Understanding Training Volume

Have you ever walked into the gym and wondered if your training program is effective? Have you ever wondered why some people do three sets of ten reps, while others do ten sets of three reps? Have you ever wondered how much weight you should be lifting?

Goals on the gym floor typically fall under one of the following categories:

  • Get Big (Hypertrophy)
  • Get Strong
  • Get Fit
  • Get Lean

So why is it that people with what seems to be a common goal do things so differently? Do different approaches actually ‘work?’ Is there a better way?

Training Volume refers to the total amount of work your body does during any given time frame. As a general rule, to achieve hypertrophy, strength, muscular endurance or fat loss, you need to monitor and progressively increase your training volume over time. There are several ways you can manipulate your training to achieve a specific training volume goal.

Strength Training: This type of training is generally recognized as lifting heavier loads for fewer repetitions within a set. Typically, a “strength” or power focused set would have an individual perform a given exercise with a heavy load at approximately 85% – 95% of their 1RM (1 Rep Max). This is a very simplified explanation though, because it’s not at all uncommon to see higher volume sets in strength training programs. The reason for this is because overall (net) volume is very important when programming for any of the above goals. Each goal is also closely related. For example, as a muscle gets bigger, it gets stronger.

Muscular Endurance: This type of training is generally recognized as lifting slightly lighter loads for more repetitions within a set. Typically, a set focused on muscular endurance would have an individual perform a given exercise with a slightly lighter load at approximately 60% – 80% of their 1RM (1 Rep Max). This form of training increases the fuel size of your muscle in the form of stored glycogen and stored intramuscular triglyceride.

Time Under Tension: This training method focuses on maximizing the total time a muscle resists against a weight. This type of training can be useful when using lighter loads, but there must be enough weight being used to stimulate a training response. In other words, there should be enough magnitude of tension to ensure that you actually benefit from this method.

Blood Flow Restriction (BFR): Another way to stimulate a positive anabolic response is through BFR training. This type of training can be useful when injured, deloading, or when you’re dieting and on lower calories.  BFR training involves restricting the blood flow return from the muscle but not to the muscle. This should be used to supplement your program and not used as a replacement for traditional heavy lifting.

Considerations

Functional Adaptation: Adaptations are structural, behavioural or functional features of the organism. A structural adaptation is a body part that helps an organism to survive. Simply put, if the demands on your body are such that it needs to carry more load, it will eventually make the adaptations necessary to do so such as bigger and stronger muscles.

Progressive Overload: This refers to the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise and training. There are many different ways to achieve this. Factors such as volume, load and intensity can be varied to achieve progressive overload. It not only stimulates muscle hypertrophy, but it also stimulates the development of stronger and denser bones, ligaments, tendons and cartilage. Progressive overload also incrementally increases blood flow to exercised regions of the body and stimulates more responsive nerve connections between the brain and the muscles involved. A common mistake with progressive overload principles is being too aggressive with increases in weight or intensity, such as lifting to heavy too quickly or “going to failure” too often. Being too aggressive will often feel like you’re challenging yourself so much in a single session, at the cost of hindering future sessions, therefore affecting your overall volume.

Magnitude of Load Force: You have to ensure that the magnitude of your load force is enough to stimulate a response from your muscles. In other words, you have to make sure that you lift weights that are heavy enough. You can lift a 1kg dumbbell 100 times, which is time consuming and will not have the same effect as lifting 10kg 10 times.

Periodization (Linear and Non Linear Undulating Models): Periodization is the systematic planning of athletic or physical training.  It involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period. Conditioning programs can use periodization to break up the training program into the offseason, preseason, in-season, and the postseason. Periodization divides the year round condition program into phases of training which focus on different goals. Typically, the phases are broken down into the following cycles:

The Macrocycle: This refers to the annual overall plan that works towards peaking for the goal competition of the year.

The Mesocycle: A mesocycle represents a phase of training with duration of between 2 – 6 weeks or microcycles, but this can depend on the sporting discipline. A mesocycle can also be defined as a number of continuous weeks where the training program emphasize the same type of physical adaptations, for example muscle mass and anaerobic capacity.

The Microcycle: A microcycle is typically a week because of the difficulty in developing a training plan that does not align itself with the weekly calendar. Each microcycle is planned based on where it is in the overall macrocycle. It is also defined as a number of training sessions, built around a given combination of acute program variables, which include progression as well as alternating effort (heavy vs. light days). The length of the microcycle should correspond to the number of workouts (often 4-16 workouts) it takes for the athlete or fitness client to adapt to the training program.

Linear Periodization Model:

Linear periodization is a traditional method consisting of several blocks such as a Hypertrophy phase, a Strength phase, a Power phase, and a Restorative phase.

