Hypertrophy or gain in muscle mass is dependent upon a lot of factors. The most commonly considered and debated of these factors are- the rep range and training volume. We know that similar hypertrophy is experienced over low, moderate and high ranges, with moderate range showing slightly better results. However, even this moderate rep range is more widespread that one might expect. When it comes to training volume, studies have shown a dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy. That is, higher volumes result in greater muscle gains. But does this mean that those working with low volumes do not bulk up or experience hypertrophy? If high volume in fact results in better hypertrophy, how high do industry experts suggest you go? Is there a limit to this?
The article ahead seeks to find answers to all these questions and more when it comes to the relationship between volume and hypertrophy.
- We know for a fact that volume is a driving factor in hypertrophy and that there is a dose-response relationship between the two. Meaning, higher levels of training volume produce better hypertrophy results
- Many studies have been conducted to assess in quantifiable terms the high volume which is ideal for optimum hypertrophy. Until a while ago the general accepted standard for some was 10-15 sets, while some experts went as far as recommending 10-30 sets
- But with some new studies taking place, some experts believe that we can go as high as 45 sets when it comes to training volume
- However, there is always an upper limit to high volume training. Factors like recovery of the muscle employed, diets, genetics etc. which are detrimental to the extent of hypertrophy, etc. lead to a ceiling on high volume
Should we completely shun lower volume in favour of high RT volume?
First things first, we know from studies and expert experience that increasingly higher training volume results in increasing muscle gains . But what does this mean for lower levels of training volume? Is comparatively low training volume ineffective when it comes to hypertrophy?
The answer to this definitely a NO. Stating that higher volume results in better hypertrophic gains does not imply ineffectiveness of lower volume. In fact, Brad Loomis over at 3MDJ explains how when done right, even lower volumes result in good muscle gains. The pro bodybuilder in an article on effective volume concludes that lower training volume at a high quality can give effective hypertrophic results . In addition, a study conducted by Ostrowski et. al supports the use of low training volume for muscular development when assessed over a period of 10 weeks . This should be enough to understand that even lower training volumes give efficient hypertrophic results.
Even though the above statement holds true, when the above study was closely analysed, it was found to study support Schoenfeld’s hypothesis that volume is the primary driver for hypertrophy . In fact, a meta-analysis by Schoenfeld studying muscular adaptations in low vs high load RT, showed that lower loads (hence volume) can generate significant hypertrophy, however the trend shows superiority of heavy loads in producing results .
This brings us to the conclusion that even though low volume leads to good levels of hypertrophy, the dose-response relation between the two remains. With that being out of the way the next question that arises then is that when experts say ‘high volume’, what do they really mean by that? That is, how high- ‘intense/ high’ volume really is?
How high should you go when it comes to optimal volume training for hypertrophy?
Training volume has been one of the most hotly debated topic in training over the years. While most of professionals/ experts have come to accept that higher volumes result in greater hypertrophy, the standard definition of high volume differs for all. Even studies show a wide range of results in terms of what should be the optimum ‘high’ training volume. While some believe that the optimal volume can be as high as 45 sets, there are many others who believe that any set beyond the 10 set mark is counterproductive.
Let’s begin with studies that claim that the optimum training volume lies in the range of 5-20 sets per week. Barbalho et al.  sought to assess the effects of different RT volumes in hypertrophy and muscle endurance by monitoring 37 trained in men over a 24 week period. At the end of the study they concluded that 5-10 sets per week brought on optimal muscle gains in the men. Barbalho et al then conducted a similar purposed study for trained women and again found 5-10 sets per week to be the optimum training volume for hypertrophy .
A study by Amirthalingam et al studying the effects of modified German volume training on muscular hypertrophy and strength recommends 4-6 sets per exercise as being ideal volume for maximum hypertrophy . Heaselgrave et al also studied the dose-response relationship of weekly RT volume and frequency on muscular adaptations in trained men . The study found a trend for optimal training volume to be at 18 sets per week for biceps. The study showed that groups training 9 and 27 sets have worse overall strength and muscle development .
In contrast to the studies mentioned above, a meta-analysis by Schoenfeld found 10+ weekly sets per muscle as being the minimum threshold for hypertrophy maximisation . Another study by Radaelli et al reiterates that the dose-response of number of sets per exercise while indicating a superiority of multiple sets compared to single sets for hypertrophy, strength and endurance . Schoenfeld at al conducted the study as mentioned above, which again confirmed that increasingly greater gains will be achieved with higher training volume . Both the studies in question found greater overall muscle growth with 45 sets per muscle per week as against only 30 sets. The 30 sets measure in turn was also found to have led to greater muscle growth that doing 15 set per muscle. When comparing these studies with the earlier mentioned studies (that found lower volumes to be optimal) one of the differences that come to fore is the fact that in these studies subjects trained each muscle 3 times/ week. So technically the 30-set groups performed 10 sets per muscle per workout. This can be clubbed to reach the conclusion that productive training volume might be 9-13 sets per muscle/workout . However the overall optimal volume depends on the program itself, closeness to failure for sets, and frequency, genetics etc.
