One common issue you will find when you look at a lot of intermediate training programs is that they don’t do a great job at being balanced. Regardless of the fact that many programs aren’t specific to powerlifting, the big 3 (bench, squat, and deadlift) are often the center point.

If we take a look at what the big 3 really focuses on muscle group wise:

  • Bench Press: Chest and triceps, and front delts to some extent.
  • Squat: This one varies a bit depending on your bodies leverage, but it is mainly some ratio of quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
  • Deadlift: Hits the posterior chain well which includes the spinal erectors (lower back), glutes, hamstrings, lats and also traps.

All of these lifts are big compound movements, so they do end up hitting a lot of stabilizing and supporting muscle groups. But looking at these from a hypertrophic standpoint, you shouldn’t expect much growth in say your calves from deadlifting even though calves are technically a part of the posterior chain.

Another problem with many of these programs is that there is the assumption that the deadlift is pretty much all you need for back development. Really you want to be hitting the back from multiple planes (horizontal and vertical) to maximize your growth potential since your back is made up many muscles.

And how often do you see a program that says you don’t need to specifically target your arms or calves and that your compound movements will be sufficient? If you are happy with the current size of your arms and calves, then maybe those programs work fine. But those who set out wanting to get bigger arms yet never doing specific bicep or tricep training are going to be sadly disappointed.

Quick note: My training focuses on size and strength, not purely strength. If you don’t care about size and are focused purely on strength or speed for powerlifting or olympic lifting, then this attention to programming is not as important for your sport.

So what is to be done about this?

Thankfully this is an area where there has been a lot of research done and people much more knowledgable in this domain than myself have given their advice.

Dr. Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodization has come up with some good ‘landmarks’ of training volume based on individual muscle groups. The main concept of volume that he uses is working sets. Working sets can be a fairly dubious term, but he puts a strict definition on it for his advice.

Essentially a working set to Dr. Mike is a between 60-80% of your one-rep max on average and tends to be between 8-20 reps on average. Additionally these sets should be between 4-1 reps away from (concentric) failure.

There are a few different terms that Dr. Mike has come up with will help to plan your program.

  • Maintenance Volume (MV) – The minimum volume needed in order to prevent muscle loss in that specific muscle group.
  • Minimum Effective Volume (MEV) – The minimum amount of volume needed in order to actually grow that muscle group.
  • Maximum Adaptive Volume (MAV) – The range where you will make optimal growth in the muscle group.
  • Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) – The limit on how much volume you should hit each muscle group and be still able to recover.

This table below lists per muscle group the different volume ranges, the ideal frequency to hit the muscle group each week, and a link to the detailed look by Dr. Mike.

Muscle GroupMVMEVMAVMRVFrequencyURL
Front Delt006-8121-2Front Delt
Rear/Side Delts6816-22262-6Rear/Side Delts

To me this has turned out to be exceptionally helpful in identifying areas where I was not hitting nearly enough volume, or way too much volume. For instance, hitting my traps is something I did usually once a week, but based on this advice I’ve realized that for optimal growth I needed to modify my program to hit traps more times per week.

You’ll notice there is a lot of volume, and depending on if you are hitting on the lower or higher end of the MAV, you might struggle to find enough time to actually hit all of those sets. This is important to take note of, because you actually doing want to be hitting the top end of the MAV for all muscle groups at the same time.

Your body only has so much recovering capabilities so if you are heavily taxing your entire body you’re going to struggle to recover. But if you cycle your programming you can easily have a month or two where you focus more on your legs and less on your upper body, or vice-versa and hit on the upper end of volume for the target areas, and the lower end, or even the MEV, for the areas you aren’t focusing on.

If nothing else, this knowledge is useful to keep in mind when program shopping and trying to find one that fits your needs. As you can see from the table, you can be fine with no extra work on abs, front delts, glutes, and traps. But if you are wanting to grow your triceps but you don’t see at least 6 sets per week of dedicated tricep training, you know that program is not the one for you (or you can modify it).

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