Volume-Based Hypertrophy Training

Effort vs. Volume vs. Load: Part 2

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:

Parameters for Volume-Based Training

  • 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:

Pros of Volume-Based Training

  • 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.

Cons of Volume-Based Training

  • 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.

Is Volume-Based Training Necessarily High Volume?

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.

How Many Sets Are We Talking About?

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.

For example:

Training Cycle 1 (12 weeks)

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.

Training Cycle 2 (12 weeks)

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.

Training Cycle 3 (12 weeks)

Weeks 1-3: 80 work sets
Weeks 4-6: 95 work sets
Weeks 7-9: 110 work sets
Weeks 10-12: 120 work sets

How To Progress on a Volume-Based Approach

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.

What Special Methods Work Best With Volume-Based Training?

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.

Who Is Volume-Based Training For?

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)

Up Next

Next, I’ll examine load-based hypertrophy. Remember, all three are part of my three-phase Hypertrophy training program. Feel free to ask questions below or in my Community Coaching Forum.



I have trained with and watched professional bodybuilders using high volume training and trust me on that the numbers include the warm ups, the actual work set from a series of 4-6 sets per movement are the last two maybe. So in realty out is 20 sets they are most likely actually doing only 8 working set the rest are just warm ups to get there!

Lee Labrada and Samir Bannout both small frame professional bodybuilders from the 80’s used a more moderate volume training around 9-12 sets per body part. They would often use only three movements per muscle group and crank 3-4 sets per movement 8-12 reps per sets warming up to a hard last set. I remember training chest with Samir in preparation for the Olympia and we started with machine press, then cable flies and last dips 3-4 each 8-12 reps but we did it twice a week instead of what is now once a week norm. So in essence we were still doing 20 sets a week.

In theory you could match high volume training without doing the actual volume. Pick a compound movement working up to a hard work set 8-12 reps and instead of moving to another movement just keep cranking more set with the same work set until you have had enough. You would have actually accomplished the same amount of work set as a high volume training without the warm ups of all the other movements.

Surely if you are working up to either one or two working sets then it’s not a volume programme it’s an intensity one. I guess it depends on what reps and weight you are doing for those sets but there are quite a few variables.

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If you want high volume Hypertrophy training, then why not just follow the GVT or the updated version.

I have trouble reconciling your concepts of effective reps, reps in reserve and (not mentioned in this article) not ‘Training on the Nerve’

An example:
If I forego any sort of pre set excitation, still being tight and focused on the lift and I can hit 5 reps with a given weight, the last rep slowing to an almost grind (where a 6th rep would certainly be unpleasant)- is this 5 effective reps?
and is this 1 rep in reserve?

Typically with the same weight if I got all amped up and crazy I could hit around 10 reps - so in reality did I do zero effective reps and left 5 reps in reserve?

If I can struggle through 4 sets of 5 and get psyched up for the 5th set and hit 10reps - am I leaving gains on the table or overdoing the last set?

Using a weight that requires a high level of excitation for every set is definitely a recipe for burning out and always leads to terrible subsequent workouts.

This is why standardizing your form is MASSIVE.

Getting “psyched” up probably means smashing your reps out. Rep speed, time under tension, muscle engagement, and potential bouncing are all different. The aim is to make every look rep look as identical as possible. If you can get only 5 on the first 4 sets but then manage to get 10 on the last set then you were not as close to failure as you thought you were on the first 4 sets, or you’ve got much bigger problems than worrying about a “high level of excitation”, which itself produces cortisol that can have an impact on recovery


I wrote a highly analytical article about GVT in T Nation+.

The original version kinda sucks, to be honest. Remember that the original GVT uses 60% weights for 10 sets of 10 reps with 1 minute of rest between sets.

This basically makes the first 4-5 seconds ineffective at stimulating growth because you never each what we call “effective reps”: repetitions that have a significant impact on muscle growth. And to be effective you need 2 conditions:

  1. Fast-twitch fibers recruitment
  2. High level of tension on those fibers

Without getting into great length (type “effective reps” in the search option, I talked bout them in depth in several articles) about effective reps, you essentially need to reach a point where the reps get hard to complete to have both conditions present.

a 60% weight is something that most people can lift for 15-20 repetitions (depending on training experience and fiber type). So the first set will have no hard reps, so no effective reps.

