We could answer this question with the age old cop-out…it depends, but let’s dive deep and first look at what the research has to say.

First, we will go to the most recent meta-analysis on the subject by Schoenfeld et al. published in 2016.

“Results showed an incremental dose-response relationship whereby progressively higher weekly training volumes resulted in greater muscle hypertrophy.”

More seems to be MORE in terms of GAINZ.

What we do not have currently is the top end of this volume range AKA where more is LESS or the point where the law of depreciating returns in terms of volume comes into play.

This is likely very individual and depends on a plethora of factors outside the weight room. But, it is fair to assume that those with higher training ages will need more training volume to produce continued results, albeit incrementally less results as they push their genetic potential.

Marshall et al. ran an interesting study comparing 1,4, and 8 sets in trained males. Subjects performed six exercises per session in the 6-12 RM range. Upper body and lower body were trained twice per week. This results in a lot of volume for the eight set group clocking in around 16 sets and 670 reps per week in the 70-80% window.

All groups lost significant body fat and all groups got stronger, BUT eight sets won pretty handily with an average squat increase of a little over 81 lbs and significant differences between groups were already seen at three weeks of training.

To put this in perspective, MASS Phase 2 is around 1,200 reps per week but the %RM is far less at around 45-55% 1RM. MASS Phase 3 drops to 360 reps and then some lighter assistance work and Phase 4 has a similar weekly volume as far as the big guns and both of these phases only have a few weeks at 70% or 75% 1RM.

In contrast, a study by Amirthalingam et al. was just published on German Volume Training in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning research comparing 10×10 vs. 5×10 at 60-80% 1RM.

Dr. Chris Beardsley‘s graphical review of this study is below. He always does a fantastic job and when I saw this headline I had a very “oh shit” moment.

“The primary finding from this study was that despite a larger training volume, the 10X10 group did not achieve greater increases in muscular hypertrophy compared to the 5X10 group, therefore our hypothesis was not supported. Both groups increased total lean tissue following the 6-week intervention, with greater increases in trunk and arm lean tissue seen in the 5-SET group.”

“Significant increases over time were found for 1RM bench press, lat pull-down and leg press (p < 0.01; Table 4). The 5-SET and 10-SET groups increased 1RM bench press by 14.9% and 6.2% respectively, 1RM lat pull-down by 15.1% and 4.5% respectively, and 1RM leg press by 8.1% and 4.7% respectively.”

-Amirthalingam et al. 2016

If you have ever done 10RM training inside of straight sets you can imagine that this is an absolute bitch.

When we dig into this study further, the subjects in this study had some lifting experience, but they did not run deadlifts and squats because their experience level was too low. This blew the bro-breaker in my mind mid-sentence. I immediately went to the data and we see these dudes had an average max bench press of 180 lbs. Ahhh I’m pretty sure my brother could lift that at the age of 7 and it probably took me until maybe 14.

Compared to the Marshall et al. study in which subjects were pushing a squat of 2.4x bodyweight with an average weight of around 435 lbs. Not shabby by any means.

Bottom-line, don’t take this new German volume training study to the bank and don’t beat up on NUBEs. It’s not just helpful or necessary. Find the minimum effective dose. But, if you are a trained male, who is chasing strength and hypertrophy and you have the fundamentals all dialed in, 8 sets twice a week or 4 sets every 48 hours could be the peanut butter and the jelly and getting at least 10 sets per week per muscle group seems prudent given the research.

To finish, we must remember that in order to force the body to adapt we have to disrupt homeostasis and that everyone is different. Thus, if you aren’t adapting with your current training schematic you can either stop beating your head against the wall and ask bigger questions, or you can attempt to run through the wall.

To take on these two scenarios. I will toss it over to two of the thought leaders in our field. Men who live and die in the trenches and who eat, sleep, and breathe exercise physiology.

You might also be wondering what if you add in the concurrent shit storm of interval training and competing goals?

The Wizard – Coach Aaron Davis

Well first off, let me calm our fears regarding concurrent training stealing all the gainz.

