Muscle Building: Optimum Training Volume
The resistance training volume is the total amount of work performed in a workout - the combined total of sets and repetitions. It is known that training volume plays a key role in strength and muscle development (Robbins et al., 2012; Marshall et al., 2011) especially amongst experienced strength athletes/bodybuilders.
Optimizing the strength training volume is a key consideration for all individuals looking to enhance muscle building through resistance/strength training. The volume of training is influenced by a number of factors such as the number of sets completed, number of repetitions and the weight lifted (percentage of 1 repetition maximum). Of particular importance is the individuals current training status, or training experience, which should be of key consideration when determining the optimal strength training load - e.g an untrained/novice strength athlete/bodybuilder will experience optimal results from a smaller training volume than an experienced bidybuilder who will likely require a much larger total training volume to stimulated muscle building.
Strength/Resistance training volume in the untrained
As you would expect training volume is less important amongst untrained individuals, where it appears that a lower training volume may be equally effective (Starkey et al., 1996; Wolfe et al., 2004; Cannon and Marino 2010;). Researchers looking at the effects of single and multi-set training in untrained individuals found that single set workouts appear to be equally as effective as multiple-set upper-body routines, however they found that the multiple-set routines were more effective for strength gains in the lower body than upper body (Paulsen et al., 2003; Rønnestad et al., 2007;). Analysis performed by Wolfe et al., (2004) found that single set programmes appeared to be as effective as multiple sets in untrained individuals. However, they found that as training progressed multiple sets per muscle group were more effective.
Strength/Resistance training volume amongst trained individuals
When researchers have compared the effects of performing 3-sets of resistance training with 1-set of resistance training, amongst trained subjects, they found that the 3-set routine led to bigger improvements in 1RM (Humburg et al.2007) and was more anabolic than 1 set of resistance exercise (Burd et al., 2010). Further research by Burd et al., (2012a) demonstrated that increased training volume was able to compensate for reduced training intensity.
In another piece of research subjects that performed a greater number of sets (5 x 6RM vs 3 x 6RM) were found to have greater activation (6x increase vs 3x increased activation) of a key signalling pathway (phosphorylation of p70S6 kinase) that activates protein synthesis (Terzis et al., 2010). The researchers concluded that the volume of exercise appears to play a key role in the activation of protein synthesis.
When researchers compared the effects of a 1-set, 4-set, and 8-set routine at 80%1RM over a 6-week (Robbins et al., 2012) & 10 week training programme (Marshall et al., 2011) they found that the greatest improvement occurred in the 8-set group. Both research teams concluded that resistance exercise programmes consisting of higher number of sets induced the greatest improvements in strength.
A meta-analysis of resistance training research has also revealed that for “athlete populations” optimum training results appear to occur with a mean training volume of 8 sets per muscle group (85% 1RM) performed twice weekly (Peterson et al., 2005).
It is not completely clear why an increased training volume appears to provide a better stimulus for muscle hypertrophy and strength gains, but it may be related to increased time-under-tension which has been shown to lead to increases in mitochondrial, sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar protein synthesis (Burd et al., 2012b). Resistance training volume also appears to play an important role in the hormonal response to resistance training (Leite et al., 2011) - In fact research suggest that training volume may be more important than training frequency (Candow and Burke 2007).
What is the optimum number of sets for training?
Untrained/novice strength athletes - For untrained individuals it appears that optimum training benefit occurs when performing 1-3sets per muscle group. As training progresses you can choose to add further sets in a progressive manner, depending on your training goal (bodybuilding/strength training etc).
Bodybuilders – current research has generally found greater hypertrophy benefits when larger training volumes are employed – the greatest benefit appears to occur when training was increased to ~8sets amongst well-trained subjects. This is not to say that the increased number of sets routinely performed by bodybuilders (15-20+ sets), are not effective, but rather that research hasn’t looked at optimum training volumes amongst highly experienced bodybuilders.
