Programming Considerations: Training Volume
We live in a world of dichotomous abundance.
In literature we see it all the time in the form of heroes (Beowulf) vs. villains (Grendel), good (Gryffindor) vs. bad (Slytherin), or real (Milwaukee) vs. imaginary (Minas Tirith).
We see it all the time in real life too:
- Democrats vs. Republicans
- Science vs. People Who Make a Ham Sandwich Look Intelligent
- Autobots vs. Decepticons
The idea behind dichtomy is to demonstrate or showcase a contrast between two things that are represented as being opposed or entirely different.
Who’s right?, who’s wrong?, what’s better?, what’s worse?, bacon is delicious, no, fuck that, you’re going to hell…
….it can all spiral into a garbled mess.
The fitness industry sees no shortage of it either.
All you have to do is spend 17 seconds on Twitter before
you want to jump into a shark’s mouth you witness people on both sides of the fence – low-carb vs. high-carb, CrossFitters vs. powerlifters, back squats vs. no squats – tear each other to shreds.
Both sides are adamant their position is the right position, “how can you not see it?,” and the dichotomous divide seemingly grows larger and larger.
I’m going to skip the mental gymnastics today, and instead focus my attention on something else that’s a liiitle less dramatic and less of a dumpster fire to talk about…
Disclaimer: This will not to be a deep-dive into the nitty-gritty, nerdtastic world of program design and volume. It’s a rabbit hole to say the least. I’m gonna get into some of the particulars, but not too much. Sorry.
My goal is to just offer a few talking points and ideas.
For a nice amuse-bouche on the topic, however, I’d recommend THIS article by Greg Nuckols.
Training Volume, Defined
For all intents and purpose training volume (as it relates to lifting things) can most easily be calculated as such:
Sets x reps x load
The final number can be labelled as total tonnage (or total amount lifted).
For example if someone performs 3 sets of 5 reps with 225 lbs on the bench press it can be broken down as 15 total reps x 225 lbs = 3,375 lbs.
Congratulations. You just benched a Volkswagen you savage.
The idea, then, is to adopt the concept of progressive overload (via performing more sets, reps, load, or any combination) to do more work in subsequent workouts.
Using the same example, lets say it’s a week later (or tomorrow if you’re a man under the age of 40) and you wanted to bench press again. To increase training volume you’d incorporate one of following scenarios:
- Increase Load: 3 sets of 5 reps @ 230 lbs = 3,450 lbs
- Increase Reps: 3 sets of 6 reps @ 225 lbs = 4,050 lbs
- Increase Sets: 4 sets of 5 reps @ 225 lbs = 4,500 lbs
- Increase All Three: 4 sets of 6 reps @ 230 lbs = 5,520 lbs
- Increase CrossFit: 24 sets of 17 @ Scaled # = Can’t feel the left side of your face
That’s a very watered down and simplified explanation, but should get the gist across.
In short: Ensure that you’re doing more work by tracking stuff and good things will inevitably happen.
As an umbrella theme, however, it’s important to understand that this approach does have limitations.
We’re humans, not Kryptonians.
There’s an inevitable “tipping point” that’s bound to take place. Adding more and more training volume (a poor periodization scheme in the long run) will eventually have deleterious effects.
I like what Mike Boyle has to say on the matter:
“Periodization might be the most overstudied subject in the training world. Tens of thousands of pages have been written detailing the complexities of microcycles and mesocycles. And this has only served to confuse what should be a fairly simple concept, as articulated by strength & conditioning legend Charles Poliquin in the 1988 article “Variety in Strength Training”: Phases of high volume (accumulation, extensive loading), high intensity (intensification, intensive loading) and unloading should be modulated within the program.“
In other words:
Higher volume, low load periods should be alternated with higher-intensity, lower-volume periods.
