Cut the Volume, Still Make Gains! Performance Gains in Sprinters Don't Suffer From Reduced Training Volume. Plus: Best Volume & Frequency for Size & Strength Gains?

A personal trainer who knows what he's doing is that he will push you exactly so far as it is necessary to make maximal progress. Interestingly, even the best trainers will fail doing the same for themselves.
The more is better mentality that's so characteristic of our lives in the Western world of affluence is imho the most important obstacle trainees all around the world meet on their way to increased muscle strength, size and performance. Against that background it's a pity that the results of a recent study from the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the Queen’s University relate to sprint training, only. So, after having a look at Jason G. E. Zelt, I will briefly take a look at similar evidence from the more popular field of "working out to look good naked" and to be as strong as Superman.

But let's not waste any more time and sprint straight to the point! Zelt et al. published the results of the initially mentioned study in the peer-reviewed European Journal of Applied Physiology (Zelt. 2014).
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As Zelt et al. point out, the purpose of this study was twofold: (1) to confirm that reductions in SIT work-interval duration do not result in reduced adaptations in aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and (2) to examine the effects of reduced work interval duration on submaximal determinants of exercise performance, namely lactate threshold and critical power.

In accordance with previous studies where aerobic capacity and aerobic performance were measured (Burgomaster. 2008; Hazell. 2010), the scientists hypothesized that reducing SIT work interval duration would have no effect on training-induced increases in lactate threshold and critical power.
Figure 1: Effects of high (SIT30) and lower volume (SIT15) training on power output and lactate threshold (Zelt. 2014)
And indeed, it hadn't. While there was a significant main effectof training on VO2peak such that VO2peak was elevated post-training, no significant difference was observed in the improvements observed between groups (ET ~13 %, SIT 30–4 %, SIT 15–8 %; not shown in Figure 1).
"A significant main effect of training was observed such that lactate threshold and critical power were higher during post-testing across all groups (p  <  0.05). There was a main effect of training (p  <  0.05) on Wingate peak power with no differences observed between groups at post training."
As the researchers point out, these results clearly indicate that "reducing SIT work-interval duration from 30 to 15 s had no impact on training-induced increases in aerobic or anaerobic power, or on increases in lactate threshold (absolute) and critical power."
Practically speaking, the results of this study imply it does not matter if you decrease the total volume on your sprint by 50%; and it's not unlikely that this goes for other sports that require explosive strength, as well.
The initially hinted at question that remains is yet: "Is this true for the more popular training goal of getting strong, ripped and buffed, as well?" The answer to this question is certainly not easy to answer, as it may easily depend on your training status, your exact goals and maybe even the body parts you're training. You don't get it? Well, I guess it's best I'll provide you with a few examples:
  • Look at his legs, Ronnie Coleman must have done something right... and guess what, the study at hand suggests that part of it could have been his insane training volume.
    the legs of advanced trainees may need a little more hammering -- Maybe you remember this being the take-home message from a previous article, i.e. "Advanced Trainees Benefit from Increased Training Volume! Greater & Steadier Strength Gains with 8 Sets of Squats. Plus: Over 6 Weeks, 1 Set and 4 Sets Equally (In-)Effective." | read more
  • the classic single vs. three set debate is still not settled -- While Starky et al.'s 1996 study is one of the studies that appears to tip the scale in favor of studies suggests that there is no significant different in the strength and muscle gains in response to increasing the number of sets on a given exercise from one to three sets. Unfortunately, Starky et al. as well as most of their successors picked untrained noobs to test their hypothesis. And we all know: Noobs grow from simply looking at a barbell, right?

