How much training volume is enough?
written by Philip Stefanov | OCTOBER 25, 2022
Training volume refers to the total work you do within a workout or training week. The most common way to measure it is by counting the number of sets you do.
For example, if you do six sets for your back on Tuesday and six on Friday, the weekly volume for the back would be 12 sets.
The question is, how much volume is enough?
More Training = Better Results?
Doing more work delivers better results, and we have several good papers that back the idea up. For instance, a meta-analysis by James Krieger found a linear relationship between the number of sets we do and the growth we experience (1). Doing four to six sets instead of one can result in up to 90 percent more growth.
A more recent meta-analysis by Schoenfeld and colleagues had similar findings (2). When comparing 1-4, 5-9, and 10+ weekly sets per muscle group, more volume led to linear increases in muscle growth.
You can see why so many people today fixate on the high-volume approach.
The problem is that volume should not be our only consideration. While important, this is one piece of the puzzle. For instance, we also need to consider how our current training will impact the rest of our workout and training week. If we get too tired and can't train hard later, did we do better?
In other words, it isn’t as simple as “Do more to grow better.”
How Many Sets Should You Do?
Studies recommend 10 to 20 weekly sets per muscle group for optimal muscle growth. We also know that training volume, independent of training frequency, is the biggest predictor of muscle growth (3).
The problem is that 10 to 20 sets is a wide range, so how many should you do? I recommend starting with around ten weekly sets for your larger muscles (chest, back, and quads) and about six for the smaller ones (biceps, triceps, shoulders, etc.).
How many sets you should do per workout depends on your training frequency. I typically recommend a frequency of twice per week for each muscle group because that allows for better volume allocation. Instead of cramming all the work inside a single workout, you can spread it out. Doing so lets you do your sets in a fresher state and work harder.
For example, if you start with ten sets per week for your chest and split it into two sessions, it can look like this:
Monday - 5 sets
Thursday - 5 sets
You can bump that volume gradually over the weeks:
Monday - 6 sets
Thursday - 5 sets
Monday - 6 sets
Thursday - 6 sets
Monitor your recovery and progress to adjust when necessary. Doing less training while still seeing improvements (muscle growth, strength gain, etc.) is best.
Is There an Upper Limit For Sets Per Session?
As discussed above, some volume is necessary, but more isn’t always better. There is an upper limit to how much training we can do in a single session before diminishing returns set in.
Instead of growing more from the extra work, we only get more fatigued and regress.
Of course, this theoretical point is different for everyone and depends on factors like:
- Experience - how used your body is to training stress
- Age - the younger you are, the easier it is for you to recover
- The exercises you do - some movements are more fatiguing
- How hard you push yourself
- How well you're sleeping (4)
- What your nutrition is like - your diet’s quality and the number of calories you eat
- How stressed you are outside the gym
One person might do well with five sets per muscle group per workout, whereas another might need twice as many.
Let's take two people as an example. The first is John - a forty-something father of three with a full-time job. The second is Steve, a twenty-year-old college student who doesn't have a family or full-time job.
At first glance, John and Steve might do well with similar training programs. But when you think about it, that makes no sense. Steve is younger and less stressed, whereas John is older and has more obligations. So, Steve should be able to do much more work and recover well. On the other hand, John needs to be careful.
I recommend experimenting with what works well for you. Start with less work, gradually add sets over the weeks, and notice when you start running into recovery issues. Specifically, look for symptoms like:
- Unusually pronounced muscle soreness
- Weakness and inability to recover well between workouts
- A drop or stagnation in your performance
Once you've reached that point, drop the volume to a degree and go from there.
Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,
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