More is More

The most reliable way to get stronger is simply to do more. Stop worrying about overtraining, and you may surprise yourself.
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Arnold

What you’re getting yourself into:

  • ~2100 words.
  • 6-8 minute read time.

Key points

  • The most reliable way, though not the ONLY way, to get stronger is to do more.
  • Even advanced, drug-free athletes can make great progress training a lift just twice per week.
  • You probably don’t need to worry about overtraining.  Participants in this study squatted 8 sets to failure with 80% of their max and made sweet gainz.

If you don’t understand anything else about programming, understand this:

The most reliable way to make progress is to do more.

It’s certainly not the ONLY way to make progress.  Exercise selection plays a role, intensity plays a role, frequency plays a role, proper periodization plays a role.  But the primary contributor – hands down – is training volume.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a dedicated study write-up.  I’ve come across some cool stuff, but nothing that deserved its own article.  This study really caught my eye, though, because it illustrates this concept perfectly:

The Effect of Training Volume on Lower-Body Strength by Robbins et. Al. (2012)

Participants:

Most of the guys were mid-20s to early 30s.  The great thing about this study was that they were all experienced lifters.  A minimum of two years of consistent training was required, but most of the participants had been under the bar for 5-8 years.

A squat of at least 130% of bodyweight was required to participate, and the average squat for the people in the study was around 155kg to start with.  Strangely, the participants’ weights weren’t reported, but for most studies like this, the people are somewhere between 75-85kg.  It’s pretty safe to assume that most of the people in this study were squatting around 1.5-2 times bodyweight.

Not too shabby – these weren’t the untrained subjects typical of most strength training studies.

Training Protocol

Before the study, all the participants did two weeks of a body part split routine (chest and bis, back and tris, and legs) with standardized volume and intensity to make sure their prior training wouldn’t significantly influence their results.  After that, they maxed and were put on different training protocols.

For the actual trial period, all the groups trained 4 times per week for six weeks.  One day was squats and upper back work.  The other was all upper body work (since you’d have a hard time recruiting well-trained subjects for a study if they knew they’d lose all their upper body swole).  All of the training was the same for all three groups, except for their squat work.

One group did 1 set of squats to failure with 80%.

One group did 4 sets of squats to failure with 80%.

One group did 8 sets of squats to failure with 80%.

“Failure” was defined as volitional failure (i.e. when they felt like they couldn’t get the next rep), or when they needed to take more than three seconds between reps.

They squatted twice per week, with no extra exercises that were leg or lower back intensive.

They retested maxes after Week 3 and Week 6.

After Week 6, they were put back on a standardized protocol.  They all trained four times per week, hitting each muscle group twice per week, and all squatting for three sets with a 4rm load.

Basically, they were on a training program that was similar to how people actually train, which makes it easier to generalize the results.

The one thing that irked me a bit was that squat depth was specified as 90 degrees of knee flexion – a bit above parallel.  Oh well.  That’s fairly standard, though.  Assuming results are generalizable from a slightly above parallel squat to a slightly below parallel squat isn’t too much of a leap of faith.

Results:

As it’s explained in the study, the 1-set group did not get any stronger at three weeks, but did get stronger at six weeks, with no difference between Week 6 and Week 10.  The 4-set group got stronger  by Week 3, but didn’t gain any further strength between Week 3 and Week 10.  The 8-set group was stronger at Week 3 than Week 1, but wasn’t significantly stronger at weeks 6 and 10 than at Week 3.  The 8-set group gained significantly more strength than the 1-set group, but there was no significant difference between the 4-set group and either the 1-set group or the 8-set group.

However, I don’t think those results are telling the whole story.  This study, like many exercise science studies, was plagued by small study groups (10-11 people per group), which means pretty big differences between groups or time points are required to reach statistical significance.  The chart of the results themselves tells a somewhat different story.

Over three weeks, the 4-set and 8-set groups got almost identical gains, but between weeks 3 and 6, and between weeks 6 and 10, the 8-set group starts to pull away.

