highly specific. This means that you will be strong in the exercise (squat, bench etc.) and rep range you use the most in your training.
You’ve probably read the recommendation that in order to get strong, you should use sets of 1 – 5 reps so you can train heavy enough to cause necessary adaptation. Muscle gain occurs also in these low rep ranges but training this heavy is pretty exhausting for your nervous system which means it will fatigue more than training with lower weight. Because of this, you won’t be able to do as many sets or train as often as when training for hypertrophy.
Hypertrophy, on the other hand, isn’t as dependent on the exercise (both squat and leg press will make your legs grow) and occurs in a wide repetition range of around 8 – 20 reps per set. If you’d use sets of 8 or sets of 20, the difference in muscle gain would be minimal. This means that the most important variable here is the number of hard sets (see the description of challenging enough above). Thanks to that you can count your volume simply by counting the number of sets per muscle. And you’ll be able to do more sets when compared to training for strength -> you’ll be able to accumulate more volume which leads to greater muscle gain.
How Much Should I Do?
Now that we know that volume is super-important let’s look at how much volume do you need. I would say that most important factors are your training level, nutrition (whether you’re in a caloric deficit or surplus) and your opinion about training. What I mean by that is that there are basically two schools of thought. One recommends doing the least work to deliver results. The second one is about doing as much as you can while and consistently recover from the training.
But the general answer to this question is very simple: You should do enough to cause an adaptation and progress (muscle and strength gain), but not so much that you won’t be able to recover from the training and burn out after a week. Is this answer helpful? Probably not much so let’s look more in depth.
If you’re not a complete novice to resistance training you need a certain volume just to maintain the muscle mass you have. Let’s say that you do 2 sets of 10 reps of biceps curls once a week (numbers pulled out of thin air:)). If you’re just starting out with resistance training this may be enough to make your biceps grow. But once you’re past that stage this volume might be enough just to maintain your size.
So if you want to grow you need to do more. But how much more? Eric Helms & colleagues in their training book give a recommendation of 40 – 70 reps per muscle group per session and 80 – 210 reps per muscle group per week. This would result in training each muscle group 2 – 3 times a week, which is in line with the frequency recommendations (part 1, part 2). Don’t forget that you shouldn’t do this much every training session, it’s an average over a period of time. Start lower than this recommendation and increase the volume over time. It could look like this:
|workout A||workout B||workout C||workout D|
|sets x reps||2 x 10||3 x 10||4 x 10||5 x 10|
Averaging these 4 sessions will give us 40 repetitions per session. Now let’s assume that workouts A and B were done in week 1 and workout C and D in the week 2. So we did 50 reps in the first week and 90 reps in the second, which is an average of 70 reps per week. It’s a bit lower than the recommended amount but it’s ok because for next 2 weeks you could add 1 set to each session which would result in an average of 90 reps per week.
After that, you could increase the weight used and repeat the cycle. Or you could keep the weight the same and add 2 reps to each set etc. You could also switch up some exercises like changing bench press grip width or switching between barbell and dumbbells. But we are dipping into a huge topic of progression and periodization which will be covered separately.
Another way to measure training volume is by counting the number of sets, but these sets have to be hard enough (explained in a first few paragraphs). Dr. Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodization went really in depth and wrote a separate article for each muscle group with recommendations of minimal, optimal and maximal volume. If you are intermediate and advanced trainee I recommend you to check his extensive work on the subject. Below is just a very brief summary of his recommendations just to give you a hint how much work is needed.
|chest||10||12 – 20||traps||0||12 – 20|
|back||10||14 – 22||abs||0||4 – 20|
|biceps||8||14 – 20||glutes||0||4 – 12|
|triceps||6||10 – 14||quads||8||12 – 18|
|rear/side delts||6 – 8||16 – 22||hamstrings||6||10 – 16|
|front delts||0||6 – 8||calves||8||12 – 16|
Column “minimal” is the minimal number of sets per week most people need to grow. Doing less than that will be enough just to maintain current muscle mass. Column “optimal” is the number of sets per week where most people should achieve best results. Some people need to do more and for some these optimal recommendation can be too much. As with many things in fitness, you’ll have to try and tweak it to suit you.
Volume is a very important factor of any training routine, especially if you’re looking to build muscle. How much should you do? The easiest answer is to do as much as possible while you’re still able to recover from the training.
In the number language, you should do 40 – 70 reps per muscle group per session and 80 – 210 reps per muscle group per week. Don’t forget that this is an average over a period of time. You should start on the lower end (or even lower than that) and increase over time.
That’s all folks! 🙂 I hope this post was helpful to you. If you have any question, suggestions, or you’ve found some errors be sure to leave a comment below. Next time we will look into intensity – how heavy should we train.