Hypertrophy Training: Total Volume vs Sets and Reps
September 15, 2016
If you’ve been around the bodybuilding world for any length of time, you probably have a general idea of what a “typical” hypertrophy training workout looks like. Depending on the bodypart, there will be a compound, multi-joint exercise – maybe two. Then a couple isolation movements. Possibly a “finisher”. All for distinct sets and reps based on how you should train each specific movement. But what if the sets and reps were impeding your hypertrophy training progress without you even realizing it?
While there will always be variations, a very common prescription in hypertrophy training routines is for an exercise to be performed for 30-40 total reps. However, to give the trainee more flexibility and to give the workout itself more broad appeal, these reps are usually prescribed in a range. For example, instead of “3 sets x 12 reps” or “4 sets x 10 reps”, you’ll quite often see“3-4 sets of 8-12 reps”. Options commonly performed in this range are 3×10, 3×12, 4×8, and 4×10. Each of those add up to 30, 36, 32, and 40 total reps respectively, all of which fall within the “usual” total of 30-40. Therefore, they all work well.
A Better Recommendation
Most of the time, this common hypertrophy training range of 3-4 x 8-12 works just fine. However, if you stray too far toward one extreme or the other, you start to fall outside of what would otherwise be considered “acceptable”. 3×8 totals only 24 reps – 20% below the 30-40 total reps range. Going the other way, 4×12 totals 48 reps – a 20% overage. While the 3-4 x 8-12 range will have you getting it right most of the time, there is a chance you could do too little or too much Extrapolate this across several exercises, and your program results can start to vary radically.
A better recommendation would be to start out with a total number of reps in mind, then perform sets within your prescribed range until your total has been completed. So if you wanted to do 35 total reps, perform sets of 8-12 reps keeping a running total.Once you hit the 35-total reps mark, you’re done and can move onto your next exercise. This prevents you from doing too little or too much.
What About Outliers?
A common outlier to the above is the 5 sets x 5 reps protocol. Not always thought of as specifically for hypertrophy training because it sacrifices some total volume, 5×5 makes up for it by leading to better strength gains. Significantly improved strength can result in a solid base level of muscle, strengthen joints to reduce the chance of injury, and so on, which is why you often see 5×5 recommended to more novice lifters.
However, the point made above still applies. The driving force behind 5×5 is that doing only 5 reps per set forces you to use more weight. The truth is that you could use a range of 4-6 reps and still get the same results as long as you were completing 25 total reps. Simply do sets of 4-6 reps, keeping a running total. Once you hit 25 total reps, you’re done with that exercise.
The information in this article is just an example when it comes to comparing total volume vs sets and reps. Those who want to see results should make sure they don’t sell themselves short when deciding on how many sets and reps to perform. If you’re going for hypertrophy then you’ll want to be performing 8-12 reps per set with fewer sets (up to 15+ reps for endurance), and if you’re going specifically for strength then 4-6 reps with more sets is recommended.