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!

 

38 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.

  8. Borge, do you programm delod after 4-5 weeks of high volume training?
    Or you mantain the same volume during all the year?

    Which are your opinions about periodization (volume and intensity for produce better body response)?

    • I have discussed this in my recent e-book on Myo-reps (see my Zero Carb blog post to learn how you can get it), here’s a quote:
      “I don’t prescribe to the periodization model where you are supposed to intentionally overreach or overtrain, and then take a week or two of reduced training or rest (deloading) to improve performance or muscle growth.

      It just doesn’t make biological sense to do something now to achieve a positive adaptation in several weeks. The body adapts over hours and days from a given stressor.

      What you are seeing is the effects of fatigue masking your true performance, but accumulating fatigue doesn’t necessarily lead to a better adaptation. I have heard many claims of this, but still seen no real evidence of it.

      It makes more sense to impose a sufficient stimulus and follow that with sufficient recovery, and if you balance this correctly you should be seeing gains the very next workout. Increases in muscle mass are hard to measure on a short-term basis, so you would look at performance markers (load, or reps at the same load) going up consistently as a sign that you are programming the stress:rest ratio correctly. “

  9. Great post Borge, thought-provoking as usual.

    For submaximal training, generally for your average intermediate lifter, how many sets per lift (or muscle group) per session and how many times per week do you recommend as a baseline?

    Do you like cluster sets in this regards? And (in case of positive answer) how do you set up them?

    Thank you very much!

    • The range would be 8-18 hard sets per week, 2-6 sets per workout, 2-4x/week. With submaximal training, you can often double the volume per week/workout, depending on the lifter.

      Cluster training is a viable submaximal training method, and I tend to just auto-regulate rest periods in order to ensure it is true submaximal work.

      • Wonderful, thank you Borge.

        Regarding clusters set up, generally which parameters do you use, in terms of rep range, volume and intensity for the mini sets?

        Do you like to auto-regulate them also?

        Example of one cluster: mini sets of 2 with 4RM (numbers are completely made up of course) until speed start to decrease and/or you reach a target RPE. That’s how I like to do them, but I don’t know how much effective this approach could be.

        • There are many cluster set variations, obviously – the one I often gravitate towards is e.g. 4-6 sets of 1-3 reps with 30-60secs of rest (note, these are all ranges, since it will depend on the overall program structure and the individual client), only increasing the load when you can complete all sets without speed dropping off significantly on any rep or set.

          This is for strength and power focus.

          For more hypertrophy focus, I would go closer to failure, but only a certain neurological type can thrive on low rep, higher volume hypertrophy work IMO.

          • Got it.

            With this set up, I suppose we’re talking about just one (or maybe very few more) cluster per lift per workout, right?

          • With the volume I recommended, it is indeed just “one” cluster, depending on how you define a cluster set. Many would consider a 3-6 sets of 1-3 reps as just that—3-6 sets…not a single cluster set.

            This is also why many are having pointless arguments about volume, and throwing around e.g. Dorian Yates or the Norwegian Powerlifters at the opposite ends of the volume spectrum and bodybuilding vs. powerlifting spectrum.

            Dorian would do several warm-up sets that were sufficiently heavy that others call them working sets.
            The Norwegian Powerlifters do several working sets that are so light and submax that others would call them warm-up sets.

            Example Dorian workout for delts:
            Smith Machine Press – 120lbs x 15, 240 x 12, 340 x 8-10
            Seated Laterals – 50lbs x 12, 70 x 8-10
            Cable Laterals – 35lbs x 20, 70 x 8-10

            Now, even though some of these are lighter sets, the reps are also higher, and if you tried to do the same workout with adjusted loads to your strength levels, you would find the “warm-up sets” to be quite fatiguing and heavy.

            So is this really just a 3 set per muscle group workout, or is it 7 sets?

            Then a look at a common Norwegian Powerlifting workout, taking the bench press as an example, and using % of 1RM as the loading parameters:

            50% x 5, 57.5% x 5, 67.5% x 5, 72.5% x 4, 72.5% x 4, 77.5% x 3, 77.5% x 3, 77.5% x 3, 77.5% x 3, 77.5% x 3

            Now, this is tallied as 9 sets in their workout logs, but looking at the numbers, all of these sets are submaximal. Most people could do 10 reps at 75% of 1RM, so doing 4-6 sets at 3-4 reps is a perfect example what we just discussed:

            You and I may define this as a single cluster set, the powerlifters define it as 4-6 sets—since the rest periods are usually 2+ minutes between sets.

