How long should a volume phase be?



Short answer: 4-6 weeks for beginners, a bit longer for advanced lifters depending on certain variables.


Long answer below.


Bigger muscles lift bigger weights. That's usually the reason why incorporating hypertrophy work (aka volume work) is a good idea.


Alternating between volume phases and strength phases will allow you to keep progressing your strength and avoid plateaus. Both phases work in tandem to slowly make you stronger. The volume phases adds a little more muscle, which allows you to push a little more weight during the strength phase, which then allows you to push a little more weight during the next volume phase and so on.


For the sake of the article, I am going to assume that you've already resistance trained for over 6 months and that a classic linear periodization isn't effective for you. Which is where alternating between volume and strength makes more sense, we refer to this as block periodization.


How long should you devote your time to volume work is dependent on your training frequency, adaptation, training experience and personal preferences.


Let's establish a few basic points first.


  1. On average, the minimum training volume to see results is around 10 sets per muscle group per week

  2. Most muscle groups can handle between 20-25 sets each week

  3. Doing more than 10-12 working sets per body part per workout might bot be ideal because of fatigue. If you think about it, if you were to do 4 sets of bench press followed by 4 sets of dips, how much more can your chest handle during that workout? After those 8 sets, you might not be able to use weights heavy enough to elicit any changes in your body

  4. The average person reading this article is not a professional athlete and usually does not have much more than 90 minutes per day to workout.

Since the goal of a volume phase is to slowly add more and more sets each workout, I usually start out my volume phase at 12 sets per muscle groups per week and add 3 sets each week.


If you go to the gym three times per week, that's 4 sets per muscle group per workout.

Monday: 4 sets of barbell bench press

Wednesday: 4 sets of dips

Friday: 4 sets of incline dumbbell bench press


Adding three sets each week can be done either by increasing the amount of sets on the exercises, or by introducing a new exercises altogether.


Example 1: Adding sets to current exercises

Week 1

Monday: 4 sets of barbell bench press

Wednesday: 4 sets of dips

Friday: 4 sets of incline dumbbell bench press

Total sets for chest: 12


Week 2

Monday: 5 sets of barbell bench press

Wednesday: 5 sets of dips

Friday: 5 sets of incline dumbbell bench press

Total sets for chest: 15


Example 2: Adding an exercise

Week 1

Monday: 4 sets of barbell bench press

Wednesday: 4 sets of dips

Friday: 4 sets of incline dumbbell bench press

Total sets for chest: 12


Week 2

Monday: 4 sets of barbell bench press

Wednesday: 4 sets of dips

Friday: 4 sets of incline dumbbell bench press + 3 sets of pec flies

Total sets for chest: 15


Now here is where it gets fun. How you choose to progress your volume is dependent on how often you train. The above exemple is based on a three days per week routine for your chest. If you only work your chest twice a week, your workout progression is going to look a little different.


Twice per week progression

Week 1:

Monday: 3 sets of bench press + 3 sets of flies

Wednesday: 3 sets of dips + 3 sets of weighted push ups

Total sets for chest: 12


Week two

Monday: 4 sets of bench press + 4 sets of flies

Wednesday: 4 sets of dips + 4 sets of weighted push ups

Total sets for chest: 16


You can see how different training frequencies influence how you progress your workouts. I found that training a muscle group more frequently (3-5 times per week) makes the progressions a little bit easier. When you only have two days in the week, you have to add a considerable amount of sets on both days.


Now that we saw the different ways to progress your workouts, let's answer the question of how long should you progress them for? I.e how long should the volume phase be?


This is where all the variables come into play.


Variable #1: Training frequency

Someone who trains 5 times a week can progress a lot faster than someone who trains twice a week. Why? Simply because you can pack a lot more sets over 5 days than over 2 days.


Like I mentioned earlier, if you train 5 times per week, your progressions are going to be more subtle.

Here's what I am talking about:


5 times per week

Week 1

Monday: 3 sets of bench press

Tuesday: 3 sets of dips

Wednesday: 3 sets of incline bench

Thursday: 3 sets of bench press

Friday: 3 sets of dips

Total sets: 15


Week 2

Monday: 4 sets of bench press

Tuesday: 3 sets of dips

Wednesday: 4 sets of incline bench

Thursday: 3 sets of bench press

Friday: 4 sets of dips

Total sets: 18


Compare this with:


Twice per week

Week 1

Monday: 4 sets of bench + 4 sets of dips

Thursday: 4 sets of incline bench + 3 sets of flies

Total sets 15


Week 2

Monday: 5 sets of bench + 5 sets of dips

Thursday: 5 sets of incline bench + 3 sets of flies

Total sets 18


As you can see, the progressions in 5 times a week is way more subtle when you look at the whole week. Keep in mind that this is only for one muscle group. You still have to train your back, arms, shoulders and obviously legs. If you only workout twice per week, those two workouts are quickly going to become packed. And unless you want to be in the gym for 2-3 hours, it's not an ideal situation.