By the end of the six week intervention, the 1-set group had gained about 16kg on their squats on average (~148kg to ~164kg), the 4-set group had gained about 23kg (~157kg to ~180kg), and the 8-set group had gained about 31kg (~160kg to ~191kg).  So while the difference between the 4-set and 8-set group may have not been *statistically* significant, it’s still probably relevant in the real world.  The effect sizes (often used in studies like this where the sample size is rarely large enough to produce significant results) bear this out – the effect size for the difference between 1 and 4 sets was small, and the effect size for the difference between 4 and 8 sets was moderate.  The authors say as much in the abstract as well:

“At 6 weeks, the magnitude of improvement was significantly greater for the 8-SET, as compared with that of the 1-SET group. The magnitude of improvement elicited in the 4-SET group was not different from that of the 1-SET or 8-SET groups. The results suggest that “high” volumes (i.e., >4 sets) are associated with enhanced strength development but that “moderate” volumes offer no advantage. Practitioners should be aware that strength development may be dependent on appropriate volume doses and training duration.”

Another interesting thing to notice is that the 8-set group was the only one that gained strength during the four weeks of training heavier at the end of the study (about 7kg, on average).  Again, the results weren’t significant so you may not want to put TOO much stock in them, but it conforms to typically held beliefs about overreaching and peaking – only the group that was previously doing a lot of volume actually got stronger during a heavier, lower volume phase (somewhat similar to a peaking program) before the final maxes.

Another interesting thing to note is that only in the 4-set group did everyone actually get stronger.  In the 1-set group, eight people were able to increase their training loads, there was no change for one participant, and two actually had to decrease their training loads.  In the 8-set group, nine out of 10 were able to increase their training load, but one was not (no change).  So while 8 sets of squats produced the best average results, 4 sets was the only one that caused strength gains across the board.

Discussion

I wanted to write about this journal article because it represents a larger trend, both in research  and in-the-trenches practice.  This was the particular article I chose because it was 1) done on dudes who were actually pretty strong and experienced (5-8 years training, on average) and 2) because it was about squatting, not leg extensions or something of that nature.

If you want to get stronger, the best thing you can do is train more, provided you’re sleeping enough, managing stress, and have good technique.

Sure, other factors certainly matter.  And sure, it’s certainly possible (though unlikely) to overtrain.  But in the simplest terms possible, your current program is probably less effective than it would be if you just added an extra couple of sets to each exercise.  If you’re not making progress, your default thought shouldn’t simply be, “time to find an exciting new program!”  It should be either “time to add more work to my current program” or “time to seek out a new program that employs more volume than my current one.”

Another thing I’d like to point out in the face of the current prevailing wisdom in the powerlifting world: It is entirely possible to get great strength gains just training a lift a couple times per week.  The current trend seems to be recommending everyone (especially drug-free lifters) train every lift 3-4 or more times per week.

These were experienced lifters with an average of five to eight years under the bar and an average squat of ~155kg.  Every group had non-negligible strength average strength gains.  Every person in the 4-set group made strength gains, and the average strength gains over 10 weeks in the 8-set group were around 37kg (82lbs).  Yes, there is a trend for higher frequency to yield better results (one, two, three), but you can certainly get stronger doing a lift just once or twice per week.

Another interesting thing to point out about this particular study – the point of diminishing returns doesn’t even seem to be kicking in yet at 8 sets for these experienced trainees.  The difference in average strength gains between the 8-set and 4-set group was actually greater than the difference between the 4-set and 1-set groups (again, the difference isn’t statistically significant, but the effect size was considerably larger).  Although 8 sets to failure may sound like a ton of work for a single training session, this study indicates that it’s perfectly reasonable.

Another thing to point out about the awesome results the subjects got – this wasn’t even a periodized training program (which tend to yield better results).  It was the same percentage of their 1rm, for the same number of sets, week in and week out.  They didn’t even do any lower body exercises EXCEPT squatting.  However, the average squat gains across the board were still 10-20% on average.

