Table of Contents
Back in the mid-70s, when I first caught the incurable iron flu, training 6 days a week was commonplace. The intensity and modalities varied according to one’s ability to recover (What I now call the Wave and Weave method), but 2 hours a day, 6 days a week was, well… standard fare.
All was good in the world. Workout volume was king and dudes were yoked, 70s style.
But then in the mid-90s came the internet, and with it, the HIT Jedis. Training frequency and volume became the skinny end of the wedge for religious-like fervor over everything from diet to gaming to footwear to yes, even slangin’ iron. And with that, of course, the pearl-clutching, foaming-at-the-mouth backlash.
Then in the late 90s CrossFit came along and complete and utter chaos broke out. And it didn’t help that by the time people were first getting online, bodybuilding had jumped the shark. Symmetry and aesthetics had given way to bulk at any cost. Swole became more defined by chemistry than by gym acumen.
I jest of course, but, only slightly. The world of training had become unhinged. Thank God there was relative safe harbor within the world of athletic strength and conditioning.
What’s the saying about a battle of wits between two (three?) unarmed opponents? I watched with curiosity and let the keyboard jockeys and chemists do their thing. Because I’d rather lift than argue about lifting. And because the fact of the matter is that some things seem utterly awesome in theory, but fail to produce in practice.
The late 90s and early 2000s produced some epic wars on the topic of training frequency, volume and (thanks to CrossFit), exercise modality.
But we’re here today to focus on volume. And its close cousin, frequency.
Frequency and volume? You know, like bros doing endless sets and reps of curls. Multiple days a week.
Which, from the HIT Jedi point of view, was a blasphemy committed and perpetuated by the physically gifted (though morbidly stupid). You know – those who just can’t follow the simple path from Arthur Jones to Mentzer to Ayn Rand to single-set-to-failure to max physiological hypertrophy. It’s science!
…which, of course, is diametrically opposed to “bro science”.
And from the CrossFit point of view, well… dedicating any energy whatsoever toward “non-functional movement” was just a useless waste of time.
Now, in theory, the HIT Jedis and CF Scientologists were absolutely right: it only made sense that once a muscle “failed” that’s all that one needed to produce the max hypertrophy one was capable of. And then one had to fully recover of course. Because, overtraining.
And from the CF point of view, what was the need for “swole” if it didn’t contribute to performance?
The problem was those lines of thinking never fully played out in the lab of the real world. Where it matters.
I mean, one could get decent gains training the HIT/single-set-to-failure way (we’ll discuss the 80/20 of this in a bit). And it was safer than Richard Simmons aerobics. But would that method lead to *optimal* gains? Or optimal performance for that matter?
Optimal, my friend – *optimal* is an entirely different story indeed.
Extraordinary ends require extraordinary means.
Pause, please, for a little perspective
Let’s keep in mind that something like 90% of the US population can now be categorized as overfat. 90%! Yet one of the very few undisputed truisms we have in health and wellness is this: muscle mass is protective against all-cause mortality across the entire BMI spectrum. Muscle mass *is* metabolic currency and it’s the best insurance there is against your dropping dead.
Muscle mass will save yo ass. It’s simple as that.
Now that said, for the average Joe and Jane, specificity of training and attention to the minutia in the realm of Strength and Conditioning matters not one skinny rat’s ass. Find a modality you enjoy and will do for the long haul – preferably one that will put muscle mass *on* (weight bearing) and not cause it to waste away (excessive “cardio”) and stay with it.
Chop fucking wood, carry fucking water, and profit.
And by the way, chopping wood and carrying water would be excellent examples of load-bearing exercise. Seriously. So in that sense, I have to give the nod here to CF-like training.
But then, there’s that injury thing we have to contend with. So you’ll have to be smart when going about this. You can’t train when you’re injured. So don’t do dumb things!
Something I should adhere to more often. But I digress…
In fact, the average Joe and Jane are who we built the Efficient Exercise model for. Pack as much as can be safely done into two 30 minute sessions a week. There – you’re now light years ahead of 99% of the population, thank you very much.
BUT! There are always those looking to optimize. And thank God for those on the extremes of the Bell curve. That’s where life gets interesting indeed! So if you’re that bro or betty, read on.
Let’s talk volume
Volume is the flip-side of the frequency coin. As such, it’s an often overlooked (or underdeveloped) component of many training programs.
