You have been misled. I have been in-part to blame for this deception. Sorry! You see, research has established that training volume is a key driver of hypertrophy. A dose response relationship has been discovered between training volume and hypertrophy. This has led many experts, and little old me, to shout from the rooftops of the benefits of high training volumes for building muscle. All with good reason. The existing research on training volume’s positive influence on hypertrophy is overwhelming.
FYI: Training volume is a measure of your overall workload. It is commonly expressed as:
Sets X Reps X Load
So, why have we been misleading you?
Well, I don’t think enough effort has been made in highlighting the nuances involved or supplying caveats to the “more is better” advice. Firstly, more is better, so long as you don’t exceed your capacity to recover. Dr Mike Israetel has coined the term, Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV), to describe the upper limit of your capacities. So, the first point to consider is that more is better until you cannot tolerate, let alone thrive, on a given training volume. This element of the topic has been covered to some extent. I’d like to think I have always been quite clear on this point, but in case I haven’t, or you have not considered it, I thought I’d better clear it up. Long story short, there is an amount of training volume, from which you simply cannot recover.
Recovery can be defined as a return to baseline. So, if you are unable to even return to baseline levels you certainly aren’t progressing. This means you are not growing muscle. Consequently, you should monitor your performance in the gym, maximise your fatigue management and recovery strategies, and pay attention to your perception of fatigue/recovery status. Doing so allows you to avoid the simple mistake of exceeding your MRV.
Practical Tip: You have likely exceeded your MRV if gym performance noticeably drops off during a session(s) and cannot be explained by a random contributing event. For example, being woken 8+ times in the night by one (or both) of your kids. Yes, that has happened to me!
The Crux of the Issue
Now we have covered the important, yet relatively widely understood point of more being better until you cannot recover, it is time to cover a topic which I feel has not received as much coverage as it should have – junk volume.
This is where the real problem occurs with the more is better approach to training volume.
Most people are miss-applying the positive information about high training volumes. As a result, they are getting inferior results despite training with high volumes.
They make the mistake of doing waste volume. As the name implies, waste volume, is training volume with little to no benefit. It is a waste of both time and effort.
A Couple of Definitions:
Effective volume is the amount of training which maximally stimulates the anabolic processes. In research, muscle protein synthesis (MPS), is used as a proxy for muscle growth. So, effective volume is the minimum amount of work required to maximise MPS.
Junk, or waste volume, is any extra training done for a muscle group which has already been stimulated sufficiently to maximise the anabolic pathways. Sets done after this point have little to no additive effect to your gains and simply eat into your ability to recover.
Note. Those aren’t textbook definitions. They are my own (If you have a better one, or know of one, please feel free to alert me to them and I’ll update this), but I think they accurately describe the key concepts of effective and junk/waste volume and set the scene for maximising the former and minimising the latter.
The well-read lifter hears more volume equates to better gains and decides to do more volume. The problem is people tend to think in a per session, rather than a per week, paradigm when it comes to volume. Instead of focusing on how to distribute high volumes across the course of the week they just try to cram tonnes into a given session. This can hurt their progress despite their good intentions and hard work in the gym.
They achieve this additional volume by adding sets to their existing routine in the hope of building muscle faster. Whatever split they are using is retained with extra sets thrown on top. It’s an easy mistake to make based on the evidence we have, but I think it is definitely a mistake. I feel it often leads people down a path to no additional gains for much additional time and effort. Many a gym junkie is getting no return on investment using this approach.
By adding set upon set to the same training structure you gradually drift into territory of doing excessive training. Much (if not all) of which is junk volume.
The reason for this is that research has consistently shown that there is a threshold of training per session which maximises anabolic signalling. Adding sets over and above this threshold will not help you to gain additional muscle. Once you have maximised the muscle building stimulus to a muscle you should either train another muscle group, or get out of the gym, and focus on your recovery. So, by doing what many a well-intentioned, volume focused, gym rat does by adding 3 sets of machine chest presses to the end of a chest day (aka Monday) you do increase training volume, but you don’t necessarily increase your body’s muscle building response to the session.
