Understanding Volume & Fatigue

Posted by Shaun LaFleur on

You have probably seen the term “volume” thrown around in regards to resistance training and have wondered what it means and if it’s a useful concept to you. Here I am going to explain what volume is, the different ways it can be defined, and how to utilize it in a practical way in your workout programming. I'll also briefly touch on training fatigue and how it occurs. Understanding proper volume and fatigue management is a key concept to training intelligently and optimizing your progress.

So What Is Training Volume?

Training volume, put simply, is the total amount of work you do in a given time period, most commonly used to refer to total workload in a given workout or a given weekly period. Depending on the sport or individual coach or trainer, volume may be defined in different ways. Each method of calculating volume can have its benefits and drawbacks, but each can help in ensuring progressive overload takes place by giving you an objective metric of your training to monitor and adjust. Below are the most common ways that training volume can be defined.

Sets x Reps x Weight

Volume can be defined as Sets x Reps x Weight, typically referred to as tonnage. This method is probably the oldest and most commonly used method. There are three ways you can increase volume. You can add sets, add reps and add weight to the bar. Each will increase total work done and is a form of progressive overload. This method is great for being able to track how much volume you're doing over time, and whether or not you're improving overall from training cycle to training cycle. While you may be doing similar sets and reps in each cycle, you'll know you've improved if your total tonnage is going up during your workouts. It is also important to note that tonnage is a very good way to track workload in strength training, but is a little less applicable to muscle building.

Using this definition can give the impression that you can accumulate a ton of volume by performing a very light weight for a ton of sets and reps, or by performing an easier movement that you can load up with a ton of weight, such as the leg press, in order to accumulate a lot of volume. With this definition it may seem that doing 5x10 on the leg press with 600 pounds would be more volume than free squatting 400 pounds for the same sets and reps and will thus produce far superior results because of the difference in tonnage (5x10x600 > 5x10x400), however the research does not support this. This suggests that Sets x Reps x Weight is slightly biased towards certain types of movements and loading schemes, despite those movements and loading schemes not actually being superior in terms of muscle growth. While more tonnage on the barbell back squat will prove better for muscle growth than less tonnage on the same or similar movements, performing more total tonnage on something like the leg press will not even hold a candle to movements like the back squat, even at lower tonnages.

Another downside to this method is that if using primarily added reps and/or added weight as a way to add volume, increasing volume can become relatively slow because of how slow strength gains occur when you’re past the beginner phases of training. This means that the faster and easier method of increasing total volume would be adding more sets, which leads us to the next way of defining total volume.

Total Hard Sets

A slightly newer method of defining volume is total amount of “hard sets”. A hard set would be a set that leaves no more than 3-4 reps in the tank. This method, in my opinion, is the most practical and useful method of defining total volume and is supported by recent research. Research has shown that when comparing different rep ranges and loading schemes and controlling for total amount of sets done, hypertrophy is relatively equal across the board, even across different volume levels (when volume is defined as Sets x Reps x Weight). This means that perhaps total hard sets is a better metric of calculating volume than Sets x Reps x Weight, as it is more closely related to how much muscle is being built.

The downside to this method, however, is that you can't simply add sets forever, and adding sets past a certain point will result in overreaching and potential recovery problems. Because of this, you will then need to add volume in terms of tonnage by adding weight or reps instead of sets. This will allow you to reduce the total amount of sets you're doing while still increasing volume by adding weight and/or reps, then you can slowly continue to add sets again, further increasing volume. This is a common method of cycling volume and intensity.

Progressive Overload

Both methods will elicit strength and muscle progress because they are both forms of progressive overload. Even if you were to maintain the same amount of sets and reps, but add weight to the bar during those sets, you’d still be placing a novel stimulus on the body which will elicit progress, because despite your overall volume not going up in terms of amount of “hard sets”, it has increased when defined as total tonnage, or Sets x Reps x Weight. It is probably a good idea to use the hard set definition for the bulk of your training while keeping in mind that it can also be defined as total tonnage. Most well planned routines will have increases and decreases in sets done as part of its periodization process, but like with all routines the weight on the bar will increase each cycle. Because of this, Sets x Reps x Weight is a useful metric because while you may have reduced the amount of sets you’re doing, it doesn’t mean that the total volume has decreased back to previous levels. Just because you may be performing the same amount of sets and reps as the start of your previous cycle, you’re now using a heavier load, thus your volume is still higher than it was in the previous cycle due to a higher tonnage. 

Basically, count how many sets you are doing per muscle group to gain an objective metric on how much total work you're doing for that muscle group and use tonnage as an objective metric to focus on when progressing on each lift. Say you're doing 15 sets of bicep curls a week. You would take that to 20 sets per week in order to elicit more hypertrophy and if adding any more than this will result in recovery issues, you'd then focus on increasing your tonnage on your lifts by adding reps and/or weight to some of your sets over time.

Understanding Training Stress & Fatigue

When resistance training or performing any intense exercise, you are placing stress on the body which causes training fatigue to accumulate. It is the repeated build up and recovery from this training fatigue that causes the body to become stronger and better. Training fatigue can be muscle specific or general fatigue, which is just overall fatigue on the body’s systems, especially the central nervous system (CNS). For example, performing the bench press will create fatigue in the pecs, shoulders and other muscles used in the movement, but because it's a movement that uses a large percentage of the body's total muscles, it also contributes to general training fatigue.

