I remember when I first started training I thought the only way to train was chest on Monday, back on Tuesday, shoulders on Wednesday, arms on Thursday, chest again on Friday, and then if you had time maybe some legs on Satuday (big emphasis on MAYBE).
During those sessions the goal was to just destroy the muscle group I was hitting that day. If my chest wasn’t demolished at the end of the workout did I even do anything?
This would usually be a workout where you just did every chest or back exercise you could think of.
And in the beginning, I saw my upper body grow.
But eventually, that leveled out. I was working hard, going to the gym 5 plus times per week, but I wasn’t seeing progress anymore.
I thought.. maybe I just need to do more? WRONG.
The worst part is that I had some nagging injuries, tendonitis in my forearms and biceps, and my shoulder would always hurt.
So after years of frustration, I decided to switch up my routine.
I worked with a trainer and we focused more on strength and building up things like my squats and deadlifts. We focused on progressive overload rather than just trying to hammer whatever muscle group I was working that day.
I stopped training one muscle group and I started doing less during each workout.
As I learned more and invested more time into learning the ins and out of building muscle I realized the way I was training was hurting my progress.
To this day the most common mistake I see made by people in the gym is that they hammer away at one muscle group. They do every chest exercise known to man. DB bench, DB incline, DB fly, cable fly, machine fly, chest machine.
When I take on new clients one of the most common things I hear when we first start is “I dont feel like im doing much” “Im not sore like I used to be”. However, as time passes (and they build muscle and their body changes) they start to realize the same thing.
The most common rebuttal to training like this is “well how come all the biggest guys work out that way?”
Building muscle is tough, it takes time and discipline, however, there is a large genetic component to it.
What I am trying to say is that just because the biggest guy trains that way, doesnt mean YOU should.
So lets go over why trying to hammer one muscle group per workout is probably a bad idea for most.
Why is hammering one muscle group suboptimal?
When it comes to training volume (think of training volume as how many sets and reps you do) for muscle growth the optimal volume is in the shape of an inverted U.
On the y-axis you have how much muscle you can grow, and on the x-axis you have how much volume (again think of volume as how many sets and reps you do) you can do.
As you can see, at first, doing more volume leads to more muscle growth, however, there comes a point when doing too much gets you less and less muscle growth.
This probably happens for a few reasons:
- The more volume you do the more your fatigue rises, when fatigue increases, your performance decreases. Basically the longer your sessions are and the more you do the quality decreases for each rep or set. After a certain point you are essentially doing what Dr. Mike Israetel and Dr. James Hoffman call “junk volume”.
- Important bodily systems like hormonal, nervous, and muscular systems are sensitive to the amount of your training volume, so overstressing these systems is bound to have negative consequences on muscular adaptations (Schoenfeld, 2019).
Basically, if your goal is to hammer a muscle group in one session you are increasing your injury risk, increasing your risk of burnout, and getting less muscle growth. Not good.
We can use this inverted U on different time scales. You can use it for your weekly volume, but you can also use it for a particular training session.
In his book Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy Dr. Brad Schoenfeld mentions that 10-20 sets per week seem to be the optimal amount for most. Some people may be able to go up to 30 sets per week on certain bodyparts.
But in order to do this, you must build up to that amount and be able to make a solid case for doing more than 20 sets per week on a muscle group.
So on a weekly time scale, 10-20 sets per muscle group seems to be best. Again, some can make a case for going up to 30 sets per week on a stubborn muscle group.
I know I used to do some workouts that went well into 30 sets per workout for most muscle groups.
What about using the inverted U on a per workout scale?
Schoenfeld states that the current research shows around 8-10 sets per workout seems to be on the higher end for most before they start to see a decline in muscle growth.
With myself and online clients, I find 4-10 sets per muscle group per workout is best. We aim for quality over quantity.
It’s probably better to work up to this amount too. Meaning, you shouldn’t always do 10 sets per workout.
In saying this, 10 is not a hard number. Some people may be able to go up to 11, or 12, or 13 sets per workout.
*Quick side note: One thing I think that is important to state here is that if you do want to get into these higher set numbers per workout or for the week its important that you:
- Get good sleep consistently.
- Work on lowering your stress levels.
- Have a solid diet that gets you enough nutrients and overall calories/macros.
- Genetics also help.
But, for most (and whoever is reading this) doing more than 10 sets per workout (for a muscle group)most of the time is probably going to do more harm than good in the long run.
Practical Application: 10-20 sets per week is best for most, and that doing more than 10 sets per workout (per muscle group) is probably doing more harm than good and we can think of this as “junk volume”.
What to do instead?
So now you know that more volume is good, but only to a certain point and once you reach that point doing more is most likely counterproductive.
How can you fix this?
You split up your volume over multiple days throughout the week.
Instead of doing 20 sets of chest on Monday, you do 10 on Monday and then 10 on Thursday.
Maybe your back needs 25 sets a week to grow. So you could do 9 on Monday, 8 on Wednesday, and 8 on Friday.
Maybe you are lucky and only need 10 sets to grow a certain muscle. In this situation, you could either do 10 sets in one day, or split it up to 5 on Monday and 5 on Thursday. The second option ultimately would allow you to train other muscle groups on those days.
Splitting up your volume into multiple days allows you to ensure that each rep and set is of higher quality which ultimately will lead to more muscle growth over time. Also by splitting up your volume, it decreases your injury risk as well as ensures that you are recovered/fresh and therefore you can put forth your best effort.
If you need help figuring out your weekly start tracking your workouts. If you want more structure/accountability and expert programming on building muscle then fill out the link for online coaching here and lets get to work.