4 Variables That Impact Your Training Volume [MRV Series Part 3]

Training volume is a key driver for strength and size gains.

By understanding the following you’ll be able to get the most from your training.

  • In part 1 we learnt what Maximal Recoverable Volume (MRV) is and why it’s a powerful training concept.
  • In part 2 we then took this further and touched on the differences between systemic and sum MRV.

To give you a brief primer:

“Your MRV is the most training you can do and recover back to baseline”

By now you should have a good understanding of what MRV is, and how to go about programming with it. However, you might still be a little confused, and something I often people get a little lost with is the fact their MRV is dynamic. You’re not stuck with a specific MRV for life, and there are many factors that go into how much volume you can effectively do and recover from.

Again special thanks to Mike Israetel, the founder of the concept of MRV.


1] Programme Variables

Training History

What you’ve done in the past can and will impact your MRV.

For example, if when you were at school growing up you did a lot of long distance running most likely you have built a very large work capacity. Whereas, if you’ve got a background of say the long jump you’ve been training in a very different way, developing vastly different characteristics, and are probably less able to work with as high volumes. Finally, if we consider a more mixed sport such as football in which both anaerobic and aerobic qualities are trained they may have an MRV between these two other scenarios.

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I’ve seen this first hand coming from a background of middle distance running and football I am able to handle large quantities of volume for leg training. Whereas, my best friend can recover from far less volume, and thus needs to do less to progress at a similar rate.

Something you could also observe is someone who has always stuck to low volume programmes, something like the original 5/3/1 vs. someone who has implemented high volume blocks. The person who has just come off the back of several higher volume/hypertrophy blocks is going to have a greater work capacity than the guy sticking to their low volume programming.

Finally, overtime your MRV will also increase, you’ll get stronger and develop more work capacity.


Training Intensity

When I am talking about training intensity I am referring to % of 1 repetition max.

The higher your intensity the lower the amount of volume you can do, and thus your MRV will be distinctly different depending on the intensities you use. You have an intensity specific MRV, due to the fact volume and intensity are inversely related.

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We all know that doing multiple sets of our 1 to 3 rep max is incredibly draining, whereas doing sets of 10+ are yes tiring but much more manageable. Thus, we can obviously train with higher volumes the lower the intensity.


Exercise selection

What’s harder a 3×10 squat or a 3×10 leg press?

Squatting obviously.

What’s harder a 3×10 leg press or a 3×10 leg extension?

Leg press obviously.

You can therefore see that the exercises we select impact the volume we can achieve, of course we would need to be talking about volume in terms of reps x sets, because it gets a lot more complicated when load is involved. Every single exercise is going to have its own individual MRV.

More fatiguing lifts:

  • More muscles used to perform
  • Larger range of motion
  • Ability to use more weight

They inherently therefore have lower MRVs, but they also likely have an even higher per-volume hypertrophic and strength effect, so that they actually might be better per-unit MRV. However, just like the greater the intensity the higher the hypertrophic potential don’t expect yourself to be able to do high amounts of volume with very fatiguing lifts.

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Does this therefore mean leg presses and leg extensions are better because you can do more volume? No. The key isn’t doing more volume, as we learned already it’s all about working up to the amount you can recover from, if you don’t do squats for a time it just means you can do more, which isn’t necessarily better, it just is.

Also what you must consider is overlap within exercises, whilst the leg extension only contributes to quad MRV the squat hits the quads and glutes big time and to a lessor extent the erectors, calves and abdominals. Big compound movements really should be the bread and butter of your programme, whilst you may not be able to do as many sets with them, you simply don’t need to because they cover so many bases.

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A good rule of thumb is to have roughly 70% of your volume come from the big compound basics, leaving 30% for isolation work.


2] Nutritional Variables

Calorie Intake

We don’t need scientific studies to tell us that when we eat less:

  • Our recovery goes down
  • Our performance goes down

And thus our MRV goes down.

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When we’re given a surplus of Calories we recover faster and have more energy to put into training, and thus our MRV rises. You can’t simply keep overfeeding and keep doing more, there is a cut off point in which foods power is no longer able to mend all the damage we inflict on our muscles.

This is a big reason a Calorie surplus is so powerful for stimulating muscle growth.


Macro Intake

Two people could be on the same Calories but have different MRVs due to their macro composition.

Each macronutrient plays a distinct role, in brief:

  • Carbs – our main source of energy
  • Protein – growth and recovery
  • Fats – essential vitamins

Thus, if we get the right amount of each we maximise our abilities to perform in the gym, and thus can deal with more volume. Check out this comprehensive article to make sure you’re getting the right balance.


Supplementation

There are a few supplements in the literature that have shown to aid performance:

  • Creatine – for short bouts of intense exercise [1]
  • Beta Alanine – for longer bouts of prolonged exercise (exercise lasting from about 30 secs to 10 mins) [2]
  • Caffeine – lowers perceived effort, increases power output [3,4]

Thus, by supplementing with these you can increase your MRV, however, I want to make an important distinction. Creatine and Beta alanine have chronic effects, and thus given daily intake they’ll provide an elevated MRV for their given intensities. However, caffeine is acute i.e. it provides a benefit the day you take it.

