There are only three ways to build the body – intensity, volume, and density. So why is it that we often look to only change one variable when seeking to improve?
In textbook periodization the early phases of training are characterized by a steady increase in volume first. This continues until beginning the competition preparation phases and a subsequent rise in intensity. However in modern fitness planning it is far more common to see people try to increase either intensity via lifting more weight or density by trying to do more reps in a given time frame.
Back when I started lifting weights it was common for beginners to start in the gym with a simple plan that was full body, with each exercise being done for three sets of ten reps. It was common for there to be an exercise for major muscle groups, and this plan was repeated for three days each week. As the trainee improved it was normal to add an extra day of training, thereby increasing the total volume of work they did for the week.
This process of adding volume was repeated by adding another set or two into the workout, up until it got to the point where it was unrealistic in terms of time management to complete the session. At this point trainees were often put onto a plan called a split routine where they did different body parts on different days, or still did the whole body each time but performed different lifts. The trend of adding volume continued as people added more exercises to each body part, until they arrived at something like three to five exercises per body part, done for three to five sets of eight to fifteen reps each. It’s not uncommon for bodybuilders to hit as many as twenty-five sets of work for a big body part like the legs. As the total volume of the workout increased they kept dividing the workout into smaller and smaller groups of body parts starting with full body, then half body, and then into days where one major part per day was being worked such as legs, arms, or chest.
And the reason for all this is simple – because adding volume works.
But then we get to strength training and one of the things that everyone seems to always think is that plans need to be kept low volume. I don’t believe that to be the case for most people, and the reason is simple – because most haven’t broken through to the point where volume can no longer added. It’s only when you can no longer recover from your previous training that volume can no longer be added. This ultimately is because of only one thing – your training intensity is too high.
Two very noteworthy experts, from two different types of weight lifting, agree on one thing. That average intensity should be around 70%. Sheiko believes this to be the case for power lifters, and Medveydev claims this for nearly all lifters too (except those at International Master of Sports levels, i.e. those attending the Olympics. Obviously because these are rare genetic specimens, and the use of performance enhancing drugs must be considered, the rules that apply to them are slightly different). When two guys at the top of their fields are both saying the same thing we should all listen up.
Often people look at all the numbers in a lifting plan and see a mass of percentages but never take the time to consider how they add up.
The simplest way to moderate intensity is to do as many sets above 70% as you do below. For example, doing a set at 60%, then at 70% and finally at 80% keeps the average intensity at 70%, as long as you do the same number of reps in each set.
For example: 60%/3, 70%/3, 80%/3.
If you want to do more sets at the top weight you need extra sets at the lower weights too. The lower weight sets are useful for building technical proficiency.
For example: 55%/3, 65%/3, 70%/3, 80%/3 x 2 will still give you an average intensity of 70%, while giving you exposure to higher loads too.
When it comes to fixed weight objects, like kettlebells or sandbags, it becomes much harder to moderate the weight and a better method becomes moderating intensity through manipulating volume. Let’s say that you can press a 24kg bell five times just to make the math easier. If you do ladders of 2, 3, and 5 reps, then your average for each ladder comes out to 67%. That’s pretty good considering that kettlebells tend to come in large jumps in sizes and you can’t micro-load like you can with barbells.
The other way to do this is to play around with how many total ladders you do in a session. Let’s suppose that the maximum number of 2-3-5 ladders you can cope with at a given weight is five. If you have a week where you perform four ladders, then two ladders, and three ladders over successive workouts your average intensity is 60%. However, if you then perform five ladders, three ladders, and four ladders the following week you have an average of 80%. And when you look at the long-term effect of that you wind up back at our magic 70% intensity.
The magic thing about training at this seventy percent average is that you can train a lot. I mean A LOT. Dan John’s Forty Day Plan in Easy Strength is a classic example that allows you to train daily with an average intensity of 70%.
A further example that I’ve used personally was during helping Beth Andrews and Val Hedlund get ready for the Iron Maiden challenge. They both did workouts that featured twenty sets of five presses with a 16kg bell. With a projected max of 24kg, that 16kg works out to 67%. (That’s as close as you’ll likely get when using kettlebells because of the big jumps from one bell to the next).
The lesson here is simple – keep average intensity to seventy percent and try adding volume before you add intensity. This has the added benefit of not taxing the joints so much, nor needing to psyche oneself up for training efforts. There is no need for screaming at this stage of training – save that for game day. But get the volume in.
People like to talk about how strength is a skill. Well, skills need to be practiced a lot before they are polished and become second nature. Keeping the intensity moderate allows many, many practice sessions that would otherwise be missed due to muscle soreness or fatigue. All those extra reps will add up when you call on your strength to be there for you.
At this point you’re asking how do you know if you need more volume? Just ask yourself one question – are you getting the result you want? If not try doing more. I think you’ll be surprised at exactly how much you can do, and how quickly you improve, once you add more volume.
About Andrew Read, Master RKC, Dragon Door Australia: Andrew Read, Master RKC, is head of Dragon Door Australia and Read Performance Training. Recognized as Australia’s leading functional strength trainer he is a regular contributor to Blitz, Inside MMA, International Kickboxer, Oxygen, Ultrafit and Breaking Muscle. His coaching background spans nearly twenty years having worked with many Olympic and world championship level athletes.