The internet is full of “muscle-building” routines you can follow. But all these routines have one major drawback: they are not tailored to your individual training experience, preferences, and lifestyle. To help you design your own training program, I’m launching a 3-part blog series on training program design.
In part 1 of this series (this article), I’ll focus on the most important training variable: Volume. Up to a certain point, how many sets per muscle group you perform in your training determines how much muscle you gain.
But before diving into how much training volume you need, it’s important to get a good grasp of the principles behind muscle growth. So I’ll start by discussing two essential training concepts to lay the groundwork for this 3-part blog series.
Specificity & Overload: Muscle Growth 101
The two basic principles that determine whether your training program is effective are training specificity and overload.
The specificity principle states that the adaptations your body goes through are specific to the training you perform. So if you primarily do endurance training, your body needs to “endure” more, which results in endurance adaptations. If you train primarily with weights, your muscles will become bigger and stronger so that you can handle weight training more efficiently in the future.
Basic stuff you would say. But still, it’s common for people to perform more cardio than strength training while their main goal is muscle and strength development. Taking a good look at whether your training is specific to the goal you want to achieve is key.
Once you’ve got specificity down, you also need to make sure your training is progressive. Because if your training is not progressive, there is no need for your body to adapt. Muscle growth is an adaptation that only occurs if you consistently challenge your muscles beyond their present capacity.
Now, to consistently improve your performance and provide overload, how you design your training program is important. In the context of resistance training for muscle growth, there are 3 main training variables:
Oftentimes defined as Reps * Sets * Weight per muscle group in a week. A more recent definition given is the total number of “challenging sets” performed per muscle group in a week.
The amount of weight you are lifting. Usually expressed by a percentage of your 1-rep max.
How often you train every muscle group in a week.
The way you manipulate these training variables dictates how effective your training is for realizing progress, and therefore, muscle growth. But as you can imagine, how much training volume, intensity, and frequency someone needs will differ per individual.
In this article, we’ll focus solely on training volume. I’ll go into the current evidence on training volume and how you can tailor these general recommendations to your individual needs. In parts 2 and 3 of this blog series, I’ll discuss the variables intensity and frequency in more detail and we’ll relate all the variables to each other.
About Training Volume
Volume basically refers to the total amount of “work” per muscle group in your training. For simplicity’s sake, let’s take the definition of volume from Baz-Valle et al. 2018:
Volume = The number of challenging sets per muscle group per week
As long as you train in a reasonable rep range (~5-15 reps per set) and train each set close to muscle failure (no more than 3 reps left in reserve), every set has a similar muscle-building effect. So the total number of challenging sets per muscle group in a week is a simple and viable way to define training volume.
Up to a certain point, training volume has a linear relationship with muscle and strength gain. This is logical. Doing 5 sets of bench press in a week will get you better results than doing just 1 set of bench press.
But you can’t keep increasing volume linearly forever and expect greater muscle gains to occur. In fact, there is a point after which muscle growth and strength gain decrease if you keep increasing volume.
This usually happens when you train with more volume than you can recover from. Using a training volume that’s too high for you will leave you chronically fatigued, which causes performance to go down and places you in a suboptimal environment for progress.
This is why training more is not always better.
How Much Volume Do You Need?
Research on Training Volume
As mentioned, everyone’s volume requirements are different. For example, experienced lifters generally need more training volume to make progress when compared to novice trainees. But from the scientific literature, there are good general guidelines that we can use as a starting point.
A 2017 meta-analysis led by Dr. Schoenfeld gathered the data from 15 training studies to provide evidence-based recommendations on training volume and muscle growth. Since there is little scientific research on high-volume training, the researchers could only analyze studies that had a volume range of up to 10 sets per muscle group per week.
They found linear increases in muscle growth up to 10+ sets per muscle group per week. This tells us that most people should at the very least aim for 10 sets per muscle/week if they want to maximize muscle growth.
You may now be asking yourself: If 10 sets per muscle group in a week is the minimum, what is the upper limit for volume?
The short, and not so satisfying answer, is we don’t know for sure yet. As stated earlier, not many long-term training studies have been done specifically on high-volume training. There is good research showing that too much volume can harm muscle growth, but the exact point at which volume increases impair muscle growth for the majority of people is unclear.
Volume Recommendations Based on Experience
As described in the “Hierarchy of Evidence” model, if the scientific literature is lacking in one area, we fill these gaps with practical experiences and expert opinions until there’s more research on the topic.
Based on my personal experience coaching a wide variety of people and the expert opinions of researchers in the field, a reasonable volume range seems to be around 10-20 sets per muscle group per week for most people.