Exhibit A – CrossFit, which has been throwing up their middle fingers to the “interference effect” since 2000. Plenty of muscle and attitude going on there.

and

Exhibit B – Murach & Bagley’s 2016  “Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy with Concurrent Exercise Training: Contrary Evidence for an Interference Effect.”

So what does all of this mean?

If done intelligently concurrent training shouldn’t be scary, but I will caution: it can steal time.  It is not rare for competitive athletes to spend anywhere from 10-20+ hours a week training depending on the sport (Track disciplines 400-1500m, CrossFit, Team Sports, etc.). When so much time is allocated to training, priority then shifts to evaluating and zeroing in on the athlete’s needs.

Success in my mind then comes down to individual nuances. So let’s look at the study by Marshall et al. again and evaluate the low and high responders. They differentiated the High vs. Low by >20% strength gains for the High and less than <10% for the low.

1 set

4 sets 8 sets
High 3 5 5
Low 6 5 2

The average favors the 8 sets group, but if I can get away with 4 sets or even 1 set I will take it and run.

This then leads me to my next point… “why?”

Why does 1 set work for some and 8 sets work for others?

I believe it all relies on the stress reaction elicited from the marriage of the athlete’s physiological predisposition and the exercise protocol.  If that specific stress reaction isn’t accurately created then adaptation will fall short of the goal – as long as all other intangibles are equal (Nutrition, Sleep, etc.).  This is what we can look forward to in the future – creating physiological based workouts to elicit adaptation over thumbing through pages to find a protocol.  NIRS (near infrared spectroscopy) technology is the first hope for us coaches monitoring stress reactions in real time, but the future will no doubt bring more solutions.

To wrap it up, the key to concurrent training is all about walking the razor’s edge of “just enough” with erring on the side of intensive training over volume. This is where HIIT reigns supreme. For more information read all things Martin Buchheit on HIIT and Concurrent Programming.

Touche! Thank you coach.

Now to beat the living snot out of this volume pinata, let’s lob it over to Dr. Pat Davidson, who in contrast likes to rhino through any wall you put in front of him.

The totality of components that I look at as being relevant regarding training volume for hypertrophy or athleticism are as follows.

  1. Appreciating the fitness/fatigue model…which I have covered extensively here on item 4.

If you don’t want to click out here is an excerpt – based on my interpretation of the Zatsiorsky Fitness-Fatigue model, I want to see fatigue mount to high levels at various times of the training process. If I am truly driving what will result in a positive adaptation, I need to see decline first. This process appears to be intimately tied into the endocrine system’s function in the human body. The role of the endocrine system within the organism is to respond to deviations in homeostasis. The stress of exercise causes deviations in homeostasis. The training principle of overload is also intimately tied into this concept as well. According to the overload principle, the body must depart from homeostasis in order to incite the internal repair mechanisms which will ultimately rebuild the system at a higher level than where it previously existed. The further the body departs from homeostasis, the greater the ultimate repair response. Sometimes this repair response can be delayed (the concept of delayed transmutation); however, it appears to always come. So I need to know that I have in fact driven my athletes from their comfort zone. I need to see their performance decline from time to time.

  1. The Zatsiorsky Fiber Corridor Theory which states that motor units both recruited and exhausted are the only motor units that will experience physiological change.

Here’s an explanation for the fiber corridor in short…

Adaptation is always the goal. Adaptation of a fiber occurs if the fiber is recruited and fatigued. Recruitment of high threshold motor units is tied to force in a linear fashion. Fatigue is noted when the same degree of electrical energy does not bring about the same mechanical force production. Slow twitch fibers are easy to recruit, hard to fatigue. Fast twitch fibers are hard to recruit, easy to fatigue. For hypertrophy the goal would be to recruit and fatigue as many fibers as possible. With the fiber corridor, the shotgun blast is the repetition effort method, which is submaximal load moved to failure. All other methods are more the scalpel for targeting fibers.
MASS tricks people into using fast twitch fibers more effectively because of the timer. People have to move the load with a rate that is faster than they want to work at because they want to get the reps in on time. This plays with the acceleration component of the force equation. So while the loads appear low from a percent perspective, they’re moving quickly the whole time. In my mind, the volume of the beast combined with the cardiorespiratory demands cause slow twitch muscles to be highly active during the time where you’re not lifting weights…their demands as anti-gravity muscles and accessory breathing muscles is amplified. So I feel as though there are hidden recruitment and fatigue elements that are not at first visible within the obvious parts of the design. It’s almost the NEAT element that was overlooked in body composition for so long built into exercise.

