The second article of our volume series will take a look at the optimal back volume.
This article series will cover the most important facts you need to know about the volume for each muscle. This helps you to tailor your own training programme.
If you’re not yet familiar with what volume is, how it affects muscle growth and what you should know about it, check out our complete guide about the optimal volume for hypertrophy.
What can you expect from this article series about volume applied to each muscle? Based on Dr Mike Israetel’s knowledge and experience, as well as our own, we want to clarify which volume works best for each muscle.
So, in today’s article, we will go more in-depth into the optimal back volume and give you certain benchmarks that you can use as starting points.
MV – Maintenance Volume
In this case, MV stands for “Maintenance Volume“, the minimum amount of work that is required to maintain your muscles size.
Why is it important to know your MV?
This is important because if you have to fall back or reduce your workouts for a certain reason, you don’t want to lose your hard acquired gains, do you?
Moreover, after a cycle of heavy workouts in between your MAV and MRV or even above your MRV, it is for sure a good thing to lower your volume now and then. Thereby your body can desensitize and fully recover again.
For that reason, it is crucial to know where your MV lies to ensure muscle maintenance. Likewise, you want to avoid exaggerating efforts in your”deload phase”.
Where can we set a point of reference for the optimal back volume?
MV: 8 sets / week
On average around 8 sets per week will maintain your back’s current size. This means you could do 4 sets of heavy rows on Monday and 4 sets of pull-ups on Thursday.
MEV – Minimum Effective Volume
After we covered the MV required to maintain muscles, apparently we want to know how much volume is required to grow our muscles and make progress.
For that, we need the Minimum Effective Volume. The MEV refers to the minimum amount of work that needs to be done to build muscles and increase size.
Why is it important to know your MEV?
Simple. As well as it is important to know how much volume the back needs to keep its current size, it is at least of similar importance to know how much volume is required to strengthen and increase our back.
How many sets should you do at least?
MEV: 10+ sets / week
Most individuals need at least 10 sets each week to grow their back.
So if you’re current programme contains less than 10 sets, that’s probably not enough and you’re not making any progress at all.
I would recommend using 10 sets per week when starting to design your workout routine.
For example, you could start the first week with 10 sets and over time slowly increase your volume by adding sets and weights.
Once again, you should see this as a benchmark and not as fixed values!
MAV – Maximum Adaptive Volume
But we don’t want to stay within the minimum effective volume, we want to maximize our efforts to get the best possible results, right?
Along these lines, the Maximum Adaptive Volume comes into play.
Why is it important to know your MAV?
Do you want to train all your time with the least effective volume?
Exactly, I doubt that!
In order to get the best results, we need to put more effort into our workout and increase the volume. Accordingly, it is important to know your MAV to maximize muscle growth.
So, how much volume do we need to stimulate the most effective muscle growth?
MAV: 14-22 sets / week
With around 14-22 sets per week, your muscles tend to respond positively to workforces in the gym.
Therefore, the optimal back volume probably lies somewhere between 14-22 sets per week.
Practically, when you start your mesocycle with an MEV around 10 sets work you’re way up gradually. Somewhere between 14-22 sets will prolly be your MAV.
The best way to precisely unravel where your MAV lies is by actually doing and trying multiple things.
But is your MAV steady? No, of course not.
These values shift over time when you make progress and your muscles grow.
Eventually, this is why it is so important to take these recommendations only as benchmarks. Adjust them to your current workout level and experience gradually.
MRV – Maximum Recoverable Volume
After some weeks of training in your mesocycle, you will get to the point where you overreach your MRV. The Maximum Recoverable Volume.
What does that mean?
The MRV refers to the maximum volume which your body can recover properly.
In other words, the maximum amount of work that you can sustain before your strength and performance might decrease. This is due to a lack of adequate rest.
Why is it important to know your MRV?
Briefly speaking, nobody wants to take a forced break just because we overreached our MRV.
Therefore, it is crucial to know your MRV to keep your body recovered and avoid redundant breaks.
Which volume overreaches the MRV and which can be sustained?
MRV: 20-25 sets / week
Most individuals will be able to recover from 20-25 sets each week properly and thus set stimuli to grow their muscles.
Accordingly, a good point of reference for you lies around 20-25 sets per week. The back is a really big muscle which can sustain relatively large volumes.
But again, these are not precise rigid values, just benchmarks which you can use as a point of reference.
Some people might already overreach their MRV with less than 20 sets but others can even go higher than 25 sets per week. But that is relatively unusual, especially for natural athletes.
Therefore, the one and only formula: adjust your workout plan over each week and increase your volume.
When you get to a point where you’re performance starts stagnating for a whole week or even decrease, it is most likely that you exceeded your MRV!
Now, after we covered the basic volume parameters for the different stages, we will continue with other important variables and how they influence the optimal back volume.
What about the frequency? How often should we train our back each week to get the optimal back volume?
For most individuals, 2-4 heavy back workouts per week will work effectively.
I would not recommend going higher than 4 workouts because the back is a really big muscle that takes a lot of damage and accordingly needs some time to recover. Any above 4 overloading workouts per week is likely too much.
How intense can we rain our back?
Generally, we can say that a rep range between 6-20 is beneficial for most people.
When training our back it is important that we use challenging weights because it seems that the back tends to respond most positively to high forces around 6-8 reps.
But, of course, this will vary again individually.
