“Exercise to stimulate, not to annihilate. The world wasn’t formed in a day, and neither were we. Set small goals and build upon them.” Lee Haney
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Determining optimal training volume is not a straight forward proposition. There is no one size fits all solution. I will simplify the process and provide some parameters, but you will have to discover what is optimal for YOU. Scientific studies should guide our training, but ultimately, we must decide what works best for us through trial and error. The primary factor to consider is your ability to recover.
Our ability to recover from training is a genetic characteristic that is expressed over a wide range of variation, like height. The average male is approximately 5 feet 10 inches tall, but this trait is manifested over a wide range, from dwarfs (less than 4 feet 10 inches to giants (greater than 7 feet tall). Recoverability is also expressed over a wide range, that is why you must determine what range of the spectrum you fall on by assessing how well your body can recover from workouts.
Many people only consider recovery of their muscles and overlook their nervous system. Hard training, especially on the major compound movements like the squat and deadlift places an enormous amount of stress on your body. So how do you know if you are recovering adequately between workouts? It isn’t complicated. If you are making strength gains over time, then you are recuperating sufficiently, if you aren’t you’re not. We all have off days, but if your strength is on a downward trend, you need to take a break from heavy training for a week or two. Keep your repetitions the same but reduce your weights and number of sets by 10 to 20%. Avoid pushing any of your sets during a deload training period because it will defeat the purpose of the deload.
One thing to consider when determining how many sets to perform is muscle overlap. Compound movements recruit several muscles, not just the primary mover. Everyone knows this but seems to ignore this when developing a training program. I recommend you perform less volume for smaller muscles; especially your arms because they are recruited during every compound pushing or pulling movement. Too much arm volume could hurt your performance on the big lifts that build the most muscle. Your triceps typically account for two-thirds of your arm size, and they get a lot of indirect training from pressing movements.
The best research that I have seen for training volume was a study conducted by scientists at Goteborg University.[I]
The researchers concluded that, when training with weights that are 60 to 85% of our 1 Repetition Max (RM), optimal volume appears to be in the range of 30 to 60 reps per major muscle group per workout when performing 2 to 3 work outs each week. We can, therefore, conclude that total weekly volume should fall between 60 and 180 reps per major muscle group. The subjects that trained with heavier loads rested longer between sets and performed fewer sets than the subjects using lighter loads, so we can conclude that lower weekly repetition volumes apply to the heavier loads, and the higher repetition volumes apply to the lighter training loads.
Based on the studies recommendations and the number of repetitions that can be performed based on the loads lifted, I have developed the table below to convert their weekly repetition range recommendations into a recommended number of sets to complete each week. I admit that this is a bit of a SWAG, scientific wild ass guess, but I think it is interesting that the number of sets is almost identical across the various loads used. These results also align well with my personal training experience and the experience I have gained training others.
It appears that 9 to 10 working sets, per week, is a good starting point for most people, regardless of the loads used. The more often you train, the less volume you can perform during each workout. Approximately 75% of our training should be spent in the 6-12 rep range if we are trying to build strength and size naturally. As I stated above, your tolerance to exercise may be slightly less or greater than average. Based on my experience, most people can tolerate 8-12 workings sets for large muscle groups and 4 to 6 working sets for smaller muscles. Most working sets should be taken near failure, but not to failure. Learn more; Strength Training Intensity – How Much is Optimal.
The best way to evaluate your individual ability to recover is to keep a training log and determine if you are getting stronger or not. Your ability to recover is also affected by how much sleep you are getting, how much you are eating, your emotional stress levels, and overall daily activity levels.
We can vary our training volume as a form of progressive overload. Each week you would add 10-20% more volume. Volume is a great way to stimulate muscle growth, but it must be done in a systematic manner, or you will exceed your ability to recover. We must manage our fatigue levels intelligently. Here are two examples:
- Week-1: Perform 10 total sets per week
- Week-2: Perform 12 total sets per week
- Week-3: Perform 14 total sets per week
- Week-4: Deload, reduce your weights and training volume 10-20% while maintaining the same rep ranges as Week-1
- Week-1: Perform 10 total sets per week
- Week-2: Perform 11 total sets per week
- Week-3: Perform 12 total sets per week
- Week-4: Perform 13 total sets per week
- Week-5: Perform 14 total sets per week
- Week-6: Perform 15 total sets per week
- Week-7: Perform 16 total sets per week
- Week-8: Deload, reduce your weights and training volume 10-20% while maintaining the same rep ranges as Week-1.
- Week-9: Perform another deload week or begin the cycle again, depending on your state of recovery
These volume recommendations are a lot less than what you’ll see in the latest muscle magazines, but you must realize you simply don’t have their dedication, all 600 mg of it. Don’t fall into the “more is better” trap because if you train with too much volume, you will not make any progress. Learn more: Why a Natural Lifter Should Never Train Like Someone Using Steroids – How Naturals Should Train.
Keep learning, keep growing. Change your habits, change your life. Best wishes and best health!
[i] Wernbom M1, Augustsson J, and Thomeé R., “The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans.” Sports Med. 2007;37(3):225-64.