Training Volume How many sets for optimal muscle growth?

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More is better. Or not? About how much work you have to do in the gym for optimal gainz.

Key points:

1.   Muscles are mainly stimulated by the hard, so-called effective repetitions at the end of a set. During those repetitions, the mechanical tension, the most important training principle for muscle growth, is greatest. In order to grow, a muscle needs enough repetitions of that kind.

2.   That’s why you need to make sure that each set contains about five effective reps. This means that you should train a set with sufficient effort (so close to muscle failure) and that you should rest long enough between sets (1-2 minutes for isolating exercises, 3-5 minutes for compound exercises).

3.   In addition, you will have to do several sets per muscle group (per training and/or per week), in order to create a total number of stimulating repetitions that is sufficient to stimulate muscle growth.

4.   We call the number of sets per muscle group the training volume. This is usually expressed on a weekly basis, but also per training.

5.   The optimal number of sets per week for you depends on genetics and your training status. As your body gets used to a certain volume over time, you’ll need to increase the number of sets over the course of your training career.

6.   Beginners can usually do with ~10 sets per muscle group per week, intermediates need ~15 and advanced ~20 or even more.

7.   Although more sets in principle means more muscle growth, there is also a ceiling. After a certain amount of sets, your body can no longer recover sufficiently. We call this the Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV). For an average bodybuilder, that is usually around 20-25 sets per week per muscle group. If you train for a long time past your MRV, it can eventually lead to overreaching and even overtraining, with muscle breakdown as one of the consequences.

8.   You can only do a limited amount of productive volume per workout. After ~5 sets the growth stimulus already starts to decrease strongly, to stagnate at ~10 sets. Therefore do a maximum of 5-10 sets per muscle group per training.

9.   If you need more than 10 sets for a muscle group on a weekly basis to grow, it is best to spread them over at least two weekly workouts. This way you guarantee the effectiveness and quality of your volume. Training frequency therefore only becomes really important at larger volumes (> 10 sets/muscle group/week).

10.   If you often train your sets to muscle failure, you create a lot of extra fatigue, which means you can do less volume. Because training to muscle failure hardly results in extra muscle growth, it is better to stay away a bit from muscle failure (1-3 RIR) for most sets.

CONTENT



MUSCLE GROWTH AND THE ROLE OF VOLUME

Muscles grow when they are sufficiently challenged and that can be done in different ways. In fact, there are even different forms of muscle growth (myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic muscle growth) and they probably also differ in the type of growth stimulus they require. This is because myofibrillar mainly requires mechanical tension and metabolic stress (‘pump training’) for sarcoplasmic muscle growth .

Because myofibrillar muscle growth is the main and most solid form of muscle growth, bodybuilding training should focus on mechanical tension. That is the tension that is exerted on a muscle when it is fatigued with a certain weight. To create that tension, you need a certain load (the weight, so for example the dumbbell) and you have to make sufficient effort. Effort (also called: intensity of effort, or relative intensity) is the extent to which weight leads to muscle failure, i.e. the moment when you can no longer complete a full repetition. The closer to muscle failure, the greater the fatigue, the slower the muscle contractions, the greater the mechanical stress. In theory, you can train with both light and heavy weights, as long as you train until (near) muscle failure.

It won’t surprise you that by far the most muscle growth is caused in the last reps before muscle failure. After all, just think about how a set feels: the first few reps are usually easy, the middle ones get harder and the last ones are tough – they require a lot of effort from you. Those heavy reps are also called effective (or stimulative) reps. This does not necessarily mean that all the other repetitions in the set do not produce any muscle growth. A good set (see below) yields about five effective repetitions.

Simply put, you need effective repetitions for (myofibrillar) muscle growth. But five effective reps only won’t impress your body. To challenge your body and create a need for muscle growth, you need a lot more. That’s why we do multiple sets for each muscle gain. Not necessarily in one training, but on a weekly basis. With each set, you multiply the amount of effective reps, thus increasing the mechanical tension.

In this way, mechanical stress is the result of magnitude (effort) and duration (the number of sets). In other words: the result of relative intensity + volume. Relative intensity determines how hard your muscles have to work, volume how much your muscles have to work.

Mechanical tension is the main mechanism of muscle growth, and both volume and relative intensity can increase that tension. (Source: Abel Csabai)

Relative intensity and volume clash: more of one means less of the other. For example, if you were to train all your sets to muscle failure, you would create enormous fatigue, forcing you to turn back the volume knob. For that reason, it is better to stay away from muscle failure, but more on that later.

In summary:
Most muscle growth is achieved by creating mechanical tension during training. And by far most of the mechanical tension is in the last few reps before muscle failure, known as “effective reps”. To challenge a muscle, it needs a lot of effective reps, which is why you need to do multiple sets. Mechanical tension is therefore caused on the one hand by the effort you make during a set (relative intensity), and on the other by the number of sets you do (volume).

THE DEFINITION OF TRAINING VOLUME

Training volume stands for workload, i.e. how much work you do in the gym. ‘Workload’ can be defined in many ways – we immediately start looking for the best.

Training volume is one of three important variables in strength training – in addition to training intensity (absolute and relative) and training frequency.

Volume is much more important for muscle growth than for pure strength gain. If strength is your goal, you can go a long way with few repetitions and sets, provided you train hard of course xxi ] . For muscle growth you have to do significantly more work in terms of reps and sets.

The ‘workload’ of a training is a broad concept. This can be the duration of the training, the number of exercises, sets and/or repetitions, the number of repetitions with a certain weight and so on. Below we discuss the three most common definitions of volume in strength training.

VOLUME LOAD

Volume load (or Total Volume Training, TVT) is a classic definition of volume, where you measure the total ‘load’ per exercise: sets x reps x weight . If you bench press with 3 x 10 x 30, your volume load is therefore 900 kg. If you press 1000 kg the next workout, you made progress, regardless of whether it involved more sets, more reps, more weight, or a combination of these.

