Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Chief Sport Scientist, Dr. James Hoffmann, Jared Feather, MS |
Jan 04, 2017
When discussing how much training we should be doing to grow the most muscle we can, it helps to become familiar with some important theoretical concepts. These concepts or “landmarks,” as we refer to them, can help you understand how we can come to conclusions about how much training should be done and be able to more readily make sense of the recommendations.
First, a technicality. We know from the literature that training volume is related to growth, and we also know that, to a point, more volume is better. We also know that different volumes tax the body’s recovery capacity and stimulate its growth systems differently. So when we say “10 weekly working sets per muscle group isn’t too fatiguing for - and will yield some good gains in - most people,” this statement could be wildly wrong without some base assumptions. For example:
- The sets are each at 10% of 1 rep max, so the reps are in the hundreds. We know that outside of special conditions, weights should be at least about 30% of 1RM to cause much growth, so in this case, not much growth would result.
- The sets are each at 95% 1RM. 10 sets of true near-maxes per week can and will crush most lifters, so obviously the statement of “isn’t too fatiguing for most people” would be wrong. The top end of the loading range for best hypertrophy outcomes - and the one assumed in the advice to follow - is roughly 85% 1RM.
- 10 sets of training with each set stopped 6 reps short of muscular failure is not even remotely taxing or muscle gain-inducing, while 10 sets of training with each set taken to and even beyond concentric failure is a serious disruption and might be beyond the weekly capacities of some to reliably recover.
Given that such wild inconsistencies are possible, how the hell can we keep blathering on about “volume” in terms of numbers of sets? Well, we’ll have to agree to make some assumptions. But the good news is that these assumptions are not arbitrary. The assumptions we will make actually reflect the structure of most training done for muscle size. From now on and in the following articles published in this guide, we are assuming each “working set” to be:
- Between 30%1RM and 85%1RM on average
- Between 5 reps per set and 30 reps per set on average
- Between 4 reps and 0 reps away from concentric muscular failure (4 RIR – 0 RIR)
Those assumptions are very much in line with how most folks train for size (or at the very least, should be training). The good news? Once we make those assumptions, comparing set vs. set within that range becomes very useful instead of a total crapshoot. Do heavier weights fatigue you more than light weights? You bet. But lighter weights allow for higher rep sets. So, while each rep doesn’t fatigue you as much, each set has more of them. The result of this balance is that both the hypertrophic stimulus and fatigue generated by each set between roughly 5 and 30 reps is about the same. Volume AND intensity cause growth and fatigue, and when one goes up per set, the other goes down to preserve a roughly even effect. So, from now on, when we say “training volume” in these discussions, we’re using “number of working sets” as a proxy for that volume as it best relates to adaptation (growth) and fatigue.
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Counting Sets for Volume
In the recommendations made in the “training tips” series, we usually recommend volumes (MV, MEV, MAV, MRV) by set numbers. Seems straightforward enough: 10 sets of quad work is like, 6 sets of squats and 4 sets of leg presses, or 5 sets of hack squats and 5 sets of smith machine close stance squats.
And, for that example, it’s just about that simple. But what about using the incline press to train chest? Certainly, 4 sets of incline barbell presses can count as 4 chest sets, but does it count as front delt work as well? And, if we’re counting front delts for incline presses, why not count triceps as well for overhead presses? They are heavily involved. While we’re at it, why not count all presses for triceps too, and count all rows and pullups towards bicep volume, and the like?
We could do that, but, the truth is, supporting muscles don’t work as hard as main movements, and hence don’t count to the same degree. After barbell bench presses, you’re likely to get sore in your chest, but, unless you’re very untrained, you almost never get sore in the triceps just from bench pressing. Sure, triceps contribute to the bench, but if we only counted presses of various kinds for our triceps work, we’d quickly be up to MRV levels of volume for our triceps. In reality though, the actual stimulus to the triceps might be something like halfway to the actual MRV of the triceps.
