How Much Should You Work Out? Science Takes a Look

How much exercise is the right amount of exercise? Researchers used the preacher curl to test out how volume impacted strength gain and hypertrophy. It turns out more just might be better.

Exercise volume is one of the most critical components of training. It is a central tenet of mine that exercising at the highest volume from which you can recover is the best way to prepare for sport or to lift in the gym. The key to being a good coach or a good athlete is figuring out where your particular groove is. Find out how much you can handle, work in that range, and get the best results you can. Improve how much you can handle, and your results will be even better.

That said, I’m always on the lookout for good information about how much volume athletes and researchers do and the relationship between volume and results. Of course, when you cross over into overtraining, then higher volume is only going to hold you back, so finding a good sweet spot is critical.

A good example of solid volume research was published by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning this month. They compared a simple design of one set at a relative weight versus three sets at the same relative weight. The weight was set at 80% of the individual’s max on a preacher curl. Since simpler is usually better, I think that’s a pretty great study design.

One problem many people would raise when looking at this test design is the difference between people. What if the genetic differences between people accounted for varying results? People without genes to handle the three sets would do better on one set right? How do we account for this? The researchers anticipated this issue and had each participant do both the single set and the three set protocols. One protocol was randomly assigned to each arm, so as not to bias right-handed or left-handed individuals, and to eliminate possible genetic differences.

The researchers discovered that the higher volume was superior for these otherwise untrained athletes in both hypertrophy and strength development. The arm performing one set only experienced about an 8% increase in cross-sectional muscle diameter (how big their muscles got) versus a 13% increase for the three set arm. Further, for strength the one set arm improved by about 20% where the three set arm improved by nearly 32% on average.

I find that an old adage holds true with exercise: practice makes perfect. Getting in there and exercising as much as you can without overtraining is really the best way. Don’t waste time and effort doing exercises you don’t need, and try to maximize your recovery so that your effort can have more volume. Ultimately your results will be better.


1. Heiki Sooneste, et. al., “Effects of Training Volume on Strength and Hypertrophy in Young Men,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning, 27:1 (2013)

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