When it comes to putting on lean muscle and increasing strength nothing is more essential than a consistent increase in quantity and quality of training volume. Training volume is invaluable due to the fact that volume is the summation of all elements of your training program including:

  • Reps
  • Sets
  • Exercise type
  • Training frequency (sessions completed)

Accumulating greater, more intense levels of volume within a given period of time is how we get bigger and stronger. Let me say it again so it really sinks in this time: Accumulating greater, more intense levels of volume within a given period of time is how we get bigger and stronger. Be warned, however, this same endgame is also how we can get injured and suffer from overtraining. This post will attempt to examine the multiple variables which govern the effectiveness of a proper periodized (incremental/structured) strength training program. First, let’s examine three terms which reflect uniquely different approaches to increasing volume and attainment of strength goals. Maximum recoverable volume (MRV), minimum effective dose (MEV) and maximal adaptive volume (MAV).

MRV is just what its name implies, the maximum amount of volume you can endure and from which you can adequately recover before stressing those muscles again in training. Many people chronically over-train, pushing their body far past its capacity to recover. Remember, an increase in total volume is required to increase size and strength. However, at some point the “no pain, no gain” mentality becomes detrimental and counterproductive. Dr. Mike Israetel from Temple university puts it best,

“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.”

Sure, training hard is essential (and feels awesome!), but if you train harder than your body can handle, you can forget about performance or size gains because your body won’t grow any muscle if it can’t recover from the level of stress and induce physiological adaptation. In fact, even if you train with the exact amount of volume from which your body can adequately recover (MRV), growth and workload gains will be minimal. When training occurs AT your defined MRV, the body uses all available resources just to recover and there is nothing left to fuel further growth. Understanding and accurately defining your MRV and how to apply it during specific times within a periodized program is necessary to create supercompensation.

We must listen to their body and accurately record and analyze weekly data (reps, sets, etc.) to assess and determine whether we are benefiting (or not) from training at MRV. 

The antithesis of MRV is Minimum effective volume (MEV). MEV is the least amount of training volume required to still yield desired physiological adaptation. Often MEV is a great starting point for an athlete just beginning a training cycle. Think of it like a “warm-up set”. It is enough volume to elicit neurological and physiological adaptation, but also leaves plenty of fuel in the tank for drive future growth. 

Most traditional periodization programs range between 6 and 16 weeks. The goal of periodization is to gradually introduce cycles of greater volume and intensity followed by scheduled rest or tapering cycles. If MEV is on the far left (starting line) of a program design and MRV is on the far right (finish line), in an 8 week Macrocycle (complete training program) we might implement MEV training in the first 2-3 weeks (microcycle) and MRV in the last 2-3 weeks of the program, The Bookends of Training. If MEV is the warm up, and MRV is the peaking cycle, what makes up the middle of the training program, those additional 2-3 weeks? Let’s check back in with Dr. Israetel…

“Maximum adaptive volume (MAV) 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.” 

Let’s pause here and review:

  1. Volume is the total amount of training load within a single session, microcycle and macrocycle. Volume includes reps, sets, weight and exercise choice.
  2. An increase of volume is essential for gaining both size and strength.
  3. A proper periodization program will introduce methods of increasing volume via 3 adaptive phases MEV, MAV and MRV.

IF MEV, MAV and MRV are the three concepts which define an effective program design then it is equally important to examine the building blocks which make-up these concepts? I call these building blocks the program pyramid. Like any scientifically based concept, there’s a multitude of conflicting data regarding which variables should be considered in a successful program design. I’ve done my best to translate these research findings, and fuse them with current trends in bro-science along with my own thoughts so you can more easily understand and digest.

The Program Pyramid

1. Evaluation of the Athlete – Before beginning a program design its essential that the coach assess and consider the demographics of the client. Without these metrics, a training program can lead to catastrophic failure and injury. These metrics include:

  • Age – Yes, unfortunately age does play a critical role in both accumulation of volume and recovery times
  • Sex – Male and female bodies have slightly differing physiologies and must be recognized.
  • Goal – What are we training for? When do we want to peak? Where are we going to train? Who are we training with? Get it?
  • Time constraints/schedule – How many times per week can you and should you train?
  • Health status
  • Injury history
  • Functional Movement Screening (FMS) – Understanding an individual’s movement limitations are essential to program design. A low bar back squat may be great for a 19 year old linebacker but could be hell for a tennis player with a blown out rotator cuff and ACL tear…

2. Training history and Experience – What is the athletes lifting history/experience? Unfortunately, there are no clearly defined point at which someone graduates from novice to advanced. However, here are the general guidelines I personally use in determining strength program recommendations for each level. The goal being to always consistently, gradually move the athlete into additional training volume and shift from nonspecific to specific types of resistance training:

  • Novice – One day to approximately 6 months of comprehensive, circuit based resistance training. This duration of training increases general physical performance (GPP), stability strength and work capacity.
  • Intermediate – 6 months up to 1 year. The intermediate athlete has:

    • Established a high level of GPP
    • Understands basic form and function of all major lifts.
    • Can perform and self-evaluate major lifts to high degree of efficiency.

The increasing incorporation of barbell exercises and hypertrophy body splits should become more consistent in programming alongside continued circuit style training.

  • Advanced – 1 Year or Longer – The advanced strength athlete has:

    • Developed a strong physical, mental base and a consistent practice.
    • A clear understanding of form and function of exercise choices
    • Can organize exercises into a general program design.
    • Has an effective self-recovery strategies (self-myofascial release, stretching, etc.).
    • Has established a need or ambition for continued increase of hypertrophy and or strength levels.

At this point training can be formatted into body split or centered around desired lifts of interest (strongman, Olympic or Powerlifting). Even at advanced levels it will become necessary to include into the annual calendar periods of time in which the strength athlete cycles back into types of training experienced by the novice and intermediate athlete. This prevents chronic overtraining, increases GPP and work capacity and develops continued understanding and integration of fundamentals.

3. Muscle fiber type and recruitment ability – Muscle fiber type is an easily overlooked variable in program design. For example, take a marathoner who can run 26 miles in 2 ½ hours and a D1 running back who can run a 4.2 40-yard sprint, both have the goal of gaining 5 lbs. of lean muscle and increasing strength levels.

Even though they may have the same goal, their respective program designs will not resemble one another. An elite marathoner has developed far more Type I muscle fibers than a D1 half back who relies primarily on Type II fibers for his sport. It takes Type I muscle fibers a lot more time, and duration of activity to reach fatigue as compared to Type II fibers. Type II muscles are used for power movements, and are recruited during higher intensity (anaerobic; See Part II for a refresher) training. The program design, and specificity of exercise choice is incredibly important for both athletes’ goal achievement. Moreover, the way in which each athlete will adapt to the accrual of volume (reps, sets, frequency, intensity levels (%1RM)) will be extremely different. This adaptive potential is based on their previous training, muscle fiber make-up, and to some level genetic predisposition. You can’t outsmart or out-train DNA!

4. Exercise Choices and order – Within a given training session, the total volume between two exercises may be identical, yet the effect and time needed to recover from that volume can be drastically different. For example, the low bar back squat requires considerably more muscle fiber recruitment than a leg press. Rossi et al. (2016) studied the effects of the two exercises on strength, body composition, and functional outcomes such as balance and vertical leap. Each experimental group showed differing levels of performance improvement in each variable. In a similar vein, deadlifts take a considerable toll on the entire central nervous system and most athletes can only sustain training the deadlift once per week before experiencing overtraining symptoms. Contrast the deadlift with shoulder work which could be performed almost every day and you start to understand how important exercise selection can be.

Not only does the exercise choice matter, the order in which exercises are completed within a given training session can greatly alter the effectiveness of the workout. For instance, complex exercises such as the clean and jerk require more neuromuscular recruitment than a leg press and thus should always lead. In a research review of studies assessing the impact of exercise order on acute and chronic effects of a resistance training (RT) program, Simão, R., de Salles, B.F., Figueiredo, T. et al. (2012) found, “When prescribed appropriately with other key prescriptive variables (i.e. load, volume, rest interval between sets and exercises), the exercise order can influence the efficiency, safety and ultimate effectiveness of an RT programme.”.

5. REP Tempo

If you have done any research on the subject, you have likely come across differing strategies about tempo of reps. Some people say fast is better, some say slow. Here’s the scoop: Both are important. A quick concentric (shortening) contraction builds speed strength, explosiveness, and power. However, most hypertrophic (mass) gains can be associated with a slow eccentric (lengthening) phase (Schoenfeld, et al., 2017). Also, don’t leave out the benefit of the isometric (muscle contracted fully but joint not increasing or decreasing) contraction either. It has lots of benefits too.

6. Organization of workouts – There are probably a million different ways to organize your training. Here is a brief description of the top 3.

Whole body – Training the whole body has many benefits, especially for people with time constraints, such as athletes in season who simply don’t have time for daily weight training. These workouts should include exercises which rely on as much neuromuscular recruitment as possible for the greatest bang for your buck, so to speak. For example: Olympic lifts and variations, squats, deadlifts, presses, pullups, rows, and strongman exercises like sled pull/push, rope pull, overhead presses, etc. The downside to these workouts is accruing enough volume to effect long term hypertrophy, especially as an advanced strength athlete. On the upside, strength levels can and will rise considerably as long as overtraining and accommodation (body getting use to the same exercises) is avoided.

Body splits – The body split is probably the most common method for organizing workouts among strength athletes. The body split allows the more advanced strength athlete to compartmentalize the body and dedicate specific days to smaller muscle groups such as chest/back, bicep/triceps, shoulders/legs etc. and accrue higher levels of volume. There are many variations of body splits. Some work agonist (complimentary) muscle groups like chest, shoulder and triceps while others work antagonist (opposing) muscle groups like bicep/triceps, chest/back. There are many benefits to the body split if the athlete has the time and dedication to put in the necessary frequency in order to benefit. Each muscle group must be activated every 48-72 hours or a decline in performance will follow.