Although you can easily measure the progress per exercise with volume load , the method as a total measure of volume is not ideal. For example, you cannot keep track of the total volume load of a muscle group, because you cannot compare the load of one exercise (bench press for example) with that of another (cable flyes for example).

In addition, the number of repetitions is an unreliable factor. For example, training ten reps to muscle failure is quite different from completing a set of ten reps while you have five reps left in the barrel. Not every repetition carries the same weight, so to speak. In the latter case, there are fewer or even no effective reps, the reps that provide the most incentives for muscle growth.

For these reasons, we are not in favor of using volume load as a measure of training volume.

RELATIVE VOLUME

Relative volume expresses the workload in sets x reps x relative weight (%1RM) . For example, if you bench press with a weight that is 65% of your 1RM (one-rep max, the weight with which you can only complete one rep) you get: 3 x 10 x 65 = 1950. If you do the same number of sets with cable flyes, reps and relative weight, you get the same number, even though the volume load is much lower. In other words: you can compare different exercises much better with each other and you can also more easily keep track of the volume per muscle group.

But relative volume also says nothing about the number of effective repetitions, while that is precisely the most important factor for muscle growth.

SET VOLUME

We therefore prefer set volume. That is the number of work sets per muscle group during a microcycle, usually a week. We say “work sets” because warm-up sets should not be counted. A recent meta-analysis of 14 studies shows that this is an accurate way of calculating volume xxxiii ] . However, the condition is that a set must be challenging and therefore trained to close to muscle failure (more on that in a moment). In other words, each set should contain a few effective reps.

You create a growth stimulus by doing enough sets and by making sufficient effort per set, so by training until (near) muscle failure.
In summary:
Training volume is the total of training stimuli that lead to serious fatigue. Today, the most common definition of training volume is the number of work sets per muscle group per week.

THE PRACTICAL USE OF ‘SETS’ IN YOUR PROGRAMMING

To be able to use set volume as a reliable ‘volume meter’, you need to know the following principles.

WHAT IS A WORKING SET?

Volume is the main cause and indicator of fatigue. Therefore, you should only include training efforts that lead to serious fatigue as training volume. Warm-up sets, for example, don’t count for that reason.

But certain requirements are also imposed on work sets in order to be able to count them as training volume. For this we use the guidelines from the just mentioned meta-study regarding set volume xxxiii ] , which have been further elaborated by bodybuilding coach and author Mike Israetel xiv ] . The following applies to good sets (also called tough sets or quality sets):

  • they contain enough repetitions, but not too many (between 6 and 20);
  • they are trained with sufficient effort, namely a minimum of RPE 7 (ie you train to or near muscle failure, and keep a maximum of three repetitions in the tank, so 3 RIR)*.

* Although you have to make sufficient effort per set, it is better not to train to complete muscle failure. That hardly results in extra muscle growth, while it does cause a lot of extra fatigue. As a result, you can do less volume and therefore on balance less effective repetitions. Therefore, keep 1-3 Reps In Reserve (RIR) for most sets. See also below .

REST TIME BETWEEN SETS

The quality of your sets is partly influenced by the amount of rest you use between sets. Rest times also have a major influence on training volume, discovered scientist and hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld and his colleague James Krieger.

For muscle growth, a set is supposed to produce about five effective reps. To do that, you’ll need to pause long enough between sets to ‘clear up’ the resulting local, central, and cardiovascular fatigue. To do this, allow 1-2 minutes of rest time for isolating exercises and 2-5 minutes for compound exercises.

If you rest less, it will be at the expense of the quality of your sets. More precisely, you may not be realizing enough stimulating reps. You will have to compensate for that by doing more sets. Fine, if muscle growth is not your main goal and you therefore also or mainly train for fat loss and/or condition improvement. If you are a bodybuilder and you train purely for muscle growth, take enough rest between your sets to guarantee its quality and effectiveness.

HOW SHOULD YOU COUNT SETS?

Counting sets is not so easy in practice. After all, with compound exercises you train several muscle groups at the same time and not every muscle group is equally active during the exercise. For example, you can use four sets of bench presses as four sets for the chest, but what to do with the shoulders (front delts) and the triceps, which also have to work hard during this exercise?

Basically there are two possibilities. The first is to count sets fractionally. In the case of the bench press, you can say that the front delts and the triceps both do about half as much work as the chest. Four sets of bench presses then mean doing four sets of chest, two sets of front delts and two sets of triceps. This is the method we prefer to use ourselves, because it is the most accurate.

The second option is to count for each muscle group only the sets of exercises in which they are primarily trained muscle groups. This is the method Mike Israetel uses and is therefore also used in the recommendations later in this article. With smaller muscle groups, you will therefore have to take into account the work they perform as auxiliary muscles in other exercises with this method. With triceps, for example, you only count the sets of direct exercises like pushdowns and extensions, taking into account the indirect work in other exercises. The disadvantage of this method is that it is less accurate, because you cannot calculate exactly how much indirect work a muscle group does.

It doesn’t really matter which way you count, as long as you stick to it consistently so that you have a fixed scale on which to measure your volume and make progress.

In summary:
The calculation of training volume is based on sets that are challenging and are therefore trained to near muscle failure, but with 1-3 RIR and in the range of 6-20 repetitions. Indirect sets in compound exercises are usually not counted, although you can also count them fractionally.

TRAINING VOLUME STUDIES

How many sets do you have to do per muscle group to grow optimally? Is more always better? Let’s take a look at the scientific literature.

