Are you doing too much volume?

I posted this on my facebook page originally, and as expected it did cause a lot of controversy and engagement…which is good. Controversy means that it made people think, and what could be better than that?

I have edited a couple of points for clarity.

I know this is going to cause some controversy, but as the years go by and I work with more and more people, I am becoming more and more convinced that you don’t need as much volume as you think.

Most lifters do way too much, something I call “junk volume”.

It only takes 1-2 hard sets to get 80-85% of the training effect, and doubling-tripling that only provides marginal benefits with a large increase in potential negatives. Even Schoenfeld’s meta-analysis (there are some obvious confounders with reviews, but I’m not going into that here) showed that less than 5 weekly sets provided 5.4% gains, 5-9 weekly sets, 6.6% gains, whereas 10+ sets provided 9.8%. When stratified into less than 9 and more than 9 weekly sets, the difference was 5.8% and 8.2%, respectively.

This makes it sound like you get twice the gains by doubling the volume, but in practice, it doesn’t play out quite like this.

The rate of gains might be higher in the short term, but a very common outcome is that fast gains lead to faster stagnation and in many cases, various connective tissue problems or other overreaching symptoms.

Those who tolerate, thrive or benefit from the higher volumes usually have one or more of the following traits:

– submaximal training (keeping more reps in reserve, either by intent or because they’re not used to going to failure). This type of high-volume training works great for strength (via skill/practice) and the Norwegian Powerlifters who dominate on world rankings are reknowned for this type of training.
– great genetics, with a frame built for strength and muscle
– young guys and girls with optimal hormone levels and great recovery
– specialists who have worked up to tolerating that volume over years within their respective sport. At this level, the 1-2% advantages win trophies so the investment is worth living on the brink of overreaching. They also have their recovery needs taken care of, and some are often full-time athletes or competitors who live, breathe and die by their respective sports.
– drug use. This includes some coaches who are obvious or self-admitted drug users. It is hard for a coach to avoid confirmation bias – I know I have suffered from it many times during my career – so my best advice for mitigating this is to always question if what you believe is really true. A lot of the time, a belief can be true but only in specific contexts – which is what inspired me to write this post in the first place.

Dmitrij Klokov, a world champion weightlifter who also got several top placings in bodybuilding competitions. A genetic freak built for lifting has trained his whole life and is doing amazingly well with high-volume training. What works for him may not work for you.

Everyone else – we might THINK or WANT we belong to one of these demographics, but I think it is wiser to take an objective look at what hand nature has dealt us, and do a more intelligent investment strategy with your training efforts.

I know you probably don’t like to hear this, but when we get to a certain point it will be hard to gain even 1-2lbs/0.5-1kg of muscle mass per YEAR. How much effort and time are you really willing to put in to gain that 500g of muscle?

Answer that before reading on.

I have lowered volume consistently with most of my clients and it has only provided better results. I have also had several previous high volume clients on “rehab”, with the same story. Their gains were awesome in the beginning, they were constantly sore and tired but had some great gains…then they eventually experienced various aches and pains, and some of them ended up completely demolished.

When all motivation to train is gone, and when joints and tendons are starting to hurt – but you still keep going because this study or that expert says that it is “optimal”, I think we are – again – stuck in the mindset of general vs. individual.

I could pull all sorts of more relevant studies and show you how the outliers skew the averages in various studies on volume. There are high-responders, average-responders, and non-responders in various studies – yet the average gains in one volume tier vs. the other may favor the higher volume.

In my humble experience, from the clients I work with long-term – there are very few non-responders with more sane workout approaches. To give you an idea: Most muscle groups or exercises get 1-2 maybe 3 sets per workout and 2-4 workouts per muscle group per week.

The gains may not be as impressive in the first 6-8 weeks, but when I work with someone for 12-16 weeks (3-4 months) or longer, the gains just keep coming at a steady rate. An added, but important bonus is that they stay motivated, fresh and pain-free during that whole time.

I have clients returning after 3-6 months on their own, and they are still gaining (as long as they didn’t get tempted to chase excessive volume/frequency, or contract a difficult case of the well-known disease “fuckaround-itis”).

Chasing volume is fine if you fit into the categories I mentioned above, and you are willing to stay on the brink of overreaching for the sake of squeezing out a few extra % gains. Or if you just like to spend time in the gym, and compensate for the volume by working submax and taking longer breaks between sets.

For the rest of you, I would take some time for honest introspection. Are your gains in the gym the last few months or years, in line with the time and effort spent there?

