More isn’t always more. There’s a phenomenon called junk volume that refers to any type of training that inhibits muscle growth. You think you’re cheating the system by adding excessive reps or sets in a workout to expedite strength and muscle gains, but in reality you’re just building up fatigue.
Increasing volume over time is a standard method for hypertrophy training and remains one of the best ways to grow muscle—with a caveat. Admit it or not, your mortal body has limits. Fatigue management is one of the most significant factors in boosting muscle-building results.
Ignoring the #norestdays mantra is one of the best things you can do for your training. On the flip side, it’s crucial to work hard enough to stimulate muscle growth. Reps that impede recovery or ones that aren’t challenging enough are what we call junk volume.
Junk volume can insidiously get in the way of building muscle because it’s often tough to know precisely what constitutes “junky” reps and sets versus effective ones. Below, you can learn how to eliminate needless volume from your training and make each rep count toward your goal of bigger muscles.
Is Junk Volume a Real Thing?
Volume is the product of total reps, sets, and loads performed in a training session. Junk volume constitutes any reps and sets in training that don’t contribute to growth or tangible results. Essentially, it’s the workout equivalent of housing a bag of chips. Instead, you end up with fatigue and poor performance.
Even worse, junk volume not only wastes time but also energy you could spend on effective volume or recovery—both of which encourage muscles to grow. Here are two common ways that junk volume can creep into your training:
- Reps that aren’t challenging enough to stimulate growth but still contribute to fatigue.
- More reps than you need for growth that just result in soreness and delayed muscle repair.
Why Is Junk Volume so Harmful?
In the most basic terms, junk volume wastes time and energy. More concerning is how it can affect your health and overall results.
1. Leads to Overtraining
“Junk volume can lead to an overtraining state, causing muscle breakdown, decreased concentrations of testosterone and luteinizing hormone, and increased cortisol levels,” explains Marc Matarazzo, M.D., a board-certified and fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine.
Luteinizing hormone is a sex hormone that controls the production of muscle-building testosterone, so maintaining adequate levels is essential. Increased cortisol, a stress hormone, can inhibit muscle-building and may even lead to muscle loss, something no one wants. Overtraining can also decrease growth hormone, another muscle-building element.
Related: 15 Basic Facts About Building Muscle
2. Delays Recovery
Junk volume can prolong recovery times unnecessarily and is associated with overall reduced intensity, decreased motivation, and poor immune system functioning, according to Matarazzo.
Delayed recovery times will either mean you skip workouts when you feel sore and not ready to lift—or pushing through it anyway and potentially making things even worse. When muscles aren’t recovered, they don’t have a chance to grow before you work them again, impeding any muscle-gaining efforts. In fact, those ineffective reps are very likely to make your other training less effective and can even lead to infections and illnesses—and more missed workouts.
3. Wastes Time Better Spent Elsewhere
Unproductive reps waste time and energy you could be using for more productive work. “Junk volume takes time away from more effective training methods, such as working on form, increasing intensity, and doing mobility work to prevent injury,” says Michael Hamlin, an NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist with Everflex Fitness.
How Do I Get Rid of Junk Volume?
Now that you know why you should avoid junk volume, the next step is figuring out where it might exist in your training and how to prevent it. As mentioned, there are two primary types of junk volume: not working hard enough or working too hard. Avoiding either of those pitfalls is all about finding the goldilocks zone in your training, which will differ for each person and change over time as you get stronger and bigger.
Simply put, the goal with training for muscle gain isn’t about doing as much volume as possible. In a sense, it’s the qualified opposite: doing the least amount of volume which still checks all the boxes of training as hard as you can. You can call this the minimum effective volume. You want to do each rep the best you can, leaving subpar and wasteful ones out of your sets.
“Three primary factors are responsible for developing muscle hypertrophy in resistance training: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress,” explains Maratazzo. “The goal is to optimize each in relation to the other.”
What does this mean for you? Put simply, it means focusing on the following aspects of your training.
1. Focus on Technique
Technique is king when it comes to making the most of your training. If you’re not targeting the intended muscles correctly, they won’t be as likely to grow. Moreover, you could end up fatiguing another muscle or muscle group instead of the one you’re trying to work.
Let’s say you’re doing squats for your quadriceps—but your posture isn’t upright and your butt shoots up before your hips and torso, leading you to stop the set due to back fatigue. In this case, you won’t be working your quads adequately while wasting energy on ineffective reps.
