Training Volume. Let’s talk about it.

A guide to practical application

This has been quite the topic of debate among some of the smartest dudes in the strength community for the past year or so.

And with good reason.

As people begin to take a more evidence-based approach to their training and nutrition, they get progressively more granular with respect to the attention they give each aspect which makes up those two broad topics. And training volume is one of the factors which has the largest effect when it comes to determining your goals.

This debate has sparked the formation of a good few new terminology and theories as far as the different aspects that go into determining optimal training volume for an individual, it’s effects on recovery, and the role of volume in the overall training plan of a lifter.

This little piece will attempt to cover the major hypotheses presented (including my own), along with some recommendation from myself with regards to practically applying this knowledge to your training.

Defining the terms:

Training volume

For all intents and purposes, this is how much work you do. The most intuitive way to record it is as total tonnage in your lifts, using the equation of sets x reps x weight. Now this method works reasonably well for athletes such as powerlifters and olympic weightlifters who have a relatively small selection of very similar movements making up the bulk of their training.

However, if we use the example of a bodybuilder or recreational lifter, we’ve got a lot more movements to consider. Things like the distance a weight moves, inconsistencies between free weights and machines, and even between similar machines of different manufacturers can come into play if you want to get really nit-picky about it.

But you really don’t need to.

As a general rule, we can even remove the factor of weight from the above equation, and just consider the sets and reps performed for each major movement pattern or muscle group. The inclusion of reps/set is particularly prudent to strength goals as strength adaptations are highly specific to the rep ranges used in training. So to get better at 1RM maxes, it makes sense to do the bulk of your training in ranges approaching 1RMs. At least during times close to competition.

But if your main goal is hypertrophy, we can simplify this paradigm even further and simply measure volume as the number of hard sets per muscle group. This concept was brought to my attention in this amazingly insightful article by Nathan Jones on the StrengTheory blog. In said article, Nathan explores the relevant literature to come to the conclusion that with regards to hypertrophy as long as certain proximity to failure are kept within very wide ranges, the rep range of a set in question has no discernible affect on the hypertrophic adaptation to training. At the end of the day, I’d hypothesize that this difference between training specifically for strength versus hypertrophy is due to neural and technical adaptations that inherently occur with low-rep training, which in benefit the former infinitely more than the latter.

Minimum Effective Volume

If you’re at all interested in the topic of productivity, or have any formal teaching in the subject of pharmacology, you’d probably be familiar with the concept of a Minimal Effective Dose. In a medical context, this refers to the smallest amount of a drug needed to achieve a therapeutic effect. And when it comes to drugs, in most cases doctors try and err as close to this value as possible whenever possible, in an attempt to avoid any unwanted side-effects inherent with most prescription medication.

The same concept can be applied to training, in which Minimum Effective Volume (MEV) would be the amount of training volume an individual requires to progress in their training. This progress is usually in the form of long-term gains in strength, size, or sport-specific performance. Strong proponents of aiming for training as close to your MEV as possible often do so using similar logic to the medical community, fearing the negative effects of too much training. To be quite frank, these fears are unfounded for the most part.

To elaborate a little, pharmacologists have been using this things called the Therapeutic Index, which is a range where the dose of a drug is optimized for a balance between positive and negative effects. Sounds pretty application to training so far right? Well the thing is they reach this value through the following equation…

See, that ED50 value refers to the dose of a drug that is effective for 50% of the population. Ok, so far so good.

But that LD50 value. Well that refers to the dose of a drug that’s lethal for 50% of the population. As a result of this equation, there are certain drugs with a very “narrow” therapeutic window because of how dangerous they can be at even slightly uncontrolled doses.

But the thing about training is, that as much as it can hurt sometimes, you’d be hard pressed to find a training program that would literally massacre you. In fact, if we tried to use this equation to find a therapeutic window for training volume, the goddamn window would just be left open!

See what I did there? ;)

But in all seriousness, while overtraining is a real thing that occurs in extreme cases (think pro athletes training multiple times a day, for hours on end each time), the most negative thing most lifters will experience is a short-term reduction in performance, which can even be leveraged to make you stronger if you play your cards right! But on the other hand, even though there might not be many physiological reasons to try and train close to your MEV, there are definitely plenty of practicality/lifestyle-related reasons to do so.

