By Rob Clarke Driven Sports
Yesterday’s article introduced the concept of balancing frequency with intensity, but a third variable needs to be introduced. That variable is volume.
Yesterday's article can be found here.
Volume: how much is enough?
Muscle growth, known scientifically as hypertrophy, stems fundamentally from the stimulation of anabolic processes. Weight training is the trigger for this stimulation, and as we have seen throughout this series there are a lot of factors that contribute towards it, like load/tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage. A lot of training programs of yesteryear attempt to cover all of these bases with cookie-cutter-type programs, and one of the ways they have done this is through volume manipulation. If a “set” is defined as the number of reps you can do at once before requiring a rest, then “volume” defines how many sets you do in a workout. And boy do some programs vary this.
On one side of the volume spectrum we have the heavy duty-esque workouts that involve one single set to failure and beyond, with workouts spaced several days apart. On the other end of this spectrum you have the likes of German volume training (GVT) and workouts performed by Arnold in his heyday (high volume, high frequency). Somewhere in the middle, and leaning more towards the higher volume side, you have the typical workouts featured in magazines for today’s pros – typically four sets of eight-to-twelve reps with four exercises chosen per body part. With so much distinction the ideal volume to employ depends on a ton of variables. These include genetics (some people respond better to higher volume), training experience, poundages used etc. In accordance to the saying, mileage really does vary.
The intensity within volume
Of particular note when it comes to establishing volume, however, is the intensity, and how much you give on each set. In this particular case, I am referring to the bodybuilding definition of intensity. If I told you I did twenty sets for a body part many of you would cleanly state that I was overtraining or overdoing it – incurring stimulation beyond my means of recovery. This is because many of you assume that all of those sets are taken to failure (or beyond). It is just the stereotypical bodybuilding ethos that is ingrained in so many of us. It is rare that anyone would efficiently grow regularly in response to twenty sets to failure (but possible as I’ll come to later). However, if none of these sets were taken to failure and all were stopped shy of this point (submaximal) it changes the dynamics quite a lot.
One-set vs. multi-sets
This is always an interesting question. A lot of preachers for heavy-duty-style training claim that anyone that doesn’t grow from a single set simply lack the intensity required to gain from it. While this seems like cheap loophole, there may be some truth in it. After all you are banking your entire growth-stimulating workout on that single set. If your head isn’t in it you may be selling yourself short. However science has actually looked at the one-set versus multiple-sets conundrum so we’re in a much better position to optimize volume. And I’m afraid it doesn’t look good for HIT. Statistical analysis of studies looking into one vs. multiple sets shows a clear advantage in hypertrophy if you train with a higher volume. It also appears to be better for strength building to do more than a single set. In one ten-week study it only took three weeks for a divergence in strength gains to form between those performing multiple sets and those performing a single set. This gulf was maintained throughout the study. An even newer study published just last month has echoed these findings.
The adaptive response
No one is quite sure why higher volume is superior, but it is largely believed to be a combination of factors involving higher load/tension, higher metabolic stress and increased muscle damage. Studies looking at the differences in effects on a molecular level have also indicated other possible reasons. One study identified a greater increase in the anabolic signalling molecules involved in protein synthesis in response to higher volume. Other studies have pointed to a better response of hormones like testosterone and growth hormone. Both of these hormones have shown to be stimulated in response to glycolytic training (due to lactate build-up) and it is theorized that simply doing more glycolytic sets results in a greater response by these hormones. In fact, it is suggested that the effect is only achieved for both testosterone and growth hormone specifically after several sets. In other words it is an effect of total work performed rather than the acute power generated.
Another reason, and this is something I will cover in more detail later on, is the neuromuscular adaptation response – the way the nervous system responds and adapts to a particular stress. It is the body’s coping mechanism in preparation of future events. As the body becomes more accustomed to the movement it can truly start to excel at it. Higher volume means more practice. Practice makes you better at something. For this reason it has always confused me why so many lifters aim to “confuse” their muscles by switching their programs up each week. They want to “keep their muscles guessing” and “prevent the muscle adapting”, but in actual fact they DO want their muscles to adapt because muscle adaptation IS strength and size.
I believe the confusion arises because adapting to something usually means overcoming it, and no longer finding that something a challenge. In applying this to bodybuilding it seems that some people have mixed up the meaning of adaptation with plateau and this has filtered through advice over the years. In my opinion, and somewhat ironically, the reason many lifters hit plateaus is because they seem less interested in building the strength of their muscles and more interested in “working the muscles” to build a pump. It’s become quite vogue to say this, but a lot of people really do need to get back to the basics.
Now that intensity and volume has been thoroughly covered we can move back into the realm of frequency. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the central nervous system and how it needs recovery time as much as your actual muscles do.