Hundreds of research studies have attempted to ascertain the most important variable to manipulate in order to build muscle. Time and time again, one variable comes out on top. Once you cast aside the bogus studies and discard the irrelevant ones, the handful of good and pertinent data shows us that, all other things being equal, it is the volume (i.e. sets X reps X load) that can be most assuredly correlated positively with hypertrophy.

There is a limit, of course, to increasing training volume. After a certain threshold is crossed, additional volume gives diminishing returns. Think of it as a bell-curve. But where is that “certain threshold” exactly? Well, unfortunately, it differs from individual to individual, due to training age, sex, genetics, limb length(!), and a whole host of other variables. Damn. No magic formula, then.

There are few certainties in the iron game, but considering the following simple statement, you can be sure that the amount of volume you use in the gym is one of the things you know you’re getting right:

Quantity means nothing without quality

I have never been more serious. A reckless trainee can bust out a hundred sets per muscle group and their progress will be trumped by a wary, focused trainee doing twenty. Every time.

This is not just the rambling of an iron game purist, but hard fact. Let me explain why.

Among other variables, hypertrophy is achieved through the use of tension. Now, tension is to do with the muscle, not the weight, and whilst a heavier weight lifted properly will result in more tension than a lighter weight lifted properly, it is the lifting properly with which trainees tend to struggle.

If you bicep curl 80kg with hideous form, don’t for a second believe that your biceps are receiving 80kg of tension – and by extension 80kg (X sets X reps) of volume. With the swinging start, you can be sure that a good 10kg is gifted to the spinal erectors and traps. With the bounce at the bottom, you can be sure that another few kilos are distributed into the bicep tendons and anterior delts. And with those last few quasi-drag curls, you can be sure that even your lats are taking some of that tension. So congratulations: you’ve made the barbell curl a full-body compound exercise, but your biceps got maybe fifty kilos of tension, achieved during only the middle portion of the rep, and your arms still suck. So no, heavy weight does not equate with tension. Next time, do the curl with sixty kilos; you’ll achieve more tension with less weight – and, of course, by extension, more volume. Bingo.

Any volume you hope to accrue needs to be of damn good quality or it can’t count.

At the same time, it’s only the meatheads – my brothers – who are prone to this kind of misinterpretation of volume. The majority of trainees waste their volume on inadequate sets of the other variety: the intra-set chatting, low-intensity sets, of uncertain and undecided rep count. It is because of these vastly sub-maximal sets that trainees feel the need to do ten sets of the exercise and then throw in a quadruple drop set to finish. Congratulations, again: you’re doing HIT training – a single working set to failure. It worked for Dorian Yates, but it won’t work for you.

The difference between warm-up sets and working sets

Only genuine working sets should be counted in your total volume: the sets that require 100% of your focus, challenge your muscles directly and hard, and approach (if not reach) concentric failure.

If you’re using lighter weights, you’re going to need to go to failure to achieve the same hypertrophic effects as heavier weights; if you’re using heavier weights, you’re going to need to ensure that it is the muscle that takes all that weight, or it will be no more useful than the lighter weights.

You might have thought this was going to be information about volume. Instead, you were faced with a diatribe against time-wasting in the gym. But that time that is wasted is often conflated with effective volume, and that just won’t do.

Save yourself some time and effort and make your volume count. You might find yourself a low-volume zealot after all!

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