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Posted 8 months ago

Increasing volume approach (sets)

Those of you that are in the bodybuilding scene may have seen that a new method of training – an increased volume approach – has been going around. As such, you might be wondering if you should be switching to it too. Don’t worry, the wheel hasn’t been reinvented; however, increasing volume is a very smart way of accumulating more load in the gym without having to increase the total load on the bar or reps at the same load each week.

So, what does this approach look like? Well, involves increasing one’s training volume by adding extra sets each week for a set period (for example, 4-6 weeks), to then deload, wash off any fatigue that has been built up, and repeat the process from the top. The aim of this article is to dig a bit deeper into the principles behind this approach, and to discuss how this works in comparison it to other methods of training that are still around.

The ins and outs

Before we get into explaining this specific training methodology, let me reiterate that there are hundreds of different approaches to training, and some might work better or worse for different individuals. As such, rather than looking for what is “right” and what is “wrong”, consider looking at what is “effective” or “ineffective” for you.

If you didn’t already know, for a muscle to grow, we must have an increased total cumulative load going through the muscle as time goes on. You’ll know this by now if you’ve been following us for a long time, as we preach to aim for three things each week:

  1. More reps at the same load (6 x 100kg = 600kg vs 7 x 1000kg = 700kg)
  2. Same reps but more load (6 x 100kg = 600kg vs 6 x 105kg = 630kg)
  3. Improved muscle fibre recruitment at same reps and load

Seems simple enough, right? Right! However, not every individual wants to hit a PB every time they are in the gym, and that’s why this “new” methodology has evolved.

In the increased volume approach, based on their physique goals, an individual will pick a muscle group they want to get the biggest response from (some will call it a specialisation block); for this example, let’s assume it’s your chest. Every other muscle’s volume across the week will maybe be set to be at the minimum effective volume range, i.e., the bare minimum number of sets one must do to note muscle growth from week to week. This means that their overall training volume will be quite low. However, as the weeks go on, a set might be added to their chest work – it doesn’t have to be anything complicated, it’s as simple as adding a set to one specific exercise in the rotation, or even to multiple exercises.

So, let’s say you start doing this on the incline chest press: you set your baseline volume at 3 sets on week 1, and in week 2 you might increase it to 4 sets, in week 3 to 5 sets, and week 4 to 6 sets. If we apply the same principles of muscle development, in week 1 you might do 6 reps at 100kg, 10 reps at 85kg, and 12 reps at 70kg, totalling 2290kg across that week for your volume and load. Let’s then suppose that in week 2, you do 7 reps at 100kg, 10 reps at 87.5kg, 12 reps at 72.5kg and 12 reps at 70kg, which adds up to 3285kg.  As you can see, you’re still trying to get stronger than the week prior on those dedicated sets. This doesn’t necessarily mean that that you’re always training to failure on the muscle group, as you might be instructed to go 2-3 RIR (reps in reserve) some weeks and other weeks take it to failure.

From the calculations above, we can see that already on week 2, the load going through the muscle is 995kg more than it was in week 1, which is quite a significant increase. The process of incrementing load would continue like this until the final week of the “block” (say 4-6 weeks), before you deload for a week and then return to the baseline volume set on week 1.

It should be obvious that the idea behind this method is the same as any other for developing muscle tissue, i.e., to accumulate more load but also to purposefully take the muscle to a point where it is over-reaching. In other words, you take it to a point where it’s struggling to recover from the high volume, and then back off the gas, which allows for a super-compensatory effect (a significant increase in muscle mass in that specific target area). The aim is to then re-enter week 1 (lower volume) in a stronger position, moving more load than in the previous block, which was facilitated by the approach of accumulating volume, resting, and allowing for that compensation to increase strength.

It’s worthwhile pointing out here that even with this approach, you should see growth in other areas of your physique too, but nowhere near as much as in the specialised area that’s been targeted through the increased volume approach.

Is it for you?

If you were to ask me what I think of this approach, I would genuinely say I think it’s genius. There is some visual evidence out there from top coaches in the industry that it can and does in fact work. However, before you go jumping onto the next best thing, it’s probably best you consider a few points beforehand.

Firstly, are you growing from the volume and approach you are currently implementing at the moment? If the answer is yes, then the main question should be: why change? We can often look to change things up just because we see someone else do something, when in reality, if you’re growing fine from a different approach, then stick with it.

Another question to consider is: do you actually need a specialisation block or do you need to simply grow all over? If the answer is the latter, then the goal of getting as strong as you possibly can, across all lifts, should remain the same, as this will ensure you bring up everything systematically and symmetrically. Most clients I work with have multiple areas that they need to bring up, so we opt for a different approach of consistent volume and aim for more total accumulated load through hitting PBs week-in, week-out.

Personally, I haven’t tried this method myself or programmed it, in and if you’re reading this, you’re probably wondering why. To be honest, it’s mainly because I absolutely adore training to failure. There is something inside me that gets a huge amount of joy and fulfilment from having a number to beat from the previous week and going in and doing that on a weekly basis. It’s something I can only describe as an itch that needs to be scratched, and it’s been that way since 2017. Some of you will be reading this and nodding along. I simply couldn’t train with reps in reserve and get any enjoyment from it, as I wouldn’t be taking my body to its limit. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the principle of reps in reserve and how it might accumulate less overall fatigue, but it just not what is engrained in me. However, I do appreciate that not everyone likes training to failure, and that’s where the increasing volume approach could come in very handy. However, I’d argue that if you have never experienced true failure in the gym, how do you know what stopping three reps is shy of failure feels like?

I personally would see the increased volume approach as a perfect method for individuals who are fairly big and who have very dominant body parts over others. If you are looking to maintain muscle size in one area and bring it up in another in a short period of time, then that might be your answer. But like everything, it really will depend on what works for you.

In summary, there is a new approach to training in the bodybuilding scene, through which individuals aim to accumulate more load through the addition of more sets for a target muscle group across a set time frame. This approach has shown to be effective but might not be the best option for you and your own journey. What works best for you, might not work best for someone else and vice versa. Because… If it isn’t broke, why fix it?

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons