“I’m dedicating this unusual song to an unusual person who makes me feel kind of… unusual.” – Christian Slater in Pump Up The Volume
I like to say that if my lifters don’t feel like total crap at the end of our heavy weeks, then I haven’t done my job. I don’t say that as a sadist – though, I’m sure that every coach is at least a BIT sadistic. The point is that in order for these lifters to progress any further, to see positive adaptations to their physiology, they MUST be pushed very hard toward the Gates of Mordor.
Beginners can get away with what we call “linear” progress. They come in every day feeling great and hit new PR’s over and over. Once you’ve gotten past that stage, life gets more complex, and your workouts start to feel far more … unusual.
Turn It Up To 11! An Explanation of “Volume”
Volume is a term we use in strength and conditioning to describe the following (simplistic) equation:
Sets x Reps = Volume
The word, “Volume”, is aptly named. It’s a knob you can turn up or down as needed to elicit the response you want out of your athlete. We want an easy way to think about the total amount of work being done by a lifter so that we can gauge their fatigue levels and progress – including the TYPE of progress. Volume gives us that.
Add more Sets and you raise the volume. Add more Reps and you do the same thing. Raise both and you can increase volume quite a bit.
Take a look at some of the classic set and rep schemes:
5 x 5 = 25
3 x 10 = 30
4 x 8 = 32
6 x 4 = 24
In each case the volume is hovering in the 20 to 30 (ish) rep range. As it turns out, volume in this rep range is pretty closely correlated with positive adaptations toward hypertrophy AND strength at the same time.
In contrast, the Arnold-era 1970’s bodybuilders often used 5 sets of 10 reps. Once volume approaches 50 total reps, we’re looking at a program that is more inclined to make you big (muscle-wise) than strong.
On the other end, many Olympic weightlifters will simply work up to a heavy (max-ish) lift done for only 1 rep. That means that the amount of total working reps for the workout (if we limit ourself to only counting those reps done above 60 or 70% of max) is often under 10. With volume that low, hypertrophy will be quite limited, but strength gains are high.
Don’t take all this TOO literally. That would be a major mistake. 3 sets of 10 reps (volume of 30) is a classic bodybuilder type of rep range and will be most useful for those who care more about their big guns than lifting heavy things with those guns.
BUT, if you flip it to 10 sets of 3 reps (STILL have a volume of 30) you get something totally different. Now you’ve got a classic strength building set and rep range that may also help you gain some muscle.
Both have a volume of 30, but they will cause your body to adapt differently.
1 Factor vs 2 Factor Training
All of this is rather academic so far. As a rule, if you lift hard and do so consistently, you’ll make progress. Three sets of Ten or Ten sets of Three both work. It’s just a matter of degrees relative to your specific goals. Understanding how to manipulate the variables that go into Volume (that is, sets and reps) to meet various goals is a huge topic with much argument.
We ain’t gonna care about that today.
Today, we’re concerned with TOTAL volume and how to manipulate that over time so that you can progress at a rapid rate. As was said above, beginners have the magical ability to make progress at nearly every workout. If that is you, ride it out! It’s awesome, and once it’s gone, it will never come back again.
For the rest of us who are lingering in that abyss known as Intermediate Land, we’re gonna have to kick it up a notch.
There are essentially two styles of training that you should concern yourself with. These aren’t “styles” like Bulgarian or Russian or Bill Starr or Kono … nothing that specific. I’m talking in massive generalities, here.
The styles are 1-Factor and 2-Factor.
1-Factor training is shooting for linear progress at all times. You lift, you cause stress to the body, then you wait until the body adapts to that stress (that is, you’ve gotten stronger) before you lift again. You can think of this as a simple Stress-Adaptation cycle. Beginners can go through a full cycle in one day. Eventually it lengthens out. At the extreme end, we can imagine only snatching ONE day a week (or longer!) trying for a new PR at every session.
2-Factor training still worries about a Stress-Adaptation cycle, but you focus on weeks (or months, or more) rather than workouts. Instead of waiting for your body to adapt to the stress of your previous workout, you come back in BEFORE you’ve adapted and hit it again. This pushes the fatigue up higher – increases the level of stress the body is under. The theory is that when you finally allow the body some rest time then the associated adaptation will be greater.
Moreover, proponents of a 2-Factor approach claim that the effects are not additive, but multiplicative – greater than the sum of the workouts.
The point here is that you take the long view. You push the athlete down for a few weeks, then let them adapt for a week or two. After this cycle they’ll be stronger than if they had used the 1-Factor model during the same period.
More Work = More Stress = More Adaptation
Sounds great! But, there is a downside …
Dealing With The Dark Times
“Feeling screwed up at a screwed up time in a screwed up place does not necessarily make you screwed up” – Christian Slater in Pump Up The Volume
You’re going to feel horrible. You’re going to miss weights that you could have power snatched a few weeks ago. You’re going to be squatting like your Grandmother on a bad hip day. And that is exactly what you want.
While the upside of using a 2-Factor model is that you make faster progress, the downside is that you have to go through periods where you feel like crappola.
Your own confidence levels and your faith in the process will take you far. It all comes down to your daily expectations. If you come into the gym expecting to hit big weights when you’re two weeks into a heavy loading phase and your fatigue levels are high, then you’re crazy.
That isn’t to say that you won’t. It is hard to predict these things with total accuracy. The body runs on the principles of Chaos Theory. You CAN predict with some level of accuracy macro level changes, but you cannot predict all of the micro fluctuations. Every heavy cycle at my club, someone hits a PR in something on a day that everyone else looks horrible. It happens. But, don’t be foolish and expect such things.
Expect to suck. Come into the gym with the goal of simply trying your best. That’s the whole point. You are there to increase your fatigue, not to hit PR’s. You are there to ADD stress to an already stressed body.
A Simple Outline of a Good Stress-Adaptation Cycle
At my club we tend to use two basic Stress-Adaptations cycles:
- Two weeks loading, One week light
- Three weeks loading, Two weeks light
I like the second one primarily for pre-contest. But, the first is our workhorse. We’re usually just cycling through Three week periods over and over again.
Here is where the volume comes in. During the heavy loading weeks, you turn the volume knob up. During the lighter weeks, you turn it down.
Yes, HOW I turn it up and down is complicated. What I have lifters do to work on different goals would fill a book or two (working on it!!) … but the point is simple. Spend a few weeks hammering the crap out of yourself, then take it easy for a week.
NOTE: by “Take it easy” I mean that we ONLY hit a daily max on the major lifts and avoid everything else. We never lower intensity – ever. That is important. If you lower BOTH volume AND intensity (weight) then you will simply get weaker. You won’t adapt as well. This is not universal, but for Olympic lifting it holds true.
Put the following basic principles into practice, and you’ll start hitting those personal records you’ve been chasing:
Light weeks, lift heavy for low reps and low sets. Go home, eat and rest.
Heavy weeks Pump up the Volume!