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How Much Is Too Much and Too Little in The Gym
Maximizing The Minimum Effective Dose
Muscle growth is a fascinating concept because of just how individualized it is. You can give 5 people the exact same program, control their habits like sleep, diet, etc. and you will get 5 different results.
When it comes to the gym, the main factor of what determines growth will be adequate volume. This is not to be confused with intensity being the driver of growth. Working out hard and putting everything into your sets is what will drive the adaptation and growth process.
But we do have an amount that we need to do that will suffice to trigger this growth response—this is called your minimum effective volume.
Whether there is continuing returns on this is up for debate. Some say once a muscle has been minimally stimulated, this is enough and we need no more. Others say that beyond minimal stimulation there is benefit until there is a drop-off where we are doing too much—this is maximum effective volume.
The answer? Probably somewhere in the middle, though I say to opt for erroring on the side of just enough rather than too much.
It’s important to figure this out as this is truly what will give the individual touch to your training. Once you find your sweet spot for effective volume, it will largely remain the same, changing ever so slightly as you advance your physique.
Gauging How Much You Need
There is no real formula or tool we can use to truly gauge our volume needs and recovery capabilities.
The latter is more difficult than the former because it can be manipulated by a plethora of factors from diet, sleep quality, stress levels, and hundreds of other factors.
So what we have to take into account here is a our daily average recovery, meaning our typical day of diet, sleep, stress, etc. This will give us a more concise insight into how well we are actually recovering.
If we try to gauge our baseline recovery after a night of drinking and poor sleep, we are not getting an accurate picture.
This is important to keep in mind as we try to figure out our sweet spot in the gym, in terms of how much is enough and how much isn’t.
In terms of determining this, we have a few feedback tools we can rely on to see where we are:
Data Feedback - Is our logbook showing an increase in weight and performance in the gym? — this is the surest sign we are doing enough.
Visual Feedback - Are we visibly gaining size and looking better in the mirror?
Body Feedback - How do we feel after a workout, physically, mentally, etc. Are we extremely sore? Feel like we didn’t do anything? In between? Etcetera, Etcetera.
Biofeedback - This could be any number of fitness trackers gauging stats like heart rate variability, resting heart rate, and other factors.
These are the ones I focus on, and they are listed in order on the importance I place on each.
Data Feedback is the best way to gauge progress. If we are consistently seeing an increase in weight, reps, and other performance metrics in the gym, then we are more than likely seeing muscle growth and improvements in our fitness.
This is why logging your lifts and actually keeping track of them is important. You might notice when you do fewer sets these numbers increase and when you go over a certain amount you suddenly stall—this would be beyond your maximum effective volume.
Visual Feedback is actually second on my list because when it comes to making progress, this will happen slower than seeing lifting data. On a longer time horizon, this is more important (arguably the only important part), but harder to gauge in the short term.
If our goal is muscle growth, then this should be rather obvious after a few weeks and months. In conjunction with gym-based data, this is a sure fire system that you are doing the right amount—not too much, not too little.
Body Feedback is also very important but can vary greatly based on factors we’ve listed above. This is simply how we feel after sessions and during. This can be misleading because we might feel like a session was too easy but in reality we did enough.
Soreness isn’t a good indication of a good workout, but consistently being sore weeks into a program could mean we’re doing too much beyond our recovery capabilities. It is important to note how we feel, but so many variables can throw this off. This is better as a longer term trend (weeks not days).
Biofeedback from things like a fitness tracker can provide more insight into how well we are handling a training program. You should never solely base whether you should or shouldn’t workout because your recovery score was lower, but again this can help us establish trends.
This comes in clutch when it comes to determining if we are doing too much. If you’re suddenly experiencing higher resting heart rates, worse sleep quality, and lower heart rate variability, it can be a sign we are over fatiguing our bodies.
Weightlifting will not cause significant strain on the heart itself, so this won’t be as valuable in determining if we’re doing enough.
Again, this is just a tool to help establish trends and baselines based on our bodies biofeedback.
Finding Your Baseline
When it comes to most things, from an efficiency standpoint, we want to figure out what the minimum we need to do is first to understand our baseline.
There are many ways we can do this, from a total reset, to simply dialing back volume to the point we stop seeing improvements in the factors listed above.
It sounds counterproductive to lower volume to the point of not seeing progress, but it’s an invaluable tool. The week or two we don’t make progress will allow us to truly know how little is too little.
When it comes to muscle growth, once we reach a threshold where we are again seeing progress, this will suffice for most. We don’t necessarily have to stop there as we can see marginal improvement beyond this point, but all additional volume should be incremental, not adding tons of work all at once, and seeing how we positively improve or if it doesn’t move the needle much in terms of progress.
