On to part 2 of this 3-part series, this could become very lengthy so I am going to do my best to summarize and give you the facts that will help you with your training goals and needs.
My focus is going to be on Volume & intensity, but there is a third component to the triangle which includes frequency. Each one affects the other and you will typically see “high volume training vs high intensity training”, but depending on how you look at them either one could be most important and therefore I consider them all of important value.
In couple of words, training volume is amount of work done.
Load x Sets x Reps (volume load)
You can calculate volume per session, week, month or year. It has been shown that training volume is key to muscle growth and strength, but too much single session volume will lead to a plateau and decline – likely due to over-reaching, showing that there is optimal volume of training. If you build up too much fatigue in a session or over time, volume will be reduced.
When we train, our body needs to adapt as this improves our efficiency and performance will increase over time, our goal is to progress over time and make small increases to volume, without building up excessive fatigue, becoming overtrained, making sure we are recovering and not getting injured (read part 1).
Goals: if you are in an off-season or beginner your goal is to add volume over time (either daily or monthly), but if you are well-trained and in a caloric deficit you should actually reduce volume and focus on maintaining strength, this will allow for more recovery and holding onto more muscle, which brings around the best looks after the diet is complete. I often see people training their *** off when dieting and the result is getting run-down, sick or injured.
Beginner – 40-70 reps/muscle group
Intermediate/Advance – 50-100 reps/muscle group
I know this doesn’t seem a lot, but the goal is to do the most amount of volume, without becoming too fatigued, progressing over time and sticking to your training program.
Intensity as a term is often misused; in layman terms, it is how hard you train (subjective) but we are more scientific, and is the percentage of your 1 repetition maximum (%1RM). The closer your working weight is to your 1RM – the harder you work, the higher the intensity and the less reps you will be able to perform in set, the more time you’ll need to fully recover between sets. As intensity increases, repetitions will decrease (see graph below).
Intensity is very important in gaining strength as well as in building muscle. We need to progress in a way to keep the body adapting and too much intensity will stop this, but too little intensity won’t provide the stimulus to adapt, we need to find the middle ground. Intensity is also specific to your goals, lift heavy for strength and use loads that stimulate the muscle effectively for size, but remember to progress over time. I am also a very big fan of performing some strength training (1-6 reps) in a muscle building plan, as strength can be the foundation to helping build muscle, but research still shows your best bang for your buck (efficiency and effectivity) is training with moderate loads.
I have also seen tremendous physique improvements especially in females who incorporate strength training in their plans, I think this is due because of the new type of training stimulus, as girls usually lift higher reps (15+).
Strength: 1/2-3/4 total volume in 1-6 rep range (the rest in the 8-12 rep range)
Muscle: 1-2-3/4 total volume in 6-12 rep range (the rest in 1-6 and 12-15 rep range)
On a quick note on failure training, if we go to technical failure, our output will be reduced and same with training volume, so my suggestion are usually stop 1-2 reps short of failure and maybe push the last set or isolation movements, where you can typically hold your strength better.
The third piece to the puzzle is training frequency, this is more about how we distribute our work load over time. Lately there has been more of a push towards higher training frequencies, challenging the traditional bro split. Frequency can be high or low. High frequency is generally training a muscle or movement 3+ times per week. Low frequency is no more than 2 times per week and usually once.
We know there is an effective amount of training volume per session and if you try to perform all your training volume in one day, the quality will be reduced and you will get fatigued mentally & physically, which may lead to injury. For those who notice a drop off in their performance, it may be worth splitting up their volume over multiple sessions.
Training is hard on the body; by splitting up your training volume over multiple sessions allows for better recovery as it to be more manageable; this will result in better quality movements, training sessions and ultimately progressing.
Research shows that splitting up your workload may be beneficial, especially in those who have a training history. There isn’t the perfect frequency for training and will likely depend on one’s schedule and time to train. So determine your weekly volume (based on what you are currently doing) and how long it would take to complete, then look at splitting it up into more manageable chunks over the course of your week.
Compound movements or bigger muscles: 2-3 / week
Isolation movements or small muscle: 3-5 / week
*There is overlap between movements and muscles worked
If you find there is too much volume per session, split it up further and if you find the day was too easy, maybe add more volume in. Remember that as we become more advanced, we need more training volume to get bigger and stronger.
Tying them together
As you can see from the graph, volume & intensity are mutually exclusive, which means the more you increase one – the less should other.
Why is it so? The answer is recovery. If you push too hard (intensity) with a lot of volume, then you will burn yourself out because your body cannot physically recover, especially if you train frequently too.
Our goal is to progress (future article coming) and to progress you need to recover between training sessions. If you aren’t doing more reps/sets/weights or harder exercises etc. from session to session (beginner) or month to month (intermediate/advanced), then you’re probably not recovering between workouts. In such case you need to decrease one of the variables (or all of them) and see how you doing. You will probably need to do this until you find the right amount of each variable individually for you.
In my experience, most of the people progress nicely on low volume high frequency programs, they feel much better between sessions, get less run down and have more energy.
This isn’t an easy task and can be confusing, but when you’ve found out what volume/intensity/frequency mix is best for you to recover and progress, you can experiment with variables to get different results. You can lower the intensity, increase the volume and frequency and see what this will do for you.
Of course, there is always that “sweet spot” in volume/intensity/frequency. How do you know whether you’ve found it? Easy. You should progress to heavier exercises, more weight, do more reps and/or sets etc.
If you have currently stalled out, rather than switching up your program completely – I suggest taking your current program and calculating the volume (sets x reps x load) for each movement and then if you are only training it once per week, try splitting the volume in half and training it twice per week.
Chest Day: Bench Press 5 x 5, Incline DB Press 4 x 10, Dips 3 x 8-12, Flys 4 x 12-15
Mon: Bench Press 5 x 5, Flys 4 x 12-15
Thurs: Incline DB Press 4 x 10, Dips
This should start progression again and if that feels good then I would look at increasing the session volume for each lift by increasing by a set or an exercise etc. After a period of time look at doing this again until you find the sweet spot, this can take time and won’t be found over night, but remember consistency & adherence is key to improving!
Next we break up the variables of inter-session training.