Your Training Program: 3 Crucial Variables
What are the three most fundamental variables of training programs?
- Intensity. To up the intensity, you go heavier. This is common.
- Frequency. To up the frequency, you lift more often. Also common.
- Volume. Now this one doesn’t get the attention it deserves, partly because it’s misunderstood. Yet it’s a huge factor when it comes to both building muscle and losing fat.
The research is clear: more volume means more muscle. So if you want to grow, adding more total volume per week will do it. Here’s how to manipulate it in order to get what you want out of lifting: muscle mass, improved body composition, and a metabolism like a furnace.
What Does Training Volume Even Mean?
Think of it like this: sets x reps x load. Volume is the total amount of work you do. So if you do 15 sets of 10 reps at 100 pounds, then your total training volume for that workout would be: 15 x 10 x 100 pounds = 15,000 pounds.
This means that volume isn’t just about adding another exercise to your workout or another couple sets to each exercise. That’s just one way to increase volume. Here are some other ideas:
- By increasing workout frequency (how often you train) you’ll be more likely to increase your weekly training volume. This will be negated of course if you decrease your total sets throughout the week.
- By increasing the intensity (lifting heavier), you could potentially increase volume by lifting a lot more weight per session. But be careful here because if you lift very heavy for the whole workout (5 reps or less) you may actually decrease your weekly volume. This is especially true if you fail to recover and dig yourself into a hole.
- By adding a set to each exercise weekly you can progressively add volume. This is the most common choice lifters make in their approach to training volume.
Remember, all training variables such as reps, sets, frequency, and intensity are interconnected. If one goes up, chances are volume will also increase unless you’re tearing yourself down with excess volume and are then forced to do less. So it’s actually very easy to increase your volume, and if you do it right, it’ll pay off.
A Driver of Muscle Hypertrophy
Several studies highlight the fact that volume is a primary determinant of muscle growth. Some of the strongest supportive research can be seen in a meta-analysis that reviewed all the current studies on training volume. It found that on average, high training volume created a whopping 40% more muscle growth when comparing it to single sets.
The findings were confirmed in a more recent study where 3-set and 5-set groups significantly increased bicep and tricep muscle thickness, with the 5-set increases being significantly greater than the 1-3 three set groups.
Researcher Brad Schoenfeld discovered that hypertrophy is largely driven by total volume, being much more specific to the total amount of work done than to the intensity range used.
The Frequency Factor
Training volume is closely linked with a higher training frequency per muscle group. Think training each muscle 2-3 times a week instead of the old-school way of hitting each muscle once a week.
This is a surefire way to get more volume in per week while optimizing performance since you aren’t trying to cram all 30 sets into one session. They can be split over 2-3 workouts, and you can do just about every set with high intensity and while getting adequate recovery.
For example, think of a lagging area or muscle group you’re wanting to build the most. If you only train it once a week you’ll be limiting your total weekly volume. But if you train that muscle three times a week, you could almost use 300% more volume while being able to recover.
Try increasing your training volume, either within the workout if it’s currently low, or by training the muscle more frequently if you are already using 10 sets or more per session.
A Sweet Spot for Volume: What Science Says
When looking at strength gains, researchers split lifters up into three groups: a group lifting with moderate volume, one lifting with low volume, and another lifting with high volume. They found that the group performing the moderate, and not highest or lowest volume, was the group that made the most progress.
Over the course of 10 weeks, a group of well-trained weightlifters performed a combination of back squat, snatch, and clean & jerks. The low group and high group performed 1923 total reps (low group) and 3030 reps (high group) over the course of the study, while the moderate group, who made the most progress, did 2481 reps.
For size gains, the sweet spot is also in the moderate range. In a review of studies that looked at the dose-relationship between volume, intensity, and frequency in relation to changes in muscle size, researchers found that the fastest rates of muscle growth were seen in groups that did 42-66 reps for the biceps, and 40-60 reps for the quads, on a per workout basis.
Though certain lifters call anything over 3 reps per set “cardio,” doing a total of 40-70 reps per session (or 7-10 reps for 5-10 sets) of each muscle group, may be a good starting point.
Keep in mind, this is just an average that should occur over time and not a hard and fast rule of reps to perform. Advanced lifters may need more, beginners may need less. So total volume is certainly an important factor in muscle growth. But, is doing more and more always better? Like anything else, the answer is no.
The Point of Diminishing Returns
A rule of thumb for volume: use as much as you can while still being able to optimize recovery and performance. It’s harder than it sounds. And it’ll probably involve a little trail and error, but when you feel your recovery lagging, ease off the volume.
Check this out. At first, an increase in total volume tends to equal greater adaptations in muscle growth. But at some point, this will eventually plateau (yellow) and you’ll need to use other advanced training methods to stimulate new growth.
You can see that after a brief plateau in volume, overreaching can occur, where more total volume can hinder your ability to recover or maximize performance within the session.
Research supports this by showing that multiple sets are superior to one set for increasing strength and hypertrophy, but there’s a point of diminishing returns. Progress does actually stall with an increasing amount of sets.
Once you reach the threshold where the stimulus isn’t sufficient to make adaptions, and your progress starts to actually go down, you’ve reached the true definition of overreaching. Some call it overtraining.
How Much is Too Much?
There’s no definitive upper limit because it’ll depend on several factors: your training experience, hormones, gender, recovery capacity, muscle group worked, nutrition, age, sleep, stress, and much more. And your needs and abilities will change over time too. You may be able to tolerate more volume later than you’re able to now, or vice versa.
For a beginner, 5 total sets per muscle group may be a perfect amount of volume to maximize growth without overreaching. But for most experienced lifters, 5 sets would likely be 5-10 sets fewer than their normal training session per muscle group, and could lead to a decline in performance and growth.
Strategically Reducing Your Volume
Nobody’s saying you shouldn’t ever reduce your training volume. Short periods of reduced volume can allow for recovery after months of pushing the boundaries. Following this mini de-load or rest, you’ll likely return to the gym and have greater performance and gains. So when you think about manipulating volume, account for the times when you’ll intentionally decrease it before your body FORCES you to.
And unless you’re training with very large amounts of volume now, simply adding an extra 10-20% to your current routine could be the perfect stimulus your muscles need in order to grow and adapt. Remember, a necessary prerequisite for progression is adding volume gradually over the course of your training career, not necessarily every training session, week, or cycle.
Factors To Consider
If you want to make progress in a sustainable manner, consider outside stressors when planning your training volume. If you’ve got no reserves left in the tank because of these outside stressors, you won’t have enough left to devote to training.
Do just enough volume to progress and adapt it when needed, then only increase it when you’ve plateaued. There’s a stark contrast between this approach and pushing yourself to constant periods of fatigue. And you’ll likely need to take planned de-loads or reduced volume at specific times.
Here are just a few external factors that can add stress and hinder recovery. Consider these when programming your total volume and overall routine:
- Career and Social Stress
- Calorie Intake: If you’re dieting you’ll have a harder time recovering compared to eating a calorie surplus.
- Sleep: Recovery is related to growth, and poor sleep will drastically effect your recovery.
- Workout Intensity: if your training destroys you every session, you’ll need longer to recover and probably less total volume.
- Other Physical Activity: Manual labor or playing sports regularly on top of training will demand you get more recovery.
- Protein and Carb Intake: Both protein and carbs play a role in recovery. If you aren’t optimizing your intake of these two nutrients you may handle less volume.
- Hormones: Varying levels of hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone can impact your recovery.
- Supplements: Certain supplements such as Plazma [https://biotest.t-nation.com/products/plazma] can help you recover and handle more total volume.
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