Managing All Three For Progressive Overload
If you are looking to develop more quality size and strength, then you need to ensure that you are progressively overloading over time. In other words, you are doing more work (e.g. in terms of more sets, reps, weight), challenging your body more and more, and pushing it above it’s current limits. Essentially, you want to make sure you step outside your comfort zone every time you step foot into the gym. This increased work load over time stimulates your body to go through adaptation (getting stronger and bigger) so that your body is primed to cope effectively with this increased stress. Without the proper adaptation your body would simply struggle to cope with any extra increase in work load, and it would just break down and fail to recover. Not what you want happen! Continued adaptation is key when it comes to progress. Successful adaptation will ensure that you develop size and strength into the long-term.
When it comes to ensuring successful progressive overload and thus continued adaptation, you will have to manage three training variables: volume, intensity and frequency. You can’t just manage one, or even two of them. You have to manage all three if you want to ensure progressive overload. Why all three? Simply because all three are highly linked with each other. If you change one training variable, then the other two must also change. If you ask me, these three training variables will be the most important three things you will need to consider and continuously monitor carefully throughout your entire fitness journey to ensure you stay on track and keep making optimal progress.
The Big Three Variables
volume is simply the total amount of work you do in a given time and is derived from sets, reps and weight used. This gives you volume = sets x reps x weight. Simple! Next up is good old intensity, this is the weight you use and is measured as a % of your 1RM (1 rep max is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for one rep).
⇒For instance, if your bench 1RM is 250lbs and you want to lift with an intensity of 75% of your 1RM (250lbs) for a given number of sets and reps, then the weight you would use, would be 75% (0.75) x 250 to give 187.5lbs.
The third variable is training frequency. This I how many times you work each muscle group each week.
⇒Say you follow a 3 day per week full body routine, then the training frequency at which you work each muscle group would be 3 times.
Not much to it! Knowing this basic knowledge will give you a lot of options to planning your training in the most optimal way possible. Managing volume, intensity and frequency is not an exact science. It really is a lot of trial and error and how you manage each variable will constantly change as your progress from a beginner to advanced (as well as training schedule and preferences). There is no unique, one size fits all combination for everyone looking for optimal size and strength gains. However, there are some things to consider when trying to develop an optimal size and strength plan for you.
The reason why managing frequency, volume and intensity is so important is because it helps regulate optimal recovery. Simply put, if you can’t recover from the work you are currently doing, how can you expect to do even more work and progress further? You can’t! Without balance between frequency, volume an intensity, you can’t have adequate recovery, and without recovery, you can’t have progressive overload. No results!
For instance, take volume and frequency. Let’s say you have a full body plan, 3 times per week. Here, you work each muscle group 3 times per week (training frequency) and every session you max out on the volume, lots of sets, reps, and a weight range between 75-85% of your 1RM for every exercise and every muscle group, 3 times per week. Initially you might be able to cope with this training arrangement and even progress for a time. But over time, the increase in high volume at such a high training frequency is going to impact recovery.
Why? The only way to progress is too further increase the work your doing. Well, more volume? Yes, but with so much volume already, it’s going to burn you out. So that rules out more volume. How about more frequency? You could add in another session, but again working a muscle group more than 3 times per week is not going to add much in terms of benefits but add a lot more volume of which you don’t need at this point. After all, increasing the frequency means an extra training session, which means extra work, which means extra volume. Not really the solution to your problem! You could reduce the frequency and work each muscle group 2 times per week, but then you begin to diverge from the optimal times a muscle should be taxed each week. As you can see, it’s a tricky situation! But, it highlights the fact that if you increase one thing, something else has to come down to keep the work load in balance.
When it comes to making progress, increasing volume, intensity and frequency over time will elicit size and strength development. But only if these are balanced in such a way to allow optimal recovery
As you progress, more work needs to be done. But as the the work you do, increases, your body needs longer to recover from it. If you follow a high volume routine, then there will reach a point (if the frequency is high) when ‘compounding effects’ occur. This is really just a build up of fatigue on top of fatigue resulting from the constant high volume of work and your body unable to fully recover from it in time for your next workout. Ideally, you don’t want to change your training frequency. If you already have your training plan set up so that you are training each muscle group 2/3 times per week then your golden. Some people try reducing the frequency (down to working each muscle group 1x per week) in the hopes to promote recovery and allow further increases in training volume.
⇒If you ask me, this is pretty sub-optimal practise. Even if you crank up your volume more, it’s still not going to elevate protein synthesis great enough in each muscle to last the entire week until your next training session. This is why 2/3 times per week for each muscle group is a great training frequency to aim for. It elevates protein synthesis multiple times during the week leading to potentially more development.
So, what can you do to maintain an optimal training frequency of training each muscle 2/3 times per week, while allowing for more volume over time, and adequate recovery? Well, I haven’t forget about intensity. But, the situation would actually be exactly the same if you were trying to continuously increase the intensity over time at a frequency of 2/3 times per week. Again, like high volume, high intensity would gradually cause recovery issues, burn out, fatigue, CNS issues and possible regression. Yes, you could change the frequency, but then you start to diverge again from the optimal of 2/3 times per week.
So how do you solve all this? How can you ensure increasing intensity and volume over time, with excellent recovery without changing the optimal training frequency too much? Well, there are a few things you need – progress is through more volume over time, more intensity over time and, an optimal training frequency. If you follow a routine that is based on increasing just volume OR intensity, then over time, you are going to hit a brick wall due to compounding fatigue effects and therefore issues with recovery.
The only way to rectify this problem would be by changing the training frequency, but then you are stuck again, as diverging away from the optimal 2/3 times per week training frequency will again make your program sub-optimal. So that doesn’t work!
⇒The answer is simply that you need to undulate volume and intensity somehow. By switching regularly (usually within the same training week) between volume and intensity sessions, you will be able to continue increasing both over time, while given your body enough time to recover from each one.
The good thing here is, the frequency of training doesn’t need to be changed that much, if any, to keep progress moving along. So what do you get? The ability to increase volume and intensity over time, while maintaining an optimal training frequency and recovery capabilities. Win!
Don’t Mess Things Around Too Much
Many people constantly play around with frequency, intensity and volume trying to find the best way of driving progress forward. It seems like a confusing topic and it’s simply because people are constantly trying to find that unique combination. The truth is, no one really knows what the best combination is. There are certainly better combinations than others, but in terms of finding the one, it just isn’t 100% clear. Some people try a training frequency of training each muscle group 1x per week with success, some try 4/5x per week. Some undertake high-volume only routines, while others stick with high-intensity routines.
⇒In both cases however, people have had success with them. But, what you will often find is that people then quickly reach plateaus after plateaus. This happens because at some point in their journey, the frequency, intensity and volume triangle becomes completely out of balance as far as promoting optimal recovery is concerned. You can of course play around with intensity, volume and frequency, but most of the time, changing one, usually puts the other two further out of balance.
⇒The fact is, you really don’t have to play around with volume, frequency and intensity at all. Well, not as much as most people think! Why change them, when you can keep all three of them in balance and continue to increase all three?
By applying some form of undulating periodisation to your program, it becomes possible to alternate on a regular (inter-weekly) basis between high-volume and high-intensity sessions, while maintaining an optimal training frequency. This will allow you to cycle between and increase both intensity and volume over time, thus allowing for continued optimal recovery and progressive overload capabilities, all while you can continue to work each muscle group with a frequency of 2/3 times per week for maximal elevated protein synthesis. What is not to like, right?
Any questions, ask away!