Get a free sports supplement ebook here.


Nutrient Timing

What you eat matters, but so too does when you eat.

For example we know carbs provide fuel for energy, and getting the right total amount by the end of the day is most important. However, if you eat your carbs when you need them most (around your workouts) you can elevate your performance. This is likely to have a very minor impact and may only be noticeable when your carbs are low i.e. you’re dieting.

If you want to keep your MRV as high as possible it makes sense to sandwich your workouts with carbs, to promote performance and recovery.

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3] Life Variables

Sleep

We know sleep’s important, but we hardly ever give it enough credit.

A tonne of good stuff happens when you go to sleep, it’s like a dirty car going through a car wash, going in grubby and coming out sparkling, except you’re entering your bed tired and achy and waking up awake and fit. It’s as important as nutrition when it comes to our ability to recover, you cannot eat some extra carbs to make up for crappy sleep.

There is no shortcut.

The simple fact that it makes up more than a third of our time on earth should tell you that it is important. If you live to 90 that is over 30 years of sleeping! So it is really key for us to understand how we can get the most from it.

There are two types of sleep;

  1. Non Rapid Eye Movement (NREM)
  2. Rapid Eye Movement (REM).

We enter NREM and then pass through ‘4 stages of sleep’ before ending in REM otherwise known as ‘deep sleep’.

Our body’s recovery gets jacked right up just before we enter deep sleep. What happens is our metabolic activity drops to its lowest, allowing our body to focus its energy on growth and repair. Growth Hormone (GH) is secreted; this is a very powerful hormone and sleep is the best way to naturally increase it along with exercise [5]. You’ve no doubt heard of it, but to keep things simple just take it as it sounds, it promotes growth, it is anabolic, which is good. In addition melatonin is produced, that along with GH promote immune function. Which in turn reduces our chances of getting sick, and if we’re not sick we can train and stick to our diet more easily.

Personally if I nail my sleep a few nights in a row I feel a million dollars, the better your sleep the better your recovery and thus the more volume you can do.

Everyone requires different amounts, generally 6 to 8 hours is a good rule of thumb.


Stress

Stress is stress is stress.

The body views all stress in a very similar manner, whether it be from your job, family, friends, or training. Obviously not all stress is bad, we know from Selye’s General Adaptation Theory that we need to provide a sufficient training stress to cause an adaptation. That’s a large part of what MRV is, you’re accumulating more training stress to a peak to stimulate adaptation, so we get bigger and stronger.

But every stressor takes away from our pool of resources, we can think of it like a sink, each stressor coming in needs to be drained away at a sufficient enough speed or we’ll overflow. If we have things outside of our weight training adding to this pool of stress we must limit our training stress, or we risk overflowing.

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As you can see above we have an MRV capacity, all stress adds to this, once we get to capacity whether it be from more outside stress or workout stress we have officially reached MRV, as we cannot drain the stress any faster. Once we’ve overflown we’re officially breaching our MRV and thus overreached and would need to deload.

Keeping down stress outside the gym not only allows for more training because it’s not contributing to overall stress levels, but it also allows for more time to recover and thus we drain our stress more efficiently, leaving even more room for training volume.


4] Genetics

Last but not least; what our parents gave us; genetics.

We’re all born with a genetic code and of course we can express it in different ways, but without getting too much into epigenetics there are a few things we can establish. We’re all unique, and whilst we are very much similar, we are not all the same, our slow twitch to fast twitch ratios, our responsiveness to weight training etc. are all somewhat determined at birth.

Furthermore, women on average seem to recover faster, I’ve heard this from Bret Contreras who trains a lot of females and experienced this with my own clients. They may be in part be down to the fact that women are generally smaller and weaker, meaning they do not generate as much fatigue and thus can recover faster and deal with greater volumes.

Thus, whilst we can give broad recommendations for MRV we’re all going to be inherently different, and some of this is determined at birth.


Summary & Practical Application

As you can see there are a variety of things that impact our MRV, this is not even an exhaustive list but it does go to show how dynamic MRV can be. The point of this article was to stop people pigeon holing themselves to a certain MRV, you must constantly be assessing your training performance and adjusting things to keep you on track.

It should also give you some awareness of how you can improve your training;

  • Get better, higher quality sleep
  • Reduce life stress
  • Supplement effectively

^ Do those things and you’ll be able to do and recover from more training, which will translate into superior gains.

And we all want superior gains.


WHAT NEXT?

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References:

  1. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2007, 4:6
  2. Saunders B et al. β-alanine supplementation to improve exercise capacity and performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2016 Oct 18
  3. Duncan MJ, Oxford SW: The effect of caffeine ingestion on mood state and bench press performance to failure. J Strength Cond Res 2011, 25:178-185.
  4. Tarnopolsky MA, et al: Physiological responses to caffeine during endurance running in habitual caffeine users. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1989, 21:418-424.
  5. Dinges D, Chugh D. Physiological correlates of sleep deprivation. In: Kinney J, Tucker H, editors.Physiology, Stress, and Malnutrition: Functional Correlates, Nutritional Intervention. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1997. p. 668.

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