Understanding Training Volume: One of the Most Important Variables for Making Progress

In my last post, I discussed the bodies desire for homeostasis. I began to touch upon the importance of disrupting homeostasis briefly and yet at the same time encouraging it. In this post we are going to focus even more on the disruption of homeostasis by discussing the idea of training volume, or as I will often refer to it as simply volume. 
 


Volume is the measure of total work performed during a training session and one of the most important things to monitor as it pertains to any training. 
 
The first thing I want to touch upon is how to find the volume. In regards to strength training the equation for volume is V = S*R*W or Volume = (Sets)*(Repetitions per Set)*(Weight). If two of these variables stay the same and one of them increases then the overall volume increases. However, sometimes there might be trade-offs. Say for instance you use heavier weight but must then perform lower reps. Well as a result volume may decrease or stay the same. 
 
To get stronger, you must always consider how to manipulate your workouts so that volume gradually increases not just from session to session, but over the week as a whole. Sometimes this means doing more workouts that week or increasing one of the three variables of the equation. However, at the same time volume will not always increase linearly. Due to this wave-like effect of progress, this is why the workouts have been broken into phases. 
 
At HPI we typically structure our programs into components of different phases, about four weeks at a time. By the fourth week of a phase, many of our clients should have the attained their highest volume accumulated over the phase. Then once we start a new phase, you may find the weight increases, the reps drop, and as a result, the volume drops. This drop in volume is by design. Manipulating volume in such a way will ensure steady progress as well as continue to promote recovery so that you do not burn out. The ultimate idea is two steps forward one step backward, but know you are still progressing.
 
With this being said, I would now like to address the endurance oriented readers. Calculation of total volume for the endurance athletes is a tad easier. It comes down to your total mileage for the week. It is also important to take into account heart rate and duration of these workouts. You do not want to have a high volume/intense session of endurance training preceded by high volume/intense lifting session. Such recklessness in the schedule may end up causing overtraining and leave your system fried. 
 
If you know you may have two high volume sessions coming up, I would encourage you to give yourself a minimum of 2 days between these two sessions. This does not mean you cannot run or lift during these two days; it does mean you should monitor your volume as well as your perceived exertion, not letting yourself go over a 6/10. This means you should feel like you are challenging your system but if you sweat it should be more of a glisten instead of a drench.
 
By monitoring volume, and making sure that over time it is gradually creeping upwards, you should find yourself progressing towards your goals volumes. 
 
As mentioned volume is one way, we manipulate homeostasis to do our bidding. I hope you have a better understanding of why it is so important to monitor. Stay tuned for other posts that explore the other methods we utilize to optimize progress. 

- Dave Howington

The Rocking Chair of Homeostasis: The Key to Training Progress

The human body is remarkable. One aspect that does not cease to amaze me is the body's ability to adapt. Think about the smell, for instance; we've all experienced those rank odors that just are not appealing to the nose. After a while, whether we want it to or not we grow used to the smell. 

Pepe.jpg

This ability to adapt is both a good and bad aspect in regards to training. To some extent we want the adaptation to occur because, well this is how we improve. However, this adaptation is something we must also battle against because if our body stops adapting due to lack of appropriate stimuli, then we will not improve or grow. This adaptation is called homeostasis, and because of it, if we want to see results we have to treat our body as if we are in a dating relationship with it. Hear me out. 

Good relationships are like a rocking chair. Have you ever sat in a rocking chair? What happens when you rock too far back? If you have tried this, there is always the feeling that the rocking chair may slip right out from under you. Have you ever leaned too far forward? You are no longer comfortable and may even feel some cramping take the place of said comfort. If you've ever been in a dating relationship where you rocked too far back you find your significant other may not be all too pleased and start writing you off. If you push too far forward and do not give any space, you may find your significant other acting aloof feeling overcrowded. With this in mind let's explore what homeostasis is and what it does. 

 

Homeostasis is the bodies desire to keep everything balanced and is the primary driver as to why adaptation occurs. Stress of any kind disrupts homeostasis by presenting a stimulus that forces the body to respond by bolstering itself up making sure that next time the stressor hits it will not be caught off guard. The body's desire for homeostasis and its response to when homeostasis is disrupted is how we grow. 

