Volume is King for Size Gains
An effective training program must follow two key principles to have any chance of success. These are the principles of specificity and progressive overload. Long story short, workouts should be hard and they should get harder. The problem? Many lifters, especially those who mainly want to build muscle, fail to adhere to these principles.
The problem stems from well-meaning experts from the sports science field who have heavily influenced our beliefs on overload. These experts have created a paradigm where overload is almost exclusively viewed through the lens of intensity (as percentage of 1RM). This is a mistake when it comes to building muscle.
Almost everyone emphasizes load on the bar as the key method of progressive overload. On the face of it, this is perfectly logical. If you significantly increase the weight you use for sets of 10 on squats, then your legs will grow. The problem is that people fixate on the load part of the equation. Load goes up, but as it does, reps and training volume go down. For hypertrophy this is a fatal mistake. Volume is what's really king.
Without realizing it, lifters all over the world are violating the principle of progressive overload as it pertains to training volume.
Training for size has both a volume and intensity component. For the most part, intensity should be above 60% 1RM (one-rep max). Once this intensity threshold has been met, volume becomes the dominant contributor to gains in muscle size. To quote hypertrophy scientist Brad Schoenfeld, "...higher training volumes are clearly and positively associated with greater muscular gains."
Training volume has been found to have a strong dose-response relationship with hypertrophy, where more volume equals more growth – until you exceed your ability to recover. Consequently, when training for size, rather than striving for higher percentages of 1RM, you'd be better served performing the most training volume you can recover from with loads at, or above, 60% 1RM.
While research indicates you can build muscle using heavy weights (like doing multiple sets of 3 reps), it's so fatiguing that you'll likely end up injured and de-motivated. From a practical standpoint, achieving the optimal volume needed for muscle growth is unsustainable with weights approaching your 1RM.
Unfortunately, most guys fall into this trap by following a linear model of progression. Over time they ramp intensity up by lifting loads closer and closer to their 1RM. As intensity increases, either volume has to come down or performance will stall and the chances of overtraining or injury increase.
Volume and intensity are inversely related. This presents a problem. If intensity goes up, then volume needs to come down. Again, volume is the key driver of hypertrophy. If you bring volume down then you're providing a progressively weaker stimulus for growth.
Programs built around the following progression scheme are common:
- Week 1: 3x8 at 225 pounds (total volume = 5,400 pounds)
- Week 2: 3x7 at 230 pounds (total volume = 4,830 pounds)
- Week 3: 3x6 at 235 pounds (total volume = 4,230 pounds)
- Week 4: Deload
- Week 5: 3x8 at 230 pounds (total volume = 5,520 pounds)
- Note: Volume is calculated as weight x reps x sets = volume.
This style of progression is stupid. In week one you provide a signal for growth of a given magnitude and then you reduce volume every week. You've overloaded on intensity and not volume, which is counterproductive to growth.
To illustrate the point, let's look at an example of how many guys train:
Bob wants to pack on some size. He finds a supposedly good hypertrophy-focused program, follows it and sees excellent progress. Bob knows about progressive overload and does the only logical thing: He adds weight to the bar.
Everything goes great for a while, but then progress begins to slow. Bob can't indefinitely add weight for the same sets and reps. Unfortunately, Bob is fixated on chasing weight on the bar. He continues to throw another 5 pounds on the bar in the misguided belief it'll lead to more progress.
Instead, he's just created the illusion of progress. Over the course of a few months, Bob goes from benching 180 pounds for sets of 12 to repping out 225 pounds for 6. Maybe it sounds okay at first, but let's look a little closer at those numbers.
Over the course of 12 weeks, Bob went from a training volume of:
- 180 x 12 = 2,160 pounds
- 225 x 6 = 1,350 pounds
That's almost a 40% reduction in training volume! Now, assuming Bob is doing 3 sets, his total exercise volume went from 6,480 pounds (2,160 x 3) to 4,050 pounds (1,350 x 3). So much for overload!
Some of you are probably looking at this example and saying Bob could just do more sets of 6 to make up the volume. Indeed he could. If he ground out 5 sets of 6 with 225 pounds, he'd actually have surpassed the 6,480 pounds of total volume he accomplished with his 3 sets of 12 with 180 pounds. That's better! Or is it?
That's not much for 12-plus weeks of ball-busting work. In that same timeframe, a conservative estimate of improvement on his 12 rep sets would have him lifting 195 pounds. At that rate of improvement, he would now be performing 7,020 pounds of work on the bench press.
That's an increase of 540 pounds of volume from baseline, all while keeping his sessions shorter and placing less stress on his joints.
Another concern with adding sets to boost volume is that Bob would need to do this throughout his whole workout routine. He'd have to perform a couple of additional sets and rest periods for every exercise. Assuming he has 2-3 exercises per body part and trains a few muscles per day (e.g., chest, shoulders, and triceps), that quickly adds up. What started out as a high quality, focused 45-minute workout could morph into a 90-minute slog.
To be clear, the research indicates that Bob would get equal results from doing this type of marathon workout. It would work just as well, but not better! So, for double the training time, Bob would get the same results. That isn't a good return on investment.
These are the flaws associated with following a traditional linear model of progression when it comes to hypertrophy. Now let's take a look at how to structure your training to get the best results.
Reverse periodization allows you to continue to progressively overload the key driver of hypertrophy – volume. If you do this, you'll potentiate your performance from one phase to the next. This is known in the sports science world as "phase potentiation."
The principle of phase potentiation states that phases of training should be logically sequenced to promote the best overall long-term outcomes. In most cases, phase potentiation has been applied to sporting performance.
A powerlifter, for example, would sequence hypertrophy, strength, and peaking blocks back to back (a linear model) to produce the best performance on the platform. Given that hypertrophy is the overreaching goal of the discussion here, that means each phase should set the scene for increased training volume.
But rather than doing less and less work at higher intensities, you should be doing more hypertrophy-specific work. Across several blocks of training you might transition as follows:
- Phase 1: Mostly sets in the 6-8 rep range.
- Phase 2: Mostly sets of 8-10.
- Phase 3: Mostly 10-12 rep sets.
- Phase 4: Sets in the 12-15 rep range and/or techniques such as drop sets, super sets, tri-sets, rest pause, occlusion training, etc.
- Phase 5: Strength phase of mostly sets of 4-6 reps.
- Phase 6: Repeat, starting at phase one.
In general, each phase should be about a month. Push it for as long as possible before you exceed the ability to recover, which will be indicated by a drop-off in performance. When that happens, deload and transition to the next phase.
This method allows you to progressively increase training volume. Every phase builds on the previous one and leads to the next. You'll consistently overload the key variable of hypertrophy and just as progress begins to slow due to diminishing returns, you switch to a strength-focused phase.
Doing so allows you to train at lower volumes. This provides an opportunity to recover from these high volumes, remove the "staleness" of high volume training, and increase strength levels.
Upon returning to phase one you'll be a bigger and stronger version of yourself. You'll also be primed for another block of productive, high-volume, hypertrophy-based training.
So, forget what the textbooks taught you about peaking for sporting performance. If size is the name of the game, put a little time and effort into planning your training in a reverse periodized fashion.
Then get to work executing the plan with every ounce of effort you have. It'll allow you to consistently make improvements specific to your goal. Before you know it, you'll be much bigger than you ever would have been following the prevailing linear progression dogma.