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Volume in Strength Training

Volume is a frequently used metric in a strength program, and is generally understood to mean sets x reps x weight, and can be totalled across your entire workout. While having some understanding of what your overall workload in a strength program is important, this particular approach to volume is very reductive. Doing 1000 lbs of total volume in deadlifts is a very different experience than 1000 lbs of bicep curls. Even for movements targeting the same muscle groups, think about the differences among 1000 lbs of back squats, 1000 lbs of leg press, and 1000 lbs of front squats. For most lifters, some of those could be easily achieved, and some would be more difficult. For these reasons, I don’t use the sets x reps x weight metric. It can be a kind of fun or interesting number to see, but it doesn’t actually provide much useful information.

Instead, when we talk about training volume, I focus on the set and rep schemes and overall intensity. Talking about the number of difficult sets (or working sets) can be a more useful way to think about volume. In general, lower reps at heavier loads are better for strength, medium reps ranges are for hypertrophy, and higher rep ranges are for developing muscular endurance or general health. Research on training volume has been contradictory, confusing, and often has other confound variables. That said, putting in more hard work will lead to more gains, up to a point.

In practice, this means prioritizing the quality of your sets and reps over sheer quantity. Instead of fixating on arbitrary volume targets, focus on the effectiveness of each set. Ask yourself: were these reps challenging? Did I maintain good form throughout? Focus on making your working sets be hard work and you’ll be able to get more out of your training.

Individual variability in response to training stimulus is also worth considering. Approach your strength training as an opportunity to explore and learn what works best for you. Be open to fine-tuning your approach based on your body’s feedback and performance outcomes. We’ve seen many athletes who have different responses to higher volume training blocks. Some folks can just keep banging out reps all day at 60% of 1 rep max weight, and other people struggle to perform the number that would be expected. Individual differences are real! Just because it’s really difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, or that you should do it. It’s all about whether the specific workload aligns with your goals.

Ultimately, while tracking training volume can offer insights into your progress and workload, don’t lose sight of the broader picture. Instead of trying to hit some arbitrary volume targets, prioritize progressive overload, ensuring that your training remains sufficiently challenging to drive adaptation. By striking the right balance between intensity and volume, you’ll be able to get gains and stay lifting. Remember, there’s no substitute for hard work, but smart work will take you even further!
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