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More Bang for Buck from Low-Volume Resistance Training

Different Results for Women and Men

Lifetime Trainer and Psychologist Speaks Out Against High Volume Training

Conventional wisdom (broscience) has long been that low volume training is best for competitive lifters and high volume is best for bodybuilders. Not a lot of thought was given to those who train to stay fit. Until relatively recently, weight training was something muscle-head guys did in their basement. Women simply did not lift weights.

And then pioneers such as Jack LaLanne and Pudgy Stockton, athleticism displayed at places like Muscle Beach, and books such as Biomarkers began to draw men—and women—to fitness centers for resistance training. (For details on Biomarkers see: https://www.cbass.com/Biomarkers.htm )

Even Dr. Kenneth Cooper, father of Aerobics, began to recognize the value of weight training. Soon researchers all over the world were assessing the benefits of resistance training.

We now have two new studies, one led by a professor from Brazil and the other a professor from the Bronx, New York. The first study involves resistance trained women and the other resistance trained men.

The women’s study found no further benefit from volume training and the other study found that volume increased muscle size—but not strength—in men.

The details are heartening for both sexes—and for those who thought they didn’t have time for resistance training.

Volume Ceiling for Women

The purpose of the first study was to compare the effects of different volumes of resistance training on muscle performance and size in women with an average of three years training experience. Matheus Barbalho, Department of Biological Science and Health, University of Amazonia, Brazil, and researchers from other universities in Brazil, in the UK, and in Italy divided 40 female volunteers into groups that performed 5, 10, 15, and 20 sets per muscle group.

One of the best designed studies I’ve seen, the training is varied and calculated to hold the interest of experienced trainers.

Training sessions were supervised. All groups trained three times a week for 24 weeks. Rep range varied from 4 to 15 for all groups. Sets were taken to failure. A split routine was used with muscle groups trained once a week: Mondays (bench press, incline press & military press), Thursdays (lat pulldown, cable row & upright row), and Fridays (leg press, squat & deadlift).

Ten rep maximum was measured at the beginning and end of the study for the bench press, lat pulldown, leg press, and deadlift. Muscle thickness was measured using ultrasound.

While all groups significantly increased muscle thickness measures and 10RM tests after 24 weeks, the differences were telling. The 10-set group showed no significant differences in relation to the 5-set group in any of the 10RM or muscle thickness measures. However, in all instances the 20-set group showed significantly smaller changes compared to the 5- and 10-set groups.

Barbalho and colleagues concluded: “Five to 10 sets per week might be sufficient for attaining gains in muscle size and strength in trained women… There appears to be no further benefit by performing higher exercise volumes. Since lack of time is a commonly cited barrier to exercise adoption, our data supports RT programs that are less time consuming, which might increase participation and adherence.”

Dr. Richard Winett, whose Master Trainer publication alerted me to this informative study, summed up the result in real-world terms:

The 5 set group performed in total only 15 sets per week and showed gains in 10 RM testing and muscle thickness. If each set took about 1 minute to complete, this is 15 minutes of actual resistance training exercise per week. The 20 set group performed 60 sets per week, representing 60 minutes of resistance training per week. Another way to express the outcome was that the group performing 45 extra, wasted sets per week, with some evidence that this level of volume decreased outcomes. Likewise, the 15 set group performed 30 extra sets per week.

You’ll find many more details online: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328502454_Evidence_for_an_Upper_Threshold_for_Resistance_Training_Volume_in_Trained_Women

Mass but Not Strength in Men

This study, reported several months later, compared muscular adaptations between low, moderate, and high volume resistance training.

Brad J. Schoenfeld, PhD (Department of Health Sciences, CUNY Lehman College, Bronx, NY) and colleagues from New Zealand, Redman, WA, and Australia randomly assigned 34 healthy resistance trained men to one of three groups: one, three and five sets per exercise per training session. All three groups were supervised and trained three times a week for 8 weeks. Sets were 8 to 12 repetitions carried to the point of momentary failure.

Average training time per session was 13 minutes for 1 set, 40 minutes for 3 sets, and 68 minutes for 5 sets.