I would try the following if you are getting nowhere on your current program, and suffering from various aches, pains or general lack of motivation:

– Take 9-14 days completely off and do something completely different. Walking/hiking, biking, swimming, play with your balls (I’m obviously talking about soccer, basketball, tennis etc), some easy mobility work (e.g. tai chi and yoga), just do something completely different to reset your mind and body.

– Go back in the gym, start with 1 set only and lighter loads for the first week or two. 2-3 workouts/week is fine.

– Go harder for the next week or two, then add in 1-2 sets of a few exercises (not all of them) per workout where you need to.

– Watch your strength increase quickly at first, and then settle at a reasonable but consistent rate over time.

– Don’t push it, and learn to appreciate how it feels to leave the gym without being completely drained or with various aches, pains or soreness constantly bothering you.

– Enjoy training, but not just in the gym lifting weights. I believe it is important to have fun, and your body is capable of a lot more if you just experiment!

 

23 Comments

  1. Great article Borge! I think it was definitely needed. Your like the Yoda of strength training these days =) I’m doing a high frequency program right now for strength (your sub-max category) with DUP, and I experimented the other week (after reading this on your FB) with only using 1-2 good sets (as opposed to around 3-4 sets) per movement, and I left the gym feeling fresh and without “various aches, pains or soreness”. The following week I noticed that I was able to push my big lifts harder with only needing to put my attention to 1-2 sets due to my normal aches and pains being gone. So I’ve now lowered my working sets to 1-2 and have kept my high frequency approach. I think getting rid of the “junk volume” and putting my efforts into only 1-2 solid sets will have me progress comfortably and with lesser pains over the long term like you said.

    Appreciate your wisdom Borge!

  2. Great content as always Borge,
    I’m really gratefull as you opened my eyes with your high frequency training approach a couple of years ago, after a really long time of non-existent progress.
    I have experimented with higher volume approaches, but after 3 or 4 weeks i start asking myself why i’m doing this. I think that we always link fatigue to the efectiveness of a workout, instead of seeing it as a byproduct we should manage.
    Anyways, everytime i lower the volume i feel much better, and the progression i experimented with higher volumes is still the same, even better. But, as a human, i make the same mistake again, and i gradually start to add sets more volume… and the cycle starts again.

    BTW, At the moment i’m doing the Bayesian Bodybuilding PT course and i really like the content. I know that you and Menno share a lot of ideas 🙂

    Appreciate your work Borge!

  3. “Watch your strength increase quickly at first, and then settle at a reasonable but consistent rate over time.”

    This is the part that gets me, I usually do 2 sets (failure) and hit a BP two times a week and I’m not sure what counts as consistent rate but most of my pushing exercises just tend to stagnate. I tend to go with a more minimalistic routine.

    I’ll have to give a shot with maybe 3-4x a week to see if the added frequency helps. But at that point I know I may need to stay away from failure.

    Love the article. Hopefully I finally find a way to make this work.

    • For strength gains, you would get more out of 1-2 reps from failure and doing 2-4 sets of low reps (even singles) at a higher frequency.

      • Thanks, I went back to your FB page and did a search. I found lots of info that you wrote on stalls. I also saw how you recommended doing sets closer to failure if you wanted size.

        I’ve always bought into the HIT idea that training to failure will get you as strong as possible and size would follow those strength gains. But I’ve got a 2.5 squat, 3*BW for 5 reps on my dead and no size. I’m at least 20 lbs away from my potential, according to the height-100 formula.

        But I’ll have to mess around with frequency like you mention here as I followed the frequency that most in HIT would recommend, 1 or 2* a week.

        • If you’re that strong, you should probably gradually and slowly increase your volume – but I would also use training such as Myo-reps extensively, to maximize the related adaptations (satellite cell activation, capillarization, glycogen storage etc).

          • Thanks, I think I’d die with MyoDeads lol, but I’ll try on the others. You aren’t the first to tell me I should increase volume. But too much volume never did anything for me. I like brevity in my workouts so MYo reps will definitely help and the tips here I think will help.

            Pressing and benching I’m exceedingly weak though I’m small boned, 6.25 wrist, 6ft wingspan and I’m 5’7.

          • Hence: “gradually and slowly increase your volume”.

            It doesn’t even have to be on all muscle groups, so i.e. add a Myo-rep set on 1-2 isolation exercises for 1-2 muscle groups for a period of 4-6 weeks, then change focus (or add in 1-2 isolation exercises for another 1-2 muscle groups).

