To build muscle, an average bodybuilder should do 10-20 sets per muscle group on a weekly basis. But how many sets are needed for muscle maintenance ? In jargon: what is the maintenance volume?
1. To maintain muscle mass (MV), it takes at least about a third of the number of sets you need to do for maximum muscle growth (MAV).
2. The condition is that you use the same intensity, both absolutely (the weight) and relative (the effort, or the extent to which you train until muscle failure). If that doesn’t work, for example because you suddenly have to train at home, then a MV of a third is probably not enough. Then aim for half of your MAV.
MUSCLE GROWTH VS. MUSCLE MAINTENANCE
Building muscle is quite a job. Fortunately, maintaining muscle mass and strength takes a lot less work. Compare it to learning a foreign language: it takes a lot of time and effort to learn the language, but once you master it, you need to do relatively little to maintain it. Watching a movie in that language once a week can then suffice, for example.
It works exactly like this with muscle mass: to grow, you may have to do 15 sets per week per muscle group. But to maintain the muscle mass gained (‘maintenance’), you will suffice with significantly fewer sets. But what is ‘less’?
WHAT IS TRAINING VOLUME?
By training volume we mean the workload of the strength athlete, usually expressed in the number of sets per muscle group per week.
We define a ‘set’ as a series of 5-20 repetitions of a certain exercise, with the last repetitions being close to muscle failure, for example one or two repetitions away (1-2) – not to complete muscle failure.
The repetitions just before muscle failure are the most stimulating repetitions for muscle growth, also called effective repetitions. If you stay far away from muscle failure, say five reps, you’ll miss those stimulating reps and so there’s no question of a full set. Complete to muscle failure is also not the intention, because that causes a disproportionate amount of fatigue, which is at the expense of your total recovery capacity (Maximum Recoverable Volume, MRV).
What does scientific research say about the optimal number of sets for muscle maintenance?
TRAINING VOLUME FOR MUSCLE GROWTH (MEV AND MAV)
First, let’s focus on research into training volume for muscle growth. This is largely present and indirectly also says something about training volume for maintenance.
According to a meta-analysis by hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld, 10 sets per muscle group per week is a great starting point for building muscle mass. However, Schoenfeld and his colleague Krieger also found the necessary studies in which beginners already achieved muscle growth in less than 10 sets. In other words: ≥10 sets per muscle group per week gives maximum muscle growth, but with less than that you can also build muscle.
But what about non-beginners? Fortunately, many more studies have been conducted into training volume for muscle growth since the mentioned meta-study, including some, among others, advanced strength athletes. The results of this are nicely summarized in the ‘Volume Bible‘ by Schoenfeld and his colleague James Krieger. Key finding: intermediate to advanced bodybuilders get the best results with 12-24 sets per muscle group. Doing more sets can be counterproductive, because you cause too much unnecessary muscle damage. After all, in order to grow, you need to recover sufficiently from your training. There is a ceiling not only on a weekly basis, but also per training: you will probably get the best results if you do not do more than 6-8 sets per muscle group per session.
What applies to beginners also applies to intermediates and advanced players: that 12-24 is optimal, but you can also build muscle with fewer sets. Even doing one set to complete muscle failure 2-3 times a week can give you muscle gains. Coach Mike Israetel therefore speaks of a Minimum Effective Volume (MEV), just enough sets for a little muscle growth, versus a Maximum Adaptive Volume (MAV), the amount of sets for maximum muscle growth.
Suppose 16 sets are optimal for you (so it is your MAV) and 12 sets minimum (your MEV). Then you know that you need to do less than 12 sets to maintain your muscles. Israetel calls this maintenance volume the Maintenance Volume (MV). More on that in a moment.
Don’t worry: your body doesn’t just break down muscles. Even if you don’t train at all for a while. Age plays an important role in this.
According to an often-cited study on detraining, you can safely go without training for two weeks. This turned out not to lead to any loss of lean muscle mass in the participants, 20 experienced strength athletes. From these and many other studies, we can conclude that your muscle mass remains intact for two to four weeks even without any form of strength training. This is provided that you continue to eat enough calories and proteins.
In older strength athletes, the process of muscle breakdown starts faster. Coach and author Greg Nuckols therefore thinks that older strength athletes can afford a shorter rest (about 2 weeks) compared to young gym goers (up to 4-8 weeks).
The fact that your muscles can even manage with zero sets per week for a while also shows that you don’t need to do nearly as many sets for long-term maintenance as you do for muscle growth.
MAINTENANCE TRAINING VOLUME (MV)
The studies on training volume for muscle growth and on the effects of detraining thus suggest that the maintenance volume is relatively low.
An oft-cited 2011 study confirms this. That research has shown that strength athletes between the ages of 20 and 35 may be able to maintain their muscles and strength for as long as eight months, while performing only one-ninth of their normal training volume. Older lifters (between 60 and 75 years old) can maintain their gains at a third of their usual training volume.
Many reputable coaches now use a third as a ‘safe’ guideline, also relying on the experiences in their own training practice. A ninth is often not enough, unless you are very young in age and/or training age.
WHEN YOU NEED MORE
As mentioned, you may need more maintenance volume as you get older. We, as early forties for example, take no risks and train for maintenance with at least half of our MAV.
But your MV may also be (much) higher if your training material is limited. If you want to maintain your gym-built muscle mass through improvised home workouts (with low resistance), you’ll need to maintain at least half of your normal training volume or even more. This is necessary because the training stimulus per set is probably less than with your training in the gym. Mike Israel about this:
The raw stimulus magnitude of a lot of exercises is just lower. (…) Five sets of heavy squats doesn’t transfer set to set to even high rep stuff at home, like Bulgarian split squats and stuff. Especially in the 30-50 reprange there’s a significant fall-off in stimulus magnitude. This all means you have to do MORE.
Still, you can safely start your training block with a third of your volume, says Israetel. Based on stimulus signals such as muscle pump and muscle pain, you then determine whether and to what extent you should scale this up.
Because you do fewer sets on a weekly basis, you can in principle use a lower training frequency.
Still, we advise you not to suddenly cram all your volume into one training, especially if you follow a high frequency protocol, where that volume is nicely distributed over the week. During a training, the productivity of sets decreases quickly. If you go past 10 sets per muscle group per workout, you risk doing junk volume.
If possible, maintain your regular training frequency as much as possible, but do shorter training sessions. In any case, do no more than 10 sets per workout and no more than 15 to 25 sets in total.
CONCLUSION AND ADVICE
To maintain muscle mass (MV), it takes at least about a third of the number of sets you need to do for maximum muscle growth (MAV). For example, if you normally need sixteen sets a week for your chest, now do six. If you do three different exercises for the chest, you now do two sets per exercise, for example.
The condition is that you use the same intensity, both absolutely (the weight) and relative (the effort, or the extent to which you train until muscle failure). If that is not possible, for example because you suddenly have to train at home, an MV of one third is not sufficient. If you train at home with mainly bodyweight exercises in high rep ranges, do at least half of your regular number of sets.