One way to solve this problem is to begin the practice of splitting up each exercise into fractional set counts. So, for instance, let’s say that chest and triceps both need about 20 sets per week to hit their MRVs. If we did 20 sets of bench press for chest, we’d hit our MRV for the week. But, if we estimate that bench presses only stimulate the triceps about half as much as a more direct triceps movement, we might say that after that 20 sets of bench, we have completed 10 tricep “sets worth” of volume, and 10 sets remaining to hit our triceps MRV. Note that the exercises we choose for completing those remaining sets must not involve the chest at all, because it would cause us to exceed our chest MRV.
If we follow this road of hyper-precision, we could eventually develop a system of partial set-equivalent assignment for every exercise in our toolbox. For example, we could surmise that overhand pullups are one set’s worth of work for the lats, a half set for the rear delts and one third of a set for the forearm flexors (including the biceps). Given sufficiently accurate and precise estimates of how much each exercise affects each muscle, this method would work quite well.
The problem with this method is that it’s too calculation-intensive and laborious for most of us. It also assumes we know the fractional contribution of each muscle to each exercise quite precisely, where in reality we’d be very roughly guessing much of the time. Instead, in the “training tips” series, we’re going to go with a simpler yet nearly as effective approximation. When listing how many working sets the MV, MEV, MAV, and MRV for a muscle group are, we’ll be referring only to exercises on which those muscles are either prime movers or are isolation moves to specifically target those muscles. Moreover, because we know that those muscles will be targeted with indirect work via movements meant to target other muscles (kind of like dips target the triceps but hit the chest somewhat as well), we will reduce our estimates for those MV, MEV, MAV and MRV values to make recovery space in the program for the effects of that indirect work.
A simple example is when we say “18 sets of triceps work is the MRV for triceps”, we mean that, between all of the other presses and pulls (long head of the triceps is trained in pulling movements), we figure the triceps get another 4 or so “full sets worth” of work to bring the muscle to its full physiological MRV of roughly 22 sets or so. As such, reading through this guide, all you have to know is that the set numbers listed for the muscles are direct and prime mover work only, and the ancillary volume has been factored in so you don’t have to play around with fractions between sets of pullups.
Could we have tracked volume differently via an alternate method that offers its own merits? Of course. For our purposes, however, please assume that we only recommend volume in prime mover and isolation sets, and have made room for extra volume, such that total volume is still within range. You may one day encounter - or develop - a program that has a lot more indirect work for a given muscle than normal or much less than normal (a very high frequency chest pressing program with regard to triceps, or a leg training program with no hip hinging and thus no indirect back work, for example). In this case, you can adjust the volume landmarks for those target muscles, and use your best judgement of how much stimulus and fatigue you’re actually experiencing using that program. What we would not recommend is attempting to predict in advance how to discount the recommended volume landmarks offered here.
With our agreed-upon volume calculations in hand, let’s now look at 4 different volume landmarks and establish exactly what each means, as we heavily rely on them in these guides!
MV = Maintenance Volume
This is the amount of training (aka number of sets) that allows you to maintain your current level of muscular size. If you’ve never trained, obviously that amount is zero sets! But when you begin training hard and make gains above your body’s default levels of muscle, you’ll need to train at least at your MV to retain those gains. Bad news: there is no way to retain previously gained muscle without training. Good news: MV is actually very low, and you can typically keep almost all of your muscle with as little as 6 working sets per muscle group per week. Another piece of good news is that your training loads go up as you build muscle, so the relative effort you must put in to maintain muscle stays stable over the long term. Though we might expect the MVs of advanced lifters to be much higher than 6 working sets per week, they usually aren’t, and set for set, beginner and advanced alike need about the same volumes to keep muscle on.
Volume landmarks can change somewhat depending on your training frequency, so it’s important to note that MVs in these articles are for individuals training at least 2x per week per muscle group. It’s possible that similar MVs can be attained training 1x per week, but, for smaller muscles that recover quickly (like rear delts), some deviation may arise. As such, the MVs in our guides assume a training frequency of 2x per week for each muscle group.