Fancy programs with a ton of bells and whistles may be more fun and engaging (which shouldn’t be discounted), and may produce better results yet, but you can DEFINITELY get stronger on a basic meat-and-potatoes training plan.

This should be obvious, but just to explicitly mention it – 8 sets to failure (average of 7 reps per set) was not enough to cause overtraining, rhabdo, and death.  It’s the level of volume that the participants responded the most positively to.

Another thing worth mentioning:  Although doing more work yields better strength gains, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s efficient.  The 8-set group gained about 80% more strength on average than the 1-set group, but they did about five times as much total work (131 total reps versus 670 total reps) over the six weeks of volume manipulated training.  As I’ve said before, it’s entirely possible to get results with a low volume program, but it probably won’t give you the BEST results.  And although the process gets less and less efficient the more you do (less gains per unit of increased work), more gains are still more gains.

One last practical caveat – before ramping up the volume (especially if you’re training close to failure as these guys were), make sure your form is good.  If you get a ton of practice with great technique, you get stronger and further ingrain great technique.  If you get a ton of practice with bad technique, you’ll still get stronger, but you’ll further ingrain bad habits you’ll have a much harder time unlearning.

Practical Application

So how should you apply this information to your training?

Well, here’s a super simple decision tree:


Essentially, if you’re getting stronger, don’t fix what isn’t broken.  If you’re not getting stronger, assuming you aren’t feeling worn down all the time, do more.

That could take a few different forms:

1) sticking with your current program, but doing more work sets or adding dropback sets

2) starting or increasing accessory work targeting specific weaknesses

3) adding more work for your stalled lift on another day of the week

The amount of work you do doesn’t need to double overnight, but if you look through your training journals and see that a lift has been stalled for a year, and you’re doing the same amount of work for that lift today as you were doing a year ago, you’ve probably found your culprit.

If you find yourself unable to increase training volume while still recovering, the factor bottlenecking your progress is probably work capacity (read more about it here and here).  In this case, you still need to eventually do more work, but you need to take a step back (put maximal strength on the back burner for a while so you can focus on increasing work capacity) so that you can ultimately take a step forward (increasing training volume productively).

Wrapping it up

As an athlete or coach, you should have a lot of tools in your toolbox.  However, increasing training volume should be one of the tools you always keep at the top of your mind.  If you don’t see any glaring issues in program design, you already have good technique, and you’re taking care of business outside of the gym, simply doing more is the most reliable way to keep making progress.


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77 thoughts on “More is More”

  1. The problem with this study, as with all studies that involve training to “failure,” is that it is highly unlikely the subjects were actually training to failure (consistently at least), which requires extreme levels of motivation as well as experience in what training to true failure really feels like (and for most people an experienced coach or training partner in tune with the trainee).

    “‘Failure’ was defined as volitional failure (i.e. when they felt like they couldn’t get the next rep). . .”

    That sounds about right. The extent of a trainee’s volition, especially where the effort put forth in a set is concerned, is not something that can be counted upon as being consistent, either among subjects or across performances of the same individual, nor anywhere near being maximized in a scientific investigation. You can’t just tell someone to train to failure and then expect to obtain meaningful data.

    Eight sets at 80% 1rm really taken to failure, at the absolute maximum effort a fully focused individual could sustain, would look something like this (unless the individual possessed an usually higher than normal percentage of slow-twitch fibers in the working muscles):

    (1) 10 reps, (2) 7-8 reps, (3) 5-6 reps, (4) 3-4 reps, (5) 1-2 reps, (6) 0-1 rep, (7) 0 reps or, after a prolonged recovery period, 1 rep, (8) 0 reps – for an average rep count of around 3.5, compared to the 7-rep average of the 8-set group that the study reports

    With any load in the region of 80%, almost no one is going to be able to sustain the effort required to train to failure for a full eight sets of reps anything higher than singles without having to take recovery periods long enough that sets could be considered separate workouts in themselves!

    Conclusion: No way in hell were these subjects training to failure. No surprise there. The reason it’s concluded from these studies that higher volume produces better results owes nothing more than to more sets causing a buildup of fatigue that eventually causes, by default, an effort on the last set or sets that is genuinely high in intensity – much higher than almost any subject will be able or willing to put out in just one set.

