Important considerations for tracking training volume
Volume is a vital factor in training success. Plain and simple if you want to get bigger and stronger you have to do more work. In my last few months of training I’ve been tracking my volume (frequency x reps x sets) for each day and exercise. I’ve seen some pretty great results, hitting a 560 deadlift and a 275 bench press (I really struggle with bench, it’s an accomplishment).
*for the sake of this article strength will be mentioned but we will focus mainly on muscle growth. High training intensities need to be utilized for muscle strength whereas variable training intensities can be used for hypertrophy. *
Here’s what you do when you track your volume:
- Take any exercise, the squat for example, and pick the weight you’re going to use as well as the rep and set scheme. Let’s say you have three weeks with various training intensities where you follow a 3×12, 4×8, and 4×6 rep and set scheme.
- You squat 275 on the 3×12 day, 315 on the 4×8 day, and 335 on the 4×6 day
- Your 3×12 day is equal to 9,900 pounds of volume (3x12x275), your 4×8 day is equal to 10,080 pounds (4x8x315) and your 4×6 day is equal to 8,040 pounds (4x6x335).
- Since these days represent three different weeks you have set your training volume for one training bloc.
- In the subsequent training bloc (the next three weeks) try to increase the training volume. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. For example, on the 3×12 day you can increase the weight by 10 pounds, increase the number of reps to 14 or 15 or do 4 sets of 12 (sets increased by 1).
I’ve wrote about this progression model before here. Tracking your training volume keeps you accountable; either you’re doing more work or you’re not. If you were doing 20,000 pounds of volume on a pressing day 6 months ago and are still doing 20,000 pounds today odds are you look the same and your strength levels are similar.
The importance of training volume cannot be overstated but I feel there are some other factors that need to be addressed when talking about increasing volume. These include the following:
- Goals: is your goal to increase muscle size or strength? For muscle size volume may play a more important role.
- How long are you resting? If your goal is muscle growth and you’re resting a lot you may not be training certain muscle fibers depending on the load you use.
- Are there minimum training intensities for muscle growth and strength? Sure you could do 10 sets of 10 on a bench press with 135 pounds attaining 13,500 pounds but does that provide a sufficient training stimulus for strength and hypertrophy when compared to 5 sets of 10 at 270 pounds which is still 13,500 pounds.
Goals: Size or strength?
I like to reference Brad Schoenfeld’s recently published paper on volume equated programs for hypertrophy using different loading schemes (powerlifting versus bodybuilding). I like to do this for two reasons; the groups were highly trained (4.2 +/- 2.4 years of training) and as previously mentioned the volume was equated. In this instance the powerlifting group lifted heavier and had longer rest periods. Thus, to be equated for volume, their sessions lasted considerably longer (70 minutes versus 17 minutes). The powerlifting group trained at a target rep range of 3 reps per set ( approximately 3RM) with 3 minutes rest in between sets whereas the bodybuilding style group trained at a target rep range of 10 (approximately 10 RM) reps per set. Their intervention lasted 8 weeks.
Muscle thickness was measured at the biceps brachii and strength was measured on the bench press and back squat. Both groups showed significant increases in muscle size, 12.6% for the hypertrophy group and 12.7% for the strength training group. The groups were not statistically different from one another. However, when adjusted for baseline values for strength, improvements in the bench press favored the strength training group.
It would seem that if your goal is muscle growth a bodybuilding style routine is the most time efficient way to accomplish this. In 17 minutes with moderate loads the bodybuilding style group was able to accumulate as much volume as the strength training group had in 70 minutes. These rest periods become important in the next section.
How long are you resting?
In order for muscle fibers to be trained they need to be recruited to do work. If you are lifting maximal weights you are recruiting almost all of your muscle fibers that work in that given exercise. If you lift submaximal weights until failure almost all muscle fibers are recruited to do work as well. Therefore, muscle fibers can be fatigued and thus trained with maximal loads or submaximal loads until or close to failure.
Schoenfeld’s study used the recommended short rest periods for moderate weights and longer rest periods for heavier weights. When lifting heavy weights a maximal number of muscle fibers are recruited. When lifting moderate weights with minimal rest periods fatigue occurs and muscle fibers are recruited. But what if you did submaximal weights with lengthy rest periods, let’s say 5 minutes?
Firstly, this would not be the economical way to train but let’s say someone hypothetically trained in the same hypertrophy rep range as the subjects in Schoenfeld’s study but instead of resting 90 seconds they rested for 5 minutes and still accumulated the same amount of training volume. Would they still experience the same amount of muscle growth?
I don’t care to speculate too much on this because I have semi conflicting views. On one hand it’s plausible but if we understand that motor units (that’s the motor neuron and the muscle fibers it innervates) need to be recruited and fatigued to be trained then we might question whether hypertrophy would be comparable. With 5 minutes rest the muscle fibers would be able to recover meaning higher threshold muscle fibers would not be recruited and thus fatigued.
From a training economy standpoint if you are trying to accumulate higher levels of volume rest periods probably should not last 5 minutes. A lengthy rest period will certainly inhibit your ability to have high training volume in a given time period. Whether or not that will have an effect on hypertrophy is speculation.
Minimum training intensity?
We know that the most optimal way to get stronger is to lift heavier loads (80% and upward) but is there a minimum training intensity for muscle hypertrophy? Earlier I gave the example of 10 sets of 10 bench press at 135 versus a volume equated 5 sets of 10 at 270 pounds. Would the hypertrophic effect be the same?
If we were to say that 270 pounds is 70% of my 1RM (I wish) we would calculate my max bench press as 385 pounds making 135 only 35% of my 1RM. Would 35% of my maximum bench press provide a sufficient stimulus for muscle growth when done for 10 repetitions?
(For a full article on the minimum training intensity topic check this out)
If we understand that motor units have to be recruited to be trained and fatigued I would hypothesize that 135 pounds for 10 reps would not be heavy enough to recruit high threshold motor units and 10 repetitions would likely not cause a fatiguing effect.
However, if I benched 135 to concentric failure that may be enough to cause muscle growth. Several studies (here’s one) have examined blood flow restriction at different volume equated intensities, showing comparable results. In most of these cases the rep range is matched for the intensity meaning with very low intensities the rep ranges are very high. If 135 pounds is 35% of my training intensity I would likely be able to do this for well over 40 repetitions rather than just 10.
Low training intensities can provide a hypertrophic stimulus if the lifter trains until concentric failure. However, I have not seen any research on volume equated programs where the lifter does not go until concentric failure. I have doubts that all motor units would be recruited and trained so therefore do not believe that 10 sets of 10 at 135 would be as effective as 5 sets of 10 at 270 pounds.
Years ago when I started lifting weights I wish someone had told me to start tracking my training volume. I think it would have saved several years of trial and error. If your goal is to increase muscle mass or muscle strength you really need to think about your training volume and evaluate whether or not you are successfully increasing it. Consider the three variables that I brought up as well which include goals, rest periods, and training intensity.