Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist |
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 I 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 the body’s growth systems differently. So when we say “10 weekly working sets per muscle group isn’t too fatiguing for most people and will cause some good gains in most people,” there are a number of ways in which such a statement, without some base assumptions, could be wildly wrong. For example:
1.) 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 60% of 1RM to cause much growth, so in this case, no growth would result.
2.) 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.
3.) 10 sets of 20reps at a 22RM is like 2 times the volume of 10 sets of 9 reps at a 10RM, so even using set numbers and calling that “volume” is kind of absurd at face value.
4.) 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 some people’s weekly capacities to reliably recover.
So how the hell can we keep blathering on about “volume” in terms of numbers of sets if such wild inconsistencies are possible?! 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 rest of the articles published in this guide, we are assuming each “working set” to be:
a.) Between 60%1RM and 80%1RM on average
b.) Between 8 reps per set and 20 reps per set on average
c.) Between 4 reps and 1 rep away from concentric muscular failure
Those assumptions are very much in line with how most folks train for size (or at the very least, should be training). And the good news is that once we make those assumptions, comparing set vs. set within that range becomes very useful and not 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 8 and 20 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, I 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? I mean, they are heavily involved! And why not count all presses for triceps too while we’re at it, count all rows and pullups towards bicep volume, etc.
We could do that, but the truth is, supporting muscles don’t work as hard as main movements, and there’s something to be said for not counting them 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, but in reality the actual stimulus to the muscle 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 example, let’s say that chest and triceps both need about 20 sets per week to hit their MRVs. So if we did 20 sets of bench press for chest, we’d hit our MRV for the week. But we might estimate that bench presses only stimulate the triceps about half as much as a more direct triceps movement, and so we might say that after that 20 sets of bench, we have 10 tricep “sets worth” of volume out of the way, and now we have to make up the remaining 10 sets to hit triceps MRV somewhere else. And those “somewhere else” exercises must not involve the chest at all, because it would cause us to exceed our chest MRV.
If we follow this road of super precision, we could eventually develop a system of partial set-equivalent assignment to 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 1/3 of a set for the forearm flexors (including the biceps). As you can see, if our estimates of how much each exercise affects each muscle were accurate and precise enough, this method would work quite well.
But the problem with this method is that it’s too calculation-intensive and laborious for most of us, myself included. 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 MED, MAV, and MRV for a muscle group are, I’ll be referring only to exercises on which those muscles are either prime movers or are actually isolation moves to specifically target those muscles. And because we know that those muscles will be targeted with indirect work from other moves 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 MED, MAV and MRV values to make recovery space in the program for the effects of that indirect work.
An easy example is when we say “18 sets of triceps work is the MRV for triceps” or something to that effect, 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 something like that. So from now on when you read the 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 fraction between sets of pullups.
Could I have tracked volume differently? You bet. Are there other methods that are also good and have their own merits? Absolutely. But when reading this series, please assume that we only recommend volume in prime mover and isolation sets, and have made room for extra volume so that total volume is still within range.
Now that we are good on that, let’s look at 4 different volume landmarks and see what they mean. In the guides on muscle growth for each bodypart, we’ll refer to these landmarks very often, so it pays to clear up what they exactly mean.
MV = Maintenance Volume
This is the amount of training (number of sets, as we’ll be using) 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 keep what you have. Bad news: there’s no way to NOT TRAIN and keep your gains. Good news: MV is actually very low, and especially as long as you go heavier in training (75%1RM+), you can keep almost all of your muscle with as little as 6 working sets per bodypart per week in most cases. Another piece of good news is that while your 75%1RM values go up as you build more muscle (and thus you will need to go heavier and heavier to keep your gains at maintenance volume), the ease with which your body keeps gains also goes up with time. So that while you would expect the MVs of advanced lifters to be much higher than 6 working sets per week, they usually aren’t, and set for set, beginners through advanced alike only need very small volumes of training to keep their gains.
We’ll have maintenance volume guesstimates listed for each bodypart 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 and let them refresh to maximum effectiveness yet again. And if your life is catching up to you and for some time you can’t hit the gym as much as you need to make gains, knowing your MVs can let you spend just as much time in the gym as is needed to keep your gains for when you can train much more again without either doing extra and making your life tougher or constantly worrying that you’re not doing enough.
MEV = Minimum Effective Volume
This is the amount of training that actually grows your muscles. Anything below this amount maintains them at best, so if you’re training to make gains, you had better make sure to be above your MEV. Now, your MEV is the minimum effective volume, so it’s not going to be your average weekly training volume unless you literally want to make the slowest gains possible. But it’s a great place to start the first week of your mesocycles and build up from there. When individuals just started training recently, they pretty much grow from anything, so their MVs and MEVs will be nearly identical. However, the minimum volume needed to grow climbs higher and higher the more training experience you have, so your MEV starts to really leave your MV behind as you grow from an intermediate level to an advanced level of development.
