Monday 16 March 2020

The Truth about Volume and Muscle Hypertrophy

So you want to pack on some muscle. What should you do? What is really important when trying to gain size? A few years ago, the hot topic in the research was frequency. People got all caught up in trying to hit a muscle with high frequency. Now the focus has shifted to volume. Today people are trying to pack more and more volume into their training week. Is this is a good idea? Will more volume help YOU build more muscle? Let’s see what the latest research has to say on the topic…

Photo by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash

Study Reference
Scarpelli, M.C., et al. (2020). Muscle hypertrophy response is affected by previous resistance training volume in trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 27, 2020 - Volume Publish Ahead of Print - Issue - doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003558

Defining Volume
Just so we are all on the same page, volume is the amount of work you are doing. Sometimes it is used to quantify everything (i.e. weight x reps x sets). Other times it will look at the total number hard sets (i.e. sets to or close to failure – not warm-up sets) for a muscle group per week. This study looks volume in terms of weekly hard sets for quads.

Most studies simply start participants at a random training volume without taking into consideration the previous training volume. This result in a rapid jump in training volume might not be ideal. This study investigated whether is better to consider a subject’s previous training volume (and bump it up slightly) or to start at a high volume based on other research.

21 males started the study and 16 finished. Each subject had to have trained legs 2x per week for the last 2 years. (Given the fact that so few guys train legs at all let alone twice a week makes me wonder how the researchers were even able to get these many guys). All subjects were drug-free and injury-free. 

Each subject trained legs twice per week for 8 weeks. They did single-leg leg press and single-leg leg extensions for sets of 8-12 reps. Each set was taken to muscular failure. On one leg, subjects did a standardized number of sets (22 sets per week). On the other leg, the same subjects did an individualized protocol. For this leg, they did 1.2x the number of sets they had been doing for the past 2 weeks. 

Ten out of the 16 subjects had greater hypertrophy gains in the leg with the individual set protocol. Two of the subjects gained more from the standard (non-individualized) set protocol. Four of the subjects had similar gains in size between both legs. On average there was a 6.2% increase in leg size with the non-individualized approach and a 9.9% increase with the individualized approach.

It was cool to see the same subjects using a different training protocol with each leg. This helps to address the between-subject variability that you often see in studies where one person does one thing, and the other person does a different program. With this design, you have the same DNA exposed to two different training protocols. 

The great thing about this study is that it is an actual training study. This is always better than the traditional model we often see in exercise science research (e.g. do a set of leg extensions and take a blood sample). 

The downside of this study is that the number of subjects was low. Obviously, it would have been better to use more subjects. However, remember that training studies are very difficult and expensive to do. 

Eight weeks is a relatively short time. More time would be better, but again, is not always practical.

It was great that every training session was supervised. This is hard and expensive to do but ensures consistency with effort and technique.

Muscle size was assessed with ultrasound. This reduces the risk of measurement error compared to just using a tape measure.

The subjects self-reported their previous training experience and training volume. This does leave room for error – especially if the subjects were not keeping accurate measures of their training. 

This study used experienced lifters. This is nice because almost anything works for beginners. 

This study used only male subjects. This begs the question: would the results have been different with female lifters?

This study got subjects using a similar volume to what they were already using. This is significant considering that the subjects were experienced lifters. These lifters had likely already had intuitively figured out what volume worked best for them.

Practical Applications
How does this research help you?

Don’t look at volume as an “either-or” variable. This happens all the time in the fitness industry and it messes us up. You don’t just have the choice of very high or very low volume. Instead, see volume as a continuum. Realize that you have a large range of volume options that land between the two extremes. 

Always out-recover your training. If you want to experiment with higher volume training, go for it! However, be smart about when you do it. Too many people make the mistake of thinking that extra volume means just squeezing in an extra 10 minutes per training session or an extra session per week. Often this fails to work, because most people fail to also increase their recovery. As a result, they burn out and think that high volume training is useless. If you want to try increasing your training volume, you need more time to sleep, more time to cook food, eat food (and wash dishes), and more time to relax. If you don’t have this time, then adding more volume will not work. 

If you are making progress, don’t mess with it. If you are getting stronger, but not getting bigger, you could experiment with increasing your volume. However, don’t drastically increase your training volume. A large increase in volume will often be too much for the body to handle. If you want to increase volume, start slow and gradually build it up. 

Don’t let the peaking effect fool you into thinking you are a low volume person. Back in the ’70s when Arthur Jones hit the scene with his low-volume training dogma, he fooled a lot of people into thinking they were low volume guys. At that time, Arnold was popular and so everyone trained like him – very high volume. When people tried Arthur’s approach, they make rapid gains in strength & size. Was this because his approach was superior? In reality, what he demonstrated was the peaking effect. If you train with high volume and then all of a sudden drop the volume, your body recovers and your get short-term spike in strength and hypertrophy. Like a sugar rush, it is fun while it lasts, but it doesn’t last long. 

Don’t forget about drugs. As a lifetime drug-free lifter who works with drug-free clients and athletes, I know how hard it is to build muscle without drugs. I also know how much of the information out there about building muscle is from people who use performance-enhancing drugs. Most people are aware that drugs allow you to do a lot more volume and still grow muscle. However, drugs also allow a lifter to get away with less volume. If you are a drug-free, you need to be careful with your training and with your nutrition. You have a smaller range to work with between too little and too much volume.

Related posts for drug-free lifters: 

Don’t lose sight of progression. This is the most important thing for muscle gain. When you approach the topic of volume, consider it in light of progression. If your volume is too high, it will be difficult to progressively adding weight to the bar. However, if your volume is too low, you will peak and then quickly hit a plateau. Your optimal muscle-building volume is the amount of volume that allows you to make steady gains in performance for a moderate number of reps. 

Don’t forget to vary volume over time. If you have times when you can recover well, you can experiment with doing more volume. However, you will need to deload with a lower volume week every month or two to recover and grow from your volume. If you have busier times of the year, these are great times for a lower volume phase. In addition, as Dr. Mike Israetel points out, lower volume phases are important to re-sensitive your body volume training. 

Don’t let research findings, training trends or “experts” detract you from what you already know about what works for you. I’ve made this mistake countless times in my training life. I’m going along, making great progress and then I mess it all up because some “expert” said I should do it a different way. 

Keep accurate records. Training logs, body weight, girth measures, and food journals help you keep track of what is going on. If you are diligent in logging, you are off to a great start in being able to find out what works for you.

Stop, think and reflect. In this information age, we can get so caught up in learning new information that we forget to stop, think and reflect. Don’t make this mistake. Look both at times when you have had success, as well as times when you didn’t grow any muscle. What were you doing or not doing at those times? Without the reflection time, you miss out on what your body is trying to tell you about how it responds to training. 

More on volume and building muscle:
Low Volume Muscle Building: The Key to Explosive Muscle Growth? (this is a guest post I did for JMAX fitness)

Click HERE to get started with building drug-free size and strength. 

Also, stay tuned as I’m getting closer to finishing and releasing my new book on building muscle for hardgainers… 

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