META-STUDY SCHOENFELD

The question of how many sets you should do for maximum muscle growth has been the subject of many scientific studies. Brad Schoenfeld poured the results of 15 high-quality studies into a meta-analysis, published in 2017 vi ] . The main conclusion: you can already achieve muscle growth with 5 sets per muscle group per week, but the muscle growth is twice as big if you do 10 sets.

However, Schoenfeld’s study did not provide insight into the effects on muscle growth if you do more than 10 sets per week. This is simply because there was too little research data available. Another shortcoming was the fact that many studies were conducted on inexperienced strength athletes. Beginners respond very differently to training stimuli than advanced users.

RESEARCH AMONG EXPERIENCED STRENGTH ATHLETES

To really make sense about training volume, we need to look at studies conducted among experienced strength athletes where higher training volumes were used. Those studies are relatively scarce: scientific author Chris Beardsley found six, four of which were conducted in 2018 and 2019 xlvi ] . Relatively new data that provides interesting insights.

Beardsley notes that the results of these studies vary considerably and are more or less contradictory. In one study it appeared to make no difference whether you do more or fewer sets, while in the other study an increase in the number of sets led to significantly more muscle growth.

How can these differences be explained? Quite simple actually: because of the training frequency. In studies in which high training volumes led to (much) extra muscle growth, it was found that high training frequencies were used. In other words, the weekly amount of sets was spread over several weekly sessions. Doing less volume per session apparently increases the effectiveness of your total weekly volume.

VOLUME CEILING PER TRAINING

How can the latter be possible? Also quite simple: you can only do a limited amount of productive volume per workout. Logical, because your daily muscle growth potential and recovery capacity are limited (if you are a natural, that is). After all, otherwise you could have marathon training sessions every day and grow endlessly.

Beardsley concludes from the studies studied that you can do a maximum of five sets per muscle group of productive volume per training, if you train all sets to muscle failure. If you stay slightly away from muscle failure (1-3 RIR) you can probably do a little more productive volume, generating more stimulating reps. But even then, the growth stimulus will decrease sharply after five sets, only to stagnate around ten sets.

The growth stimulus during a training therefore approximately follows the curve below. The first set normally produces the most muscle gains, perhaps 60 percent of the total muscle gains you can achieve in one workout (by muscle group) xlii ] . Although advanced lifters probably need a few more sets to reach that percentage xliii ] . After that, the growth stimulus already diminishes: the principle of diminished returns, for which direct evidence has been provided in a rat study xlviii ] .

After about 5 sets, the efficiency starts to decrease sharply, to stagnate around 10 sets.

Brad Schoenfeld concludes from this that it makes no sense to do more than 8-10 sets for a muscle group during one workout xlvii ] . Even if you could stimulate a little bit of muscle growth with the following sets, that does not outweigh the additional muscle damage, central fatigue, and tension on tendons and joints caused by this. In that case you are doing superfluous, and even unnecessarily taxing volume (junk volume).

VOLUME CEILING PER WEEK

Just because you can do 10 sets of productive volume per workout, doesn’t mean you can do more than 50 sets per muscle group on a weekly basis, assuming you’re training virtually every day. Beardsley discovered in a few studies a plateau with a certain amount of weekly sets, despite an adequate training frequency and sufficient recovery time:

Assuming that we can recover from similar volumes when training 3 times a week, the maximum effective volume per week would be approximately 15 sets to failure (75 stimulating reps) per muscle group. xlvi ]

Training to absolute muscle failure you could therefore, in the short term at least, do 15 sets per muscle group per week. If you stay slightly away from muscle failure (1-3 RIR) you can logically do a little more volume and the cumulative fatigue will also be less. Nevertheless, the productivity of your volume will also stagnate and even decrease from a certain point. The relationship between sets and muscle growth is therefore also referred to as inverted U-shaped vii ] .

How the accumulation of training volume reaches a plateau and eventually even leads to muscle breakdown. (source: Facebook Eric Helms)

Coach Tom MacCormick puts this very aptly as follows:

The sweet spot for muscle gain is doing the most effective volume you can recover from. x ]

And:

The more volume you do, without exceeding your capacity to recover, the more you grow. ix ]

In summary:
The relationship between volume and muscle growth is inversely U-shaped: more sets initially means more muscle growth, but growth stagnates after a certain number of sets. If you do more sets, you even risk losing muscle. This applies both per training (per muscle group a maximum of 5 sets until muscle failure) and per week (per muscle group a maximum of 15 sets until muscle failure, assuming training at least 3 times a week).

VOLUME LANDMARKS

How much volume do you have to do as an intermediate natural bodybuilder to grow? How much should you do for maximum muscle growth? How much volume can your body recover from? We can best answer these questions on the basis of Coach Mike Israetel ‘s Training Volume Landmarks .

Based on the scientific research to date (see above), as well as on the basis of his own rich experience with clients, Israetel defined four so-called ‘landmarks’, say levels in training volumes, namely:

  • the volume needed to maintain your muscle mass (Maintenance Volume, MV);
  • the minimum volume for muscle growth (Minimum Effective Volume, MEV);
  • the volume for optimal muscle growth (Maximum Adaptive Volume, MAV);
  • maximum volume you can recover from (Maximum Recoverable Volume, MRV).

When using these guidelines:

  • you train close to muscle failure, but not completely (you use 1-3 RIR);
  • you use an adequate training frequency, so that you do not do more than 5-10 sets per muscle group per training;
  • your recovery is in order.

After this we will discuss the landmarks one by one.

MAINTENANCE VOLUME (MV)

If you have increased your muscle mass through strength training, the accumulated mass will slowly disappear when you stop training (with emphasis on ‘slowly’). So you have to keep doing ‘something’ in the gym to keep your muscle mass intact. That ‘something’ is Maintenance Volume (MV), or the number of sets you must complete each week to maintain your current muscle size.

