Beyond Sets And Reps: A Look At Training Volume

What is the best rep range to use for muscle building? Well, what I am about to say might surprise you: There is no magical rep range. There are reasonable ranges*,* but at the end of the day as long as you aren’t trying to turn weight training into an aerobic activity, most rep ranges between 5 and 12 (even up to 20) will assist you with muscle building if they are used wisely.

One thing you learn working with top level bodybuilders and powerlifters on a daily basis is the reality that no two athletes train alike. Some train with lower rep schemes, some train with a variety of rep ranges, and a few even train with very high reps. Chet Yorton, who defeated Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1966 NABBA Mr. Universe, is known for using a system of training that focused on 22 rep sets. On the other hand, Arnold relied heavily on Reg Park style 5x5 workouts as a younger bodybuilder.

So here we have the paradigm that baffles most trainees…Chet Yorton used 22 rep sets, Arnold Schwarzenegger used 5 rep sets, and both were monsters! What gives? Does everything work? Well, sort of. The question is actually more complicated than just sets and reps, and boils down to the concept of training volume.

Training Volume: More Important Than Reps and Sets

What in the world is training volume, and why should you care? Let’s take a closer look.

Training Volume (V) = Sets (S) x Reps (R) x Weight (W)

…or simplified: V = S x R x W

Instead of considering the sets and rep ranges of a workout, you should really be focusing on daily training volume. Training volume is a better tool when trying to gage the demands of an individual training approach or workout. Obviously, volume can’t measure the impact of training techniques such as training to failure, but it still provides an amazing insight into just how hard you are working out.

Let’s compare a couple of popular training approaches:

  • 3 sets x 8-10 reps.
  • 5 sets x 5 reps.

Do a Google search and you will find many arguments as to which of these training protocols is superior. Those who support the 3 x 8-10 approach will claim that the 5 x 5 is inferior because “low reps don’t build muscle”, or because 5 reps sets don’t have enough “time under tension” (or the amount of time spent under the bar for any given set). On the other hand, 5 x 5 advocates might claim that the first few reps of an 8-10 rep set are “fluff”, and do very little to stimulate growth because they feel relatively light.

So which camp is right? Neither. Both approaches are valid, and virtually equal when one looks at the overall training volume used during both workouts. Let me explain.

Most individuals will be able to use 90% of the weight they can move on 5 reps sets for their 8 rep sets. This is a generalization, of course, but a solid one for the sake of comparison. So for the above 2 approaches, we arrive at the following training volumes:

  • 3 sets x 8-10 reps x 200 pounds (rounded down a hair for practical reasons, and using a 9 rep average). This yields a total workout volume of 5,400 pounds.
  • 5 sets x 5 reps x 225 pounds. This yields a total workout volume of 5,625 pounds.

Now obviously this is a dumbed down version of this comparison. There are other possible variables that could change these scenarios. But with that said, if you look at overall training volumes for these approaches you notice that the weight moved (volume) is almost identical.

In addition, if you were to perform 2 sets x 20 reps with 135 pounds, which seems like a reasonable amount of weight given the above numbers, your training volume would be 5,400 total pounds. One could argue that a 20 rep set is not very taxing during the first few reps, but anyone that has ever performed a 20 rep set of squats knows just how impossibly tough the last few reps are. Obviously 20 rep sets are not recommended for most sets, but they can be effective tool.

Starting to see a bigger picture here? Regardless of the rep ranges used, the body is being taxed with virtually the same “time under tension” and load. While this is not a perfect system for analyzing workouts, it is far more advanced than simply focusing on sets and reps.

Structuring A Workout Based On Training Volume

In my article on training splits I outlined a reasonable amount of sets to perform on a weekly basis per bodypart. Here is a recap:

  • 9 to 15 weekly sets - Large Muscle Groups. These groups include chest, back, shoulders and quads.
  • 6 to 9 weekly sets - Small Muscle Groups. These groups include biceps, triceps, calves, abs and hamstrings.

These set totals can be used to outline an appropriate number of exercises to structure per bodypart. From there, you can calculate possible volumes for each exercise based on your strength. These volume totals can be used to calculate a myriad of possible set and rep combinations.

Before we go any further I must mention an important point…everyone is different. Some rep ranges will work better for you than others. More than this, not all bodyparts will respond equally to the same rep ranges. Play around, learn your body and find out what works for you. Nothing is more important than this!