However, if we continually do the same thing all the time eventually the body no longer perceives what we are doing as a stressor, and the adaptation either slows down substantially or in some cases stops occurring. 

We want homeostasis to occur, and at the same time, we want to disrupt homeostasis. As a result, different strategies have to be employed. We must understand the functions of the autonomic nervous system as well as periodization. In all honesty, understanding how the balance of disrupting and encouraging homeostasis is the foundation of fitness. Fitness professionals, myself included, are continually trying to figure out how to go about manipulating homeostasis for best results. I will do my best in this post to help give you the framework for the disruption strategy.

There are 5 key strategies to employ to disrupt stress. In this post I will highlight a couple, but throughout the series I will go more in depth regarding each. These strategies are:

  1. Volume - The total amount work performed
  2. Intensity - The heaviness of the weight used.
  3. Variation - Different, but similar exercises used.
  4. Density - How much work you do in the time allotted.
  5. Frequency - How often you work.

Without going too far down the rabbit trail each of these are interrelated, however, they can only be manipulated their own way, which I will talk about in coming posts.

So these are strategies to disrupt homeostasis, however, recovery must be taken into account. During moments of recovery, this is where our body adapts the most. However, we mustn't recover all the time. Otherwise, this ends up being pointless. Although to give recovery the respect it deserves requires it's own post, which I will talk about later. 

I hope you are starting to see how our bodies must be treated with the thought of balance. Just like the rocking chair of relationships so also must we treat homeostasis as a rocking chair. Push too far with training and our body may become overtrained, but pull too far back and we will not present enough stimulus for our body to adapt. 

 

So where is the balance? How do we stay comfortable in the rocking chair known as training and our body's response? These are subjects I will discuss in coming posts.
 

Making a Plan pt. 6 - Are You Using the Right Sets and Reps for Your Goal?

I'll admit, when you are new to training you sometimes feel like you need the Rosetta Stone just to understand the exercises let alone understanding how many sets and reps you should do. Us trainers have a bad habit of simply assuming everyone can read our mind. I fall into this trap more frequently than I would like to admit, just ask my wife... 

 

So what does it mean when you see a sequence like "6x45"? Well fortunately You don't have to do any multiplication. Rather it's reasonable to assume the first number will tell you how many sets you are going to perform and the second number is how many reps you will perform for each of those sets. Regardless of how the information is presented usually the first number will be the sets and the second number the reps. 

The real problem arises because sets and reps aren't as simple as they seem. Depending on the muscular quality you want to train you will change your sets and reps accordingly. 

For instance strength is often best trained from the 1-6 rep range. I personally like 3-5 reps as my sweet spot for myself and athletes.

Building muscle tends to work best between 6-12 reps, and muscular endurance tends to work best with 12 or more reps.

However the operative word for each of these is "tends". There are times where I will hit hypertrophy performing upwards to 15 reps, and hit strength performing 10 reps. Some may argue that I'm not really training strength or hypertrophy if this happens. Well much like trying to decide who is the greatest wizard Dumbeldore or Gandalf this is a discussion which isn't very relevant to the lesson in this post.

The truth is most strength training is spent under 5 reps, and most muscle building will spent around 8 - 12 reps. 

Determining sets is another conundrum all in it's own. Usually the higher the reps the less sets you want to be doing. There are some physiological explanations for this but I think time is the biggest consideration. Basically, I don't want myself or my athlete's to spend more than 90 minutes in a gym. Any longer and we're doing it wrong. And quite frankly I try to aim for under 75 minutes. 

Suffice to say, it's usually a safe bet to think of it like this

  • Strength = 3-8 sets for 1-6 reps
  • Hypertrophy = 3-5 sets for 6-12 reps
  • Muscular Endurance = 2-4 sets for 12+ reps

For the sake of simplicity I am choosing to keep this black and white. And for most everyone I find these tend to be good ranges when training each of these qualities.