MAV = Maximum Adaptive Volume
This is the range of volumes in which you make your best gains. It’s a 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 bodypart with a specific set of exercises, weights, and volumes, you get muscle growth as a result. Overload the system, and you get results. But systems adapt, and what was overloading last session is no longer overloading this session. In order to keep overloading, you must use heavier weights and… higher volumes with each successive microcycle in an accumulation phase of training. So 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 even recover from, making further gains impossible within that microcycle and demanding a deload and perhaps some exercise selection changes in the next mesocycle to keep the gains coming. Because the MAV changes markedly through each training session, it can’t be a goal you want to hit but should rather be the range you aim to move your volume through. And 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 at just at or above your MEV and over the course of the mesocycle work up to or just above your MRV. The average volume in that range is thus your MAV. We could try to get clever and conclude that neither dipping so low so that we get to our MEV nor climbing so high so that we get to our MRV is optimal, so why not just stay in a very tight range right between the two and always get the best gains every microcycle of the meso!?
The first problem with that is that this approach doesn’t allow for enough progression. Let’s say 16 sets per week is your MAV for a certain bodypart. 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… you could have gotten more quality training in had you started below 16 sets. And in fact, because you might be doing rep ranges or exercises you’re not used to, your growth response may be higher than you thought per set, so your actual MAV might be less than 16 sets at the beginning of a mesocycle. On the other hand, if you start at 12 sets and reach 16 sets and just stop and deload, 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 in the last accumulation week before your deload. However you slice it, it seems that to give your body the quality time and repeated overload stimulus needed to grow best, starting at the low end and ending at the high end of your MAV range is best. How do you do that? Well, you just find your MEV, find your MRV, and run most of your mesocycles between the two! So if your MEV is 12 sets and your MRV is 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 range does not extend all the way down to the MEV or up to the MRV in most cases. This is because the MAV range is the average of where your training should be, and that starting your mesocycles under it (close to your MEV) and ending them over it (close to your MRV) is not just ok… it’s usually recommended! Think of the recommended MAV numbers in the guides as set numbers you should aim to pass through in the middle of the accumulation phases of your mesoscycles.
These concepts by Dr. Israetel have been refined for years on RP coaches and clients!
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 growing because your body won’t grow any muscle if it can’t recover on a regular basis. In fact, you can’t even expect growth if you train right AT the volume at which your body can barely recover (your MRV), because the body uses all spare resources to just recover and doesn’t have anything left to power growth. Many training studies on beginners show limited or no growth early in the training process, and a big reason for this finding is that untrained individuals are so unused to training, and training is such a big shock to them, that their bodies can barely even recover at first and no real growth occurs. Only when these individuals have been training for a few weeks do their bodies begin to be able to tolerate the volume, heal enough, and still have room left to grow.
So while your MEV tells you about the minimum you need to train to grow, your MRV tells you about the maximum. Going 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 result in no gains of any significant kind. Because of the benefits of overloading and functional overreaching, MRV volumes are not “to be avoided at all costs,” but are rather “goals to hit once at the end of an accumulation phase and stay well under at all other times. You climb to your MRV, you don’t 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 the muscle group articles themselves, but just remember their limitations:
1.) They are ROUGH averages. If I say the average MAV for a bodypart 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 definite waypoints.
2.) They are based on my experience with lots of clients and athletes as well as myself and my reading of the literature. Some of them are going to be dead-on for you, and some will be considerably off. Track your training and your results so that you find your OWN values.
3.) Your values will change. They will change with how well recovered you are day to day and week to week. They will change with your growing experience. They will change 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 fine-tune and measure your performance against your recovery.
4.) Even different exercises and orders of exercises have 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 10 sets of leg presses and 15 sets of leg extensions to get the same effect. Generally speaking, the heavier and more full ROM the exercise is, the lower your volume needs and tolerances for it are going to be. The good news is that this usually cancels out as such exercises tend to be more effective, so there’s no need to chase the exercises that are easiest to recover from while thinking you’ll grow from them more. Yeah, squats beat you up more but they also grow you more… so just don’t program 25 sets of squats when you know that 25 sets of leg presses is your MAV thinking all will be well. Make needed realistic adjustments based on how exercises affect you.
Finding your Own Training Volume Landmarks
After reading all of the muscle-specific volume landmark articles in this series, you have a great place to start with your own training. But because the landmarks here are just rough average guides, you’re gonna want to hone in on more precise personal landmarks that apply to YOU. Let’s find out how to go about doing 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. So if you can usually bench 225 for 10 max reps, the only real way to get to 250 for 10 if you’ve already been training some time is to gain size. And if you’re benching 205 for max 10 after a diet even though you’ve been practicing bench for reps for weeks, it’s not unlikely that you lost some muscle.
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 again, as 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, you should try a lower volume and see if you can still maintain at it… perhaps your MV is lower than my estimates. If your rep strength has declined after a maintenance phase, then it’s not enough and you should try more volume next time. Over the course of several macrocycles (maintenance and hard training mesos strung together), you should have a more precise estimate of your MV!
