The Primary Driver Of Muscle Growth (Hint: It’s NOT Volume)

The Primary Driver Of Muscle Growth (Hint: It’s NOT Volume)


What’s going on guys? Sean Nalewanyj, www.SeanNal.com, www.RealScienceAthletics.com,
and in this video today, I wanna talk about the issue of training volume versus training
intensity and discuss which one is more important when it comes to stimulating muscle growth. Before I get started, if you’re new to the
channel here and you find this content helpful, don’t forget to hit the subscribe button to
stay up to date on future videos and also, make sure to follow me over on Instagram,
where I post daily fitness tips, training clips, meals, and other updates that you’ll
definitely find helpful. It’s @Sean_Nalewanyj, that’s where you’ll
find me when I’m not on YouTube, so make sure to follow there as well. So, this is a topic I see a lot of people
going back and forth on, this idea of training volume, so the total number of sets you perform
per week for each muscle group versus training intensity, so basically, how close to muscular
failure you’re performing each set. And there’s this argument over which factor
is more important in the muscle building equation and one very popular notion you’ll hear from
some experts that I keep seeing just repeated over and over again is the idea that volume
is the primary driver of hypertrophy. And so, I wanted to give some thoughts on
this. The first thing is that it actually doesn’t
make sense to say that training volume is the primary driver of hypertrophy and I think
this statement gives a lot of people the wrong idea about what it is that they should be
focusing on in the gym. Keep in mind that volume in and of itself
is not a stimulus for muscle growth. You can go into the gym for four hours at
a time and perform 100 sets for your chest, but if the intensity level of those sets isn’t
high enough and doesn’t cross a certain threshold, then your body still has no incentive to build
new muscle in response to those sets. Muscle growth is an adaptive response to stress
and what actually triggers the body’s muscle building mechanism is when you perform a physical
task that is right up close to or beyond the existing strength capacity of the muscle. That is what incentivizes your body to increase
the capacity of that muscle. If the muscle already has the ability to perform
a certain task with relative ease, then as the far as the body is concerned, it’s already
well adapted to the environment that it’s in and so, there’s really no need to change
anything. And so, the amount of work you perform obviously
can’t be the primary driver or the primary stimulus for hypertrophy. ‘Kay, the primary stimulus for hypertrophy
is actually intensity. It’s when the amount of tension that you subject
a given muscle to is high enough to trigger an adaptive response because without that,
literally nothing else that you do in the gym is gonna make any difference at all, not
your exercise selection, not your rep ranges, not your form, not your frequency, and not
your training volume. And if we look at this using a hypothetical
example, this is pretty clear. Again, you can literally perform 100 sets
or more for a given muscle, but if you’re using two pound dumbbells and stopping 10
reps short of muscular failure, your body already has the capacity to easily perform
that and so, you’re not gonna see any significant hypertrophy or possibly any hypertrophy at
all as a result. And that’s why you can walk around all day
on your feet, taking step after step after step, and performing thousands of reps for
your lower body, but your quads and hamstrings and calves don’t gain additional muscle from
it because the intensity of that activity isn’t high enough. But on the opposite end of this example, you
could literally perform one single set, you could even perform one single rep, as crazy
as that sounds, the absolute minimum volume possible, but if the intensity level of that
one set or that one rep is high enough, so you’re going close to failure or all the way
to failure, there will be a hypertrophic response to it. And if you continue to add weight to the bar,
from session to session, on that one set or that one rep, you will continue to build more
and more muscle over time. Now, I’m not saying that this would be optimal
or that there wouldn’t be an eventual growth ceiling involved and I’m not suggesting that
you should go ahead and do this, but I’m just pointing out that even with absolutely minimal
volume, you can still gain muscle if the intensity is high enough, whereas if the intensity level
is too low, then even with very high volume, you still won’t make any noticeable gains. And so, volume can’t be considered the primary
driver. And for real-world examples of this, we can
just look people and look at the results that people have achieved using low-volume, high-intensity
training programs. So that could be like a Dorian Yates approach
where you’re just doing a few sets per muscle group per workout, but going all the way to
failure or it could be an old school Arthur Jones or Mike Mentzer workout, where it’s
just a single set to failure once per week or sometimes even less than once per week. You could also look at DC style training,
which is one multi-rep rest-pause set to failure every four to five days per muscle group. These approaches can actually work very well
if you know how to execute them properly and the truth is that I actually personally trained
this way for many years, back in the day, when I was younger, more in my body building
phase, usually no more than about three to four total sets per week for each muscle group. And during one phase, when I really got into
the Mike Mentzer heavy-duty stuff, I did go right down to the extreme low end of doing
only one set per week for each muscle, but because I was going to all out failure on
those sets and was achieving progressive overload, I still saw consistent size and strength gains
from it. I got up to flat dumbbell pressing 130’ for
six clean reps. My deadlift was never crazy, but even just
doing one set per week, I got up to 430 for six without a belt. I could do pretty strict barbell curls with
140 pounds, seated overhead dumbbell presses with 105s. These are just a few examples. Now, I don’t recommend that type of training
to most people unless they’re an advanced lifter and they want to experiment with something
new because, when you’re doing such low volume, the margin for error on each set is very small
and you really have to know how to execute that set properly to get the maximum value
from it. And also, your chances for injury do go up
overall, so, if you’re a beginner to intermediate, I’m not advising you to do that, but I’m just
pointing out and making the point that, given a high enough level of intensity, you can
still achieve significant muscle growth off of very little volume because intensity is
the primary factor. Now, in terms of practical recommendations,
how does this actually apply to you? There’s a few things I’d say. First off, again, understand that intensity