More on both of these later. But in closing, my own definition of what MEV would constitute isn’t the absolute minimal amount of volume needed to make progress but…

“The point at which increased training volume would have significantly diminishing returns on progress”

As a result, this approach would err towards neither trying to do as little as possible to get by, nor the more MRV-like approach of doing as much as you can recover from. But finding a nice SWOLE-dilocks zone in which you get the most efficient/effective return for your time/effort investment in your training.

A parallel to this approach can be found in the 80/20 principle, which hypothesizes that for many events, the majority of the outcomes occur as a result of the minority of the causes.Some simple real-world examples of this phenomena include:

  • Approximately the top 10% income bracket of US taxpayers contribute over 90% of the total amount of income taxes paid
  • Over 90% of the portfolio companies of the enormous majority of startup investors fail, but (if they played their cards right) the remaining minority more than make up for any losses incurred from the former
  • And of course, infamous 80/20 rule, AKA the Pareto principle, in which Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto published in his economics thesis how 80% of the land in Italy at the time was owned by 20% of the population.
  • He apparently developed this method when observing the same relationship between the peas and peapods in his garden.
  • Why the hell he was counting peas in the first place however, we’ll never know.
you’ve gotta admit, the pea-counting wierdo had a point (image source)

Maximum Recoverable Volume

A term introduced and popularized by the ever-salty and incredibly intelligent Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodization, it has quickly become part of the standard vocabulary of strength nerds the world over. To use Mike’s own words, it refers to…

“MRV is the maximum volume of training a lifter can perform, recover from, and benefit from.”

To elaborate on this a little bit, this would be how much work a lifter does before they start experiencing negative effects, in the form of decreased performance or otherwise. Training at or around this value will provide an athlete the fastest possible progress at any given stage of their training. And you’ve gotta admit. Fast progress is awesome.

But it comes at a cost. Think of how much more maintenance the engine of a NASCAR stock car requires when compared to a Prius. A crude analogy I admit, but it works. The former also has a much higher chance of getting in an accident getting injured, even if the driver does everything perfectly lifter uses perfect technique and is on top of their recovery, compared to the latter which still carries a little bit of risk, but nothing compared to the former.

And this analogy even carries on to the type of individual suited to training close to MRVs more often. If you are already an elite athlete competing at the pinnacles of your given sport, your MRV and MEVs are almost identical, and you need to train right at the bleeding edge just to keep from regressing. And say you’re not quite there yet, but you are absolutely hell-bent on getting on the world stage in your sport ASAP, are willing to do what it takes, and have all the time in the world to do so? Then a more MRV-centric approach might be for you as well. But if you’re a super-busy dude or dudette with tons of stuff going on in your life that just wants to look pretty good at the beach this summer, be pretty strong, and stay healthy, a more MEV-focused approach might suit you better.

Maximum Adaptive Volume (MAV)

Some graphs depicting all of them compared to each other

Even though MRV is the term which Mike tends to be best known for, if you listen to him speak at length on the subject, it’s this range of values (MAV) which he tends to recommend trainees spend the majority of their time in. The distinction between MRV and MAV comes down to just that. The different between being able to just barely recover from training as opposed to adapting optimally to it. One can draw the parallel of barely surviving exposure to a stimulus in comparison to thriving as a result of it. Naturally, we’d want to err towards the latter (at least most of the time).

For all practical purposes, I’d tag MAV as more of a range of values lying between your MEV and MRV rather than a specific value in itself. And while the other values might have a great deal of inter-individual variation based on a variety of factors, MAV is somewhat unique in that depending on many short term factors — everything ranging from your recovery practices to stress levels — it has the potential for the most intra-individual variation. That means your MAV at any given time has the most potential to fluctuate over time, because it’s the most sensitive to modifiable factors, both in and out of training.

Comparison of rates of progress in MEV vs. MAV vs. MRV

Training factors affecting response to training volume

A vital factor in our response to volume is our ability to recover from it. In certain cases it’s very possible that the same volume which would be our MEV under normal conditions, would exceed our MRV in conditions where recovery is significantly hampered. Therefore, it helps to know the factors which affect your recovery capacity. This topic lies in a domain which blurs the lines between the principles of fatigue and stress-recovery-adaptation management, and can therefore get a little complex if you really try to obsess on the theory of it. But for practical purposes, it comes down to having a general awareness of a few modifiable factors, so that you can gauge how well you are recovering during any particular stage of your training.

