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’s not possible, for example because you suddenly have to train at home, an MV of one third is not sufficient.
3. If you train at home with mostly bodyweight exercises in high rep ranges, do at least half of your regular number of sets.
4. Also older strength athletes (>35 years) probably need more than a third to maintain their muscle mass, even if the training intensity remains the same.
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.
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, you will suffice with significantly fewer sets. But what is ‘less’?
WHAT IS A SET?
First: we define a ‘set’ as a series of 6-20 repetitions, with the last repetitions being close to muscle failure, for example one or two repetitions away (1-2 RIR) — not to complete muscle failure. After all, the last repetitions are the most stimulating ones for muscle growth, also known as effective reps. 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.
In addition, this definition is based on regular rest periods between sets, ie 1-2 minutes for isolation exercises and 2-5 minutes for compound exercises.
The number of sets you do is also called the training volume. This is usually expressed in number of sets per muscle group per week.
What does scientific research say about the optimal number of sets for muscle maintenance?
TRAINING VOLUME FOR MUSCLE GROWTH (MEV AND MAV)
Let’s focus first on research into training volume for muscle growth. This is in fact widely available 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 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 you can also build muscle with less than that.
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’ll 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 bodybuilders: 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 can to do less than 12 sets to maintain your muscles. Israetel calls this maintenance volume the Maintenance Volume (MV).
Don’t worry: your body doesn’t just break down muscles. Even if you don’t train at all for a while.
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 some other studies we can conclude that your muscle mass remains intact for two to three weeks even without any form of strength training. This is provided that you continue to eat enough calories and proteins. And in older strength athletes, the process of muscle breakdown may start more quickly, especially due to the lower testosterone levels.
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. A comprehensive study from 2011 confirms that: for muscle preservation usually suffice third or even only a ninth of the training volume for muscle growth.
Age does play an important role in this. Young strength athletes (18-35 years) maintained their gains by a ninth, while they even achieved muscle growth by a third. Older strength athletes (60-75 years), on the other hand, did not fully retain their gained muscle mass, neither at one ninth nor at one third of the original training volume. They therefore need considerably more stimulus to keep their muscle mass intact.
Most reputable coaches nowadays use a third as a ‘safe’ guideline, also relying on the experiences in their own training practice.
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 upon 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, Israetel says. 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 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 normally only do three sets for a certain muscle group during your training and now suddenly six, then the productivity of those last three sets will be lower than normal. And you don’t want that.
If possible, maintain your regular training frequency as much as possible, but do shorter training sessions.
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.
Also older strength athletes (>35 years) probably need more than a third to maintain their muscle mass, even if the training intensity remains the same.