|Read time: 10 minutes||Written by: Corey Nelson|
Your weight training volume is an essential element to consider if you want to get bigger, faster, or stronger.
And whether you just started lifting or you’re a seasoned veteran, a review of your training program is always a smart idea.
In this article, you’ll find myths and facts about training volume, what science and experience say about the right number of sets and exercises for your goals, how frequently to lift, and the pros and cons of different workout splits.
Myth #1: Always Perform 3 Sets of 10 Reps
If you’ve ever lifted weights, you’ve most likely used the old standby in your training program: 3 sets of 10 reps.
Three sets of 10 first became popular 70 years ago, when army physician Thomas Delorme published a peer-reviewed paper on the use of “progressive resistance” to help injured veterans regain strength and muscle mass[*].
His program spread far and wide because it worked better than most training methods at the time, and 3 sets of 10 has remained popular ever since.
And there’s no doubt that 3x10 works fine, but it’s no longer the cutting edge of training. While it’s not ineffective, it’s also not the end-all, be-all of resistance exercise.
Essentially, if you’re using 3 sets of 10 reps as your core method every workout, it’s time to branch out.
Myth #2: One-Size-Fits-All Training Programs
As with diets and nutrition plans, people become passionate about their favorite workout.
Every style of weight training from High-Intensity Training (one set per exercise, three times per week) to German Volume Training (10 sets of 10 reps per exercise per workout) has hardcore fans.
But most people simply recommend what’s worked for them in the past, not what’s optimal for your body and goals.
And in reality, individual differences mean that no single program works best for everyone. Factors like goals, fitness, training experience, age, genetics, and recovery make a one-size-fits-all plan a bad idea.
And not only that, but as an individual, you’ll also need to switch up your training program from time to time to achieve continued progress.
Therefore, if you care about your results, don’t have training tunnel vision. Instead, experiment to discover what works best, and realize you’ll have to make changes periodically.
Myth #3: Fear of Overtraining
Along with the force of habit, fear is another factor that keeps people in a resistance training rut.
Fear of trying something new, fear of losing hard-earned results, and perhaps most of all, fear of overtraining.
Overtraining (or its less-extreme little brother, overreaching) occurs when you exercise with excessive volume or intensity, paired with inadequate recovery[*].
And that’s why lots of people keep their volume and intensity moderate.
But in reality, overtraining is more of a recovery issue and less of a training volume issue, per se.
Additionally, training with a high volume or intensity may even be necessary to reach your goals.
The takeaway: if you want to make gains, you must go outside of your comfort zone in the gym. Instead of strictly limiting your training volume to prevent overtraining, focus on recovery factors such as obtaining adequate sleep, eating enough calories, and deloading or taking time off from training when necessary.
Now that we’ve busted the most common myths about training volume, let’s focus on facts instead.
Over the past decade or so, researchers in the field of exercise science have done a fantastic job of investigating the role that exercise volume plays in your strength and size results.
Here are some significant research findings:
- Multiple sets per exercise appear to work better than a single set for strength. Two to 3 sets per exercise per workout is an appropriate starting point if you want to get stronger[*].
- Beginners can get stronger with fewer than 5 sets per exercise per week. However, for more experienced lifters, a weekly volume of 5-9 sets or 10+ sets appear to be best for strength gains[*].
- As little as 4 or fewer sets per muscle group per week can work for hypertrophy (muscle growth). That said, 10 or more weekly sets per muscle group provides the best size results[*].
- Hypertrophy results appear to be better with higher volume training (15 sets per exercise of 8-12 reps each week versus 3 or 9 weekly sets of 8-12 reps)[*]. On the other hand, strength and muscular endurance may not follow the same trend.
For the most part, the researchers mentioned above used approximately 10 reps per set. Ten reps per set isn’t magical — it’s just an arbitrary, middle-of-the-road number that happens to be the average of recent studies.
Fortunately, there’s another way to get valuable information from exercise science studies: total weekly reps.
