Updated: Jun 11, 2022
You would've seen people guilty of this before. People doing upwards of 30-35 sets in a single workout. Maybe you've seen people posting videos about it on TikTok, or maybe you've seen people doing it in you own gym.
Maybe you even do it yourself!
You see, there's this common misconception that more volume leads to more growth. And while this is true up to a point or to a certain extent, that point comes much, much sooner than most people think.
I see far too many people doing far too much volume, without realizing that they're not only wasting their time, but limiting gains as well. No, they're not likely 'genetic elites', and they're not one in a million either. They're simply doing too much work.
In this post, I'll be going over what the ideal training volume is, looking into some of the science behind it and finishing off with a sample leg day workout template you can choose to follow and modify that'll help you reach the optimal training volume at the end of the article.
The Ideal Workout Volume
Like I said earlier, there actually is a positive relationship between volume and muscle growth. Up to a point, at least. And this point comes much sooner than most people think it does.
According to this study conducted by Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues, it was found that training subjects doing above 10 hard working sets (within a few reps of failure) per muscle group per week resulted in significantly more muscle growth than subjects doing less than 10 working sets in a week. In fact, the gains of the 10+ working sets per week were almost double of that of the group which did <5 and 5-9 working sets per week.
That's a lot more extra gains, simply from doing a few more sets each week for a given muscle group. And while this study did not clearly outline an upper limit to this guideline, expert opinions did suggest that the upper limit was around 20 working sets per muscle per week for most people.
Research around the upper limit for this is still unclear, and may remain this way as this kind of data is so individual and dependent on factors such as lifting experience and recovery abilities.
But from what we (general science) know so far, the ideal workout volume for most people falls between 10 and 20 tough working sets per week. Going under this will limit gains, and going over this could either continue to drive gains (possibly at a lesser rate), or have a negative impact on muscular hypertrophy.
For beginners whose bodies have not yet completely adapted to strength training and recovery, it might make sense to stick to the lower end of this spectrum, around 10 (higher, not lower) hard working sets per muscle group per week.
Opposite to this, we'd recommend that advanced lifters train with a little more volume, closer to 20 working sets per muscle per week.
As for intermediate lifters, it makes sense to pick something in between. Around 14-16 working sets per muscle per week should be great.
We have seen many individuals such as IFBB Pro bodybuilder Nina Ross become outliers to this by training with unusually high volume that goes against this science. Like we said, it's completely individual, and there will be some genetically gifted people that can train with significantly more volume and see outstanding progress.
However, most people (likely including you) will fall into the guidelines above (10-20 working sets per muscle per week).
It's also important for you to remember that your smaller muscles will also often play a large role in your compound lifting.
For example, during a bench press, the shoulders and triceps are also working very hard to press the weight up. These bench press sets count as tricep and shoulder sets as well. The same goes for the biceps during a barbell row, the calves during a leg press, and so on.
And in case you're wondering, the probable reason that you don't elicit nearly as much muscle growth when performing less than 10 weekly working sets per muscle per week is likely due to the fact that you're simply not doing enough work to give them a good challenge throughout the week, and not enough to cause muscle damage.
Your body adapts to the stress that you place it under, which is why we get fitter and stronger over time. You body wants to ensure that the next time you do that exercise at that given intensity or level, it's easier than it was previously.
For example, if we bench pressed 60kg or 135lb, our chest, shoulders and triceps will need to grow bigger and stronger so that the next time we bench press that weight, it's a little bit easier. However if you're not doing enough work for the body to receive a proper challenge, it won't have much of a reason to grow.
And if you're wondering why we can't just do endless volume to elicit more gains, it's likely due to the fact that our muscles will have already been damaged quite severely after 10-20 hard working sets (depending on experience level and individual factors), and doing more volume will slowly result in diminishing returns.
Eventually, we'd reach a point where doing more volume would not only bring about a tiny, tiny amount of extra gains for a lot of extra hard work, but also affect our recovery ability and performance in future sessions.
So even though science hasn't shown that doing endless volume will actually decrease muscle size, it's not worth it for most people, gains diminish quite quickly, and most people simply do not have the ability to recover fast enough from brutal sessions like these to be able to train efficiently the next day, or even for the next three days.
Going a couple sets over won't cause you any harm. But going too much over will affect your training.
You see? Some people are doing more work in a single session than they need for the entire week! And this upper threshold for weekly volume probably comes much sooner than most people think.
Lots of people would probably read this and think: no way, that is way too little volume to be good for hypertrophy.
But there's lots of studies that support this idea, and it's been shown to be very effective by many individuals who have seen great results with training with this seemingly low amount of volume.
Sample Leg Day Workout Template
We'll finish off this post with a sample workout template that you can do and perform twice a week, to hit your chosen muscle groups for optimal volume.
We'll use a leg day as an example for this template to help you understand it. But you can definitely modify it to ensure that it works for the split you're running. Whether that's a 'push' workout (chest, shoulders, triceps), an upper body workout, a leg day, or almost anything else really.
5-10 Minute Warmup
Compound exercise #1 - Knee dominant (squats, lunges, leg press, etc.) - 4 x 6-8
Compound exercise #2 - Hip dominant (deadlifts, good mornings, etc.) - 4 x 8-12
Compound exercise #3 - Knee dominant - 3 x 10-12
Isolation exercise #1 - Knee extension/knee flexion/calves (pick 2 of 3) - 3 x 12-15
Isolation exercise #2 - Knee extension/knee flexion/calves (pick 2 of 3) - 2 x 12-15
Warm down and stretch
The main thing that you have to keep in mind here is that lots of muscles will be working together at once in your compound exercises. During a deadlift, your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves and back are all working to bring the weight up. That's why it might look like you're not getting a lot of attention for the calves, but it's definitely enough.
And like we said, you can modify this to suit any workout split that you might be running. You just have to make sure that you're doing around 5-10 (no less than 5 if you're training each body part twice a week) working sets per session for each muscle.
Wrapping It Up
Overall, training volume is not something that you should be overlooking. It's important that you understand just how much you really need, and find a sweet spot for you that not only brings about good gains, but fits well into your schedule and is friendly on your ability to recover as well.
If you're constantly exhausted, workouts won't be much fun.
If you're currently doing an excessive amount of volume, and you're finding that you're tired all the time and unmotivated, maybe you're doing too much.
Likewise, if you're currently doing less than 10 had working sets per muscle group per week, and you're not seeing the results that you think you should be seeing, it might be time you increased the volume a little bit.
I hope you've enjoyed reading through this post and have been able to learn something from it. If you have, and you found it interesting, consider sharing it with your friends so that we can reach more people and help achieve reach their goals!