• All About Volume

      There seems to be some confusion out there about training volumes. So I thought it would be prudent to discuss what volume is, what it does, and how you manage it in your own training. Normally, I’d try to come up with a funny anecdote to lure you into the rest of the article. But either a discussion on training volume is too compelling to be delayed by anecdotes or I just don’t have the patience to write one at the moment… take your pick!

      What volume is
      In the context of training, we’re talking about the amount of work being done. There are many different ways to measure training volume. Perhaps the most simple is your Number of Lifts (abbreviated “NL”). NL is simply a count of the total number of reps you did in a given time period. It can cover a training session, a week, a training cycle… you get the idea. Benefits of this method are that it’s simple to use and many different exercises can be compared to one another. Drawbacks are that it doesn’t really take into account the loading of the work that was done.
      Another method for measuring the training volume in a session is Tonnage. This method is a bit more involved in that it requires some calculations. The concept for Tonnage is to find the total weight lifted in a time period. For example, if you did DB Rows for 5 sets of 5 reps using 100 pounds, you did 2500 pounds of work (you lifted 100 pounds a total of 25 times). It’s easy enough when the weight is constant, but when the weight changes from set to set (as is likely the case with many of us), calculating this number can be an involved process. As you might have guessed, the time required to calculating this number is one of its main drawbacks. Other drawbacks include the fact that only similar exercises are suitable for comparison. What that means is if you did 30,000 pounds of volume for the squat and 20,000 pounds of volume for the bench, which one required you to work harder? It’s a trick question – it’s impossible to tell from that information alone. This is because each exercise will have its own volume levels for certain workload. Even similar exercises such as Bench Press and Board Press will not be comparable. But this method does have many benefits. If you are comparing like exercises (i.e. Squat from week 1 to Squat from week 4), then there is probably no better way to compare the respective workloads than by examining tonnage.
      The last method we will discuss in this article is Normalized Tonnage (NT). NT is an attempt to keep the accuracy of Tonnage with the versatility of NL. NT is calculated much the same way as Tonnage, except instead of multiplying NL times the load, you multiply NL times the percentage of 1RM. The method actually worked fairly well. NT numbers can be compared across exercises and they include a measure for how hard the workload was. The two biggest drawbacks are that it can be a pain to calculate at times and you also have to have a way to obtain your %1RM for each lift you are calculating.
      It’s easy to see that there is no perfect measure. Some measures are better suited to certain situations while other measures are not going to be very effective. But in either situation, this is all just a mental exercise unless we learn enough to apply it.

      What volume does
      I’ve said many times before that Intensity is mostly what determines your training effect. Volume determines the magnitude of that training effect. There are a few exceptions here and there, but for most of us iron sport athletes, this holds true. But let me break that down a little more….
      Say you’re a strength athlete. Lets also pretend you have a crystal ball that tells you exactly how much stronger you’ll get after each workout. We’ll say you go to the gym and bench press for 5x5 using 75% of your 1RM. Then you look at your crystal ball and it says that you will gain 2.5 lbs on your 1RM for this workload. If you were to do 7x5 using 75% (i.e. more total work at a given intensity), your crystal ball would say you’ll gain 3 or 3.5 lbs on your 1RM, but it will take you longer to see those gains due to a longer recovery time.
      I realize some people are going to HATE that example. Before you hate it too much, keep in mind it’s just an example and by nature a simplification of a complex process. The point is that a greater volume will have a greater training effect, but it will also have a longer recovery time.
      That’s going to go for most of the training objectives you have. Whether it be hypertrophy, Intramuscular coordination, facilitation of the stretch reflex, and so on… the greater the volume, the greater the magnitude of the training effect and the longer the recovery time. Of course this general trend has its limitations like anything else.
      That general tendency highlights the reason why training volumes and frequencies go hand-in-hand. If you have a high training volume, it necessitates a longer recovery time. Of course, “high training volume” and “long recovery time” is relative to your individual capacities, but you get the point. So if you want a high training volume, be prepared to utilize a lower frequency template. And likewise, if you want a high frequency template, reduce the volume of work you do in each session.
      What you’ll no doubt realize fairly quickly is that the key to making the best gains possible in a given training objective is to optimize your frequency and your training volume. For example, if you go back to the crystal ball example above, what if the greater training volume took twice as long to recover from? Well, the lower volume would be a better choice because it would allow for a greater frequency and a better long term gain. So it’s easy to see that getting the best gains possible is going to depend partially on your ability to optimize your volume and frequency relationships. So how do you do that?

      Volume Management
      The best way I’ve found to manage training volumes is by using fatigue percents. They allow you to autoregulate the amount of work that you do to account for day-to-day changes in your body’s ability to adapt. It is also very beneficial to helping you determine your optimal frequency.
      The article is already getting a tad long, so I won’t go into detail on how to use fatigue percents themselves. If you would like to learn more, click here and also here.
      The long and short of it is that most people can recover from about 30% fatigue each week. That’s the sum of all the individual fatigue percents that you do for a particular movement pattern. For a powerlifter, that means you would have 30% fatigue for the bench press and 30% fatigue for the squat and deadlift combined. This 30% is a lot like money. You can use it mostly any way you want as long as it’s pretty close to 30% at the end. Going beyond that is more work than you can recover from on a weekly basis. I typically have 6 pressing exercises each week, along with 3 squat and 3 deadlift exercises. If you distribute your fatigue evenly, that is 5% fatigue for each exercise. And you can break that up in a variety of ways. You can group your exercises together or spread them out. In terms of your recovery and training volumes, it doesn’t really matter much.
      Here are two good examples of what I mean. For simplicity sake, we’re just going to consider the bench press, but the lower body lifts work much the same way.

      Example 1
      Monday: 3 exercises at 5% fatigue each (15% total)
      Friday: 3 exercises at 5% fatigue each (15% total)
      30% fatigue for the week.

      Example 2
      Monday: 2 exercises at 5% fatigue each (10% total)
      Tuesday: 1 exercise at 5% fatigue (5% total)
      Thursday: 2 exercises at 5% fatigue each (10% total)
      Friday: 1 exercise at 5% fatigue (5% total)
      30% fatigue for the week

      And there are a million other examples you can use. That’s not to say that all programs will be effective – there’s other stuff you could screw up. But if you follow the above recommendations, you’ll get the volume dosing right. Hopefully you learned something about volume today. It’s just another training variable, much like intensity, training time, etc. Often people can get carried away by romanticized high-volume training plans that utilize volumes that the athlete is not prepared for. I can understand the allure – we tend to be hard workers and are willing to work very hard if it will be met with a reward. But keep in mind that there is hard work and there is optimal work. If you’re truly a results oriented athlete, then working optimally will get you the biggest return for your effort and that’s the best kind of program.