Whether you should be on the low- or high-end of this volume range will mostly depend on your training experience and recovery capacity. But in general, I’ve experienced that training volumes higher than 20 sets per week for every muscle group are not needed for the majority of people. I would only consider training volumes of 20+ sets per muscle group per week if you are an advanced trainee that has years of experience with performing high-volume workouts.
Determining Your Volume Needs
When it comes to training volume, the goal is not doing as much volume as possible. You want to do enough volume to support progress. Because remember, the main goal is progressively overloading your muscles, not tiring yourself out in the gym.
So it’s a good idea to be conservative with the amount of volume you do. You can always increase your volume if necessary. But having to dial down the amount of volume you do because your workouts are too fatiguing is a less efficient process.
As a general guideline, check the table below for a good volume starting point based on your training experience. I also use this table to determine a starting volume range for my Premium Online Coaching clients.
Grey Muscles: These are the main muscle groups that are prime movers in compound exercises
Blue Muscles: These are muscle groups that assist the prime movers in many compound exercises, so they don’t need a ton of extra volume. I use the general guideline of training every small muscle group with about 30-40% of the volume of larger muscle groups.
Red Muscles: The shoulders are an exception since the side deltoids are not targeted effectively in any compound exercises. So for shoulder isolation training, we use about half the volume of large muscle groups.
As you can see, the more you advance in your training, the more volume you generally need to make progress. So your volume needs change over time. This is because the human body is adaptive. To keep making progress, you will continuously have to challenge yourself.
Also, I want to emphasize that the volume figure above is not a “scientific” model or something that’s taken out of a highly controlled volume study. This is based on my coaching experience and interpretation of the current evidence on training volume. And let’s not forget these are starting points. It’s impossible to figure out the right volume range for you without some trial-and-error. So don’t see the specific numbers shown in the table as the be-all and end-all for volume.
When To Increase Volume
If you are training with a certain amount of volume and are not making any progress in your training, it can be worth looking into a volume increase.
But before doing this, it’s a good idea to assess your nutrition and recovery. If you don’t eat enough to support your training and/or train with more volume than your body can recover from, fatigue catches up to you and you’ll have a hard time performing well in the gym.
When it comes to nutrition, you want to at least eat at your maintenance calories (the number of calories you burn on an average day). Being in a calorie deficit is not the optimal environment for strength progress. If you intentionally are in a calorie deficit for fat loss, you generally will have to accept a slower rate of strength progress and increasing volume won’t always help.
Regarding your recovery, consider the basic factors.
If you answered “No” to any of these questions and are not making progress in your training, you may not be recovering well from your workouts. So fix that first.
Once you’ve made sure that your recovery and nutrition are in place, then consider having a volume increase by doing more sets per muscle group in a week.
There is some research showing that trained individuals can get away with pretty high-volume ranges and still gain muscle well. In a recent 8-week study, researchers found that increasing volume up to 30+ sets per muscle group in a week can enhance muscle growth in trained individuals. Even though it’s unlikely that this volume range is sustainable in the long run, it still shows promise for high-volume training in specific cases.
One way to potentially apply this piece of information is by making use of “Specialization Phases.” We now know that doing too much volume is harmful because you won’t be able to recover from your training. But if you decide to increase volume on only 1-2 muscle groups, the additional fatigue is minimal. That’s essentially what you’re doing in a specialization phase.
When you “specialize”, you focus on certain muscle groups by training them with more volume than other body parts. As an example, say you want to focus more on growing your arms. In an “Arm Specialization Phase,” you train your biceps and triceps with about 20-30% more volume than other muscle groups. The additional fatigue the arm training produces is minimal if you keep your nutrition and recovery in place.
This can be done with any muscle group you’d like to bring up. So, if you want to experiment with higher volume workouts, specialization phases are generally a good start. But if you consider yourself a novice trainee, it’s a good idea to start with the general volume recommendations on all muscle groups and focus on building your foundation.
- Up to a certain point, volume has a linear relationship with muscle growth. But too much volume too soon can harm muscle growth. You’ll be too fatigued to perform well in your training if volume is too high.
- The “optimal” volume varies widely per individual. But for most people, 10-20 sets per muscle group per week is a good starting point for muscle growth.
- Your volume needs change over time. As you get more advanced in your training, you need to gradually build up your volume.
- If you want to experiment with high-volume training, start by using specialization phases.
So far we’ve covered quite a few topics about training volume and programming in general. In the next few weeks, I’ll continue by discussing the 2 remaining training variables: Frequency & Intensity. (Part 2 is live now)
If you don’t feel like waiting or having to read multiple separate articles, you can also just purchase my eBook: The Art & Science of Muscle Growth.
This eBook discusses training for muscle growth into detail. Next to the 3 training variables, I also discuss training periodization and nutrition for promoting hypertrophy.
To learn more about what my eBook has to offer, click the book image below.