When I speak about training volume, I’m referring to the number of sets each muscle receives per week.
This topic often came up on the gym floor during my twenty one years as a personal trainer, with two very different concerns.
Novice trainees who’d like to hit the ground running ask:
“How many sets should I do for the best results?”
Meanwhile, advanced trainees who know that their body can withstand more punishment (and would quite hapilly spend all day in the gym if they needed to) are more interested to learn if there is a tipping point where results begin to wane, so they ask:
“How much is too much?”
I put together this comprehensive article to break down all of the latest sports sceience on the topic, so you’ll have a clear plan on exactly how much volume you should hit each muscle with depending upon your goals and experience
Table of Contents
Does More Volume Lead To Better Results?
As a general rule, the easiest way to get better at something is to do it a LOT.
For example; if you wanted to learn a new language I’d advise you to read it and speak it as often as you can, because eventually it becomes second nature.
It appears that building muscle follows a similar path.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers put three groups of trainees through a 12-week training program (exercises used; leg press, leg extension, leg curl, bench press, shoulder press, lat pulldown, biceps curl, triceps extension, and crunches). Here’s the programs they used:
- Group A: One set per exercise (3 workouts per week = 3 sets per muscle per week)
- Group B: Three sets per exercise (3 workouts per week = 9 sets per muscle per week)
- Group C: Five sets per exercise (3 workouts per week = 15 sets per muscle per week)
By the end of the trial, the trainees who were hitting 5 sets per exercise reported significantly better results than both of the other groups, essentially demonstrating that the more you do something, the better your results will be. (1, 2)
So How Much Is Too Much?
The information above certainly lends credence to the belief that more volume means more results.
There is a tipping point, of course.
To put it into context, let’s go back to my analogy about trying to learn a new language. I said that reading it and speaking it as often as possible would be a sure-fire way to up your game – however, even the keenest of learners would eventually become tired, and would need to step away.
The same thing can happen in the gym.
This is where a trainee enters an unusual state where results stagnate (maybe even go backwards) as a result of too much work being done. Most people call it over-training, but I prefer to call it under-recovering, as this alludes to the real root cause of the issue.
And the key to finding this tipping point depends on your lifting experience.
- The sweet spot for novice-to-intermediate trainees
If you’ve got less than two years of lifting experience under your belt, most of the research indicates that your sweet spot for training volume is 12-18 sets per week (for each muscle). This is where you’ll stimulate the maximum anabolic response from training AND maximize muscle recovery. (3, 4, 5, 7, 10)
Don’t worry if you’ve got an experienced gym buddy who says this is not enough volume; research shows us that it absolutely is!
In 2017, researchers from Sydney, Australia, tested out the theory of muscle growth and recovery time by putting newbie lifters through a tough compound exercise program consisting of either 5 sets per exercise, or 10 sets per exercise – incredibly, at the end of the program the newbies who were performing less volume had more muscle mass and better strength gains than the other group! We saw similar findings in 2019, when researchers from California showed that newbie trainees recorded better biceps growth with 18 sets per week than 27 sets per week, and also in a study from Wales where researchers demonstrated superior triceps growth with 14 sets per week versus 28 sets. (6, 8, 9)
Use 12-18 sets as your goalposts, taking about half of those sets to failure, and you’ll see fantastic results!
- The sweet spot for intermediate-to-advanced trainees
Those of you with more than two years of training experience under your belts would still see great results with the 12-18 set framework, but you can push the boundaries a little further if you want to, because your body is more conditioned and able to recover more efficiently than that of a newbie trainee. (11, 12, 13, 14)
Plus, it’s quite easy for your volume creep up when you’re applying more advanced methods like supersets, dropsets, and rest pause sets.
That’s why I recommend more of a sliding scale between 18-30 sets per week.
Creating A Killer Workout Program
Now that we know exactly how many sets you need to do each week to maximize muscle growth, we’re going to create a training program.
Remember; your training volume should be based on your experience.
With that in mind, novice-to-intermediate trainees (less than two years of lifting experience) should be hitting each muscle with 12-18 sets per week, and intermediate-to-advanced trainees (more than two years lifting experience) can either follow the same framework or push the scale to 18-30 sets per week.
Going beyond these parameters would lead to a state of diminishing returns in both instances, so just work harder on the sets you are performing rather than adding more. The ultimate goal is to hit the sweet spot where intensity and volume collide, so you can pack in the most amount of gym work before results begin to drop off, like this:
You’ve got two options when it comes to structuring your training plan:
- Bro split
You’ll choose a body part and hit it with your full weekly volume in one day, and then you’ll let that muscle recover until next week (i.e. chest day, leg day, and so on).
- Full-body split
You’ll chunk down your weekly volume into each session, so rather than annihilating one muscle you’ll do a few sets for everything, still hitting the total number of sets over the course of the week.
Both of these are effective, but if you’re unsure which to choose I recommend a full-body split, because it offers a few unique benefits which a more traditional bro split won’t, such as:
- If you are forced into missing a gym session on a bro split that muscle group could potentially go un-trained for two weeks, but on a full-body split you’d only miss one day.
- Spreading the volume means faster recovery for all muscle groups (so you’ll have fewer cases of crippling leg DOMS).
- A full-body split enables you to train slightly harder because each muscle is fresh (40 minutes into a chest workout and even the most experienced trainees will see a decline in performance).
- Full-body training can lead to slightly better muscle growth, because it stimulates muslce protein synthesis for every muscle after every workout, as opposed to just once per week.
- We’ve all got one body part we dislike training, but a full-body routine generally convinces us to still show up and train, because the volume is low instead of having a whole day of something you don’t enjoy. (11, 15, 16)
Or you can choose one of my ready-to-go programs below. Enjoy!
An old school 12-week program which uses dropsets, rest pause sets, and classic linear periodization to help you pack on serious muscle mass.Begin Program
You want legs to die for? This structured 8-week program is the one for you.Begin Program
Training to failure has never been so much fun! This 10-week muscle builder will take you on an epic journey using oscillating periodization.Begin Program
This program is an updated and simplified version of Stallone’s Rambo II training regimen. You’ll use supersets, tri-sets, and undulating periodization to shred fat and claim victory.Begin Program
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