Programming for strength 3: Volume, frequency and recovery.

In our previous parts of the ‘Programming for strength’ article series we have discussed the concepts that drive adaptions that will make us stronger, bigger or faster. We now know that training needs to be specific to our goals but also that some supplementary training, such as training for muscle growth, can be beneficial as this is intrinsically related to strength. The bigger a muscles cross-sectional area, the stronger it is. Combine that with the correct intensity to drive neural (nervous system) and motor (the ability to perform the movement correctly, efficiently and consistently) adaptations and we have a recipe for strength gain!

If we consider intensity as a key indicator of the ‘specificity’ of our training and the type of adaptation we will get, then the volume that we perform this intensity at is going to determine the size of that adaptation. This means that the more volume we produce the greater the stress and larger the ‘potential’ adaptations (we highlight the word potential here for good reason as you will soon discover!) Just to reiterate, the volume of an exercise is typically given in kg (or lbs in the USA) and is the amount of load on the bar multiplied by the number of reps, multiplied by the number of sets. So if we did 3 sets of 5 repetitions of 100kg this would be an exercise volume of 3x5x100=1500kg; we can then also calculate the session volume by doing this for each movement and adding it together.

So why don’t we just train for maximum volume in each session? Well, firstly there can be a time issue; high volume, high intensity would take hours in the gym that many of us don’t have. Secondly, the more volume we do, the longer the recovery would have to be, so the less frequently we can train. Finally, higher volume may lead initially to big increases in strength, but then in order to keep forcing stress and adaption you have to push your volume higher and higher and this can put you in a corner and give you nowhere to go! It is better to make consistent 5kg increases in your lifts in each training block than to make one 10kg jump. The body can take a while to adapt to a new stress, so make sure that stress is appropriate to make progression but not so much stress that progression leads to plateaus and a whole heap of frustration or injury.

This highlights an important relationship between volume, recovery and frequency, and one that should be considered in great detail and adjusted according to someone’s needs when designing a program. Typically higher volume (which would normally be at a lower intensity) needs more recovery, but lower volume at a higher intensity needs more frequency. Again, we need to be cautious when interpreting this information when we consider many lifts recruit similar muscles.

For example, the squat and deadlift both place great demand on the muscles around the hips and back. The session volume for each of these lifts might be low but the fatigue caused to your lower back may impair performance if you decided to train each of these lifts twice per week. That’s still four sessions where your lower back is taking some ‘abuse’, especially at higher intensity and is probably going to lead to you developing some serious imbalances, under-performing and even injury in that region if you’re not careful with your programming.

Once we get to a certain level, high volume training becomes almost a necessity and the reason why elite athletes need to typically train many hours a day. Hopefully if our program is working for us we should be getting stronger which will help increase the volume without needing to add in more reps, sets or exercises. These are training tools we can employ to increase our volume, but for strength sports we need to consider if we need to develop one or more components of our performance if our strength plateaus, e.g. improving technique and/or focusing on growing some muscle.

One of the advantages of increasing frequency is that we can increase volume which can be a great way to break plateaus or bring up weaker lifts. Any powerlifting program should really be focussing on heavy benching, squatting and deadlifting at least once per week, with some programs doing these lifts more frequently. With increased frequency we need to be careful as we are at risk of jeopardising recovery. One thing to consider when evaluating or designing a program is not just to look at the volume involved in each session, but the overall weekly training volume and on what muscle groups this is primarily focused.

Another advantage with increased exercise frequency, and something that you should employ to ensure adequate recovery, is the use of lower volume sessions but still being able to get an overall greater net increase in volume for the week. For example, if the maximum volume you could perform with a once a week training frequency for a given movement was 2000kg, then you could divide this exercise into 2 sessions each with 1200kg of volume. This would lead to a weekly volume of 2400kg, an increase in weekly volume of 400kg. We can therefore increase volume, without needing to spend more hours each day (just more days) in the gym. This is generally more compatible with most people’s family life, working habits and social life. It is important to highlight again that the lower volume and stress in each session should then allow an adequate time for recovery to support the increased training frequency.

Unfortunately, even for full-time, genetically gifted people using perfect nutrition and recovery protocols there will come a point where volume becomes too much for the body to take. This point will typically be noticed by a period of under-performance and is known as overreaching. Continuing to overreach without adequate recovery will potentially lead to overtraining, which is not a good thing for our progression and health and can take months to recover from. Overreaching is somewhat of an essential part of the adaptation a process. Intentionally causing a state of overreaching during a training program but then providing adequate recovery in the weeks coming into a meet is used because of the theory of ‘super compensation’. This basically uses the idea we discussed previously, that the bigger the volume, the bigger the stress and the larger the adaptation… So by stressing the body to get to a point where performance starts to go backwards, and if we then time this correctly using the appropriate recovery prior to our meet, then the adaptation will lead to a better performance. Accurately programming an overreaching and super-compensation peaking phase takes knowledge, skill and a fair bit of experience.

So far we have covered the basic principles of programming in what we hope is a pretty straight forward way: stress, recovery, adaptation in relation to training intensity, volume and frequency. However, understanding the subtlety of how these can be used to optimise strength (or any sport or activities) performance to meet an individual’s goals, whilst taking in to consideration the many factors we have discussed in this and other articles is the real skill in developing a training program.

In our next article we are going to focus a little more on overreaching and overtraining and how we can provide adequate recovery as well as some techniques that might help you determine whether you are at risk of overtraining syndrome. If you’d like to know more about how we can help you prepare for a strength competition, or just to offer a guiding hand to help you develop a program that meets your needs, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Team TTC.