You have probably heard the term junk volume. But when is volume actually volume that can go in the trash?
THREE TYPES OF JUNK VOLUME
By training volume we mean the amount of work you do in the gym, usually expressed in hard sets. A set is a series of 5-30 reps that ends near the point of muscle failure, so until you can’t go any further.
Not all hard work in the gym automatically leads to muscle growth. There are also sets that yield nothing or that even hinder muscle growth. We then speak of junk volume.
Coach Jeff Nippard distinguishes three types of junk volume: excessive volume, easy sets and ultra-high rep sets. Let’s take a look at those.
1. EXCESSIVE VOLUME
Excessive volume is sets that meet the criteria of a good set, but are not productive. They therefore do not provide a growth stimulus.
These unnecessary sets arise when you do too many sets for a muscle group in one training session. For volume during a training, the principle of diminishing returns applies: the next set produces less growth stimulus than the previous one, and from a certain number of sets there is no more growth stimulus. Logical, because your body can only build a small amount of muscle mass per day, especially with a natural. Otherwise we could have marathon sessions every day and become very big quickly.
After how many sets do sets no longer yield muscle growth during a training session, per muscle group? In other words, after how many sets is there junk volume? An analysis by researcher James Krieger of nine scientific studies gives an indication. It shows us that you enjoy a clear advantage up to 6 sets and thus create a growth stimulus, but that you end up on a plateau above 6 sets and in fact only do unnecessary sets.
Here are some caveats. Coach and author Greg Nuckols notes that most studies train close to or all the way to muscle failure. Let’s say 0-1 Reps In Reserve, RIR (you keep none or 1 repetition in the tank). In practice, you probably won’t train all sets to muscle failure; you use 1-3 RIR. That means you can do a few more productive sets than those six. In addition, the figure above shows that the results of the various studies are quite far apart. That means that the trendline is just an average and there are large differences between individuals. It is therefore quite possible that the ceiling is a lot higher with you. Finally, there are differences between muscle groups: back, quadriceps and buttocks may need more volume than the rest of the muscle groups.
That’s why we assume a margin: do a maximum of 6-10 sets per muscle group per training session. Let the exact number depend on the effort you put in per set (the degree to which you train to muscle failure), the muscle group you train and what you personally experience based on your progression. There is not really a minimum number of sets per session, but it is practical to do at least three sets.
Do you need more sets for a muscle group than those 6-10 to optimally use your growth potential? Then spread those sets over two or more sessions per week. After all, training frequency is nothing more than a tool to structure your volume, in order to take into account the maximum session volume. On a weekly basis, an average natural needs 10-20 sets, which is why training a muscle group twice a week is recommended for most.
Finally, you might think about junk volume: if it doesn’t help, then it doesn’t hurt. But that’s not entirely true: the more unnecessary sets you do, the more it comes at the expense of your energy (which you may need for other muscle groups) and your recovery capacity. Excessive junk volume can therefore even harm muscle growth. Not to mention wasting your precious time.
We can now say that the so-called bro split is not optimal for most people. With this split you train each muscle group on a specific day every week. Beginners can get away with that, because they usually don’t need more than 10 sets per muscle group per week. You can do these sets in one weekly session if you wish. However, if you need more sets, use a different training structure, for example upper/lower body, push/pull/legs, full body or a hybrid split.
2. EASY SETS
Research shows that many (especially recreational) strength athletes no longer train hard enough when they have passed their newbie phase. That means they don’t train short enough for muscle failure and thus leave too many reps ‘in the tank’. For example, you do ten repetitions with a weight with which you could actually do sixteen repetitions (you keep 6 RIR). As a beginner, you can still achieve muscle growth in this way thanks to your high sensitivity to training stimuli. But if you are more advanced, you have to put in more effort per set to realize a sufficient growth stimulus: an average of 1-3 RIR. You can train a few sets until complete muscle failure, preferably only with isolation exercises and only in the last set of an exercise.
In the study, a majority of the participants appeared to train far too lightly, namely with 6-10+ RIR. That’s far from enough to achieve any muscle growth at all. There was also a fairly large group that trained with 3-5 RIR: enough to create something of a growth stimulus, but certainly not optimal.
Admittedly, accurately estimating the number of RIR is quite difficult. You will at least have to experience what real training until muscle failure feels like. You can see that in this video.
3. ULTRA HIGH REP SETS
By ultra-high rep sets we mean sets of more than 30-40 reps. It’s not that they ‘do nothing’ at all, but they are far from optimal. This is confirmed by research showing that training with very low weights (≤ 20% of 1RM) is less effective for muscle growth than training with heavier weights. According to author Chris Beardsley, this is mainly due to the large amount of central fatigue that these types of sets induce, which often means that the sets are stopped long before muscle failure. You then in fact achieve the same as with the easy sets discussed above (so too much RIR), but in an extremely difficult way. After all, doing so many repetitions is no fun and it unnecessarily demands a lot of your recovery capacity.
In our opinion, ultra-high rep sets only have a place in metabolic strength training, strength training that is aimed at (a little) muscle growth and on fat loss. However, this form of strength training is not suitable for bodybuilding purposes. At most, you could do some metabolic strength training in the cut, as a supplement to your regular training program, but only do it in moderation because of the extra recovery capacity it requires.