What many don’t realize is that maintaining muscle is much easier than building muscle. You need to do relatively little for it, assuming that your diet and sleep are in order. In one study, only a ninth of the total volume was found to be enough to maintain muscle mass, albeit in untrained people iii ] . The more or less general consensus is that with a third to half of your regular training volume you can maintain your current muscle mass xl ] .

Below you will find an indication of the MV per muscle group, based on the advice of Mike Israetel xvi ] . The amounts are purely a guideline – in practice they differ greatly from person to person. You will have to find out for yourself what your MV is. If maintenance is your (provisional) goal, for example because you have less time to exercise or because you want to give your body some rest, then slowly reduce your volume. For example, first with 1/3. Maintain the intensity, so don’t slow down your training.

The guidelines concern direct sets. For the biceps, for example, you could get away with 0 sets of MV if you already have a lot of pull work in your workout (pull-ups, barbell rows, and so on). The abdomen and buttocks may also not require direct training for maintenance, provided you have included exercises such as the squat and deadlift in your program.

Maintenance Volume (MV) per muscle group (direct sets)*
  • Back: 8 sets
  • Top trapezius: 0 sets
  • Chest: 8 sets
  • Front shoulders: 0 sets
  • Side and back shoulders: 0-6 sets
  • Quadriceps: 6 sets
  • Hamstrings: 4 sets
  • Buttocks: 0 sets
  • Biceps: 0-4-6 sets
  • Triceps: 0-4 sets
  • Belly: 0 sets
* on a weekly basis

MINIMUM EFFECTIVE VOLUME (MEV)

Minimum Effective Volume (MEV), also called Minimum Effective Dose (MED), is the minimum number of sets you need each week to grow a muscle group. With less volume than MEV, you can at most keep your muscles.

Your MEV is probably less high than you think. On average, it equates to 5-10 sets per muscle group per week, in line with the findings of Schoenfeld’s 2017 meta-study and another one from 2010 v ] [ vi ] . Only advanced bodybuilders usually need more than 10 sets to grow a muscle group.

Below are the optimal MEVs per muscle group, for average bodybuilders, as advised by Mike Israetel. Also with MEV, you probably don’t need to train some muscle groups directly, because they already do quite a bit of work with the compound exercises you do. In that case, the MEV is 0.

Minimum Effective Volume (MEV) per muscle group (direct sets)*
  • Back: 10 sets
  • Top trapezius: 0 sets
  • Chest: 10+ sets
  • Front shoulders: 0 sets
  • Side and back shoulders: 6-8 sets
  • Quadriceps: 8 sets
  • Hamstrings: 6 sets
  • Buttocks: 0 sets
  • Biceps: 8 sets
  • Triceps: 2-6 sets
  • Belly: 0 sets
* on a weekly basis

MAXIMUM ADAPTIVE VOLUME (MAV)

Maximum Adaptive Volume (MAV) is the volume with which you can achieve the most muscle growth, with the lowest possible fatigue. In short, it is the most optimal way of training. During a training career, the MAV evolves from 10 to 20 sets per week.

Basically all volume above MAV is redundant volume, also called junk volume . As long as you can recover from that, that is not really a problem, but there is also a limit to your recovery capacity. That’s the next Landmark, the MRV.

Maximum Adaptive Volume (MAV) per muscle group (direct sets)*
  • Back: 14-22 sets
  • Top trapezius: 12-20 sets
  • Chest: 12-20 sets
  • Front shoulders: 6-8 sets
  • Side and back shoulders: 16-22 sets
  • Quadriceps: 12-18 sets
  • Hamstrings: 10-16 sets
  • Buttocks: 4-12 sets
  • Biceps: 14-20 sets
  • Triceps: 10-14 sets
  • Abdomen: 16-20 sets
* on a weekly basis

MAXIMUM RECOVERABLE VOLUME (MRV)

MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume) is the maximum volume your body can recover from. So your body is able to repair all muscle breakdown caused by training, but has no recover capacity left.

MRV is highly personal: it depends on genetic factors, lifestyle (including things like diet, sleep and psychological stress) and the way your training is programmed (whether you train a lot until muscle failure, whether you deload regularly, how often you train and so on ). We are therefore only giving very general guidelines here.

Basically you should avoid your MRV. As long as you stay below it, your body has enough capacity to grow, although growth slows down once you pass your MAV. If you train past your MRV, your body does not recover sufficiently, resulting less muscle growth or even in muscle loss (atrophy): the breakdown of muscle proteins exceeds muscle protein synthesis. This makes clear why more is better for naturals only applies to a certain extent. Bodybuilding coach Christian Thibaudeau on this:

The key to growth is to have a big disparity between protein synthesis and protein breakdown. The more volume you use, the more you break down protein. vii ]

Maxium Recoverable Volume (MRV) visualized. The green area represents the amount of muscle gain, the red area muscle loss. On the horizontal bar the training volume in undetermined units. You could say that unit 5 is the Maximum Adaptive Volume (MAV). With this training volume you achieve maximum muscle growth. Between 5 and 6 you do unnecessary volume, but still within your recovery capacity. From point 6, the MRV, your recovery starts to suffer from the excess volume. “More is better, but only up to a point”. (source: YouTube / Radu Antoniu)
The further you train beyond your MRV, the less muscle growth you will achieve on balance. (source: YouTube / Radu Antoniu )

So are you never allowed to train around or even above your MRV? Not that either. If your deload is imminent, you can safely rub against your MRV for a week or even go over it. During the deload, there is still sufficient recovery and muscle growth, perhaps even more muscle growth than normal (a principle called functional overreaching).

However, if you continue training around or even above your MRV for a long time, the recovery problems will pile up, leading to a situation of prolonged (undesired) overreaching. You are then more or less in the preliminary stage of overtraining. It is then best to immediately keep a (long) deload and then start training at a much lower volume.