In general terms, frequency is how many times per week a particular muscle is trained, and volume is the amount of work done within that frequency framework.
And let’s just cut to the chase: Why fret about volume? Because volume drives hypertrophy. It’s as simple as that.
But it’s not a 1-1 correlation. It’s more like, double the volume, get 50% more hypertrophy…. or a fraction of a percent if you’ve been in the gym for a while (and yes, there are limits to how much natural hypertrophy a body can produce). So the return on investment (time, effort) pays increasingly fewer dividends. Progress, yes – but diminishing at the extremes.
For more on that, check out this post.
And this is where people get discouraged. That final 20% of optimal output requires an inordinate amount of input, both in the form of time and effort.
But if optimal is your goal, you deal with the hardship. You find the time.
Daily volume refers to the total weight lifted in the training session, defined as (weight) x (reps at that weight) x (sets at that rep scheme) for each weight used in the training session and then added together.
So, a deadlift session might look something like this:
- 135 x 5 = 675
- 225 x 5 = 1125
- 315 x 3 = 945
- 405 x 2 = 810
- 425 x 2 x (4 sets) = 3400
If we add these together we get 675 + 1125 + 945 + 810 + 3400 = 6955 pounds of volume.
Now, we can talk about volume in a particular exercise, per muscle group, or total volume of an entire workout. It just depends on what it is you’re trying to track or assess.
Volume is one of the primary variables in training for strength and hypertrophy. As training volume increases, we tend to get bigger and stronger unless something else is holding us back. As we do more and more work, we get more and more swole and/or perform better in our sport of choice. Although again, it’s not a one-to-one correlation.
Side note: doing more and more work requires greater levels of general physical conditioning. GPP (general physical conditioning) is another important variable directly affecting volume and frequency.
That doing more work should lead to a better end result shouldn’t come as a shock. All other variables being equal (genetic hand, lifestyle, recovery ability), doing more (smart) work than the other guy is generally going to mean you’re going to get better results than him.
Frequency is a tool by which we can manage volume. Or, manage fatigue, if you prefer to look at it that way.
Consider the deadlift example above. Let’s just say for argument’s sake that we found 14,000 lbs of volume per week to be the optimal dose. That is, we’ve tracked volume/recovery vs performance and/or hypertrophy and found that amount of volume to be the sweet spot. Now, how are we going to manage that?
14,000 lbs in one session might not be doable. There’s obviously fatigue issues involved, and time considerations. But we also have to consider the other training requirements we have and how those have to be juggled. Because they too have an optimal volume component that has to be considered as well.
Now, this can turn into a very deep rabbit hole indeed. One that other than highly competitive athletes need not go down. So we’re going to keep this very simple.
We know from science and in-the-trenches verification, that we can effectively chunk training volume into week-long blocks without losing resolution on the whole picture of that athlete’s training. We also know that it doesn’t matter if that optimal volume is performed in one day, or spread out over the entire week. So we could perform that 14,000 lbs of deadlift volume from the example above in one session (unrealistic though that may be), OR we can spread that volume out over however many sessions we please.
Again, much can (and has) been written on the management of training volume and frequency vis-a-vis a comprehensive competitive program. If you want to take the deep dive on that, go checkout some of Louie Simmons’ (Westside) material.
My goal here is to cull the 20% of that info that is most useful to people like me. Those who have demanding day gigs and who aren’t necessarily competitive athletes, but who DO like to remain strong, functional and swole as fuck.
How to increase training volume
Since the volume equation is comprised of three different variables (load, number of reps, number of sets), there are three different ways to increase volume from workout to workout.
- You can lift more weight at the same set and rep scheme you did in the last workout
- You can lift the same weight for more reps per set
- You can perform more sets per workout
- Any combo of the above that results in a greater amount of volume.
Pretty easy-peasy so far, huh?
Ok, so now, let’s track this shit
In general, we expect to see volume to increase over time. Maybe not every single workout, but over the long haul.
And progress (whether performance or hypertrophy or whatever YOUR measure is) ought to track appropriately with that volume. IF (and that’s a big if) your training is programmed correctly vis-a-vis your goals. So the volume has to be there, yes – but it has to be smartly programmed.
That said, if volume stagnates despite our best attempts at increasing it, we may be reaching our ultimate limits, or there may be something interfering with our training.
