Doing too much training volume may be counterproductive as far as strength and hypertrophy go. But how much is too much?
What did they test? The researchers looked at the effect of adding 4 or 6 sets every few weeks to an already high-volume quad training protocol.
What did they find? Adding sets every few weeks resulted in greater strength and hypertrophy gains, although caution is advised when interpreting the hypertrophy results. Participants were able to still make progress even at 52 sets of quad training per week.
What does it mean for you? Doing more training volume, eg: in the form of specialization phases, for certain body parts may allow you to make greater strength and hypertrophy gains.
What’s the Problem?
Training volume seems to be an extremely controversial topic in the world of building muscle and strength. From the Mike Mentzer era of “high intensity training”, where doing a few sets per muscle group with the utmost intensity was all you need to maximize growth, to the volume craze era where unless you’re doing 20 sets per muscle group per week, you’re wasting your time, the lifting world seems to be somewhat divided over how much work one really needs to do to see meaningful gains.
As it stands, the literature on hypertrophy points at higher volumes (12-20 sets per muscle group per week) being better for hypertrophy than lower training volumes (<10 sets per muscle group per week) 1. This has been demonstrated in a few systematic reviews and meta-analyses over the years, it’s not some new or controversial finding 2. However, just because more training volume may lead to better hypertrophy gains, that does not mean that anything below 10-20 sets is completely useless and will not lead to meaningful gains. Quite the opposite actually. Even as low as 1-4 sets per muscle group per week can lead to significant, although suboptimal, muscle gains. This is something that I feel is often misunderstood by the lifting community, where there is the perception that unless you hit the “optimal” number of sets, you’re leaving all your gains in the table. In reality, you may be looking at that extra 20% of muscle growth by staying in the optimal volume range for hypertrophy and you’re likely to make meaningful gains still even if you’re only doing a handful of sets per week. We recently also looked at a new meta-regression on proximity to failure and its effects on hypertrophy and strength. In some cases, prioritizing dewar higher intensity-of-effort sets may be better than just doing more training volume 3.
As far as strength goes, a classic meta-analysis by Ralston et al 4 showed that although the relationship between training volume and strength is not extremely clear, performing somewhere between 5-12 sets per week per lift may be enough to optimize strength gains, with as low as 2-3 sets per lift per week being enough to promote suboptimal but still significant strength gains 5.
Overall, I never understood the emotion attached to training volume and why the topic fuels so much controversy, especially when plenty of literature on the topic allows us to have a relatively confident “rough” idea of how much we need to maximize muscle gains. Allow me to also note that an optimal “range” is supposed to give you some general guidelines as far as volume is concerned, your personal preference, training history, recovery resources etc will allow you to adjust that range to fit your circumstances. For someone who has a very stressful lifestyle and still wants to optimize hypertrophy, staying around at the 12 sets per week may work much better than trying to force 20 sets.
Keep in mind that performing 12 sets per muscle group per week is not really as much as some people make it out to be, especially if you account for indirect volume from compound exercises. However, even if you don’t count indirect volume, 12 direct sets for a body part (eg: chest) can look as minimal as:
Chest day 1: 3 sets of bench press, 3 sets of cable flies
Chest day 2: 3 sets of incline bench press, 3 sets of push-ups
Lastly, people also seem to forget that sticking to 6-8 sets per week for long periods may be more hypertrophic than trying to hit the upper end of the “optimal” range no matter what and ending up skipping the gym whenever you don’t have time to hit that range because “what’s the point?”.
My rambling aside, a recent study by Enes et al examined how different weekly set progressions affected strength and hypertrophy in trained males. What is particularly interesting about this study is that the training volume performed by the participants actually started off at 22 sets per week and progressed from there to the point where some participants were doing as much as 52 sets per week. When the results of this study were made “public”, people lost their minds and were extremely quick to dismiss the study’s results, without even reading the paper or understanding what the study really looked at.
Let’s have a closer look at the study’s methods and results to really see what the fuss is about and whether 52 sets per week is the new high volume standard (spoiler alert: it’s not).