Weight training is all about hard work, but overdoing lifting volume will slow or even stop your gains. Here’s why and what to do instead.
Excessive volume is the common enemy of lifters. It’s been mine since I was 12! I got hooked on weight training when my parents bought me a weight set. I’d lift every morning before school. Then I’d use the school’s gym during lunch and do a session after school.
My Olympic lifting days were just as bad. I’d train twice a day, 5-6 days a week. Heck, I’ve even done 100 sets of bench press in one workout!
Was it worth it? Hard to say when you’re a kid and can recover quickly. I thought I was doing fine. I was convinced that the more I did, the more I progressed.
Every lifter goes through this “more is better” phase, and it’s actually working against you. Here’s why and how to manage volume for better gains.
Too much training will make you feel worse when you’re not even in the gym. You may be keeping up with the tough workouts, but you’re also creating a hormonal milieu that causes you to have a short fuse and glum outlook.
During times of high volume, I’d have more frequent mood swings, become impatient, and suffer from anhedonia (significant decrease in pleasure response) even up to the point of being borderline depressive. But when you slowly feel worse, you won’t notice it. You adjust and it becomes your new normal.
Why doesn’t this show up in workouts? Well, you’ve heard that the body is built for survival. So, even under a state of severe fatigue and under-recovery, it’s possible to perform well during workouts. I’ve seen elite-level athletes show all the signs of overtraining and then set a PR.
I suspect it’s like the “last-ditch effort” that occurs when the body feels the most vulnerable. It may increase adrenaline production in an effort to survive, which momentarily increases performance. It compensates for the drop in performance due to fatigue. Of course, some people enhance that – or recreate it artificially – by abusing stimulants pre-workout.
That’s the main reason I don’t like chronic stimulant use. It’ll mask fatigue and give you the illusion that you’re recovering properly. When you’re hyped up, you’re not able to evaluate your training volume and intensity.
For maximal gains, the proper modulation of volume, effort, and load is very important. You can’t just do as much as possible at every opportunity and expect things to work in your favor.
Have you ever experienced increased gains or leanness when you were forced to reduce training volume or frequency? It’s a pleasant surprise, but those who are convinced that more is better will refuse to acknowledge that this positive physique response is a sign they need to simmer down. (I didn’t see the light at first either.)
So what is volume, really? It’s the amount of work you perform.
Most people only look at it in terms of total sets. And sure, that’s a big part of the equation. Increasing your sets is the fastest way to increase volume. But in reality, volume, or what’s called “volume-load” or “tonnage,” is a function of total reps (sets X reps) AND the weight lifted.
So it’s not just the number of reps and sets you’re doing; it’s also the amount of weight you’re using for those reps.
A gradual increase in volume-load (tonnage) is likely necessary to keep progressing. In fact, the whole concept of progressive overload is about increasing volume-load over time.
Progressive overload means making your muscles work harder or more than before to keep stimulating gains. But people assume this automatically means putting more weight on the bar. Not so! Adding weight while doing a similar number of reps is certainly progressive overload, but so is doing more reps per set with the same weight or doing more sets with the same weight for a similar number of reps.
Don’t forget that simply being able to use more weight while doing the same number of sets and reps is an increase in volume.
Volume is more important for muscle size development than for strength. I’m not saying it’s not important for strength. It is, but to a lesser extent than volume. For example, Mike Mentzer was a lower-volume guy than his bodybuilding peers. But at the apex of his career, he was still doing a decent amount of volume. He believed that he was doing less simply because he ONLY counted the very hardest set of an exercise.
However, he’s best known for creating the Heavy Duty training system, which was extremely low in volume and frequency but high in effort. People who did that program would all report strength gains from session to session, but very few improvements in muscle mass, especially compared to more traditional training.
Progressively increasing your volume-load must be done in a very gradual and cyclic manner. Why? Because your body has a limited capacity to adapt positively to training stress. Once you exceed it, you’ll get diminishing results for the invested efforts and eventually stagnate or even regress.
It’ll also negatively impact your hormonal, nervous, and immune systems. You start to feel worse and experience a decrease in things like libido, pleasure, and gains/performance.
That’s why I believe in periodization or the use of training cycles. And they don’t have to be complicated. See the final tab below.
Your effort level is how hard you push each work set on average. Going to failure is a way of using a high level of effort. It’s another thing you need to modulate in your training along with volume.
Just like with volume, dedicated lifters are often tempted to go to failure, but be careful. There are drawbacks. Reaching failure causes a lot more central fatigue than stopping just short. Central fatigue has nothing to do with how you feel. It simply means the strength of the excitatory drive the nervous system sends to the muscles to recruit and contract them.
The stronger the central signal, the easier it is to recruit the growth-prone, fast-twitch fibers. If you weaken the signal, you’ll recruit those fibers to a lesser extent, even if you go to failure again, leading to a less effective set.
Stopping a set with one rep in reserve is often superior to going to failure because it allows you to do a greater number of quality sets in your workout (greater volume).
If all you have the time to do for a muscle is ONE set, then yeah, going to failure (or beyond) will be more effective than stopping short. But within the reality of a normal workout, which includes multiple sets, it’s more effective to keep 1-2 reps in reserve on most of your work sets.
And here’s a solid rule when it comes to your effort level per set: The more reps in reserve you keep on average per set, the more quality volume you’ll be able to handle (and need).