Most exercises contribute to an accumulation of both types of fatigue, with the bigger compound movements such as the bench, squat and deadlift contributing more to general fatigue than smaller movements like barbell curls or tricep pushdowns. This is why if you want to get in more volume on a specific body part, it's important to get that extra volume in using smaller accessory movements rather than adding more compound movements. This way you can contribute to more overall volume in a particular area you want to bring up without causing too much fatigue. Some compound movements are much more fatiguing than others as well. The deadlift will cause much more fatigue than the squat and bench press, for example, and typically can't be done with volume levels as high as what you should be able to handle on the bench and squat.

In order to continue making progress you must recover from the fatigue built up by your previous training sessions. If you were to train to failure on the bench press on multiple sets for example, this would cause a tremendous amount of fatigue in the muscles used for the bench press, and if you were to go back into the gym the very next day, you wouldn’t be fully recovered and your bench press performance would be severely impacted, ultimately impacting the amount of stimulus you can get from your workout on that day. However, if you were to train with a reasonable amount of volume and intensity, you should be able to recover in roughly 48 hours before being ready to perform the same movements again.


Minimally Effective Volume (MEV) & Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV)

MEV is simply the minimum amount of volume that will cause a muscle to grow. If you did this amount of total work per week, you would progress but at the slowest rate possible; anything less would simply be maintaining.

MRV is the maximum amount of volume that you can do and still recover and make progress with. Doing any more than this amount means that you will be under recovering and you will eventually burn out and no longer make progress, or even begin to regress and perform worse until you take a deload or reduce your volume.

The goal is to train as close to your MRV as possible, without going over this amount.

Tying It All Together

With this understanding of volume and fatigue in mind, it’s important to note that properly managing the two are the foundation of any good routine. While volume is directly correlated with progress, it's also correlated with the build up of fatigue. The more volume you do the more progress you make, but the more fatigue you accumulate as well. Past a certain point, any increase in volume will result in more fatigue than you are capable of recovering from within a reasonable time frame, and thus not only can progress stall, but it can regress.

After performing a reasonable amount of volume in a given workout, it typically takes a muscle group 24-48 hours to fully recover; some muscles may recover slower and others faster. Typically smaller muscle groups such as the biceps and calves can recover extremely fast, while larger muscle groups like the pecs, lats and quads may require more time to recover. It’s also important to remember general fatigue as well, as all heavy exercises will cause an accumulation in CNS fatigue. Because of this, many routines will have a deload week programmed into them after several weeks of hard training in order to facilitate full recovery and adaptation to the training stimulus.

The amount of volume a person can do and still recover will vary from person to person and will even vary within the same individual at different times, due to many factors both in and outside of the gym. There’s no practical way to perfectly estimate the amount of volume a person can handle at any given period in any given muscle group, but there are practical ways to go about training and signs to watch out for, such as mood changes, feeling generally tired or low energy, degradation of performance, stalling and other similar factors.

The idea is that in order to maximize progress you need to do as much volume as possible while still being able to recover. Any less than this amount and your progress won’t be maximized, but any more than this amount and you will simply not be able to recover and will eventually burn out and your performance will regress until you allow yourself to recover.

This requires a lot of trial and error. This is why it’s a good idea to slowly increase your volume until you feel as though you may be nearing your MRV. It’s usually not a good idea to jump straight into a high volume protocol before having some idea of how much volume your body can handle. It can become a recipe for disaster and cause you to start off training above your MRV, accumulating too much fatigue early on in your training cycle and affecting your overall performance, and requiring you to deload prematurely, meaning you're wasting valuable time trying to recover from an unnecessarily hard training week.


Practical Application

So let's say that through trial and error you have discovered that you can perform 15-20 sets per week on the bench press and make great progress while recovering just fine. You can then program 15-20 sets of the bench press in multiple different ways depending on what type of routine you enjoy and how often you want to train the bench press. Let's use an upper/lower split as an example, where you will be training bench press twice a week. First off, I recommend training in multiple rep ranges and to never neglect strength work, so having a light, heavy and/or moderate day works well, but for this example we'll have one heavy and one light. You would then split up 15-20 sets of the bench press (and it's variations) between the two upper body days. One way you could do this is as so:

Upper Body Day 1: 
Bench Press 4x3
Close Grip Bench Press 5x5

Upper Body Day 2:
Bench Press 5x10
Paused Bench Press 5x10

This would result in a total volume of 19 sets over the week for the bench press with a mixture of heavy and light sets. While performing 19 total sets in any rep range will build muscle, by performing 10 of those 19 sets in the lighter rep ranges, you will improve your recovery between sessions and build up far less fatigue than if you attempted to perform all 19 sets in the heavier rep ranges. You can program all lifts and/or body parts this way, which will allow you to monitor how much work you're doing overall while being able to adjust accordingly to make sure you're always progressing. It's also important to monitor overall CNS fatigue as well, not just each muscle group on it's own.

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