Acute/microcycle-related factors

These are the things that occur within individual sessions that can have recovery consequences which are disproportionate to their contributions to your goals.

Rep-ranges

As mentioned earlier, there has been an appreciable body of research accumulating that suggests that almost any rep range can stimulate roughly equal amounts of hypertrophy if total volume is kept equal. However, when it comes down to it, doing back squats for 10 sets of 3 hurts in a completely different way than 1 all-out set of 30. Your preference between the two really comes down to which particular strain of masochism you suffer from.

Lame jokes aside though, while it might have much better carryover to strength goals, the former of those two circumstances is going to put you in a much deeper recovery deficit than the latter. The reasons for this come down to a number of factors, including neurological fatigue from spending so much time at high intensities, increased joint and connective tissue damage inherent with lower-rep training, psychological burnout from constantly getting too #HYPEDDD for heavy lifts, etc. etc. The longer rest intervals usually associated with lower rep training can also lead to longer training sessions which might be incompatible with your lifestyle.

So as a general rule, keep in mind that lower rep-ranges will lower your recovery capacity, thereby lowering your MEV and MRV for any given training session. If you happen to be using lower rep-ranges across multiple sessions/mesocycles/macrocycles, the same applies. That doesn’t mean you should avoid them altegther (especially if you compete in a strength sport of any kind). Just know that you’ll have to be a little more conservative with your volume goals.

This is in many ways the reason why the recommendation that the 8–12 rep range is optimal for hypertrophy comes from. It’s not because there’s some magic this particular rep-range has when it comes to triggering growth. It just practically allows most people to accumulate more volume, in less time, with less fatigue. Which in turn allows them to continue to train with more volume in following sessions, leading to a #ViciousCycleOfGainz.

Lift-types

They might not be the majority, but we all know that bro in our gym that refuses to squat on leg day, but has disgustingly enormous wheels anyway. The same for all the gym rats that swear by a machines-only approach and don’t train with free-weights altogether. Of course, most of us know that while it’s certainly possible to make progress in this way, it’s certainly not optimal. One thing you do have to give machine/cable-based movements though, is that they give you a lot of stimulation for very little recovery debt.

As freakin’ awesome as squats are, they take a toll no matter how picture-perfect and efficient you’re technique is. Once again, this is not at all a reason to exclude them from your program. Just realize that you will only be able to do so many sets of squats in a session before you either pass out or get hurt. Leg extensions on the other hand, will probably allow you to keep going until you either get bored or fall asleep at the machine. The main takeaway here is that the less load, muscle recruitment, and range-of-motion an exercise has, the more you can do of it before reaching your volume limits.

As as a rough guide, here are some common movements ranked in order of high to low fatigue:

  • 1: The Deadlift: Recruits the most overall muscle of any movement, has no eccentric phase/strength-reflex to help you out, and involves the highest loads of anything you’ll do in the gym. For high-level powerlifters, competition squats in wraps/single-ply gear would also be in this range.
  • 2: Back squats, the olympic lifts, and their variations
  • 3: Multi-joint upper body barbell movements (i.e. Bench Press, Barbell Rows, etc. etc.)
  • 4: Multi-joint bodyweight/calisthenic and machine movements
  • 5: Single-joint movements of any kind: The loads here are often low enough that there isn’t much of a distinction between machines and free-weights anyway.
Recovery Timelines for different lift types

Technique

This ones a little tricky, just because good technique can look very different on different people depending on individual limb-lengths, leverages, etc. But solid, efficient technique will both reduce your injury risk and recovery deficit as a simple result of minimizing needless movement. It will also allow you to better track fatigue individual to muscle groups. I mean the way you see most folks doing “cheat curls” these days, the movement seems to be inducing more stimulus on their glute and upper back than their biceps!

Chronic/mesocycle-related factors

Planned functional overreaching

Remember that MRV thing I mentioned earlier. Well this is what happens when you go beyond that point in your training for a few sessions in a row. You’ll probably start feeling a little shitty, and progress will slow down if not come to a complete standstill. And that’s alright. In a very particular circumstance.