I mean, you can do a lot of volume if you take all sets to failure, but they’ll become less and less effective as volume piles up and you accumulate more central fatigue. All those sets to failure might feel good because you’ll get a pump and feel accomplished after trashing your body, but the volume won’t necessarily lead to more growth.
If you don’t want to plateau, choose one of these options:
- Push each set to its limit and do a small volume of work.
- Keep a lot of reps in the tank (3-4) and do a high volume.
- Keep a small to moderate number of reps in the tank (1-2) and do a moderate volume.
Option three is typically the most effective and the one that allows you to gradually increase volume-load the most through a training cycle.
Our last variable to look at is load: the amount of weight you put on the bar.
Remember how volume is more important for hypertrophy than strength? Well, load is more important for strength than hypertrophy. But volume still plays a role in strength development (a smaller one), and load still plays a role in hypertrophy (a smaller one).
In theory, a training cycle where you gradually increase the number of work sets but keep using the same weights will still promote muscle growth at a near-optimal rate. But the same isn’t true for strength. Getting stronger requires the use of gradually heavier weights for two main reasons:
- You need to keep improving the neuromuscular factors involved in force production.
- Heavy work leads to different structural changes in the muscle tissue. I’m not saying that heavy and light stimulate different types of hypertrophy. BUT, heavy work makes the muscle fibers more resilient and better at withstanding heavy loads.
How? A muscle fiber doesn’t run all the way from one side of the muscle to the other in one continuous segment. A muscle fiber is actually several shorter segments connected together by micro-tendons. Tendons respond to load. Heavier loading will strengthen those micro-tendons more than lighter work, thus making those fibers (and the whole muscle) better at handling heavier loads.
To periodize, you work in cycles that get gradually harder. If you want to build muscle and strength, this is the best way to prevent yourself from overdoing it on the volume, effort, or load.
Essentially, a training cycle (typically 10-12 weeks) will have a gradual increase in volume-load. This can come from an increase in sets, load, or the use of more intense training methods. But you must go from a lower level at the beginning of the cycle (still enough to produce gains) and then increase over the cycle.
When the cycle is over, you deload for 1-2 weeks and start a new one. The new cycle will start again at a lower level of training stress, but slightly higher than the beginning of the previous cycle, and builds up again.
You do 3-4 such cycles per year. That’s how you can keep making progress over the long run without burning out.
Let’s go over a few general concepts:
- Concept 1 – Hypertrophy is more dependent on volume.
- Concept 2 – Strength is more dependent on load.
- Concept 3 – There must be an increase in the key improvement factor to keep progressing.
To cycle your training for strength, gradually increase the load over 10-12 weeks. You shouldn’t worry about increasing your volume. In fact, it should decrease over the 10-12 weeks, mostly from doing fewer reps per set to allow for higher loads to be used.
To cycle your training for muscle growth, you’ll have to gradually increase training volume (mostly from a higher number of sets) over 10-12 weeks. Unlike what you’d do for strength, you won’t even have to stress about using heavier weights. You can add weight if the previous weight is too easy, but I’d rather you focus on adding sets and/or reps.
Here’s a very general example for both, for illustration purposes only:
This is a suggestion only for the heavy exercise, and I only suggest one per session.
- Week 1: 4 sets of 8
- Week 2: 4 sets of 8 (with more weight than on week 1)
- Week 3: 4 sets of 8 (with more weight than on week 2)
- Week 4: 4 sets of 5
- Week 5: 4 sets of 5 (with more weight than on week 4)
- Week 6: 4 sets of 5 (with more weight than on week 5)
- Week 7: 4 sets of 3
- Week 8: 4 sets of 3 (with more weight than on week 7)
- Week 9: 4 sets of 3 (with more weight than on week 8)
- Week 10: 1 x 5, 1 x 4, 1 x 3, 1 x 2, 1 x 1
For the hypertrophy work, the volume is the total amount of hypertrophy work per week, including all muscles, NOT for each muscle.
- Week 1: 60 total sets/week, no intensity methods
- Week 2: 60 total sets/week, 8-10 of which can use intensity methods
- Week 3: 60 total sets/week, 12-15 of which can use intensity methods
- Week 4: 70 total sets/week, no intensity methods
- Week 5: 70 total sets/week, 8-10 of which can use intensity methods
- Week 6: 70 total sets/week, 12-15 of which can use intensity methods
- Week 7: 100 total sets/week, no intensity methods
- Week 8: 100 total sets/week, 8-10 of which can use intensity methods
- Week 9: 100 total sets/week, 12-15 of which can use intensity methods
- Week 10: 100 total sets/week, up to 20 can use intensity methods
Note that this is the volume for the hypertrophy work; it doesn’t include the strength sets. And it’s up to you to spread that volume the way that better fits your goal.
After your cycle, you’d do a 1-2 week deload during which you significantly decrease workload. The ideal volume for the deloads is performing one-third of the highest volume you reached during your cycle.
No, this won’t lead to muscle loss; you can maintain all size and strength for over 12 weeks if doing only a third of the volume you used to grow. More importantly, it will re-sensitize your body to the stimulus of training (greater mTOR response), although two weeks of deload is better than one for that purpose.
It’ll make you feel better, get rid of fatigue so that you can start your next cycle with slightly heavier loads (for the strength work), and use slightly more volume (for the hypertrophy work).
Do that four times a year and you’ll be able to continuously grow and get stronger without feeling like crap.