I have been guilty of contributing to this approach because I have given the advice of adding sets to a given workout as a simple way to achieve high training volumes. For example, I am a fan of adding sets across the course of a training phase so that you begin at your minimum effective dose (MED) of training volume and progress up to your maximum volume threshold. For example, adding one set per body part each time that body part is trained. So, if you train your quads twice per week your weekly volume for quads would increase by two sets each week. By doing so you adhere to the principle of progressive overload and spend most of your training time in the “goldilocks” zone of volume (between your minimum and maximum thresholds). This where your best gains occur.
Following this approach could result in you drifting into the territory of doing junk volume before you exceed your MRV though. For example, you might start out training a muscle twice per week, with 8 sets per body part per session (16 sets per week). Then each week this climbs by a set per session. By week 4 you would be doing 11 sets per session (22 per week) for a body part. It is possible you haven’t exceeded your MRV at this point, but you may have already blown past what was required to maximally stimulate MPS.
Opposite End of the Spectrum
Some people have been sucked in by the volume is king for hypertrophy research and interpreted it in a slightly different way. Rather than training a muscle once per week and piling volume into that session they have taken the other extreme. They identify accumulating a tonne of volume as the key. They have realised that if the spread their volume out over numerous sessions. Keep plenty of reps in reserve and never get too fatigued they can do a very high overall volume. As such, most of their sets are a looooooong way from failure. They are being too clever for their own good.
This approach is a problem for a different reason. Rather than being junk volume because they are too fatigued from the high volume of work within a session, like the bro-split, they never achieve any effective volume. Thus, all of their training is junk.
For sets to be effective they must pose enough of a challenge to be overloading. For example, less than 4 reps from failure. Above 80-90% of your recent best performance on a lift for those sets and reps is another good rule of thumb.
To use a simple analogy to highlight why this doesn’t work, consider endurance exercise. The guys and girls who do a lot of endurance training are not jacked. Not even close. Invariably they are scrawny. Yet they do ungodly amounts of training volume. The difference is that the intensity of this volume is incredibly low (intensity as % 1RM – I’m not disputing they work hard or intensely in terms of effort). If you just try to out-volume others then you run the risk of falling into this trap. The trap can be described as “violating the principle of intensity.”
Hypertrophy training has both an intensity and volume component. While you can develop muscle across a wide spectrum of intensity you do need to use a sufficient load (at least 20% and from a practical perspective more like above 65%), so as to be overloading and do enough reps at that given weight to be overloading. Except under special circumstances (e.g., occlusion training etc.) most of your work should be above 65% of 1RM. Your sets should be relatively close to failure. So, rather than those volume-loving-over-intellectualising-folk who accumulate insane volumes without ever working very hard you need to realise that you want to do the most hard, effective volume you can.
Getting Back to the Bros
I pointed out some of the flaws with adding volume to a bro split earlier. There is more where that came from…
Another point to consider when planning your training is your energy levels and ability to apply a challenging stimulus throughout a session. For example, you have 100% energy and effort in set one, but every set thereafter your capacities drop. While this has a systemic effect, it is far more marked locally. So, hitting 10+ sets for a body part means that by the end quality will suffer and you have to ask what real benefit you are getting from these sets. For every additional increment of volume you do the risk increases. Injury risk, risk of overtraining, risk of not being recovered for your next session. You need to assess the risk return ratio. As you become more fatigued these risks increase. At the end of a marathon session for one body part not only is the chance of doing junk volume exponentially higher, but those other risks also increase set by set. Are they worth it? Given you are likely to get, at best, negligible gains and more likely no gains then I would answer with an emphatic no.
Another point on the above is how close to failure you go. A typical bro-split will have you busting your balls on almost every set. You will hit failure on most sets. Perhaps go beyond failure with forced reps, partials or drop sets. These tools all have their place, but in this instance, might be short-changing you of overall volume. People often use these “intensifiers” in the misguided view that they will increase volume. The problem is that performance drops so dramatically after a set to failure (or beyond) that total volume often reduces because subsequent sets are so poor.