Functional overreaching involves temporarily training beyond your recovery ability, followed by a period of training below your recovery capacity, in an attempt to take advantage of the superompensation that occurs as a result of the two in tandem. This is usually done leading up to a competition, with the purpose of “peaking” for said competition. A less aggressive version of this can also be applied at the end of a mesocycle to prime you for progress in the following mesocycle.

Deloads

This is essentially the opposite of functional overreaching, and can be more aptly rephrased as “functional under-reaching” if you wanted. But alas, someone called it a deload a while ago and now we’re stuck with it. This is a period of training where you purposely hit volumes well below your ability to recover to seriously give your tissues and nervous system some time to chill out. Even though this might not be very fun, it has tons of benefits when it comes to long-term progress.

The dissipated fatigue makes you physically able to hit it harder when you get back to training as usual. And the pent-up “pit bull in a cage” feeling you’ll have by the end of a deload phase is an awesome catalyst to keep the spark for training alive in the long-term.

Athlete maturity

As we get stronger, our bodies adapt in a lot more ways than just growing bigger muscles. Everything from your skeletal system to your neurological system make adaptations to compensate for the shit you put yourself through week-after-week. But at a certain point, it can’t quite keep up.

And this is the reason why advanced lifters need to take a little more care of their recovery than they’re less experienced counterparts. Especially when you’re first starting out, you’re just not strong enough to hurt yourself. Even if you wanted to! The worst things you could do is just be plain clumsy and drop the bar on yourself when you’re benching.

But when you’re at the point where you’ve got 700+ pounds on your back and are about to dive into the hole, the absolute forces you’re dealing with are on a different scale completely, and the smallest of flaws in your technique can fuck you up real quick.

Therefore, as you become more advanced, the changes in volume you make need to be more incremental, and it must be understood that each individual set carries with it much more fatigue than it did a few years ago.

Non-training factors affecting response to training volume

Aside from anomalous circumstances like traumatic injuries and the like, these will likely be related to psychological factors rather than physical. The ability of psychological factors to have substantial effects on athletic performance are at this point documented to the point of redundancy 12. Although most of this data is focused on “game-day” performance, there is still a sizable amount supporting the hypothesis that “everyday” stresses contribute to fatigue, and should be taken into account just as much your actual training itself.

The main categories outlines tend be along the lines of stress, anxiety, tension, and aggression. And being a high-level athlete (or high-level anything for that matter) is just as much about keeping these things under control as it is about taking care of your specific discipline itself. “Normal people” have the luxury of allowing themselves to be affecting by the mundane stresses of everyday life. Boss is being a dick, someone cut you off in traffic, etc. etc. While you might want to explode in these situations, from a fatigue management point of view your re much better off controlling your reaction as much as possible. Because while the amateur can afford to worry about stuff like that, the (aspiring) professional should at least make an effort to rise above it.

And of course, there will be certain circumstances which you can’t help be affected by. Things like losses of loved ones, and traumatic life changes come to mind. Trying to be numb to such things would be almost pointless. But what you can do in such situations is realize that the psychological fatigue you’re experiencing will invariably affect you’re training. Hopefully if you expect this to happen, you won’t get even more distressed when you find that you’re training is suffering during tough times as well. For the many of us for whom our training is a psychological outlet just as much as it is a physical practice, this is all the more important.

And more the small stuff, there are plenty of time-tested practices which you can try to to help reduce your reactiveness to the “small stuff”, including diaphragmatic breathing, visualization practices, and mindfulness meditation. I know this might sound a little bit like “hippo wooowoo bullshit”. I sure did starting out. But the data doesn’t lie 3456. And anecdotally, I can personally attest to the positive benefits of the latter in particular.

Applications for serious athletes

By “serious athlete”, I mean that your definition of progress that’s “fast enough”, is equivalent to “as fast and as much as fucking possible”. And being in this group, you might expect to hear me recommending you to train at or beyond your MRV non-stop. And this just might be similar to the methods used by countries like China and the Eastern Bloc a few decades ago to produce the amazing athletes they have over the year. The problem with this is the enormous survivorship bias involves. All we see are the Olympic Medalists who were able to survive such a rigorous protocol. We never hear about the athletes with slightly less “resilient” genetics, who blew out their knee and was sent home only to be replaced by the next cantidate in line.