Now, because of the short rest periods, you do not fully recover from set to set, so you gradually get weaker, which will eventually make the sets hard. But that typically happens after 5 sets. So essentially the first 5 sets do not do anything for muscle growth… they are just pre-fatigue sets to get to the effective sets.

PLUS, the incomplete rest periods can lead to what is called “central fatigue”, which is essentially a weakening of the excitatory drive from the nervous system to the muscles. A weaker signal makes it harder to recruit the fast twitch fibers, which are high-threshold motor units (they require a stronger signal to get recruited).

So it is quite possible that even when the sets/reps get hard on GVT, you aren’t even recruiting the fast-twitch fibers significantly (which means less hypertrophy)

CAVEAT: The slow-twitch fibers (which would be more heavily involved than the fast twitch fibers during GVT) are a lot more responsive to anabolic steroids (yes, I can provide studies on that if needed). Essentially, steroids make the slow-twitch fibers (which normally have a much lower growth potential than fast-twitch fibers) grow just as well as fast-twitch fibers. So GVT would be effective for steroids users for that reason. German weightlifters in the 70s and 80s (when GVT was supposedly used by them) where heavily using steroids… which doesn’t just help build more muscle, but make methods that target the slow-twitch fibers more effective.

For natural GVT is literally one of the worst training programs ever.

It can give the illusion of rapid hypertrophy for two reasons:

  1. It creates lots of inflammation which swells up the muscles and make them look bigger for a short time

  2. It increases glycogen storage


I think you may have misunderstood, or at least made some flawed assumptions…

My examples are only examples and slightly exaggerated to aid comprehension…
I am in fact pretty well experienced, in fact my form is likely better and more consistent than yours. My proximity to failure is well understood. (I would not train as described)
However I do (as I expect many others do) have access to a deep well of strength above baseline with higher levels of arousal, hence the actual question.

A little sensitive buddy? Why are you trying to one-up someone who was just trying to answer your question?

Of course adrenaline and other stress hormones can lead to increased performance, but purposefully raising that isn’t sustainable - which you already know - but doesn’t come under the “standardizing your form” umbrella. It’s not measurable or predictable. Getting 10 reps on a set where you’ve already gone close to failure on 4 previous sets of just 5? It’s just not happening unless some (probably lots) of sacrifices are being made. You’ve now admitted that your example I responded to was hyperbole, so trying to get a little personal with your response seems a little silly, doesn’t it?

Thanks for trying but on two attempts you appear to have failed to comprehend what I am saying whilst simultaneously coming off as condescending - good combination…

I was trying to illicit a response from someone who has some appropriate level of knowledge or insight really…

This is why we stay off the internet…

Yeah, there are lots of people here who likely have better insight than me. I don’t doubt that for a millisecond. My original post was just trying to give my thoughts on the matter. If you felt condescended then that’s on you because it wasn’t my intention. I’m just a dude putting his perception across of what you asked.

Maybe the main man himself will come in with some really cool knowledge on the matter, but otherwise I think the answer is what I gave you. It’s not measurable or predictable. Even the effective reps model likely isn’t perfect. Maybe the rule of “your muscles don’t know the weight on the bar, only how heavy it feels” applies which could imply you still only get around 5 effective reps from the set. Or maybe because of some neural things that go on you get more than 5 effective reps but recovery-wise they act as if you are going past failure in some way (which based on the fatigue derived could also be accurate). Taking just your original question with nothing else surrounding it, I believe my first reply was accurate. You can blame the internet, or you can maybe communicate a little better. Either way, enjoy the rest of your day and I hope you get the more nuanced answer you seek if there is one because I don’t doubt that it will be interesting.

I can’t comment on who you have trained with, but having run gyms, trained and trained with pros, and discussed their routines in detail, that is not my observation at all in the 30 plus years I’ve been doing this. I’ve done HIT and I’ve done 20 sets a BP. I believe you may be imposing your idea of a work set on their routines, based on how hard the set appears to be.

“Work sets” are cumulative. Just like repetitions. An easy example of this would be a Vince Gironda type 8 x 8. Would you say this was only 2 work sets? The fatigue accumulates and is an essential part of the effectiveness.

