How Much Training Volume to Do and When to Adjust it
We all know training volume is important, but many don’t fully understand what volume is and how it impacts your muscle growth. Meatheads everywhere toss around the word volume like it’s the latest slang, but few understand the nuances of it.
Let me breakdown what training volume is and when you should be adjusting it in your own training.
Volume, in simple terms is the amount of work. Many would agree with this, but when lifting weights, we technically don’t care about how much work we do. We care more about how much muscle growth we can brag about.
Similarly, you don’t care about how much work you get done at your job as much as how much money you tangibly bring home to your bank account.
So training volume is more precisely defined as the dosage of stimulation you receive, not necessarily the work you do.
When people typically think of measuring volume, many think of reps or total work, thus many will measure training volume via total reps or volume load (reps x weight x sets). While these measures have other uses, they’re utterly terrible for measuring true training volume.
Remember we care about measuring the dosage of stimulation as accurately as we can, not how many times we perform a repetition. Reps and total work are bad measures because higher rep training will appear to be more voluminous, yet research shows nearly all rep ranges build the same amount of muscle per set (1).
A more accurate way to measure volume is number of hard sets per muscle group per week (2). A hard set is defined as a set that’s taken close to or to failure, so this excludes your warm up sets which have practically no contribution towards muscle growth.
Number of hard sets is not a perfect measure, but it’s the best measure we have. We know that a one to one comparison between a set of 12 to failure vs a set of 8 to failure will yield the same hypertrophy, so we now have a standard dose equated to each working set you do.
You can think of each hard set as a pill. The more pills you take, the more of an effect you will experience. But just like any substance, take too many pills and you’ll get diminishing returns that can even spill over to overdosing if you push the dosage too high.
So while optimal volume exists, it’s vastly different between individuals due to many factors like genetics (3). However, let me give you a system in figuring out your optimal volume across your life.
Firstly, you need to understand your base volume for each muscle group. Your base volume is a range of sets that a muscle can recover from while you’re at caloric maintenance. Your base volume will be different for each body part and experience level.
Start with a range of 5-15 sets per muscle each week. Start with the lower end if you’re more of a beginner and closer to 15 if you’re advanced. Women can also go a bit higher due to their physiology tolerating more volume.
In addition, if you have body parts that are difficult to grow, they may require more volume, thus the number shouldn’t be the same for all muscle groups.
Once you figure out your base number, you will ensure that muscle gets significantly stimulated with that many sets across the week. For example, I would count pull ups and preacher curls as biceps volume because your biceps get significantly stimulated, but I wouldn’t count db flyes as biceps volume because db flyes barely stimulate the biceps.
How Your Base Volume Changes Over Time
Don’t get too comfortable with your base volume though because numerous factors can increase it over time, most notably becoming more advanced. As a beginner, even a few sets of squats each week would trash your legs, but advanced lifters have better recovery capacities and experience less muscle damage due to adapting to the demands of repetitive strength training.
So as you clock in hours at the gym, your average base volume will increase. It will eventually go from 5-15 sets to 10-25 sets per muscle per week. This seems to be the limit we see in scientific research at least when we also consider real world rest periods and highly advanced lifters reaching failure in their training.
And although, your base volume will inevitably need to increase, it’s best to increase it slowly. Don’t go from 5 sets of quads one week to 14 sets the next week. The drastic demand will be excessive and you’ll be too sore to get up from the toilet.
Alternatively, there will be situations where your base volume will have to decrease. For example, taking a new job, having a kid, or going through personal issues all escalates your stress and thus drops your recovery capabilities.
So the mindset behind training volume should not be more is always better. It should be more is better as long as I’m able to recover from it. Always be brutally honest with how much you can handle at your current stage of life. The last thing you want is to overtrain and have your performance tank alongside skyrocketing your risk of injury.
Adjusting Your Base Volume According to Energy Intake
Our diet and training should complement each other like a happy marriage. They’re not too separate components because physiologically energy intake will always impact how much volume you can handle.
Once you determine a solid base volume for each muscle at your current experience level, you’ll have to adjust based on energy intake.
We have research showing more progress during diets when volume is reduced (4). This shouldn’t be surprising because anyone who’s dieted aggressively knows your energy is lower when calories are restricted. You objectively have less fuel coming in and bodyweight is trending downwards, not to mention the increase stress from resisting caloric foods.
A good rule of thumb is to drop your base volume by 25-33% when cutting. So if your base volume for chest is 12 sets per week, you should drop 3-4 sets when you start a cut.
Conversely, bulking increases your energy intake and enhances your recovery capacity. You get more food which means more fuel and more happiness. Glycogen stores are always full and big lifts are more stable with a higher bodyweight. The muscle protein synthesis response and signal is also stronger with an energy surplus (5). This is a great opportunity to increase training volume.
A good rule of thumb is to increase your base volume by 10-20% when bulking. So if your base volume for calves is 10 sets per week, you should increase it by 1-2 sets. This should be done as gradually as you can after starting a bulk because just like increasing the dose of medication, increasing the dose of strength training stress too fast can be detrimental.
Give your body time to adapt to higher volumes.
Volume – More is More, but Less is Also More
In life, there is an optimal dosage for everything including volume. Too little and you get no effect or suboptimal results. Too much and you’re either wasting resources or causing harm.
So while many articles are telling you to simply add more sets or to stop wasting your time, doing so much volume, the answer is highly individual and even my clients have to go through their own experimentation over time to see which body parts respond better to higher or lower training volumes.
What we do know is that you can get some growth with 5-10 sets per muscle per week and some of your best growth as an advanced lifter will likely be higher. This will be your base volume that slowly changes over the course of your lifting journey and will have to account for personal factors that might lower your volume tolerance like stressful events and chronic sleep loss.
Then once you get a good grasp on where your base volume is at, you should decrease or increase it based on energy intake. Your recovery capacity will always ebb and flow alongside your diet.
With enough experimenting, you’ll find the sweet spot of volume you need for your current goal.
- JW;, Schoenfeld BJ;Grgic J;Ogborn D;Krieger. “Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28834797/.
- J;, Baz-Valle E;Fontes-Villalba M;Santos-Concejero. “Total Number of Sets as a Training Volume Quantification Method for Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30063555/.
- Hammarström D;Øfsteng S;Koll L;Hanestadhaugen M;Hollan I;Apró W;Whist JE;Blomstrand E;Rønnestad BR;Ellefsen S; “Benefits of Higher Resistance-Training Volume Are Related to Ribosome Biogenesis.” The Journal of Physiology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31813190/.
- Rebaï H;Chtourou H;Zarrouk N;Harzallah A;Kanoun I;Dogui M;Souissi N;Tabka Z; “Reducing Resistance Training Volume during Ramadan Improves Muscle Strength and Power in Football Players.” International Journal of Sports Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24048913/.
- Slater, Gary John, et al. “Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 2 Aug. 2019, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2019.00131/full.