  2. “Another thing worth mentioning: Although doing more work yields better strength gains, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s efficient. The 8-set group gained about 80% more strength on average than the 1-set group, but they did about five times as much total work (131 total reps versus 670 total reps) over the six weeks of volume manipulated training. As I’ve said before, it’s entirely possible to get results with a low volume program, but it probably won’t give you the BEST results. And although the process gets less and less efficient the more you do (less gains per unit of increased work), more gains are still more gains.”

    Could this be an explanation for seemingly better results with higher frequency training?

    If every set you do after the first set gives you less bang for your buck then spreading out volume as frequently as possible should give better results for same/less effort?

      1. yep also. But 10-20min rest is probably enough if the set is taken to failure.
        This is where cluster training shines. Training to true failure for the advanced athlete isn’t a wise approach. I think the biggest problem with training to failure and/or too short rest periods is the loss of focus wich is in my opinion the absolute most important factor in training. 80-90% of trainees have this issue. You can train your ass off. If you train blind with no focus/intention you get anything. But that’s the way it is. Most people just like the feeling of having done something. But that’s obviously not the way to achieve the extraordinary. Physical strong means mental strong!
        sry for my english.

  3. I read another very compelling article by Greg talking about biometric feedback, and the benefits of doing less work when your body is recovering. I’m curious, if I had to pick only one, which is better? Always doing as much volume as I can vs making sure I’m recovering well. Or too much volume vs too much caution. Thoughts?

  4. 8 sets to failure @ 80% would have you doing 2 reps on the last couple sets. I appreciate the article but I don’t believe the results stated in the article. There is a clinical exercise scientist (forgot his name) who has been calling BS on many of these studies because of poor control protocol, lying by the clinician, or lying by the participants. Can you imagine doing 8 sets and staying within all parameters? No freaking way. People would start to cheat – only doing 5-6 sets and claim they did 8.
    I have seen numerous other studies similar to this where the group doing 3-4 sets always gets the biggest gains.

    Also did you notice that the 8 set group started off stronger than the other two groups? More BS and poor protocol. Why did the 1 set group start off with the weakest participants? Hello !!!!
    The strongest participant group, with an impossible protocol to follow, had the best results? Sure. Why not give them Dianabol as well?
    Again i appreciate the article but the study has more inconsistencies than Hillary Clinton.

    1. None of those things strike me as particularly problematic. If you have decent work capacity, you’re not going to lose that many reps set to set.

      And no, people couldn’t cheat and do fewer sets. In training studies like this, you have research assistants making sure everyone follows the protocol to the letter to make sure you get good data.

      If anything, having the strongest participants in the 8-set group and the weakest participants in the 1-set group would put the 1-set group at an advantage and the 8-set group at a disadvantage (the stronger you are, the harder it is to keep getting stronger). And regardless, the strength differences were pretty small in the first place, both practically (only about 15kg) and statistically (non-significant differences).

      Also, the parameters for the 8-set group weren’t anything impossible. In fact, they were almost exactly what you’d expect to produce the best results: “Effect size data demonstrate that maximal strength gains are elicited among athletes who train at a mean training intensity of 85% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM), 2 days per week, and with a mean training volume of 8 sets per muscle group.” From http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15142003. So, you don’t just need to disregard this study; you’d need to disregard the entire body of scientific evidence to come up with the idea that the study protocol was closer to impossible than optimal.

  5. How can guys who have been training for an average of 5-8 years gain 35lbs/50lbs/68lbs on their respective 1RM squat maxes in a 6 week period? I have been a strength coach at the high school level for 25 years and those kinds of gains are only possible with untrained subjects. Am I missing something here?

