What’s the best way to build muscle? Effort, load, or volume-based training? Here’s what you need to know.
Note: I examined effort-based hypertrophy training in Part 1 of this series. In the next installment, we’ll look at load-based training. But first, let’s dig into what is perhaps the trickiest approach: volume-based training. (All three, by the way, are part of my new Hypertrophy training system.)
Higher-volume bodybuilding workouts have been pretty much the norm since the mid-1960s. If you look at the most successful bodybuilders, high volume is often a common theme.
What is volume-based training? It’s basically doing a lot of sets of several different exercises for each muscle group. More specifically, it’s getting enough effective reps through a higher volume of work not performed to failure.
A few examples of volume-based bodybuilders include Arnold, who did 24-30-plus sets per muscle per week; Jay Cutler and Lee Haney were right around 16-24 sets per muscle per week; and Chris Bumstead, who did between 16-20 sets per muscle per week.
Keep in mind that very high-volume training works best for steroid users. The amount of volume used by elite bodybuilders is likely too high for natural lifters to gain maximally. Does that mean that naturals can’t do volume-based training? No, it doesn’t.
Volume-based doesn’t necessarily mean it’s as high as what pro bodybuilders use. “High volume” is relative. So, 12-15 sets per muscle per week is high compared to effort-based training and low compared to what you might see a lot of bodybuilders doing. What really defines volume-based training is that the mode of progression is a gradual increase in volume throughout the training cycle.
So, let’s examine what effective volume-based training looks like for a natural lifter:
- 3-6 sets per exercise, not done to failure (1-3 reps in reserve)
- 1-3 warm-up/preparation sets
- Open to more rep range brackets. Typically, from 8 to 20-plus reps per set.
- 1-6 exercises per muscle in a workout (more commonly 2-4)
- 5-6 exercises per session with higher volume achieved via more work sets rather than more exercises (my preference).
- Training each muscle once or twice per week. Once is more common.
- 60-120 seconds of rest between sets (60-90 is the norm). This is mostly so that the higher volume doesn’t lead to two-hour workouts where maintaining focus and work quality are harder.
- Wider variety of exercises: free weights, machines, pulleys. I recommend selecting exercises based on how easy it is for you to develop a muscle. The easier a muscle grows for you, the more you can go with free-weight, multi-joint exercises. Less responsive muscles are best trained on machines, pulleys, or single-joint movements. Harder-to-develop muscles also benefit more from unilateral exercises.
This table gives you a good guide to exercise selection:
- More opportunities to practice movements and contract your muscles – a big benefit for beginners.
- Less potential for technique degradation. You’re more likely to have crappy technique on those last 1-2 reps before failure – reps that you rarely do with volume-based training.
- The first two points lead to better motor learning.
- It’s easier to get a sufficient number of effective reps to stimulate hypertrophy.
- It’ll lead to better development of foundational neuromuscular capacity and work capacity.
- High volume means higher energy expenditure. You’ll burn more calories.
- It can feel more satisfying to some lifters.
High risk of accumulating garbage volume: Garbage volume refers to reps (and sets) that don’t contribute to any significant hypertrophy. This happens if you keep piling up volume past the point where you provided maximal stimulation to the muscles.
Risk of misjudging the RIR: It’d be easy not to push hard enough for any of the sets to have a significant impact on muscle growth. If you go to failure, you’ll get around 5 effective reps per set (the last 5 prior to failure). If you stop 2 reps short of failure, you get around 3 effective reps per set, which can still be compensated for by doing a bit more volume. But if you leave 4-5 reps in reserve (which is what most people who think they’re leaving 2 reps in reserve really do), you’re piling on sets that just burn energy without stimulating much growth.
Higher risk of central fatigue: On a set-to-set basis, going to failure causes more central fatigue than not going to failure. But doing more sets, especially if rest periods are shorter to make the higher volume more manageable, can lead to more central fatigue, leading to a less effective workout.
Greater muscle damage: Muscle damage, which is not a driver of hypertrophy like once believed, is caused by the leaking of calcium ions during muscle contractions. A greater number of fairly intense contractions leads to more leaked calcium and more damage.
Higher possibility of training burnout: This is because of the higher release of cortisol and adrenaline from a repeated high volume of work.
Well, compared to effort-based training, yes. But the volume that natural and non-genetically gifted lifters use is nowhere near what most enhanced bodybuilders use. And it’s called “volume-based” training because you increase volume to progress throughout the training cycle.
The way this training thing works is that you impose a stress (workout) on your muscles and they adapt to become more resistant to that stress. As such, each time you repeat the same stimulus, it’s slightly less effective than the previous time. That’s why you need a gradual increase in the strength of the training stimulus throughout the training cycle.
With volume-based training, this is done by adding volume as the cycle progresses. So, you need a volume progression, let’s say over a 10–12-week training cycle. But volume might be considered high for half that duration or less.
For most people, it’ll be around 60-120 work sets per week (all muscles included). It’s up to you to allocate that weekly volume where you think it’ll provide the best results: a lagging muscle might get more volume, and a dominant muscle might receive less.
So, if we look at the main muscles (pecs, triceps, delts, back, biceps, quads, hams, glutes), that’s eight different muscles to spread that volume over, or roughly 8-15 work sets per muscle per week. Of course, some muscles, like biceps and triceps, might receive a bit less volume, leaving more for the other groups.
So, you’d start a training cycle at around 60-80 sets depending on your level or recovery capacity, and it would end at 100-120 sets/week.
Weeks 1-3: 60 work sets
Weeks 4-6: 75 work sets
Weeks 7-9: 90 work sets
Weeks 10-12: 100 work sets
Then, take 2-3 weeks for re-sensitization training at a third of the average weekly volume (around 30 sets/week) or less.
Weeks 1-3: 70 work sets
Weeks 4-6: 85 work sets
Weeks 7-9: 100 work sets
Weeks 10-12: 110 work sets
Then, do another 2-3 weeks of re-sensitization at a third of the average weekly volume (around 32 sets/week) or less.
Weeks 1-3: 80 work sets
Weeks 4-6: 95 work sets
Weeks 7-9: 110 work sets
Weeks 10-12: 120 work sets
The main way to increase the strength of the training stimulus is to add volume. Typically, you’d increase the number of sets per week. But it can also be done by increasing reps while keeping the same weight.
Of course, progressive overload (trying to add weight as you’re gaining strength) is recommended, and you should do it if your work sets get too easy. “Too easy” means too many reps in the tank and less growth stimulated per set. But it’s not necessary to progress if volume gradually increases.
I presented the three main families of special methods in Part 1. One category is called “density methods.” These are best for volume-based training.
Here, the goal is mostly to save time – do the same amount of work in less time. The most common examples are supersets, antagonist supersets, and giant sets. Studies found that supersets don’t lead to more hypertrophy than if both exercises are done separately. It gives the same results but takes less time in a session to complete. So, the main benefit of this category is reducing training time when volume is high.
If you’re using a volume-based approach, your workouts might get on the long side, and density methods are a good way to shorten your workouts while getting similar results.
I like this approach for beginner and lower-level intermediate lifters. There’s less of a burden to constantly add weight to the bar (a good thing when you’re not technically efficient yet), it’s a bit safer, and it allows for more practice: practice of the exercises but also practice contracting your muscles. The better you are at contracting your muscles, the more effective any training program becomes. I also like it for sedentary, overweight individuals, simply to increase the amount of metabolic work and energy expenditure.
It can also be part of a longer training cycle. For example:
Block I: Effort-based training (6 weeks)
Block II: Volume-based training (6 weeks)
Block III: Load-based training (6 weeks)