3 Key Takeaways
The amount of volume needed for hypertrophy is extremely individualized. Everyone responds differently, so it's not as easy as saying "everyone needs X amount for muscle growth and Y amount for strength".
Think about volume as a dimmer switch. The specific amount an individual needs will change at different points of their life and can be gradually adjusted.
There's more to "optimal volume" than just volume. There's other factors (intensity, frequency, stress/schedule, etc) that need to be taken into consideration when figuring out how much should be programmed.
Terms You Should Know
MV: Maintenance Volume
The amount of volume required to maintain your current strength and muscle tissue.
MEV: Minimum Effective Volume
The amount of volume that starts to stimulate muscle growth. Also known as the minimum effective dose.
MAV: Maximum Effective Volume
The amount of volume where the stimulus is significant and wicked productive.
MRV: Maximum Recoverable Volume
The amount of volume that is most significant and productive, however is most difficult to consistently recover from over long periods of time.
The amount of volume you need for optimal hypertrophy is going to land somewhere between your MAV and your MRV. Dr. Mike Israetel is one of the pioneers behind this concept and is an expert when it comes to the science of hypertrophy. You can learn more about these Volume Landmarks in depth by reading his blog post about them here.
Table Of Contents
What Is Hypertrophy?
Hypertrophy = muscle growth/ an increase in muscle size. There's two ways we can accomplish an increase in muscle mass. The first is known as Myofibrillar Hypertrophy, which is an increase in the number and size of all the little fibers that make up the muscle, and is a result of lifting heavy weights. The second is Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy, which increases the amount of fluid in the muscle and is the result of extremely high repetition/light weight "pump work".
Our focus and goal is on Myofibrillar Hypertrophy and here's why: by challenging the muscles with heavier weight and lower reps, we're placing a demand on the actual fibers. As such, the fibers have to adapt by growing to be able to handle the heavier load. Vs high rep/light weight pump work places more demand on the muscles ability to take nutrients from the sarcoplasm. It may feel great in the moment, but it doesn't force any real change the muscle fibers.
Finding YOUR Optimal Training Volume
From research and experience, I believe that the amount of volume an individual needs for hypertrophy is on a sliding scale (the light switch analogy). Why look at it as a scale? Because there are going to be points where you need to push your body to the limit and see how much it can handle before warranting a deload, and hypothetically allowing you to super-compensate or re-sensitize before hoping back in to another cycle. This doesn't mean you always push the boundaries though, because if you stay at your MRV for too long, you put yourself at risk of injury and burnout.
There's been a lot of research of volume. Some studies show that individuals can handle 30-40 sets, per muscle group, per week. That's an absurd amount of volume! The problem with these studies is that they often only do 3 exercise, one for each muscle group, and that's it. So of course 40 sets is going to have better results than 20 because there's not other exercises interfering with recovery.
Let's think about this logically though: how realistic is this type of training? Not very. A big factor in hypertrophy is recovery and fatigue. When talking about fatigue there's local (directly to the muscle) and global/systemic (the nervous system). Doing 20 sets for 3 muscles vs doing 20 sets for ALL muscles is a difference of 60 to 600+ total sets. Can you imagine the fatigue you would experience doing something like that? This grossly limits your bodies ability to recover.
Studies like this show the value in high volume training for hypertrophy, but they don't provide context into how it can be practically applied to real life training. The landmarks mentioned at the beginning of this article provide us a scientific range of volume, They help us determine the amount of volume we need to maintain muscle, grow a little, grow a lot, and what's the most we can handle for short periods of time.
Let's start with a common question; does my training volume need to increase as time goes on? I'm going to be blunt, yes it does. As you train your body will adapt to that training, and thus need more of that stimulus to keep adapting.
This process though? It's not a fast one. Muscle growth is slowwww, especially once you get past your newbie gainz (1-3 years following a proper training plan). I highly recommend not rushing this process. Get as much as you can out of less volume before adding more.
Most research makes statements like "20 sets is more advantageous for hypertrophy than 10 sets". While that may bare true to a lot of people, it makes you questions things like what were those people doing before the study? Did they have experience in the gym and had to go from 20 to 10? Or were they going from 0 to 20? The former has a decrease in volume and the latter has an increase in volume.
