What’s a good way to determine how much is too much and how much is not enough?
When should you up the intensity?
My takeaways from these questions are; how much volume (number of sets/reps/movements) is optimal and how do you know when to up your intensity level (intensity is a measure of how hard you’re working whether you go by feel, heart rate or use a chart like the RPE – more on this below). The answer to these questions, as usual, start with “it depends”.
By now you realize from my posts that I am a firm believer that not one blanket statement or set of “rules” can be applied to everyone and achieve the same results.
Case in point, I have a friend who can quite literally eat whatever he wants and has the body of a cover model — however, if I ate like that? Well, I would need cholesterol medication for one and I would also be 50+lbs overweight if I ate like him.
We all have “that friend” so I know you feel my pain.
Let’s tackle the volume piece first. I’ll address the volume question with — more questions.
Calculating workout volume:
- What is your training age (how long have you been working out)?
- Do you have an extensive injury history?
- Do you have medical issues that could affect your ability to workout?
- What are your training goals?
- If you’re an athlete; are you in preseason, in season or offseason?
- How much time do you have for each workout?
Once those are answered it is much easier to give a clearer picture of the appropriate volume needed for you and your goals. Adding volume for the sake of adding volume is nothing more than stroking your ego to make you feel like you “went hard” or “killed it” in the gym.
A common myth that is still a commonplace belief today that doesn’t hold water is that you should: need a wheelchair to leave the gym, barely able to drive your car home and not have the ability to move once the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) sets in. While excruciating soreness may happen (and probably will at some point) it is not a good indicator of the quality of the workout. The quality of the workout will depend upon how you’re feeling that day, the efficiency of the program and the time it takes you to complete it.
Take a look at this infographic I found in an article from Stronger By Science:
This tells me that you can train in a variety of different rep ranges to see the same amount of hypertrophy. What’s good about this is, as we discussed earlier, since everyone is different there are different options for the individual but a lot of these different options lead to the same path/end goal.
I’ll give you an example workout for one of my intermediate/advanced athletes:
- 3-5min General Warmup (jog, cycle, rower etc)
- Dynamic Warmup/Mobility similar to this —> https://youtu.be/BTpU2Es6U7g / https://youtu.be/ugedIR36tOY
- Mini Band Hip Activation —> https://youtu.be/hDWbs2UpTPk
- Movement/Session Specific Prep
(Total Time 10-12min depending on last point)
1a. Split Stance MB Reactive Chest Pass 2×8/side
1b. Arm Sweep Stretch 2×3/side
2a. DB Bench Press 4×6-8
2b. Glute Bridge 4×6-8
3a. Staggered Stance DL 2-3×6/side
3b. Side Bridge Hip Drops 2-3×8/side
3c. Incline Squeeze Press 2-3×15-20
ESD (Energy Systems Development)
4. Farmer Carry 5x:30sec on :30sec off
Including warmup that session should last no longer than 45-60 minutes.
The reason I wanted to share this workout with you serves two purposes:
- Who doesn’t like free workouts to try?
- More importantly, even though this is for one of my more advanced athletes I can take this same workout and apply it to a client with minimal training experience. If they know how to complete the movements safely, of course.
This is where intensity enters the conversation.
You may be asking yourself how a beginner could do the same workout as an advanced athlete or vice versa. The answer is how it is coached and approached by the client/athlete. It goes without saying that the intensity of the advanced client will and should be higher than that of the beginner.
You can give me a set of resistance bands and I can make the fittest person I train want to curl up in a ball and cry. You can make anything “hard”. Anything.
How do you know “how intense” what you’re doing is? I like to use heart rate and the RPE chart (Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale) as shown below.
If you are a beginner in the gym and like the idea of the RPE chart above here are a few things to understand. As a beginner, your goal should not be to hold your exertion at the max of 20 — this is not conducive to long term adherence nor is it safe. I’m all for pushing the limits, I’m aware that’s where the magic tends to happen. But, lets be real here, if you are walking in the gym for the first time ever and a trainer wants you to get to a 20 and hold there on the first session politely ask for a refund and look elsewhere. On the opposite end of the spectrum you also don’t want to be at a 6 (no exertion at all), some exertion is needed to illicit a training effect. You know this, I know this. Lets move on.
A practical example of how I would want my clients RPE to look in the workout listed above would be as follows:
1a. 17-20 Explosive Training calls for maximal effort
1b. 9-11 (maybe 13) I say that because this is an active rest movement, but, if you’re lacking mobility and are really working to improve that a stretch can easily enter the area of somewhat hard.
2a. & 2b. The primary block is the “meat and potatoes” of my programs. These are the “main moves”.
3a. 3b. and 3c. are all in what I call the secondary block. Now, this block will have the biggest variance as far as the RPE chart goes. That being said, this workout I recommend staying within 14-17 on the RPE scale. But, another workout structured similarly could see a variance from 9 (active rest) to 19.
ESD (Energy Systems Development)
4. For this part of the workout the intensity will rise gradually as the sets progress. It could start at a 13-14 and end close to a 20 depending on your endurance level and assuming you chose the right weight.
It is important to note that each workout is different. The exertion will vary from block to block and day to day.
Recently I have tried to get away from set rest periods (especially when not lifting maximal weights). While I may need one minute to recover from a set of (X) exercise you may only need 35 seconds. That’s exactly why I moved to heart rate to determine intensity and rest periods. It allows for even more individualization which is always good.
An important point to all of this is that you must learn to listen to your body. Your heart rate may say you’re ready for more work — but your quivering legs may be saying the opposite. I know this point seems counterintuitive to the point of explaining intensity, but, learning your own bodily limits and adapting to them as you get better is a part of the game and leads to you being able to work autonomously on your own without a personal trainer.
One of my biggest goals as a trainer/strength coach is to teach my clients/athletes to become more self-aware, to help them understand why I program the way I do and why it works and to also give them the confidence to do things on their own.
My goal is not to have clients for years upon years — that very well might happen (and I do have long time clients) but I would like to think its because they enjoy working with me. I can sleep at night knowing I give my athletes everything I possibly can to prepare them to be able to workout and eat nutritiously on their own.
Again, everyone is different and has a different personality — but, I have found that with new clients if we do a program with less volume and appropriate moderate-high intensity (to them) that adherence is higher compared to if I was to start them on a regimen of filthy 50 workouts for their first 4-week block. Because everyone is different many different factors play into this. Are you the type that needs to see immediate results to be able to stick with it? If you get excruciatingly sore are you more apt to quit?
A good assessment with a solid coach will bring all these things to light to get you, the client, the best results possible in a fashion that will keep you motivated and accountable. But, just in case the assessment doesn’t cover all those things you may want to refer to this to write down some of the questions addressed so you can give them to the trainer/coach. The more information a coach has about you, the better chance you have at reaching your goals. A little leg work on your end prior to your assessment can give you the head start you need and the extra motivation everyone craves when you are starting the journey towards a lifestyle change.