To extend this out over a week view, consider how long it would be before you could train quads again if on a Monday you do squats, hack squats, leg press, split squats, leg extensions, all to failure, with a liberal sprinkling of drop sets? Perhaps Friday? Maybe not until the following Monday, right? Now if you kept 3-4 reps in the tank you could probably go 48 hrs later. Then, if you did the same again you could train in another 48hrs. Your per session volume on the Monday might be down, but your weekly volume will be far higher (probably at least double). Given what we know about volume and its relationship with hypertrophy, the second option appears the far better choice.
Somewhere in the Middle
As with most things in life the middle ground is best. It seems this rule applies to the volume and frequency relationship for hypertrophy. Rather than annihilating a muscle infrequently or training so frequently and easily to barely tickle the muscle you should find a way to train it hard enough to illicit an adaptation. You should also train it as frequently as you are able to once it has recovered from this training stimulus.
Current research indicates that anything between 3-10 sets per body part, per session is sufficient to maximise MPS. Most people do much more than the upper end of this range. Except for legs. Most people are happy staying to the lower end of the range or skipping them all together (that’s a different subject).
This 3-10 sets range is admittedly very broad. In time, we might be able to narrow it down, or at least give narrower bands based on experience. For example, 2-5 sets for beginner, 4-8 sets for intermediates, and 8-12 sets for advanced. For now, though, the research isn’t there for us to make such detailed recommendations and it will never give us an exact number as inter-individual variability (the difference between one person and another) is too great to do so. Instead we must work with what we have. And that is a range of 3-10 sets being sufficient to maximally stimulate MPS.
This research was conducted on untrained or novice lifters, so it is quite possible a higher number will be needed for the more advanced amongst you. However, there is currently no research saying that more than 10 sets per body part, per session provides any additional stimulus to anabolic processes. So, at this moment in time, it seems that diminishing returns in hypertrophy will occur well before the typical sets and reps most guys perform per body part. If you are extremely advanced and carrying a lot of muscle you might well benefit from higher per session volumes, however, it is unlikely that number will be very far removed from the upper limit of 10 sets established in the research. Perhaps the maximum for you is 12-14 sets. Just be aware that the 25+ set workouts you’ve seen in Flex magazine are probably overkill even for the IFBB pros who supposedly use them. So, while I’m prepared to accept you might need to go above 10 sets on occasion I advise that exceeding the threshold of 10 sets per body part, per session be done very cautiously, and on the understanding that it might have no muscle building benefit.
The Real World
The typical gym rat trains a body part once, or perhaps, twice per week. This is evidenced by review of 127 bodybuilders found that two-thirds of them hit a muscle once per week using a classic “bro-split” while none of them train a muscle more than twice per week. Training in this way limits effective volume and sets the scene for a high proportion of junk volume if you strive to hit high overall training volumes.
When following this bro-split routine, each session is an attempt to fully fatigue a given muscle from every possible angle. To achieve this, a vast array of exercises are performed for each muscle. Consequently, it is common to see 4, 5 or even 6+ exercises per body part, per session in these programs. Furthermore, it is rare that fewer than 3 sets of each is performed. Thus, most lifters are doing a minimum of 12 and often 20+ sets per muscle group every time it is trained. Based on the research cited above these per muscle group volumes far exceed what is needed to maximise MPS in a single session. In fact, it is conceivable that many over enthusiastic trainees are doing more junk volume than they are doing effective volume.
Another point to consider is that there appears to be a maximum amount of muscular growth that can be promoted per training session, regardless of the quantity of work performed within that session. In fact, a meta-analysis by Wernbom et al. found that this upper limit to muscle growth stimulated per session was consistent regardless of low of high frequency training. So, doing more in a given session does not cause a hypertrophic response of a higher magnitude than lower volume training (assuming the low volume sessions do at least reach the threshold required to max out MPS).
That pearl of wisdom should give you some indication of where I’m going with this whole effective versus junk volume discussion…
The most common reason people run into problems when attempting high training volumes is that they think of it only on a per session basis. A better approach is to think of weekly volume rather than session volume. Trashing a muscle with 20 sets not only means that over half of that session volume is junk, but that you cause so much damage to the muscle that it cannot be trained for several days. Possibly as long as a week. So, weekly volume is capped at 20 sets. Worse than this, weekly effective volume is probably capped at around 10 sets. If you simply split the session in two then total volume is the same, but effective volume has doubled. Dividing it up into 3 sessions of 8 sets has the potential for even more growth. Firstly, because you do more total volume. Secondly, because you can be confident all, or almost all, of it is effective.