[Smoke bomb, smoke bomb, exit stage right]
To give a brief example I’ve always liked fluctuating training volume on a weekly basis, which is something I gravitated towards from my years as a coach at Cressey Sports Performance:
Lets use the deadlift as an example here with the main goal being to improve strength:
Week 1: 1×2 @ 83%
Week 2: 1×2 @ 85%
Week 3: 1×2 @ 87%
Week 4: 1×1 @ 90%
B. Deadlift – Speed(ish)
Week 1 (High Volume): 4×3 @ 70%, 1×5 @ 65%
Week 2 (Medium Volume): 3×3@ 70%, 1×5 @ 60%
Week 3 (High Volume): 5×3 @ 70%, 1×5, @ 60%
Week 4: (Low Volume): 3×3 @ 65%
To reiterate: taking into account sets/reps/load and trying to use any permutations you wish to ensure someone is doing more work is never a bad place to start.
It’s training volume 101. And it works.
I’d encourage you to heed this Tweet from Eric Cressey from a few days ago:
Volume is one way to achieve overload in a training program. If it is the only progression option you have in your toolbox, though, it’s not going to work out well long-term.
— Eric Cressey (@EricCressey) March 1, 2018
When trainers/coaches place too much emphasis on overall volume and use that as their only metric to measure progress it can be problematic.
It reminds me of something strength coach and physical therapist, Dr. Quinn Henoch, has discussed on numerous occasions. We’re quick to pump the brakes and implement any number of corrective exercises when one of our client’s shoulders starts to hurt.
Okay, not the worst thing in the world. I’m not going to cry afoul if a trainer/coach wants to toss in a bit more soft tissue work on someone’s pecs or lats:
Been playing around with my new toy at CORE, The Ultimate Back Roller, via @ACUMOBILITY. It’s great for rolling the back, but I’ve been using it for other areas as well. Use the coupon code Gentilcore for 10% off. pic.twitter.com/qzh3143Zjq
— Tony Gentilcore (@tonygentilcore1) February 22, 2018
I’ve even heard of instances where people are encouraged to get blood work done; as if finding out they’re allergic to grass-fed acai berries will miraculously cure their lack of scapular upward rotation.
Instead, what Quinn is quick to point out is this: Maybe you need to audit your program and adjust total training volume?
It could be as simple as you’re prescribing too much training volume compared to what someone is able to recover from.
That’s why they’re hurt.
Not because they need more Ipsilateral Birddog Balloon Breathing.
Which begs the question: What are some ways in which to increase overload that doesn’t entail just increasing volume?
Well, two come to mind.
1. Get People Into Better Positions
I’d argue the reason many trainees are unable to make much progress in the gym to begin with is because they’re unable to get into appropriate positions to express their “true” strength.
Take the squat.
I see something like this:
And this is the result:
Any asshat coach or trainer can tack on more volume to the above walking (or, rather, squatting) ball of fail.
Physical Therapist Gray Cook would refer to this as “adding fitness on top of dysfunction,” which isn’t doing anyone any favors.
Rather, taking the time to actually coach someone so they’re in a better position to be successful is what’s going to make a difference.
And this will often entail LESS volume (using sub-maximal loads).
A funny thing will happen.
Trainees are given a massive piece of humble pie when they’re getting sore from a load that’s 50-75% less than their perceived one-rep max.
2. Change the Center of Mass
Bringing a load closer to the ground makes an exercise easier. A prime example is any single leg variation where DBs are held at the side(s):
If I wanted to make this harder and as a result increase overload without necessarily adjusting training volume all I’d have to do is move the DBs to a higher position or maybe revert to something like a Barbell Reverse Lunge w/ Front Squat Grip.
Training volume, too, has a very dichotomous vibe to it.
On one end of the spectrum there’s the “do more” mentality (which is a thing, and an important part of strength & conditioning). But on the other end there’s a delicate balance of what amount of volume a particular person can handle as it relates to their ability to recover.
And finally it’s important to have other tricks in your bag other than adding more of it in order to help your clients/athletes get better.
Like I said, I didn’t want to get too far into the weeds on the topic of training volume, but I hope this helped.