How Much Volume Do You Need to Build Muscle?
Hypertrophy, a.k.a. building muscle, making gains, getting swole, is a goal for a significant portion of the gym-going crowd.
Countless programs have been developed over the decades specifically created with the intent of building muscle and strength. What we’ve learned from these programs as well as a considerable amount of scientific literature in recent years is that hypertrophy can be achieved across a broad spectrum of rep ranges, frequencies, intensities, and volumes.
What is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload, simply put, is exposure to a higher stress than what you have previously encountered with the goal being to elicit an adaptation. In the case of hypertrophy, the “adaptation” is muscle growth, and the “higher stress” is performing more total work over time.
Now, there are a number of ways by which lifters can incorporate progressive overload into their training program. Options include (but are not limited to):
- Increasing number of reps
- Increasing number of sets
- Increasing load (weight on the bar)
- Increasing frequency
- Decreasing rest between sets
The list goes on, but you get the idea: if you want your muscles to grow, you have to challenge them to outdo what has already been done. And, I think most lifters will agree that both volume and intensity contribute to muscle growth.
It’s not an “either/or” proposition, it’s a combination of both.
The next question becomes, which factor is more important in regards to maximizing hypertrophy. Another way of saying that could be:
“What is the primary driver of muscle hypertrophy?”
Now, we could simply pull from the conclusion of a recent analysis by Dr. Brad Schoenfeld et al. which stated:
“There is compelling evidence that RT volume is a primary driver of hypertrophy, with higher volumes showing greater increases in muscle growth. It therefore follows that those seeking to maximize hypertrophy should train with multi-set protocols. Based on current literature, 10+ sets per muscle per week would seem to be a good starting point as to programming volume in those with hypertrophic-oriented goals. Volume should then be manipulated based on individual response.”
Or, a 2010 meta-analysis by James Krieger that concluded:
“In conclusion, multiple sets are associated with 40% greater hypertrophy-related ESs than 1 set, in both trained and untrained subjects.” 
And wrap things up there, but that really doesn’t do much to explain the how or why volume is the primary driver of hypertrophy, or why intensity isn’t the main governor of size gains.
So, with that said, let’s dig a little deeper into the relationship between volume, intensity and muscle growth.
Volume, Intensity, and Muscle Growth
Before we start comparing volume vs intensity for muscle growth, let’s start by defining each so that we have a consensus on what we mean when we use the terms volume and intensity.
For the purposes of this article:
Volume refers to the total amount of work you’re doing. usually expressed in terms of sets X reps X load.
Intensity refers to weight on the bar in relation to your 1-rep max. While most of us inherently think of the prototypical lifter yelling, screaming, and heaving weight around as intensity, that’s not what it means when referencing scientific literature.
Intensity refers to one of two things:
- Intensity of load is an objective measure that’s related to your 1-rep max (for example. 85% of 1RM)
- Intensity of effort is somewhat more subjective as it refers to how hard did a given set “feels” with respect to a lifter’s proximity to failure. It’s usually expressed in terms of rating of perceived exertion (RPE) or repetitions in reserve (RIR). So, if you were performing a set of squats with an RPE of 7 with your 10RM, that would equate an RIR of 3, as in you had 3 reps in the tank until you hit failure.
Now, the relationship between volume and intensity can be explained as the selection of one dictates the magnitude of the other. By that, we mean that the higher your volume, the lower the intensity of load that you can push and vice versa.
Definitions taken care of, we can proceed.
We know from a number of scientific studies performed across a wide range of populations that muscles growth can occur across a very broad spectrum of rep ranges. Work by Schoenfeld, Stu Phillips, and others have shown that lifters can grow doing very low-rep, higher weight protocols (3-5 reps per set) and lifters can grow with higher-rep, lower weight training programs equally(all the way up to 30+ reps per set!). 
From this body of evidence, we can begin to see that intensity perhaps is not the primary driver of hypertrophy. If it was, the studies comparing high vs low-load would clearly show the high-load group as having greater gains in muscle size... but they don’t.
If strength is your goal, then yes, intensity (adding weight to the bar) should be paramount.
But remember, the topic we’re discussing at hand is volume and intensity with respect to hypertrophy. As such, we need to prioritize the variables that most significantly impact the desired adaptation (hypertrophy, in this case), which would be volume.
There’s enough evidence to show that with more volume comes greater increases in size, but this doesn’t mean all volume is created equally. Volume for volume’s sake is meaningless without sufficient intensity (i.e. load on the bar).
Researchers have identified a bottom end “threshold” below which the load is not challenging enough on the muscle to significantly disrupt homeostasis. This intensity is roughly 30% of your 1-RM. Now, the caveat is that if you are using that light of a load, you have to take the muscle to failure, or pretty damn close.
