In a previous article Why Linear Periodization Sucks For Hypertrophy, I said that an effective training program should tax, stimulate, and overload the underlying systems of the adaptations you’re trying to elicit.
When increased hypertrophy is the goal, that means the focus of progressive overload should be on increasing training volume over time.
Training volume has a dose-response relationship with hypertrophy. More training volume equals more muscle (assuming you don’t exceed your ability to recover).
So, if your primary focus is on building muscle, then your training should be structured to have you gradually performing more volume next week, next month, and next year.
Over the long haul you should plan on doing a lot more training than you are currently doing to keep disrupting homeostasis, thus causing adaptation.
The principle of progressive overload governs effective training and states that you must continually provide an overload to the system to bring about positive adaptations.
The progressive element states that this stimulus must get progressively greater to continue to represent an overload. After all, squatting 315 lbs for 10 reps might be an overload now, but once you’ve done it you need to increase to 320 lbs or to do 11 reps for it to continue to be an overload.
How to Focus on Volume
Training volume is your total workload per exercise, session, and week. A simple way to track it is the following equation:
Sets x Reps x Load
You can use this equation to track progress throughout a mesocycle. To compare volume from mesocycle to mesocycle where different exercises might be used (e.g., back squats in mesocycle 1 and front squats in mesocycle 2) I suggest you track the number of work sets done per body part.
While training for hypertrophy has both an intensity (as % of 1 rep max) and volume component, it appears that volume is the more important variable. Research shows that you can gain muscle across a wide spectrum of intensities. As such, lifting super heavy isn’t required to build muscle.
In fact, it might be counter-productive because it limits total training volume. A clear dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy has been established. In fact, assuming that an intensity threshold of >60% of 1 rep max is met, it appears that volume is the key determinant of success when it comes to gaining muscle mass.
For trained individuals performing multiple sets which result in a greater total volume are superior to single sets. It has been found that multiple sets are associated with a 40% greater effect size than single sets. Why is this?
Honestly, we don’t know with 100% certainty, but researchers believe that higher volumes of training may be more effective than low volume training because of the longer duration of tensile force placed upon the muscle.
A greater time under tension increases the potential for micro trauma and the ability to fatigue the full spectrum of muscle fibers. In layman’s terms, the muscles have to do more work, which creates more disruption. Thus, adaptation is greater.
More Is Better, Up to a Point
All the research showing that training volume has led some people to think that more is better. They try to train with Herculean levels of training volume, thinking it will improve their results. I admire their mindset, and they are not entirely wrong. More is better, until you exceed your capacity to recover.
Work capacity is trainable and will increase across your training career if you are smart with your programming. With that in mind, the more is better approach is slightly misguided. A more effective strategy is better.
To achieve “better” you shouldn’t dive into training volumes far higher than you are used to. Just because a high training volume is good doesn’t mean you have to go crazy.
Muscle gain is a slow process. It is like watching paint dry. Patience is definitely a muscle building virtue and in your haste to pack on size you shouldn’t get carried away chasing epic training volumes. Instead you should gradually and incrementally increase them over the long term.
Think of it this way, if you do too much now you will over-train in the short term. Long term, this also leaves you with little scope for adding more volume.
If you are training seven days a week, two hours a day, how can you add more? If you cannot add more then you cannot progressively overload via volume. An inability to overload via volume will drastically limit your ability to build muscle.
So, if four 60 minute sessions a week delivers results, do that. Just know that in time it might have to become 5 or 6 sessions a week. Or those four sessions might have to take 75-90 minutes to allow you to perform more work. Make every extra set count, and don’t do junk volume. You need to milk the gains you can make in the long run.
There is only so much muscle you can build this month. Don’t limit your most muscular potential by overdoing the volume in the here and now.
Use a Sensible Schedule
So, how do you set up a sensible and gradual increase in training volume?
A few simple strategies are:
- Adding weight
- Adding reps at same weight
- Adding sets
All of these are pretty self-explanatory, but to beat the topic to death this might look like:
- Week 1: 225 lbs x 10
- Week 2: 230 lbs x 10
- Week 3: 235 lbs x 10
- Week 1: 3 x 10
- Week 2: 3 x 11
- Week 3: 3 x 12
- Week 1: 3 sets
- Week 2: 4 sets
- Week 3: 5 sets
While all of the above are good strategies, you can only do each for so long before you hit a plateau.
That’s why I like to combine all three into my client’s progression scheme. A practical approach to increasing your training volume across a mesocycle would look like this:
- Start by selecting 1-3 exercises per body part (I’d suggest 1 for small body parts).
- Train each muscle group 2-3 times a week (generally twice a week for big body parts).
- Do a total of 40-70 reps per muscle group per session at >60% of 1 rep max (make most of it at 75-85% of 1 rep max). Start at the lower end of this range and gradually increase.
- Perform 2-3 sets per exercise (3 sets for big compound movements and 2 sets for isolation work).
- Pick a rep bracket to work in (e.g., 6-8 or 8-10 reps).
- Begin with a weight you can hit at the lower end of the rep range.
- When you can hit your sets with the upper end of the chosen rep bracket, increase the weight.
- Add 1 set per body part (not per exercise) every 1-3 weeks.
- When progress plateaus or even regresses, deload for 1 week before gradually increasing training volume back or over and above your previous maximum.
Hey, I hope you are enjoying this article and find value in utilizing these concepts to build lean muscle. Writing about this stuff is a hobby for me. What I do all day, every day is coaching people. Both in-person and online. Evaluating, researching, and refining my craft to provide more value to my clients. If you’d like to work with me then, please get in touch here to find out about my coaching services.