Volume and intensity are extremely important variables for understanding strength training.  BUT it is not simply these two variables in isolation.  Instead it is the interplay between them where we get the most interesting results.

We all intuitively know that intensity and volume have an inverse relationship.  The more repetitions or sets you do, the less weight you can do.  And the more weight you do, the less reps you can do.  We can all take 60% and do a lot of reps before maxing out, and we do a lot less reps when we do 90%.  

Actually, we can roughly chart the repetition maximums at different intensity levels.  Matt Brzycki did just this back in 1998:


We can look at this, and some of us will think, well I could never do 95% for a double!  And I can definitely not do 88% for 4 reps of the clean and jerk!  And you are probably right!  Training and genetics will drastically impact these numbers. BUT if we look at this as a rough template, we can clearly see that 10 reps for 80% on your back squat should not be possible.  ;)  

If we warm up and bust out a 4 REP MAX for the day at 88% of our squat we will either have to be done for the day for the squat, OR deload significantly for our ‘back down’ sets.  By maxing out our average intensity for the day will actually be lower than if we worked up to a intensity that allows us to have a buffer.  For example, if we work up to 4 reps at 83% we have a buffer of 2 reps every set (this would be a 8 on the RPE scale).  We could actually (with proper rest) perform multiple sets at this weight. 

How many sets?  Well, we got a chart for that too.  It is called Prilepin's Chart and was designed by Soviet sports scientist, A.S. Prilepin. 


This chart has some problems, but overall it is helpful.  If we were to do 83% for 4 reps with a buffer of about 2 reps, we could probably do about 4 sets for a total of 16 reps.  This would be a good training day on the back squat.  Our average intensity would be higher than if we maxed out with a single set at a 4 rep max and our volume would be appropriate to elicit an adaptation.    

However, my weightlifters right now know that we don’t often do more than doubles, maybe triples, for our competition lifts.  This is because explosive, complicated movements tend to breakdown very quickly after just a few reps.

One of the reasons is that explosive movements utilize our phosphagen system for energy without tapping other systems.  This is because our phosphagen system is our fastest and most explosive source of energy for our muscles.  This energy source, however, is only good for maybe 10 seconds.  After that, it needs to be restored.

The other reason is our central nervous system.  Our CNS tends to fatigue faster with the more explosive movements that demand greater intermuscular coordination and quicker intramuscular coordination than movements with slower contractions.

For the snatch and clean and jerk we need to keep our CNS and our muscles in an optimal position for multiple sets and reps.  This means we should do less reps, but more sets.  So, instead of 4 sets of 4 reps at 83%, we may do 8 sets of 2 reps @ 83%... or because of what we talked about earlier of the zones of training, we may do 4 sets x 2 reps @ 70%, 4 sets x 2 reps @ 75%.

Next week we will discuss how understanding the roll volume plays in training impacts the intensity zones we discussed earlier.  Exciting stuff!

Kurt Roderick