The Most Likely Reason You're Not Building Muscle

Size. Bulk. Gains. Thickness. Hypertrophy. No matter what you call it, muscle growth has long been sought after. While there are genetic factors at play that predispose specific body types (endomorph, ectomorph and mesomorph), there are certain things we can do to make a push toward achieving our genetic potential.

We know nutrition plays an important role. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed in an isolated system. Simply put, this means that taking in more calories than you burn will result in increased mass and vice versa.

Taking this a step further, we know that lifting in rep schemes of 8-12 is considered the "hypertrophy" range, but what many gym goers often neglect is the most important variable—volume.

Volume refers to total reps multiplied by the load or weight lifted. For example, 4 sets of 12 reps of Back Squat at 275 pounds produces a volume of 13,200 (4 x 12 = 48 total reps x 275 = 13,200).

Think of lifting as an angry dialogue between you and your body. You are telling your body what you want it to be capable of. In this example, you are commanding your body to be capable of a volume of 13,200.

The problem is that many people are either still lifting the same weights they did in high school or jumping from program to program, making it nearly impossible to calculate comparable volume, because they are dealing with different exercises and different weights.

Naturally, increasing the weight you lift over time increases volume over time, but since reps can't be increased indefinitely (that would pull you out of hypertrophy rep range and lead to 9-hour gym sessions), you have to use a combination of methods to affect volume.

Think of muscle growth as your long-term financial wealth. If your income over time is greater than your spending over the same period, you will have a surplus of money and will have grown your net worth. However, assuming your paycheck is the same every pay period, you can only make a certain amount per week; so the amount you retain depends on how much you spend. You could spend more than your paycheck during one week, but if over the course of a year you spend less than you earn, you will have saved money.

Your goal in lifting is to create a volume surplus over time so that a year from now you are demanding more from your muscles than you are capable of today. Just like we find strategic ways to save money, there are specific ways to manipulate volume, except here you must balance workload with adequate recovery.

How to Increase Volume for Size

Muscles

1. Increase Weight

This is a steady but effective way to increase volume over time, but you are limited by your current strength within the rep range. Simply put, you should be lifting more weight a year from now than you can lift today in the same rep range, meaning higher demands on your body and the need for increased muscle size—provided your nutrition supports growth. Increasing weight has a small effect on volume, but is necessary for muscle growth.

Example:

  • 100 pounds lifted for 4 sets of 8 reps = Volume of 3,200
  • Weight increased to 110 pounds lifted for 4 sets of 8 reps = Volume of 3,520
  • Total increase in volume = 320

2. Increase Sets

When you are stuck in your current progress of increasing weight, sometimes adding a set is an effective option. This increases your volume more than a small increase in weight, but separates it into a new set for added reps.

Example:

  • 100 pounds lifted for 4 sets of 8 reps = Volume of 3,200
  • 1 set added
  • 100 pounds lifted for 5 sets of 8 reps = Volume of 4000
  • Total increase in volume = 800

3. Increase Number of Workouts

Assuming you aren't lifting 7 days a week, another effective method for increasing volume is to add another workout each week. Whether you go from a 3-day full-body routine to a 4-day upper-lower split or add a 2-a-day (depending on your goals), doing one more workout will increase volume significantly and help stimulate growth.

Example:

  • 100 pounds lifted for 4 sets of 8 reps 3 times per week = Volume of 9,600
  • 1 workout added
  • 100 pounds lifted for 4 sets of 8 reps 4 times per week = Volume of 12,800
  • Total increase in volume = 3,200

Once you understand how changes in your workout alter your volume, it is important to touch on the concepts of minimum effective dose (MED) and maximum recoverable volume (MRV) to determine the volume that's appropriate for you.

MED - The lowest volume required to stimulate progress and growth. Low risk of injury, steady progress, slower growth, less risk of overtraining

MRV - The highest volume from which you are able to recover. Higher risk, higher reward, faster progress, higher risk of overtraining

Because many factors go into it, you cannot predict a specific number; but if you surpass your MED and stay under your MRV (by assessing delayed onset muscle soreness and previous training), you can find a good starting point. Generally speaking, beginners will have a lower MED and MRV than veterans, but a veteran may have to work towards his or her MRV to get over humps in their training and continue pushing forward.

How to Track Volume

Now that you grasp the importance of volume, how do you measure it effectively without taking 3 hours at the gym? First, it's  important to determine what you want to track.

Volume per Exercise

Track your volume for one specific exercise (like Bench Press) and manipulate this to increase over time.

Volume per Area or Theme 

Track total volume for an entire area of your body or theme of your workout, like chest and back or push-and-pull. Calculate the volume for each exercise in your area and add them up for total volume.

Volume per Lift

Track total volume for your entire lift and progress this over time. This is my preference when tracking, but it requires keeping a fairly consistent set of exercises and rep schemes in order to effectively understand volume. Calculate the volume for each exercise in your lift and add them up for total volume. Keep in mind that your "lower day" volume doesn't have to be anywhere close to your "upper day," because you are working with completely different exercises and weights.

Calculating Volume

The easiest way to keep track of your volume is to create or download a workout template using Excel. We know the equation for volume is:

  • (Sets x Reps) x Load

In Excel, assume you have your sets in box B1, your reps in box B2 and your load in box B3. Create a "total volume" box and enter the equation: "=(B1*B2)*B3"

For multiple sets and exercises, add to this equation by throwing each set into parentheses and adding a new series until you have every set and exercise you'd like to include in your total volume:

=((B1*B2)*B3)+((C1*C2)*C3)+((D1*D2)*D3)..."

Final Thoughts

1. In addition to creating a surplus of energy intake, progressive overload of volume is pivotal in muscle growth.

2. There are several ways to manipulate volume for growth, including adding weight, adding sets, or adding a workout.

3. Stay within your minimum effective dose and maximum recoverable volume to ensure proper stimulus is present without overtraining.

4. Determine how you want to break up your volume, then create or download an Excel template to effectively track volume over time.

5. If you want to keep things simple, understand how different variables affect volume, and manipulate them to create progressive overload.

Volume Totals Per Exercise + Total Volume

Volume Totals Per Exercise + Total Volume

Volume Totals Per Workout

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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: WORKOUTS | EXERCISING | ENERGY | TRACK | WEIGHTS | RECOVER | MUSCLE GROWTH