  4. More is less, eh? Sounds a bit like Heavy Duty a-la Mentzer/Yates. Seriously though, I’ve gone to a higher frequency upper/lower split 2 on, 1 off hitting body parts once every 72 hours (basically 3x in a 7 day period) and I’ve noticed some decent gains with less fatigue. Being 50, it’s been a nice change from chasing high volume and I save time in the gym. I do, however, get in more sets than you may be advising. Only on back and legs though. Normally I’ll end up with up to 25 – 28 sets per week of each. Smaller muscle groups get maybe around 10 – 12 per week. Doesn’t seem too much does it? Been going like this for over 5 months. Maybe I’ll scale back a bit.

      • It does. I am definitely not elite, genetically gifted or enhanced. Not going to make me sad to drop it back. With maturity I’ve discovered that the perceived loss in “gainz” because I’m not killing myself in the gym is misguided at best and detrimental at worst. But then again, I’m not a 23 y/o male wanting to be Arnold either! Love your stuff and I practice the principles your biorhythm way of eating (I hate the term “diet”). It’s made a difference in my overall body composition.

  5. Borge, awesome article as always! I wish you should post more regularly :).

    Let me ask you couple of questions. Currently, I train each muscle group 3 days on, one day off and then repeat the cycle…. something similar to your chest workout (light, heavy, medium, off strategy). Weekly volume is ¬ 12 sets/ muscle group.

    What I’ve noticed is that some of the muscle groups respond quite well and I’m progressing quite well (at least in terms of strength) but other stagnate and I remember in one of your comments you say that the optimal program does not follow strict frequency and the real art is to find out what frequency and volume are most appropriate for each muscle group.

    Could you share some tips what kind of experimentation could we use to get to know our optimal frequency/volume per muscle group?

    I will keep the routine as it is now for muscle groups that do well but wondering what to change when it comes to non-responders. I increased my chest weekly volume with +2 sets (14) and after couple of wks I got a nasty pain in the shoulder joint without any strength progress. This could be a result of pushing almost all sets to failure and here is my last question…. I know you recommend going near failure when we aim for size but what RIR would you recommend for best results and could those sets to failure be the cause of my pain? I did the mistake to change volume and proximity to failure at the same time and now I can’t understand what is the cause of the issue.

    I look forward for your 0-carb book.

    • Well, if the current frequency and volume isn’t working, you need to change something. It could be that the muscle group/lift in question is at a less advanced level than the others (eventually, it will be as the others progress) – and that you should treat it like a “beginner”. So less frequency (2-3x/week) and less volume (1-2 sets per workout). You should also experiment with a phase of Myo-reps, I have seen that reignite muscle growth in many clients.

      I generally recommend 1 RIR, and sometimes 2-3 for some lifters. At heavier loads you can work submaximally (i.e. 2-3 RIR) and still get maximum benefits as muscle activation is close to maximum from the very first rep.

    • I will write more about this in the Myo-reps e-book, soon to be released – but it’s completely illogical in a physiological system. Applying a sufficient stressor will allow the organism to adapt. Applying an excessive stressor will cause maladaptation. E.g. getting a suntan – would you rather gradually expose yourself to the sun over several days and weeks, or do you think intentionally getting a sunburn and then spending a week indoors is a better strategy?

  6. Hello Borge,

    even if you count the warm ups as regular hard sets, Dorian Yates did only 12 weekly chest sets on his ?1993? Mr. Olympia prep for example, yet most average joes train with 20+ sets per week and still look like crap. As you recommend working with an intesity 1 rep away from failure, even less than 10 sets/week should be sufficient for us average people then, when working every set close enough to failure. For me, Yates alone prooves your points against staying too far away from failure and junk volume.

    Cheers

    • I wouldn’t necessarily use a professional bodybuilder as an example of what to do or not to do training-wise, but I obviously agree that it makes no sense to do super-high volume programs if you’re not making any progress anyway. The return on investment is not only zero, but negative.

  7. Great article! I’ve been trying to rush slowly, having the mindset that it’s fine to spend years to slowly progress.

    What do you define as a muscle group? The numbers are easy to understand, but I’m unsure how to categorize my exercises to better use these ideas.

    Let’s take the upper body push stuff. In my program I got some compound with weighted push ups, dips, overhead press, shoulder press, and some isolation with flyes and lying overhead triceps extension. Which of these fall into the same muscle group? The compounds are usually heavier (5-10 reps) and isolation 8-20 reps, changing up the reps on a weekly basis or on each workout. 3-4 workouts a week.

    Does push ups, dips, flyes and tricep fall in the same group, or just push ups and dips?

    • Chest is a muscle group, shoulders are a muscle group (but can also be divided up into front, side and back), triceps are a muscle group. Compound exercises would involve more muscle groups, isolation less. You wouldn’t necessarily count all muscle groups equally, so, for instance, a weighted pushup might count 1 set for chest and front delts, but you might count it as 1/2 set for triceps unless you were doing them with a narrow grip.

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