Main Lifts– The final popular method for organizing a program is to emphasize or center all training around a main lift such as the squat, deadlift, bench press or any of the Olympic lifts. Accessory exercises should be included in this method of program design to address weaknesses or issues with technique . This is very common among competitive power- and weightlifters.

7. Rep ranges – Repetition ranges are perhaps the most confusing subject matter in all of weight training. We’ve all heard it, “if you want to get bigger you got to do sets of 5’s.” Then you read an article in FLEX magazine and dude says, “it’s all about sets of 8’s”. Shit. The next week guy at the gym says 10’s and another swears he got huge off 20.

Here is the hairy truth. Rep ranges DO NOT MATTER and any range should be included in periodized programming! Rep ranges should be used to:

  • Account for volume
  • Ensure enough time is spent in desired energy system
  • Establish PR’s (personal records)

There is no such thing as a magic repetition number that alone creates or produces strength or hypertrophy. Training volume and training to volitional failure are the main contributors to strength, endurance, and hypertrophy adaptations. These adaptations occur independently of specific repetition ranges. For those interested in attaining higher strength levels, use of heavier weights (neurological conditioning) and adding volume over time is necessary. However, rep range is not a predictive variable in strength, hypertrophy, or muscle endurance improvement. Klemp et al., 2016 

8. Recovery time/short and long  Schoenfeld et al. (2016) concludes that longer rest breaks increase hypertrophy and strength. Both protein synthesis and anabolic hormones are in greater concentration with longer rather than shorter duration rest breaks. But how long is too long? Remember, when training for hypertrophy the phosphate system (ATP and PC) is the driving metabolic pathway (Check out Part I and Part II if you missed the Energy System discussion!). The phosphate system requires between 60 and 90 seconds to recover depending on load (% of 1RM) and level of volitional failure. The greater the load, the higher the demand on ATP which takes longer to replenish, often upwards of 90 seconds or more. So, does that mean we should do a set of an exercise, text some friends, take a selfie on Facebook and then hit another set? Sure, you could do that, and it’s a good idea depending on your phase of training. For both hypertrophy and an increase in EPOC, I recommend performing supersets (two exercises which work opposing/antagonist muscle groups) in order to increase volume, intensity (remember metabolism) and still allow for proper recovery of ATP. Antagonist body splits include:

  • Chest & back
  • Bicep & triceps
  • Shoulders, calves and core
  • Legs – Push (squats, leg press, extension) and pull (deadlift, RDL, leg curl, flexion)

For programs whose focus is maximum strength gains, I recommend organizing workouts around agonist muscle groups or the major lift in question such as the squat, bench, or deadlift, with minimal to no supersets and longer rest breaks (3-5 minutes). This allows for optimum recovery of both the joints and central nervous system. Muscle groups include

  • Chest, shoulder, Triceps
  • Legs
  • Back and bicep

So how long should I wait before I train a given muscle group again during the week? That answer is as broad as the Grand Canyon. The reality is, the amount of rest needed in between bouts of training are incredibly individualized. Some people can squat every day. Others would end up in the ER with a bad case of Rhabdomyolysis. Rest periods depend on types of muscles used, exercise selection, volume, sleep, nutrition, and stress levels. Some muscles like the Deltoids, can be activated every 24 hours, while other muscles (quads) may take 96 hours (to recover from a heavy day of squats and deadlifts. I also suggest a de-load or taper period every 4-5 weeks. During this week intensity is cut by approximately 25% and volume is decreased by at least 50%. This allows for adequate rest of the joints and central nervous system. For more detailed information, here is a pretty great article published by the University of New Mexico.

Intensity – I would wager, other than rep numbers, the amount of weight or intensity (either heavy or light), is the second greatest enigma in weight training.

There are two main camps who speak out the loudest on this subject. One side advocates high load, low rep and the other low load, high rep. Both preach about how theirs is the best at building muscle. Well, it’s a sad day for both camps. The reality is research is still inconclusive (Schoefeld et al., 2016) is better than the other when it comes to affecting hypertrophy. Once again, both types of training should be included in a periodized program and both offer the athlete an opportunity to increase both hypertrophy and multiple dimensions of strength.

9. Frequency & Volume – There’s a lot of discussion these days around the Bulgarian training system. This system relies on greater frequency, or performing a certain lift (e.g., the squat) daily. Many athletes have reported significant strength gains using these frequency-based methods but research is still being collected and analyzed. Without a doubt, performing a movement daily will increase the mastery of the technique and neural efficiency, potentially resulting in more strength. But, frequency is just another factor in determining overall workload. It all comes back to VOLUME, or the summation of all these essential training variables: Reps, Sets, Frequency, Intensity, Work/Rest cycles. Long story short, the muscles require a greater amount of work to grow. But at a certain point, every individual WILL reach a point of diminishing return before things turn south quickly. Know your body, listen to your body and continue to challenge your thresholds with safe, effective program design.

Need Help Setting Up a Program? Give me a Shout, stewart@studio2nashville.com