Addressing the Argument Against High-Volume Training

Many advocates of low-volume training state time inefficiency as a point against high-volume training.

A good way to view this is through a term we may call the ‘cost-to-benefit ratio’ of training.

This term refers to the amount of cost that is required to achieve a certain magnitude of benefit.

If the amount of cost exceeds the amount of benefit attained, this does not represent an ideal situation.

For instance, if you work 40 hours per week to make $1000, working 80 hours per week to make $1300 represents a very bad cost-to-benefit ratio.

To low-volume training advocates, high-volume training is a clear representation of a bad cost-to-benefit ratio.

Usually, they will suggest that the amount of time put in is not worth the supposed lack of additional gains that can be achieved through performing more sets.

While it is obvious that performing multiple sets will take longer than performing fewer ones, context is needed to understand the cost-to-benefit ratio of high-volume training.

To my knowledge, every meta-analysis to date has shown multiple-set training to be superior to single-set training for enhancing muscle size (1, 2) and strength (3–7).

For hypertrophy, the analyses demonstrate a dose-response relationship between the amount of sets performed and the amount of muscle gains achieved (1, 2).

In regard to strength, Krieger found that performing multiple sets resulted in 48% greater strength gains than performing single sets (4).

Therefore, it is clear that the ‘benefit’ of performing more sets is the optimization of muscle and strength gains.

In regard to the ‘cost’, simple math can place this argument in the appropriate perspective.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that a lifter wishing to optimize muscle gains elects to train with 10 sets per body part per week (as this was found to be the starting point for optimal hypertrophic adaptations to occur in the meta-analysis by Schoenfeld et al.)

Adhering to this goal of performing 10 sets per week, let’s say the lifter elects to train each muscle group twice per week for 5 sets.

Provided that each set lasted a minute to complete, and the lifter incorporated four 3-minute rest intervals between sets, this would equate to a 17-minute workout.

If you do the math, a 17-minute workout encompasses 1% of a 24-hour day, and nearly 2% of a 16-hour day spent awake.

If we were to take this further by suggesting that a 5-set workout would take a whole 30 minutes, basic math still shows us that this massive time commitment takes up just 3% of our waking hours.

As we can see, the amount of time required to optimize muscle and strength development pales in comparison to the amount of time people spend performing utterly useless daily tasks.

Now, for those who are still averse to performing high-volume training due to ‘the time it takes’ or for other reasons they may have, what should be remembered is that ‘volume’ can be looked at as a weekly variable and not just a within-session variable.

In other words, just because you want to train with at least 10 sets per muscle group per week does not mean you must perform 10 sets in one session, or even 5 sets in two sessions.

Spreading out your sets through multiple weekly sessions is a viable option for those who do not wish to perform a ‘high-volume’ workout.

Specifically, volume may be partitioned throughout the week in 3–7 sessions per week.

In this case, one could elect to perform just 2 sets per workout and still hit this 10 set per week goal by training that muscle group 5 times per week.

While many individuals will believe that training each muscle group more than twice per week will lead to overtraining, this is not the case if your weekly training volume is controlled.

In addition, some research suggests a benefit to very high-frequency training for optimizing muscular adaptations (8, 9).

So as we can see, the notion that high-volume training is unfeasible due to time-constraints (the most prevalent argument against high-volume training) appears heavily misguided.

 

