People tend to focus on the fact that higher training volumes (to a point) tend to produce more muscle growth and larger strength gains. However, the opposite side of the equation is also important: how little volume do you NEED to still make progress? Afterall, aiming for Optimal™ is all well and good if training is a huge part of your life, but people who want to maximize efficiency (highest results:effort ratio) may not be interested doing, say, 3x the work for 25% larger gains.
It turns out, volume doesn’t need to be very high in order to still make strength progress. A recent review by Patroklos Androulakis-Korakakis and colleagues wanted to determine how little volume was necessary for trained lifters to still be able to make strength gains. It turns out, one set taken to failure or very close to failure, 2-3x per lift per week, with ~70-85% 1RM is sufficient for intermediate-level lifters (it would obviously be adequate for new lifters as well) to still make strength gains in the squat and bench press. Now, that’s not enough volume to maximize hypertrophy or strength gains (according to recent meta-analyses by Ralston et al. and Schoenfeld et al.), but it’s worth keeping in mind if maximizing efficiency matters more to you than maximizing total results, or if your schedule and training time are crunched for some reason.
The bottom line: As one final thought, I think this review largely falsifies the fear that many people have of getting stuck in a volume trap: training with higher volumes, and then being completely incapable of making progress again with lower volumes. The studies included in this review don’t go into a bunch of detail about their subjects’ prior training experience, but I doubt that many trained lifters who bench press are only two sets of bench press per week. If you feel like your overall training volume is getting out of hand, cutting back on the number of set you do, but making sure they’re high-effort and high-quality, will probably still allow you to make progress.
A couple caveats: the subjects in the included studies weren’t elite strength athletes. Bench presses around 100kg (220lbs) and squats around 150kg (330lbs) were pretty typical. 2-3 high quality sets per week will probably be enough to allow a more trained lifter to maintain strength, but it’s probably not going to take your bench press from 400lbs to 500lbs. The subjects in all of the included studies were male, but there’s not a clear reason to expect that these results wouldn’t hold true in female as well.