Athletes/strength athletes – Optimum results appear to occur with ~8 sets per muscle group.
Training volume should be tailored to the individual
It is likely that there will be a specific point of diminishing return – a point at which there is little or no benefit from increasing training volume – that will be dictated by a number of factors such as training experience, body-type, the muscle being worked, muscle make-up (% slow twitch/fast twitch). This point of diminishing return will likely shift with increasing training experience e.g. the point of diminishing return might be 1-set for the months 1-2, 2-sets months 2-4, 3-sets months 4-6, 4-6 sets 6-12 months, 6-8 sets 12-24months, 8-10 sets 24-36months and so on.
Burd NA, Holwerda AM, Selby KC, West DW, Staples AW, Cain NE, Cashaback JG, Potvin JR, Baker SK, Phillips SM. (2010) Resistance exercise volume affects myofibrillar protein synthesis and anabolic signalling molecule phosphorylation in young men. J Physiol. 2010 Aug 15;588(Pt 16):3119-30. Epub 2010 Jun 25.
Burd NA, West DW, Staples AW, Atherton PJ, Baker JM, Moore DR, Holwerda AM, Parise G, Rennie MJ, Baker SK, Phillips SM. (2012a) Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS One. 2010 Aug 9;5(8):e12033.
Burd NA, Andrews RJ, West DW, Little JP, Cochran AJ, Hector AJ, Cashaback JG, Gibala MJ, Potvin JR, Baker SK, Phillips SM. (2012b) Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. J Physiol. 2012 Jan 15;590(Pt 2):351-62. Epub 2011 Nov 21.
Candow DG, Burke DG. (2007) Effect of short-term equal-volume resistance training with different workout frequency on muscle mass and strength in untrained men and women. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):204-7.
Cannon J, Marino FE. (2010) Early-phase neuromuscular adaptations to high- and low-volume resistance training in untrained young and older women. J Sports Sci. 2010 Dec;28(14):1505-14.
Humburg H, Baars H, Schröder J, Reer R, Braumann KM. (2007). 1-Set vs. 3-set resistance training: a crossover study. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):578-82.
Leite RD, Prestes J, Rosa C, De Salles BF, Maior A, Miranda H, Simão R. (2011) Acute effect of resistance training volume on hormonal responses in trained men. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2011 Jun;51(2):322-8.
Marshall PW, McEwen M, Robbins DW. (2011) Strength and neuromuscular adaptation following one, four, and eight sets of high intensity resistance exercise in trained males. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Dec;111(12):3007-16. Epub 2011 Mar 31.
Paulsen G, Myklestad D, Raastad T. (2003) The influence of volume of exercise on early adaptations to strength training. J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Feb;17(1):115-20.
Peterson MD, Rhea MR, Alvar BA. (2005) Applications of the dose-response for muscular strength development: a review of meta-analytic efficacy and reliability for designing training prescription. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Nov;19(4):950-8.
Robbins DW, Marshall PW, McEwen M. (2012) The effect of training volume on lower-body strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jan;26(1):34-9.
Rønnestad BR, Egeland W, Kvamme NH, Refsnes PE, Kadi F, Raastad T. (2007)Dissimilar effects of one- and three-set strength training on strength and muscle mass gains in upper and lower body in untrained subjects. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):157-63.
Starkey DB, Pollock ML, Ishida Y, Welsch MA, Brechue WF, Graves JE, Feigenbaum MS. (2006) Effect of resistance training volume on strength and muscle thickness. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Oct;28(10):1311-20.
Terzis G, Spengos K, Mascher H, Georgiadis G, Manta P, Blomstrand E. (2010) The degree of p70 S6k and S6 phosphorylation in human skeletal muscle in response to resistance exercise depends on the training volume. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Nov;110(4):835-43. Epub 2010 Jun 10.
Wolfe BL, LeMura LM, Cole PJ. (2004) Quantitative analysis of single- vs. multiple-set programs in resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Feb;18(1):35-47.