Below are the MRV guidelines per muscle group.

Optimal Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) per muscle group (direct sets only!)*
  • Back: 20-25 sets
  • Top trapezius: 12-20 sets
  • Chest: 22 sets
  • Front shoulders: 12 sets
  • Side and back shoulders: 26 sets
  • Quadriceps: 20 sets
  • Hamstrings: 20 sets
  • Buttocks: 16 sets
  • Biceps: 20-26
  • Triceps: 12-18
  • Abdomen: 25 sets
* on a weekly basis
In summary:
We distinguish different types of volume: MV (Maintenance Volume), MEV (Minimum Effective Volume), MAV (Maximum Adaptive Volume) and MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume). So there is a minimum weekly volume needed to maintain muscle mass (MV) and a maximum volume from which your body can fully recover (MRV). In between, you can achieve more or less muscle growth (MAV and MEV). These ‘Volume Landmarks’ are different for each person. Only by training for a while can you find out which training volumes you respond best to.

VOLUME LANDMARKS PER WORKOUT

The landmarks usually concern volume on a weekly basis. But what do they look like per workout?

MAV

We already saw that you can only do a limited amount of productive volume per session. This is probably between 5 and 10 sets per muscle group (taking into account 1-3 RIR), which usually amounts to 2-3 exercises. So you could label that as a ‘session MAV’.

MRV

It is difficult to indicate a session MRV with hard numbers. But according to Brad Schoenfeld and Mike Israetel you should in any case make sure that your workouts never last longer than 90 minutes xxx ] [ xlix ] . This is based on normal rest intervals, ie from 1 to 3 minutes. That equates to about 20-30 sets in total.

MEV

There is no minimum number of sets per training – well, you have to do at least one set to give a growth stimulus. But it’s a myth that for muscle growth you have to create a muscle pump and thus necessarily do several sets in a row xli ] . Doing more sets in a row will indeed tire a muscle, but it is not that fatigue that causes adaptations and thus muscle growth, as is often the case with aerobic efforts.

Incidentally, in practice you will usually not escape doing several sets in a row. After all, with one set per training, you would have a hard time getting your weekly volume. In addition , doing several sets in succession offers specific advantages xliv ] . This often results in a better mind-muscle connection and often a better technical execution in the second and subsequent sets. Finally, it’s not wrong to go for a muscle pump now and then, but that should be a conscious training strategy, aimed at creating metabolic stress. After all, metabolic strength training is a kind of second route to muscle growth, whereby you probably mainly achieve sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

Although one set per muscle group per session is formally sufficient to stimulate muscle growth, it is generally recommended to do at least three sets per muscle group per training, especially if you are more advanced.

In summary:
During a training session, after 5 sets for a certain muscle group, the growth stimulus starts to decrease sharply. It stagnates around 10 sets. Doing more than 10 sets therefore makes no sense and only causes unnecessary extra muscle damage and fatigue. In principle, you can achieve muscle growth with one set per muscle group, but for practical reasons it is better to do a few (one after the other). Therefore, aim for 3-10 sets per muscle group per training. And do a maximum of 20-30 sets per training, which amounts to a maximum of 60 to 90 minutes of training.

WHY YOU GRADUALLY NEED MORE VOLUME

The Volume Landmarks are general recommendations, basically aimed at average bodybuilders. Beginners usually arrive with less volume, while advanced lifters often need more sets to achieve some muscle growth. How come?

PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD

If you have just started training, your body already experiences small volumes as a large load. After all, it is not yet used to strength training. That is why absolute beginners can achieve optimal muscle building with relatively few sets: often with no more than 10 sets per muscle group per week. Based on that volume, your muscles will grow and you will become stronger. Because you get stronger, you can use more reps and/or weight during the next workout (overload). This makes you stronger again, without having to do more volume. And then you can again use more reps and/or weight and so on. This process is also known as progressive overload.

As long as you grow, you basically don’t need to do more sets. It will not give you extra muscle growth and you may even jeopardize your recovery. Get the most out of the least, is the credo. Unless you feel that you are not getting the most out of it and are therefore training around your MEV rather than your MAV.

It is quite difficult to determine to what extent your progression is optimal. As a guideline, you can use the Alan Aragon muscle growth model. This shows you how much muscle mass you could gain per month with your training status – as a natural of course.

  • Beginner: 1-1,5% of bodyweight muscle growth per month (in kg)
  • Intermediate: 0,5-1%
  • Advanced: 0,25-0,5%

After about a year of good and consistent training, you will gradually need more volume. Your body has become accustomed to the current volume and will therefore no longer experience those 10 sets as challenging. That is why you’ll have to increase the number of sets and possibly also the training frequency (see below). Then you are again able to apply overload. If you don’t turn up the volume, sooner or later you’ll hit a training plateau. Although such a plateau is often caused by other factors, such as poor recovery (see below).

In fact, building muscle mass follows a kind of chain, which is infinite as long as you inject more volume at the right moments. ‘Infinite’, until your genetic potential is reached, of course. Or until the volume you need for muscle growth is greater than the volume you can recover from. Then you will have to use more advanced tactics to continue growing.

VOLUME RECOMMENDATIONS BY TRAINING STATUS

Eventually, the volume requirement (MAV) will evolve from an average of about 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week, or sometimes more, during a natural bodybuilding career. The need is somewhat lower for the small muscle groups, if you do not count the indirect sets.

WHEN TO INCREASE VOLUME?

When should you add sets and/or exercises? In principle, only if you no longer make progress in weight and/or repetitions. But you have to be 100% sure that this stalling progression has no other cause. Perhaps the cause lies in stress, lack of sleep or too little nutrition. Or in other training variables that are not in order, such as the training intensity. People often train too much until muscle failure, which creates a disproportionately amount of fatigue. Or people train too far away from muscle failure, so that too little growth stimulus is created.