  1. The interaction between the dopaminergic goal directed brain and the serotonergic/adrenergic sensory oriented brain, and how chronic stress impacts this system through a glucocorticoid mediated response.

The dopaminergic mind is the part of us that is goal directed. Goals are best when highly specific and time dependent. Dopamine is more than anything the chemical that makes us strive for things and it rewards us for our perceived effort in pursuit of something that we value very highly. As long as dopamine remains high we remain focused intently on that goal. When dopamine drops we become apathetic puddles of blah. Robert Sapolsky lectures extensively on how chronic stress disturbs the dopamine system and can lead to decreased secretion of dopamine in the neuronal to neuronal communication network. What my Rabbit Hole presentation last year was trying to drive home is that chronic stress coming from anxiety and depression is a potential outcome of an imbalanced brain where dopamine levels are inappropriate. They become inappropriate because of failure to feed the right brain with sensory information. Appropriate levels of sensory information feed into the autonomic nervous system in a manner that eventually provides the context we need to reduce the chronic stress response.

Now this could range from mindfulness in the form of body awareness or it could be social engagement giving a sense of love and belonging, etc etc. You need to get out of the left hemisphere to give it a break so it can ultimately regenerate to give you an opportunity to use it again when the time comes to strive for something important…if all you have in your life is noise that claims to be important then nothing is important or differentiated. Noticing subtlety and being able to differentiate starts with awareness of the body, which must be done in quiet, slow, reflective ways.

The dopaminergic motivation system is completely subconscious. You can’t will yourself through it. When dopamine is present in the synaptic system of the nucleus accumbens there will be an increase in the reward side of the scale balancing perceived effort and reward…when dopamine isn’t there the scale tips the other way and people perceive a specific physical effort as being not worth it.

You can try to play with the mind by making something more meaningful to people, but in some ways that’s compensatory. I prefer to see someone care about something because their dopamine got to right place first before they power through…but in modern America everything is so fucked up that you have to go backwards. I have to give you a workout that’s so threatening that it makes you change your behaviors and alter your environmental choices to be able to handle the task.

Newer research shows that when serotonin and norepinephrine are high in the brain of rats that they give up on exercise sooner, they perceive exercise as being more difficult, and they stop before they get very hot. When dopamine is high the opposite occurs…and they have a finishing, “kick”. I infer this as being important with specific outcomes, goals, competition, and meaningful significance as being critical to program design where I’m asking someone to do tremendous volume…something has to be kind of cool and awesome to work.

 

To summarize or shove Dr. Davidson’s words into a box is to do him, his work, and you a great disservice. His mind doesn’t work like that and he wouldn’t fit in a box anyways.

Coach Davidson ended this article with some very sage advice: pay attention to the world around you, train for something, and don’t be a spineless grown-up size CareBear .

 

A tangent you might find interesting – Usually for research purposes to be considered a “trained” in male you have to squat 1.5x bodyweight. Not to be a dick, but this actually isn’t that strong.

Let’s point the finger inward first, I weigh about 185 and have been training for 15 years straight and can squat 2x BW for 3 to 5 reps on a good day, maybe a few more if someone was yelling in my ear.

Now let’s take the 85 kilo gold medalist, Kianoush Rostami who clean and jerked around 477 pounds or 2.55x BW. We can only guess his backsquat but it’s probably high.

Now the powerlifting record in the 181 pound weight class is 760 lbs, which is 4.2x bodyweight.

Therefore, to be considered a resistance trained male you need to back squat 35% of the world record and back squat 72% of what the strongest man in the world can snatch.

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