Each “mesocycle” is directed towards a single goal. Hypertrophy, for example, uses several sets of 8-12 reps, designed to stimulate growth. Strength builds on this hypertrophy, and changes the reps to 5-8. Power finalizes this, using 1-5 reps. The Restorative phase drops volume, or eliminates training entirely.

This can be an effective means to train for some clients, especially beginners. However, for a more advanced athlete, or those concerned with other goals, it is far from optimal. The main reason being that the qualities developed in the preceding phases aren’t carried over. By the time you reach the Power phase, you’ve lost or are losing everything you’ve worked for during the Hypertrophy phase. We now also know that “hypertrophy” is a result of combining strength training and muscular endurance training.

Non Linear (Undulating) Periodization Model:

Non-linear or Undulating periodization doesn’t follow a traditional one-way progression. Undulating periodization involves changing the volume and intensity of the weight-training stimulus but not in a linear pattern. With undulating periodization, you change the volume and intensity of your workout on a weekly or daily basis. Rather than working in phases focused on a particular goal, a variety of different resistance and rep ranges are incorporated in any given number of formats. Typically, the ranges are broken down as follows:

DayPurposeSetsReps
LightActive rest1-3easy 15-20
ModerateHypertrophy3-48 – 12 @ 9RM
HeavyStrength/Hypertrophy2-54 – 6 @ 8RM
Very HeavyMax Strength3-51 – 3 @ 9RM
PowerPower/Technique3-83 – 5 @ 30% – 70%

Light

The light day serves mostly as active rest. This gets blood flowing to help clear out waste products from the muscles, decrease soreness, and lets you rest the higher threshold motor units. This is the day for higher reps with lighter weight (15-20 reps) or some other active rest activity like pushing a sled.

Moderate

The moderate range is your traditional hypertrophy day. Specifically, it’s your sarcoplasmic hypertrophy day, which is growth of the sarcoplasm and non-contractile proteins. This is similar to “bodybuilding style training”.

If your primary goal is hypertrophy then there should be more moderate days in your training. Focus on training with weights that you can handle between 8-12 reps, which is the intensity traditionally viewed as optimal for developing hypertrophy. This is also the day where you would use more isolation exercises.

Heavy

Heavy days are going to be focused on training with near max weights within the 4 to 6 rep range. Along with strength, these days will also stimulate myofibrillar hypertrophy, which is growth of the muscle fibres themselves. The focus these days should be on compound exercises like squats, deadlifts and bench presses.

Very Heavy

Very heavy days revolve around moving maximum weights working mostly in the 1-3 rep range. If you’re a powerlifter or a strongman, you can expect to see extra very heavy training days in your program.

These days are going to focus on developing maximal strength by increasing neural recruitment of the muscle fibres. The volume will be lower than other days due to the low number of reps, but there will be a higher amount of sets to compensate and get a significant stimulus. These days are quite taxing on the Central Nervous System (CNS).

Exercises on these days will exclusively be compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses.

Power

Power days will use lower weights (anywhere from 30-70% of 1RM) for low reps while focusing on maximum speed and rate of force development. Like all other days, the number of power days used will vary depending on the athlete’s goal.

Someone concerned with developing maximum strength might use more power days for technique practice and rate of force development. These training days may focus on Olympic lifts, dynamic variations of traditional lifts (such as speed benching and deadlifts), and plyometric drills.

Appropriate Progression:

It’s very important to be sensible and not be too aggressive with the progression of your program. A perfect example of this is going to “failure”. Although this is recognized as a useful tool for muscle hypertrophy, it’s not seen as a better tool than overall volume. So if you are training to failure at the cost of sacrificing the quality of future sessions, you’re not progressing effectively. The smart thing to do would be to do slightly less reps in one session, but do the same exercise more often in one week.

Example A: (Too aggressive)

100kg Squat x 10 reps = 1000kg

140kg Squat x 5 reps = 700kg

170kg Squat x 3 reps = 510kg

Total = 2210kg + cannot train for a week due to soreness and CNS fatigue

Example B: (Sensible)

100kg Squat x 8 reps = 1000kg

120kg Squat x 5 reps = 600kg

120kg Squat x 5 reps= 600kg

140kg Squat x 3 reps = 420kg

Total = 2620kg + ok to train again for the remainder of the week

Strength and Conditioning circles have been arguing about which method is better for ages, and we believe that the answer lies in specificity. If you wish to get stronger and you’re aiming for pure strength, similar to a powerlifter, then you would possibly be better off getting used to heavier loads, whereas someone who is looking for muscle hypertrophy may possibly be better off with lighter loads at a higher overall volume over time. Don’t forget to use the array of tools in the toolbox, but understand how to differentiate and prioritize the big ticket items from the small fry.

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