Total Weekly Reps
Using the data above, we can also examine the total weekly reps (sets times repetitions) that provide the best results according to research:
- 20-30 total reps per exercise per workout (using heavy weights) is adequate for gaining strength.
- 50 reps or less per exercise per week works fine for strength gain in beginners. On the other hand, 50-100+ total weekly reps works better, especially in more experienced individuals.
- 40 or less total reps per muscle group is moderately effective for muscle growth. However, 100+ total weekly reps per muscle group is more effective.
- 150+ total reps per week for each muscle group is best for hypertrophy, but lower volume may work fine strength or muscular endurance.
And now that you know what the best current research says, let’s apply some logic to the question of training volume.
Takeaways for Your Training Program
First of all, beginners can use a lower total volume than more advanced gym-goers. That’s true for strength goals as well as size goals.
Also, relatively low-volume training works for all individuals, but doesn’t work quite as well as higher-volume training. And in particular, adding extra volume is helpful for getting bigger.
Therefore, if you’re new to lifting, short on time, or aren’t sure what volume to use, start with fewer total reps per week (about 40 total reps per week per muscle group, spread over 1-2 different sessions), then add more if necessary.
How Many Exercises Per Muscle Group
If you want to get strong, focusing on movements (specific exercises) is essential, whereas thinking in terms of muscle groups works best for gaining muscle mass.
So if your main goal is strength, make sure to get plenty of sets and reps across relatively few exercises.
By the same token, for muscle growth, the more different exercises you use, the fewer sets and reps are necessary for each exercise
In both cases above, keep in mind that total weekly reps may be the same, but you can use more or fewer total exercises depending on your goal (strength or size).
Sets Versus Reps
If you want to gain muscle, keep the following in mind. The more reps you perform per set, the fewer sets you need. And the fewer reps you perform per set, the more sets you need.
Again, it all comes back to total weekly reps. Total reps is a helpful way to view your weekly training volume because it accounts for exercises, sets, and frequency.
Training History, Goals, and Recovery
In the end, your exercise volume choices will come down to your experience level, goals, and recovery capacity.
Use more total volume if you’re more experienced or want to gain muscle, and less volume if you have trouble recovering after lifting, or if you play a sport.
And finally, the number of reps you use per set is also important, and depends on your goal.
As you’ve already learned, low rep ranges (1-4 reps) work best for strength, moderate reps (5-12) are ideal for size and strength, and higher reps (13-20+) can also help you grow but are best for muscular endurance.
For best results, especially if your goals include both strength and size, don’t stay within just one rep range all the time. Instead, mix and match the volume per set within your workouts.
Should you train small muscle groups the same as larger muscle groups?
Put differently, do your calves, biceps, and triceps respond the same as muscles like your quads, lats, and pecs?
In a nutshell, no.
First of all, smaller muscle groups have fewer fibers, so they’re easier to stimulate or exhaust with fewer total reps.
Additionally, smaller muscle groups also generate force when you train larger muscle groups with compound lifts[*]. For example, your biceps get a workout as you train your lats or rhomboids, and your triceps play a role in most chest exercises.
Therefore, use approximately half the volume when performing isolation exercises for smaller muscle groups compared to the total reps you’ve chosen for larger muscle groups.
For example, if you’re using 150 total reps per week to obtain a more muscular back, you can incorporate half the volume (about 75 total reps) for your biceps each week. Because your biceps are already doing a fair amount of work when you train your back, you don’t need to include as many reps for them.
However, there’s an exception: any time a muscle group is weak or lagging behind, increasing overall volume is an effective strategy — even for smaller muscle groups.
So far, we’ve discussed the optimal volume range for strength and size in terms of sets as well as total reps per week.
But does training frequency make a difference?
For example, if you’re doing 60 total reps of back squats per week, does it matter whether you do them in a single session versus spread over two or three sessions?
According to a 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis on the topic, for muscle gain, increased frequency made a modest positive difference[*]. However, the difference across studies was small enough that the authors recommended people choose according to personal preference.
