So last week I talked about how we are dialing in 7 training variables to get the desired results we need for our sport of choice.  Just as a reminder, those 7 training variables are:

  1. Training Volume
  2. Training Intensity
  3. Training Frequency
  4. Exercise Selection
  5. Exercise Order
  6. Tempo of Repetitions
  7. Interset Rest

We are going to spend a lot of time talking about those first two variables: training volume, training intensity, and to a lesser degree, training frequency.  This is not to say the other variables are not important, they are.  Volume, intensity, and frequency are easier to speak about in general when we are speaking of training for sports.  When we talk about the specific needs of an athlete for a specific sport, the exercise selection, exercise order, tempo of repetitions and interset rest becomes partly self-evident.  This will become apparent.


Volume is the total amount of work performed in a training session, a day, a week, a month, a year, or even a quad (4 years).  It is most commonly measured by looking at the total repetitions performed by the athlete.     

Intensity is a measure of the qualitative nature of the volume performed.  It is most often quantified by looking at power output,  or opposing force.  Exercises that involve speed are generally measured by looking at the relation of distance and time (rowers might look at meters per minute).  BUT for barbell exercises we usually just look at the weight on the bar.  

Frequency is the density of training.  Do we train 3x a week, 4x a week, 5x a week?  Do we do double sessions?  How much time do we have between our training sessions?  Frequency can have a profound impact on our training outcomes.  However, for most amateur athletes they have to work around a work schedule, and sometimes a family schedule.  This can drastically change a desired stimulus because an athlete did not take a rest day between training sessions, or had several rest days between.  Sadly, it is the nature of training adults.

How Much Is Too Much?

Simply put, the least amount of work you can do is the right amount of volume.  High volume seem to cause the greatest risk for over-training, and if not carefully regulated, can lead to a reduction in performance.  However, high volume is how we get to practice our sport specific movements, AND it is how we breakdown our bodies to be built up better than before.  Now I am going to save the great bulk of my discussion on volume in light of its relation to intensity.  So... stay tuned for next week!  

A Word on Prescribing Intensity...

While ultimately it is the weight on the bar that is most important, 100kg on a back squat will feel like a different intensity for different lifters.  When a coach is prescribing the intensity for an athlete they want a particular 'intensity' of stress.  The use of percentages of an actual 1 rep max for resistance training, or the use of percentages based on a theorized maximum heart rate in aerobic training, is probably the most common form of prescribing intensity. 

HOWEVER, as Sean Collins, CSCS, Head Coach of our Powerlifting Club, has discussed before, it is not the only way.  Please read his previous article on Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) here

I use percentages for almost all of my weightlifting athletes.  RPEs are not as easily to implement for very technical, explosive movements like the snatch and clean and jerk that are performed for only 1, 2, or 3 reps.  Because the movements are not simply about strength and exertion, and are about speed and explosiveness, it is hard for most lifters to be able to gauge if the effort was a 6, 7, or 8 on the RPE scale.  Often fluctuations of up to 20% could feel the same as regards to perceived effort for explosive efforts. 

With that being said, high level weightlifters will sometimes use an innate sense of RPE with both intensity and volume of training.  I have employed this with some success, and I have seen Muhammad Begaliev often lift this way.  Because of this 10+ years of training he sometimes will use a rough road map based on his competition schedule as a template for his training and use RPEs as a way to determine both volume and intensity for each training session. This requires a strong familiarity with the movements and with one's body.  

Coaches will change the prescribed intensity based on the actual performance of their athletes.  If an athlete is moving particularly well, I will add a little weight to their training.  If an athlete is not moving particularly well, some weight needs to come off.  These small adaptations to intensity by the coach are to make sure the athlete is getting the appropriate stress based on their exhibited performance.

When I prescribe a particular intensity, I am assuming that I can closely guess your maximum for the day based on your previous 1 rep max and your built up training fatigue.  Many team sport coaches (not as often with weightlifting/powerlifting) will test every four weeks to make that guessing easier.  I do not test 1 rep maxes as frequently because frequent testing will disrupt technical advancements in newer athletes and will blunt strength and power gains in intermediate and advanced athletes.    

Newer athletes are not able to sustain their technique under 1 rep max conditions for advanced barbell movements like the snatch and the clean and jerk (or the squat, deadlift, and bench).  In many cases it takes up to 6 months for the newer athlete to maintain decent technique past anything above 70%.  This is why I often will not even program any measure of intensity for newer athletes.  I have to watch their performance and direct them to the appropriate weights during their training sessions.  From experience I can see when the technique is breaking down, when the speed is breaking down, and when the strength is breaking down.  

The problem with frequent testing for intermediate and advanced athletes is different than newer athletes.  These athletes have better technique and will be better able to maintain that technique at higher percentages.  However, to test a true 1 rep max we need to deload the intensity and volume for at least a week before.  This will help dissipate the fatigue from training and help actualize performance gains.  AND after the testing it will take about a week before the athlete will be back to previous training levels because of the mental and physical stress of the test.  This leads to time away from training, and is often unnecessary.

I DO NOT ASSUME THAT YOUR 100% IS A STATIC THING THROUGH A BLOCK OF PROGRAMMING.  I assume that your training max will fluctuate and that the maximum number of repetitions given at a particular percentage will also fluctuate.  I 'test' generally very four weeks by prescribing intensity and rep combinations that let me gauge your training max.  I will test by prescribing a rep and intensity combination that should be impossible given your 100% maximum.  If the 'test' is deemed successful I will prescribe even more terrible intensity and rep combinations that should not be possible. 

Next week (TUESDAY at 10am) we will take a closer look at the relationship of different 'zones of intensity' on different outcomes of training AND the relationship of intensity and volume.  STAY TUNED!

Kurt Roderick