    So what do other studies say? Studies that used subjects like you and me? People who have been training regularly for ten or more years? People like the fifty-one experienced (>3 years), trained junior lifters who were randomly assigned to low, medium and high volume resistance training in a 2005 study by Juan J. Gonzalez-Badillo et al.
    Figure 2: Number of repetitions per week and average intensity (AI) during the 10-week training period in the low-volume (LVG), moderate-volume (MVG), and high-volume (HVG) training groups (left); EEffect size for the snatch, clean & jerk, and squat performances. LVG low volume group; MVG medium volume group; HVG high volume group (Gonzalez-Badillo. 2005)
    As you can see in Figure 2 (right), there is a highly significant advantage of the medium vs. both the low and high volume group who trained at significantly lower, respectively higher volumes (see Figure 2, left) than the guys in the medium volume group for squats and clean & jerks. The snatch, on the other hand, probably because it is the most demanding exercise, technically speaking, benefited from a "little" more volume (~ 100 reps per week).
  • the lower the volume, the higher the frequency -- Furthermore, the overview in Table 1, which was originally published as part of a review of the determinants of strength training success by Tan (1999) shows that another volume-related parameter, i.e. the training frequency, figures, as well; with high(er) frequencies producing greater increases in strength gains.
    Table 1: Summary of studies looking into optimal training frequency (Tan. 1999)
    Up to five training sessions for the upper and up to four for the lower body are possible, but whether they're in fact as productive as the studies Tan cites would suggest appears questionable and will certainly depend on the volume of the individual sessions.

    The fact that it seems as if the upper body would respond more favorably to increases in training frequency than the lower body would albeit stand in line with the previously cited beneficial effects of high(er) volume training on the legs.

    Figure 3: Generally speaking a 2007 review of the literature by Mathias Wernbom et al. supports the notion that legs (in this case the quadriceps) don't just gain the most strength, but also the most size with ~3 training sessions per week; with the one outlier (12x/week) being a low intensity Kaatsu study by Abe et al. (2005)
    Why? Well, the study by Robins et al. conducted in 2012 (learn more) used a high volume on training days, but a necessarily low training frequency (two session per week, A + B). As Tan points out, ...
    "[...a]nother point to note from Table 1 is that previously trained athletes are closer to their strength potential and may require higher frequencies compared with untrained athletes" (Tan. 1999)."
    A statement that takes us back to the simple, but significant assessment that we cannot expect to find a training volume that's perfect for everyone: Individualization is key!
As far as the design of specific routines is concerned the previously cited review by Wernborn et al. offers a neat overview of suggested training principles, most of you will be familiar with.
Table 2: Recommendations for dynamic external resistance training for hypertrophy (Wernborn. 2007)
If you take a look at the middle column, you will hopefully realize that the suggested progression from 1-2 sets to 3-6 sets is specified on a "per muscle group" basis. The three biceps exercise with three sets of 8-12 reps, each, are thus off the charts, already; and you'd be better off doing three sets of barbell curls and nosebreakers to end up at your maximum of six sets per body part (in this case the "arms") to return to the gym two days later and hammer your arms with three sets of hammer curls and cable press-downs.
The false believe that more helps more is also at the heart of the not exclusively female athletes' triad.
Bottom line: I guess we all tend to do way more than we'd need to, to achieve optimal results. Against that background it's good to be reminded from time to time that "less can be more", as long as we do it frequently and consistently.

As my elaborations have shown, the latter is true for both the athletic / performance oriented, as well as the physique related outcome of any form of training. In the "best case" you're just wasting your time, as the sprint trainers in the study by Zelt et al. In the worst case, on the other hand, you end up in the deep dark black hole I wrote about in the athlete triad series a couple of months ago - a hole from which you can only escape by accepting the negative consequences of detraining and resting for a couple of weeks before you can resume your training slowly.
  • Abe, Takashi, Charles F. Kearns, and Yoshiaki Sato. "Muscle size and strength are increased following walk training with restricted venous blood flow from the leg muscle, Kaatsu-walk training." Journal of Applied Physiology 100.5 (2006): 1460-1466.
  • Robbins, Daniel W., Paul WM Marshall, and Megan McEwen. "The effect of training volume on lower-body strength." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 26.1 (2012): 34-39.
  • Tan, Benedict. "Manipulating resistance training program variables to optimize maximum strength in men: a review." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 13.3 (1999): 289-304.
  • Wernbom, Mathias, Jesper Augustsson, and Roland Thomeé. "The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans." Sports Medicine 37.3 (2007): 225-264.
  • Zelt, Jason GE, et al. "Reducing the volume of sprint interval training does not diminish maximal and submaximal performance gains in healthy men." European journal of applied physiology (2014): 1-10.
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