If you've been training hard and never missing a workout but are suddenly unable to make progress or even worse, going backwards, you may be dumbfounded and not sure what the problem is. Maybe you've been pushing yourself to your limits every workout, taking every set to failure and crawling out of the gym, but your performance doesn't seem to be improving. If this is you, I'm going to tell you what's very likely to be the issue and it will completely revolutionize the way you look at your training. You're probably training too hard and need to understand the concept of proper volume and recovery.
How Progress Works
Progress is made by first putting a stress or stimulus onto the body in the form of training, and then recovering from that stress. Both the stimulus and recovery are equally as important, yet most people seem to focus only on the stimulus portion and pay absolutely no mind to how they will manage to recover from said stimulus. This leads to the common problem of the "go all out" approach to training that quite frankly does not work, at least not for those who do not use recovery enhancing drugs. The idea of going all out may seem attractive and it might sound cool to say on Instagram, but the truth is that by training too hard too often, you create a situation in which the stress you place on your body is more than what you're capable of recovering from, and you end up making no progress at all, or even regressing. So each time you go back into the gym after an all out workout, your body is not fully recovered and then you again put more stress on your body than it can recover from. Doing this repeatedly creates a situation in which making progress is impossible until you dial it back in order to allow your body to fully recovery from the stimulus placed on it.
Volume & Recovery
So then, how do you properly manage recovery and still train hard? The first step would be to understand what training volume is and how volume works in regards to training. There are different ways to define volume, but in the context of this article, volume is defined as the total amount of work you do in a given time period. We further define this work as how many "hard sets" you perform. A hard set would be any set taken at least 3 reps or closer to failure. Put simply, if you did 5 sets of bench press three times a week, this means your weekly volume for the bench press is 15 total sets.
The more volume you do, the more progress you make, but the harder it is to recover from. Each muscle group can handle different amounts of volume before recovery becomes an issue. This leads to two relatively new concepts called Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) and Minimally Effective Volume (MEV).
MRV & MEV
Maximum Recoverable Volume is the amount of volume that you can do and still recover. Doing anymore than this would lead to under recovery and eventually stalling or regression. Minimally Effective Volume is the minimum amount of volume that you need to make progress. Less than this would mean you do not make progress and simply maintain, while doing more than this would simply mean faster progress the more you do, up until your MRV. The ultimate goal is to maintain a training volume that is somewhere between these two limits, while trying to stay on the higher end without exceeding your MRV. It’s important to note that these are not magical limits that are set in stone and unchanging, they will vary over time and from person to person. It’s dependent on many variables such as stress in your life, sleep habits, eating habits and other related factors. Different muscle groups have different MRV and MEVs.
Volume isn't the only variable that can affect recovery, training intensity plays a large role as well. Both intensity defined as how close to failure you go, regardless of rep range, and also intensity defined as how close to your one rep max you train at. Just like doing TOO MUCH can affect recovery, so can going too hard or too heavy too often.
When you push a set to failure, you only gain a slight increase in muscle hypertrophy as opposed to leaving a couple reps in the tank, but a very large increase in accumulated fatigue. The trade off is not worth it, as the added stress far outweighs the added hypertrophy. This is why training to failure too often is a bad idea. The majority of your sets should allow for at least 2-3 reps to be left in the tank (also called reps in reserve or RIR).
Training at loads that are very heavy and close to your one rep max will also cause more fatigue than sets that are lighter. Generally, the higher the percentage of your one rep max, the less frequently you can train at those levels without running into recovery problems. For example, most lifters will not be able to handle multiple sets at 90% or higher of their one rep max more than 1-2 times a week, with even 2 times per week pushing the envelope.
While training to failure and/or with very heavy loads causes a lot of fatigue, they are also important aspects of training and should not be neglected just because they are fatigue inducing. However, they should be used in moderation and cycled with lighter, easier training.
Another strategy to help manage recovery is to take scheduled deloads. A deload is a period of time, typically a week long, where you focus on recovery rather than actually trying to progress. You can either take the entire week off from training or you can perform “deload” workouts by reducing your overall volume by 20% (or 1-2 sets per exercise) and cutting the weights used by 50%. This will allow you to fully recover from the stimulus you’ve put on your body during the training cycles and can be very beneficial. If you have a planned deload coming soon, it is sometimes a good idea to push OVER your MRV and do more volume than your body can typically recover from had a deload not been planned. This works because had you continued to workout and not taken a deload, you would be under recovered, however, since your deload is coming up, your MRV is actually slightly higher with the deload in the equation. If a deload is coming up, it makes little sense to only do the amount of volume you could recover from even if you didn't deload - take advantage of the upcoming deload and push extra hard just before the deload.
So the key takeaways here are to keep track of your total volume, do not take every set to failure and instead try to leave reps in reserve, cycle your intensity and high volume days rather than going too heavy too often, try to train with enough volume so you're always near your MRV without exceeding it and include deloads when needed.
So if you've been stalling and pushing yourself harder and harder in an attempt to force progress and can’t seem to move forward, backing off may be the key to jump starting your progress again. It may even be a good idea to take a deload week to make sure you are fully recovered from the beating you've given your body and then starting fresh with these concepts in mind.
Remember, more is not necessarily better. Work smarter, not harder has never been more true. With this training philosophy in mind, you should have a solid grasp on how to gauge whether you’re going too hard or not hard enough, and then make the proper adjustments to continually progress without hitting plateaus.