The volume and frequency of workouts have been discussed regularly in fitness circles in recent years. And for good reason, because these are fundamentally important variables that must be taken into account when designing an effective training program.
In the last few years (2017-2020), several studies have reported surprising and seemingly contradictory results. One of them concludes that a higher frequency of training improves muscle growth, and another says it does not. One study suggested that the optimal workout volume was no more than 45 sets, and the next claimed that performing more than 10 sets was counterproductive and reduced the potential benefits that could be derived thereafter.
In this article, we will briefly compare these studies and look for an answer to the question “is there still a maximum allowable productive volume of training or such a threshold is completely absent?”
What does science say about this?
The first 2 studies we will look at [2018 (for women), 2019 (for men)] conclude that when we train a muscle group only once a week and try to train to absolute failure, the optimal training volume is only 5-10 series per week. Control groups performing 15 and 20 sets (for 1 muscle group) per week achieved less development in strength and muscle mass.
But a year later, in 2020, the authors of the 2019 study performed a subsequent analysis of the data and found discrepancies that changed their assessment of the results, so that the data from it remain in question.
Previously, in 2017, a German training volume study showed better strength accumulation and muscle hypertrophy in only 5, instead of 10 sets of the control exercise in the training from the study.
What these studies have in common is that they show that there is an upper limit on the effective amount of training for each week. But did the participants in them really train with too much volume…. or with too little training frequency? The total volume is not as extreme in any of the studies above. It varies only between 10-27 sets per muscle group per week.
In contrast, in two other studies from 2015 and 2019, researchers reported greater muscle growth in 45 sets per muscle group per week than in 30 sets. Which at first glance is a completely different conclusion from that of the 3 studies above.
The difference here is that the last 2 studies used muscle group workouts 3 times a week, so the control groups training 30 sets per week actually performed 10 sets of muscle group in each workout.
“The conclusion we can draw from comparing the results of these 5-6 studies is that there is probably an upper productive threshold of training volume and it is about 9-13 sets per muscle group for each workout. Depending on how many sets we perform per exercise, this can mean 2 to 4 exercises per muscle group per workout”.
The exact optimal amount of training probably depends on the specifics of the specific training program, which observes the trainer and in particular – how close he refuses to train, as well as individual factors such as age, genetic talents and others.
It is logical that muscle growth, which can be stimulated with one workout, has an upper limit and is not infinite. However, training is a stress that stimulates the body to cope with it by building extra strength and muscle mass, and this adaptive capacity is limited, as it depends entirely on the physical means available to the body to achieve it. And they are not endless.
The quality of the training volume is also important!
So far, we’ve talked about the amount of training volume we can take in a workout to make it effective. But it is just as important that this volume is of good quality. And quality volume also has its threshold. What does that mean?
Accumulation of neuromuscular fatigue and rupture of muscle fibers during training can reduce our productivity and worsen muscle activation and mechanical tension more and more with each subsequent series. Not to mention mental fatigue and declining motivation to work.
As a result, once you’ve done about 10 sets for a muscle group, you may no longer be able to increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Continuing to train the muscle group after this time can lead to a negative protein balance, as you only further increase the levels of muscle protein breakdown without stimulating additional muscle growth. Increased muscle breakdown can also slow down overall muscle protein synthesis, so if you train again too soon after the last workout for the same muscle group, you may end up with a negative protein balance over time and lose muscle mass instead of losing it. you accumulate. This is one of the reasons why rest between workouts is just as important.
The maximum productive volume of training would also explain why some, but not other studies, find benefits from a higher frequency of training. Most studies that found benefits from a higher training frequency were conducted on control groups of experienced trainers with a higher workload. Conversely, there are many studies in which the frequency of training does not seem to matter regardless of the amount of exercise, and these studies are performed mainly with a training volume of less than 10 sets per week.
In short – when preparing a training program should take into account not only the amount of training volume, but also its quality, as well as the ratio between the volume and frequency of training in the training program.
Given the conclusions of the studies reviewed and conducted so far:
The traditional training split, in which each muscle group is trained once a week with a very high volume of load, is probably not an effective approach, at least when gaining muscle mass. For optimal increase of muscle mass, an optimal volume of effective load should be sought, but also a higher frequency of training for each muscle group.
Training volume should be monitored individually for each workout, not on a weekly basis.
Training volume should be optimized for the frequency of training and vice versa – the frequency should be consistent with the volume.
Example: Even if in theory the optimal volume for a given muscle group is 30 sets per week, it is very important whether these sets are divided into 2 or 3 workouts for that group for the week. As in this example, it would be better to divide the volume into 3 instead of 2 workouts.
Note: The amount of load is determined by the total amount of weight lifted for a given muscle group or exercise in the workout. In this article, the volume is linked to the number of sets per muscle group per workout, given that each of these sets should be performed with optimal workload for the trainer’s purposes.