You will likely quickly learn you needed far less than you thought you did, typically fitness bros have gym OCD and think more is more until workouts are 2 hours long and we aren't seeing any additional progress because we’ve gone so far passed our recovery capabilities, we might even start regressing.
For most, they would enjoying knowing they only need 8 total sets a workout and can be out of the gym in 30 minutes rather than over an hour.
How we decide to do this, again, can be as simple as just removing some sets and movments from our workouts until we see we haven’t progressed, or we can totally reset our training.
Here I’ll leave my recommendations on what to do. If what you’re doing is absolutely working and you feel good, I see no reason to do this. Maybe experiment slightly if you want, but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
For some, especially if you’ve been following the mainstream “volume is everything” approach for a while, this can be an invaluable opportunity to actually figure out your needs and adjust to your individual body.
Methods For Finding Your Baseline and The “Reset”
When it comes to figuring out our minimums, we have a couple options:
Reduce our volume on our current split incrementally until we’re seeing no progress
We can introduce a total “Reset”
We can do this, no matter what your level of fitness is, as a “reset” period to find your true training needs.
If you’ve been training for a while, you obviously know the importance of deload weeks. This is actually a great time to incorporate a reset because as we advance, we typically do more and more even if we don’t really need it—this is human nature.
This can also be a great way to break some mental traps we see in fitness, the idea that we need to do more and more. If you realize you can do half the work and make the same—and even in extreme cases better—results, then you’d be saving a lot of time and wear and tear on the body.
If you’re newer, great! This can allow you to truly understand your body’s recovery capabilities and help you get into better tune with your body and fitness. Instead of blindly jumping into a program, you can truly see what you need and be able to, in a sense, coach yourself.
Many, many ways to do this and many factors will determine how I suggest doing this. I will lay out a few ways I suggest doing this and how we can apply this and learn what our true volume needs and recovery capabilities are.
1. Total Reset
You’ll start back at a more “basic” split and keep volume as low as you can keep it, starting like how I have my Full Body Program listed with only a couple sets per body part a workout.
You will log all your sets and keep track of any changes in the weight—this number should be going up nearly every time you perform the same variation of the workout.
If you are making progress, the odds are you are making muscle gains.
If you aren’t making any noticeable strength gains and/or truly feel like the sessions aren’t enough, then you could be below your minimum needs.
If this works well then I would simply stick with it until your progress starts to stall then progress in a fashion where you add more sets here and there or you transition to a more advanced split like Full Body → Upper/Lower → Push Pull Legs.
2. Reduce Volume On Current Split
If you don’t want to get as drastic as completely overhauling your workout program, this can be as simple as reducing volume 10-20% a week until you aren’t seeing any progress.
This could simply be removing a set or two (depending on program) from your workouts, to even removing some movments.
For example, if you were running my PPL program, you could simply remove a single set from accessory movments at first, then remove a set from your compound movments, then remove an accessory movement, etc.
This could end up looking like solely compound movements with a single set of accessory movements before you actually need to add more work in to see progress. We typically require much less work in the gym than we think to grow.
Ideally this is best done after a deload period and you would simply start with the lower volume from a deload and work your way up from there.
I do not necessarily like this over a total reset, but it will show you how little you need to make progress.
Putting It All Together
While not necessary at all, this can give you an idea for what your actual individual training needs are.
Fitness is very individualized and figuring out your sweet spot can help you with your own programming - knowing whether you respond better to lower volume vs higher volumes.
Anecdotally, I see people respond to lower volumes, so this approach might just surprise you in how little you need, or you might realize that you are an outlier and respond to better volume and weren’t doing enough to grow at your optimal rate.
This can be important for breaking some mental barriers some have in regards to volume in the gym. This will show you just how little it takes, so if you ever have periods where you just don’t have the time, or simply want to maintain, you have an idea of just how much you need to do to maximize time.
Typically, the amount of volume most need to grow will lie somewhere between 8-15 sets per week per muscle group—this is a good rule of thumb—but some will be even lower and some higher.
This definitely is counterintuitive advice, but when implemented at the right time during your training, can give you a good insight into your own body. It’s also important to note that your recovery abilities will change over time with how you age and how much more advanced you get in the gym.
The important takeaway here is that we truly learn our own bodies and learn how to train to our needs and not just “because that’s what everyone else does”.
I did this about 5 years ago and ever since have nearly an exact idea of how much I personally need and am way better because of it.
This is not Legal, Medical, or Financial advice. Please consult a medical professional before starting any workout