More Sets & Reps Means More Size & Strength…But Only To a Point
The amount of volume (sets x reps x load) we do in the gym has a direct effect on growth, but there is an upper limit that can lead to diminishing returns if we cross it.
If working out for 5 hours a week produces positive results in our strength and muscle mass, then does working out 20 hours a week quadruple our results?
The obvious answer to this questions is well, no. But why not? It has been shown that the more volume we do the more we grow, so why is it that training more isn’t better?
It turns out that increases in exercise volume leads to more muscle growth but only to a point.
Each individual has a different threshold for the amount of volume they can perform in any given week.
If an individual is not of a high enough training status for example, and is not yet ready for a given level of volume, recovery might be disrupted, and higher volumes can have a diminishing return on their training investment.
This recent article compared two training programs for 6 weeks; a very high volume program versus a more moderate volume training program.
The purpose of this study was to compare the effects of these training volumes on hypertrophy, strength, and lean body.
A popular training program among individuals looking to increase size and strength is German Volume Training (GVT), which involves performing 10 sets of a specific exercise (often 10 sets of 10 repetitions), thus resulting in high volume training.
This study compared a modified GVT program (10-set) with 10 sets of 10 repetitions for the main exercises, to a more traditional program with 5 sets of 10 repetitions for the main exercises (5-set). Each group trained three times per week for 6 weeks, and measurements of hypertrophy, strength, and body composition were assessed and compared between groups before and after training.
What the Evidence Says
Neither group experienced significant hypertrophy, in terms of either increases in muscle thickness or gains in leg lean body mass.
However, the 5-set group had larger increases in trunk and arm lean body mass than the 10-set group. Furthermore, both groups increased all strength measures, but again, the 5-set group had greater increases in bench press and lat pull-down strength than the GVT group.
Despite the popularity in the practical realm, GVT did not yield better results than 5 sets of 10 repetitions. Actually, 5 sets of 10 repetitions produced larger gains in strength and lean body mass in some cases than a modified GVT program over a short-term, 6-week training cycle.
Ultimately, more is not always better.
The hormetic stress of exercise on the body promotes a host of amazing adaptations, but we must remember that exercise is a form stress. The body can only adapt to so much stress. Too much stress has a catabolic effect on the body which is the exact opposite result we want.
Below I’ve listed some applications you can use, but ultimately it is up to you to find the volume that best works for you and the results you’re after.
In moderately trained lifters, moderate training volume might produce larger strength gains than high volume in the short term.
To fully optimize the ROI from a program, volume should NOT be increased too quickly for lifters with a relatively low training age.
Even for individuals with a higher training age it is likely better to increase volume slowly over mesocycles.
Moreover it is likely better to disperse volume for an exercise or muscle group over a frequency of 2-3 sessions/wk rather than looking for high volume in one session.
This strategy allows for a quicker recovery from one session without diminishing total weekly volume.