In weight training, the definition of “training volume” is the amount of work done in a given amount of time.

Training volume is the result of the number of repetitions, amount of sets, and weight load. For example, 10 reps x 2 sets x 50kg = 1000kg total training volume.

Training volume is essential to one’s training, and arguably the most important determinant to progression. Far too many beginners training volume is far too high, completing endless amounts of sets for a single muscle group without any methodical argument to why they are doing so. As touched upon in the “Introduction” section, the mentality of “more is better” can be a hindrance rather than helpful in many cases.

More Sets, More Beneficial?

Research shows that there are diminishing marginal returns for the training volume of a specific muscle, especially in regard to hypertrophy [11]. This concept is based on the strength-dose response curve and is used to determine the effort to benefit ratio.

Quite simply, additional sets of weight training yield progressively less benefit. In other words, the first set is the highest importance to muscular adaptation, and the degree of increase in the adaptive response (elevation in muscle protein synthesis) will decrease from set to set for a given exercise and muscle group.

man strength training with barbell

A hypothetical, generic example would be:

One set: 50% of maximal acute hypertrophic response and eventual muscle growth
Two sets: 70% of max response
Three sets: 85% of max response
Four sets: 95% of max response
Five sets: 97.5% of max response
Six sets: 99% of max response, but you can’t recover

The goal for determining training volume should, therefore, be to work enough to obtain the maximal acute strength and hypertrophic response, whilst ensuring recovery.

Yes, many people will achieve the maximal possible training stimulus by completing a hundred sets of one exercise, but due to the inability to recover from such a high workload, it will not be possible to be consistently replicated.

A meta-analysis of 140 research studies analysing the law of diminishing returns concluded that targeting a muscle directly with 4 sets elicited maximal gains in untrained individuals [12]. Keep in mind, individual work capacities, recovery capacities, and adaptive responses vary significantly, and it is important to be mindful of what you are able to handle.

See the “Progression” section to learn about how training volume should be altered in order to progress and cause hypertrophy or strength gains.


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References

11) Peterson MD, Rhea MR. 2004. Maximising strength development in athletes: A meta-analysis to determine the dose-response relationship. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 18(2), 377–382
12) Rhea MR, Alvar BA, Burkett LN, Ball SD. A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 35(3):456-64