Low Volume, Progressive Intensity Weight Training

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Number of Exercises and Sets

Lever Seated High RowHow many exercises and sets should you do for each body part for the low volume training?

You can start on our Workout Templates page and choose a full body or split program appropriate for your level of weight training experience (see volume recommendations below). From the specific workout template choose one exercise for each bulleted muscle group following the Workout Creation Instructions.

  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
    • One additional exercise for one or two body parts or movements that are under par
    • Split body in two parts (eg: push/pull, upper/lower)
  • Advanced
    • The greater number of splits allow for more exercises to be performed per body part but this subsequently decreases the frequency at which each muscle group is exercised.
      • 2 day split allows for one or two exercise per muscle group with each muscle group being exercised every 3 to 3.5 days
      • 4 day split allows for one to three exercises per muscle group with each muscle group being exercised every 4.66 to 5 days
    • Vary training volumes by cycling the number of sets or exercises for each movement or body part
    • Vary training intensities (eg: light/heavy, periodization)
    • Perform an additional warm-up set for heaviest lifts (eg: squat, deadlift, bench)

To keep your training volume low, only choose the italicized bodypart listed in the specific workout template if you truly believe it is a weaker bodypart since they likely have already been involved in other exercises. Keep in mind small body parts are also worked indirectly when performing other exercises so you can get by with just one exercise for small body parts.

The number of sets you choose will depend on several factors. The ideal number of sets is not agreed upon by all authorities. Here are the ACSM recommendations and research findings I personally suggest a warm up set followed by one or two workout sets for each exercise. On a split program, this translates to multiple sets for each body part if you are performing more than one exercise per large body part.


Testimony

Thank you so much! I have always wanted to build a physique that I could be proud of. I have been involved in athletics for as long as I can remember, however my athletic performance and physique have always been average at best. I recently finished a tour in the US Army as a paratrooper stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC, where physical activity is more a way of life than a recreational activity. I've also done my share of weight lifting, however it seems that after about 2 months of lifting I would develop an injury that would frustrate me, and I'd eventually give up and go back to working out with my own body weight. There's nothing wrong with working out with one's body weight, however I could never gain the "mass" I've always dreamed of having. After reading the plethora of information on this site things are really starting to take shape. I've done about 6 months of high intensity/low volume weight lifting, and I've made so much progress that I'm still in awe. Best of all I've had NO INJURIES! Thank you so much!


Former High Volume Veteran

I've been training with weights for 15 years. I probably have not missed more than a week's worth of working out in that time. I love training and thought I knew a lot about it. Just recently I came to the sad conclusion that I have spent way too much time in the gym over the years. I, like so many others who grew up in the 80s, used to do 20+ sets per bodypart per workout. According to the scientific literature all I needed to do was 1 work set after a warmup twice a week per bodypart to achieve the same results (See Low Volume Progressive Intensity Training). You are likewise a bodybuilder. Do you train with low volume? I need a support group for others who have wasted so much time in the gym.

Lever Power TwistI began serious bodybuilding training, December 1979. "Arnold, the Education of a Bodybuilder" was my original inspiration and guide. Throughout my competitive career (see some of my competition picts on some of the pages in the bodybuilding section) I trained with multiple sets although I had always tried to get the most out of the least possible number of sets and exercises.

After I retired from competition in 1990 and still a bit skeptical of very low volume training, I experimented with performing only one warm up and two sets (down from my typical 3 workout sets) per exercise. Eventually I adopted single set training (after a warm-up set) out of necessity during my master's studies. I haven't looked back since.

I'm rapidly approaching 50 now. Although I can't perform set after set of squats like I used to...

Once in the old days, a powerlifter friend and I started started working out together for a short stint. Soon after we got started, he suddenly disappeared while we were doing squats! After I finally finished my sets of squats, I later found him in the bathroom lying down practically moaning with his leg propped up on the wall and his hand on his belly. He told me that he had lost his dinner because he wasn't used to so little rest between his sets of squats.

Being able to perform set after set is not important to me any more, particularly as you have reiterated, you receive the most benefits from the first workout set anyway.

You may find, since you are spending less time in the weight room, you may have to perform a bit more cardio or eat accordingly to compensate for the shorter weight training workouts. Besides that, I've experienced nothing but benefits: faster recovery between workouts, more strength gains, fewer overuse injuries, less need to perform more than a single warm-up set, opportunity to work a few more miscellaneous body-parts, and more time with the wife and kids.

Sorry, I know of no low volume support group but perhaps you can find an online forum board that advocate high intensity training or abbreviated workouts for hard gainers with similar philosophies. Best of luck.

Thanks so much for your quick response. I cannot tell you how impressed I am with your web page. Your page is the most comprehensive yet concise resource for fitness with the latest scientific information. I have changed my routine based on your recommendations for the last two weeks and already feel like a new person. I have so much more energy in my day to day life from not spending hours upon hours in the gym every week. My strength gains in the last two weeks are better than what I've gained in the last year. I'm not exaggerating. I feel like I need to tell everyone who is wasting away in the gym how to workout based on a scientifically proven method.


Author's Views

I have a question in regard to Recommendation for Resistance Training Exercise (ACSM, 1995 ; ACSM, 2002). I get the impression that you strongly advocate for low-volume high intensity training if muscle growth is your objective. The ACSM 2002 recommendation however, which you cite, indicates “higher volume, multiple-set programs”. Could you please clarify your stand on this matter?

Yes, you could say I advocate low-volume training in general but that is not to say I am suggesting single-set or mono-volume training. I do not deny a number of benefits of periodic high-volume training for both strength and hypertrophy. I also recognized individual difference as well as particular ergogenic aids that allow some people to better tolerate and prosper from well designed higher volume training programs.

The scientific studies show a single set is sufficient for beginners and multiple sets are only modestly more effective for experienced trainees at best. It appears that the ideal number of sets required per exercise or muscle group both strength and muscle mass gains is quite small in comparison to what many coaches and trainees have been advocating.

Personally, I perform I only perform one warm-up (50% workout resistance) and a single workout set for each exercise, choosing only one to two exercises per muscle group. One exception for me is on my first quad / glute exercises (squats, leg press, deadlift, etc) where I typically perform a pre-warmup set with a very light weight. And on occasion I might perform a third exercise for my chest (chest dips, dumbbell pullover, etc).

Incidentally an additional exercise for a muscle group is far more effective for strength or muscle mass as opposed to an additional set(s) as long as the auxiliary exercise is distinctly different from your other movements. For a hard gainer like myself, it is important to budget the number of exercises and sets in a workout by restricting the number of additional movements to only the most lagging muscle group(s).

With too many exercises, the workout becomes too long and intensity drops for all exercises, not only near the end of the program when you get fatigued, but also eventually at the beginning of your workout when you advertently begin to pace yourself by holding back early on.

James Griffing, ExRx.net Author


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