This is a killer guest post from colleague and friend, Nick Smoot.
Nick Smoot is a strength coach and nutrition consultant out of Newport News, VA. He got his start in the fitness industry back in 2012, and since then he’s spent countless hours helping clients become the best versions of themselves possible. In his free time, he enjoys lifting heavy things, eating, writing, traveling, nerding out on Harry Potter, and eating.
Hope you enjoy the article!
Since the beginning of my lifting career, I’ve gone in to the gym thinking one thing:
“I have to add weight to the bar.”
To me, adding weight was the best way to create overload. If I didn’t add weight to the bar in a particular workout, I viewed that workout as a failure.
For a while, this thought process served me well.
My strength shot up, my muscles started to grow, and I received a sense of accomplishment every time I trained.
But, after a while – once my “newbie gains” wore off and I stopped making progress in a linear fashion – things started to go sour.
I could no longer add weight every training session, which frustrated me.
My motivation started to dwindle because I thought I was failing to do the one thing necessary in order to make progress.
And the act of trying to add weight too quickly left me tired, achy, fatigued, and eventually led to injury.
Over the years, I haven’t lost my desire to add weight to the bar (that’ll never go away), but I’ve come to realize one very important thing:
Adding weight to the bar is a tool, but it’s not the entire toolbox.
In fact, when it comes to the goal of gaining muscle mass, it might not even be the most useful tool.
Lifting heavier weights is important (seriously, you’ll have a hard time creating overload over time if you don’t).
But, volume is important too.
What Is Training Volume?
Increasing volume is a huge stimulus for muscle growth.
In simple terms, volume is the total amount of work you perform in the weight room.
The calculation for volume is simple:
Volume = Sets x Reps x Weight
Then, you can calculate the volume per training session by adding the volume of each exercise together.
You can calculate the volume per training week by adding the volume of each training session together.
Or you can calculate the volume per training cycle by adding the volume of each training week together.
For the purposes of this article, we’re just going to focus on the volume of each exercise, and how to progress that volume from one training week to the next.
We could get really complex with all of this stuff.
- Getting complicated is not necessary, and
- If volume is going up on each exercise (or at least on a few exercises), you know that weekly and monthly training volume is going up as well.
Turn Up Your Volume
Increasing your volume is simple. You can either:
- Add reps with a given weight.
- Add sets with a given weight.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s say on Week 1 of a new training program, you squat 225 lbs for 4 sets of 10 reps.
Now, on Week 2, you have two options for making progress.
You can add another rep (while keeping the weight at 225lbs), or you can add another set (again, while keeping the weight at 225lbs).
Choice 1 – Adding A Rep To Each Set:
If you come in on Week 2 and squat 225 lbs for 4 sets of 11 reps (4 x 11 x 225), that’s 9,900 lbs of total volume (a 900 lb increase).
Choice 2 – Adding A Set To The Exercise:
If you come in on Week 2 and squat 225 lbs for 5 sets of 10 reps (5 x 10 x 225), that’s 11,250 lbs of total volume (a 2,250 lb increase).
Either way – whichever option you chose – you’ve done more work than you did the week before, and you’ve made progress.
Of course, will you be able to add sets or reps EVERY training week?
Will adding volume always happen in a linear fashion?
No, probably not.
But, just like with adding weight, the goal isn’t to add volume every time you train; it’s to add volume whenever possible (within the confines of your goals, work capacity, and current training plan).
As long as you’re increasing volume – even if it’s just a little bit – across a training cycle, you’re going to make awesome progress.
Considerations And Limitations To Adding Volume
With all of that being said, there are a few things to keep in mind when focusing on adding volume as a means of progression:
- Consideration #1: You can’t add volume indefinitely.
You’ll get to a point where you won’t be able to recover from the workload.
Start with a decent amount of volume (think 3-6 sets per exercise depending on your work capacity and the rep range you’re working at), and increase sets or reps on a weekly to bi-weekly basis.
Then, once you get to the end of the training cycle, drop volume back to where you started (in terms of total sets), and either switch exercises, or train at a different rep range and intensity.
- Consideration #2: The total amount of volume you start at – and how fast/far you progress it – is dependent upon your current work capacity.
Work capacity, as defined by Strength Coach Greg Nuckols, is the “total amount of work you can perform, recover from, and adapt to.”
As your work capacity improves, the total amount of volume you can handle – and will need to train at in order to stimulate muscle growth – will improve as well.
There isn’t a concrete number for the amount of volume YOU can handle.
So start with an amount you think you can progress on, and adjust from there.
- Consideration #3: Adding sets and reps are both useful, and a combined approach is likely better than just doing one or the other.
This is because reps are much harder to increase than sets with a given weight, but adding 3-4 sets on an exercise – especially if you’re training at a decent intensity – across a training cycle is a TON of extra volume (and freaking brutal).
So, what I like to do is add a rep or two one week, and a set or two the next.
- Consideration #4: Don’t use random rep ranges.
Each rep range stimulates a different adaption in the body.
-1-6 reps is best suited for strength.
-6-12 reps is best suited for size.
-12+ reps is best suited for a combination of size and endurance.
If your goal is to build muscle mass, the majority of your training should take place in the 6-12 rep range.
- Consideration #5: Adding weight to the bar is still important.
Lastly, just because increasing volume is a means of progression doesn’t mean you should forget about increasing load.
Volume and intensity (load) have an inverse relationship, which means that when one is high, the other must be low.
Keeping volume sky high is a good strategy for muscle growth, but your strength is likely to suffer somewhat.
And, strength is really important.
Strength is the foundation of all fitness related qualities and technical skills. Because of this, it increases the amount of weight you can lift in the rep ranges geared towards hypertrophy (muscle growth).
You should have distinct phases where you train for size, and distinct phases where you train for strength.
During your size phases, focus on adding volume (and weight if you can, but only as a secondary option after you’ve increased sets or reps).
During your strength phases, focus on adding weight (while keeping volume the same or slightly decreasing it).
Always “adding 5 pounds to the bar” is a tool, but it’s not the entire toolbox.
Adding volume – sets or reps – is a huge stimulus for muscle growth.
And as an addition to adding weight to the bar, it provides another means of progression that can take your gains to the next level.
Good luck in your workouts!