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!