By Ken Mannie, Head Strength/Conditioning Coach, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich.
One of the more important and continually debated components in the organization, administration and execution of a successful strength-and-conditioning program is the volume of work to be performed in each session. Total set execution has been the subject of numerous scientific studies and research reviews over the past few decades with very little in the way of common ground being attained.
A perusal of the literature on training volume takes you down several roads. Much of the discord has been between single-set (SS) and multiple-set (MS) advocates, and each side points to studies to validate their stances (References 1, 2, 3 and 4 at the end of this article).
As practitioners, it is our duty to inspect this literature with an open mind to all viewpoints. Claims made on either side must be thoroughly examined, due to possible kinks in the selected methodologies. Design flaws or skewed results by way of a host of contaminates — either hidden or glaring — must be taken into account when determining the credibility of all scientific studies and literature reviews.
In The Middle
My personal opinion on this subject actually lies somewhere in the middle. Having rolled up my sleeves and worked in the trenches with a litany of set, rep and total-volume schemes, I can speak to the benefits that most of them possess. Additionally, I have found that a wealth of information is often lost in the translation from the research setting to the weight-room floor.
Is there a best or superior volume approach? I really don’t believe so; at least not for every person on the training spectrum who truly works with any degree of regularity. Many of the colleagues I correspond and interact with on a consistent basis employ what might be called a “limited set” (LS) program — one that meets their criteria for optimal stimulation and realistically fits into their athletes’ time frames.
Additionally, based upon the preponderance of the currently available research, it appears that science has not yet found a superior volume blueprint for all trainees.
Example: To say that a competitive power lifter or Olympic-style lifter should perform the same amount of volume as just about any other type of athlete would be speculative, at best. Conversely, it is highly doubtful that the rest of the athletic population needs to strength-train under the same conditions as competitive lifters.
From a practical standpoint, coaches must marry their outcome goals with the inserted volume mandates for meaningful results.
One thing I can state with utmost certainty is that if you demonstrate a high degree of effort within each set, the total volume — by both need and necessity — can be reduced.
Volume and Bottom-Line Expectations
Not everyone who trains — be they novice, experienced, or elite-level athletes — is seeking the same end result. The notion of a “one-size-fits-all” volume dictum is, in my opinion, specious.
With regard to proper volume mandates, you will find reported suggestions that sets per exercise and target muscle groups must increase exponentially with the athletes’ experience level. One example of a prescribed volume protocol looks something like this:
Beginners: One to three sets per exercise for the target area.
Intermediate-level athletes: Three to five sets per exercise for the target area.
Trained athletes: Five to six sets per exercise for the target area.
Elite-level athletes: Seven or more sets per exercise for the target area.
While speculations abound regarding the rationale for concomitantly increasing volume with training experience, there does not appear to be a clear consensus on all of the specific neuromuscular, morphological, histological and biochemical requirements of such a recommendation.
We know that some fairly profound neural and tissue adaptations take place early in the process, along with the acquisition and encoding of the lifting skills themselves, which can account for much of the initial progress beginners and intermediate level athletes experience.
As a coach in the field, I merely want to be able to justify the physiological need for performing a workout that could entail 30 to 35 or more total sets. This would be the case for most of my athletes if I embraced this high-volume approach and the script called for five or more different exercises.
I suggest that you ask several questions before executing that type of volume prescription:
✗ Are all of those sets “work” sets or do some qualify as warm-up sets? If, for instance, at least two warm-up sets are included prior to beginning of the actual work-set script for each designated exercise, that obviously adds several additional sets to the total workout.
✗ How much time do you actually have to complete the session? Is it necessary — or even feasible — to spend the amount of time in the weight room that this workout demands?
✗ Is this volume required on a year-round basis? If not, when can it be modified and what is the justification for doing so? In other words, if a workout of 30 sets or more is required for optimal strength and power improvements at one point of the year, does a reduction in that volume during another phase of the year (e.g., the “in-season” period) result in diminishing returns?
Most importantly, are you sacrificing quality for quantity in a workout of this magnitude?
Identifying Volume Needs
Most of the athletic population outside of the competitive-lifting arena uses strength training as a means to an end in both injury deterrence and performance enhancement. While the testing of certain lifts on a periodic basis takes place, those lifting tests do not necessarily predict an athlete’s role within his or her position on the team. Improvement is expected — as it is with every other competitive aspect of athletics — but the rate and level of this improvement is subject to a host of both controllable and uncontrollable variables. One of the most underestimated of the uncontrollable variables is the athlete’s genetic profile.
Successful competitive lifters (i.e., Olympic-style and powerlifters) are genetically “wired” by the nature of their sport for the high-end, heavy, repetitive volume structure necessary for consistent improvement. In their cases, the lifts are the sport. And, the ones who are ultra-successful are fortunate to have more of the genetic raw material (e.g., predominant muscle fiber type, lever and muscle belly length, overall suitable body composition, etc.) needed for the elite level.
From a training standpoint, a competitive lifter’s training calendar is usually built around a periodization model, which is basically a barometer for tracking and manipulating volume, intensity and frequency. Periodization usually revolves around numerous periods of varying set, load, rep and training-frequency directives, with the eventual goal of “peaking” as close as possible to the competition date. A gradual shifting from lower-intensity efforts (based upon one-rep maxes), higher reps, and higher volume, to higher intensity, lower reps, and reduced volume is representative of a simplified periodization schematic.
