If you ever find yourself talking to a group of trainers, there are several topics you can mention to spark lively and polarizing debate—the merits of squatting, compound versus isolation exercises, and the principles behind CrossFit, to name a few. But if you want everyone to make nice, bring up training volume. It’s one of the few subjects that nearly all fitness pros agree is important for the same reasons—especially where muscle growth is concerned.
If you’re not familiar with the term, training volume traditionally refers to the amount of work you do per exercise, and is most often calculated as “total volume” using the following formula: sets times reps times load. So if you do 3 sets of 10 reps with 195 pounds on the barbell bench press, your training volume for that exercise is 5,850 pounds (3 x 10 x 195)—the equivalent of a Chevy Suburban, you beast.
Keeping track of your training volume is especially important if your goal is hypertrophy, as research shows a clear dose-response relationship between it and muscle growth. The greater your training volume, the greater your size gains will be. But if you look closely at the research, you’ll also notice that the above formula isn’t the best way to calculate training volume. Why? Because what matters most isn’t the total number of sets and reps you do at a given load, but rather how many truly hard sets you perform.
Your move: Each week, count the number of sets you do to technical failure (the point at which you can’t perform another rep without sacrificing proper form) for each muscle. And over the course of several months, gradually increase the number of hard sets you do. There is one caveat: You should occasionally reduce overall training volume to allow your muscles to recover fully and prevent overtraining.
Also, while you generally want to stick to 8 to 12 reps per hard set to optimize hypertrophy, it’s also important include higher (15 to 20) rep sets—as long as those sets are also “hard.” The reason: While most of your work should target your larger, stronger type II muscle fibers, you shouldn’t neglect your more endurance-oriented type I fibers, which research shows also have growth potential.