Written by Blaine Sumner
There are many controlled dimensions of the strength training equation and even more uncontrollable dimensions. When laying out a program, the things we can control are intensity, frequency, sets, reps, weight (to a point), volume, and exercises. The things we cannot fully control, and have a more significant impact on our success are injuries, atmosphere, getting sick, how strong the competition is getting, etc. Since we only have full control over a part of our journey, it’s imperative to understand these variables fully and control them as such.
In this article I am going to touch on the Volume component and go into more depth as it is frequently misunderstood. First let’s put some brief explanations of the most common training constraints.
INTENSITY: Generally proportional to a % of your one rep max. But higher intensity does not always mean harder. For example doing a single at 90% of a one rep max is easier than a set of 5 at 85%, even though the single is “higher intensity”. Generally, the higher the intensity, the lower the reps.
FREQUENCY: How frequently you perform the lift, usually in the units of “times per week”. In powerlifting 1 time per week is common. 3 times per week is high frequency. Anything more is very high frequency.
SETS: The number of sets you perform for a given exercise. I only count working sets, meaning warm-up sets don’t come into play in the volume equation. More on this later.
REPS: The number of reps performed on a given set. In the powerlifting movements, anything at 8 reps or above is very high reps. 5-7 is high reps. 3-5 is moderate. And 1-3 is low.
WEIGHT: The poundage of weight moved. More is better.
VOLUME: The granddaddy of them all. Intensity, frequency, sets, and reps all are components of the grand ol’ volume. Generally, volume is calculated by sets X reps X weight; it is called volume because it is three dimensional, like the volume of a jar being length X width X height. For example, your workout consisted of bench press at: 1 X 5 X 275 and 2 X 3 X 315, then the total volume for that workout would be (1 X 5 X 275) + (2 X 3 X 315) = 3,265 lbs. We call the unit ‘lbs.’ for simplicity even though that is not entirely accurate. Volume is likely the most important training aspect as it must be increased over an athletes career, too much will lead to injury and overtraining, and too little will lead to stagnation.
SO HOW DO I USE VOLUME?
Even though the concept of ‘volume’ isn’t so hard to understand, it is frequently misused. Simply calculating sets X reps X weight and calling one program high volume or low volume isn’t accurate. A more appropriate measure for your training would be ‘relative volume’, and the relative bit is the intensity of that rep scheme based on your max for that same rep scheme. Doing a warm up set of 135 X 10 has a higher ‘volume’ than doing a single at 1,000 lbs, so higher volume does not necessarily mean harder. And 135 X 10 or 225 X 10 often has a higher volume per set than most working sets in the 1-3 rep range. This is because warm up sets have a very low ‘relative volume’. So even though your volume was high on 135 X 10, since you could perform 135 X 30, there is no reason why light warm up sets should come into account for the volume. So when it comes time to track and program volume for an athlete, I propose only working sets count towards tracking volume. Now you ask what is a work set? I consider anything where I had 0-2 reps in the tank my work sets. If you did a set of 3, and could have performed 3 more reps, this may still have a great training purpose, but is not useful when figuring volume and comparing volume of sessions over a long period of time.
HIGH VOLUME VS. LOW VOLUME
People frequently talk about what is a high volume and what is a low volume program. For a powerlifter, I consider a set X rep protocol of 5 X 5 to be about the ceiling for what is useful for strength gains. For off-season work, more is certainly acceptable. Another aspect of volume is the frequency, the more frequent you train, the higher the volume will generally be. So even if you train 5 X 5 once per week on squats, your volume will be lower than somebody doing 3 X 3, three times per week. There are clearly lots of things that come into play with volume, but let’s not get too bogged down right now. There are two rules of thumb I follow, and I believe most athletes can make improvements by following them.
Over an athlete’s career, total volume needs to ALWAYS increase on a macro scale. This does not mean that next month’s volume needs to be higher than this month’s volume because that is micro in the big picture. But the total volume in 2015 should be higher than the total volume in 2014. Similarly, the volume for your next meet cycle should be higher than your previous meet cycle. This does not mean you need to overhaul your training program or make drastic changes. Simply getting stronger and increasing the working weight will increase the volume. Sets X Reps X WEIGHT. Another simple fix is just to add one extra exercise on one session per week.
The Norwegian powerlifting team is one of the strongest and smartest in the word, and they recently did a study on the effect of volume. They used two groups of athletes who performed the same volume over a prep cycle. One group did all of the volume in very few sessions, the other group spread the volume out over more sessions per week. For example the first group may have performed 6 X 5 on Monday. The other group would have done 3 X 5 on Tuesday and 3 X 5 on Thursday, so both groups did the same amount of volume. In conclusion, they found that the second group (higher frequency) made noticeably more strength gains than the first group (lower frequency). This means that doing the same amount of volume, but spreading it over more sessions may facilitate better strength gains.
ONE BIG PICTURE
So how do you roll this volume equation and all of its components into your long term program? Most authors of the strength training type talk about volume and intensity leading into a meet. It is common thought that as a competition approaches, volume should decrease, and intensity should increase. Below is an example of a 12 week prep cycle I ran in 2014. You can see the general trend of intensity (blue) increases towards the meet. The general trend of volume (green) declines towards the meet. The valleys are the result of planned deload weeks.
In summary, I want to highlight the importance of volume in the training of a strength athlete and help explain what volume really is, and what it isn’t. The application of volume is important, and being comfortable manipulating your training inputs to achieve the desired volume outcome is beneficial to any strength athlete.