OK, so hear me out on this one. I’m not the sharpest tack in the box, but I did make it to the box so let me explain.
We’ve all read the stories and articles and perhaps digested hours of video about massive amounts of volume that professional bodybuilders do to build muscles. Here’s the newsflash, you ain’t a pro! Neither am I, for that matter. Here is where the difference lies.
As a natty lifter, we have much lower limits to the amount of punishment we can deliver to our bodies and still recover between workouts. Add the day to day stresses of our lives and recovery can be the number one thing holding us back in our gains.
If you were to look at the collective opinions of Schoenfeld, Helms, and Isreatel you would find that they look at muscle groups having a maximum recoverable volume or MRV.
The Case for Mediocre Training
Let’s say for instance that the MRV for a body part you’re training is 20 sets. What does that mean? Should you train each body part for 20 sets a week to get maximum gains? My answer is no, in a lot of cases.
Marc Lobliner talked about this in a video a while back. He equated working out to digging a hole that your body would “fill back in” as it recovered. The deeper you dug with volume and intensity the harder it would be to recover.
Here’s the point he tried to get across. If we only dig the hole deep enough to get the job done, but not too deep as to impact recovery, we can actually benefit by training at a more “mediocre” rate.
I once subscribed (in my short lifting career) to maximize sets to get the optimal gains. What I found was that I flirted with overreaching and possibly overtraining much too often. How did I know this?
After a few weeks of lifting, I would start to suffer the classic signs of regression, fatigue and just a feeling that I was spent after a short workout. I would deload for a week and then go at it again.
The problem was I was having to deload way too often. These added deload weeks are weeks away from progress in a lifter’s journey.
There seems to be a sweet spot (at least for me) in the middle or (mediocre range) between Minimum Effective Volume and MRV where my gains took off. I know it’s not just me either. There’s no mistake that we can dig the hole too deep at times.
The trick is to find that sweet spot for the individual muscle group. For instance, legs can and do need more work than biceps. I’ve also found that my back needs more overall volume than other body parts including the chest.
Also, the amount of effort put forth into a set matters just as much as the number of sets done. A set that is “phoned in” will result in much less “hole being dug” and therefore much less needed recovery time.
This is where the basis of progression comes in.
My own programming starts at my perceived Minimum Effective Volume for a body part and progresses to my MRV or if I’m doing a strength block as my reps in a compound movement go down due to higher intensity my volume goes up in accessory movements at lower intensities.
If you follow Steve Shaw’s principals of taking sets to the point where you might fail on the next rep or your form begins to break down, this will ensure that the sets you are doing are maximized.
So, next time you’re considering upping the volume, aim for somewhere in the mid-range between MEV and MRV or progress in volume gradually from MEV to MRV. It works for this old man and I bet it will for you.