To find out the best possible rep and set combinations you must first have a reasonable understanding of what your true 1RM (one rep max) is for a given lift. Without a reasonable idea of your 1RM you are merely guessing. For this example we are going to look at squat workout volume, and will base the numbers around a 300 pound squat max.

Because squats work the quads (a large muscle group), we will focus on 3 to 5 sets per week. 3 to 5 sets is a normal, “average” amount of sets per exercise for a large muscle group.

300 Pound Squat Max Example

A lifter who can perform a 300 pound squat should be able to perform the following:

  • 225 pounds by 8 reps.

This is approximately 75% of the lifters one rep max (1RM). Because of muscle fatigue, our example lifter will not be able to complete 4 sets of 8 reps using 225 pounds. So let’s pretend that in the gym, he is capable of performing 4 sets x 8 reps with 200 pounds.

  • 4 sets x 8 reps x 200 pounds = 6,400 total volume.

The sets and reps used in our example are averages. 4 sets is the average of the 3-5 set range, and 8 reps is a solid average when looking at the common rep ranges of 5 to 12 reps. So, 4 sets x 8 reps is a great place to start.

When finding your own volume for an exercise, where you start doesn’t really matter. Take the number of sets and rep you can perform with any given exercise, multiply them by the total weight, and you will arrive at a total volume. With this volume, you can reverse engineer sets and weight for any rep range.

A 6,400 poundage volume of squats could be turned into the following workouts:

  • 160 pounds x 2 sets x 20 reps.
  • 190 pounds x 3 sets x 11 reps.
  • 200 pounds x 4 sets x 8 reps.
  • 225 pounds x 5 sets x 5-6 reps.

As you can see, while the training volume remains the same, the number of reps and sets covers a broad spectrum.

Using Volume To Try Different Set And Rep Schemes

There is a simple way to calculate possible set and rep schemes based on training volume for any given weight. First, you will need to calculate your current volume for a given exercise. For this example we will focus on the bench press. Let’s pretend that you currently perform the following bench press sets:

  • Set 1: 185 x 10 reps. This yields an 1,850 pound volume.
  • Set 2: 205 x 8 reps. This yields a 1,640 pound volume.
  • Set 3: 225 x 6 reps. This yields a 1,350 pound volume.
  • Set 4: 245 x 4 reps. This yields a 980 pound volume.
  • Set 5: 185 x 10 reps. This yields an 1,850 pound volume.

The total volume of weight moved for these 5 sets equals 7,670 pounds. Perhaps you have used the above set and rep scheme for months on end, and need a change. You decide that you want to keep the same bench press intensity, but that lower reps appeal to you right now, so you choose to work with 225 pounds for all working sets. You also want to utilize two “ramping” sets, and limit the reps on these sets to 5 so that you are not fatigued when you reach your “all out” sets with 225 pounds.

You decide to use the following 2 ramped sets before moving on to 225 pounds:

  • Set 1: 145 pounds x 5 reps. This yields a total volume of 725 pounds.
  • Set 2: 185 pounds x 5 reps. This yields a total volume of 925 pounds.

The total volume for these two ramping sets is 1,650 pounds. Subtracting this total from your current volume of 7,670 pounds, you are left with 6,020 pounds of volume to work with. To find possible set and rep combos with this remaining volume, simply divide 6,020 pounds by 225 pounds. The resulting number is 27 (rounded a hair up). You can now use any reasonable multiplied combination of sets and reps that equals 27. For example:

  • 4 sets x 7 reps with 225 pounds.
  • 5 sets x 5 reps with 225 pounds.

Do not obsess about getting the numbers exactly the same. The point is not to make everything fit into a perfect mathematical box, but rather to place yourself in the same ballpark.

I Hate Math!

Hate math? Try not to make this more complicated than it is. Rather than trying to turn muscle building into a formula by focusing on training volume, use training volume as a general guideline. Training volume is most useful when trying to compare 2 different training approaches. If one approach has a far greater weekly training volume, it should throw up a red flag.

The next time someone tries to argue with you about which magical rep range is best, try to turn the focus on overall training volume. At the end of the day, there are many paths to take, some better for your body than others. Each of us is unique, and no two bodybuilders or powerlifters train the same way. Learn your body, take the time to explore your workouts and the training volumes you are using.

When looking at the workouts of others, stop zeroing in on rep ranges alone, and start considering the bigger picture involving reps multiplied by sets multiplied by weight. Training volume is a more efficient analyzation method, and while not foolproof, is a much better tool.

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