Finding your MEV
Finding the MEV is tough. A good way to start is to begin at the MEV recommended here and then drop the set number by 2 or so for two straight mesoscyles. Yep, we’re going to violate the overload principle just a bit a actually NOT increase set numbers week to week for those two mesos… just stick to the MEV estimate the whole time. Do you make gains in rep strength at the end of those two mesocycles? If the answer is yes, then you’re either at or above your MEV and a another drop in volume could be instructive. If you don’t make any gains at all or even lose gains, you are likely below your MEV. By working from the original MEV estimates in this series, you can narrow down your own MEVs, it will take a while, so it’s not a process you can expect to make revelations overnight. Also, since beginners have MVs and MEVs that are super close together, it’s not worth it to test out your MEV unless you’re an intermediate or advanced (2-3 years of consistent training minimum).
Finding your MRV
How do we find our MRV? The clue is in the term itself. Maximal Recoverable Volume. If we go past it, we’re by definition no longer able to recover. How do we gauge recovery for muscle growth? We use the best performance proxy for growth; the ability to do a weight for moderate reps. It’s the best correlate of size for sure… show me a guy who can bench 405 for 10 and I’ll show you a guy who has huge pecs, shoulders and arms. And in training, the way you make gains is mostly by doing sets of 8-12 reps and over time using heavier and heavier weights for those reps. If you don’t recover your rep strength from week to week, you can’t continue to provide the overload to push muscle gain along.
So how do you know if you’re recovered from last week? Well, what did you bench last week? Let’s say it was 225 for 3 sets of 10 with 2 reps or so left in the tank for each set. If this week you hit 230lbs for 4 sets of 10 with a rep or so left in the tank, that’s about the same level of performance… we definitely can’t say you didn’t recover your rep strength from last week. But the week after you only hit 235 for a set of 10, then a set of 7, then 5, then 4 and then 3 reps… something is definitely off. Someone who can bench 225 for 3x10 with some reps in the tank should be able to hit 235 for hard 10s… at least for hard 9s! But when you are so fatigued that you’re under-recovering, your performance will tank just like that. Once it does, that’s a pretty clear sign that the week before had gone OVER your MRV and it’s time to regroup and drop fatigue.
Sounds pretty straightforward, but there’s just one complication. What if last week was just a bad week for sleep and eating… what if you’d already been training without a deload for 9 weeks straight instead of 4-6 and it’s the accumulated fatigue from all those previous weeks that’s causing recovery problems, not just the volume of your last week like the MRV calculation assumes? What if today’s workout was just a bad one for a million different reasons and your true MRV is actually much higher?
That very much could be, and that’s a problem. Because now, how do we know if we’ve found our actual average MRV (under normal conditions) or just gotten a measurement error. Well, the two most powerful scientific instruments ever devised are repetition and recording. You work your way up in volume through each phase of training (each mesocycle’s accumulation phase) and you record your responses. When you notice an inability to recover, you back off, deload, perhaps switch up the exercise selections, and repeat. Note how many total sets per bodypart came in the week before you were unable to recover… that’s your first guess at your MRV. For your next cycle, pick a set number under that one perhaps by 6 sets or so, and add sets and weight each week until you’re at your hypothetical MRV in 4-6 weeks. If you under-recover earlier than expected, you need to adjust your MRV estimate down in set number per week. If you can go even further this time than last before experiencing recovery problems, you need to adjust your estimate upwards. After 3 or 4 cycles like this, two things will become apparent:
1.) You’re getting much more jacked training like this! (Especially if you’re eating well and recovering your best.)
2.) Your MRV estimate is floating at a pretty tight range. Maybe within about 3-5 sets per week difference. Maybe on one of the mesocycles you made it only to 18 sets a week before you overreached (couldn’t recover), and maybe on one of the mesocycles you made it all the way to 22 sets per week before you had to drop it off. But if your eating and recovery are fairly stable, you’ll have noticed that your MRV is fairly stable too, in this example perhaps around 20 sets per bodypart per week.
You can now take whatever set number that MRV estimate is and use it as the goalpost for your future training. Yes, it will be different for different bodyparts and yes it will change over time, but so long as you keep tracking your training and recovery, you’ll be able to make adjustments to keep your MRV in your line of sight at all times… and be reasonably assured of the fact that you are training just about the right amount you need to grow the most!
Finding your MAV
This is the simplest one. It’s going to be roughly equidistant between your MEV and your MRV. So once you’ve found those, you’ve got your MAV and there’s no big need to try to independently track it down.
Directions vs. Dogmas
Does the MV really not change much over the 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 are advanced? The jury is still out. So while the basic concepts here are pretty set in stone, some 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 places to start building your training on, but never dogmas to follow to the letter. Always think, always be skeptical, always be open minded, and choose your best path given the available evidence. If better evidence starts to accumulate in convincing amounts, alter your path to its direction!
Dr. Israetel knows a thing or two about how to grow muscle. He's 240+ lbs at 5'6!