            Hope that was an enlightening brain dump 😀

          • Actually I hope you will take as many as these brain dumps as possible!

            Also, I’ve always wanted to know how the Norwegian PL Team trained exactly, so it was a nice bonus. If you have more informations about their high frequency routine, please share!

            Back on topic. Just to be perfectly clear, for “clusters” I was referring to the typical approach to them, i.e. multiple mini-sets of low reps with short rest in-between. With this set up generally you would have more than one cluster per session (example: https://www.t-nation.com/training/magic-of-cluster-sets); hence my question.

            But of course there are many more variants. I particularly like this one, because it’s sort of autoregulated and I’m sucker for autoregulation: as many singles as possible with 4RM with 45 seconds in-between, https://www.naseinc.com/blog/traditional-versus-cluster-set-training-for-strength-and-power/

          • I’m obviously also a fan of auto-regulation, but the problem I can see with doing that on clusters if you have no idea what your volume tolerance is, is that it’s easy to overdo it. So I would instead figure out the volume target you are aiming for, and then translate that into a cluster setup – like I did earlier – then apply some auto-regulation on top of that.

            So for instance, using a 4RM, let’s say you would normally get 8-12 total reps with a volume of 3-5 hard sets.

            When using singles every 45secs (which, on its own is kinda arbitrary—why 45, why not 30 or 60 seconds?), some might be able to keep going 30 minutes if they are neurologically wired for it, have a good work capacity and so on…then this might lead to excessive DOMS and muscle breakdown and take several days to recover form. So I would probably suggest picking a range of 6-18 reps, giving some leeway since working submaximally would allow more total reps, which is kind of the point with clusters.

          • That’s EXACTLY what happened to me (even though I used a lighter weight), the completion of the set took forever, and I’m not even remotely neurologically gifted.

            Thank you so much Borge, your inputs are always invaluable.

  10. Just bought your ebook bundle and your myoreps for busy people, and really enjoyed all of them. Thanks, Borge!

    I have a few questions if you don’t mind:

    1) When you count “hard sets” towards total volume, what is highest RIR that would count as hard? For example, would leaving 3 RIR still count as hard set? If so, how about 4?

    2) Is it common for some lifters to find the myoreps days more difficult to recover from the heavier, lower rep days? I would normally think this might apply to those with lower work capacity, but I feel like I have good work capacity and am more on the slow-twitch dominant end.

    3) Lastly, is it okay to run the upper/lower or the push/pull template under the intermediate tab for 6-7x/week? I don’t think I am ready for the session volume in the advanced program, but enjoy training frequently.

    Thanks!

    • My pleasure, Charles—glad you enjoyed them!

      1) It kinda depends on what rep ranges we are talking about, and this is where RPE can be more useful than RIR. So for instance, 1 reps at a 2RM is 1RIR but a 9RPE. 29 reps at a 30RM would be very close to a 10RPE, and in fact rep 25 would most likely be rated a 9RPE for most people and a “hard” set subjectively, even though it’s 5RIR.

      Then you have the grinders who may think they have only 1RIR, but when pushed they can grind out 4 more reps.

      So I would say that anything above an 8-8.5RPE qualifies as a hard set. YMMV

      2) Yes, higher reps can indeed be more demanding on some lifters, especially if you are able to push yourself harder. Some people can grind out rep after rep and really go hard on the Myo-rep sets, but are cautious when lifting heavy loads, so 3 sets of 3 reps can be recovered from quickly. Others, like myself, are the opposite—and 3 sets of heavy loads will wipe me out for days but I can do daily Myo-rep training on a given muscle group and feel fine.

      3) Yes.

  11. Borge what do you think about intuitive training?
    Do you have any advices for try it and implement with “no track” diet?
    Thanks

    • If you mean intuitive as in “just go in and do whatever you want”, it takes a lot of experience to get this to work. If you have a selection of exercises and rep ranges, and auto-regulate it according to how you feel that day, I’m all for it.

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