References

  1. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073–82.
  2. Krieger JW. Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr 1;24(4):1150–9.
  3. Ralston GW, Kilgore L, Wyatt FB, Baker JS. The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2017:1–17.
  4. Krieger JW. Single versus multiple sets of resistance exercise: a meta-regression. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep 1;23(6):1890–901.
  5. Rhea MR, Alvar BA, Burkett LN, Ball SD. A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Mar 1;35(3):456–64.
  6. Wolfe BL, Lemura LM, Cole PJ. Quantitative analysis of single-vs. multiple-set programs in resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Feb 1;18(1):35–47.
  7. Peterson MD, Rhea MR, Alvar BA. Maximizing strength development in athletes: a meta-analysis to determine the dose-response relationship. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 May 1;18(2):377-82.
  8. Dankel SJ, Mattocks KT, Jessee MB, Buckner SL, Mouser JG, Counts BR, et al. Frequency: The Overlooked Resistance Training Variable for Inducing Muscle Hypertrophy?. Sports Med. 2017 May 1;47(5):799–805.
  9. Raastad T, Kirketeig A, Wolf D, Paulsen G. Powerlifters improved strength and muscular adaptations to a greater extent when equal total training volume was divided into 6 compared to 3 training sessions per week. In 17th annual conference of the ECSS, Brugge. 2012 Jul;4(7).

 

Comments

  1. jim morrison says:

    I think Dorian yates proved without a doubt just how successful low volume high intensity is…many high volume guys want to try and over look him…he was the biggest freakiest dude to ever compete at that time…some will say, it was the drugs…well, everyone was doing drugs…so it was the training that did it.

    • I love Dorian Yates, however, given that he was one of very few elite bodybuilders that achieved success through low-volume training would suggest that he is an outlier. Strictly from what the research shows, strength and muscle growth are optimized with higher training volumes compared to lower ones. However, this does not mean that there will never be outliers who respond better to different training protocols.

      • jim morrison says:

        I read a ton of research saying that going to failure was the reason for muscle growth…not the weight or number of sets…and I don’t think dorian was the exception…most bodybuilders simply do high volume, cause everyone else is doing it…and dorian didn’t just do 1 set per bodypart…reseach says that multiple sets are better than 1…but dorian also did multiple exercises for each body part.. and there has never been a study that shows high volume compared to a set of to total failure and beyond…with maybe doing some partials or rest pauses at the end…I personally have found that high volume gives me a great pump in the gym, but once I leave the gym, I go back to normal…not seeming to grow at all…while the lower volume doesn’t give me quite the pump, I feel i’m getting bigger…and a final note, I also work each body part 3x in a 10 day period…so my frequency might also add to the effect.

        • Failure training has been hypothesized to be beneficial to hypertrophy due to the increased motor unit recruitment (Willardson, 2007), however, few studies have directly analyzed this for hypertrophy. A meta-analysis by Davies et al. (2016) confirmed that failure training is not necessary for optimizing strength gains, however, hypertrophy was not measured. Furthermore, even if failure training can aid in promoting muscle growth, to say that number of sets is not a determinant of hypertrophy is inaccurate given the clear dose-response relationship between the number of sets performed and the magnitude of muscle growth (Krieger, 2010; Schoenfeld et al., 2017; Radaelli et al., 2015).
          As you said, however, there are not many studies comparing non-failure training to failure training that includes partial reps etc. However, the point of the article is to present evidence that clearly shows high-volume training to be superior to low-volume training, and provide strategies to make it work (i.e. using a high training frequency).
          Again, just because some people prefer to use low-volume, high-intensity training does not negate the overwhelming evidence which demonstrates a superiority of high-volume training when analyzed through averages. This does not mean that high-volume is the universal way to go for everyone and that every lifter must train this way. As mentioned, studies only look at averages, and there are individuals who respond better to different styles of training.
          Personally, I would caution lifters on high-intensity failure training since it presents a greater chance of injury. Dorian Yates has stated that his upper body is shot because of the style of training that he employed (JRE podcast).

          • jim morrison says:

            I can say for me personally, for the last year, I read how doing more sets, higher volume, not going to failure was better for growth…I lost strength and size…I couldn’t figure out what was wrong…then I decided to go back to failure or at least close to it…and my strength shot right back up…while the higher volume worked great for getting pumps, i shrunk back down after…while slowing losing both size and strength…The moment i started pushing myself again…everything came back really fast…I feel if you do such a low volume, you probably need to do a higher frequency, which I do…

          • Since that training style works better for you, then by all means keep doing it. Also, I certainly agree about the need for higher frequency if you are doing lower-volume workouts.