is the ultimate bottom-line stimulus for growth and so, beyond anything else you do in the
gym, including volume, you have to make sure that your intensity level on each set is high
enough first and foremost and then, build everything else on top of that. So, in other words, quality first and then,
quantity. And for most people, I would say that about
one to two reps short of concentric muscular failure is a good figure to aim for on the
majority of your sets and I would say three reps short of failure, I would put as the
minimum intensity level. And the way I define that is, for example,
if pushing with 100% of your available strength meant that you could just barely squeeze out
10 reps in proper form with a given weight, so that 10th rep is an all out grinder where
the bar is just barely moving along, in that case, you’d want to stop at the seventh rep
as an absolute minimum and preferably, on the eighth or ninth rep, so those last couple
reps are very challenging, but you’re avoiding those all out grinder reps for the most part. The second point here is to recognize that
volume and intensity go hand in hand, ‘kay. They’re directly related and so, ultimately
they can’t be separated. I was just giving you that hypothetical example
earlier to demonstrate my point, but in reality, it’s not one or the other, okay. Intensity and volume are two sides to the
same coin. The more intensity you’re training with, the
less volume you require and the less volume you can ultimately get away with before it
eventually becomes counterproductive. So, if you’re training, let’s say, three reps
short of failure on most of your sets, you’re gonna need more volume to get the same result
as someone who’s training an average of two reps short or someone who’s training an average
of one rep short or someone who’s going all the way to failure. So when people give pre-set volume recommendations
without specifying the intensity level, it’s incomplete advice because there’s a big difference
between doing 12 weekly sets for a given muscle at three reps short of failure versus 12 sets
at one rep short of failure. So, the general guideline that I give as a
sort of default recommendation is to do between eight to 15 weekly sets for large muscle groups
and four to eight weekly sets for small muscle groups at an average intensity level of about
one to two reps short of failure. ‘Kay, there are other ways you can go about
this. You can go three reps short of failure and
increase the volume slightly or you can go all the way to failure, but decrease the volume,
but that middle ground approach will work really well for most people in most situations. And then, the last point here, a very important
one and probably the main reason why I wanted to make this video is to not fall into this
idea that more volume is automatically better. When people hear this idea that volume is
the primary driver of hypertrophy, a lot of times they just assume that the more work
they do in the gym, the better their results will be, which is not the case. And aimlessly performing more and more sets
shouldn’t be your primary goal, not to mention that it’s an additional time and energy investment
as well. And so, you wanna make sure it’s actually
benefiting you if you are gonna go ahead and increase your training volume. It is true that each additional set you perform
will increase the overall growth stimulus to some degree, but keep in mind that it happens
with diminishing returns and only up to a limited point. So the first set you perform is always the
one that has the most muscle building value by far and then, each set beyond the first
does produce more growth, but in smaller and smaller increments until you eventually hit
a point where it plateaus and then, to where it’s counterproductive. And that’s because the additional muscle growth
that it’s producing is so fractionally small, yet at the same time it’s creating more muscle
damage, more metabolic fatigue, and more joint stress that you have to recover from. So basically, it’s increasing your recovery
time, but without producing significantly more muscle gain. So, just keep in mind that there’s only so
much hypertrophy you can stimulate during any given session in the gym. And so, the goal is to find the maximum amount
of quality, recoverable volume that you can perform, but without going overboard. And obviously, this is true, otherwise, you
could just do marathon sessions in the gym and perform endless sets for a given muscle
and just see more and more and more growth, which we obviously know isn’t true. So, I wouldn’t advise that you make adding
more sets your goal. As a beginner to intermediate lifter, just
keep your volume within a preset range, like the one I gave previously, and focus on improving
your training performance within those sets that you’re doing, so adding more reps and
more weight to the bar over time. That’s where your main focus should be and
that’s the ultimate gauge to use in terms of whether or not your workouts are moving
in the right direction. The issue of volume completely aside, if you’re
continually coming back to the gym stronger, then you know you’re on the right track and
vice versa. And as a sort of all-encompassing final point,
if you’re confused about how much volume to use or you’re adding more volume and you wanna
know what the effect is or you’re reducing your volume and you wanna know what the effect
is, keep in mind that, all things equal, whatever specific training volume and not just volume,
but taking into account all of your training variables, whatever specific workout program
has you gaining strength at the fastest rate is pretty much guaranteed to also be the program
that will have you building muscle at the fastest rate as well, ‘kay. Progressive overload is the ultimate bottom
line and so, whatever protocol has you achieving progressive overload as effectively as possible
is gonna be the optimal muscle building approach for you. If you found the information in this video
helpful and you wanna learn exactly how to tie this all together in terms of a complete
step by step workout plan, not just the volume and intensity like we talked about here, but
also, the ideal exercise selection, rep ranges, weekly split, and more, so that you can gain
muscle in the most efficient way possible, then make sure to take my physique quiz over
at Quiz.SeanNal.com because that’ll hook you up with the proper training plan as well as
the proper nutrition plan you need based on your individual body type, goals, and experience
level. You can click up here for that or use the
link in the description box below. On the supplementation side of things, you
can also visit RealScienceAthletics.com to check out my science based, clinically-dosed
supplements that I personally formulated to help fully streamline your program and maximize
your overall results. Link is also in the description. And as always, make sure to hit that like
button, leave a comment down below, and subscribe, if you haven’t already, in order to stay in
the loop on all of my future videos. Thanks for watching, guys, and I’ll see you
in the next one.

