Training Volume – Too Much or Too Little -What’s your goal?

What is “volume” when talking about your program? It’s the number of Reps X Sets you do for one lift/exercise or multiple lifts/exercises (for a given muscle group) in a given session or a given training week. For example, in my current week of my training cycle; Squat Day # 1 – my working sets (post warm up sets) are an 8X8 or 64 total squats at 75% of my 1RM (single repetition max). Squat day #2- 12X3-5 at 80% – TEMPO so a total of 36-60 squats. Total volume for the week is 100 – 124 squats at a decent percentage. Typically when your volume is high your load (weight lifted) is low-moderate and vice versa when volume is low.  

So what is the point of all this?… 

Volume needs to based on your goals and what you are trying to accomplish. For the average lifter who is trying to build strength, rep ranges are between 3-7 (3-5 for maximal strength, 5-7 for general strength) on primary lifts (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, and variations of those exercises) and potentially 8-12 on accessory lifts where weight/load may not be as heavy. But what about the number of sets? Well as Greg Nuckhols stated in the “Science of Lifting” 1 is better than 0 and 3 is better than 1, but there is a point where more is not better. For someone who is just starting out, 3-5 sets  per exercise is probably going to be adequate. For someone who is an experienced lifter, and lifting for competition, they might have a set range of 5-8 and sometimes higher if they are on the lower end of reps per set – see my example above for Squat Day #2. As you become more experienced, the window of potential gets smaller and more work must be put in to make gains. At the end of the day, adaptations will be made if you fatigue the muscles you are trying to change within a reasonable rep/set range. If it is taking you 15 sets to do this – the load being used is too light!

Tip – Warm up sets are not included in the set range listed above. When I specify set ranges for certain goals, I am talking about your “Work Sets.” Work sets are those that make the adaptations happen. They are completed at higher loads (70-90%) of your max effort and for more than one set majority of the time (new lifters will benefit from 1-2 working sets).  For the average joe in the gym the set progression may look like this:

  • Set 1 – Warm up with Bar
  • Set 2 – 135 lbs 1 X 8
  • Set  3 – 185 lbs 1 X 5
  • Set 4 – 225 lbs 1 X 5 – Done

Will progress happen? Sure if that 1 set of 225 fatigues him/her and he/she does the same rep set scheme the following week, but set 4 is now done at a higher load than last week. Will progress happen faster if multiple sets are done at the higher load – absolutely! If a set of 5 at a specific load fatigues you, you are most likely working with in 80-85% of your max effort (more on percentages later), but when you are working at a higher percentage range, 3-5 sets is going to be adequate.

Vladimir Zatsiorsky states in the Science and Practice of Strength Training, “to bring about positive changes in an athlete’s state, and exercise overload must be applied…During the training process, there are two ways to induce adaptation. One is to increase the training load (intensity  and volume) while continuing to employ the same drill…The other is to change the drill provided that exercise is new and the athlete is not accustomed to it.”

Progressive Overload

Now of course, there is always technique work that can be done at a lower load, less reps, and more sets on a separate day – but that is a different focus and a different goal for the day. It’s still included in your total volume, but having multiple days for various primary lifts can be highly beneficial if your goal is to get stronger.

Tip – If you are someone who struggles with a specific lift, implement it into your program more than 1x per week to make initial gains. Should you do the same rep/set scheme and load each time, No.  When you implement a lift or a variation of that lift multiple times per week, the focus will be different for a each day. For example, my first squat day during this cycle is a 6-8X8 at various percentages to progress. The focus of this lift is hypertrophy (muscle gain – can’t get stronger with small muscles :)). My second squat day is a 10-12X3-5 at various percentages to progress. The focus of this lift is building time under tension so it’s tempo is set at 3 seconds down, 1-2 up.  Whats the point? Focus on where you are week in the lift and use techniques to better that – “Technique Day”. 

Notice, I used the word “Hypertrophy” above. What does that mean? Hypertrophy – the enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in size of its cells. In layman’s terms, promote growth of a muscle or group of muscles. Both goals of strength and building muscle mass can benefit from volume that promotes hypertrophy. To put it simply, a muscle can’t get stronger without getting bigger first – repeat cycle, continue to make gains. For hypertrophy, sets are typically completed in the 8-12 range per exercise/per muscle group for 4-10 sets. Weight lifted is relatively low-moderate (relative to a person’s current strength level for a given exercise/muscle/muscle group). Studies have shown that upwards of 15-20 reps have been beneficial, but again, at the end of the day the question is whether or not you fatigued the muscle/muscle group within the specified rep range used.

So let’s sum this up:

  1. Max Effort Strength: 1-5 Reps 3-5 sets (more for the more experienced lifter)
  2. General Strength: 5-7 Reps, 3-5 sets
  3. Hypertrophy: 8-12 Reps, 4-6 sets (can be more for the more experienced lifter)
  4. There must be an overload in training to see adaptations occur.
  5. Fatigue must occur within the work sets within a given muscle or muscle group to see adaptations occur.
  6. Next Up – Why do we cycle through phases in training and what is the focus of each cycle?


-RTBP “Where strength builds confidence”





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