If you want to know how much training volume you should incorporate in your current plan to increase hypertrophy then this is the article for you. Before you start reading there is no magic number of sets you must complete to hit the perfect amount of volume for an increase in hypertrophy. The reason being there are too many variables, which means there is no one size fits all. Having said that I aim to give you the knowledge on how to customise the volume used in your plan. This will help you achieve maximum progress!
What is volume?
When I refer to volume within this text I am talking about the number of sets you complete per week for a body part. For example, if you did 3 sets of Military Press and 3 sets of Arnold Press then your volume for your Delts would be 6 sets per week. Mike Israetel et al (2017) gives the below definition of what a “working set” should be:
- Between 30% 1RM and 85% 1RM on average
- Between 5 reps per set and 30 reps per set on average
- And between 4 reps and 0 reps away from concentric muscular failure (4 RIR – 0 RIR)
As long as you are working within the above guidelines, a ‘set’ can be counted in your volume tally for that week.
There are a few more definitions that I want you to have an idea of before we get into the nitty-gritty:
Maintenance Volume (MV) = This is the number of sets you need to do per week to maintain the physique you have.
Minimum Effective Volume (MEV) = This is the lowest amount of sets needed per week for you to still see an increase in strength and hypertrophy.
Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) = This is the maximum amount of sets you can perform and still be fully recovered to go again in the next session e.g. your legs aren’t really sore from the last leg day still.
Maximum Adaptive Volume (MAV) = The range of volume that works best for you. For example, as your Biceps become stronger they will be able to recover quicker meaning you may be able to increase your volume to 15 sets per week. From this, you may learn that your MAV for Biceps is between 10 & 15 sets per week. So you may start a cut/ bulk at 10 sets and progress through to 15 sets.
(Israetel, Hoffmann and Feather, 2017)
The more volume you can include in your weekly training will result in increased gains.
Although strength and hypertrophy come hand in hand when training, research does suggest that increase volume can have slightly more of an effect on muscle size than the weight you lift (Schoenfeld et al., 2019). This suggests that training volume would be more important to a Bodybuilder as opposed to their 1RM and how strong they are. Now if more sets equal more muscle growth, then why not stay at the gym all day every day and complete 100+ sets per week? The reason why is you will burn out! This is where your knowledge of your MRV (definition above) comes into play. If you were to push past your MRV over time this will lead to overtraining. This will result in a decrease in fitness gains (Bompa, 2019).
The more experience you have will result in you knowing when you have reached your MRV.
Knowing this, I would advise that you track each body part and how much volume you are training with. From this point, I would then think about what muscles are showing progress? What muscles feel burnt out? What muscles aren’t showing progress? For example, a common theme is people think their calves won’t grow. If you compare the training volume of their calves compared to their chest, it’s highly likely it’s nowhere near the same. This means you need to up the volume. On the other hand, your biceps may be showing great progress so you keep upping the volume (as you should). But then all of a sudden you are turning up to the gym and your arms feel dead, this would suggest you have surpassed your MRV.
Volume, as we know, is measured in sets per week. But can also be classed as the weight you are lifting. Research has shown that the minimum amount needed to be lifted to achieve an increased hypertrophy (MEV) is a lot less in beginners. This is often known as “noob gains” or as I like to call it, beginners’ luck. When you are starting on your fitness journey this suggests that it’s better to be safe than sorry. This is because you’re still going to see progress from lifting lighter weights, which means you can ease your way to finding your MRV and use the correct form, rather than burning out straight away.
Kraemer and Ratmess (2004) suggests that sets of 45-50% of your one-rep max can still increase strength and hypertrophy in beginners.
This does not mean that you can just sit back, relax and still expect to look like a Greek God as you are probably just hitting your MEV! You still have to put in the work but the gains will come easier when first starting. This has some correlation with why people sign up to the gym in January (“new year new me”) see great results and are very committed, but when things start to plateau motivation drops and all of a sudden you are paying for a gym membership you don’t use.
For the more experienced gym-goers reading this (beginners to be), it is suggested you should be using 80-85% of your 1RM during sets to show progress. Having talked about experience levels it’s clear to see that the more you put in the more you get out regardless of whether it’s your first day or 10th year in the gym. So much so that adding just one set to a muscle group per week will show an increase in muscle size, although this may be minimal it shows that increase volume has a direct effect on muscle size (Schoenfeld, Ogborn and Krieger, 2016).
Research conducted by Schoenfeld, Ogborn and Krieger (2016) looked at the effect of volume on muscle size and categorised two groups. These were lower volume (9 or less) and higher volume (10 or more). To no surprise, they noticed a difference of 3.9% in muscle hypertrophy per week when training within “higher” volume. In my opinion, working off their numbers, I think it’s easily ‘doable’ to have a higher volume training plan that only requires you to train 4x per week.
I feel if you tried to do this in anything less than 4 sessions per week you would be in the gym for way too long and there would be too much volume per session.
To conclude if you want to gain muscle at the fastest rate possible then you need to monitor your training volume. For newcomers, start with 10 sets per week on each muscle group and progress from there. If you are more advance you should start to track your volume, adjusting where you see fit. When you are more advance you may also know that your Lat’s need a higher volume than your Delt’s to grow and you can personalise your training program to your own body. The key takeaway is you should always be trying to hit your MRV to get the most rapid muscle gain. This is easier said than done due to this always being a moving target. Meaning you need to learn your body and know how far you can push it before it becomes too far!
(SCHOENFELD et al., 2019)
SCHOENFELD, B., CONTRERAS, B., KRIEGER, J., GRGIC, J., DELCASTILLO, K., BELLIARD, R. and ALTO, A., 2019. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 51(1), pp.94-103.
Bompa, T., 2019. Integrated Periodization In Sports Training Et Athletic Development. Michigan: C-M Books.
(Israetel, Hoffmann and Feather, 2017)
Israetel, M., Hoffmann, J. and Feather, J., 2017. Renaissance Periodization | Training Volume Landmarks For Muscle Growth. [online] Renaissanceperiodization.com. Available at: <https://renaissanceperiodization.com/training-volume-landmarks-muscle-growth/> [Accessed 4 January 2017].
(KRAEMER and RATAMESS, 2004)
KRAEMER, W. and RATAMESS, N., 2004. Fundamentals of Resistance Training: Progression and Exercise Prescription. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 36(4), pp.674-688.
(Schoenfeld, Ogborn and Krieger, 2016)
Schoenfeld, B., Ogborn, D. and Krieger, J., 2016. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35(11), pp.1073-1082.