67 thoughts on “The Primary Driver Of Muscle Growth (Hint: It’s NOT Volume)

  1. Thanks for watching guys, hope you found this video helpful. I know another big fitness channel uploaded a video on the same topic last week and came to a similar conclusion as me, but just want to note that I recorded this 3 weeks ago so this was purely a coincidence. Anyway, how close to failure do you personally train on your sets, and how much weekly volume do you use per muscle? Comment below.

    Also don't forget to follow me over on Instagram as well where I post useful daily content and other updates that you'll get a lot of value from: https://www.instagram.com/sean_nalewanyj

    See you in the next vid!

  2. IF Volume WAS the primary driver of Hypertrophy all the Calisthenic Fans and Cross Fitters would be Muscles Monsters

  3. You need to work with 70 % of our 1 Rep Max weight to force our muscles to grow. And that at least every 8 days. Or the muscles will shrink again. Rest days and the correct Food is also very important. 3 Rest Days for arms and shoulders. 4 Rest days for Legs and Back.

  4. Certainly true in my experience. I trained this way back in 2001 and if anything I'm going back to this although not as higher weight.

  5. How do you really know when to stop though? You can't know your failure rep until you attempt it and fail.

  6. When listing how many reps you should do, that is not including warm up reps right? Only the ones close to failure?

  7. Good video Sean. Recent research by Cody Haun and others shows that you can build muscle by increasing the total number of sets performed without increasing load (which they kept constant at around 60% 1 RM). This study is reviewed comprehensively at Stronger by Science. There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the concept of 'volume'. Some define it as number of sets per week, others as sets x reps, others as 'volume-load' or sets x reps x load. Even 'progressive overload' has various meanings. Some count increasing sets as 'progressive overload' even when load itself is kept constant. The way I look at it, the bottom line for muscle growth is that you are doing more and more mechanical work in the gym over time. That increase in work can come either in the form of more sets or more load.

  8. As a natty the only training regiment that ever gave me consistent results was volume training with progressive overload. If you do not take performance enhancing substances you just can't keep the same intensity because you will tire more easily and thus time under tension will suffer and so will your gains. I usually do 8-13 reps with 5-10 sets depending on the type of exercise. When I can do all sets with 13 reps I increase the load, then rince and repeat.

  9. Incomplete advice is what most people are giving out . This guy actually completes the advice and specified what’s needed for the audience to really capture the training method . Great info as always .

