Let’s talk volume!
Specifically, how many sets should you do to unlock the best muscle building results?
This topic has been debated in gyms for years, and the answer often comes down to personal opinion, so with this article I want to give you a comprehensive breakdown on the current science surrounding optimal volume, so that you have a clear plan of action to support your goals.
This should help eliminate the two most common problems I see on this issue:
- Most people do not hit the minimum threshold, and this is why they don’t achieve the transformation they want.
- Gymheads like me would quite happily spend hours each day training hard if it continued to unlock superior results, so we also need to look at the maximum threshold.
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What Is Optimal Volume?
Volume refers to the number of sets you perform for a muscle group each week.
If a muscle does not receive enough total volume it won’t have the necessary stimulus to grow, and likewise, if a muscle gets too much volume it won’t be able to recover, which would also hinder results. So how much is not enough, and how much it too much?
Well, that’s what I’m here for!
A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research had three groups of trainees following a full body program for 12 weeks (exercises; bench press, shoulder press, lat pulldown, biceps curl, triceps extension, crunches, leg press, leg extension, leg curl), with one group of trainees performing just one set per exercise, another group performing three sets per exercise, and another group performing five sets per exercise. By the end of the trial the 5-set trainees had gained more muscle mass, more endurance, and more strength. (1)
Essentially, the more you do the better your results will be.
These findings tie in with the results of a detailed 2017 meta-analysis which looked at 15 studies on this topic, too. (2)
But before you head to the gym to perform a six-hour arm workout, I must warn you that there’s a cut-off point. You see, it appears that optimal volume is not so much a preset number, but more of a dynamic range – and your training experience is the deciding factor which will let you strike the balance perfectly.
Striking The Balance Perfectly
I’m going to give you two sets of targets here.
The first set of parameters are meant for novice trainees (which I class as somebody with under two years of lifting experience) and the second set of parameters are for advanced trainees.
Research suggests that most trainees will experience the best results by hitting a muscle with 12-18 sets per week, with around half of those sets being considered heavy work (i.e. sets which challenge you and push you towards muscle failure). Hitting this sweet spot for maximum hypertrophy, strength gains and recovery speed will make your first couple of years of lifting as productive as possible. (3)
I recommend starting nearer the low end of the scale, and gradually increasing it as you go.
Now if you’ve got a friend who hits the gym for three hours per day (we’ve all got one) they might tell you that’s not enough, but rest assured it is. In fact, not only can newbies “get away with” less volume, recent research from Australia shows it’s actually superior for results! In a study conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Sydney, the data showed that putting inexperienced trainees (less than two years of lifting experience) through a compound lift program containing five sets per exercise created significantly better gains in muscle mass (and shorter workouts) versus putting them through the same program but asking for 10 sets per exercise. (4, 5, 6)
Crazy, huh?! How can less work lead to better results?
Well, this is likely not so much to do with the actual lifting, but more so the increased recovery needs which their untrained body’s were not ready for. (7)
We saw similar findings in a 2019 study from Californian researchers where trainees hitting their biceps for 18 sets per week experienced greater hypertrophy than trainees performing both 9 sets and 27 sets, and again in research from Wales where trainees got significantly better triceps growth performing 14 sets per week versus doing 7 sets, and the exact same amount of muscle growth as trainees performing a whopping 28 sets! (8, 9)
For this reason, novice trainees should aim towards the lower end of this dynamic range above (12-15 sets), and gradually increase the volume (15-18 sets) as your body becomes more conditioned and begins demanding a greater stimulus for continued growth. (10)
Experienced lifters can push this dynamic scale higher (up to 32 sets per week, with around half of those sets being classed as heavy/challenging/failure sets), but even they will reach the same point of diminishing returns you saw in the newbie graph above, where productivity begins to wane and muscle recovery suffers, leading to sub-optimal performance. This can be seen in the mixed bag of results obtained from studies which pushed trainees as high as 45 sets per week and left them unable to properly recover. (11, 12, 13, 14)
This is not a rigid holy grail, of course, and there are certain situations where you might temporarily go above or below these parameters.
