Recent research has identified a dose-response relationship between training volume and hypertrophy. The more volume you do, without exceeding your capacity to recover, the more you grow.
Most people are not correctly applying this information and are instead getting inferior results. What is happening is that they make the mistake of doing what is called “waste volume.”
As the name implies, waste volume is training volume with little to no benefit. This training is merely a waste of time and effort. Instead, you should strive to do as much effective volume as possible.
The Problem with Ineffective Volume
Most of us have heard that more volume equates to better gains—as a result, you do more work, and you decide to add more sets to training sessions. On the surface these are all logical decisions.
The problem is that these added sets do not have an additive effect on your results. Rather than magnifying your gains, they are more likely to reduce them.
The reason for this is that research has consistently shown that there is a threshold of training per session which maximizes anabolic signaling, namely, your muscle protein synthetic (MPS) response. Adding sets over and above this threshold will not help you gain additional muscle.
For example, current research indicates that anything between 3-10 sets per body part, per session is sufficient to maximize MPS. I realize this is a broad range, but it is impossible to establish an exact number due to individual variability (the differences between people).
We can determine that diminishing returns in hypertrophy will occur well before the typical sets and reps most of us perform per body part.
It is not uncommon for bodybuilders to do a vast array of exercises for each muscle. They aim to stimulate it from every conceivable angle every time they train by using a combination of free weights, machines, compound movements, and isolation lifts.
Consequently, they regularly do four, five, or even six or more exercises per body part, per session, and complete over three sets of each. Thus, they perform anything from of 12 to 18 sets per muscle group each time they train it.
Based on the available evidence this is comfortably more than is needed to maximize MPS in a single session.
Instead of just adding sets to the existing training session for a body part, you would be better off increasing your training frequency for that muscle.
This will allow you to achieve high training volumes over the course of the week. This method will more evenly distribute your training to maximize the number of MPS stimulating workouts each week. By doing so you avoid waste volume.
Another point to consider when increasing training frequency for size is that a meta-analysis by Wernbom and colleagues found that there was an upper limit to muscle growth stimulated per session. This finding was consistent regardless of low of high frequency training.
So, doing more in a given session does not cause a hypertrophic response of a higher magnitude than lower volume, more frequent training (assuming the low volume sessions do at least reach the threshold required to max out MPS).
The Role of Adaptive Resistance
The body is an incredible adaptive mechanism. It adapts to pretty much anything you throw at it.
Lifting weights is a primary example. When you first start training everything works for you—you gain strength and grow like a weed—then the body adapts. What you’ve been doing stops working. This is also known as “adaptive resistance.”
To keep gaining strength and muscle you need to exceed your previous training efforts to create a higher stress on the body. Doing so allows for further muscle growth. This is where the principle of progressive overload comes from. Want to keep growing? You must, on average, train harder.
There are only so many variables available to you when it comes to increasing your overall workload. Primary amongst these are intensity, volume, and frequency.
By manipulating one or more of these variables, you can apply a progressive overload to the body. Intensity and volume are the two variables that are most useable when training for size and frequency is largely ignored. However, both intensity and volume can have some serious practical limitations.
The Role of Intensity
Intensity is the load on the bar relative to your one rep max. In the short-term, increasing the load on the bar is a very effective strategy for hypertrophy.
From a practical standpoint, however, it is impossible to keep adding load to the bar without reps reducing. This reduces overall training volume and nullifies the hypertrophy benefits of lifting heavier.
The Role of Volume
Volume is a huge piece of the hypertrophy puzzle. Essentially, more is better as long as you don’t exceed your capacity to recover. With that said, it is often misapplied. Most people just pile more and more sets into one session.
Personally, I am a fan of adding sets across the course of a training phase so that you begin at your minimum effective dose (MED) of training volume and progress up to your maximum volume threshold.
For example, you would add one set per body part each time that body part is trained. So, if you train your quads twice per week, your weekly volume for quads would increase by two sets each week.
This allows you adhere to the principle of progressive overload and spend most of your training time in the “Goldilocks” zone of volume (between your minimum and maximum thresholds). This range is where your best gains occur.
How Much Is Too Much?
It is not uncommon for bodybuilders to do a laundry list of exercises for each muscle. They try to hit each muscle from every conceivable angle every time they train it.
As such, they regularly do four or more exercises per body part, per session, and do 4+ sets of each. Thus, they perform at least 16 sets per muscle group each time they train it. This high volume of work takes time to recover from and might be overkill.
Dare I say it, much of that work is junk volume. You see, research indicates that there is a threshold past which no additive benefit occurs from doing more work for a muscle group in that session. The anabolic response to training appears to be maximized at a far lower volume of work than 16 sets.
Current research indicates that anything between 3-10 sets per body part, per session is sufficient to maximize MPS.