We’ll also have maintenance volume guesstimates listed for each muscle group in the muscle group training guide... but why? Don’t we want gains instead of just maintenance? For sure, but periods of low volume training are important on occasion, to give your growth processes a break, allowing them to recharge back to their maximum effectiveness. Likewise, if you find yourself unable to hit the gym as often as you need to make gains, knowing your MVs allows you to put in just enough time to at least hold onto your existing gains until you can ramp up your training to build on them. Lastly, if your whole body’s ability to recover (systemic MRV) is capping your training volume, lowering some muscles to MV training can free up enough recovery ability to train the muscles you want to prioritize for max growth.
MEV = Minimum Effective Volume
This is the amount of training that actually grows your muscles: anything below this amount may only maintain them. If, like most of us, you’re training to make gains, you had better make sure to be above your MEV: your minimum effective volume. Notice that, unless you literally want to make the slowest gains possible, your average weekly training volume should be above your MEV, which is the minimum volume required to make any gains. That said, your MEV is a great place to start the first week of your mesocycles and build up from there. For those who just recently started training, growth comes faster, making their MVs and MEVs nearly identical. However, the minimum volume needed to grow climbs higher and higher the more training experience you have. As such, your MEV starts to really leave your MV behind as you grow from an intermediate to an advanced level.
In each muscle training guide, we’ll demonstrate how MEV changes depending on the frequency of training you choose for each muscle.
MAV = Maximum Adaptive Volume
Finally: the range of volumes in which you make your best gains. It’s much more of a range than the other volume landmarks because it changes greatly within each training mesocycle (week to week). Every time you train a specific muscle group with a specific set of exercises, weights, and volumes, muscle growth results. Overload the system, and you get results. But systems adapt, and what was very overloading last session is no longer as overloading in the following one. In order to keep optimally overloading, you must use some combination of heavier weights and higher volumes with each successive microcycle in the accumulation phase of training. Recapping: each time you train hard, the volume needed to get the same great gains in the next session goes up, and thus, your MAV continually goes up through the mesocycle. Eventually, the amount of volume to keep you progressing at the best rates actually hits and then exceeds the amount of volume you can recover from. This makes further gains impossible within that microcycle, and demands a deload to drop the accumulated fatigue and restart the progression in the next mesocycle. Because the MAV changes markedly after each training session, it can’t be a fixed goal, but rather a range you aim to move your volume through. For most intents and purposes, that range sits between the MEV and MRV. This means that you’ll start the volume of most of your mesocycles either at or just above your MEV, and work up to around your MRV over the course of the mesocycle. The average volume in that range is thus your MAV.
All of this begs the question: if neither dipping to your MEV nor climbing to your MRV is optimal, why not get your best gains during each microcycle of the meso by training with volumes within the narrow range smack in between your MEV and MRV?
The first problem is that this approach doesn’t allow for enough progression. Let’s say 16 sets per week is your MAV for a certain muscle group. You hit 16 sets in the first week and get great gains! Ok, now what? If you do 16 again next week, that’s no longer your MAV, so you have to go up. If your new MAV is 18 sets, you’re only going to be able to hit maybe a week or two more before you run straight into your MRV and can’t go any further. You’ll need to deload to drop fatigue, and thus your accumulation:deload ratio is going to be quite low. Starting below 16 sets would have afforded you a longer period of quality training. In fact, because you might be doing rep ranges or exercises you’re not used to, your growth response per set may be even higher than estimated, making your actual MAV less than 16 sets at the beginning of a mesocycle. At the other end of the spectrum, if you start at 12 sets but deload once you reach 16, not only do you have a shortened mesocycle, but you also miss out on the benefits of functional overreaching from approaching or just passing your MRV during the last accumulation week before your deload. However you slice it, to give your muscles the quality time and repeated overload stimulus needed for optimal growth, starting at the low end and ending at the high end of your MAV range is best. And that means first finding your MEV and MRV, and running most of your mesocycles between the two. So, if your MEV is about 12 sets and your MRV is about 20 sets per week, you might run a mesocycle that looks something like this:
- Week 1: 12 sets
- Week 2: 14 sets
- Week 3: 16 sets
- Week 4: 18 sets
- Week 5: 20 sets
- Week 6: 6 sets (deload)
You’ll notice in the individual muscle group guides that the MAV is just the range from MEV to MRV, so beginning closer to MEV and ending closer to MRV is the best way to reliably hit your MAV.