One such instance is when you’re trying to bring up a lagging body part. We do this in my Biceps Boom program, using a technique called the staircase effect, which has you gradually increase arm-training volume over the course of several weeks then completely cut the volume, leading to impressive gains in size and strength. The reason techniques like this work so well is because they are only used for very brief periods of time, but for the most part you want the bulk of your training to land within the dynamic scale below. (7, 17)
Putting It All Together Into A Routine
Now that we’ve covered the science behind volume, hopefully you feel as if things are beginning to slot into place.
Remember, this is a dynamic scale, one which you’ll need to tinker with as you become more conditioned – but ultimately the goal here is to train hard, and recover fully.
Once you’ve set your volume target, you can achieve it with a variety of different training splits. For instance, if you’re aiming for 18 sets per muscle group this could be done with a bro split (one workout per week for that muscle which contains all 18 sets), or you could train each muscle twice per week (9 sets each time) or you could do a full body routine which has you hit 6 sets per muscle three times per week. Most research suggests that spreading your volume into multiple workouts per week is slightly superior for muscle growth, but unltimately they’d all work, and it depends which you enjoy the most! (11, 15, 16)
>> Here’s more on training frequency.
If you’re following the workout programs here on russhowepti.com, it should also be making sense now why some of my beginnner programs (Classic Full Body, New Year New Body) scale the volume down like they do, and my more advanced programs (Afterburner, Become War,) dial it right up.
This framework will allow you to maximize your results and recovery, helping you to avoid what is comonly referred to in the fitness world as “junk volume” (where intensity drops, recovery is compromised, and injury risk climbs dramatically), allowing you to strike the sweet spot between volume and intensity, like this:
Now go put it into action!
- Radaelli R., et al. Dose-response of 1, 3, and 5 sets of resistance exercise on strength, local muscular endurance, and hypertrophy. J Strength Cond Res (2015).
- Schoenfeld B. J., et al. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci (2017).
- Helms E. R., et al. Recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: resistance and cardiovascular training. J Sports Med Phys Fitness (2015).
- Hammarström D., et al. Benefits of higher resistance-training volume are related to ribosome biogenesis. J Physiol (2020).
- Wernbom M., et al. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports Med (2007).
- Amirthalingam T., et al. Effects of a Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength. J Strength Cond Res (2017).
- Fry A. C., et al. Resistance exercise overtraining and overreaching. Neuroendocrine responses. Sports Med (1997).
- Heaselgrave S. R., et al. Dose-Response Relationship of Weekly Resistance-Training Volume and Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Men. Int J Sports Physiol Perform (2019).
- Otrowski K. J., et al. The Effect of Weight Training Volume on Hormonal Output and Muscular Size and Function. J Strength Cond Res (1997)
- Peterson M. D., et al. Applications of the dose-response for muscular strength development: a review of meta-analytic efficacy and reliability for designing training prescription. J Strength Cond Res (2005).
- Schoenfeld B. J., et al. Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res (2015).
- Schoenfeld B. J., et al. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Med Sci Sports Exerc (2019).
- Aube D., et al. Progressive Resistance Training Volume: Effects on Muscle Thickness, Mass, and Strength Adaptations in Resistance-Trained Individuals. J Strength Cond Res (2022).
- Brigatto F. A., et al. High Resistance-Training Volume Enhances Muscle Thickness in Resistance-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res (2022).
- Keieger J. Set Volume for Muscle Size: The Ultimate Evidence Based Bible. Weightology (2022).
- Raastad T., et al. Powerlifters improved strength and muscular adaptations to a greater extent when equal total training volume was divided into 6 compared to 3 training sessions per week. Book of abstracts, 17th annual conference of the ECSS (2012).
- Ratamess N. A., et al. The effects of amino acid supplementation on muscular performance during resistance training overreaching. J Strength Cond Res (2003).
Who Is Russ Howe PTI?
As featured in Men’s Fitness magazine and voted in the world’s top 50 fat loss coaches by HuffPost, Russ is among the UK’s most subscribed personal trainers with 105,223 men and women receiving his free weekly fitness tips e-mail.
In the gym, clients range from busy parents, to models, to athletes and actresses. Russ also worked alongside the UK government for 8 years in a venture combating childhood obesity in England.
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