Volume In Weight Training

Having introduced Intensity in Weight Training, it’s time to study another very important yet neglected programming variable. Volume.

It baffles my mind how intensity is on everyone’s lips and nearly no one speaks about volume. However, for some strange reason, volume just doesn’t seem to catch the lifter’s eye.

This is unfortunate because understanding volume allows us to optimize the training workload and properly manage fatigue and frequency.

But first thing first, let’s start by defining volume in the most scientific way possible.

Defining Volume

The next time you go to the gym, ask the average member (or instructor) about intensity. I guarantee you he will start to talk about sweat, pain, and faintings on the floor. Ask him to give an objective definition of intensity and he will start to look puzzled. Do the same thing with volume and he will think you are not talking about training anymore.

Very few people have cognizant awareness of how much volume they are performing. Let alone tracking it and programming it. This adds to the fact that there is no unanimous definition of volume.

Some people refer to it as the total number of sets in a workout, some others to the total number of repetitions. More in general, however, I find more useful to define volume as the total amount of work done. This can refer to the amount of work done in a single workout, or over multiple training sessions.

In this sense, volume is extremely important because it represents the training workload. A concept which I already discussed in my article on the General Adaptation Syndrome.

But what do we mean exactly by “the amount of work” done? And how can we measure it?

Volume and Tonnage

There are several ways to define volume and to measure it, but they all have one thing in common. They all endeavor to quantify the workload performed. For this reason, the weight on the bar alone is not enough. In some way, we also want to consider how much the load has been used. To that end, it’s logical to factor in the number of sets and repetitions.

We can calculate volume by multiplying the load by the total number of sets by the total number of repetitions. Because of the large numbers involved, this is also known as tonnage (1 ton = 1000 kg).

For example, let’s say we performed 4 sets of 10 repetitions on the squat with 50 kg. Then, our volume on the squat will be: 50 (kg) x 4 (sets) x 10 (repetitions) = 2000 kg.

The volume calculated this way is relative to a single exercise. However, sometimes it’s useful to know the volume performed in an entire workout or series of workouts.

If this is the case, all we have to do is to add up the tonnage of every single exercise performed. Let’s see an example.

How to Measure Volume

Let’s consider a hypothetical full body workout consisting of bench press, barbell rows, and squats. Training loads, number of sets and repetitions are in the table below.

Exercise Load Sets Repetitions
Bench Press 100 kg (220 lb) 5 5
Barbell Row 60 kg (132 lb) 3 8
Squat 120 kg (264 lb) 3 8

We want to know the volume of the entire session. As explained before, this is just a matter of finding the tonnage for each single exercise. Once done that, we only have to add them all up.

Exercise Load Sets Repetitions Volume (tonnage)
Bench Press 100 kg (220 lb) 5 5 5 x 5 x 100 kg = 2500 kg (5500 lb)
Barbell Row 60 kg (132 lb) 3 8 3 x 8 x 60 kg = 1440 kg (3168 lb)
Squat 120 kg (264 lb) 3 8 3 x 8 x 120 kg = 2880 kg (6336 lb)

In conclusion, the volume for the entire session is: 2500 kg + 1440 kg + 2880 kg = 6820 kg (∼15000 lb).

One caveat here is that warm up sets are typically not included. The reason being is that is the workload coming from the actual work sets, not the warm up sets, that triggers adaptations.

However, heavy enough warm up sets will contribute to volume. Similarly, even using a lighter load, an inordinately large number of sets or repetitions will interfere with work sets and unnecessarily fatigue us.

In these cases, it would be appropriate to include warm up sets in the estimation of volume.

The Role of Volume

Borrowing from Mike Tuchscherer, if intensity determines the training effect then volume determines the magnitude of the training effect.

In oversimplified terms, volume (tonnage) is a proxy for the magnitude of the training effect we will receive. The larger the volume, the larger the training effect.

Bearing this concept in mind, let’s examine how three different amounts of volume (small, moderate and large) can affect the stress-recovery-adaptation curve.