    1. One thing to keep in mind is that time spent training doesn’t necessarily mean time spent training hard/smart. A ~155kg squat is a relatively solid squat, but most people can certainly squat quite a bit more than that after 5-8 years of very productive training. I’m honestly a little surprised the 1-set group made that much progress, but 4-8 sets to failure 2x per week is pretty rough – we don’t know anything about their prior training habits, but my guess would be that it was substantially more difficult than what they were doing before. In light of that, I’m not too terribly surprised overall. In general, what I’ve seen in the clients I’ve worked with is that if someone’s been training for a while with pretty high volume, putting a lot of effort into their training, then really you’re just aiming for steady, marginal improvements past that point. On the other hand, if someone thinks they’ve been training hard, but when you look at their old training journals their overall training volume was on the low end, they can still make a lot of progress pretty quickly when you really ramp things up.

      As one example of that, here’s another study published last year with “elite” (they weren’t elite) powerlifters, who’d been training for seven years on average gaining a TON of strength over 16 weeks: https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/JEPonlineJUNE2014_Cardozo_Evangelista.pdf

      Again, I’d presume that based on their initial levels of strength, they weren’t training nearly as hard for those first seven years as they thought they were.

      1. Thanks for the response Greg. I’m new to your site, at least as a commenting member. One of the classes I teach is a 9th and 10th grade football class. Actually, I team teach it with the varsity head coach. It is a huge class, 79 student athletes. Most of the first semester was spent getting them technically sound in the lifts that we use in our program. We are making good gains, etc and have what I feel is a pretty solid program, however I would like to try an experiment… They are already divided into three groups and I thought it would be interesting to give them three different routines for the last 9 weeks of the year and then compare the results… Right now we are doing a linear program that started with a work capacity and hypertrophy block from the end of the season until now (15-12-10-8). In the next block we are moving to more of a strength and hypertrophy phase (8-6-6-4). In the past I have also used what I would call a modified conjugate system. I would greatly value any suggestions that you might have along these lines.

        1. Right away, I see two different iterations you could try. One would be what you’re currently doing, and the other would be a wave approach, so 15, 12, 10, 8, 8, 6, 6, 4 for one group, and 15, 10, 6, 12, 8, 6, 8, 4 or something of that nature. And the third could be reverse linear (though I don’t think that would work quite as well)

  6. Thank you Greg. I didn’t mind the 15-12-10-8 pyramid we used for the “Work Capacity” cycle that we are just finishing. But entering the next phase which is more of a strength cycle I would prefer a reverse pyramid, (6-8-8-10). I discussed it with the head football coach, (my co-teacher) and he wants to try alternating weeks, (10-8-8-6…6-8-8-10). You mentioned a wave within the workout; would 8-10-8-6 accomplish what you are after? What do you see being the advantage of that type of wave…? Lastly, it may work well to have the 3 groups do the following?

    Group 1 pyramid, 10-8-8-6
    Group 2 alternating pyramid/rev-pyramid, 10-8-8-6…6-8-8-10
    Group 3 undulating wave, 8-6-8-10

    Thanks again, I can imagine you are a very busy man so I am very (pleasantly) surprised you were able to respond at all.

  7. hi greg,

    is there any difference between, lets say 4sets of squats + 4 sets of leg press versus 8 sets of squats?

  8. hi, greg.

    So it says that the 1 set group increased their 1-RM squat from 148kg to ~164kg. That is 360 lb 1-RM squat. So with 360 lb 1-RM squat, it’s probably safe to say that the participants were able to 225 lb for 10 reps. So can a 5′ 8 “, 175 lb male reach these numbers by only squating 1 set, 2x per week?

    1. Sure, provided those sets are hard enough. It really doesn’t (generally) take THAT much volume to make gains, but it takes considerably more to maximize the rate of gains.

  9. I may have missed it somewhere while reading this, but did these guys stick with the same load (no overload in any variable basically) throughout the duration of the study, or throughout the duration of each phase?

    And since you’re more into this type of research than I am, is it quite common to see studies like these where the subjects stick to the same weights, reps and sets for a while and see a noticeable increase in 1RM strength when testing it?

    That’d make sense but I just want to clear up one little thing that’s been on my head for a while.