Our next post in this series will dig a little bit deeper and discuss frequency and volume depending on what you want to train and where you are at in your training career.

- Dave

Making a Plan pt. 4 - The Training Week

To continue to figure out what the best plan to follow for you this post will discuss the training week as whole. Looking closer at some of the common ways people set their training up.

Before I continue, It is important to note the crucial aspect of having a goal in place. Setting a goal will help you better figure out what split will be best for you.

Once you have your goals figured out it will be easier to understand how you may want to divide your training to achieve your goals in the most efficient manner. Hence the importance of understanding different ways to set the week up.

Often times a training week is divided into different days called splits. These splits can be designed in such a way to be specifically more advantageous for one goal compared to others. Granted, it is not all cut and dry. When I write programs I'll often use a combination of different splits, or mix match the advantages of one to the other. However, I have also spent a few years writing programs. For our intents and purposes it is important to understand what is on the inside of the box before we get concerned thinking outside of the box. 

In regards to the training week the 5 most common splits you'll see are;

  1. Upper/Lower
  2. Push/Pull
  3. Conjugate
  4. Undulating
  5. Exercise based

Upper/Lower Split  - The upper lower split might be the most common split used in commercial gyms, or at least the most recognizable. The general idea is the trainee will workout roughly 4x/week. 2 days will be devoted to upper body exercises and 2 days will be devoted to lower body exercises. For the bros out there it is imperative you don't skip leg day.

The major advantage of this kind of split is you will be working out a group of muscles twice in a week. When it comes to building muscle, frequency is the name of the game. Thereby, strategically working out your muscles like this twice a week can help catalyze your gains.

The major disadvantage of this kind of split is the risk of overuse injuries such as tendinitis. If you don't pick your exercises carefully and provide enough variety you may accidentally cause these types of injuries to occur. 

Push/Pull  - This is another very common split, similar to upper lower. However instead of doing solely upper body exercises and solely lower body exercises you will do two days focused on "pulling" exercises, and two days focused on "pushing" exercise. In other words, two days will be focused on the posterior chain (i.e anywhere from the back of the legs to upper back) and two days focused on anterior chain (i.e anywhere from the fronts of the legs to pectorals).

 

The advantage with this type of split is the ability to train the total body each day. Many would argue this is best, because you never use your body in isolation. The other benefit is you will still get the frequency of an upper/lower split that is require for muscle growth.

However the disadvantage is the toll this type of split takes on recovery. Due to the nature of training the total body it can really affect our central nervous system. A lot of people will perform the split slightly differently by having a push day, pull day, lower body day, and upper body day. Where the latter two days will be focused on lighter exercises with more reps. Providing the body more time to recover. 

Conjugate  - This method of dividing the week is often advocated for athletic performance and strength. The reason is because two days will be focused on max strength (max effort days) and two days will be focused on power work (dynamic effort days). Sometimes plans will have max effort days back to back and then dynamic effort days back to back. Although typically this kind of split will look more like the one of the following:

  •  Max Effort, Dynamic Effort, Max Effort, Dynamic Effort or
  •  Max Effort, Dynamic Effort, Dynamic Effort, Max Effort

Aside from the lay out it is essentially a different way to do an upper and lower body split. Where a max effort day and dynamic effort day will be devoted to lower body, and the other two will be devoted to upper body.

The advantages is this method can be very good for building athletic performance and strength as there will be at least two concentrated days focused on building power as well as two days focused on strength. When smartly programmed it can also enhance the recovery process between max effort days by using the dynamic effort days to recharge the central nervous system.

The disadvantage of this method is it can be very difficult to use with beginning trainees. I find conjugate training works best with athletes and trainee's who are well established in the weight room and are looking for a way to bring their weight room strength over to performance. Many young athletes still need to focus on the basics and simply build the foundation of strength. 

Undulating - This method is based on dividing the week based on exercises and volume. This method is effective in gaining both strength and muscle as it will deal a lot in frequency. The only caveat I will make is if you are using deadlifting as one of your main exercises I would typically only deadlift twice. As this exercise may really fry your recovery capabilities.

