We can get lost in the fluff of a training program. It is easy to lose focus on what is important. We can lose sight of what our warmup is really supposed to accomplish, we can spend too much time beating our body down with the main lifts, we can often spend too much time on exercises that aren’t accomplishing much of anything. However, to focus on what is most important we first have to identify what IS most important.
I think we can narrow down to a single most important variable when it comes to training. I don’t think it matters what your goals are, what your age or current fitness level is, this can be applied to all populations. That variable is training load or volume. This is the most important variable because it is the one thing that is going to limit or promote progress of any kind. Whether you are training to pick up 600lbs from the floor or lose twenty pounds, you have to be able to accumulate enough training volume for your body to continue to adapt and progress. The way this training volume is accumulated will very well differ depending on the goals of an individual and their current training experience.
Think of training volume as water in a bucket. You want to be able to manage as much water in the bucket as possible while not letting it overflow. If the water starts to overflow that is a sign that your training volume is probably a bit too much and will actually impede progress. If there isn’t enough water in the bucket, then you aren’t giving your body enough stimulus to adapt to. You are essentially just fiddle-farting around and need to pick up the work. If you are new to training, it isn’t going to take much water to fill up your bucket. As you continue to train for a longer period of time you will start to accumulate a bigger bucket and will need to add more water without the risk of overflowing. There are many ways to manage training volume so you can accumulate as much as possible without overflowing the bucket. That is what I want to talk about today.
Picking the right exercises
To accumulate a lot of training volume it is important to pick the right exercises. Exercises that a client or athlete can perform and accumulate a lot of volume. For example, if someone is new to training a goblet squat would be a good exercise to pick. It isn’t that technically or physically demanding, and the client can probably achieve a lot of good, quality reps. Thus, accumulating a lot of training volume. If you decided to give this same client back squats, a more technically and physically demanding exercise, then you probably wouldn’t be able to achieve a desired amount of training volume. This is why, in my opinion, back squats are an overused exercise choice for pretty much anybody except people that want to be Weightlifters or Powerlifters. Back squats can turn into a bunch of time focusing on technique, where clients finally start to feel their legs work and not their backs, while not a lot of time spent actually getting quality work done. Your time would be better spent picking something technically easy enough where people feel like they’re actually working hard.
A disclaimer for new Powerlifters: your best recipe might be getting a lot of technical work done on a back squat with little to no weight right away, while accumulating most of your volume (or work) with less technical demanding exercises.
To achieve a desired amount of training volume that your body will adapt to it is important to move well. To move well means to move healthy. If it hurts to move in and out of certain positions, this isn’t healthy, and you’re probably not going to be able to achieve a high amount of work output. Moving well might be a little different for everyone and is very context dependent. I would define movement health as the ability to adapt to the desired task at hand. In other words, if you ask a person to squat, and they have a hard time hitting the desired positions, this person might lack movement health. It is important to move well because that is how you can increase your total amount of training volume. If you can’t squat very well, then you probably can’t squat for a very long period of time (increased training load). I remember in high school when we had to backs squat in the weight room. I was never told how to properly back squat. Every time I back squatted, I didn’t squat very low because every time I squatted it hurt. I didn’t squat very often, because it hurt, therefore wasn’t able to accumulate a lot of squat volume, and thus, making my legs not any stronger.
Push the limit, but not too much
Going back to the water in the bucket analogy (I swear, last time) it is important to fill the bucket to the top. The top is where the gainz are going to be made. We have all heard of progressive overload, and it is one of the principles of training that still ring true to this day. For your body to be able to grow and adapt it needs to be fed enough. Talking about training volume in this instance. When first starting out, your body might not need that much to adapt. I work with people that haven’t trained ever, and they will adapt to pretty much anything I give them right off the bat. However, this won’t always be the case. It is important to push your body a little bit more than the last time. Increase volume or output just a little bit. Enough that your body can handle, but not too much that it starts to break down. In my experience, competitive strength athletes are the only people you really need to worry about pushing it too much. Most others tend to play it a bit safer. An easy way to make sure you are progressively overloading someone is simply making them go heavier on a certain exercise. Or, if they might be at the limit of what they can physically do, make them do it for a few more reps or one extra set. For strength athletes, this is a bit more nuanced, but most other people this is a simple path to take to keep people progressing.
Training volume isn’t complicated. It is simply the work we are completing in training. The more work we can do, the more we will progress. It is important to be able to manage this work so people can accumulate as much as possible with little to no downside. Just like finding the right medication with no side effects, find the right exercise dose with little to no side effects.