As a general rule, you want to increase your total volume to around 20-25 sets per body part per week. If you start with 12 sets over three days and add a set each week, that would take you between 4 and 5 weeks as shown below.


Week 1: 12 sets

Week 2: 15 sets

Week 3: 18 sets

Week 4: 21 sets

Week 5: 24 sets

Week 6: deload and transition to strength phase


Anecdotally, I find that for my clients, this is long enough that they stay engaged for the whole volume phase, yet not too long that they get bored of all the volume (week 4 and 5 can be pretty brutal).


You can cap it at 5 weeks or use the other variable to decide if you want to go longer.


Variable #2: physiological adaptations

You will not be able to see muscle growth with the naked eye in this short of a time frame, but you will be able to monitor other aspects: mainly your fatigue, level of engagement, recovery from your workouts and your performance.


If you are getting more and more fatigued and finding you are sore all the time, it might be a good idea to deload and transition to a strength phase.


On the other hand, if you get to week 5 and you feel fantastic, then you can keep going for a little bit more.


Your level of engagement, aka how much you look forward to training is also a good indicator. If you feel like a plan is fun and yielding results, you are going to want to go do the workouts. After doing the same thing over and over though, you might not be as fond of these workouts as you previously were. This is also a good indicator of when it might be a good time for a change.


Anecdotal note: as a trainer I usually hear complaints around week 4 and 5. That's when I have to remind people what the plan is why those weeks are the way they are. So if you feel like you want to quit, maybe go through another week before switching over to a deload.


I refer to performance as the weights you lift during your workouts. As a general rule, when the volume goes up, the weights go down. Since you will be doing more and more sets and reps, it's normal for you to use lighter weights. If you see that your weights are dropping too fast over the course of the weeks, that's a good cue to change something up.


How fast is too fast? Here again, personal experience will come in handy, the more you workout, the more you will know how the weights should decrease. When I work with new clients I look for drops no lower than 10-15%.


When you performance drops more than expected, that's usually tied with the first point we talked about, fatigue. The two go hand in hand but sometimes you'll notice that your performance drops before you get fatigued all the time.


Variable #3: Training experience

The longer you train, the slower the results will come. If we think rationally about this, imagine you start lifting as a novice weighting 160lbs. In your first couple years of training it's reasonable to expect a weight gain in muscle mass of 10-15 pounds per year. In your third and fourth years of training that slows down to 5-10 pounds of muscle per year. Assuming you've trained and eaten properly for four straight years, you could be weighting around 200-210 pounds. Getting bigger from there is going to be tougher and tougher just due to the fact that you are getting closer and closer to your genetic potential.


Similarly with strength, it's way easier to go from lifting 150lbs to 200lbs, but a lot tougher to go from 300lbs to 350lbs.


As a general rule, the longer you train, the longer each phases get. A novice might only need 4 weeks in each phase, whereas an advanced lifter might need 8-12 weeks.


Variable #4: personal preferences

Some people prefer doing more volume work, others prefer strength work. Depending on which you prefer, it's ok to spend longer in those phases as long as you keep progressing. Remember that the whole point of periodizing your workouts into strength and volume phases is that they go hand in hand to help you progress continuously.


Regardless of which one you prefer, make sure to track the right metrics:

For volume phases, track your total volume (sets x reps x weight) per body part per week.

For strength phases, track your performance (the weights you lift).


During a volume phase, you want your volume to go up. So each week, or every other week, make sure that it does so. Similarly, the goal of a strength phase is to lift bigger and bigger weights. Keeping these metrics the same week over week will not help you achieve your goals.


Remember that slow progress, is still progress. As long as you don't stagnate, 1% better every week is still a great pace, especially if you've been lifting consistently for 3+ years.


Conclusion

The goal of a volume phase is to place more and more volume on your body. In order to do this in a smart way, you want to start around 10-12 sets per body part per week and gradually work you way to around 25 sets per body part per week.


Different training variables such as training frequency, training experience, and physiological adaptions are going to help you figure out how you choose to get there. Pay attention to how you feel mentally and physically during these phases because if you progress too quickly you might burn out before reaching the last couple weeks.


Starting with phases that last 4-6 weeks is a great start for people starting out with block periodization, and the more you do them, the better of an idea you'll have as to what your sweet spot is.


We will go over HOW to progress a volume phase in a later article.


You can book a free consult with me here to chat further about the concepts of this article.


Happy training,


Clem















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