  10. Intensity man… its way more logical. Think about it. If you run everyday (cardio) youre gonna be lean and skinny. But if you sprint once or twice a day for 100 meters, your legs will start changing and adapting… Sprinter is example of intensity, runner is example of cardio and volume… rest and diet are 80% way more important and harder than actual workouts. Workout smart !

  11. U just changed my way of weight lifting. I use do wht ur saying but only on my bench. 4 I got hurt now starting back over I've been doin way to many reps and not enough lbs..great vid!! MAN.

  12. It’s easier when your at the gym to pick a specific amount of “time under tension” and simple pull out your phone and time your set while keeping your focus on the intensity. (Let’s say 40 sec long intense sets with 2-3 mins rest between) Forget about how many Reps you’re doing as long as you’re beat red and reaching failure at 40s it doesn’t matter. Keep it simple!

  13. So in short – "No pain no gain".

    Sometimes we hear clichés and they go right over our heads either because they've been rinsed or they're considered outdated, but that one still holds relevance.

  14. gained 8 pounds muscle in first 2 months but 3rd month was nothing but fat gained and a half pound muscle lost. trying a small mini cut to get rid of the fat and have a reset then doing this right after. this sounds promising

  15. Wow! Really glad to see you with 100k+ subscribers these days. You had some of the best content for years with only 40k subs! Hope your channel continues to grow Sean!

  16. As a bb coach and multi gym owner for 40 years, I can say you are dead right. My general and often used comment, is very few (even top body builders) know the difference between exercise and training.Two points need to be added.
    The body adapts (hypetrophy)as a direct result of hormone stimulation, so it is no surprise that artificial hormones were introduced, because of a lack of understanding of this basic fact. It is an insult to the whole biological process to believe you can improve your capacity beyond your potential by artificial means.( Dont tell the drug manufacturers that of course ).

    The REAL KEY is the mental approach, and how it is used when those threshold levels are met. As with every other endevour, the mind is the driver, and the body follows, where the hormones are the repair army. THIS is why Yogis are capable of mind blowing feats, and, unlike poor (and lovable) Ronnie Coleman, not being aware of this has resulted in his " body blowing". Look up Jim Morris, there is a photo of him and Arnold in their twenties, and another in their 70s. A picture speaks ten million words in this case.

  17. Great info! Exactly been my thoughts. However what about how intensity affects ability to recover in time? Is it possible to go at a too high intensity for your body to recover properly in time? (Depending on the individual) As I feel like intensity is the only factor that may also affect recovery of your body (e.g. central nervous system) rather than of just your muscles. So differently put: is it possible to train at such a high intensity that your body doesn't recover before your muscles do? As I always feel like my body isn't recovered fully after, say, 3 days whereas my muscles should be as protein synthesis is only elevated for max. 48-72h (right?). Would highly appreciate your thoughts on this!

  18. As you pointed, there is some context to be taken into account here…. ie 10 sets at max intensity twice a week will give you much more growth than 10 sets at max intensity once a week…. therefore it could be classed as purely volume.

  19. High intensity training on a consistent basis leads to overtraining… High-volume training also leads to overtraining… Training should be cycled between high intensity and high volume!

  20. The heavier the weight the longer rest period… Like 21 days between the lifts… Each lift comes around in 21 days. . That would be three power lifts per month!

  21. I think there's a confusion of vocabulary here. "Intensity" defined as relativity against 1rm (percent-based training), is one thing. People consider "intensity" in that case as close proximity to 1rm. 90%, for example, is considered high intensity, where 50% is considered low intensity…. You're defining "intensity" a little differently. You are equating it with proximity to RPE 10. Which is fine. And your case is solid….

    ….All the same, that's not the common dialogue when we often say "intensity." And some might be confused.

    Anyway, close proximity to RPE 10 = gains.

  22. Increase your Time under tension , increased intensity / sets / reps every time you go back to that workout , eat 5 times a day w/ protein up to 1.5 gs/ 1 lbs of bodyweight , get 8-10 hours of sleep and then there will be no excuse for our silly ass muscles to not grow !

  23. Then why do power lifters who are always going to failure/maxing out have less impressive looking muscles than bodybuilders who concentrate more on rep ranges and negatives?

  24. Yeah, but the difficulty is trying to increase the weight from session to session. Plateaus happen. How does one keep increasing the weight with good form?

  25. My test just went up from this video alone! Thanks for finally staying what ive been waiting for! The dogma of volume permeates fitness lately, and the details of intensity, rest time, tut, etc are never explained. Just hype for a study no one ever reads, well done sir.