The proper way to incorporate these values into a sustainable training plan is to simply apply proper periodization. Because when you really break it down, almost any properly periodized strength program/macrocycle will include microcycles where the trainee moves from their MEV, through their MAV, to their MRV and a even little bit beyond at strategic intervals depending on things like athlete maturity, proximity to competition, etc. After a big training cycle, such as an olympic-bound athlete, a trainee might even spend a solid few months training below their MEV in an attempt to dissipate all that fatigue.

So end of the day, there’s no need to obsess over hitting any specific value all the time. If you are following any principle-abiding program, your volume needs will often be taken care of by default.

Using autoregulation control training volume

If you do want to add another layer of control over your training volume, auto-regulating your number of sets within a training session is a great way to objectively control where in the volume range you fall. This can be done with an As-many-sets-as-possible protocol, in which you have a fatigue goal for the session/movement, and continue repeating sets at a given rep range till you hit said fatigue amount.

Applications for the general population (AKA us normal folks)

Let’s get real. Most of you reading this (with myself included) are probably never going to be elite competitors in anything apart from that local pie-eating contest. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make amazing progress and reach great heights regardless. We just need to get realistic about just how far we actually want to progress.

For the goals that most of you have. To look better, be healthier, and get stronger than you are right now. Be able to go to the beach and not be apprehensive about being in your swimsuit. Be strong enough to turn a good few heads at the local gym. None of those might sound as glorious as being an “elite competitor”. But here’s the thing.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

Unless being strong or looking jacked is in some way a part of how you make your living (i.e. coach, performance/physique athlete, etc.), I’d go as far as saying that you’re probably being a little stupid if you let your training affect the rest of your life too much. For everyone but the top 1%, this whole strength thing is supposed to enhance our lives, not detract from it. And I do sincerely hope that if you aren’t a part of the former that you have enough going on in your life that finding time to take care of yourself is in itself a challenge. Because in some ways, it’s not too bad a problem to have. Being busy is often a symptom of getting shit done, be it in your personal or professional life.

So with that preface, I’ve got to say that for the “general population” audience, who have things like a demanding job, a family, kids, etc. etc. to worry about, you training closer to the range of your MEV is much advised. And all this means is that instead of your program looking like a series of properly periodized training cycles like it would for a more serious trainee, you will make slower (albeit still substantial) progress in a much more linear fashion. And more importantly, this approach will allow you to take factor of a factor in your training that’s the single most important of all.

Adherence. For competitors this is a non-issue. It’s assumed. A pre-requisite. But most of us have other shit to do than eat and train all day. So naturally, adherence can very quickly become a problem if our training starts to impinge on all these other things we’ve got going on. And therefore, at least starting with a more conservative/time-sparing approach might have better long term results than the uber-optimized program that you never stick to because you never have the time.

And aiming close to your MEV does not mean you’ll be going into the gym and doing hardly anything. You will simply be doing as much as you need to keep progressing at a speed you are happy with and can stick to over the long-term. Maybe add a few deloads every 6–8 weeks or so to keep you healthy and you’re all set :)

What’s the point of all this?

To be totally real, apart from those looking to have a better general understanding of the principles of strength programming, and adding more knowledge to your toolkit, obsessing too much over aiming for MAV vs. MEV. vs. MRV in your training has very little practical use.

Training volume, as important as it is, is still just a part of a much bigger picture. And each of these approaches has it’s own inherent advantages and disadvantages. In fact, in my opinion, a properly designed and periodized program will at different stages have you training at your MEV, MAV, MRV, and even beyond that in the specific cases of intentional functional overreaching!

But the main thing I’d like you guys to take away is that while growing your granular understanding of a topic is great, what matters at the end of the day is being able to apply that understanding to your training in a practical way. Training dogmatically towards any of these values alone with inevitably lead to suboptimal results. An exclusively MEV/MAV-centric approach will have you always leaving at least a little bit of possible progress on the table. And constantly pushing the absolute limit of your MRV without properly programmed deloads will beat your body into the ground in no time. It’s the ability to use of each of these values as building blocks in the Lego-Deathstar which is your complete training program that’s of true merit.

And as always, you can direct any questions, queries, or insults you might have to vid@bootstrapbarbell.com and I’ll get back to you asap. Or even sign up for our newsletter to keep up on any new content we’ve got coming out :)



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