Does volume load (sets x reps x weight) matter?
written by Philip Stefanov | JANUARY 10, 2023
There’s been a lot of talk about the importance of training volume for optimal muscle and strength gain.
One method for tracking your volume is calculating volume load: sets x reps x weight. For example, if you bench press 135 lbs for four sets of 10 reps, your volume load on that movement would be 5,400 lbs (4 x 10 x 135).
At first glance, it seems like a good approach, and it’s cool to see how much total weight you lift in a workout. But does volume load matter, or would you waste time calculating the weight you lift on every exercise?
Is Volume Load A Good Metric to Track?
Volume load looks like a good option because it provides precise numbers and goals for upcoming workouts. For example, if you accumulate 5,400 lbs of volume on the bench press now, your next week’s goal might be to get 5,500 or 5,600 lbs.
Unfortunately, while seemingly great, the approach falls short for a couple of reasons. First, trainees can struggle to track their volume and determine where they stand when changing set and rep structure.
For example, let’s say you do four sets of 10 reps with 135 lbs on the bench press. That would mean your volume load for the movement is 5,400 lbs (4 x 10 x 135). Next time, you might bump the working weight to 155 lbs and do four sets of 6 reps, netting you 3,720 lbs (4 x 6 x 155).
The volume load is significantly lower (about 36 percent less), but can we honestly say that one is better than the other? In other words, would four sets of 10 reps with 135 lbs lead to more growth than four sets of 6 reps with 155 lbs? Likely no. If anything, the heavier load might result in slightly better strength outcomes due to the higher intensity without a notable difference in hypertrophy.
Second, the difference in volume load grows even more when comparing less and more intense training sets. For instance, if you do five sets of 20 reps with a lower percentage of your 1RM, you will always accumulate greater volume load than if you lift 70+ percent. But, as before, would that mean better outcomes? Likely not.
Because of these reasons, trainees might be more likely to pick exercises that allow them to accumulate greater volume loads. For instance, doing the leg press instead of squats because it allows trainees to lift more weight and therefore accumulate more volume.
But as with the previous examples, would that lead to better results? We could argue on this, but the leg press likely won’t result in more growth than squats if the set and rep structure are the same.
In other words, volume load is only helpful for determining the exact amount of work you do on a specific exercise while using a specific set and rep structure. Unfortunately, it isn’t effective when comparing different movements and rep/set structures.
The Better Approach to Volume Tracking
Simply counting the number of hard sets you do in your training is a much simpler and more practical approach. First, research shows that tracking the number of sets where trainees go beyond a certain proximity to failure is a more useful predictor of progress. In the paper’s author’s words:
“According to the results of this review, the total number of sets to failure, or near to, seems to be an adequate method to quantify training volume when the repetition range lies between 6 and 20+ if all the other variables are kept constant.”
Second, counting sets allows you to circumvent the issues that arise when tracking volume load. Specifically, every working set provides value if you push yourself close enough to muscle failure. The subjective factor is much lower, and you don’t have to wonder if you’re doing enough productive work.
Finally, counting sets is more practical and sustainable because you don’t have to calculate the volume load on every exercise.
If you’re interested in how much volume to shoot for in your training, check out my previous newsletter on the subject.
Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,
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