If you’re a fellow personal trainer, physio, athlete – if your job involves working with other people and their bodies – this page is for you. I believe that the only path to progress in our industry is through the decentralization of information – where professionals freely share methods and results. I am not a maximalist for any one system or modality, and am not looking to create a business model dependent on gate-keeping some end all “movement system”. Take whatever you find useful, and feel free to get in touch with me.
Minimum Effective <———————-> Maximum Recoverable
This is a spectrum now circulating in the videos and discussions of prominent strength coaches and bodybuilders – with an additional word – volume. The discussion at present is around minimum effective volume and maximum recoverable volume.
However, the spectrum exists for other variables in training – namely – intensity and frequency.
Volume, as noted by many, has taken the favor of study designers in this field by storm. Everyone wants to know about volume. Well – let’s offer some perspective.
Thankfully, we have some widespread agreement that three, perhaps, the three primary drivers of muscle growth are: Mechanical Tension, Metabolic Stress, and Muscle Damage. Before we dive in – it’s worth mentioning that these three drivers are characteristics defining the stimulus, ie, the workout, and don’t speak to a person’s adaptive anabolism.
Each three of these factors above are dependent upon volume, intensity, and frequency – that is – there is a minimum effective level of volume, intensity, and frequency, required to create a minimum effective level of mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. This points to my conclusion, being, that programming a workout to be in the optimal zone between the two points of minimum effective, and maximum recoverable, actually depends upon the cumulative and relative stress presented through all six of these factors (Mechanical tension, metabolic stress, muscle damage, as well as , volume, intensity, and frequency)
So, let’s get into it.
Looking at volume, if a person were to perform 10 sets of 10 reps (German Volume Training) of an exercise, say, back squats, this would, at first glance, probably place the person far towards maximum recoverable. They’d need to take more time to repeat the workout, thus pushing down their available frequency. However – without taking into account the intensity, or, intensiveness, we really don’t know. Intensity is classically defined as a percentage of a persons 1RM – easily calculated on something like back squats, while intensiveness is defined by measures of proximity to failure, via RIR (reps in reserve) RPE (rate of perceived exertion), as well as by forced reps, drop sets, and other exhausting steps to continue the effort after the first moment of failure to move the weight. Obviously, if the 10 sets of 10 reps were performed at 50% of the person’s 1RM – the workout might fall within that optimal zone. However, as literature into volume suggests (~10 working sets per muscle per week as a midpoint) – this single workout providing ten working sets may entirely fulfill the recoverable volume for the WHOLE WEEK – thus, pushing frequency down. If the weight used was a mere 25% their 1RM – suddenly we might be outside the bottom fence, as, most studies on effective intensity point to 30% of a person’s 1RM being the minimum effective. So – measuring volume alone doesn’t place the stimulus presented by a workout without also accounting for intensity and frequency.
It’s far beyond the scope of any one article, study, or conversation, to present the holy grail of programming.
Instead, I’d like to shed light on the cumulative and relative contributions that intensity, frequency, and volume, all make in order to place a persons programming somewhere within the range of minimum effective to maximum recoverable. If volume goes up – frequency and or intensity must drop, or the absolute stress of training goes up, perhaps beyond maximum recoverable. If intensity goes up – volume and or frequency must drop. If frequency goes up, volume and or intensity must go down. Does one size fit all? Certainly not. The factors that make one distribution of stress over these factors ideal for one person versus another is the real special sauce, so to speak, where a good coach or a seasoned athlete will be able to assess a person’s capacity, skill, and goals. Next article, I’ll dive more into the three drivers of muscle growth inside of a workout – mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage.