Is Your Diet Killing Your Muscle Gains?




Mike Israetel spoke about the Minimum Effective Volume and Maximum Recoverable Volume for your training in the Bulking Debate with Eric Helms. Minimum Effective Volume is the minimum amount of training you need to actually see any progress whatsoever. Just below this is maintenance volume. Significantly above this is the Maximum Recoverable Volume, whereby if you go any higher, you will begin to overreach, and eventually, overtrain if you don’t allow for recovery.


What he doesn’t seem to mention though, is the enormity of the impact that food will have on your MEV and MRV. Food plays a huge role in determining the amount of training you need to do in order to get a desired effect. This should be obvious, but I want to make this concept clear.


I’ve also written about this before here and here, so you can read that to get more of an idea.


Master Your Volume


Here’s a visualisation of what all of these numbers may look like for an intermediate:


Overtraining (if consistently above MRV) – 20+ sets per week per body part

Maximum Recoverable Volume – 20 sets

Minimum Effective Volume – 8 sets

Maintenance Volume – 5-6 sets


There is a huge range here between the MEV and MRV. This is mainly to accomodate the fact that your body does indeed adapt to stresses and certain levels of volume, and will require more volume in order to keep progressing. However, there is a limit to this; the MRV.


It also allows for individual variances from person to person and for differing amounts of food intake. The more food you eat, the lower your MEV is likely to be, and the higher your MRV is likely to be. The above numbers are for the general intermediate population as a whole. However, imagine Bill, who is 180 pounds and is eating 2200 calories per day (a solid caloric deficit for him).


Bill’s Maintenance Volume requirements will be about 6 sets per week (roughly). His MEV is going to be about 8 sets. His MRV is going to be about 12-15 sets (depending on the size of the deficit and other external stressors). Can you see how the margin for error is so much smaller in a caloric deficit? The balancing act becomes more precarious.


Now imagine Bill eating 3000 calories per day. Will these numbers change? Yes.


He is eating a solid calorie surplus, and his body is now in a very anabolic environment, compared to the muscle-endangering environment he was in before. Because of this increase in anabolism, do you think this might change the amount of training he needs to maintain his muscle?


Yes. His Maintenance Volume will fall to about 4-5 sets per week. His MEV will also fall to about 6 sets instead of 8. Think about it. He’s eating loads of food, so any training he does is going to be more anabolic than before. His MRV will have increased. Probably to about 20 sets, obviously assuming the RPE is held constant at about 8-9.


Because of this huge increase in food intake, Bill can now train less and still get bigger and stronger. He can also train A LOT MORE and still recover, and hence get bigger and stronger.


One Slip, And You’re Gone


This is why when you’re dieting, you need to be careful. You need to imagine the range between your MEV and MRV shrinking. Every workout needs to be well calculated, well spaced out and has to serve a very definite purpose. Push it too far with training, and you have no chance of recovering. Slack off too much and you’re not doing enough work to maintain what you currently have.


This is where periods of maintenance calories can be really useful during a long diet. If you have scheduled 2 week blocks (although you could just take them as required), you can use these to tactically raise calories and volumes to recover a bit of lost strength, and reset any hormonal imbalances (if you’re trying to get very lean).


Furthermore, as I hinted at above, you need to be very aware of other external life stressors whilst dieting. You don’t want to have a busy period at work, multiple kids running round the house or anything like that. It’s just going to reduce your recovery even further, almost to the point where there’s no difference between your MEV and MRV.


This is a terrible situation to be in because:


  • You have no room for error at all
  • You have no idea exactly where this is
  • You are constantly on the verge of losing muscle mass, either by undertraining or overtraining


Make sure your stress management techniques are on point.


There you go. When you’re planning your training program, keep in mind just how important your food intake is, and just how this will impact the amounnt of training you can do.


Get to work.


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