Instead of just adding sets to the existing training session for a body part you would be better off increasing your training frequency for that muscle. This will allow you to achieve high training volumes over the course of the week. While more evenly distributing your training to maximise the number of MPS stimulating workouts each week. By doing so you avoid waste volume.
Once enough sets are done to maximally elevate MPS, doing more in that session doesn’t provide a superior hypertrophic stimulus. So, why do more in that session? It makes no sense! Doing more adds no benefit, but creates a bigger recovery hole to dig yourself out of. The net result means performing more sets in a session for a body part will likely result in worse gains.
You would be better served adjusting frequency to better distribute your training volume. Doing so means you can maximally spike the anabolic machinery multiple times a week with the same overall workload rather than hitting it hard less often and only getting a blunted response.
A further point to consider on this is that Wernbom and colleagues found that the increases in muscle growth per training session do not differ whether high or low frequencies are employed. As such, why not hit the muscle more frequently, to allow for more growth stimuli per week? 104 or 156 (2- or 3xweek frequency respectively) growth signals per year will surely cause more growth than the 52 a typical Bro-split delivers.
Given MPS is only elevated in trained lifters for a maximum of 48 hours it seems you run the risk of missing out on windows of growth opportunity by only training each muscle once or twice per week. Also, as I have previously mentioned, a surprisingly low number of sets is sufficient to maximise MPS for up to 24hrs. So, it seems reasonable to conclude it might be beneficial to perform fewer sets per session, but hit a muscle more often. Doing so allows you to spend more time in a net positive protein balance. Since muscle growth is determined by MPS v MPB this should yield greater gains in the long-term.
Unfortunately, there is little research specifically measuring hypertrophic responses to increased frequency. Those that have occurred tend to show a trend towards increased hypertrophy. For example, the current research is quite clear that when training for hypertrophy, hitting a muscle twice per week is superior to once per week. The literature isn’t so clear on the difference between, 2, 3, or 4+ times per week. While there is a trend toward high frequencies being superior it is not possible to make any concrete conclusions based on the available evidence.
This could be due to the different functional characteristics of the muscle. On this basis, some muscle groups could do better trained twice per week, while another muscle responds best to 3 sessions, and another, 4 times. I went into detail on this subject in this article for T-Nation and this one for Breaking Muscle. This makes determining body wide training frequency recommendations an impossibility as each muscle group has their own Stimulus, Recovery, Adaptation (SRA) timeline. Your rear delts for example, can probably be trained more often than your quads.
Another potential reason for the lack of evidence that 3xweek is better than 2xweek is that the studies might have been unknowingly using junk volume. I believe that if you do too much volume in one session it will negatively affect your ability to recover. It, therefore, extends the time before you are appropriately recovered to train effectively again. Thus, if some of these studies had participants doing too much per session in the 3xweek group they may not have been able to put forth enough effort in session 3 to give a robust enough signal to the body to grow. This is very much a theoretical stab in the dark on my part, but I believe it is a genuine possibility.
As with everything research related we largely base our takeaways on the average results of untrained to novice lifters. This means what is found might not be directly applicable to more advanced lifters. The findings also tend to follow a bell-shaped curve to whatever intervention the researchers investigate. Thus, some people do terribly, others respond tremendously well, and the majority somewhere in the middle. Consequently, it is possible that while a study (or studies) show one thing you might be an outlier. You need to take some responsibility for your results and experiment and track your results. Don’t blindly do what the studies say.
Every study has numerous limitations. Despite these limitations, the key concepts and general trends found in studies can, however, help to guide your programming decisions. That is what I have tried to do here. Based on the research it seems training a muscle 2+ times a week is better than once. A minimum of 3 sets per muscle group is probably required to maximise MPS. Exceeding 10 sets per muscle per session, should be done with extreme caution. There is an upper limit to how much muscle growth can be stimulated from an individual training session. Thus, splitting your training into frequent bouts of 3-10 sets per body part will allow you to maximise your effective volume across the course of a week. Consistently, doing more volume each week will positively affect your gains. Even better, taking this approach increases the chance of all your sets being effective.