The frequency modulation of MAV is a bit more complex, but research has shown a few things. First, it seems that in the short term, higher frequency is usually better for muscle growth. In addition, moderate frequency studies have shown that much over 8 sets per session seems to reduce per-session MAV, such that doing 12 sets per muscle group per session might actually grow no more muscle than 8 sets, and 15 sets per session might grow less. This is likely because those last 3 sets might cause more damage than they do growth and actually take resources away from growth and route them towards recovery. There isn’t enough research yet on the bottom end of per-session MAVs, but it’s probably around 2-3 sets for the highest frequencies (6x per muscle group per week). Thus, training that starts around 2-3 sets per session and doesn’t significantly exceed 10 sets per session has a good chance of being around MAV, so long as the total volume of sets per week adds up to between weekly MEV and MRV. Thus, you can hit MRV training with 6 sets per session, and you might only need 3 such weekly sessions to do so. Or, you might also hit it with just 3 sets per session, though you might have to train up to 6x a week to do that.
MRV = Maximum Recoverable Volume
Your body can only recover from so much. Once all of your body’s recovery systems are in full use, any more disruption to the system (training being a big one) will cause incomplete recovery during that time. Yes, training hard is great, but if you train harder than your body can recover from, you can forget about gains, because those will be thrwarted by inadequate recovery. Many training studies on beginners show limited or no growth early in the training process. The main reason for this is that the new act of training constitutes such a big shock to the beginner’s systems, that their bodies initially prioritize recovery at the expense of any real growth. Only after training for a few weeks do their bodies obtain the ability to tolerate their training volume, and heal enough to have resources left for growth.
So, while your MEV tells you about the minimum volume you need to grow, your MRV tells you about the maximum. Going all the way up to and maybe even just over your MRV right before deloading can actually make you grow even more via the process of “supercompensation via functional overreaching,” but chronically training at or above your MRV will not result in any significant gains. Because of the benefits of overloading and functional overreaching, MRV volumes are ok to hit once at the end of an accumulation phase, but steer clear of (below) at all other times. The takeaway: climb to your MRV instead of jump straight to it.
Now that you’re keen on the terms, you might be curious to see the values! What IS the MAV for biceps? What is the MEV for chest? Those numbers will be revealed in their respective muscle group articles, but let’s remember their limitations:
- They are ROUGH averages. If we say the average MRV for a muscle group is 15 sets but yours is 10 or even 20 sets, that’s not entirely unlikely! If yours is 5 or 30 sets, that would be much more surprising. Feel free to use the numbers given as starting guides, not as definitive waypoints.
- They are based on our reading of available Sport Science literature as well as personal and coaching experience with lots of clients and athletes. Some of these averages will be dead-on for you, and others considerably off. Track your training and your results to find your own values.
- Your values will change as a function of several factors: how well recovered you are day to day and week to week, your growing experience, and as you gain weight or lose weight. Don’t just assume that your MRV this month is going to be the same as next month or next year… always finetune and measure your performance against your recovery.
- Even different exercises and the orders in which they’re performed yield different landmark values. You might be able to maintain all of your quad gains with just 5 sets of heavy squats a week, but it might take you 8 sets of leg presses and 10 sets of leg extensions to get the same effect. Generally speaking, the heavier and more full ROM the exercise is, the lower your MEVs and MRVs for it are going to be. A rule of thumb is that the same exercises that are most fatiguing tend to be more effective. Yeah, squats beat you up more than leg presses, but they also grow you more. As such, if 25 sets of leg presses is your MRV, programming 25 sets of squats isn’t a prudent decision. Make realistic adjustments based on how various exercises affect you. Yes, different exercises and even techniques will have different stimulus to fatigue ratios (SFRs), and the most effective exercises have the lowest MEVs and highest MRVs. Which ones is for you to figure out through experimentation and learning from the outcomes of your training.
Finding your Own Training Volume Landmarks
After reading all of the muscle-specific articles in this training tips series, you’re in a great place to start with your own training. But, because the landmarks here are just rough average guides, you’re going to want to hone in on more precise personal landmarks that apply to you. Let’s find out how to go about this.