Coach and bodybuilder Eric Helms:

Changing volume is one of the last things you should do when you’re confronted with a lack of progress. I think assessing recovery, sleep, nutrition, technical form, adequate intensity, and having someone objectively helping you do that should all be done before you decide to pile on more sets. xxxvii ]

Don’t just add volume. First check whether your recovery is in order. Source: Rippedbody.com .
In summary:
Volume requirement increases as you get more advanced. Beginners can usually grow optimally with about 10 sets per muscle group per week. Intermediates need 10-15, while advanced often have to go towards 20 to achieve some muscle growth. However, only add volume if you are no longer making serious progress and if you are sure that there are no other factors (inside or outside the training) behind it.

VOLUME AND TRAINING FREQUENCY

We already saw that training frequency is an important training variable, ie as soon as you need higher volumes to grow (> 10 sets per muscle group per week). Because you can only do 10 sets of productive volume per session for a muscle group, you should increase your training frequency once you get to that threshold. An average bodybuilder who needs an average of 15 sets per muscle group per week to grow optimally, should therefore train each muscle group at least twice a week. In short, training frequency is the tool to spread your training volume, so that you can do more productive volume.

Greg Nuckols – record powerlifter and celebrated coach, speaker and author – on this:

Having higher frequencies to a point is going to allow you to do more high quality volume per muscle group. xlv ]

Coach Christian Thibaudeau on this:

The number one mistake by natural lifters is doing too much volume (per session, ed.). You need to trigger protein synthesis and then stop training. vii ]

And:

Frequency works better than volume. Hitting a muscle three times per week is the optimal frequency for a natural trainee (with a low volume to compensate for the increase in frequency). vii ]

Coach Eric Helms :

In essence, increasing frequency is primarily of benefit when higher volumes and higher intensities need to be performed. xv ]

Brad Schoenfeld wholeheartedly agrees:

Higher frequencies are beneficial for hypertrophy when they are used to increase volume. xx ]

HIGH FREQUENCY TRAINING AND RECOVERY

In principle, you can already grow an ornamental group with one set per training and thus train it almost daily. The condition is that your muscles can recover long enough between each workout. 24 hours recovery time between two workouts of the same muscle group can be sufficient for intermediate to advanced bodybuilders, provided you do not train to complete muscle failure and if you do not do more than 3-5 sets per muscle group per workout.

Based on these insights, the 5 times a week full body protocol has become popular.

In summary:
If you need to do more than 8-10 sets per week for a muscle group to grow, it is best to spread it over at least two training sessions. In principle, if you need high volumes to grow, divide your weekly volume over as many sessions as possible, provided you recover sufficiently from each session.

VOLUME VS INTENSITY

The training variables intensity and volume are closely related, but they also work against each other: more than one means less of the other. In principle, the greater the effort you put in during your sets, the fewer sets you can do.

So if you train every set to muscle failure, you cause so much fatigue that your MRV is seriously lowered. The question is whether that is wise. After all, training to complete muscle failure only produces a very small amount of extra muscle growth, according to research. And that probably doesn’t outweigh the fact that you can do less volume and therefore produce much less effective reps on balance.

The figure below illustrates this based on the Stimulus:Fatigue Ratio. This one is probably optimal if you stay two to three reps away from muscle failure. That’s what most coaches recommend these days: keep two to three reps ‘in the tank’ (1-3 Reps In Reserve, RIR).

You achieve the best Stimulus:Fatigue Ratio (SFR) by training about two repetitions of muscle failure (2 RIR). (Source: Mike Israetel/Renaissance Periodization )

By the way: if you don’t have much time to train, and therefore can only do little volume, you can of course train a little more until muscle failure. For example, according to the High Intensity Training (HIT) protocol.

IS VOLUME THE PRIMARY DRIVER OF MUSCLE GROWTH?

The foregoing may suggest that volume is more important than intensity. Some coaches even see volume as a ‘primary driver of hypertophy’. However, we think the question of which training variable is more important is a bit nonsensical. It is a bit like asking whether the wheel or the engine is more important in a car. Both variables – intensity and volume – are indispensable for muscle building and it is mainly about the correct coordination between them.

We do know what the main mechanism behind muscle growth is: mechanical tension, or the muscle fatigue that occurs when you do a certain number of repetitions with a certain weight in succession. And we already saw that relative intensity (effort, or intensity of effort) and volume are both instruments for increasing mechanical tension. By making a great effort, but also not too big (not to muscle failure), you keep intensity and volume in balance and you realize the most incentives for muscle growth.

In short, it seems most accurate to say:

primary driver of muscle growth = volume x effort
In summary:
Volume and relative intensity are both tools for increasing the total mechanical tension, the main mechanism behind muscle growth. More of one means less of the other, and it seems best for muscle growth to divide the tension equally between both variables. Therefore, keep a few reps in the tank (1-3 RIR) in your sets so that you can do more volume and therefore produce more effective reps on balance.

VOLUME FOR ADVANCED LIFTERS

We saw that the volume requirement increases as you get more advanced. Sooner or later you may even have to do more than 20 sets for a muscle group to grow it. The question then is where do you get the recovery capacity for this?

Muscles recover faster than when you were a beginner, so you can train them more often, but there is also cumulative fatigue. This is local and central fatigue that builds up in your body when you train for weeks on end. In fact, it is the fatigue that (partly) determines your MRV. And maybe your MRV will even be lower than before when you’re advanced. This is because you probably train with much higher weights and also because you are now at a higher age.

In short: your MEV and MAV increase, while your MRV decreases, leaving only a limited bandwidth to achieve some muscle growth. And with a bit of bad luck, there is even no room at all, because your MRV is larger than your MEV and MAV.