If you apply the above principles you can achieve what the creator of Judo, Kano Jigora called, “Maximal efficiency with minimal effort”. This same principle applies to training volume. I’d just tweak it to maximum effectiveness with minimal wasted effort. After all, you still have to apply plenty of effort to build muscle. It is just that your efforts yield maximum gains because none of them are wasted.
A Warning – Too Much of a Good Thing
There is a limit to how much you can increase training frequency for a body part. Your work, family and social commitments will dictate how frequently make it to the gym. They also impact your ability to tolerate training stress. While your schedule might allow you enough time to get to the gym every day it might not be wise if you have a stressful job, a full social calendar, lots of travel, kids to look after, and other stressors to deal with.
Exceptionally high training frequencies should be reserved for elite athletes, or perhaps, those aspiring to this level who do not have much else on their plate. A student for example. Those “fortunate” enough to be in this position can train multiple times per day. The likelihood is, however, that this is not practical or beneficial for you. So, a training frequency of 7 (once per day) is the upper limit for almost all recreational bodybuilders. I don’t think training every day is optimal either. I feel this is overkill and is unlikely to increase results. The chances are you couldn’t sustain this for long at the required level of effort to promote gains. If you were able to I then think the risk of overtraining becomes very real. You need some time to relax and recover. Taking a full day every now and then to achieve this is a great idea. Thus, depending on your, desire to train, schedule and level of experience I would suggest 4-6 sessions per week.
As such, I suggest you incrementally increase your training frequency. For example, if you currently train each muscle once per week then, change to two times per week. After a month or so like this, if progress is good increase to three times per week. Finally, after another month push your training frequency to four times per week. Done in this fashion you follow a progressively overloading strategy rather than jumping in at the deep end. As such, you constantly provide an external stimulus just above what you are used to. This will cause an internal adaptation. This adaptation, provided your nutrition is on point, will manifest as bigger muscles.
Training frequency shouldn’t be a set-in stone variable. Currently, the research doesn’t support one “best” training frequency. All we know (or think we know) is that training at a higher frequency than 1xweek is better. As such, you should manipulate training volume to allow you to provide a novel and overloading stimulus. This could follow a linear increase going from 1xweek, to 2xweek, to 3… It could also be used to prioritise certain body parts. For example, you could place 1-3 muscle groups at a higher training frequency of 3-4 times per week while reducing others to maintenance levels (1-2xweek).
Finally, after high frequencies have been used for a considerable period of time (e.g., 12-20 weeks) it is probably beneficial to reduce training frequency. Studies have shown that muscle mass can be retained with relatively low volumes and frequencies. In one study muscle mass was shown to be retained for 32 weeks in such circumstances. Consequently, it is probably sensible to reduce frequency to allow for a period of recovery.
A planned recover period allows for the re-sensitisation of muscles to the anabolic signal of high frequency and volume training. It also provides an opportunity to undo the metabolic adaptations which have occurred to slow process of muscle gain. These adaptations could be thought of as a kind of “hypertrophic resistance”. Continuing to push frequency and volume high once this resistance has set-in means very little growth for huge time and effort investment.
As I have written before in my articles on training volume and periodization for hypertrophy (here, here, here, and here), maintenance phases are a crucial, yet underused strategy to support long-term gains in size. Following a period of high frequency training with lower frequencies is one way to achieve this.
Long story short, manipulating training frequency is a powerful and underused strategy to build muscle. While many (including myself) have focused on the benefits of training volume for hypertrophy this has led to real possibility of many thinking more is better whenever it is done. This is not 100% true. In fact, it has probably caused many trainees to perform a large amount of wasted or junk volume. All this achieves is greater fatigue and limits their capacity to recover and do more work. If they chose instead to spit the same volume across the week in more separate training sessions per muscle group they would achieve the threshold for stimulating muscle gain more often, get better results, and have trained using more effective volume.