When we hear Arnold talking about “training five hours a day,” or when we see pro bodybuilders training in YouTube videos, it’s easy to fall for the more-is-better philosophy when it comes to training volume. But remember, training is only a stimulus!
Training just creates a potential for change in our bodies, which is then actualized with proper nutrition and adequate recovery.
But what makes for an optimal training stimulus? The smallest stimulus possible that will provide the greatest opportunity for physical change. In other words, what would give you the greatest return on your investment of time, energy, and sweat?
Three variables that will be important to your overall training stimulus are: exercise execution, load/intensity, and volume.
It’s not a surprise that how you perform an exercise matters! For example, let’s say you’re performing an incline dumbbell press. If you’re cheating by bouncing the weight, using momentum, or recruiting other assisting muscle groups to lift the weight from point A to point B, how much work is your chest really doing? Not much.
To use a fancy term, “TUT” (time under tension) is important for maximizing muscle growth. Cheating your reps will minimize how much TUT the muscle experiences. However, if instead you perform the same exercise with control, without cheating and with hard stops at the end ranges, your chest muscles are going to be experiencing much more tension, and will therefore be doing much more work (I’ll bet you’ll get a lot more sore this way too!). Perfecting your exercise execution over time will maximize TUT and will contribute to an ideal stimulus that is specific to the muscle that you are training.
The amount of weight you use, and the intensity (exertion) with which you perform an exercise, will also contribute to your training stimulus. Our bodies are very adaptive, which is why progressive overload is so essential for continued growth. I believe that everyone should track their workouts if possible. You can go the old-fashioned route and use a notebook, or you can look into the different training log apps (I use RepCount). Either way, this will keep you goal-oriented and motivated to progress weights or reps in each workout. Increasing the load, or doing more work with the same load, when possible is part of what keeps our bodies from plateauing.
A common term to describe training intensity is the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale. It’s a ten-point scale that describes how close you are to absolute failure. Personally, I don’t believe you have to worry about training to failure at all times. Depending on your goals and lifestyle, training to failure may not be the most important variable. That being said, it’s one way to efficiently manipulate your overall training stimulus. Training with high intensity as opposed to low or moderate intensity means that the overall stimulus will be stronger and, therefore, may lead to more progress or hypertrophy (assuming you’re eating and sleeping well!).
Training volume can be increased with supersets, giant sets, drop sets, rep range, and total number of sets performed. It’s not rocket science to say that a high-volume workout will provide a bigger stimulus, and will require more recovery, than a low-volume workout. Yet too many increase training volume first, as the primary method by which to create a bigger stimulus. That’s not the most efficient way to go.
In fact, it’s probably the least important of the three variables mentioned. If you have volume without proper execution, then you’ll have minimal muscle activation and a lot of wear and tear on your joints. On the other hand, if you have volume and execution without load/intensity, you will have to be in the gym longer to create an adequate growth stimulus. You can either train hard or you can train long. You can’t do both. Personally, I don’t get the best results from high reps or lots of sets.
Progressively developing form, then load/intensity, and finally volume, will keep your workouts shorter and will keep your joints healthier in the long run. By training this way, your total sets per workout should likely end up anywhere in the 6-12 range, give or take.
Best of both worlds?
Is it possible to find a middle ground? Absolutely. Getting a nasty pump is fun, and it’s easier to achieve with volume rather than low reps and heavy weights. So, here’s a mix that may work for you: volume density. For example, at the end of a back workout, pick a sequence of movements done back-to-back that will total around 30-50 reps and will give you a gnarly pump in all the major parts of your back (lats, traps, spinal erectors). It’s both fun and time efficient! And because you’ve already exhausted yourself on staple movements early in the workout, the weights used at the end are submaximal, and more joint-friendly.
Volume is not the first training variable to prioritize. But, if you’re looking to change up your workout or if you have extra time for the gym, bumping up your volume can be fun! There are some people who respond well to high volume training, though I don’t believe these people are all that common (exceptional genetics are not the rule, they are the exception). Experimenting in the gym is important, particularly if you’re in the first few years of your training.
Find movements that fit you, perfect your form, and use relatively heavy weight and (very) high intensity. Then, sprinkle in volume as needed! Train hard!
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Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.