Finding your MV
Repetition strength is the most reliable performance correlate of muscle size. Once you’re used to training and used to training a certain rep range, the only way to produce very meaningful increases in rep efforts is to increase muscle size. For those who’ve trained for some time, to go from benching 225 to 250 for 10 max reps, you need to gain size. Conversely, if you’ve been practicing bench for reps for weeks but find yourself benching 205 for max 10, if dieting, you may have lost muscle doing so, possibly causing your dip in performance.
How can you find your own MV? In the normal process of periodizing your training, every several months - perhaps 2-3 out of the year - should be spent in maintenance training and eating to let your body get resensitized to growth. Chronic high volume training will desensitize your muscles to growth after several months of such training. When you first start doing these maintenance mesocycles, try to follow the MV recommendations in this article series. If at the end of each maintenance meso your rep strength has been conserved, then it’s enough volume for you to maintain at. Next time you do a maintenance phase, try a lower volume and see if you can still maintain at it: your MV may be lower than our estimates. If your rep strength has declined after a maintenance phase, then it’s not enough, and you’ll want to go with a higher volume again the next time around. Over the course of several macrocycles (aka maintenance and hard training mesos strung together), you should have a more precise estimate of your MV. Note: your MVs are often much lower than you might think, so be very conservative on the volumes you start out with when guessing at them.
Finding your MEV
There are two ways to find MEV: the longer, more precise way, or the quick and dirty way.
The long way is to start training a muscle at its recommended MEV and keep it there for a whole mesocycle while increasing weights each week as usual but not increasing sets. At the end of that mesocycle or at the beginning of the next one, you check your performance on core exercises for that muscle group and see if it improved. If so, the volume you did last meso was at or above your MEV for that muscle group. If it did not change or decreased, it’s below your MEV. If performance improved, next time you train that muscle at MEV, try lowering your MEV estimate by 2 sets per week, and track your performance. Do this until you reach a volume that doesn’t improve your performance after a meso at MEV: your MEV is probably about 2 sets higher than that. If you’re concerned that training at MEV all the time is a waste of time in terms of optimizing muscle growth, you’re right to be! Thus, you should only do this sort of long-form MEV estimation when MEV-only training makes sense in your periodized plan, such as when you drop some muscles to MEV during a fat loss diet or a priority phase for other muscles. In other words: don’t spend months training at MEV at the cost of your gains just to find values that will change later anyway!
The short way to find, or rather, proxy, MEV is to use some feedback from how your workouts are feeling.
To proxy your MEV per session, do a number of sets you think is close to your MEV, and evaluate the effects by assessing the following 3 metrics:
- Did the session give you a pump?
- If you got no pump at all ⇒ 0 points
- If you got an ok pump ⇒ 1 point
- If you got a great pump ⇒ 2 points
- Did the session make your target muscles feel like they were challenged?
- If your target muscles felt like they barely worked ⇒ 0 points
- If your target muscles felt plenty of tension and got plenty fatigued ⇒ 1 point
- If your target muscles felt stressed and exhausted to nearly their limits ⇒ 2 points
- Did the session make you sore?
- If you didn’t get sore at all ⇒ 0 points
- If you got stiff for a few hours after or a bit sore the next day ⇒ 1 point
- If you got sore for a few days or more ⇒ 2 points
Having been as honest as possible when assessing your score for each dimension, now tally them up for your total score. If you score a total of 0 or 1, then you’re almost certainly under your MEV. If you score between 2 and 4, that’s probably a good guess of your session MEV. If you score a 5 or 6, that’s very likely higher than your MEV.
These are per-session MEV values, and they work well for 2-6x per week muscle group training. For 2x muscle group training per week, a value of 4 from the questionnaire is likely to be closest to your weekly MEV. For 3-4 sessions per week, a 3 is likely closest to your weekly MEV, and for 5-6x weekly sessions per muscle group, 2s in all of the sessions are likely closest to your weekly MEVs, with some sessions even dipping into 1 ratings.
