Doing the correct amount of work is crucial for making the best progress while keeping the risk of overtraining low.
But what is the best way to track your workout volume?
Read on to learn about the best method for tracking workout volume. We will also review the role of effort in the equation and similar details.
The Best Way to Measure Workout Volume
There are three primary measurement methods athletes often adopt to track their workout volume. These are:
- Total repetitions
- Total weight moved, also known as volume load (repetitions x load x sets)
- Total number of sets
- Total Repetitions
Tracking the number of repetitions you do is a practical way to measure workout volume without complicating the process or making calculations. Unfortunately, while simple, the approach typically falls short in most circumstances.
Using total repetitions done in a workout can only be meaningful if the load (weight) used is consistent from set to set. That is the case because repetitions can vary in difficulty and the stimulus they provide. You cannot compare 100 repetitions with an empty barbell to 100 repetitions with 70 percent of your 1 RM.
As such, tracking total repetitions could be helpful for athletes to feel a sense of achievement for having covered a specific goal, but it would not be a reliable method of measuring workout volume.
A slightly better approach would be to track effective reps. The idea is that each subsequent rep in a set becomes more effective, and the final ones make the biggest difference.
For example, if you’re doing a set of 8 reps, the first 4 or 5 likely aren’t that challenging or disruptive. But as you get to reps 6, 7, and 8, the set grows in difficulty, and you experience a growth stimulus. So, rather than tracking all of your training volume, counting effective reps streamlines the process.
Unfortunately, the approach also isn’t practical. First, how would you determine if a rep is ‘effective?’ Would it mean crossing a specific motor unit recruitment threshold? Or maybe you would use effort as guidance?
In any case, you would be forced to rely on highly subjective measures, and tracking progress would be much more challenging.
- Volume Load
Another popular method for tracking workout volume is through volume load: sets x reps x weight. For example, if you do four sets of 10 reps on the bench press with 225 lbs, your volume load would be 9000 lbs (4 x 10 x 225).
Volume load seems a decent option because it measures precisely how much work you’re doing. As a result, it is easier to compare your performance from one workout to the next. For example, if you got 9000 lbs of volume on the bench press last week, you know exactly how much work you need to do now to create an overload.
Some data also suggests that volume load has merit. In one study from 2014, 20 young men were split into two groups: strength training (ST) and hypertrophy training (HT). Both groups did statistically identical volume loads, and researchers didn’t find significant differences in bicep thickness among subjects.
While volume load can be useful in some cases, particularly when trainees keep their set and rep structures identical, the approach falls apart when we introduce variety.
Let’s say that you do sets of 10 reps with 225 lbs one week but decide to lift more weight in your next workout. Instead of doing 10 reps per set, you load up 265 lbs and do sets of 5 instead. As a result, your volume load drops from 9000 to 5300 lbs, or roughly 40 percent less.
The difference is enormous, but can we say the former is better? Sure, the volume load is much less, but we could argue that both workouts are quite stimulative and would result in similar growth, especially when also doing other exercises.
Differences become even more pronounced when comparing lighter and heavier sets. For instance, using 30 to 50 percent of your 1RM will always result in significantly greater volume loads than 80 to 90 percent. But, as with the previous example, would a greater tonnage cause more growth?
In one study from 2019, 21 young men were divided into three groups. The objective was to evaluate muscle growth in three conditions:
- 80 percent of 1 RM taken to failure
- 30 percent of 1 RM, volume matched to 80 percent group
- 30 percent of 1 RM taken to failure
After ten weeks of following these training conditions, subjects saw similar improvements with 30 and 80 percent of 1RM, but only when training to failure. The study illustrates that volume load is irrelevant if trainees don’t pass a certain effort threshold, such as by training to failure or close.
- Total Number of Sets
Similar to total reps, counting sets is a straightforward approach for tracking workout volumes.
Research shows that counting the number of working sets where trainees go beyond a certain difficulty threshold (proximity to failure) is more helpful in predicting muscle growth and strength gains.