Typically with undulating the week will be divided into three days. Where the foundation of the program is centered around three main lifts. This is a popular method for powerlifters as they can choose the squat, bench, and deadlift for their main exercises. Aside from the three main lifts it's up to the trainee to throw in whatever else they want to do. 

Each lift will then be programmed like this: one day devoted towards power, the next day for strength, and a third day for muscle (the third day is where I recommend skipping the deadlift). However you will alternate these three qualities for each exercise. 

  • Monday
    • Deadlift = Power
    • Squat = Strength
    • Bench = Hypertrophy
  • Wednesday
    • Bench = Power
    • Deadlift = Strength
    • Squat = Hypertrophy
  • Friday
    • Squat = Power
    • Bench = Strength
    • Deadlift = N/A

Usually on the last day I will substitute the deadlift with an exercise like the hip bridge.

The major advantage with this type of training is the frequency of each exercise. This plays a role in both building muscle and strength as it creates better motor learning which enhances strength, and with high frequency also comes high amounts of volume which will increase the potential for the muscles to grow. The frequency of lifting is also helpful for beginner lifters to really learn the movement.

The major disadvantage of this type of split is the risk of overuse injury. If you are doing the same exercise over and over again, three days a week, there is definitely a risk of developing inflammation. And to that same extent this type of training can hurt the ability to recover if done too much. 

The other major disadvantage is the lack of variety. Variety is important especially when a trainee comes upon a plateau.

Exercise Based - This type of split is really common among powerlifters and olympic weight lifters. Each day is devoted to a different competition exercise. For example, a power lifter will have a deadlift day, a bench day, and a squat day. All the exercises after the main lift of the day will be aimed to improve the main exercise.

The major advantage for this type of training revolves around the SAID principle, or specific adaptation to imposed demands. Basically, by training their competitive lift powerlifters will get better at performing their competitive lift. I also think there can be some value in this type of training for those looking to get stronger. As there is a lot of real world carry over from the main power lifts and olympic lifts.

The major disadvantage of this type of training tends to be the lack of variety. If you get bored easily this type of split might not be the kind of training that will work for you.

There you have it, 5 common splits to help you better understand what you can do to help you move closer to your goals. Not one split is inherently better than the others. They all can be useful, the key is to know your goal, and from there know what will work best for you. I've done all of them and have seen them to be effective. The most fun is simply experimenting with each one. 

After figuring out what you want the year to look like, then the month, and now each week the next important part of creating your program is deciding upon what exercises to use.

- Dave 

 

Making a Plan pt. 3 - The Importance of Journaling

In part 1 of this series we discussed progressive overload. It is the key principle towards attaining your goals. In part two we discussed periodization, and the importance of keeping yourself organized. In part three we will discuss the importance keeping a journal. Keep in mind, I am not talking about “dear diary” type stuff, but rather keeping track of what you do day in and day out.

 

I personally feel regardless of your goals periodization is important. However, in all honesty periodization is arbitrary if you are not actually keeping track of what you are doing. Without a journal you may as well be a dog chasing its tail. Don’t go me wrong periodization can be extremely helpful, and if you are competing in a sport like powerlifting, olympic lifting or even strong man it is almost essential.

If you are a field or court athlete, it is equally important to keep track of something even in the absence of an organized plan (periodization). If you don’t you will struggle to progress, and when you do hit a plateau you will have nothing to look back upon to see what variables you may be able to change to overcome it.

This is why one of the best things you can do for yourself is go to your local office supply store and buy a notebook of some sort. In this note book create several columns; for the exercise, the reps, the sets, and the weight lifted.

Another thing you can do at the end of each session is write how the session felt, you might notice trends. If you consistently feel drained after several sessions in a row it may be time to consider performing a deload, if each session feels really good maybe it’s time to set a new personal record.

As you can see the largest benefit of having a journal in some shape or manner is it will help you better keep track of where you are headed by detailing where you are at and looking back at where you came from. A journal can even be motivational to objectively see how much you actually have improved.

Keeping track of what you are doing is essential in the persistent quest of reaching your goals.

-Dave