Obviously, a heavy emphasis is placed upon the precise execution of the required lifts, with the inclusion of some auxiliary work for the target muscle groups that are engaged in the process. Respites and “active rest” periods are woven into most periodization models to combat staleness and overtraining.
Without question, competitive lifters must hone the congruent neural pathways necessary to encode the skill patterns of their lifts. These skills are specific to the sports of weightlifting — be it powerlifting or Olympic-style lifting — and they require quality, repetitive practice. Higher volume is a necessity, especially with the intricate lifts.
In essence, a competitive weightlifter’s training sessions are akin to practices, as perfecting the lifting skill is as important as adapting to the weight being used.
Realistic Volume for Athletes
The vast majority of coaches and athletes in other sports have an overflowing plate of required activities, including strength-and-conditioning procedures, and must budget their time accordingly.
In our situation, 60 to 75 minutes of work from start to finish in an off-season lifting session, and approximately 50 to 60 minutes for an in-season workout would be top-end in each case. And those sessions consist of athletes working in pairs while spotting and coaching each other throughout their entirety.
An approach we have adopted in delegating volume guidelines is to make a determination on how many total work sets we want to execute in a given session. Taking that viewpoint — as opposed to being obsessed with how many sets of a particular exercise to insert — gives you the flexibility of architecting a variety of functional schemes.
From a total-volume standpoint, we are speaking of somewhere between 16 to 20 work sets in an off-season session, and 12 to 15 work sets in an in-season session. If, for whatever reason, we are squeezed for time during the in-season, we will still find a way to execute approximately 8 to 10 total work sets in a high-tempo, circuit-style arrangement. An example of this would be the Press-Pull methodology outlined in the October 2009 Powerline.
Notice the term work sets; this indicates to our players that any needed warm-up sets are not scripted or included in the plan.
The designated duration of a session is couched in its dictated tempo. My staff keeps a clock on all warm-up periods or sets, and indicates when the first athlete is “up” for his work set. His partner, as stated, serves as a spotter and motivator. Upon completion of the set, weights are changed (if necessary) for the second partner and, after an appropriate respite, he is instructed to initiate his work set.
The coach responsible for the work area will be sure to allow each athlete at least the prescribed relief period for the day. Obviously, the relief period is subject to change, depending upon the metabolic demands we want to insert into the workout prescription and the amount of time allotted for the session. These and other criteria dictate relief segments that can range as low as 30 seconds and as high as three minutes between sets.
Once the total work-set parameter has been determined, a cascade of possibilities exists regarding sets per exercise for the target area.
Fitting Your Needs
Let’s look at a short list of examples on how you can structure and manipulate these workouts to fit your needs and situation. Note: All indicated sets are work sets; warm-up sets are at the coach’s and athlete’s discretion.
4-By-4s: Choose your four primary exercises and the rep assignments for each, and perform four sets of each. The total workload is 16 sets and it can consist of an upper-only or lower-only arrangement. Or, you can choose two major upper-body movements (one press and one pull) with four sets each, and two major lower-body movements with four sets each for a total-body workout. If you want to elevate it to 20 total sets, add four more sets of either an upper- or lower-body exercise, which makes it an upper- or lower-body “emphasis day.”
6-By-3s: One way to get more exercises into the mix is by minimally reducing the work sets of each exercise. There is give-and-take in this script, as sets per exercise are cut from four to three, but two exercises are added, hence making the total workload slightly higher with 18 work sets. Again, variety can be incorporated into this schematic by manipulating the upper- and lower-movement emphasis.
4-By-3s & 3-By-2s: This protocol works well in a couple of different instances. Some coaches want to perform more sets with their “core” lifts but still want to add a few “auxiliary” movements to the session. This calls for three sets each of four core movements, along with two sets each of three additional exercise choices. Again, the upper- and lower-exercise distribution is up to you as a coach, which gives you the flexibility of making it an upper- or lower-body emphasis day. There are 18 total work sets in this arrangement.
8-By-2s, Press-Pull: This script calls for eight different exercises (four presses and four pulls) and the performance of two sets per movement. This is a true “Press-Pull Cycle,” with short-rest intervals (usually 60 seconds or less) and performed with a high degree of effort and intensity. This is a one-for-one, press-to-pull script throughout. We like six to eight high-tension reps performed with every set (again, check the October 2009 Powerline for more on this format).
The repetitions for the work sets in most of these prescriptions can — and probably should — vary over time. Normally, we keep our reps at the higher end (10 to 12) in the initial phase of a new training period, and gradually pare them down every three to four weeks.
The 10- to 12-rep cycle would be followed by an eight- to 10-rep cycle, which would be followed by a six- to eight-rep cycle. We might conclude a training period with a five-rep cycle, especially if we plan to do any testing with that rep target. After that point, the entire process is repeated with the inclusion of higher weight values where possible.
1. American College of Sports Medicine, Position Stand: Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2002; 34:364-380.
2. Carpinelli, RN, Otto, RM, Winett, RA; A critical analysis of the ACSM position stand on resistance training: Insufficient evidence to support recommended training protocols, JEPonline, 2004; 7:1-64.
3. National Strength and Conditioning Association, Session Review: The end of the single-set versus multiple-set discussion, NSCA Bulletin, 2005; 26:7.
4. Otto, RM, Carpinelli, RN; A critical analysis of the single versus multiple-set debate, JEPonline, 2006; 9:32-57