When I write up a training program for a new client, it’s very much a loose template that will likely adjust over the course of the next few weeks. One feature that tends to get adjusted relatively easily is the amount of weight being lifted, but an often overlooked element of progression is the manipulation of volume from week to week.
Imagine if we had a workout that was squat focused and the main working sets were 5 sets of 3 reps at 80% of max, or 3 reps with 1 rep in reserve to borrow from Renaissance Periodization. That’s 15 total reps of volume at a working intensity (ie. not including the build up or warm up sets). Following this we include 12-15 sets of squat accessory work, hypertrophy specific stuff or conditioning to round out a solid outing at the gym.
There’s a few ways we could progress this kind of a workout to produce a progressive overload without smashing the individual into the ground. In the end, the aim of any workout is to eventually do more. Progressive overload does not mean max effort all the time, it means gradual increases in what’s required over time.
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Do you try to maximize your effort and strength outputs in every single workout? You’re probably not doing yourself any favors by doing this if you are. Most adaptations from training occur from gradually adding either more volume or doing the same volume with more weight, where you progressively overload the tissues ability to do work. If you always run at max effort, you don’t get the benefit of recovery phases, accumulation phases, or over reaching phases that can play a huge role in seeing greater strength, hypertrophic, and even body composition improvements. I lay out some simple, effective, and easy to implement systems to progressively add more volume or loading into your workouts to see realistic progressive overload in my presentation “Programming 101: Building an Effective Workout” in the Complete Trainers Toolbox, a new digital continuing education product, on sale for 33% off the regular price until Sunday February 17th at midnight. Click the link in my bio for more info and to get your copy today.
So we have 5 sets of 3 for 15 reps of high threshold strength work with 12-15 sets of accessory work. Let’s go through some examples of how to progress volume and do more work.
Example 1: More sets
A simple method would be to just add in additional sets of work in the main strength series. In most realistic schemes, a 10% increase in volume from one week to the next could be a fairly doable, not entirely life-ending way of producing a volume increase.
So for that we could do 2 different options: increase the number of sets on the main strength work or increase the number of sets on the accessory work.
If we were working to increase the main strength work, it would be worthwhile to increase the total number of REPS by 10% versus add in a 6th set of 3. To do that, the 6th set would be for 1 or 2 reps versus 3, which if anyone has ever done challenging weight on their squats, a 6th set is rarely ever going to be a true 3. It’ll be a “2 and that’s probably good enough” kind of set.
That would then be 5 x 3, 1 x 2 for a total of 17 reps, or a 13.3% increase in volume on the main strength set from one week to the next. The following week it could easily be 6 sets of 3 if the person tolerated this workout well.
You could also increase the total number of sets on the accessory work, which could be a bump up from 12-15 sets up to 14-17 sets. Essentially, this would mean moving a couple of series from 3 sets each up to 4 sets each, which should be entirely reasonable for most.
Example 2: More reps
Here, we’re moving from a straight 5 sets of 3 to a bit of variation in reps based on whether the person feels they can squeak out another while still staying in that 1-2 reps in reserve.
Here’s a breakdown of how that could look
Set 1: 3 reps 1 RIR
Set 2: 3 reps 1-2 RIR
Set 3: 3 reps 1-2 RIR
Set 4: 4 reps 1 RIR
Set 5: 4 reps 0-1 RIR
Total work 17 reps, or a 13.3% increase in volume at the same weight.
Now we’re just accomplishing the same volume as the progression example 1 in 5 sets instead of 6, so there’s a bit less rest overall and a higher work density within the session.
For the accessory work, we could just add another 1-2 reps per set
Another way we could work through something like this is to train more for power endurance, using some form of a bar speed sensor such as a PUSH Strength band, Bar Sensei or Tendo unit.
To do this, you work up to something like a 5 rep max, checking bar speed and power output, then using something like 90% of that weight and trying to get as many reps as possible out while maintaining above a specific bar speed. If 2 consecutive reps drop below that bar speed, you end the set. The goal is to get as many reps as possible while maintaining a high bar velocity, using the drop off to indicate fatigue and an inability to consistently generate power.
A workout like this is great for speed development and also increasing work output over time, while also mitigating potential fatigue related technique faults that could potentially lead to injury. They do suck the life out of you once they’re done, so tread carefully.
Here’s an example of mean power outputs over 4 such squat workouts from one of my athletes.
The different coloured lines correspond with individual workouts, and workouts that have more points in them recorded more reps over the span of the workout while maintaining a high bar speed, as represented by the power output on the left side.
You can see the first workout of the year had a relatively low power output (trendline) and a smaller number of overall data points, whereas workouts in the past few weeks have shown a higher overall power output combined with a greater number of data points, meaning this athlete is producing a lot more power, and can sustain that power output over a greater duration of effort, 2 really good things to have for a cyclist.
The interesting thing about these measurements is there were a few missed reps here and there, which you can see by the low points on each line, but looking at the trendlines overall as well as the absolute values of the reps in the middle and top of each line can give an example of how the workouts are progressing, even with some odd data points.
Manipulating some training variables such as volume can help produce a scalable progressive overload, which is a massive impetus for all kinds of GAINZ, including strength, hypertrophy, and improved body composition. I discuss some more specific ways you can lay out programming variables as well as how to tweak them over time to get the specific benefits your after, and also collate the available research on best practices for these manipulations to show I’m not just making stuff up on the fly in “Programming 101: How To Design An Effective Workout” in The Complete Trainers Toolbox.
This is just one of 12 webinar-style presentations in The Complete Trainers Toolbox, which is on sale for $100 off until Sunday February 17th at midnight est. If you want to dig deeper into programming, plus all the other goodies we have in there (including continuing education credits), act quick to save some money.
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