3 Program Design Principles to Maximize Muscle Recovery

You don’t get bigger or stronger by only lifting weights. Learn the importance of effective training stimuli and great recovery in achieving exceptional results.

You don’t get bigger or stronger lifting weights. You get bigger and stronger recovering from lifting weights.

Stimulus + Recovery = Adaptation

For outstanding results, you need to take care of both the stimulus and recovery parts of this equation. Your training is the stimulus that creates the potential for progress. Your recovery dictates if you reach your potential.

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Maximum Muscle Recovery Starts with Great Programming

The first thing to understand is that great recovery begins with great programming. If your program sucks, it might well limit your recovery even if you do everything “right” away from the gym. To optimize your training to create both an effective training stimulus and great recovery, you need to understand three key principles:

  1. Your personal volume landmarks
  2. SRA curves
  3. Exercise-specific stimulus:fatigue ratios

1. Volume Landmarks in Training

Dr. Mike Israetel has done a lot of good work popularising the concepts of volume landmarks. There is basically a continuum from a minimum effective dose (MED) or minimum effective volume (MEV) up to your maximum recoverable volume (MRV).

Within reason the more hard training you do without exceeding your capacity to recover the better your results. So, identifying the upper limits of what you can recover from is a very useful piece of information to know when designing your workouts.

Your MRV can be thought of in two ways. Your systemic MRV and a body part specific MRV. For example, from a systemic viewpoint, you might be able to handle 4 hard training sessions per week, using an upper/lower split, with 15 working sets per muscle group each week.

The above is just an example, but having an idea of what you can handle within a training week begins to allow you to structure your week to be effective.

On a muscle by muscle basis, there might well be some considerable difference. By digging into this, you can refine your program to begin taking it from good to great. It might be that you can only manage 5 truly challenging sets for quads in each leg workout. Training them twice per week means they should “only” be trained at their MRV of 10 sets per week. On the other hand, you might find your lateral delts get an effective workout from 5 sets in a session, but can recover just fine from 20 sets per week. With this knowledge, you can increase their training frequency to 4 times per week. Perhaps you choose to tag some delt work onto the end of your legs session to fit in the extra volume needed to get an optimal training stimulus for them.

Understanding your personal volume landmarks allows you to take your training program to the next level. You can shift beyond following generic programs to fine-tune them to your exact recovery capacities.

There are two other key points you need to know about volume landmarks:

  1. They are a moving target
  2. MRV is not the target

Man doing barbell front squat in Crossfit-style gym.

Moving Target

Your volume landmarks will change over time. As you become better trained, your body will adapt and you’ll be able to handle more. Over the course of your training career, your volume landmarks will gradually shift upwards.

While there is a general trend upwards in volume tolerance, it is important to understand they can fluctuate. At times, they will diminish. This is in large part due to life stresses. Think of it this way, your recovery capacity as a parent, with a career, travel, and social commitments and responsibilities are likely to be very different from what it was a high-school student with few responsibilities, living at home, and having meals made for you.

Related: The Principle Of Progressive Overload, A Complete Guide

Your training should reflect changes in personal circumstances and life stress. If you’ve just become a parent, moved to a new house, got a promotion, had a break-up, are low on sleep, or working on a big project, your ability to recover from training will be lower. Understand this and make adjustments rather than beating yourself up trying to keep up with what you could do when everything was sunshine and rainbows.

Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) is Not the Target

Redlining and being on your MRV 365 days a year is not the goal either. There is a fine line between your MRV and exceeding your capacity to recover. Being at MRV for prolonged periods will lead to overtraining. If you constantly try to go #beastmode, you will eventually pay the price.

All elite athletes and coaches recognize the need to fluctuate training load over the course of a year to get the best results. If this applies to the best of the best, it also applies to you. As Luke Leaman once told me, “sometimes you have to go least mode to go beast mode.”

Planned deloads and low volume phases are essential to get the most out of times where you really push the volume envelope. I’d suggest a deload week every 8-12 weeks and including two low volume blocks of training per year to help you get the best results from your training.

The sweet-spot for volume for most of the year is your maximum adaptive volume (MAV). This is the range of volumes in which you make your best gains. This lies between MEV and MRV. Traversing this over the course of blocks of training is a smart approach. It’s why I program intro weeks in my client’s programs. These intro weeks are at their MEV. Over the course of a program, they gradually push their training harder and eventually reach their MRV. At this point, they take a deload week to recover for their next program.

Woman doing luges with medicine ball in Crossfit-style gym.

2. SRA Curves

SRA stands for Stimulus-Recovery-Adaption. As I mentioned earlier, training is the stimulus. Recovery is a return to baseline, and adaptation is when your body exceeds its previous baseline to improved performance levels or increased muscular size. You don’t want recovery. You want adaptation.

When structuring your training to maximize recovery it is important to understand the SRA curves of different muscle groups. An exhaustive discussion of SRA curves is an article in itself, but here are the key points you need to know:

  • Different muscles have different SRA timeframes. The training frequency for each body part should depend on its SRA curve.
  • The length of the SRA curve is based on various factors. Such as the size of the muscle, its structure, function, fiber type ratio, and the muscle damage caused by training it.
  • Exercises that place a big stretch on a muscle tend to cause more damage. This lengthens the muscle's SRA curve.
  • Range of motion (ROM) also plays a role. Exercises with a greater ROM usually create greater systemic fatigue.

It should be pretty obvious that SRA curves should influence your training frequency. In a perfect world, you would train each muscle group again at the peak of its adaption curve.

