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This is an excerpt from Strong & Sculpted by Brad Schoenfeld.

Volume of training pertains to the amount of work completed over a given training period (usually on a per-session or per-week basis). Volume can be expressed in a couple of ways. Commonly, it is specific to repetitions. Thus, multiplying the number of reps by the number of sets performed over the time period in question provides a measure of training volume. Perhaps a more relevant gauge of volume can be obtained by factoring in the amount of weight you lifted as well. In this scenario you multiply reps × sets × load. The product, called volume-load, gives a true sense of the total work accomplished during training.

Although volume is widely regarded as playing an essential role in muscle development, some fitness pros claim otherwise. They subscribe to a theory called high-intensity training (HIT), which proposes that performing a single set of an exercise to failure is all that’s required to maximize muscular adaptations. According to HIT theory, performing additional sets is not only superfluous, but actually counterproductive to results.

So who’s right?

Without question, single-set training is an effective strategy to build muscle. For those with limited time to devote to working out, it’s a viable option. That said, if your goal is to maximize muscle development, HIT simply doesn’t do the trick. You need a higher training volume.

Substantially higher.

Proper manipulation of program variables is essential to maximizing results.
Proper manipulation of program variables is essential to maximizing results.

Research shows a clear dose - response relationship between training volume and muscle growth. Simply stated, this means that as the volume of training increases, so does hypertrophy - at least up to a point. A meta-analysis by Krieger (2010) published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research demonstrated just how important volume is to muscular adaptation. Data from all pertinent studies were pooled for analysis, and a specialized statistical technique called regression was employed to rule out confounding issues. The findings? Effect size (a measure of the meaningfulness of results) was over 40 percent greater when multiple sets were performed compared to single sets.

Bottom line: If your goal is to maximize your genetic potential, higher volumes are a must.

Now, before you start thinking that having a great body requires that you spend all your waking hours in the gym, understand that the dose - response relationship follows an inverted-U curve (see figure 2.1). This implies that increases in volume result in greater gains up to a certain threshold. Once the threshold is reached, further increases in volume have diminishing returns; when taken to excess, volume increases ultimately lead to an overtrained state (see the sidebar Understanding Overtraining, which addresses the detriments of exercising too much). The goal, therefore, is to perform just enough volume to max out your gains.

Figure 2.1 Dose - response relationship between volume and hypertrophy.
Dose - response relationship between volume and hypertrophy.

Easy, right? Not quite.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for training volume. To an extent it depends on the person. Genetics enters into the equation. So do lifestyle factors such as nutritional status, training experience, stress levels, and sleep patterns. A fair amount of experimentation is required to determine your particular optimal volume levels.

That said, there is a benefit to manipulating volume over time. Ideally, this is accomplished by instituting periodic high-volume training phases to promote functional overreaching. These overreaching phases should be relatively brief and involve pushing your body to its limits and then pulling back in volume and intensity so that you don’t become overtrained. When properly implemented, the strategy promotes a supercompensated response that optimizes muscle development.

Intense training also requires that you incorporate regular deload periods (generally lasting a week) into your program. Deloads facilitate the recuperation and restoration of bodily systems by reducing training volume (along with intensity). In this way, you come back strong and refreshed, and progress continues on an upward trend. The frequency of deloads again depends on your particular response to training. A good rule of thumb is to deload once a month or so, and then adjust the frequency accordingly.

Although the total volume of a program is an important metric, you also need to consider the volume per muscle group. Larger muscles require more volume to fully stimulate all fibers. The lats, traps, pectorals, glutes, and quads fall into this category. Moreover, certain smaller muscles such as the biceps and triceps are worked extensively during multijoint pushing and pulling movements (e.g., presses and rows). Hence, these muscles don’t need as much direct work to maximize development.

The Strong and Sculpted program manages volume throughout each phase, both overall and with respect to individual muscle groups. The program takes into account your training level, progressively increasing volume as you gain experience with lifting. Once you get to advanced status, the peak physique phase takes your physique to its ultimate potential.


Learn more about Strong & Sculpted.