More Is Good, But Too Much Is A Problem

So let’s start off with the basic concept of volume: sets x reps x weight. That’s it. This is probably the most important thing to know if you are looking to develop more size and strength over time. Why is it so important? 

Simply because your progress will be governed by progressive overload, that is, your ability to do more work over time, forcing your body to adapt. Adapt in this sense just means getting bigger and stronger over time. Really great stuff, right? So how do you achieve this exactly? Well, through using more sets, reps and weight over time! In other words, your training volume needs to increase over a period of time in order to allow you to drive this adaptive process needed for growth. If your volume never increases, you will never develop. It’s just that simple. It does not matter whether this comes through more reps, sets, weight or a combination of all three. Something has to go up over time if you want to take your size and strength development to new heights.

So What Is Being Said About Training Volume? The Non-Sciencey Version

Simply put: more resistance training (RT) volume produces greater gains in muscular size.  More specifically, this is considered within the context of an entire training week rather than just looking at any one isolated session. Thus, increasing your total weekly volume leads to more muscular hypertrophy over time. However, it’s also likely that there is a limit to how much weekly training volume you can actually do to maximise muscle size until you hit a wall (or even regress!). Once this threshold point is reached, the only thing more volume will do to you, is push you into overtraining territory. Oops, not really what you want to happen!Although this upper limit still needs a lot of investigation because it’s not clear where this point lies. However, it’s clear that this point will be slightly different for everyone with some being able to push the total weekly volume higher for longer without hitting this threshold. 

Ultimately, more weekly training volume is great for more muscle size. More volume means a greater muscle-size inducing training stimulus over time. But, keep in mind that too much volume will eventually beat you down leading to poor recovery and overtraining. All of which will simply hinder any further progress you want to make. Therefore your total volume in the week needs to be managed to prevent you hitting any brick walls!

Interested in the scientific studies behind this? Then keep reading further!

•Krieger (2010)•

In 2010, Krieger investigated the effects of multiple vs. single-set RT exercises on measures of muscular hypertrophy across a range of studies. These included measures of lean body mass, regional lean mass, cross-sectional areas, muscle circumferences as well as muscle thickness. It was found that measures of muscular hypertrophy were significantly increased in a dose-response manner: from 1 set to 2-3 sets and 4-6 sets. With 4-6 sets per exercise eliciting the greatest increases in muscular hypertrophy. Although the increase between 2-3 and 4-6 sets was much smaller than 1 to 2-3 sets indicating the likelihood of a threshold. 

It’s important to note in this study that Krieger only studied the impact of a number of sets from a single training session on muscular hypertrophy and not the total number of weekly sets. Thus making it difficult to assess precisely the impact that total weekly volume would have on muscle size. 

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Krieger (2010). Figures show the increase in hypertrophy as the number of exercise sets are increased. 

•Terzis et al (2010)•

A study by Terzis et al (2010) looked at the influence of downstream signalling processes (those implicated in muscular hypertrophy) following 1, 3 and 5-set RT leg-press exercise protocols (each with a 6 repetition max) by 8 untrained male participants. Muscle biopsies were taken before and 30 minutes after each training session to investigate any changes in key proteins following the training. Interestingly, it was found that key proteins involved in protein synthesis (p70S6 kinase and S6) were significantly up-regulated following the 3- and 5-set protocol, with the greatest increases occurring after the 5 leg-press exercise sets. It was suggested that by increasing the volume of training (through the number of sets), the increase in volume would enhance the hypertrophic responses through an increase in the level of protein signalling pathways and hence protein synthesis.

It’s important to note however that acute changes in protein signalling are not always representative of longer-term muscular hypertrophic changes. Therefore it’s impossible to say for certain whether this increased protein signalling response is actually responsible for the longer-term effects of volume on muscle size. 

Although these studies shed some light on how increases in volume (through more training sets) likely influences muscular hypertrophy, they tend to focus primarily on the influence of volume in a single training session rather than total training volume over the course of an entire week. 

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Terzis et al (2010). Figures show the increase in up-regulation of anabolic protein signals (p70S6k and S6). The increase in phosphorylation as the number of exercise sets increases is an indication of increased protein signalling activity. 

•Schoenfeld et al (2016)•

The drawback of these earlier studies was that the hypertrophic effects of volume were only studied on the basis of what happens following a single training session. However, a better idea of how training volume might influence muscular hypertrophy would be to investigate the changes in TOTAL weekly volume (Schoenfeld et al, 2016). Essentially, the total weekly volume would be all your sets, reps and weight done combined throughout the entire week. 

What Schoenfeld et al (2016) found after pooling all the studies conducted together, is that there is a clear relationship between the total weekly training volume and the magnitude of the hypertrophic response. In this case, the number of exercise sets done per muscle group per week. As the number of weekly training sets increased (<5, 5-9, 10+ per muscle group), the hypertrophic response was also increased, with the greatest responses being seen with at least 10 weekly sets per muscle group. 

Although the underlying mechanism of this volume-hypertrophy relationship was not the focus of the study, Schoenfeld et al (2016) did put forward some suggestions. Given that the magnitude of protein synthesis and protein signalling is greater following multiple vs. single set protocols, it’s likely that this heightened state of acute protein synthesis plays a role in the increased hypertrophic responses with higher total weekly volumes. Since the extent of muscle hypertrophy depends on the balance between muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and muscle protein breakdown (MPB), the higher weekly training volumes and hence higher sustained levels of anabolic protein signalling throughout the week, could shift this balance towards MPS. Thus leading to potentially more muscle hypertrophy. It is also possible that given the fact that a threshold level of mechanical tension (induced at a certain level of training intensity) is needed for hypertrophy, the increased metabolic stress resulting from higher training volumes of work is likely to augment this effect, leading to greater levels of anabolism in comparison to low volumes of work. 

It is important to note that most of these results were derived from untrained individuals and did not investigate the influence of weekly training volumes on hypertrophy above 12 sets per muscle group per week. As a result, it’s not clear where exactly the upper threshold lies in terms of maximally effective total weekly volumes and whether the same trend follows for those with more training experience. Therefore more work needs to be done to access this relationship between more volume and more hypertrophy and where exactly this upper threshold point lies before too much volume starts becoming counter-productive. 

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Schoenfeld et al (2016). Figure shows the collection of studies demonstrating the hypertrophic effects as total weekly volume (as the total number of sets per muscle group per week) increases. Looking at the ‘black squares’ it is clear that increased hypertrophic responses are strongly influenced by increases in total weekly volume. 

Final Thoughts 

These findings reinforce the importance of the need to do more work over time if you want to develop more muscle mass. Simply put, if your training doesn’t implement progressively more workload over time, then it’s just not going to be possible to stimulate more growth and develop the size that you want. What is more interesting however from these studies is the idea that an upper limit of effective training volume might exist. In other words, up to a certain point more volume will simply have an opposite effect: causing a regression in your performance rather than more hypertrophy. Even though we know that too much work can cause problems with recovery and overtraining, no one really knows where this point lies. Obviously it will differ for everyone, but knowing the upper limits of effective training volume might actually help individuals more effectively plan their training to avoid these potential overtraining areas. This could essentially allow people to continuously monitor and optimise their training volumes to maximise growth while preventing the problems of under-recovery through too much volume, too quickly. 

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