A popular theory among fitness professionals is that taking short rest periods between sets maximizes muscular growth. The theory is primarily based on the hormone hypothesis, whereby limiting inter-set rest promotes greater elevations in post-exercise growth hormone, IFG-1 and testosteron...
July 25, 2016
The question as to how much strength training volume is needed to maximize muscular gains has been an ongoing source of debate, both in scientific circles as well as the realm of social media. Some claim that a very low volume approach is all that’s required while others subscribe to the belief that marathon training sessions are an absolute necessity.
Who’s right? Well…
Back in 2010, my colleague James Krieger carried out a meta-analysis to provide evidence-based clarity on the topic. In case you’re not aware, a meta-analysis pools data from all relevant studies on a given subject to provide greater statistical power and thus enhance the ability to draw practical inferences from the literature. In short, the analysis showed that performance of multiple sets was associated with a 40% greater hypertrophy-related effect size (a statistical measure of the meaningfulness of results) compared to single-set training.
While this paper provided good evidence in support of higher training volumes, there were some issues with the analysis. For one, James only looked at sets per muscle per workout; a potentially more important marker in determining the hypertrophic response is the weekly volume per muscle group. Moreover, only 8 studies qualified for inclusion in James’ analysis at the time, and only 3 of these studies used direct site-specific measures of muscle growth (i.e. MRI, ultrasound, etc).
Since publication of James’ meta-analysis, a number of additional studies have been published in the peer-reviewed literature. Given this info and in an attempt to resolve previous issues, James and I decided it was appropriate to carry out a follow-up meta-analysis that encompassed all the evidence to date. We recruited our colleague Dan Ogborn to collaborate on the project, and centered our focus on the effects of weekly sets per muscle group on changes in muscle mass. I’m happy to report the paper was recently published in the Journal of Sport Sciences.
Here’s the lowdown:
What We Did
A literature search was conducted to locate all studies that directly compared measures of hypertrophy between higher versus lower resistance training volumes with all other variables equated between conditions. Only human studies with healthy subjects that had a minimum duration of six weeks were considered for inclusion.
What We Found
A total of 15 studies were identified that met inclusion criteria. We ran multiple comparisons to assess the topic from different perspectives. First we evaluated the effects of volume within each study and found that higher volumes were associated with a 3.9% greater average increase compared to lower volumes; the findings were statistically significant (i.e. high probability that they weren’t due to chance alone). As shown in the accompanying forest plot, only 1 of the 15 studies showed a favorable effect for lower volume training, emphasizing the high probability that greater volumes produce greater increases in muscle growth.
We next looked at the effects of volume on a two-level categorical basis, splitting the data into performing less than 9 sets versus 9 sets or more. In this model, the lower volume condition was associated with a gain of 5.8% while the higher volume condition produced a gain of 8.2%. Although the results did not reach statistical significance in this model, the probability of an effect was nevertheless very high (p = 0.076).
Finally, we employed a three-level categorical analysis whereby volume was stratified into less than 5 weekly sets per muscle, 5 to 9 weekly sets per muscle, and 10+ sets per muscle. Here we found a graded dose response whereby gains in muscle progressively increased across each category from 5.4% to 6.6% to 9.8%, respectively. As with the two-level model, results did not quite reach significance, but a high level of confidence can be inferred that results were not due to chance alone (p = 0.074).
What are the Practical Implications
There are several important take-aways from our meta-analysis. First off, a low volume approach can build appreciable muscle. Performing less than 5 weekly sets per muscle produced an average hypertrophic gain of 5.4%. Not too shabby. So if you are time-pressed and not concerned about achieving the upper limits of your muscular potential, it should be heartening to know that you can build an impressive physique without spending a lot of time in the gym.
That said, there is a clear dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy. In the three way categorical model, performing 10+ sets produced almost twice the gains as performing less than 5 weekly sets per muscle (9.8% vs 5.4%). Performing 10+ weekly sets per muscle was also associated with a markedly greater increase in muscle mass compared to 5-9 sets (9.8% vs 6.6%). Thus, a higher volume approach is clearly necessary if you want to maximize muscular gains.
So how many sets should you perform to maximize hypertrophy? That remains to be determined. While 10+ weekly sets per muscle was established as a minimum threshold, we were not able to determine an upper threshold where optimal muscle growth is achieved. The effects of volume on hypertrophy undoubtedly follows an inverted-U curve, whereby results progressively increase up to a certain point, then level off, and then ultimately decrease at exceedingly high volumes due to the negative consequences of overtraining. Moreover, the adaptive response to volume will be specific to the individual, with some lifters able to benefit from higher volumes more so than others. Thus, experimentation is needed to tweak the number of sets you perform based on how you respond.
It may well be that periodized approach is best here. Given that repeatedly training with high volumes can lead to an overtrained state, cycling from lower to higher volume blocks that culminate in a brief period of functional overreaching would hypothetically allow for sustained muscular gains over time while staving off the potential for overtraining. It’s a strategy that I’ve employed with good success when working with clients.
Interestingly, a previous study indicated that higher volumes were beneficial for the lower but not upper body musculature. A follow-up study by the same research group similarly found that satellite cell activation was dependent on volume only in the lower body musculature. However, our pooled analysis did not support these findings. Rather, volume was equally important irrespective of body region, with higher volumes translating into greater increases in size.
A limitation of the analysis is that the findings are largely specific to the muscles of the upper arms and frontal thighs; there simply isn’t enough evidence to generalize results to other body regions (i.e. muscles of the back, shoulders, chest, calves, etc). What’s more, the vast majority of studies were carried out in untrained subjects; only two studies used resistance-trained individuals. It has been speculated that increasingly higher volumes are necessary as one gains lifting experience, but more research is needed to support such a conclusion. My lab currently has a large scale study in development to investigate the topic in well-trained men that should help to fill in the gaps in the current literature. Stay tuned…
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