  26. At the other end of the extremes are Olympic lifters and power lifters. They lift huge poundages but they don't have huge muscles like body builders. Some don't even look like they lift weights. And most powerlifters have thin legs. So to get the best anabolic effect you gotta find that sweet spot of intensity-volume-frequency-poundage. Basically take the middle ground and you will build the most muscle that way.

  27. Hey man I really do like your videos but I believe it would be beneficial if you had some background play of you training instead of talking to the camera. This is just due to getting bored not of the information just that nothing it happening. Thanks ❤️

  28. So what is best to strengthen joints, ligaments and tendons? Those are tending to be my weakest link lately.

  29. German volume training . I stick to silver/golden era principles and I am seeing steady gains. These new age youtubers /bodybuilders are only out for views, subs and product sales🤷🏿‍♂️

  30. I tried to overload too fast and my immune system crashed. I will have to be a bit more careful in future.

  31. I mean technically volume is the most important, but if the “volume” that you’re performing isn’t done with a high enough intensity, then 20 sets of volume means very little if you’re doing it with and RPE of 5-6

  32. I realize that the primary driver is steroids.
    I gave up on this shit muscle building, i only do just enough to keep my muscles from disappearing into oblivion.
    My patience has grown much older than me for this shit, fuck it.

  33. So for hypertrophy, I shouldn’t do reps in the 12-15 range? (Until I feel the burn and pump in the muscle ?)

  34. This is true I get the best results doing full body workouts 2 sets to failure and I have enough energy to get through my workout and adding weight or reps every workout

  35. So I have to ask this question considering people who hear my workout say it's impossible. I do full body 4 times a week one exercise per body part usually to failure. 2 hours session with minimum rest time I'm 48 and have been lifting 33 years I am also 100% natural. I have been gaining both size and muscle strength in the past 5 weeks I have been trying this style.

  36. At some point you won’t be able to progressively overload. Now, that will occur a good deal down the line for beginners to “intermediate” (I guess advanced would be competing bodybuilders or guys who have met their genetic potential). If that were true you could lift, at least theoretically, a 1000 lb bench press.

    At that point you may likely have a great physique and you can simply maintain the same training and nutritional parameters and look great. Sleep is key! You grow outside the gym.

    At that point if you want to push on, you would possibly need to turn to double progression sets and more slowly build, while at the same time continue progressive overload . This as a tool, though you could still maintain the reasonable total set and rep ranges Sean has outlined. Honestly, even for whatever “advanced” lifters are, staying within moderate total weekly sets works perfectly well.

    Guys on roids you see on YouTube lifting with rapid rep tempo and high volume (see all pro bodybuilders and Dwayne Johnson 🙂 are on so much gear, somehow this works. Wonder how they’d look if they controlled the weights a bit and didn’t throw them around?Hmm…makes you think.

    However, even those guys overtrain and growth eventually becomes stagnant. The answer: more drugs! And we all know that’s totally healthy and pro bodybuilders never die in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s.

    If you’re a natural lifter too much volume can kill gains. Too little recovery time between training sessions can impede hypertrophy. Lack of sleep will kill gains. All of which can lead to overtraining/severe fatigue.

    Keep it simple through progressive overload over the long term (don’t quickly add ten lbs to the bar on curls), moderate sets and total weekly reps.

    Lastly, stop watching YouTube clowns other than Sean and you’re all set. Stay the course, be realistic, and know it takes years and not months to transform your body as a natural lifter. Keep it simple.

  37. High-volume training is still the most misunderstood training concept… fact is if a muscle doesn't get enough volume and frequency it's going stay like you're stuck in the mud!

  38. High intensity training is another misunderstood training Concepts… low volume low-frequency… it's a once a week body part training protocol!

  39. Intensity is another misunderstood concept… in bodybuilder you cannot train at! high intensity without reaching a point of diminishing returns… it would be regression instead of progression!

  40. Mike mentzer and Dorian Yates use high intensity training… that's a very unpopular style of training… it's totally unnecessary… many people use high-volume training like Arnold Schwarzenegger!

  41. The primary factor for muscle growth is contraction… on the concentric and eccentric portion of the Reps… full reps partial reps… mid-range reps stretch reps contraction rep's!

  42. Counting sets and Reps and poundage is good for the beginner and intermediate… Advanced bodybuilders that would set themselves up for limitations… it's like painting by the numbers… Picasso doesn't paint by the numbers!

  43. Would have been awesome if you could have made an informative video about how much volume you should train with (how many sets every week on the different body-parts), where you talk about the volume measured by: weight x reps x sets. Would love to see a video about this topic! 🙂

    Keep up all the good work! 😀

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