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  • Writer's pictureAli 'Fat Al' Stewart

Sets, reps, frequency & volume…The struggle is real

I’ve just downed my randomly blue pre-workout drink and donned my slightly ripped but very comfortable stringer vest. I’ve got my training log and I’m primed for an upper body onslaught with the full intention of getting absolutely ripped massive hench.

This is not an unfamiliar approach from many aspiring bodybuilders up and down the country, but no matter how ‘up for it’ you are or how much creatine and Bcaa’s you’ve just consumed, it won’t do jack if you’re training isn’t doing what it should. All you’ll end up with is losing 90 minutes of your life and having some expensive and slightly blue urine. This leads nicely onto the subject of sets, reps, volume and frequency of training.

How much should you be lifting for optimal muscle building?

Back when you were a newbie you may have started training with a full body workout session 2-3 times a week to get used to lifting, and let’s face it, you probably had no idea what you were doing, I certainly didn’t. As a total novice, this probably got you moving forward and you would have made some gains. After a while your gains would be diminishing and you start to look for inspiration. Your eyes scan the gym and you spot the big guy with his head phones on making some very loud and controversial noises. You pluck up the courage to ask him what he’s doing and he tells you it’s chest day today (you notice a very full vest top sporting some pumped and sweaty pecs busting out of it). This must be the way forward.

You’ve now left the safety of the all over workout for a body part split and entered the cultist world of the body builder. Your training is now 5 days a week chest, back, legs, arms, and shoulders. Each part gets hit once a week and hard, until it can barely function and is sore for three days straight. Your physique has progressed from rank amateur to significantly muscly.

After 2-3 years of training you start to notice that your gains have slowed to a mere snail’s pace. You are often in pain and have suffered niggling joint injuries. You do look good but not as good as you had hoped you might have done by this stage. At this point you may start to look into changing routines, researching websites or even seeking help from a personal trainer. What is it that you’re missing? Is there some magical formula of how much and how often you should be lifting to get the best growth response?

So here it is… the answer to your perfect routine…. are you ready….?

Well sorry to burst your bubble but there is no perfect routine. All lifting routines, be it full body, body part splits, double part splits, upper lowers and push pulls all have something in common, they are just ways of breaking up your sets, reps, frequency and volume. I have seen hundreds of permutations of how to divide up your sets and reps etc. and in my opinion, it’s all arse about face. Stop worrying that you may or may not be doing enough or too much or where and when you should do your training. Here’s how you should think about it and it’s all about volume.

Volume of lifting takes in all the sets, reps and frequency to create an all-encompassing total amount lifted. For each individual person there is an optimal volume of training to elicit the best growth response and to top it off, it changes as you change, so you can never rely on what you used to do. If on a Monday I was to do three exercises on chest, three sets of each exercise, for ten reps, my volume is 90 reps. If I did one chest exercise for three sets at 10 reps on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I’ve still done 90 reps. My total weekly volume is the same. If both of these modalities were performed with good intensity then the likelihood is that you would have the same level of growth response.

Minimum needed to maximum tolerated

The questions that actually need answering is ‘Are you training within the range of your minimum effective volume to your maximal recovery volume?’ That means there is a range of training volume where your muscles will need a minimum dose to be stimulated but not so much that it is annihilated. Annoyingly, this range is different for everyone and will be different for you depending on your age and training status, this means that there is a certain degree of trial and error when it comes to finding your total volume. The sets, reps and frequency more often than not come down to how well you react to the different styles and realistically, what you can fit into your life. There is no point trying a six day a week double body part split if you can only train three times per week.

Here’s how I’d recommend you work out what is best for you.

1. How many days can you/want to train per week?

2. How long can you train for per day?

3. Are you a beginner, intermediate or advanced?

4. Are you training to maintain size or get bigger?

5. How quickly do you recover from your sessions?

6. How old are you or do you have injuries?

When you know how many days you can train you realistically set your own frequency. If you’re doing less than three session per week, I’d suggest full body workouts. If you’re limited to 45- 60 mins I’d suggest you only have time for two body parts per session and may want to increase frequency. The more advanced you are then generally the more volume you need to stimulate growth. If you’re trying to get bigger you need more volume than you need to maintain size. If you’re still sore 2-3 days after that body part was trained, you’re not a fast healer and will need to leave longer between sessions so lower the frequency on that body part, or reduce the volume per session on that part. The older you are or the more injured you are will reduce your ability to recover from sessions therefore, volume per session per body part should be reduced and perhaps a higher frequency is necessary.

I wish could just tell you how to do it, but unfortunately this is the way of the world. My own training has changed hugely over the years. I’ve found I’m progressing faster these days with a higher weekly frequency and lower volume per session. This could be me aging or getting closer to my genetic potential. Where I used to train parts once a week, I’ve found I avoid injuries by reducing the volume per session but I now train each part twice a week, or even three times for lagging muscles.

I have put together a summary table of how many sets I think a person should be doing. This can work for the beginner if they stay closer to the minimum effective amount, whereas the advanced lifter may want to train with the maximal recoverable amount. It is then up to you how you chose to divide these sets up per week to build your own plan, taking into account the points I made above.

Training volumes

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