Training volume is a pop topic in our world of fitness. Regardless whether we train for muscle building or fat loss, volume always plays an important role. However, volume is not truly a simple calculation of (sets x reps x weight), which often is said. We are going to cover this in more detail, but our main focus is junk volume.
In brief, junk volume is all training that does not contribute to our goal of the workout. Not only is it a waste of time, but it can set you back and have your body spend its resources on getting back to baseline instead of adapting and recovering.
Volume Is Not Simply (Sets x Reps x Weight)
Before we begin to discuss junk volume, we need to understand that volume is much more than a simple calculation of (sets x reps x weight). Which is what we have been hearing for many, many years. Including that the only way to increase your gains in the gym is with progressive overload and increasing your volume over time.
On the surface level this is true, but it does not tell the whole story. We need to go much deeper into what volume truly means.
Each Stimulus Requires Different Amounts of Volume
Doing dumbbell presses of 5 sets of 10 reps with a 40 pound dumbbell, and 4 sets of 20 reps with a 25 pound dumbbell, both equal “2000 lbs of volume.” But the type of stimulus your muscles get from both scenarios are very different. Thus, just simply doing (sets x reps x weight) is not a good calculation in terms of progress.
Instead, we should be calculating the volume for each respective stimulus we are trying to achieve for the workout session.
Shortened vs. Lengthened
Moreover, each exercise provides a different stimulus to our body. For instance, a Triceps Rope Pressdown, and a Triceps Rope Overhead Extension stress the triceps in different ways. The Pressdown trains the triceps more in the shortened position, while the overhead extension primarily trains the lengthened position.
Even though you use the same amount of sets, reps and weight, the type of stimulus to the triceps is very different.
Training muscles in their lengthened position is one of the most surefire ways to cause mechanical damage. This can be great for hypertrophy training, but is usually not what we go for when we do metabolic training.
Also, range of motion plays a large role. Some exercises like the Squat and Dumbbell Lateral Raises are heavy in a small part of the movement, and not very heavy throughout the rest.
So obviously using the simple formula of (sets x reps x weight) does not make sense for two different exercises.
Tempo and Rest Affect Stimulus
Lastly, tempo and rest periods also play a major role in what type of stimulus we achieve. As we adjust our tempo for exercises and the rest periods we have between, the stimulus achieved will also change.
A Squat with a (3-0-1-0) tempo is very different from a (4-1-1-0) tempo Squat. One extra second in the negative, in addition to a pause at the bottom. Just think about how differently we stimulate our quads and glutes in those two scenarios.
Again, this is not accounted for in the old school volume equation.
In the same way, the stimulus is very different if we train with 30 second rest between our sets and 3 minute rest periods. With this in mind, you should have a much better understanding of what volume really entails. Now we can move on to talk about junk volume.
When we refer to junk volume we mean all sets and repetitions that do not help us progress towards our goals. That includes training in excess of what we are able to recover from, and training that is not a part of the stimulus we are going for.
When we talk about training, we usually divide it into three phases; hypertrophy, metabolic and neurological. Each type of training has many different types of stimuli. More specifically, there are multiple different stimuli that can lead to metabolic, hypertrophy and neurological effects.
For instance, with neurological training we have coordination; our ability to contract and with how much force we can contract our muscles; nervous system function, and so on.
Therefore, instead of just blindly calculating the total volume, we want to measure the volume that contributes to the types of stimuli we are trying to target. Of course, in relation to the goals we are trying to achieve.
In simple terms, junk volume is all type of work that does not contribute to our goals. For neurological training it can be work that is below a certain intensity needed for adaption. Work that is around 80% below your rating of perceived exertion (RPE), will rarely be instrumental towards neurological goals.
While this is true for neurological stimuli, it is not necessarily true other types of training. In neurologocial or strength training, it is important that we go for maximum output.
Anything below a certain RPE, will not contribute towards that kind of stimulus. Thus, if you are doing an excessive amount of work that does not contribute towards the stimulus you are going for, we are simply accumulating a lot of fatigue.
As a result, it can take away from the total amount of output towards the goal stimulus you could get in that specific workout.
In the same way, once you hit the total amount of output you can recover from in that session, doing anything more only makes things worse. Not only is your intensity dropping off, but you are pushing past your ability to recover from this damage.
Meaning, it is just more damage for your body to recover from without any additional benefits.
On the other hand, we have metabolic stimuli. There are many ways and methods to achieve metabolic effects. One of them being the Incomplete Rest Method, where it is actually beneficial to us to have a lower RPE combined with lower rest periods.
Our goal with IRM training is to achieve a systemic fatigue, rather than fatigue in any given muscle. By combining very low rest periods and lower RPE, we are able to get that metabolic effect very quickly.
But just like with neurological training, if we keep training past the stimulus we already achieved, we would consider that work junk volume.
By continuing to perform more sets and repetitions when we already achieved the metabolic stimulus, we are just giving our body more damage to recover from. Thus, wasting unnecessary energy on recovery. When we should just go back home to eat and rest.
To illustrate more clearly what we mean by junk volume past a certain point, we need to look at our trainability threshold. We all have a specific amount of work we need to do to achieve any type of stimulus. Once we get past the point we need, our body will then adapt and recover.
Any point below the threshold of a certain stimulus is not enough work required for adaption. Meaning, we need to get past this barrier before our body actually adapts and recovers.
This is where our trainability range is. More precisely, the difference between the amount of work needed for adaption and your ability to recover. Our goal is to stay within this sweet-spot. Because if we go above it, we obviously go past the amount of damage we can recover from.
Correspondingly, our body will use all its energy to try to get back to baseline.
So, all of the work above our trainability threshold will be junk volume, as it is a waste of time and energy. It is only slowing us down, and it will take longer until we can get back to the gym to smash some weights and repeat our workout.
Therefore, we are always trying to stay within that sweet-spot.
Trainability Range Varies
This trainability range not only varies from person to person, but from stimulus to stimulus. As we train a certain stimulus more and more, we adapt better, and the trainability range shrinks. The stimulus required to adapt increases, but that does not mean that your ability to recover increases, therefore the range will also get smaller.
After pushing that range a little bit more, we eventually get to a point where we need to de-load or change the stimulus we train for. More specifically, a stimulus that has a lower threshold, but that you can still recover from.
With this in mind, it is hopefully clear that we have a threshold we need to break. Anything below this threshold we consider junk volume. Likewise, going above our ability to recover is also junk volume.
Every Single Repetition Matters
Every single rep and set that we perform, will contribute towards our recoverability. Thus, it is vital that we have goals that are as specific as possible. In turn, we are able to recover and adapt as efficiently as possible.
By designing both our training and nutrition plan as specifically as possible, we will know when to change up our training. When we basically tap out one stimulus, we can switch to a different one, and come back once our body is ready.
We come back to the stimulus we initially worked on as soon as the threshold for this stimulus has had enough time to come back down. It will come down as we back away from this stimulus, and stop pounding it.
Junk volume put in perspective, is about being aware of not overdoing a certain stimulus, and thinking that you just need to go harder. Instead, back off from a certain type of training with de-loads or switch to a different stimulus. This is one of the most effective ways to continuously progress, and not to fall into any plateaus. Once we push past our recoverability range, we are only digging ourselves into a rut. At that point we are slowing ourselves down, and our body spends all its energy on trying to get back to baseline. Do your best to stay within this sweet-spot, and do not hammer away at the weights thinking more is always better.
Thank you for reading our article!
– Terry Asher