In order to be able to do enough volume to squeeze out those last remnants of muscle growth, you will have to program your training even smarter. There are various methods and instruments for this:

  • increasing the training frequency, so you do less volume per session, but more productive volume in total. After all, we already saw that training frequency is an instrument to increase the quality of your volume;
  • doing specialization blocks: you train only certain muscle groups on MEV/MAV during a certain period (meso cycle), while you train other muscle groups on maintenance (MV);
  • strategic deconditioning: you keep a complete training rest of at least nine, maximum fourteen days, in order to make your body — to a certain extent — sensitive again to training stimuli to which it is has already adapted (resensitizing). By that, you should also be sensitive to lower volumes;
  • volume cycling: building volume strategically during a mesocycle.

We will explain the latter method in more detail.

CYCLING VOLUME

Volume cycling is a fairly new bodybuilding strategy that has only been scientifically substantiated by one study by Brad Schoenfeld xviii ] . Mike Israetel is a strong advocate of this, drawing on his rich experience with clients. It is a method that can be especially useful for advanced bodybuilders, when their volume requirement (MEV/MAV) is struggling with their recovery capacity.

According to Israetel, intermediate and advanced bodybuilders can best divide their training into blocks of 4-6 weeks ( meso cycles), always followed by a deload, for recovery. This gives you the opportunity to structure your training load and to peak and rest at the right times.

With volume cycling, the idea is that you gradually increase the number of sets during a cycle, while possibly also increasing the relative intensity (so you train closer and closer to muscle failure). So towards the end of your cycle you pull out all the stops (the aforementioned functional overreaching), after which you deload to recover from the fatigue that you have built up in muscles, tendons and bones (locally) and in your whole body (central). This actually goes against classical linear periodization, where the volume decreases as the intensity increases.

The ‘new’ periodization therefore means that progress is made on several fronts simultaneously during a mesocycle:

  • using more weight and/or reps;
  • decrease RIR (ie train more and more towards muscle failure);
  • increase the volume (ie do more sets).

An important condition for a successful cycle is that you start slowly and build up gradually. So don’t shoot your gun right away, or as Israel puts it:

Don’t start too close to the fire. xxv ]

During a mesocycle you build up the volume as follows:

  • Start with your MEV. For an average bodybuilder that means around 10 sets per muscle group per week, for an advanced a little more (12-14);
  • Increase the volume gradually. Try to train your MAV every microcycle (every week). Your MAV is likely to be slightly above your MEV initially and is constantly rising*;
  • In the last week, your MAV is slightly below your MRV. In that week you can train your MAV, MRV or even slightly more than your MRV. The latter is the functional overreaching we talked about. You are actually doing a little more than your recovery capacity can handle, but you can afford that because of the deload that immediately follows.

* Advanced bodybuilders often have a much higher MEV. Sometimes their MEV is already close to their MRV, allowing only limited progression in set volume and thus limited overall progression.

A simplified representation of progression in set volume (without overreaching). The deload here consists of training for maintenance (MV at a high intensity), but you can also train MEV with a lower intensity or not train at all for a week.

Below is an example of how to structure your set volume during a five week cycle.

After the deload, your body’s adjustment to volume has decreased somewhat, so that you can start the next cycle with your MEV. That MEV may be slightly higher than last time. But that also depends on your exercise selection: if you start a cycle with new exercises, your MEV is a lot lower.

In summary:
Advanced people often need high volumes to achieve some muscle growth. Because they recover faster from local muscle fatigue, they can sometimes overcome this by using a high training frequency. However, if the total recovery capacity does not allow for the high volume, specialized methods must be applied, such as specialization blocks, resensitization blocks, or by cycling volume during a mesocycle.

VOLUME WHILE CUTTING

When you cut, muscle retention becomes the primary goal of your strength training. After all, with an energy deficit, building muscle is almost impossible , unless you are a beginner and/or have a very high fat percentage.

During a cutting cycle you have to train at least on maintenance, so around your MV. That MV is normally around 10 sets. In the event of an energy deficit, however, less anabolic ‘backup’ from food is available, so that more anabolic stimuli from training are needed. In other words, your MV is higher during the cut than during a regular maintenance phase. In addition, your MV increases the longer you cut. After all, under the influence of metabolic adaptation, you will have to use an increasingly greater calorie restriction to maintain that energy deficit. Meanwhile, the so-called dietary fatigue increases and your Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) decreases.

During a cutting cycle, do not go too low, but also not too high in volume: choose the golden mean. For example, if your MV is 8 sets, use 12 sets in the cut. With a longer cut, this number should increase slowly. Sooner or later, your MV will cross your MRV, causing muscle breakdown. To prevent this, it is best to take diet breaks now and then .

During a cut cycle, your MV rises and your MRV falls. Over time, they intersect (dot ‘X’) and you can no longer recover sufficiently if you want to continue training enough for muscle maintenance.

So while you adjust the volume slightly during the cut, anticipating your energy balance, you just need to maintain your intensity. So keep training with the same weights – in the same rep ranges – and continue to exert sufficient effort during your sets, which means that you train in the direction of muscle failure, but respecting 1-3 RIR. Avoid training to complete muscle failure.

In summary:
When cutting, you should not reduce the training volume too far, since your muscles must continue to receive sufficient training stimuli with a low energy balance. Start your cut at a slightly lower volume than usual (e.g. 2/3 of your bulk volume) and gradually increase it as your energy balance drops. Take a diet break if your recovery is at risk.