In the authors’ words:
“According to the results of this review, the total number of sets to failure, or near to, seems to be an adequate method to quantify training volume when the repetition range lies between 6 and 20+ if all the other variables are kept constant.”
First, counting sets is simple and practical. Instead of adding up reps or calculating volume load on every exercise, you simply assign a specific number of sets for muscle groups or movement patterns, and you’re good to go. The Strongineering Framework can help with that.
Second, counting the number of sets you do allows you to circumvent the issues that arise with the other methods. A hard set provides value, regardless of the exercise or amount of weight you use. As such, it is much easier to tell how much productive work you’re doing without relying on too many subjective factors.
The Role of Effort In The Equation
As discussed in a previous point, the best way to track workout volume would be by counting the number of sets performed close to failure or to actual failure. In sports science, muscle failure, where the athlete cannot perform another repetition with proper form, is called volitional failure.
Similarly, training close to failure is challenging and often means trainees cannot do more than one or two extra reps with proper form at the end of a training set.
An excellent way to tell you’ve reached failure is if you have to compromise your technique in some way to do more reps. For example, let’s say that you’ve done eight complete pull-up reps in a row, each slightly more challenging than the previous.
If you have to swing your body (kip) or shorten the range of motion to complete the ninth rep, you’ve likely reached failure.
Some sources recommend taking the majority of sets to failure to ensure that you’re putting enough effort into your training. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. In one paper from 2016, researchers examined the literature on training to failure to answer a simple question: “Is training to failure necessary?”
While we could certainly use more studies that examine training to failure and compare it to other effort levels, researchers and experts largely agree that pushing athletes to their limits is not an ideal long-term strategy.
For one, failure training is quite demanding. Most trainees can take a handful of sets to failure and recover well, but that wouldn’t be the case if an athlete does 10, 15, or even 20 sets in a workout.
Second, trainees generally need more time to recover from sets taken to failure. The neuromuscular fatigue is much greater, and physical performance is more likely to drop without sufficient rest.
Still, We Must Train Hard
None of the above suggests that your training needs to be easy. You still need to push yourself hard to disrupt homeostasis and provide a significant enough training stimulus for growth.
The good news is that taking sets close to failure (submaximal effort) gets the job done. In addition to making it easier to track your training volume by counting the number of sets, submaximal effort provides the necessary stimulus.
Instead of training to failure, athletes could use the RPE scale to track their effort. For most athletes, the ideal range is an RPE of 7 to 9, which correlates to leaving 1 to 3 reps in the tank.
Science suggests athletes can still benefit significantly from performing resistance training sets close to failure. This is particularly important for untrained or novice athletes who could push beyond their capacity during training and put themselves at risk of injuries due to less refined technique.
For experienced and trained athletes, training to actual failure (an RPE of roughly 9.5 to 10) for long periods could increase the risk of overtraining and result in performance decline.
In a nutshell, athletes don’t need to train to actual failure but only close to that point in most of their sets.
By only tracking the number of working sets in measuring training volume, Strongineering reduces the ‘fluff’ in your training programs. With the approach, we don’t account for warm-up sets or any sets that are too easy to cause a significant training response and promote progression (muscle growth, strength gain, etc.).
Still, it encourages athletes to monitor perceived fatigue after each set and learn to listen to their bodies carefully. The Strongineering framework has adopted the powerlifting RPE scale initially designed by Mike Tuchscherer.
Counting the number of working sets you perform is the simplest and most practical way to determine your overall efforts.
For the sake of clarity, a working set would be any bout of resistance training where you reach or pass an RPE of 7. In other words, you should leave no more than three reps in the tank or push yourself close to muscle failure.
For accessory and isolation exercises, a working set would be one where the athlete reaches an RPE of at least 8, leaving no more than two reps in the tank.
We highly recommend this resource if you’re unsure how to apply RPE to your training.