What You Need to Know About Training Volume and Hypertrophy

"Load ALL the weights!" you hear a guy in a tight t-shirt tell his training partner at the gym. Often, we're so fixated on going heavy — which is fun and absolutely has its benefits — that we overlook another vital factor: training volume.

What is Training Volume?

Training volume refers to how much you're doing. Athletes and coaches often measure it as sets and reps. For instance, you might do 3 sets of 10 push-ups (30 reps total) or 5 sets of 5 bodyweight squats (25 reps total). Along with these metrics, your Atlas watch will also consider the load at which you're training — for example, 3 sets of 10 deadlifts at 100 lbs, for 3,000 rep-lbs total.

If you want to get stronger, you need to consider not just the load (read: the weight you're lifting) but also your volume. Volume is actually a key factor that determines what kind of muscle growth happens as a result of your training.

Alright, fine. So what do you do with your volume to achieve your strength-gaining goals? 

That's where the conversation gets a little tricky.

There Are Different Types of Progression

Like many things when it comes to fitness, there's no one-size-fits-all approach here. As they say, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

For instance, you could follow Prilepin's Chart, created by Soviet-era sports scientist A.S. Prilepin. It's based on the training journals of thousands of athletes and defines optimal reps per set, total volume, and range of reps for the Olympic lifts based on a percentage of your one-rep-max.

prilepin's chart

(Source: Fit At Midlife)

Some athletes stick to these percentages and volume suggestions in their everyday training to see long-term results. 

Another option for volume and strength progression is the StrongLifts 5x5 method — a popular choice for powerlifters or anyone who wants to train the back squat, deadlift, and bench press. Athletes love it for its simplicity, but don't let that fool you. People have seen serious results from 5x5.

The programming consists of just two workouts, and you train three days a week. The general idea is that you keep adding weight every time until you fail, at which point the programming changes slightly. This is progression at its simplest.

These are just two of your options, but let us be clear: We're just scratching the surface. 

What Does This Mean for Your Training?

We can't tell you the best approach for you, because there's no one answer. But here are a few things that we do know. 

Strength Gains Happen With Volume, Not Maxing Out

It makes so much sense: In order to get stronger and be able to lift massive weight, you should rehearse... lifting massive weight, right? 

Wrong.

Ironically, heavy singles don't do much in the way of building strength. This isn't hypertrophy training ("hypertrophy" meaning an increase and growth of muscle cells), so it's not the type of volume you should focus on if you want to get stronger. 

What makes our muscles stronger is time under tension, meaning the time your muscles spend resisting a challenging weight. Generally speaking, greater time under tension means bigger strength gains. 

Strength training causes slight trauma and stress (the good kind!) to your muscles. When you recover, your muscles heal and grow. (Side note: This is a good time to remind you that rest days are important.)

If you want to stress your muscles, you need training volume — not a few heavy singles. This is why progression training like 5x5 is so effective. You do a decent number of reps on a consistent basis.

The takeaway: If you want to get stronger, you need to be doing more across your workouts.

To give you a little direction, if you're just starting out and you're looking for a good workout that's rep-heavy, the Kayla Itsines workouts you'll find in your Atlas library are excellent for high-rep, bodyweight programming that'll stress and fatigue your muscles. Focus on getting more reps in each time, which equates to a greater time under tension.

Missed or "Grindy" Reps Get You Nowhere — Progress When You Consistently Make Clean Reps

There's something very heroic and badass about going after a big lift and then missing it. If you're trying to get people's attention at the gym, go for it. But it's not going to make you any stronger.   

The same can be said for those reps where you just barely make it but your technique is horrible, you have to stop after, you can't go on, and you don't go back to the gym for a week.

You should aim to do your volume at reasonable weights that are challenging but manageable — something that Prilepin's Chart really comes in handy for. Don't progress to heavier weights until you can confidently execute where you're at.

The takeaway: The reps that do the most for your strength gains are the ones that are challenging but still clean, confident, and fully executed.

Super High Volume at Lower Weights is Not the Same

Some people hear that volume is key to gains, so they do 100 squats with an empty bar. It burns with the fire of a thousand suns and they're sore for days, so they think they're getting stronger.

Don't count on it. 

The burning is coming from having repeated something to a ridiculous extent — not time under tension using challenging weights. 

Again, just like heavy singles, this type of training has certain benefits, but don't make it the focal point of your programming.

The takeaway: Train at your own true level. If a bodyweight squat isn't challenging, you should add weight. Your workouts should scale as you get stronger. 

You can make this easier by building routines around your %RM (a percentage of a rep-max), and follow something like Prilepin's Chart to know approximately what weights you should be working at relative to your strength. 

Don't forget that as your RM increases, Atlas will automatically recalculate the percentages for your next workout. No math required. Easy!

If you're looking for workouts that you can scale in a simple and easy manner while still spending plenty of time under tension, make your way to the CrossFit WODs in the Atlas workouts library.