VOLUME AND STRENGTH

Suppose you train mainly or only to get stronger, how much volume should you do? Unfortunately, the scientific literature is not really clear about this. Only on the basis of Schoenfeld’s recent study can we say anything about it. This shows that doing more sets (5 or 3 instead of 1 per exercise) does not lead to significantly greater strength gains. If you train mainly or only for strength, you may therefore end up with much less volume, perhaps only 20 or 25% of the volume for muscle growth, and so you will be ready much faster:

If increasing strength is your primary focus, then you can adopt a minimalist training approach and accomplish your goal in less than 45 minutes a week. xxx ]

In summary:
If your primary training goal is not muscle growth, but strength gain, you can suffice with much less volume.

IN SUMMARY

1. Muscles are mainly stimulated by the exhausting (‘effective’) repetitions in a set. During those repetitions, the mechanical tension, the most important training principle for muscle growth, is greatest. In order to grow, a muscle needs enough repetitions of that kind.

2. That’s why you need to make sure that each set contains about five effective reps. This means that you should train a set with sufficient effort (so close to muscle failure) and that you should rest long enough between sets (1-2 minutes for isolating exercises, 3-5 minutes for compound exercises).

3. In addition, you will have to do several sets per muscle group (per training and/or per week), in order to create a total number of stimulating repetitions that is sufficient to stimulate muscle growth.

4. The number of sets per muscle group is called the training volume. This is usually expressed on a weekly basis, but also per training.

5. The optimal number of sets per week for you depends on genetics and your training status. As your body gets used to a certain volume over time, you’ll need to increase the number of sets over the course of your training career.

6. Beginners can usually do with ~10 sets per muscle group per week, average bodybuilders need ~15 and advanced ~20 or even more.

7. Although more sets in principle means more muscle growth, there is also a ceiling. After a certain amount of sets, your body can no longer recover sufficiently. We call this the Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV). For an average bodybuilder, that is usually around 20-25 sets per week per muscle group. If you train for a long time past your MRV, it can eventually lead to overreaching and even overtraining, with muscle breakdown as one of the consequences.

8. You can only do a limited amount of productive volume per workout. After ~5 sets the growth stimulus starts to decrease strongly, to stagnate at ~10 sets. Therefore do a maximum of 5-10 sets per muscle group per training.

9. If you need more than 10 sets for a muscle group per week to grow, it is best to spread them over at least two weekly workouts. This way you guarantee the effectiveness and quality of your volume. Training frequency therefore only becomes really important at larger volumes (> 10 sets/muscle group/week).

10. If you often train your sets to muscle failure, you create a lot of extra fatigue, which means you can do less volume. Because training to muscle failure hardly results in extra muscle growth, it is better to stay away from muscle failure (1-3 RIR) for most sets.

11. Advanced people often need high volumes to achieve some muscle growth. Because they recover faster from local muscle fatigue, they can sometimes overcome this by using a high training frequency. However, if the total recovery capacity does not allow the high volume and/or high training frequency, advanced methods should be applied, such as prioritizing muscle groups (specialization blocks), resensitizing the body to certain volumes (resensitization blocks), or volume cycling.

12. During cutting you should not reduce the training volume too far, since you have to continue to give your muscles sufficient anabolic stimuli from training in the absence of nutrition. Start your cut at a slightly lower volume than usual (e.g. 2/3 of your bulk volume) and gradually increase it as your energy balance drops.

13. If your primary training goal is not muscle growth, but strength gain, you can suffice with much less volume.

REFERENCES

  • i ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28834797
  • ii ] https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/re-thinking-orthodox-set-and-rep-structures-to-optimise-hypertrophy
  • iii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21131862
  • iv ] https://bodyrecomposition.com/training/weight-training-for-fat-loss-part-2.html
  • v ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20300012
  • vi ] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305455324_Dose-response_relationship_between_weekly_resistance_training_volume_and_increases_in_muscle_mass_A_systematic_review_and_meta-analysis
  • vii ] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-017-0793-0
  • viii ] https://www.t-nation.com/training/the-best-damn-workout-plan-for-natural-lifters
  • ix ] https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/use-high-frequency-bodybuilding-to-avoid-junk-volume
  • x ] https://www.t-nation.com/training/the-exact-reps-that-make-you-grow
  • xi ] http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/how-many-times-should-you-train-a-muscle-each-week/
  • xii ] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2018.00744/full
  • xiii ] https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/natural-gains-the-proven-training-strategies
  • xiv ] https://renaissanceperiodization.com/training-volume-landmarks-muscle-growth/
  • xv ] https://www.myoleanfitness.com/interview-eric-helms-training-muscle-strength/
  • xvi ] https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1rSl6Pd49ImuKAUkyy37ziG1tB4v8Q77/
  • xvii ] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yhj1x5x4inc
  • xviii ] https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Citation/2018/08000/Evidence_Based_Guidelines_for_Resistance_Training.11.aspx
  • xix ] https://www.t-nation.com/training/have-you-become-immune-to-exercise
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  • xxi ] https://www.reddit.com/r/loseit/comments/98bd3x/im_brad_schoenfeld_welcome_to_my_ama/
  • xxii ] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_hP3hhsq4k
  • xxiii ] https://www.t-nation.com/training/a-fatal-mistake-in-size-training
  • xxiv ] https://www.strongerbyscience.com/frequency-muscle/
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  • xxxi ] http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/how-much-volume-do-you-need-to-get-stronger-and-build-muscle/
  • xxxii ] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2018.00084/abstract
  • xxxiii ] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326736498_Total_Number_of_Sets_as_a_Training_Volume_Quantification_Method_for_Muscle_Hypertrophy_A_Systematic_Review
  • xxxiv ] https://youtu.be/yXsrpzgOJck?t=1285
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  • xxxix ] https://youtu.be/4c6Q_PxEqJY?t=4406
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  • xliii ] https://youtu.be/VBK4-TSKNhc?t=3647
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  • xlviii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28729395
  • xlix ] https://www.facebook.com/michael.israetel/videos/10111828568311103/?comment_id=10111828705361453&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R%22%7D

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