What is junk volume (and how does it stop growth)?
written by Philip Stefanov | MARCH 29, 2022
Effective training is about maintaining a balance between fatigue and stimulus.
A good training program manages your fatigue well while providing a strong stimulus for growth. As such, you recover better, remain injury-free, and make more progress. In contrast, a bad program piles on too much fatigue, slowing down your recovery and preventing you from growing and getting stronger.
Any self-proclaimed trainer can put together a program that will run you into the ground. If some doesn’t get the job done, all they have to do is prescribe more work, force you to do more challenging exercises, or give you less time to recover. Sure, you’ll feel sore and exhausted, but you probably won’t grow as effectively.
So What is Junk Volume And How Does It Relate?
Junk volume is the training you do that mostly gets you tired without leading to improvements toward your goal. The type of training comes in two primary forms:
- Doing too much training per workout
- Doing too many reps per set
The first type of junk volume is the more common and refers to the excessively high number of sets people do per muscle group. Folks often fall for this when training each muscle group per week, like on a bro split.
Doing too many sets for a muscle group in a single session is problematic because of something called ‘effective sets.’ The idea with effective sets is that you can perform a specific number of sets to cause the necessary stimulus without causing too much fatigue. Anything beyond that would result in marginal improvements and significant tiredness.
For example, let’s say that the number of effective sets for your chest is somewhere between 6 and 9 per workout. Doing as many sets would lead to a good stimulus while controlling soreness and fatigue, allowing you to train your chest a couple of days later.
The idea makes sense, and I believe there is a ‘cap’ on the amount of productive work you can do per workout. The only question is, at what point do sets transition from ‘effective’ to ‘junk?’
The answer here is that it depends. But, according to data and anecdotes, the cap is likely around 6 to 9 sets per muscle group per workout. This is the amount of productive work most people can do while still causing a solid growth stimulus.
The second type of junk volume is less common but relevant given that many people train at home these days. It refers to doing ultra-high repetition sets that take forever to complete. The problem with doing too many reps is that it takes a lot of time and energy for you to reach the repetitions that genuinely challenge your muscles and force improvements.
Ultra high-rep sets can work as research finds that lifting as light as 20 to 40 percent of your 1 RM can cause growth, so long as you push yourself to failure. The problem is that such sets are far from optimal because you’re spending too much energy to have a productive session. Such sets also increase the recovery demand and lead to muscle soreness that lasts for days.
What Does All Of That Mean?
Avoid the first type of junk volume by splitting your weekly training volume into two or three sessions. Instead of doing, say, 18 sets for your chest on Monday, do 9 on Monday and another 9 on Thursday. Following an upper/lower, push/pull/legs, or full-body split can make it easy for you to organize your training better than you would on a traditional bro split.
Aside from that, you can easily avoid the second type of junk volume by increasing the resistance level as you get stronger to keep all of your training sets at 30 or fewer reps. Doing so would allow you to stimulate your muscles well without spending a ton of time on your workouts and causing excessive fatigue. I recommend doing sets within all repetition ranges: 4 to 8, 8 to 12, 12 to 15, and 15 to 30. In the case of bodyweight movements, you can control the resistance by:
- Introducing resistance bands
- Doing more challenging variations
For example, wrap a looped resistance band over your palms and behind your back to make push-ups more challenging. Alternatively, progress to decline, plyometric, uneven, and single-arm push-ups.
Thank you for taking the time! Until next week,
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