Here is what we know – volume is linearly related to gains in strength and hypertrophy until it is not. Training volume is also very likely the most important variable if hypertrophy is your main goal. We don’t know and the research is never going to tell us where the individual line in the sand is where depreciating returns are going to sprout and injury risk is going to spike. In all honesty, this is very much not a line in the sand, but more likely akin to the tides which go in and out based on your lifestyle habits and training age, with the ultimate goal of moving volume out over your training career. Who doesn’t want a bigger beach?
Lately, it seems everyone is advocating not too much! I get it. This is a swing back from CrossFit which tended to completely disregard this principle and smash all people with all the volume. Still to this day, I think we can all agree that there are very few gyms who are likely taking the time to measure weekly volumes over time in all their clients. I know I didn’t do it when I was a personal trainer/ strength coach, partly because I didn’t know better and partly because of laziness, but mostly because people were too inconsistent to deserve it. In the Gen Pop, I was just trying to get them to show up and in athletes I was just trying to keep them alive/adapting because their sports coaches tended to think more was always better. This usually stemmed from an ideology that they are young and needed to be “toughened up” with deadlifts performed poorly in fatigue without proper instruction or progression.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a middle of the road type guy. I eat my chicken breasts cold without complaint and I don’t like waking up before 5, but also hate sleeping in past 7. Hell, Zen even has something called the middle path which potentially leads to liberation. Freedom!!!
Now if we bring this not too hot, not too cold, goldilocks type approach to strength and conditioning we generally get a lot of nodding of heads, ironically even among the more is better crowd.
But, if we look at the studies that most evidence based folks are using to tout moderate volume over low and high volume training we get a much more granulated picture (one that they are likely fully aware of) and then when we bring that to practice the water becomes even muddier.
This is because the differences in the degrees of adaptation based on volumes are generally very small and the populations insanely varied. For instance, the flagship 2005 study by Gonzalez-Badillo et al. in 51 cream of the crop junior level male Olympic lifters found that after 10 weeks, moderate volume resulted in increases of 6.1% in the snatch, 3.7% in the C&J, and 4.2% in the squat, while the high volume training resulted in an 4.6% increase in the C&J, and a 4.8% increase in the squat, while no significant difference was seen in the snatch. The Snatch is obviously the most technical of those lifts and the high volume group actually saw greater increases in the two big boy lifts so to call this a landslide victory for moderate training volumes is absurd.
Then if when we look at the individual scatter plots, things get even more interesting because you see responders and non-responders within each group. Thus, the bigger question to me is why? Why did some subjects within this very homogenous population adapt better or worse to low, moderate, or higher volumes?
Previous training age? Genetics? Sleep? Circadian Rhythms? Life stress? Mindset? Maybe Nutrition? All to my knowledge, not mentioned.
So as a coach what are you to do?
Well, number one, you need some type of tracking methodology, because what gets measured gets managed.
If you are working with a novice level general population and use similar day to day protocols with your clients and are progressing volume linearly, you may be able to just track sessions made or hours trained as this is where the money is with these folks – consistency and adherence. If you are throwing random shit against a white board and calling it art, it might behoove you to track how flippant you are with the volume hammer in a population that is likely chronically under-recovered.
If you are working with sport athletes and you aren’t at the Pro or D1 collegiate level it is going to be an absolute nightmare because you likely have no real knowledge or control over their other training loads. Thus, you always have to be reactive and this is where having some kind of readiness questionnaire and/or pre-training testing may be really helpful. BUT even with all the negatives, you can handle things on your side of the ball by tracking their weekly lifting volumes and making sure you aren’t stacking chaos on chaos.
On a side note, there is so much hope in this field and the reason for this post was a conversation with the Director of Sports Performance for the Memphis Grizzlies – Dr. Eric Oetter. They have every little bit of training load data on these guys and they are able to logically recommend windows of playing time minutes for each player where injury risk will be lowest, and then they are able to track outcomes and chisel away at this insanely complex problem. It’s coming and it will trickle down…eventually.
Once you have numbers and you know where someone is adapting you likely want to progress volume over time and avoid spikes. In the team sports literature, higher training volumes have actually even been related to lower injury risk, but a weekly training load increase past 10% seems to be the big no-no where you get a substantial pop in injury risk.
Who knows if we can extrapolate this number out to the Gen Pop, but logically it would mean adding another shorter session which then turns into a full session. You could also obviously play with the number of sets, reps, and rest in your available training days if adding sessions was not an option.
In athletes you likely want to track whatever you have the bandwidth to track and then use this tracking to drive positive lifelong habits so that they can theoretically put up with the potential/inevitable chaos that is youth team sports AKA nutrition, sleep, recovery, and stress relief/avoidance.
I am going to finish this with when it might be advantageous to break all the rules. In the fitness industry, our number one rule is Do No Harm, but this is a pretty cake eater rule and reminds me of the hell that is Curves. Perhaps, what we really mean is Do No Harm…long-term.
So maybe, you show someone the volume they think they should be able to take and you give it to them and you say, “Earn it.” You tell them if they don’t manage all the other aspects of their life the likelihood that they get hurt is high. You tell them this is a gamble. If they get a minor injury, they learn and will have buy in when you back off. If they adapt you just created an anchoring habit for them, potentially for their entire life – training.
A lot of the population that is coming to you just wants to feel something, maybe they even want to hurt, and they likely need and want to struggle. Thus, you need to respect the laws of the market and give them this because that is what they expect and what they think they are paying you for. There are smart and tactical ways to do the job and there are ridiculous and immature ways to leave people squirming on the floor. Be the former and then track it.
Pat Davidson, Aaron Davis, and I have discussed this topic fairly deeply and have reviewed a few of other studies here.