The issue with using ultra-high rep protocols is that the average lifter doesn’t have the pain tolerance or patience to grind out that many reps in order to fully fatigue the muscle. They’ll either cut their set short due to boredom or not being able to withstand the burning sensation that sets in when performing high rep sets.
For practicality purposes, most lifters would benefit from working through a variety of rep ranges, doing some work in the 4-6 rep range, some in the 8-12, and some in the 15+, so as to fully stimulate all types of muscle fibers. Plus, some movements lend themselves better to lower rep protocols than higher rep protocols (for example, back squats and deadlifts).
This leads us to a relative intensity somewhere between 60-85% of your 1-rep max for most of your working sets.
Now that we’ve addressed intensity and rep ranges, let’s discuss how much weekly volume you need for muscle growth, as that
How Much Volume Do You Need to Grow?
To answer this question, we again turn to the “hypertrophy doc”, Brad Schoenfeld, and his meta-analysis which indicated that:
“Based on the current literature, 10+ sets per muscle per week would seem to be a good starting point as to programming volume in those with hypertrophic-oriented goals. Volume should then be manipulated based on individual response.” 
So, if hypertrophy is your primary goal, you should be performing a minimum of 10 working sets per week per muscle group. As we’ve stated before, there is a dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy in that greater amounts of volume generally equate to greater hypertrophy, i.e. more volume → more growth.
By this theory, 15 sets per muscle group per week should lead to better muscle growth than 10 sets per muscle group per week.
And, there are studies showing this to be true. 
Where things get murky is identified the upper limit of total weekly volume (as identified in the literature) a lifter can tolerate before their stimulus-to-fatigue ratio starts going the wrong way. In other words, more volume leads to more muscle growth, to a certain point.
Previously, it was thought that around 20 working sets per muscle group per week was the top-end value above which the extra gains that could be gotten weren’t really worth the increased wear and tear the added volume incurred. 
But, a most recent study by Schoenfeld, the “glute guy” Bret Contreras and others noted that the upper limit for weekly volume that could be performed by trainees (while recovering sufficiently, avoiding injury, and making gains in size) was as high as 45 sets per week. 
Now, does this mean you should automatically ramp up training volume for every part to 45 sets per week?
And it’s here, that we’ll turn to the work of Dr. Mike Israetel and Dr. James Hoffman in their “Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth.” 
Volume Landmarks for Hypertrophy
To help determine how much training volume a given individual requires to enhance muscle growth, the Drs developed a set of landmarks in:
- Minimum Effective Volume (MEV)
Think of MEV as the “minimum effective dose”. This is the amount of weekly training volume a given muscle group requires to start making gains. Training below MEV would yield negligible (incredibly) slow gains at best.
Based on the body evidence currently available in regards to muscle hypertrophy, the MEV for most lifters is ~10 hard, working sets per week.
Note: the more advanced you are as a lifter, the higher MEV is.
- Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV)
Maximum Recoverable Volume is the maximum amount of training your body can sustain and still adequately recover from. By definition, when you exceed MRV, you are not recovering sufficiently and training may begin to have a detrimental effect on gains where fatigue induced is greater than gains earned.
Every individual will have a different MRV, not only in comparison to another person, but also each muscle group of the body will have a different MRV.
Similar to MEV above, MRV will change over the course of your training career and may also change from one mesocycle to another. Sometimes it may be as high as 22 hard sets per week, while the next mesocycle it might be 19.
How do you know when you’ve exceeded MRV?
Quite simply, you exceed MRV when you are no longer able to match sets and reps at a given intensity in a workout compared to the previous one.
At this point, you have accumulated too much fatigue (either locally or systemically), and it would be advised to deload.
Based on the current body of evidence, an average MRV for most lifters is in the neighborhood of ~20-24 sets per week per muscle group.
Note: Occasional forays into the 25-35+ sets per week per muscle group may be employed during certain body part specialization mesocycles. Think of this as a form of “functional overreaching” where you intentionally push a muscle beyond its normal recovery ability for a short period of time, deload, and allow for “supercompensation”. Typically when performing this specialization routines, volume for other muscle groups is reduced to maintenance volumes so as to allow for more work (and recovery capacity) to be available for the specialized body part.
Note: Identifying the MRV for each muscle group will take a bit of learning on your part, and requires careful tracking of progress in the gym over a couple months.
- Maintenance Volume (MV)
Maintenance volume is the amount of training required to maintain a given muscle group’s size and strength. This amount is usually somewhere around ½-⅔ of MEV.
Why is MV so low compared to MEV?
Think of it in terms of riding a bike. You can go for long periods of time without riding a bike, but you still remember how to do it. But, if you wanted to improve your performance on the bicycle, you would need to increase the amount of time you dedicated to riding it.
The same concept holds true here for maintenance volume in relation to muscle size and strength.
By now, you’re probably wondering, how do these volume landmarks help us make more gains.
Well, these concepts were developed in part to help those that are trying to make gains as quickly as possible. In other words, people who have a fervent passion for training and have a lifestyle that can accompany the demands of an aggressive training/overload cycle.