In other words, according to the authors of the 2019 review, don’t worry about it.
Conversely, the authors of a 2007 review recommended training each muscle group 2-3 times per week for best results[*].
To sum up: all things being equal, higher-frequency training may allow for less fatigue, greater recovery, and better performance. And there’s no downside to distributing your total weekly reps across 2 or more sessions.
In light of the critical role volume and frequency play in weight training, how do the most popular workout splits measure up?
Full-body training refers to a workout with at least one upper-body push lift (such as overhead presses, pushups, bench presses, or dips), one upper-body pull lift (like pull-ups, rows, or pull-downs), and one lower-body compound lift (commonly squat or deadlift).
You can also include some single-joint or isolation movements for good measure, but you don’t have to.
And most people who engage in full-body training go to the gym 2 or 3 times per week, or every other day.
Full-body training is time-efficient, and it allows you to reap the benefits of training muscle groups frequently (2-3 times per week). You can also manage fatigue effectively because you don’t need to pack as many reps into a single workout.
For beginners, athletes, and people who are short on time, full-body training is usually the best option.
Body Part Splits
Body part splits are at the other end of the spectrum compared to full-body training.
Most body part splits focus less on strength, use a lower training frequency (per exercise or muscle group), and include a higher volume per workout.
The best-known body part split is probably "CBSAL," or chest, back, shoulders, arms, and legs.
One issue with CBSAL and similar splits is that focusing an entire day on biceps and triceps, both of which are smaller muscle groups, isn’t very time-efficient. And as you may recall, they require far less volume compared to “legs” (which are actually several large muscle groups).
Although some successful bodybuilders use body part splits to isolate and stimulate individual muscle groups, they’re not a top choice for most people.
Upper-lower training splits, not surprisingly, are splits that organize your training days into either an upper body or lower body focus.
This type of workout offers similar advantages to body part splits in terms of focusing on individual muscle groups, but without the same downsides.
And compared to full-body training, you can fit more isolation and single-joint exercises with upper-lower splits. Additionally, your muscle groups have more time to recover between workouts, which can be helpful for non-beginners who are training with a high intensity.
Usually, people who follow an upper-lower split train four days per week: two upper sessions and two lower sessions.
If you’ve been lifting longer than 1-2 years, you should definitely consider an upper-lower split.
Push-Pull or Push-Pull-Legs
Push-pull and push-pull-legs organize workouts according to “pushing” movements (including bench press, overhead press, and sometimes squats) and “pulling” movements (like rows, pull-ups, pull-downs, and sometimes deadlifts).
A push-pull split is a time-efficient way to train two or more days per week, but it’s not quite a full-body workout.
And a push-pull-legs split (so-called because it has a separate day just for legs) allows you to include a lot of volume per workout, similar to a body part split, but with focus on multiple muscle groups per workout. You could lift 3 times per week, every other day, or 2 days on, 1 day off.
Workouts organized according to push-pull or push-pull-legs are popular with strength enthusiasts as well as bodybuilders. If your full-body training or upper-lower split is no longer delivering results, give them a try.
Although there’s no one-size-fits-all training program, research and experience can provide an excellent starting point.
And you can do anywhere between 40-150+ total reps per muscle group per week to get stronger and bigger.
But if you’ve been training for more than a year or two, or your progress has slowed, it might be time to add to your weekly volume.
And while the number of exercises per muscle group is less important, generally speaking, using fewer total exercises is best for strength because you can practice movements more consistently.
On the other hand, including more total exercises for each muscle group is an effective way to stimulate muscles for growth.
However, remember that the weekly volume (total reps) and frequency (sessions per week) for each muscle group are more significant factors than the number of exercises you use.
Last but not least, the training split you choose makes a huge difference in your results, because it affects both volume and frequency.
Overall, full-body training is best for beginners, while upper-lower splits are ideal for people who have trained seriously for longer than a year or two.
How does your training program stack up to the recommendations from this article? Let us know in the comments!