Muscular strength was measured with one repetitions maximum testing for the squat and bench press. Upper-body muscle endurance was measured using 50% of bench press 1RM. Muscle mass was measured using ultrasonography for the arm and thigh.

“Based on previous research and meta-analytical data, we hypothesized that there would be a graded response to outcomes, with increasing gains in muscular strength and hypertrophy seen in low-, moderate-, and high-volume programs, respectively,” the researchers wrote in introducing the study.

That turned out to be only half true.

Results showed significant increases in strength and endurance in all three groups, with no significant between-group differences. Alternatively, increases in muscle size significantly favored the higher volume groups.

“The present study shows that marked increases in strength and endurance can be attained by resistance-trained individuals with just three 13-min weekly sessions over an 8-wk period, and these gains are similar to that achieved with a substantially greater time commitment. This finding has important implications for those who are time-pressed, allowing the ability to get stronger in an efficient manner, and help to promote greater exercise adherence in the general public. Alternatively, we show that increases in muscle hypertrophy follows a dose-response relationship, with increasingly greater gains achieved with higher training volumes. Thus, those seeking to maximize muscular growth need to allot a greater amount of weekly time to achieve this goal,” Dr. Schoenfeld and colleagues concluded.

It appears that broscience has it right: volume training is the ticket for male bodybuilders who want to build muscle size, while low volume is best for building strength and endurance. Great news for fitness trainers who want functional muscles and aren’t interested in spending extra time in the gym to bulk up.

You can read the entire study online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30153194

My Take

Note that “all groups” of men increased muscle size. Low volume training builds strength--and muscle.

If you are interested in winning Mr. Olympia, pick your parents carefully and train long and hard. Even then your chances of winning are infinitesimal.

If your goal is to become stronger and more muscular, however, success is practically assured. Challenge your body and it will respond. Train regularly and progressively and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve. The gap between you and your sedentary peers will grow with each passing year.

Volume training never appealed to me. Practically all of my training has been low volume. Volume dilutes intensity, overload, which makes muscles grow. It's difficult to go all-out on more than one or two sets. It's much easier to push to the limit when the finish line is in sight.

I discuss this at length in my book Challenge Yourself, where I explain that both low and high volume build muscle--and why I prefer low-volume, high intensity training.

As teenagers, my training partner and I went to York, Pennsylvania—Muscletown USA—to observe and train alongside top Olympic Lifters. Inspired by the presence of John Grimek, John Terpak, Steve Stanko, Vern Weaver, Pete Talluto and others we didn't recognize, we made PRs early on. But we were so overtrained after two weeks that we missed most of our lifts when Bob Hoffman, at the urging of John Terpak, came in to see us lift. Disappointing but instructive.

I saw good lifters doing more heavy sets than I was used to doing. Made no sense to me and I didn’t follow suit. That may very well be a key to my long term success.

I stuck with low volume and never stopped training—with excellent results in both muscle and strength.


Denie Walter, editor-in-chief of Dan Lurie's Muscle Training Illustrated magazine, took these photos of me by the pool at a Las Vegas hotel and in our garage gym in Albuquerque. Dan and Denie were also the first to put me on the cover of a major muscle magazine.

March 1, 2019

Lifetime Trainer and Psychologist Speaks Out Against High Volume Training

I used high volume training when I was 19 and 20 and later, briefly, in my middle 30's. I was constantly sore, bored with training, and I am convinced if that was the prescribed way to train, I would have stopped training almost 40 years ago.

High volume training is basically what I see even ordinary people doing while traveling in different states and countries. A minimum has to be 3 or 4 sets per exercise, even for older people such as us, and for the younger, serious set, 3 to 4 sets of multiple exercises for each muscle group. The height of this (stupidity) was for example: Two young guys, minimum strength or muscle doing what appeared to be about 8 super sets of lateral raises and upright rows, and keep in mind this is only for delts. In between the super sets, talking and texting. 

Few serious trainers I see, for example, do a good warm-up, and then do one hard set of deadlifts or squats. It's a long warm-up and then the requisite several or five sets.

Where do people get their information?

Richard A. Winett, Ph.D.
Heilig Meyers Professor of Psychology
Virginia Tech

Ageless Athletes, Master Trainer (owner)

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