Volume: Too Much of a Good Thing

The motivation to write this was sparked after seeing yet another 40+ set leg workout on Instagram.

In the health and fitness industry Volume has become an unfortunate buzzword ranking right up there with mobility. From zealots who pray to the bible of Heavy Duty by Mike Mentzer and claim one set to failure is enough, to the influencers promoting marathon workouts, and everyone else in between, volume has become a topic on contention, leaving the average gym goer very confused about just how much they should be doing.

Let’s start by getting on the same page about volume. Some define it as sets times reps x weight, while more recently professionals look at it as the number of sets, performed hard enough, to elicit meaningful growth. I tend to fall into the latter camp and view the original formula, sets x reps x weight, purely as tonnage, or the amount of total weight moved.

How do we know a set is hard enough to elicit meaningful growth? Generally, in the context of hypertrophy, sets should be taken to 0 to 5 reps from failure, also known as reps in reserve (RIR). Failure defined as the inability to complete a rep.

So 0 reps in reserve means you could not complete another rep, 1 RIR means you could complete one more rep and so on.

The further you get away from this range the less effective reps become at stimulating meaningful hypertrophy, especially in fast twitch fibers, which are your biggest and strongest fibers.

With this definition in place this is where Instagram workouts stop providing context. Let's Look at this shoulders and triceps workout as an example:

  1. Db shoulder press 4x6-8

  2. Db lateral raise 3x12-15

  3. Lying rear delt rope pulls 4x12-15

  4. Lateral raise machine 3x8-10

  5. Rear delt machine 5x10-12

  6. Standing shoulder press machine 3x12-15

  7. Rope tricep extensions 3x12-15

  8. Close grip pushups 3 x AMRAP

  9. BB skull crushers 3x12-15

Nine total exercises and 22 sets for shoulders and 9 sets for triceps in a single workout, and that isn’t counting any sets that indirectly hit both muscle groups.

Now, here's the problem, no further information was given. How hard should these sets be? 5 RIR or to failure? How long should some rest in between? What is the frequency per week these muscles are trained?

Why do these questions matter? Because they give context to the total amount of volume!

Here is the reality of these sorts of workouts:

-People are going to hold back on their effort to conserve themselves for later sets, just to make it all the way through

-Your quality in rep execution is going to dwindle as the workout goes on because your level of local fatigue will be very high in later exercises for the same muscle groups, and systemic fatigue will be high for later muscle groups worked.

-If you are putting in a high effort, and training close to failure, you are going to be in the gym for a very very long time. Let's say you rest even just 2 minutes per exercise that's 62 minutes in just resting.

So what happens when someone puts in less effort to conserve themselves and lets their quality drop as the workout goes on…They get very little stimulus for a large amount of fatigue generation.

Let’s give you some simple tips for how to decide how much volume you should be doing each week.

Some people view volume as a stimulus for muscular growth, I like to look at it as an amplifier of the stimulus. Meaning I don’t think more volume means more muscular growth, I just think it means more stimulus, however if you can't recover from that stimulus, the amplification means nothing.

So, on average, a person is going to do well training each muscle group with between 10-20 sets, all taken to 0-5 RIR. With this logic an average of 15 sets for major muscle groups should be enough for most trainees.

Most sets should fall 2-4 reps from failure while some sets should be taken right to failure (last sets, the week before deload etc) and some sets should be taken 5 reps from failure (learning new movements, week after a break, injuries etc).

A muscle group should be trained with 5-10 sets per workout. Much more than that and quality will begin to drop. This keeps local fatigue for that muscle group low and therefore set quality high.

So how do you do 10-20 sets per week while only doing 5-10 sets per workout? You train muscles more frequently! If you train chest on Monday and do 7 sets, and chest on Thursday and do 5 sets, you’ve done 12 sets that week.

For muscle groups that you don't want to grow you can keep your volume at the bottom range ( 10 sets, maybe a bit less) and use those sets towards a body part you want to prioritize for a short period of time.

So training splits like upper/lower, push/pull/legs/repeat, push/pull/legs/upper/Lower, all really lend themselves well to this thought out structure. For muscle groups that tend to recover quickly, like delts and biceps, you can even stick them at the end of leg workouts or other days to spread their volume around more.

So let's summarize:

-Volume is number of sets taken 0-5 reps from failure

-Perform 10-20 of these sets, averaging 15 for major muscle groups, per week

-Perform 5-10 sets per muscle group per workout

-Train muscle groups 2 or more times per week

-Reallocate volume from strong muscle groups to lagging muscle groups

Hopefully this gives you some structure to apply to your training and makes you think twice before performing random Instagram workouts.

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