More research has started to come out that controls for this and we've discovered that optimal volume isn't a one size fits all approach that we once thought. It's rather percentage based increases in total weekly volume that make the biggest difference. This is great news! This means if you're currently doing 8 sets a week, you can bump it up to 10-12 rather than doubling to 16 and still experience gainz. You'll have better recovery, leading to better adaptations, all while being less likely to get injured or burn out. This leaves us a lot of room and time to grow by making small jumps over time.
Assessing & Prescribing Volume
Okay enough science talk, lets go over how to find the right amount of training volume for YOU. The first thing you should do is get real and log what you've done in the past and what you're currently doing (side note: If you're winging it in the gym, get on a program and be consistent with it). You need to count the total sets per muscle group, per week. Once you have those numbers, you can start slowing increasing the number of sets performed each week. Remember, stay with your current volume until you plateau and actually need more volume. This is longer than you think so be honest with yourself.
Here are some general guidelines based on experience levels:
- No Training Experience
Since we know training volume recommendations tend to fall on a bell curve, I would say someone brand new to training would need at least 5 sets per muscle group at a minimum. The top end of that would be 10 sets per muscle group. In my experience, most can recover from both pretty easily, so I start people off on 5 sets for all muscle groups (the minimum effective dose). Depending on their goals and if they wanto to target certain areas, I'll chose 1-2 muscle groups to place at 10 sets. This is a safe and effective wat to start training without overdoing it.
- Minimal Training Experience
Lets classify this as 2 years or less being consistent and following a training program in the gym. Still a beginner but can recover from a little more volume than a newbies. We'll take the same approach as people with no experience but start at a higher volume, like 10-20 sets per muscle group per week. Then you can select 1-2 muscle groups that you want to focus a little extra on. An example of this looks like ~75% of muscles are doing 10 sets per muscle per week, and 1-2 muscles are doing 15 sets per muscle per group. This is a more conservative, yet effective, course of action that if programmed properly allows you to get more out of less.
- Moderate Training Experience
There's a theme here and I hope you're catching on. Same approach as above but with, you guessed it, slightly more volume. A good baseline to start at is 15 sets per muscle group per week. Unlinke the two catagories above, we're not going to pick 1-2 muscles to specialize on yet. I like to see that the individual can fully recover from 15 sets accross all muscle groups for 1-2 mesocycles (months) before increasing 1-2 body parts up to 17-20 sets.
- Advanced Training Experience
Finally, we have the person who's been training for a decade plus who can not only handle a high amount of volume but is currently doing a lot and NEED that high amount. These individuals can pump their volume up to 20 sets per muscle group per week. And before selecting a muscle group to specialize on, we select 1-2 groups that DON'T need as much volume (due to genetics or biased training) and lower their volume so we can allocate that to other parts that we want to grow and development. By doing this we can manage global/systemic fatigue, which is more about the total volume on the whole body. From there we can increase volume by 1-2 sets per muscle group per week until they reach their MRV.
Compound movements (movements that require more than one joint to move) tend to be more fatiguing than single joint supporting movements. This is because the total load, total amount of muscle involved, amount of physical and physiological energy put into it, is different, So the demand/fatigue from a bench press is far more significant than a chest fly.
Lower rep/higher intensity (% of 1rm/amount of weight lifted) is also more neurologically demanding than moderate rep/moderate intensity. While your muscles can grow using any rep range and any intensity, those are factors to consider when deciding what exercises and ranges to program. This doesn't mean take out one or the other complete, because you need both to compliment each other.
First, thank you for reading this far! Before you leave I want to give you 5 things you can take away from this article and implement immediately into your training if you're trying to increase muscle mass.
Track and assist your current training volume by counting your total sets per muscle group per week.
After finding your baseline for each muscle group and consistently training that for 1-2 months, start to increase your total volume by 10-20% every 1-4 weeks.
When you hit a plateau, and you've exhausted all other avenues to break through it, start to increase volume by 1-5 sets per muscle group per week.
After years of training and you reach the 20 sets range, it is unlikely that you'll need more volume. At that point you'll need to periodize exercise selection, how you progress them, switch up/periodize rep ranges and intensities, and prioritize recovery outside the gym and effort in your training sessions.
Volume is not the only thing that matters when it comes to hypertrophy. Make sure you are prioritizing recovery. This means getting enough sleep, staying hydrated with water and electrolytes, eating enough quality food to fuel your body, and doing your conditioning.