Finding your MAV
Because MAV begins at MEV, we’ll need to start our first week of training around our estimated MEVs and go from there. Because MAV changes every week, here is how you can adjust your volumes to stay on the heels of your MAV:
Once you get through your first week, you can look back on it and decide how to progress in sets using the super-secret RP “Set Progression Algorithm.”
For each session last week, how sore did you get?
- You didn’t get sore at all (1 point) ⇒ 1 point
- You got stiff for a few hours after or a bit sore the next day but healed well in advance of your next session for that muscle group ⇒ 2 points
- You got DOMS but healed completely just in time for your next session for that muscle group ⇒ 3 points
- You got DOMS, which persisted into your next training session for that muscle group ⇒ 4points
How was your performance?
- You hit your target reps 2 RIR or more above what was planned for that week OR you had to do 2 or more extra reps to match planned RIR ⇒ 1 point
- You hit your target reps at the RIR planned or 1 above it OR you had to do no extra reps or 1 or more extra rep to match planned RIR ⇒ 2 points
- You hit your target reps at a lower RIR than expected ⇒3 points
- You couldn’t match your last week’s reps no matter the RIR ⇒ 4 points
Mind you, the performance scale applies to the average of all sets in an exercise, so if you had a few amazing sets and a few very tough sets, for example, you just average that to “2 or 3” on the above algorithm.
Here’s how to make sense of the set progression calculator. If you scored a 1 on BOTH soreness and performance, you can probably add 2-3 sets to that exercise in the next week’s session. If you got 2 on both, or a 1 on one and a 2 on the other, you can add 1 set to that exercise next week. If you scored ANY 3s on performance and a 3 or 4 on soreness, you should not add any sets to your next week’s exercise for that session. If you scored a 4 on performance, you should consider taking a recovery session, half-week, or deload.
If this all sounds way too complicated, you can just think of it like this:
- If you are recovering ahead of schedule, add sets
- If you are recovering from soreness just on time or even a bit late but till meeting performance targets, don’t add sets
- If you’re under-recovering and failing to meet performance targets, you need to take a recovery session or even to deload, as you can’t keep progressing at the rate you’re going
By using this algorithm, you can make sure that you’re increasing your sets to support your optimal growth at every week of the accumulation phase.
Finding your MRV
Since MRV is the maximum recoverable volume, we find it by seeing when we’re unable to recover. In the Set Progression Algorithm above, we’re likely detecting MRV when we hit a #4 on the performance scale. Basically, you’re performing worse than you did in the last week’s equivalent session, and thus we can suspect that you’re not recovered because you’re over your MRV.
That very much could be, but how do we know if we’ve found our actual average MRV under normal conditions, or just gotten a measurement error? Believe it or not, the two most powerful scientific instruments ever devised are repetition and recording. Work your way up in volume through each week of training and record your responses. When you notice an inability to recover (aka, get a #4 from the Set Progression Algorithm), our best recommendation is to just assume that’s your MRV, and either take a recovery session, half-week, or full deload. That said, if you’ve had a week marked by significantly decreased sleep or increased stress, these abnormalities may have lead to an erroneous detection of your MRV, which you may not have reached with those training volumes under normal circumstances. In that case, you can simply repeat the volume you did last week during the next one (going up by a small amount in weight, of course) and see if your performance is back to the levels it was two weeks ago. If it is, you’re good to keep going and not actually yet at your MRV. If you’re again down in performance or down even more than you were last week, you’re very likely at your actual MRV, and you need to program recovery training for at least that muscle group ASAP.
Directions vs. Dogmas
Does the MV really not change much over one’s training career? Probably. Should most mesocycles start at MEV or should some start above it? Not sure. Do beginners benefit by going all the way up to their MRVs every meso or might they be better served saving that practice for when they approach advanced level? The jury is still out. So, while the basic concepts here are pretty set in stone, many of the nuances have yet to be ironed out. What this means for you is that all of these concepts and the training structures they create are great starting points for your training, but never dogmas to follow to the letter. Staying open minded yet skeptical and basing your training on the available evidence will yield best results. And, if and when stronger evidence starts to accumulate in convincing amounts, altering your approach accordingly will serve you well!