Giovanni Baldi - Volume stress adaptation recovery (1)As soon as the training is over, a depression of performance below baseline occurs. The magnitude of this depression varies according to the volume performed.

In the hours and days following the training event, performance gradually recovers. It builds back to normal levels (baseline) and then all the way up until it exceeds pre-stress levels. The peak of the adaptation curve is where maximum performance is gained (dashed line). This is known as supercompensation.

Even supercompensation varies with volume. As volume increases, more time is needed to recover, but also more performance is gained afterward. This means different amounts of volume produce different training effects.

A small training volume is going to place a smaller amount of stress on the body. In turn, this triggers a smaller adaptation which occurs in a shorter amount of time. On the other hand, increasing volume to moderate (or large) will produce similar but larger results. In other words, more gains in performance, but also more time needed to recover.

Volume and Progress

There is a direct relationship between volume performed and gains in performance. More specifically, adaptations increase in proportion to volume.

This has implications for strength and muscle enthusiasts like me and you. If our body develops a certain work tolerance, it needs a larger workload to drive progress. In other words, increasing volume over the course of our training career is necessary to keep making progress.

This is known a progressive overload and is accomplished by a gradual increase in volume over time.

However, this doesn’t mean we should always be doing the largest amount of volume possible every single time we enter the gym. There is a linear relationship between adaptation (gains) and volume, but this is only true up to a point.

The Dose-Response Relationship

Studies with matched intensity and frequency show that strength and hypertrophy have a linear relationship with volume. However, this is true only up to a point.

With training, we will experience increasing returns given increasing workloads until those returns will start to diminish in relation to the dose. This means, sooner or later, reaching a state where we get diminishing returns on our training. If left unchecked, each additional increase in volume can have a negative effect on our progress.

In other words, recklessly increasing volume will cause progress to plateau at some point. If we don’t manage fatigue, progress might even start going backward. However, if we are too greedy with the dosage of volume, we will progress at a slower pace. If training workloads are not adequate to work capacity, resulting adaptations are sub-optimal.

Our goal is to find the optimal spot where the dosage of volume maximizes the training effect we will get.

Giovanni Baldi - Volume progress

Point 1 on the graph represents an absence of progress. Volume is not necessarily zero yet not even enough to induce stage 1 of Selye’s theory and bring about adaptation.

From point 1 to point 2, the slight increase in volume is enough to cause adaptation but not enough to progress at an optimal pace. We are above baseline but only that much and the returns we experience are sub-optimal. We are improving but we could do more.

From point 2 to point 3, we are in an optimal range. Both strength and hypertrophy increase linearly with volume. The progress line is steeper meaning more returns per unit of volume added. Working in this range is ideal. It ensures an optimal balance between training stress, recovery, and gains in performance.

From point 3 to point 4, we are still progressing but at a slower pace. The dose of volume is close to our maximum tolerance and so we start to experience diminishing returns. Eventually, progress plateaus (point 4). However, because we are still moving forward it can be reasonable to spend time in this state. This is known as overreaching, but it must be done with caution. The risk of getting past point 4 is high.

Lastly, from point 4 on, increasing volume becomes counterproductive. Progress goes backward instead of forward. This stage is known as overtraining.

Conclusions

Too much volume is detrimental for our progress as it accumulates too much fatigue. Our recovery capabilities allow us to take only so much stress at once.

On the other hand, it is also true that strength and hypertrophy have a direct relationship with volume. For the most part, both increase in linear proportion to it.

So yes, gradually increasing volume over the course of our training career is necessary to drive progress. However, this doesn’t mean prematurely add sets and repetitions every single day, week or month. Past a certain point, we get diminishing returns from our training investment. Adding even more volume can become counterproductive and cause overtraining issues.

More is not necessarily better, there needs to be balance. We must be able to manage both stress and fatigue. As all training variables, volume should only increase when necessary and in the amount needed to progress.

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