Now, aside from the obvious – injury, your recovery sucks, dietary change, that new girlfriend, your job, yadayadayada… – that “something” may be as simple as having maxed out a particular exercise. It happens.
This, by the way, is why I rotate exercises, grips, and foot positions frequently. Trying to stay ahead of the adaptation/accommodation curve. You don’t want to rotate too often or you’ll miss out on positive adaptation and hypertrophy. But you want to rotate enough so as to avoid accommodation and progress stall.
This is all to emphasize that you need to track your volume regularly. Nothing fancy needed here – I use a simple Google doc to get it done. And don’t over-complicate the tracking itself. Identifying trends (increase, decrease, level-off) is all you really need to be able to do.
Volume for Hypertrophy
We’re talking here about higher rep (> than about 7) schemes here. Classic bodybuilding; otherwise known as “assistance work” for those training for sports other than bodybuilding. Volume for size gains can be a little confusing for some, particularly since you’re typically going to use more than one exercise per body part. How in the world do you track that?
For instance, chins and curls both hit the biceps. But since they have different mechanical advantages and call into play different primary musculature, it’s unlikely that you’re going be able to lift the same weight in both. And that’s going to affect volume.
A bench press works the triceps, yeah — but it also works the pecs and the deltoids. Which muscle should the volume be accounted for or attributed to? If we’re splitting it up, which muscles get which percentage of the compound lift?
My solution is simply this: don’t friggin’ worry about it. Instead, focus on improving your volume with each specific *lift* (or combination) each time you perform that movement(s) instead of tracking muscle specific volume.
It’ll all work out in the wash. Believe me. You’ll be able to better perform trend analysis if you track this way. Even muscle specific analysis.
If you’ve got a total volume of X for the bicep curl, you aim to do more the next time you do bicep curls, even if you’re going to be doing other bicep-heavy exercises (chins, let’s say) for the next few workouts. Otherwise, you’ll spend more time logging than actually working out. And that’s a travesty.
Just keep your exercise selection very simple. For instance, I generally only do one or two assistance exercises per body part. But I work the fuckin’ shit out of those exercises. I just find (1) it’s obviously easier to track, and (2) it keeps me focused on doing work vs dicking around with trivial (albeit cool) new exercises. Every exercise requires at least some set-up time. And generally, a feel-out set or two to dial in the weight. No need to fuck around with that. Time is too valuable!
Volume for strength/max effort work
Training with an eye toward strength is a little different than training purely for size. Training to get strong involves lower rep, higher intensity lifts, and sets. So generally, we’re talking about reps in the 1-6 range and loads greater than 75% of our 1RM.
When calculating strength/max effort training volume, I only count the reps completed at greater than 75% of 1RM. Warm up and “feel out” sets/reps don’t matter. From that deadlift example above, the numbers now look like this:
- 405 x 2 = 810
- 425 x 2 x 4 = 3400
Added together, we get 4210 pounds.
That’s a significant drop from our previous volume of 6955 pounds. But remember the intent here – volume at > 75%. A different goal and intensity, and a different kind of “tax” on the CNS and our recovery ability.
And remember what we’re ultimately trying to accomplish, here: provide a quantitative way of measuring input stimulus against progress and recovery ability. It’s not the *only* measure, just *a* measure.
If your progress stalls (and it will at some point, guaranteed) you’re going to want some tracked variables to look at in an attempt to get back on track. Legs falling behind the rest of your body’s progress – either in size or relative strength? Take a look at your volume of leg work. You may be surprised to find it trailing the volume of work you’ve done in other areas. Or maybe you’ve neglected specific speed or strength work. Some rebalancing may be in order.
Do you track the volume of speed work as well?
I get this question a lot, and the short answer is yes. But just as with strength (max effort) work, I only count those reps where the intent of the modality has been met. In other words, I don’t count any reps that are “slow”.
Many times toward the end of the speed work set/rep scheme, we hit a point where the reps “drag”. Even though the rep is “made”, it hasn’t met the criteria (speed of execution) of the modality and, therefore, shouldn’t be counted. In essence, it’s a missed lift. Counting it as such forces me to drop my ego and lower the total load/band/chain combo as necessary.
Slow your roll
What’s the first thing trainees do when they find a new metric to track? Increase the shit out of it, of course!
And while I dig the enthusiasm, we need to use a little common sense.