Given the range of studies mentioned above (and despite some others) many experts have been recommending 10-15 sets per muscle/ week as being optimal training volume. In an article, Menno Henselmans confesses that while this is what most industry experts might have been doing, he has been recommending 10-30 sets for years. However given the change in time and some new research he things that he might actually have been conservative in even doing so .
Some new studies have changed the direction of beliefs most industry experts (including Henselmans) hold and made them see that optimal training volume can be as high as 45 sets per muscles per week. One such study was conducted by Haun et al . The study employed a unique format, wherein they increased training volume for subject every week over a 6-week period, starting with 10 sets per muscle/ week. The study by Schoenfeld et al was published around the same time , which also assessed impact higher training volume. Both these studies support the idea that the more sets one does for a muscle, the more it grows up till the volume is at 45 sets per week, with sets taken to failure. Compiling the results of the studies mentioned here along with expert opinions the effectiveness of extreme high training volume is proven. But there still has to be a limit to this ‘high volume’.
In his article Menno Henselmans states that there are many factors that ultimately affect your training volume and the results you draw of it. The individual’s age, stress level, recovery rate, previous training experience, sleep pattern, gender, energy balance, genetics and diet etc. play an important role . So while it is true that excessively high training volume of up to 45 sets is viable according to research so far, there has to be limit set according to the respective individual. It is observed that individuals with higher training experience are more viable for undergoing intensively higher training volume.
When people don’t take into account the above mentioned factors they run into a wall even when training at high volumes. Menno believes that sometimes the reason for this is also because they reach the limit of the connective tissues well before the muscle actually becomes incapable of recovering. For some people the cause for them running into wall can also be their will power.
The research verifies the dose-response relationship between RT volume and hypertrophy, implying greater volume gives better hypertrophic results. Studies have gone to test high volumes of up to 45 sets and shown its effectiveness. However, there are many other factors that determine the optimal training volume for an individual including his/ her age, recovery rate, gender, diet, genetics, experience etc. So the fact remains that no size fits all. There is no one training routine that will work universally for all those who want to bulk up or even cut down. A training routine should be tailor made for every individual and his/her goals.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, Grgic J, Delcastillo K, Belliard R, Alto A. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Jan;51(1):94-103. Retrieved from- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30153194/
- Brad Loomis. How Much of Your Volume is Actually Effective? Retrieved from- https://3dmusclejourney.com/effective-volume/
- Ostrowski Karl J; Wilson, Greg J; Weatherby, Robert; Murphy, Peter W; Lyttle, Andrew D, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. August 1997- p 148-154. Retrieved from- https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/1997/08000/The_Effect_of_Weight_Training_Volume_on_Hormonal.3
- Brad Schoenfeld et al. (September 2018). More on the dose response relationship between volume and hypertrophy. Retrieved from- https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/1997/08000/The_Effect_of_Weight_Training_Volume_on_Hormonal.3
- Schoenfeld BJ, Wilson JM, Lowery RP, Krieger JW. Muscular adaptations in low- versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis. Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(1):1-10. Retrieved from- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25530577/
- Barbalho Matheus et al. (June 2019). Evidence of a Ceiling Effect for Training Volume in Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength in Trained Men- Less is More? Retrieved from- https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333739746_Evidence_of_a_Ceiling_Effect_for_Training_Volume_in_Muscle_Hypertrophy_and_Strength_in_Trained_Men_-_Less_is_More
- Barbalho M, Coswig VS, Steele J, Fisher JP, Paoli A, Gentil P. Evidence for an Upper Threshold for Resistance Training Volume in Trained Women. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Mar;51(3):515-522. Retrieved from- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30779716/
- Amirthalingam T, Mavros Y, Wilson GC, Clarke JL, Mitchell L, Hackett DA. Effects of a Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Nov;31(11):3109-3119. Retrieved from- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27941492/
- Heaselgrave SR, Blacker J, Smeuninx B, McKendry J, Breen L. Dose-Response Relationship of Weekly Resistance-Training Volume and Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Men. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2019 Mar 1;14(3):360-368. Retrieved from- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30160627/
- Menno Henselmans. Is there a maximum productive training volume per session? Retrieved from- https://mennohenselmans.com/maximum-productive-training-volume-per-session/
- Brad Schoenfeld. (July 2016). How many sets do you need to perform to maximize muscle gains? Retrieved from- http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/how-many-sets-do-you-need-to-perform-to-maximize-muscle-gains/
- Radaelli R, Fleck SJ, Leite T, Leite RD, Pinto RS, Fernandes L, Simão R. Dose-response of 1, 3, and 5 sets of resistance exercise on strength, local muscular endurance, and hypertrophy. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 May;29(5):1349-58. Retrieved from- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25546444/
- Menno Henselmans. New science on the optimal training volume: extreme training for extreme gains? Retrieved from- https://mennohenselmans.com/optimal-training-volume/
- Cody T. Huan et al. (Septemeber 2018). Effects of graded whey supplementation during extreme- volume resistance training. Retrieved from- https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2018.00084/full