How Much Volume is Needed to Maximize Strength Gains?

A new meta-analysis by Ralston and colleagues has come out investigating the effects of training volume and strength gains (1).

While I have discussed in other articles the impact of volume on muscle growth, I figured I would provide a brief rundown of this meta-analysis as it pertains to strength, while providing some of my thoughts on the findings.

Let’s get to it.

 

OBJECTIVES

Essentially, the investigators sought to determine the effect of higher versus lower weekly sets on strength gains.

  • Low weekly sets (LWS) was deemed as less than 5 sets per week
  • Medium weekly sets (MWS) was deemed 5–9 sets per week
  • High weekly sets (HWS) was deemed 10+ sets per week

The investigators also sought to determine whether the effect of weekly sets was influenced on whether multi-joint exercises or isolation exercises were performed.

The degree of effectiveness between higher and lower weekly sets was determined through the use of effect sizes.

 

THE SET UP

  • 9 studies met inclusion criteria which encompassed 223 participants
  • Of the 9 studies included, 5 of the studies included untrained subjects while 4 of the studies used trained subjects
  • Mean age of subjects 23 years old
  • All subjects included in the meta-analysis were male
  • Mean length of study 11 weeks
  • Mean training frequency was 2.8 times per week
  • Mean level of intensity used was 78% 1RM
  • Mean amount of reps per set was 8.8

 

RESULTS

Both HWS and MWS showed slight superiority over LWS when multi-joint exercises were combined with isolation exercises, and when multi-joint exercises were studied alone. Comparing MWS to HWS was not possible due to limited data.

MWS showed slight superiority over LWS when isolation exercises were studied alone. Analysis of HWS was not possible due to limited data.

 

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

For novice lifters or individuals who are time-constrained, the investigators suggest that a medium weekly set volume (5–9 sets per week) may be optimal.

For more advanced lifters, the authors suggest that performing either MWS or HWS may be appropriate for optimizing strength.

It should be mentioned that these recommendations should be taken with caution, given the small sample of studies included in the analysis (1).

While the authors conclude that the use of medium and higher weekly sets can be used to maximize strength in trained and untrained lifters, the differences in effect sizes compared to lower weekly sets was quite modest.

Therefore, while higher volumes appear necessary to optimize strength gains, the difference in strength gains achieved through higher and lower volumes may not be as glaring as previously believed.

 

MY THOUGHTS

First off, I am not surprised that higher weekly volume was found to be superior for strength gains compared to lower volume.

While research has clearly demonstrated that higher volumes are will produce greater increases in muscle growth (2–4), it only stood to reason that the same might occur for strength.

While the authors were unable to prescribe an optimal number of sets for maximizing strength, previous data from Rhea et al. suggest that about 4 sets per muscle group performed twice per week is necessary to optimize strength development in trained lifters (5).

Krieger found that both trained and untrained lifters experience optimal strength development performing ~3 sets per exercise, per workout (6). The majority of studies included in Krieger’s analysis incorporated training frequencies of 2–3 times per week, which would fall into the MWS category.

From a personal standpoint, I would suggest that 6–8 sets per week is necessary to optimize strength gains in untrained individuals, and that a minimum of 10 sets per week (divided over multiple training sessions) may be necessary to optimize strength in advanced lifters.

Schoenfeld et al. reported that performing 10+ sets per week is superior to performing fewer sets per week to for optimizing muscle growth (2).

Therefore, lifters who are interested in maximizing both size and strength may do well to train with at least 10 sets per week.

Obviously, in order to perform 10 sets per week, this could equate to performing 5 sets per workout, twice per week.

In my view, this is a ‘healthy’ amount of volume, and it would likely not result in any decrements in strength performance.

In addition, those who prefer to utilize higher training frequencies can achieve close to this 10 set per week goal by training each muscle group 3 times per week using 3 sets per muscle group.

While the research has shown higher training frequencies to be optimal for increasing muscle size (7–9), whether it is optimal for strength gains is unclear.

Regardless, one of the benefits of higher training frequencies is its ability to allow the lifter to accumulate higher weekly training volumes.

 

THE ISSUE OF PROGRESSION

As discussed in The Science of Weight Training, there is an argument for training volume to progressively increase along with the training status of the lifter (10).

Therefore, it may be prudent to gradually increase the amount of weekly sets performed once the lifter has accumulated years of training experience.

Trial and error may be necessary to determine the right number of weekly sets that one can achieve maximal benefit from beyond the 10 set per week recommendation.

The workouts provided in The Science of Weight Training present a template for volume progression based on training status.

Hopefully more research will come out to provide a clearer picture of the optimal amount of volume necessary to maximize muscle and strength gains for each level of training experience.

See you next time.

 

References

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Radaelli R, Fleck SJ, Leite T, Leite RD, Pinto RS, Fernandes L, et al. Dose-response of 1, 3, and 5 sets of resistance exercise on strength, local muscular endurance, and hypertrophy. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 May 1;29(5):1349–58.
  4. 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.
  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. Krieger JW. Single versus multiple sets of resistance exercise: a meta-regression. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep 1;23(6):1890–901.
  7. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of resistance training frequency on measures of muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689–97.
  8. Schoenfeld BJ, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, Contreras B, Tiryaki-Sonmez G. Influence of resistance training frequency on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jul;29(7):1821–9.
  9. McLester JR, Bishop E, Guilliams ME. Comparison of 1 Day and 3 Days Per Week of Equal-Volume Resistance Training in Experienced Subjects. J Strength Cond Res. 2000 Aug 1;14(3):273–81.
  10. Peterson MD, Rhea MR, Alvar BA. 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 1;19(4):950–8.