    1. They added weight session-to-session as they were able (I’d need to look back at it, but I think that when they could get 10+ reps on the first set, they went up in weight).

      There’s ALMOST always an overload applied, with weights progressively increased as the trainees get stronger. I’ve only seen a handful of studies that stick with the same weight throughout.

  10. Great Article!

    Whats your opinion on alternating between high sets one week and less sets the next and repeating this process through a mesacycle?
    Say one week doing 23 total sets of chest and the next 16 sets averaging about 20 sets per week. (Keeping the same rep ranges)

    Would this in any way be a bad way of training for hypertrophy or is it better to keep the same volume throughout or starting at the low end and ramping up the set volume?

    Thanks in advance! 🙂

  11. How about guys like Martin Berkhan who has achieved an impressive level of strength and muscular development using a low volume high intensity approach? Do you consider him as a genetic outlier/high responder?

  12. To be honest, I find it hard to believe that guys who have been training for 5 to 8 years with a decent strength base are able to make any progress at all doing just one set twice per week. 16kg of strength gain over a Six week period is actually pretty good progress for an intermediate lifter. Unless they are all force feeding themselves and gained 5 – 10 pounds over the six week period I don’t see how it can happen. Curious about your opinion on that Greg.
    Kind regards and keep up the good work.

    1. One thing you see pretty consistently in the research is that MOST people aren’t great at pushing themselves on their own, and tend to get better results in a context where they know they’re being studied and need to put forth maximal effort (basically the Hawthorne effect applied to exercise science). I think it’s entirely plausible that one REALLY hard set each week provides more of a stimulus than the pretty half-assed training a lot of people do.

  13. Hi Greg,

    Do you think this kind of approach would work for other lifts than just the Squat, like the bench or even the deadlift?

    IIRC from your bigger periodization article it seemed that Bench better responded to periodization compared to the Squat where it mattered less, I wonder if that difference would have implications for the use of a protocol similar to this for upper body / pressing movements.

  14. Hi Greg,
    I am currently running texas method and trying to set a 10rm PR on intensity day. So i figured i should being doing 5 sets of 10 on volume day but i find them hard to recover from, my legs are very sore the next day. My question is will 4 or maybe even 3 sets of 10 on volume day be enough to disrupt homeostatis and drive adaptation? I figured i’d ask you since Mr. Rippetoe rarely replies anything else than,”you’re not doing the program”.

    1. Well, to be fair, you’re not doing the program. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, but it’s no longer TM.

      If you’re having a hard time recovering from 5 sets, though, you’re probably fine doing 3 or 4 sets instead.

  15. Hey Greg,
    Can we get used to crazy high amounts of volume, like 10 sets of 10 for overhead press upto 3 times a week and will it be beneficial?
    I personally believe that the human body can adapt to a lot more than we think.

    1. Depends on your circumstances (i.e. I wouldn’t recommend that if you’re in a big deficit, or if your schedule doesn’t allow you to sleep much), but I certainly don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility

  16. Just discovered stronger by science via Shredded Sports Science.

    I’m a proponent of 1 set to failure training, 1x per week per body part. I tried this starting in January 2019 and I’m making gains (strength & size) like I’ve never had before with more volume. Obviously it works for me.

    What I see from all of these more volume is better studies is that it’s based on average 3 months.

    I presume that if it was based on 1-2 years, the 1 set group would eventually attain the same level of strength and hypertrophy.

    More volume = reaching your genetic limit is faster
    Less volume = reaching your genetic limit takes longer

    Do you think this would be a valid presumption?

    1. I don’t think so, honestly. As far as bodybuilders go, I know Dorian Yates trained similarly to that, but I can’t think of any successful drug-free bodybuilders who train like that. And I can’t think of any successful strength athletes who train like that. I think Ray Williams used to use really low volume for his squat, and that was sufficient to get it to an elite level, but I’m pretty sure he’s increased volume a bit over the past few years to continue progressing.

  17. Old school lifters did mostly low volume, heavy everyday style of training and were bigger and stronger than roided high volume bodybuilders of today. What’s your explanation for that?

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