Learn how to manipulate volume, intensity and frequency – key variables in strength training – and achieve better results!
Strength training is very much different to hypertrophy training. A lot of the time, people think that doing loads of sets and getting a lot of volume into their workouts is critical. Also, they may think that having really intense workouts day in day out is a must with the number of reps being performed really low (such as 1-3 reps) all the time. They also think that working out most days of the week is a must. With this approach to strength training, people are likely to burn out eventually. Moreover, they potentially see evidence of reversibility and loss of progress made in the past. In today’s post I take a look at three key variables in strength training: volume, intensity and frequency and how they should be manipulated to maximize strength gain.
3 Key Variables in Strength Training
Firstly, you need to know that these three variables are mutually conflicting of one another. Increasing one variable such as intensity causes volume to decrease (increasing the weight lifted causes less reps to be performed). This increase in intensity therefore means that recovery between sessions will be longer. So, frequency of training will have to be lower if you are to recover between sessions. Trying to push too much intensity, volume and frequency can lead to overtraining which you should always do your best to avoid!
Intensity and Volume
Let’s focus on intensity and volume now because frequency of workouts per week comes after these two variables are addressed. Intensity essentially refers to the amount of load being lifted and therefore the number of reps you’re performing as a result. For strength training, your rep range automatically lies between 1-5 reps. So in this particular context, high intensity would be about 1-3 reps whilst lower intensity 4-5 reps (even though of course technically the whole range is still a high intensity).
Volume refers to the number of sets and reps you’re doing in a workout. Ideally you need to be manipulating these two key variables against each other. For example, take a look at the following workout below:
- Barbell bench press- 3 sets of 2 reps
- Barbell incline bench press- 3 sets of 2 reps
- Tricep pushdowns- 3 sets of 6 reps
- Barbell shoulder press- 3 sets of 2 reps
As you can see, the volume here is low with only 3 sets and 2 reps being performed on each exercise (apart from the assistance exercise for triceps, which I will talk about in future posts). However, whilst volume is low, the intensity is high with 2 reps being performed with a heavy load. These 2 reps wouldn’t be to absolute failure. Why? Well, I would start discussing the relevance of rate of perceived exertion (RPE) but for the sake of this post I don’t want to diverge into another topic. If you want to find out its relevance then check out my video on Instagram where I touch on it there!
The following week I suggest that you reverse this. The volume will increase but intensity decrease. A workout structure may look like the one below.
- Barbell bench press- 5 sets of 4 reps
- Incline barbell bench press- 5 sets of 4 reps
- Barbell shoulder press- 5 sets of 4 reps
- Tricep pushdowns- 5 sets of 4 reps
Here the volume has increased, meaning that you’re doing 2 extra sets per exercise. Plus, the intensity has decreased with a lighter load being lifted for 4 reps now, instead of the heavier load for 2 reps the week before.
Periodization in this way is essential if you are to continue making progress with your strength without overtraining. There’s nothing worse than seeing your progress completely stall and not knowing what to do about it!
As for frequency, this very much depends on what your volume and intensity is like in a given week. If volume is low and intensity is high, I suggest keeping your frequency at the lower end of the scale. Around 2-3 strength workouts per week. However, if the opposite is the case, then you could increase the frequency of sessions to 4-5 times per week. Frequency, in my opinion, depends on how well a person’s recovery is on a day-to-day basis and one’s level of experience with strength training.
For individuals who are new to strength training, it is advised to manipulate intensity and volume in a linear fashion over the course of a month. For example, go from 6 sets of 5 reps down progressively to 3 sets of 2 reps. Then go back to the start again. As for more experienced individuals in strength training, the manipulation of these two key variables must be more carefully considered on a week to week or even daily basis.