Related: The Total Body Comeback Workout
2. Work Close to Failure
“Effective work is typically characterized by challenging sets, working close to failure, and producing a stimulus that leads to muscle fatigue or a pump,” says Hamlin. Working close to failure will create enough damage to muscle fibers that they’ll get the signal to grow. If you stop too short of failure, there’s no reason for your tissues to adapt.
On the other hand, a training cycle that works to complete failure every session is bound to lead to too much damage and insufficient repair. Here’s an example of how to train close to failure throughout a six-week mesocycle:
- Start a six-week mesocycle by stopping sets 3 reps to failure (aka reps in reserve or RIR) for a week or two.
- Decrease RIR to 2 for weeks 3 and 4.
- Decrease RIR to 1 for week 5.
- Deload at half reps and weight for 2 sets of each exercise in week 6.
3. Increase Your Range of Motion
If you cheat on a full range of motion, you may not effectively work your targeted muscles. A better, full range of motion will hit more muscle fibers than partial reps, leading to more muscle growth.
In other words, leave ego lifting at the door. While you may be able to lift more when you don’t use a full range of motion—like during squats, bench presses, lat pulldowns, and shoulder presses—you’ll actually be cheating yourself out of growth and wasting precious energy on less stimulating reps.
Related Link: The Best Time-under-Tension Workout
4. Pay Attention to Neural Drive, Pump, and Muscle Fatigue
We all know that feeling of just going through the motions—moving the weight from point A to point B while thinking about the terrible short-handed goal the team gave up last night.
If you find yourself completing sets without thinking about them or merely trying to survive through them, this is likely junk volume. Instead, only add sets to your training if you can focus on them. Likewise, if your sets aren’t stimulating any feelings of a pump, such as swelling, tightness, or heaviness in the muscle, and you don’t feel any fatigue, your sets might not be stimulating enough.
- If you can recover from a little bit more, add a few sets here and there, and gauge your progress.
- Pay attention to pump and fatigue; you should feel like you’ve worked the muscle.
- Don’t add sets you can’t focus on; neural drive has to be present.
5. Use Mind-muscle Connection
The mind-muscle connection is a significant factor in working any muscles sufficiently. You should be able to tell which muscles you’re targeting, and they should feel disrupted, pumped, or uncomfortable during and after sets. Research shows that using mind-muscle connection can increase muscle activity and workout intensity. If you aren’t feeling the muscle during reps, they’ll likely be junk volume.
What Should Training Volume Be?
Research is mixed, and what works for one person may not work for another. Training volumes, recovery ability, and fitness level are all very individual. But general recommendations do exist:
- A good starting point for a beginner is to perform 1 to 3 sets per exercise and muscle group, with 8 12 repetitions per set, for 2 to 3 sessions per week, advises Hamlin.
- For most people, 10 sets of a single muscle group per session or 20 total sets for all muscle groups in a single session is maximal. More than that will likely tip into junk volume.
- Increase volume over time by adding sets when you can recover from previous training.
- As a general rule, use loads greater than 65 percent of one rep max. “Loads lower than this are not considered sufficient to promote muscle hypertrophy,” says Maratazzo.
- Split-body routines—multiple exercises performed for a specific muscle group in a session—may help maximize hypertrophy.
- Keep rest intervals to 60 to 90 seconds or more. “Short rest intervals [30 seconds or less] won’t allow sufficient time to regain muscular strength,” says Maratazzo.
- To limit fatigue, add a day of training to divide up training rather than piling on more sets per session if you need more volume.
- If you can’t add more sessions try alternating priority focus: Do upper body first in every single session for a couple of months; train lower body last with a few sets to maintain (not grow) the lower body. Then switch to training the lower body first for another two months while maintaining upper body size.
How Much Training Volume Is Too Much?
Keep in mind that everyone’s volume needs individualized fine-tuning and progression will vary. For this reason, Matarazzo recommends a trial-and-error-based approach. “Different people respond differently to particular training regimens. If a program isn’t producing desired results, one may need to change course and try altering different variables to achieve the desired results,” he suggests.
A good approach is to start with a conservative volume and gradually increase it, monitoring progress and recovery. Pay attention to how sore you are and whether you’re making gains in the gym. “Every day is a good day to test these things out,” advises Hamlin. “Above all, it’s important that we’re testing our own individual body’s capabilities.”
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