While an exact number has not been established, and never will be because individual variability makes it impossible to provide a sweeping recommendation, it appears diminishing returns will occur well before 16 sets are performed.
Once enough sets are done to maximally elevate MPS, doing more in that session doesn’t provide a superior hypertrophic stimulus. So, why do more in that session?
Doing more adds no benefit, but creates a bigger recovery hole to dig yourself out of. The net result means performing more sets in a session for a body part might actually result in worse gains.
You would be better served adjusting frequency to better distribute your training volume. Doing so means you can maximally spike the anabolic machinery multiple times a week with the same overall workload rather than hitting it hard less often and only getting a blunted response.
A further point to consider is that a meta-analysis conducted by Wernbom and colleagues found that the increases in muscle growth per training session do not differ whether high or low frequencies are employed. Why not hit the muscle more frequently to allow for more growth stimuli per week?
In the Real World
A review of 127 bodybuilders found that two-thirds of them trained a muscle once per week using a classic “bro-split” while none of them trained a muscle more than twice per week.
Obviously, this approach works—these guys are all muscular and lean. The question is, could they have got even better results by training with higher frequencies?
From a theoretical standpoint, I think it appears obvious that a training frequency of once per week is sub-optimal, and that a strong argument can be made to train with frequencies greater than twice a week.
Given MPS is only elevated in trained lifters for around a maximum of 48 hours, it seems that windows of growth are missed by only training each muscle once or twice per week.
Since research indicates that a surprisingly low number of sets is sufficient to maximize MPS for up to 24 hours, it might be beneficial to perform fewer sets per session but train with higher frequency.
Doing so will allow you to spend more time in a net positive protein balance. Since muscle growth is determined by MPS versus MPB, this should yield greater gains in the long-term.
Unfortunately, there is little research specifically measuring hypertrophic repsonses to increased frequency. Those studies that have occurred tend to show a trend toward increased hypertrophy.
From my own experience, I think manipulating training frequency is an incredibly powerful hypertrophy tool.
Too Much of a Good Thing
There is a limit to how much you can increase frequency. While some elite level professional athletes might be able to train multiple times per day, this is impractical for the majority of us.
So, a training frequency of seven, or once per day,is the upper limit for almost all recreational bodybuilders. While arguments could be made for using this approach, I feel seven training days is overkill and is unlikely to increase results.
I suggest you incrementally increase your training frequency. For example, if you currently train each muscle once per week then change to two times per week. After a month or so, if progress is good, increase to three times per week.
Then push your training frequency to four times per week, etc. Done in this fashion you will follow a progressively overloading strategy rather than jumping in at the deep end.
This will constantly provide an external stimulus just above what you are accostomed to and cause an internal adaptation. This adaptation, provided your nutrition is on point, will manifest as bigger muscles.
Volume is the key driver of hypertrophy. The major benefits of increased training frequency for hypertrophy is that it better distributes your training volume throughout the week. Higher frequency training allows you to do less junk volume and more effective volume.
If you can get the balance right between providing a maximally hypertrophic stimulus, but not excessively more, then rest and repeat a day or two later, you will minimize wasted volume and all of your efforts yield a return.
Training frequency shouldn’t be a set-in stone variable. Currently, the research doesn’t support one superior training frequency. You should manipulate training volume to allow you to provide an overloading stimulus.
This could follow a linear increase going from once a week to twice a week, or more. It could also be used to prioritize certain body parts. For example, you could place several muscle groups at a higher training frequency of 3-4 times per week while reducing others to maintenance levels (1-2 times per week).
After high frequencies have been used for a considerable period of time (12-20 weeks) it is probably beneficial to reduce training frequency. Studies have shown that muscle mass can be retained with relatively low volumes and frequencies.
In one study, muscle mass was shown to be retained for 32 weeks in such circumstances. Consequently, it is sensible to reduce frequency to allow for a period of recovery.
The Role of Recovery
A planned recovery period allows for the resensitization of muscles to the anabolic signal of high frequency and volume training.
It also provides an opportunity to undo the metabolic adaptations that have occurred and have slowed the process of muscle gain. Continuing to push frequency and volume once this resistance has set-in means very little growth for a huge amount of time and effort.
As I have written before in Unravelling the Mysteries of Training Frequency for Hypertrophy on training volume and periodization for hypertrophy, maintenance phases are a crucial, yet underused, strategy to support long-term gains in size. Following a period of high frequency training with lower frequencies is one way to achieve this.
Real Volume for Hypertrophy
Long story short, manipulating training frequency is a powerful and underused strategy to build muscle.
Many of us think more is better, and this method of thinking has probably caused many trainees to perform a large amount of wasted volume. All this achieves is greater fatigue and limits the capacity to recover and do more work.
Instead, split the same volume across the week in separate training sessions per muscle group to achieve the threshold for stimulating muscle gain more often. You will get better results.
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.
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