Here’s everything you need to know about minimal effective training volume in just three minutes.
How little can you train and still maintain or build muscle? It depends on how many effective you do during a set.
The Bullet Points
Minimal effective volume is the fewest number of sets and reps you can do and still build muscle. But this idea needs to be put into context.
If you take a set to failure, that set will contain more effective reps. The closer the reps are to failure, the more effective those reps become at stimulating hypertrophy.
If you stop 2 reps short of failure, that set will be half as effective as a set taken to failure.
If you push your sets to failure, you actually don’t need a lot of volume to trigger growth.
When I do an effort-based program, lower volume and taking sets to failure, I can keep building muscle at 4-6 sets per muscle per week. That’s equivalent to 10-12 sets NOT taken to failure.
If you don’t take sets to failure, volume becomes more important for building muscle: you need more of it.
When it comes to non-failure training, you can maintain muscle using about one-fourth of your normal volume. If you normally do 20 sets per muscle per week, you can maintain muscle mass with 5 sets per muscle per week done at the same level of effort. If you push those 5 sets to failure, you may actually gain muscle.
For a detailed plan, check out my Hypertrophy training system:
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It actually depends on how much you’ve been training. The figure is 25-33% of your usual weekly volume for muscle maintenance (at the same effort level as your normal work).
So someone who has been doing 30 sets per week for a decent time, will need to keep doing 8-10 sets to maintain his muscle mass whereas someone who has been doing 12 sets per week for a while will only need 3-4 sets per week.
2 work sets per muscle per week might be a bit low for most people.
I think some of it comes down to a general guideline not being a one size fits all. If you have developed a muscle group extensively, I think it will be harder to maintain, than if that muscle only had slight development.
Same for strength. If you have really developed a lift. It is close to what you are capable of kind of thing, it will take more effort to maintain, than a lift that isn’t all that developed for you. For me, I’ve developed my bench press strength to be pretty good for a guy my size and genetics. I’ve done close to double body weight (405 at 215 lbs). If I back off of training, that strength plummets, which it has in the past due to injury. My deadlift which is decent, but not as impressive (600 at about the same body weight) seems more resistant to degradation. I can put it on the back burner for a long while and still put up 585. If I do that on bench, I am lucky to hit 330 lbs.
That’s even harder to answer because a lot more factors are involved in strength; most importantly muscle mass, neurological efficiency and technical efficiency. All three can (will likely) diminish as you lower volume. Now, they might not decrease at the same time which is why it can be hard to evaluate the proper dose.
Furthermore, there are many ways to train for strength. And each would likely have its own minimal effective volume.
You can do “heavy hypertrophy” to gain strength (e.g. sets of 6-8 reps); you can do traditional heavy training (sets of 3-5 reps); you can do max effort training (1-3 reps with max loads); you can do strength-skill work (sets of 3-5 reps at 70-80% for plenty of sets); you can use methods like clusters or stuff like overloads.
Each works via a different mechanism and have a different impact on the 3 strength factors mentioned above.
So my answer is, “I don’t know”.
I personally am not super interested in the minimal effective volume. I think that a lot of people are just trying to find a justification to train less. Now, if you are in a life situation where you don’t have a choice but cut down your training, it might be useful to know. Sadly, as I explained, with strength I don’t really know.
The one thing I know was that one study done with soccer players, in-season. They were able to maintain the strength they gained during their off-season with one lifting workout per week. They maintained it for 12 weeks, during the season, which can arguably be bad for strength due to the volume of soccer work.
True, peak strength seems to drop fast if you drop the loads but come back fast. But I can easily maintain strength with very low volume.
But peak size doesn’t seem to maintain very long. I’ve done some things like 5 day a week arm routines, added a 1/2 inch to arms, but as soon as I go back to normal weekly voulme, it starts dropping and the size is all gone in a couple months again.
That’s because it wasn’t muscle. It was local inflammation, edema and transiently increased glycogen storage.
For example, when you take a 1-week break, you feel like you are losing tons of muscle and getting smaller, in reality, you are just flushing out the water retention/edema and getting rid of the local inflammation. It makes you look smaller, but it’s not muscle loss.
no, it’s happened many times with volume reductions. From 2-5 months of progressive size increases (not even high volume)(even with lower reps) so for sure not inflammation nor glycogen.
the 5 day a week arm routine was 2 sets, mon-fri for 5-6 weeks, no doms, no inflammation, not enough volume for glycogen super comp…
What you are describing, yes, high volume for short term, then deflating with a week off, but this effect is different, it’s longer term slow and steady size increases, that slowly leave over 2-3 months when backing off.
Yes, that’s what it is. It happens to almost anyone who switches to a high-volume approach to an effort-based/low-volume approach too. Which is why some people believe that they are losing muscle even though their strength is often going up.
More volume causes more muscle damage, which causes more inflammation (inflammation is in response to damage, so it stays as long as you continue causing muscle damage via the high volume).
The increase in glycogen storage is also the same thing: it stays with you as long as you provide the stimulus to keep it up through a large volume of work requiring more glycogen for fuel.
No, that would be true for me, if I was going to a high volume setup, but this wasn’t high volume, nor such a big increase in volume for glycogen accumulation. No DOMS, no muscle damage so no muscle swelling. Also, edema clears in about 3 days after that last bout, it doesn’t take 2 months to slowly drop. I’ve seen it happen with months of 3x3 or 5x3, then dropping back and slowly losing the size I had accumulated. Some of us just do not hold our muscle as well as others.