Effective Training Volume: A Scientific Approach to Muscle Growth

Building muscle isn’t easy. Put simply, your training needs to be hard and it needs to get harder over time. See what science has to say about effective training volume to maximize muscle growth!

Training volume is a measure of how much training you do. Traditionally, it has been calculated as volume load.

This is a simple equation of: Sets x Reps, X Load = Volume Load.

While this calculation is simple it is quite time consuming to do it for every exercise you perform. A simpler and more practical way to track training volume is to count the number of hard sets you do per body part per week. The research1 on hypertrophy indicates that the more training you do without exceeding your capacity to recover, the more muscle you gain.

The scientists call this a dose-response relationship. With the knowledge that more training equals more gains lots of gym junkies abuse this more is better approach and end up doing tons of junk volume.

Instead of junk volume you want all of your training to be effective volume. Effective volume is the amount of training that maximally stimulates the anabolic processes. In research, muscle protein synthesis (MPS), is used as a proxy for muscle growth. So, effective volume is the minimum amount of work required to maximize MPS.

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What is Junk Volume?

As the name implies, junk volume is training volume with no additional benefit. All it does is eat into your ability to recover and grow. It is basically an exercise in tiring yourself out for the same (or even worse) results. To maximize your rate of gain you want to do as much effective volume as possible while trying to eradicate any junk volume.

There are two main types of junk volume I see people do in the gym:

  1. Not training hard enough stimulate the body’s muscle building machinery
  2. Doing too much overall work per session

Muscle & Strength Athlete Doing Lat Pulldowns

You Can't Out-Volume Hard Work!

The first point probably doesn’t apply to you, but be warned some well-intentioned gym enthusiasts are making this mistake. If you like to stay up to date with training research you might be too.

You’ve probably heard that volume is the key driver of hypertrophy (muscle growth). Consequently, there is a trend for lifters to focus on accumulating as much volume as possible: more sets, more total reps, more exercises, etc. All in the misguided belief that this will grow more muscle. Guys training this way have researched muscle growth, over-intellectualized the process and missed the wood for the trees.

They choose to do a ton of work, but none of it is very challenging. They never get close to failure. Sadly, this violates one of the fundamental principles of training - progressive overload. For training to be effective it needs to disrupt homeostasis enough to cause adaptation.

Let me explain how this issue manifests to make sure you are not falling into this trap. It happens when people stop sets too far from failure to represent an overload to the body. Without an overload, there is no reason for the body to adapt and build bigger stronger muscles. For gym newbies, this happens because they aren’t used to what hard training really feels like and can’t push themselves hard enough. For more experienced lifters this problem usually occurs because they have heard more volume is good for growth so they are doing a ton of volume. To achieve this incredibly high training volume they have to reduce the intensity of their sets. The problem is that all the sets and reps they are doing are too easy to force the body to grow. They are trying to “out-volume” hard work. This isn’t possible.

Building muscle isn’t easy. You have to work hard. Put simply, your training needs to be hard and it needs to get harder over time.

The increase in people making this mistake has led people to create the concept of effective reps. The theory of effective reps is that:

  • You need to recruit and fatigue most of the motor units and muscle fibers in a muscle to stimulate maximum muscle growth
  • Effective reps are the reps that achieve this
  • The closer a rep is to failure the more growth stimulating it is

The theory of effective reps doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already now. Instead it reminds us of something that many people have forgotten. After all, way back in the 1970s Arnold famously said, "The last three or four reps are what makes the muscle grow."

Long story short, most of your sets should be within 0-3 reps of failure. These then can be counted as “hard” sets. Doing the most hard sets you can recover from is a good strategy to build muscle rapidly. The problem is that the classic bro-splits people use to perform lots of hard sets actually leads to the second type of junk volume.

Related: How Frequently Should You Exercise to See Muscle Growth?

The Bro Split Is Junk

A meta-analysis is an examination of the data from multiple independent studies of the same subject. It allows researchers to establish overall trends that might not be apparent in a one-off study. Way back in 2007, the Swedish muscle and exercise physiology researcher Mathias Wernbom, and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis2 on the role of training frequency, intensity, and volume on strength and muscle gains.

Their meta-analysis found an upper limit to how much muscle growth could be stimulated per workout. This finding was consistent with both low and high-frequency training. This means that, regardless of how hard or how much you train in a session, there is only so much muscle growth you stimulate in a single workout.

Following the bro-split strategy of annihilating a muscle once per week doesn’t make any sense based on this research. Past a certain threshold more training in a session doesn't cause more growth. Everything beyond this threshold is junk!

Muscle & Strength Athlete Doing Single Arm Dumbbell Thrusters

Instead of doing marathon workouts of single body parts it seems wiser to split that total volume across multiple sessions per week. A more effective muscle building stimulus is to follow Lee Haney’s advice, "Stimulate, don't annihilate”, and do this more frequently than once per week to maximize your results.

Further research by Scott Dankel3 supports higher training frequencies to optimize effective volume. His 2017 paper stated that “increasing the number of sets performed per session does not appear to be an effective method for increasing muscle size once a given threshold is surpassed.”

The weight of the existing scientific literature1, 4, 5, 6 & 7 indicates that anything between 3-10 sets per body part, per session, is sufficient to maximally stimulate muscle building pathways for the average lifter. It also seems that, on average 10-20 sets per body part per week is effective for muscle gain.

Now, these per session and per week ranges are quite broad, and you’re probably not the average lifter. The chances are that you are more advanced. On that basis, I think it’s reasonable to extend the upper limit out to 12 sets per body part per session. From practical experience the typical intermediate guy makes optimal progress with somewhere between 6 and 12 sets per body part per session. With a total weekly volume of 12 to 20 sets consistently providing excellent results. Any more than this will yield diminishing returns (best case) or, more likely, slow or reduce your muscular gains.

Establishing exactly what is ideal for you will take some trial and error. Unfortunately, prescribing an exact number of sets for everyone simply isn’t possible because we all have different stress levels, recovery capacities, work and family schedules, work capacity, and therefore, volume tolerance. This is why I believe the scientific research should act as a compass to guide your training rather than spitting out an exact set of directions.

Based on what I’ve told you so far you can use the following guidelines to plan your training:

  • All sets should be 0-3 reps from failure
  • Doing 10-20 sets per muscle group per week is the “sweet-spot” for most lifters
  • Performing more than 10-12 sets per body part per session is likely just adding junk volume
  • At this point, rather than adding more sets per body part per session split the overall volume into two or more sessions per week

An Effective Way To Add Volume To Your Training Program

With these guidelines in place, let me explain the right way to add volume to your training program to build more muscle.

To add volume to their training program, most guys keep their current training split and add sets to each training session. Pretty quickly they are doing 15 to 20 sets for a muscle group in a single session. As I outlined earlier, this is a fast track to junk volume, increased fatigue, poor recovery, and sub-optimal progress.

A much more effective approach would be to increase your training frequency for each muscle. For example, rather than hitting a muscle once a week with 18 sets, do two sessions of 9 sets or three workouts of 6 sets.

In fact, because of the improved distribution across the week you could probably tolerate three sessions of 8 sets. This significantly increases your weekly training volume (24 sets vs. 18 sets) while more evenly distributing your training. This means you do much more effective volume each week and avoid any junk volume. Consequently, you provide three growth stimulating workouts a week instead of one. More muscle-building workouts each week adds up to more gains.

Think of it this way: With a once a week frequency, a muscle has 52 growth opportunities per year. With a three times a week strategy, you get 156 effective muscle-building stimuli per year. Which do think will cause more growth?

References
  1. Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(10):2857-72.
  2. Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomee R. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports Med.2007;37:225-64.
  3. Dankel S. The Overlooked Resistance Training Variable for Inducing Muscle Hypertrophy? Sports Med. 2017;47(5):799-805.
  4. Hackett DA, Johnson NA, Chow C-M. Training practices and ergogenic aids used by male bodybuilders. J Strength Cond Res.2013;27:1609–17.13.
  5. Kumar V, Atherton PJ, Selby A, et al. Muscle protein synthetic responses to exercise: effects of age, volume, and intensity. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2012;67:1170–7.
  6. Schoenfeld BJ, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, et al. Influence of resistance training frequency on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29:1821-9.
  7. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of resistance training frequency on measures of muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2016; 46(11):1689-1697