For 5 x 5 protocols, normally the last set is the only that will appear “hard”. But there is no way this is the same thing as “1 work set”. The total protocol is what makes it effective. 10 x 10 is another example of the obvious use of cumulative fatigue.

Research shows that you don’t have to go to failure for results, and in fact some relatively high RIR can produce results. This doesn’t mean that this training is easy, because at the end of workout you have done the work, but it also would make it difficult to say what a “work set” is for someone else.

Bodybuilders unlike powerlifting don’t count just work sets, they count their warm ups set as part of their total volume. If you don’t believe me just go to Gold’s gym and watch a professional bodybuilder train. So when a bodybuilder says he does 20 sets for chest it means exactly that 20 sets that also include warm up. Assuming a bodybuilder can do a work set with 405lbs, for 10 reps generally speaking he would start with 135lbs then 225, 315, 365 and then finally 405lbs. He then moves to another movement for the chest rather than pounding more work sets with that 405lbs. That’s how most bodybuilders train.

Again, I try not to question other people’s experience, but my observation of hundreds of workouts by professional BBs disagrees with that as a majority. A serious BB who can bench 405 for 10 reps is not going to do the “bro” pyramid (135-225-315) then 2 work sets of 365/405. A serious pro that can bench 405 for 10 is about a mid 500s max. Everything below 365 is over a 20 rep calculated max. I’m not saying no one trains like that, but that is ridiculous as the “norm”. 500lb benchers normally spend more time warming up and do more work sets.

My disagreement is that for MOST BBs that do 20 sets a BP, only 2 of the sets are “work sets” in general. I don’t know a single pro who trains in the manner you are describing. Plenty of people pyramid, but let’s say a person does 5 sets of 4 exercises. 1st, a 550 Bencher is likely to do more than 5 sets of Bench Pressing, and many spend a lot of time doing it. But let’s say you are correct for the 1st exercise. Your contention then is that for the next 3 exercises, they are “warming up” for 3 out of 5 sets? The normal pattern would be: Warm up then work sets on 1st exercise, and more than 2 work sets. The following exercise for the same body part would have have at MOST 2 warm ups, more likely 1, and the last 2 exercises would have 1 warm up if that.

If you look at the “blueprint” for many high volume trainers, Arnold’s Encyclopedia, he doesn’t recommend 3 easy sets and 2 hard sets.

I think the reason many people “don’t believe” people that train with higher volume train hard, is because they themselves aren’t conditioned to do it so they can’t believe others can. Having done both HIT and 20 sets a BP, the latter was much more difficult.

Again you are not understanding the difference. Power lifting including Olympic lifting include only their work sets as part of their primary training protocol using a lot of sets with low reps to maintain proper form and strength with fewer movements. Bodybuilders do the opposite they count all their sets including warm ups with higher reps for hypertrophy with a lots of different movements! Watch how Jay Cutler train on YouTube! No need to respond I think I have heard enough.

I’m pretty sure I know the difference. :wink: Just to be sure, I’ll check with a couple of professional BBs and PLs and an OL if one shows up today. Have a good one.

Quick question that is not mentioned in this article Christian? You talk about progressive volume overload. And to do that, increase the number of sets you do per week. But it never mentions if you keep the reps the same and just add 15 sets per week, or drop the reps to be about the same as before.

So meaning, week 1-3 is 60 work sets. So lets just use an ex of 3x10. So you’d do 5 exercises x 3 sets each for a total of 15 sets a day x 4 days = 60 sets per week. But what about when you move on to weeks 4-6 and the 75 sets? Do you just add on 15 more sets for those weeks, yet keep the reps the exact same at 10? Or do you drop the reps and increase the sets to be something more like 4x8? So that you’re still doing the same amount of total volume? Or are you increasing total volume (sets x reps) by not just the sets, but also the reps? Because if you keep the reps the same, it’s a LOT more volume. Not just 15 more sets. It would be like 150 reps total for any given day in weeks 1-3, then up to 200 reps for any given day in weeks 4-7, and so on and so fourth! A LOT more work and volume, not just a nice smallish amount to go up by.

So do reps stay the same throughout, while sets go up? Or do the reps get backed off, to stay around the same amount of volume (sets x reps = volume)?


Honestly, it doesn’t matter if you keep those sets at the same effort level (e.g. 2 reps in reserve)… It’s more about increasing the number of effective reps than increasing the total number of reps.

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