Previously, I suggested that volume is the variable which drives increases in strength and increasing volume over time will continue to drive strength to greater heights. But there is a caveat. Increasing volume too much, too soon can greatly enhance an individual’s risk of injury, which leads to the next question: How do you increase an individual’s current training volume appropriately while limiting the risk of injury?
This article, To Failure or Not to Failure – That is the Question, details the impact volume has on strength and hypertrophy. It will give an overview of that very question.
Typically, volume is not tracked for every exercise in a training program. It can be done, but it might become tedious. A well designed training program has a specific focus, such as: Beginner Strength Building, Bodybuilder Upper Body Focus, or Powerlifting Meet Peaking Cycle (all of which and more can be found in our workout builder).
In a well-designed training program there are “main lifts” which are the core lifts of the program that all training will revolve around. Main lifts are typically compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, and overhead press variations, barbell row variations, etc. To maximize training efficiency and potential, track the volume for the main lifts.
For this discussion, I chose the squat to track volume. If an individual is currently squatting once per week and performing 3 sets of 10 reps with 100 lbs., the total squat volume performed is 3,000 lbs. (remember, volume=sets x reps x load). To increase strength, prioritize increasing your weekly squat volume. This information will inevitably cause many people to want to rapidly increase their volume in order to achieve the results they desire. The common thought process goes like this:
“If I’m currently performing 3,000 lbs. of volume, but I want to get as strong as possible as fast as possible, I should increase my volume to 10,000 lbs. right away.” Which might look something like this:
- Current Training Example = 3 sets X 10 reps X 100 lbs. = 3,000 lbs. volume
- Desired Training Example = 10 sets X 10 reps X 100 lbs. = 10,000 lbs. Volume
While this would certainly increase your volume and therefore most likely increase your strength, it probably isn’t the best way to accomplish increased volume, and there are a few reasons why.
Muscular Damage and Injury
Increasing from 3 sets to 10 sets without appropriate adaptation will cause an enormous amount of muscular damage, potentially so much damage that the risk of injury drastically increases.[1-3] Excessive damage is not the goal when weight training. While some damage is necessary to create adaptations, too much muscular damage prevents an individual from performing the lift more frequently and will therefore reduce the total weekly volume of the lift.
The goal should be to increase volume as slowly as possible over a long amount of time. Increasing your volume from 3,000 lbs. to 10,000 lbs. in a week, as previously stated, is too much too soon. Our bodies can handle a great deal of stress, but it needs time to adapt. Injuries prevent us from training which can halt progress.
Loss of Marathon Gains
Not only do you increase your risk of injury by rapidly increasing volume from 3,000 lbs. to 10,000 lbs. but you will also miss out on all the progress that could’ve been made while performing 4,000 lbs. – 5,000 lbs. – 6,000 lbs., etc. of volume. Increasing volume slowly allows the body to make appropriate adaptations such as increased strength of connective tissue which could reduce the risk of injury in the long term. Staying healthy is just as important as increasing volume. Training for strength is a marathon, not a sprint. For many, maximizing strength will take years of consistent training. Fall in love with the process and make steady gains month after month.
Guidelines To Increase Volume Appropriately
1. Increase volume slowly over time
For all the reasons already mentioned, increasing volume slowly over time will produce sustainable, long term gains compared to a rapid increase in volume. Look to make incremental increases from week to week such as adding a small percentage of weight each week.
2. Follow a well-designed training program
A well-designed program will have a purpose, appropriate exercise order, and a method to progress over time. Autoregulation is a great way to let your body speak for you. Autoregulation uses your performance on lifts from week 1 to determine the amount of increase for week 2. The most popular methods of autoregulation are Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE), Repetitions in Reserve (RIR), or a set percentage increase from week to week.
In addition to autoregulation, well-designed training programs will also have a purpose. The purpose may be to increase strength of a specific exercise such as back squat, increase hypertrophy of a certain muscle group such as glutes, or to rebuild your body after returning from an injury. Based on the purpose or goal of the program, variables such as volume, intensity, and rest periods should differ. Based on these training variables, a training program will fall into different training blocks such as a volume block or intensity block.
3. Increase frequency of the lift
One effective way to increase the volume of a lift is to increase the frequency of the lift. It is common to see bodybuilding programs schedule all chest exercises on one day, back another, legs a different and so on. Performing training like this will most likely allow for only one day of training per muscle group per week because of the damage done and the recovery time needed. By increasing the frequency of the lift, you increase the volume. For example:
Assume your goal is to increase strength of the back squat but currently you are only performing the back squat once per week.
- 3 sets X 10 reps X 100 lbs. = 3,000 lbs. Volume
An increase of frequency from once per week to twice per week may look like this:
- Day 1: 2 sets X 10 reps X 100 lbs. = 2,000 lbs. volume
- Day 2: 2 sets X 8 reps X 110 lbs. = 1,760 lbs. volume
- Total weekly volume = 3,760 lbs. Volume.
Because you are performing back squats twice per week, it is advantageous to use similar but different rep ranges to receive the benefits of using different intensities.
In addition, increasing frequency not only allows you to increase volume effectively, it also benefits technique.
Think of the big compound exercises the same way you think about athletic movements such as throwing a baseball, or a jump shot, or a golf swing in that they are all skills that need practice to attain mastery. Squatting just once per week limits the amount of practice of that movement. All great athletes practice their sport specific movements multiple times throughout a given week. This is also common in strength sports such as powerlifting and Olympic lifting. Increasing the frequency of a lift increases the skill adaption and greatly increases the potential volume over time.
At this point, many of you may be wondering to yourself, “There’s no way I would be able to squat two or three times a week. I can barely walk after my leg day as it is.” If you are thinking that, you’re not alone. However, when you train smarter, you will most likely experience less soreness and more gains. Let me explain:
In training and in life, we our able to take advantage of a phenomenon known as the “Repeated Bout Effect” or RBE. The repeated bout effect occurs when an exercise is performed within six months of the previous performance, essentially saying that if I squat today and then squat again next week, the RBE is starting to take place. This phenomenon will take place with greater intensity when the exercise is performed more often, meaning that your body will adapt to squatting, bench pressing, or whatever it is, the more often you do it.
If you were to start squatting Monday and Thursday, you would become adapted to that frequency and would be able to perform the lifts without any increased soreness – assuming you start with an appropriate amount of volume and continue to increase your volume appropriately. Our bodies are amazing machines and sometimes we doubt its capabilities, but trust me, the human body is able to withstand an enormous amount of stimulus and adapt to it over time.
We’ve established that increasing volume is a good idea. With that said, the question now becomes – how do you increase volume appropriately?
There are over 30 training programs available to choose from. The programs vary in length, days per week, difficulty, and how the weight is selected. No matter your current training status or future goals, there is a program here for you.
- Uchida, M. C., Nosaka, K., Ugrinowitsch, C., Yamashita, A., Martins Jr, E., Moriscot, A. S., & Aoki, M. S. (2009). Effect of bench press exercise intensity on muscle soreness and inflammatory mediators. Journal of sports sciences, 27(5), 499-507.
- Foley, J. M., Jayaraman, R. C., Prior, B. M., Pivarnik, J. M., & Meyer, R. A. (1998). MR measurements of muscle damage and adaptation after eccentric exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 30(5), 69
- Bartolomei, S., Sadres, E., Church, D. D., Arroyo, E., Gordon III, J. A., Varanoske, A. N., … & Hoffman, J. R. (2017). Comparison of the recovery response from high-intensity and high-volume resistance exercise in trained men. European journal of applied physiology, 117(7), 1287-1298..