Every individual has their own upper and lower limit of volume they can handle at which they will make gains while still being able to sufficiently recover and progress workout to workout. These landmarks were created to help give lifters a rough range from which they can base their own training.
So, when beginning a mesocycle tailored specifically to hypertrophy, a lifter would begin at their minimum effective volume (MEV) and progress up to their maximum recoverable volume (MRV). Upon reaching MRV, they deload and restart the whole process over again.
Now, you’re probably wondering, how do you go about moving from MEV to MRV over the weeks?
First, you need to identify your MEV and MRV, then decide how long your mesocycle will be. Generally speaking, it’s somewhere between 5-8 weeks.
As an example, let’s say you want your MEV is 10 sets and your MRV is 20 sets, and you want your mesocycle to be 7 weeks (6 weeks of accumulation/overload + 1 week of deload). Here’s what total weekly volume for a given body part would roughly look like:
- Week 1: 10 sets
- Week 2: 12 sets
- Week 3: 14 sets
- Week 4: 16 sets
- Week 5: 18 sets
- Week 6: 20 sets
- Week 7: Deload (perform 5-6 sets total)
In the course of adding sets, you may also add a small amount of weight to the bar too.
Now, it should be mentioned, these additional sets that are added each week, are not per exercise.
For example, in week one if you did 5 sets of squats and 5 sets of leg press, week two could be 6 sets of squats and 6 sets of leg press (divided across your training week).
Again, the concepts of MV, MEV, and MRV are with respect to hard working sets, typically performed in the rep range of 6-20 reps per set with repetitions in reserve (RIR) between 4 and 0. Warm up sets are not included in your calculations of the volume landmarks.
Now, some lifters may not have the desire to undertake such an aggressive overload modality, or they may not have the time allowance or lifestyle to accommodate the rigorous ramping of volume each week.
In this case, we can utilize a type of progression that is a bit more moderate in volume and focused on sustainable, slow, and steady progression. The tradeoff is that the gains might not come as quickly, since our means of overload isn’t as aggressive as ramping volume week to week.
This progression model is known as triple progression.
Triple Progression Model for Hypertrophy
We know that progressive overload is key to making gains. We also know that overload can be accomplished through a wide variety of means. The triple progression model utilizes three variables (hence “triple” in the name) to measure progress and ensure you’re constantly overloading.
The three variables we’ll be manipulating are sets, reps, and load.
Here’s how it works:
- Select a total weekly volume that is manageable for you (somewhere between 10-15 sets per muscle group per week)
- Pick exercises for each body part that allow for overload and ones that you can perform safely through a full range of motion
- Pick a desired, narrow rep range (6-8, 8-10, 8-12)
- Pick a narrow range of sets per exercise (for ex. 3-5)
- Pick a starting load for each exercise appropriate to the rep range chosen
Let’s say you’re performing dumbbell bench press.
Your first week of training, you perform 3 sets of bench press and you are working in the 6-8 rep range. Let’s say your reps for Week 1’s workout were 8/8/6.
You would keep the weight the same for the next workout as well as the number of sets.
Now, let’s say that week 2 rolls around and your sets were 8/8/8.
You’ve hit the upper rep range for the prescribed number of sets. The following workout, would add a fourth set to your dumbbell bench press and repeat the process until you hit 4x8 and then 5x8.
Once you reach 5x8 reps with your given weight, you would then grab the next heaviest pair of dumbbells and start over at 3x8.
This method of progression has you constantly striving to either improve on reps, sets, or weight each workout. There’s enough weekly volume to ensure you’re growing without too aggressively ramping volume (and inducing excessive fatigue) or extending the length of your training sessions too much.
The triple progression approach is ideal for the gym trainee who enjoys lifting, wants to make gains, but still wants to have a life outside of the gym.
Here’s the takeaway points:
- Find a moderate amount of volume that works for you, keeping to the lower end (10-15 sets per week)
- There is no need to blast yourself with a maximum amount of volume right off the bat. Slowly ramp up over the weeks beginning with a lower volume tier (~10 sets/week) and progressing to higher volumes based on progress in training, recovery, sleep quality, moood, etc.
- Competitive athletes will need to push for higher volumes and intensities as their livelihood depends on them making maximal gains as quickly as possible. These individuals are the ones best suited to utilizing more aggressive overload means (ramping volume and intensity via the concepts of MEV and MRV).
Hypertrophy is ultimately driven by volume, but as we stated before volume for volume’s sake is worthless without adequate intensity. In other words, you need both volume and intensity to grow.
To date, the lowest on the intensity scale you would want to go is 30% of 1-RM, but seeing as most people don’t want to do 25-35+ reps per set, the average lifter is best suited to working in moderate rep ranges (6-20 per set) with a total weekly volume of 10-20 hard, working sets.
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