Training frequency is an important training variable and it deserves the attention needed to optimize your results. When considering training frequency, a good starting point is determining how many days per week you can train. This, however, is only surface-level thinking. Think deeper and rather than settling for answering the question “how many days per week should I train?”, also answer, “how many days per week should I train each muscle group?” This will help you to create the optimal training split for you.

The differences listed in the above bullet point list will inform your decision making on the frequency you use for each muscle group. While there are quite a few factors to consider, the difference in each muscle’s SRA curve can be narrowed down to a matter of days. For bodybuilding training, this is usually around 24-72 hours.

Research indicates that training a muscle 2-4 times per week is best when training for muscle growth. Identifying where on this range each muscle sits will allow you to unlock your growth potential by training each muscle at the perfect frequency. Some muscles will do better with two sessions per week while others will not respond optimally unless you push to 4x week.

Here are some general guidelines to provide you with a starting point:

Note. These are just averages based on my experience, you will need to experiment a little to find your optimal training frequency

3. Stimulus:Fatigue Ratio

The final concept I want you to consider from a program design standpoint is an exercise’s Stimulus:Fatigue Ratio (SFR).

While volume landmarks and SRA Curves are crucial to planning your training to maximize performance and recovery your exercise selection is also a critical factor.

Exercises that have a larger ROM, place a big stretch on a muscle, and require high degrees of skill, coordination, and stability are harder to recover from. As a general rule, it is also harder to recover from barbell work than dumbbell work. Dumbbell movements, meanwhile, are usually harder to recover from equivalents done with cables or fixed machines.

Balancing the Stimulus:Fatigue Ratio with Exercise Selection

The ideal exercise is one that creates a high stimulus for a low fatigue ratio. Selecting exercises that place tension through the target muscle and suit your structure is a great starting point to managing your fatigue ratio.

It’s also vital to realize nothing is perfect.  There isn’t an exercise out there that creates a high stimulus for zero fatigue. To get results from training, you have to work hard, and this will create fatigue. Fatigue cannot be avoided, but we want to maximize the stimulus for every unit of fatigue created. This might mean that choosing Romanian deadlifts over conventional deadlifts is a better choice for your hamstring development.

Another point to consider is that we have been brainwashed into thinking the best exercises are compound barbell ones. While these are excellent exercises, they are not necessarily the best choice all of the time. If you are performing four exercises for quads in a leg workout, doing back squats, front squats, hack squats, and leg presses would be brutal. These are all undoubtedly great exercises that create high levels of stimulus. They all also create high levels of fatigue. By the time you get to leg presses, you would probably be toast. Consequently, either your performance on them would tank (slashing their theoretical high stimulus value), you wouldn’t be able to muster the required psychological willpower and effort level to create a meaningful stimulus (they then become an exercise in getting tired NOT making progress), or you’d simply push fatigue levels so high that you’d blow right past your quads' MRV.

Man and woman doing front squats with sandbags.

If you exceed a muscle group’s MRV, you have by definition exceeded its capacity to recover. The stimulus was sky-high, but the fatigue generated was even higher. This will slow down your SRA curve and mean your legs probably won’t be recovered for their next session. Picking those 4 lifts seems hardcore. It might impress your friends or Instagram followers, but it is not helping you. You’ll be expending Herculean levels of effort for diminished results. It looks cool, but it’s dumb.

A better choice in this example might be:

The stimulus created is still high. The fatigue generated is lower and you move from complex, multi-joint exercises with high internal stability requirements to single-joint machine-based exercises that provide external stability. Taking advantage of external stability at the end of a session when you’re fatigued is a smart move. It means you can empty the tank of your last remaining energy levels, blast your quads, and stimulate them without having to expend energy on stability.

Another example of how exercise selection can influence your program design is the amount of muscle damage created by a given exercise. This is heavily influenced by the stretch under load within an exercise. Taking the hamstrings as an example you could compare Romanian deadlifts (RDL) and lying leg curls. The RDL places an extreme stretch under load on the hamstrings. The moment arm of the exercise is greatest at the point when the muscle is maximally stretched. In layman’s, the weight feels the hardest and heaviest at the bottom when the muscle is fully lengthened. Conversely, the lying leg curls challenges the hamstrings in their fully shortened position and there is relatively little stretch under load when compared to RDLs.

Related: 5 RDL Tips to Shift Tension from Your Back to Your Legs

The RDL is a barbell lift that you can load extremely heavy, it also taxes the glutes, spinal erectors, lats, and grip. These factors all contribute to it having higher fatigue levels than more isolated machine-based lying leg curls. As a result, the muscle soreness and SRA curve for the hamstrings when trained using longer when doing RDLs than lying leg curls. On this basis, you might only be able to train hamstrings once per week with heavy RDLs. To increase frequency to two, or even three times a week, you would probably be better off basing your efforts towards lying leg curls in other sessions.

Get the Mix Right to Produce Record-Breaking Results

When planning your training frequency and volume, it is important to also consider the exact exercises you select. As with everything with program design it is important to avoid thinking in a vacuum or viewing the world through a straw. All of the training variables are interlinked and have a knock-on effect on each other. Finding the right mix of all the variables is essential for outstanding results.

Your task when planning a program that maximizes both stimulus and your recovery capacity is much like progressing from a cook to a chef. A cook just follows a set recipe. A chef knows how all the ingredients complement each other and when more of one is needed and when a small dash of another will make all the difference. This allows them to take the same ingredients and transform them to create a Michelin star quality dish. By understanding the concepts in this article, you can move from being a training “cook” who has to follow generic programs and hope they work to a ‘chef” who knows exactly what you need to optimize both stimulus and recovery to achieve exceptional results.