More quality work means more gains; this is true – within reason. Because we still have that recovery thing to contend with.
So the smart thing to do is accurately measure and orient, then begin to *incrementally* increase volume where you feel it’s needed (Size? Strength? Speed? All of the above?) and track that against your recovery and progress.
And what do I mean by “incrementally”? Let’s call it roughly 10%. From the deadlift volume example above, that would be an additional 700-ish lbs of volume in the week.
Now, no need to split hairs here. Maybe an additional set of 2 at 405. Or an additional set of 3 at 315. You get the idea. We’re in this for the long-haul; no need to rush.
Recovery – of the physical *and* mental kind
As mentioned before, volume is *an* indicator of improvement… but not the only one.
Being the complex biological system you are, there are a plethora of variables at play that are constantly, well… variable.
Your mental/psychological level of preparedness for instance. Stress at work? Lack of sleep? Stress with the significant other? Yeah, those ARE going to affect how you perform.
Remember that progress is never a straight line. It will look more like the stock market trend over the last 100 years — lots of peaks and valleys — but generally upward.
And, too, your volume is going to vary as you try new exercises, methods, and rep schemes on for size. It’s all good. And you HAVE to experiment like this to dodge stagnation due to accommodation. Both physical AND mental stagnation.
You’re going to have challenging days, weeks, months, and even years. And you’re not alone in that. I had some extended periods in the military where the stress was through the roof, and my training consisted of TRX and some running and jump rope. Not a barbell in sight. I got through it. And you will get through your roadblocks as well.
The moral of the story is this: If you want to be good, you’re going to have to keep at the grind, no matter what.
Dialing up the frequency
Since improved volume accounting for recovery is the main factor, you can see more volume by getting in more workouts for a specific body part or lift in a week.
Going from training your deadlift for strength once per week to training it twice per week is a huge jump in overall volume, as is adding a third or fourth day.
While deadlifting five days a week may not suit everyone, provided that your recovery is good, more days equal more volume, and more volume equals more gains.
Further, even if you split the same volume from one workout into two workouts of half the volume, you’d be fresh for each workout and thus you’d have an easier workout while seeing similar gains.
Late entry (8/10/18) – here’s an excellent article on the benefits of increasing your workout frequency, from Greg Nuckols, of Stronger by Science.
Tracking volume outside of your gym workouts
This can be tricky. And personally, I don’t bother with it.
I ride bikes (fixed speed and mountain bikes) A LOT, and I don’t track any of that volume as part of my lower body work. Or any work, for that matter. It’s just part of my everyday life. As it was when I worked construction back in the day. I simply consider it my “baseline” and move on.
Competitive athletes have to track as best as possible, though. Especially training done outside of the weightroom (think a football player, or track and field athlete), because that volume does matter as far as recovery goes. It also matters greatly to the overall programming.
But that’s the difference between competitive and not: your life revolving around the sport vs the sport being integrated into your life. You own your sport or your sport owns you. That’s the mental/emotional side of competition that people who have never been involved in a competitive sport don’t get. It’s a mental and emotional grind as well.
At this point in my life, I don’t need that. There was a time, though, when the thought of sport *not* being the centerpiece of my life was absurd. My entire identity revolved around being an athlete.
I’m not here to judge; I’m just here to lay it out. I’m all about training for competition, so long as the competitor understands and accepts the required sacrifice involved.
And of course, there are varying degrees of being competitive. Weekend warriors might be “competitive”, but not in the sense I’m speaking of here.
Choice of exercise modality
In most cases, I try to edge toward time-efficient exercise modalities. it’s not that rest-pause, J-reps, escalating density 21’s (dog shit training) or any other specialty method is so vastly superior to any other. But what these methods DO allow for though is an increase work output per unit of time efficiency.
That, and they help break the mental monotony of doing straight sets.
Keep in mind that, in most cases, you’ve got about one good hour in you before fatigue begins to take an inordinate toll on your intensity. At least that’s been my experience.
Now, I *have* (and do, at times) work out for much longer than that. But I take plenty of breaks and I have the time to do so. The volume doesn’t change all that much. It simply gets spread out over more time. Because, well – I just enjoy the gym atmosphere. Always have. But there are times when I need to get it done and hit the road.
So volume (as mediated by frequency) becomes the true measure of work done. Not time investment.
Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world –