For some folks, a low rep range around the abovementioned 6-8 will work fine whereas others do not really get a good feeling with that and prefer higher rep ranges around 10-15.
Even some people need 20 reps to feel their back properly. But if you’re doing more than 20 reps on average you’re probably not getting any bigger.
Same applies for rep ranges lower than 6-8. It is most likely that you’re becoming stronger but you will not get that much bigger either.
However, rep ranges over 6-8 reps can be appropriate for your current stance and goal. Moreover, it is important to not solely work with one fixed rep range and include some variety into your workouts.
I would recommend using both, lower heavier and higher lighter rep ranges. This enables you to get heavy forces done but still do some isolation movements to finish your muscle and enhance your pump.
Back workout – Exercises
Considering the back workout, we can split the exercises into two groups:
Horizontal Pulling Exercises:
- Barbell Bent Over Row
- Row to Chest
- One-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Two-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Chest Supported Row
- Rowing Machine
- Cable Row
Vertical Pulling Exercises:
- Overhand Pull-up
- Parallel Pullup
- Underhand Pullup
- Wide Grip Pullup
- Narrow Grip Pullup
- “Normal” Pulldown
- Parallel Pulldown
- Underhand Pulldown
- Wide Grip Pulldown
- Narrow Grip Pulldown
Here the same as for the chest exercises applies.
You can vary the width of your grip into a lot of different positions (narrow, wide).
Therefore, I recommend you don’t stick a single variation (unless you found the way that works best for you and that brings you joy). Try out different variations every so often.
Range of motion
When we talk about the optimal back volume, we can identify two different ways how to train the back muscles: vertical & horizontal pulling.
A lot of people fail to use a proper range of motion as well as neglecting full stretch. With that, they waste a lot of potentials to increase their back growth.
It is really important to stretch and contract your back properly because it is shown that full contraction and stretch activates more muscles and eventually maximizes your muscle growth.
What’s the point in using heavy weights that you can’t control and only using a restricted range of motion? Eventually, you restrict your own muscle growth…
I would recommend you to at least train your back with both angles to get the optimal back volume.
This is because our back is composed of a lot of different muscle fibres. Means, you cannot just do pull-ups every workout and expect a fully developed back.
You don’t have to include vertical and horizontal exercises in every workout, but over your weekly/monthly cycles, you should definitely keep an eye on that to find a good balance!
For example, you could one day prioritize horizontal pulling exercises and your second workout focusses on vertical pulling exercises.
Furthermore, you could split your vertical and horizontal emphasis on a weekly basis instead of changing each workout. But I would not recommend going with a full month only vertical or horizontal prioritization.
A balanced 50/50 split with both vertical and horizontal pulling exercises will bring great results for a fully developed back.
Personally, I would prefer the split during workouts of the week but that’s only my opinion, just give it a shot and see what works best for you guys.
What is important to keep in mind regarding the optimal back volume?
MV: 8 sets / week
MEV: 10+ sets / week
MAV: 14-22 sets / week
MRV: 20-25 sets / week
Frequency: 2-4 heavy back workouts per week is most likely to work for most individuals. We would not recommend going higher than 4 heavy overloading workouts each week.
Intensity: generally a rep range somewhere between 6-20 should be appropriate for most folks. With reps below 6, you’re getting stronger for sure but probably not any bigger at all. Same with a rep range over 20. This is probably to light to get your back growing.
Exercises: vertical/horizontal pulling movements. We recommend combining both exercises in a balanced 50/50 split.
Either focus a whole week on vertical and then next week horizontal pulling exercises or during the week. Prioritize one workout on vertical and your second workout focuses on horizontal pulling movements. Give both a shot and figure out what works best for you.
The range of motion: it is important to fully stretch and contract your back to maximize your gains and activate as many muscles possible.
Here again, keep your ego outside of the gym. You should still use heavy weights, but only the ones that you can control properly!
In this section, we will give you some basic practical training tips that you can apply to your workout now and then to increase variety and make it a bit more exciting.
Supersets: heavy compound exercise + isolation exercise or vice versa
A good technique to save time during your workout and get a great pump are supersets.
You can start with the isolation movement for a couple of reps and directly afterwards you’re going to a pre-loaded rowing exercise and do a set.
Because you already hit your back with the isolation movement, your back is most likely to be the limiting factor and not your biceps or forearms.
The other way around works as well. Means you start with your heavy compound exercise (any row variation or rack pulls) and again directly after your set is done you do an isolation movement for another couple of reps.
This will leave you with a bit more power in your first exercise and then give you a great way to finish your back after you’ve already done heavy reps.
Giant sets: How does it work? Relatively simple, set yourself a total repetition number and do as many sets as you need to get to that total number.
For example, you want to do 100 pulldowns. In the first set, you do 20 reps, second 17, third 15 and so on. Continue until you accomplish that 100 reps.
This is a good technique to get a lot of volume in and get a really good pump. But the core of your back workout should consist of straight sets with some extent to muscle failure.
Special shout-out to Dr Mike Israetel, we really value his knowledge and the content that he shares with you guys on his YT channel and his blog.
We highly recommend to check out his video and article about back volume!
If you have any further questions about the optimal back volume or any other topic about workout, please feel free to leave a comment below or contact us through our social media channels.
Now that we talked quite a lot about back workouts, I am interested in you guys.
How does your optimal back volume workout routine look like? What is the exercise which brought you the most back gains?
Leave a comment below and share your experiences!