Recently I’ve been fielding questions related to various training programs, and the two things that they all have in common are Volume and Density.  In fact, these are my two most favorite variables to manipulate, because you can get pretty remarkable results from them once traditional linear periodization has plateaued.

On the surface, most people think Volume applies only to reps, and that you have to do thousands of them for it to work.  While this is partially true, it only touches the surface of the potential that manipulating Volume can do for you.  Volume can also mean time, whether that relates to time spent working, time spent resting, or time under tension.

Speaking specifically to reps, while Volume can mean doing lots of reps in one set (20+), it can also mean doing lots of sets of low reps.  This is where you can really make some magic happen.  If you were to walk into any big box gym, and ask people in the weight room what they were doing, chances are they would respond with either four sets of 8-12 reps, or with five sets of five reps, depending on their age and what they read.  But rarely would you be told that someone was doing ten sets of three reps, or multiple sets of ladders (1,2,3).

Now, first, let’s put some myths to bed.  My high school students still ask me if lifting light weights for lots of reps will get them “cut” and lean.  The answer is No, for a few reasons.  First, I explain that in order to get “cut,” they need to start with a mass of muscle in the first place (remember, these are adolescent boys who don’t have much muscle, but this also applies to beginning lifters and women) before they can begin to trim down.  I use Michelangelo’s “David” as an example.  He didn’t carve David out of a 50lb stone, he started with a massive rock weighing thousands of pounds, and started chipping away.  Second, if they want to get lean, they need to start with their diet, not their workout plan.

The second myth is when they ask if lifting heavy weights for low reps will get them big.  Again, the answer is No.  If they want to put on size, they need to lift moderate to heavy weights for lots of reps per set (8-15), in order to literally pump up their muscles like a balloon full of water.  Bodybuilders are kings of this as they go through phases of building and cutting.

The reason I bring up these two common myths is to explain how and why I use Volume as a training manipulation.  I use Volume to increase strength, work capacity, and endurance.  Those are my goals, and the angle that I am coming from.  I’m already not a small individual (not tall either at 5’9”) but I haven’t seen the underside of 190 in 20 years, and at 195 and 13% body fat it’s unlikely I ever will (don’t want to either) so I don’t want to get any bigger, but I do want to get stronger and in general be able to do more work for longer periods of time.

So how do I use Volume?  In a few ways that are both similar and different.  Let’s say I want to be able to lift/swing/snatch a heavier KB, but simple linear periodization consisting of lifting a heavier weight each session or month has hit a standstill.  I back down to a weight that I can get a solid 5 presses, or 10 squats, or 5 snatches per arm per minute for 5:00, or 10 swings per minute for 5:00, and that’s my starting point.  That is the weight that I will lift for the entire program.

There are a few different methods to implement a Volume program:

  • A simple Volume program may consist of the same number of reps per set, per workout, for a fixed number of workouts.
  • A progressive Volume program may have you add one more set or minute per workout, for a fixed number of workouts.
  • An advanced Volume program will have you manipulating both reps per sets and sets per workout simultaneously for a fixed number of workouts.  This would be an example of manipulating both Volume and Density.

The trend here is that all these workouts have an endpoint in mind.  For 4-8 weeks, 2-3 days per week, you will lift the same weight every workout.  You will accustom your body to that weight so that by the end it no longer feels remotely challenging.  When you go back to re-test your strength, you will find that not only can you lift the next size up KB (or whatever you are using) for more reps than you could before, but chances are high that you will also be able to lift an even bigger KB, one that you could never lift before in the first place.  It’s like an infomercial that promises that you can lose weight without dieting – you get stronger without ever lifting a heavier weight!

I’ll bring this into perspective with some specifics.  Let’s say I’m using a traditional 5×5 program for my KB presses.  My sets might look like this:

  • Set 1: 16kg x 5 reps
  • Set 2: 20kg x 5 reps
  • Set 3: 24kg x 5 reps
  • Set 4: 28kg x 5 reps
  • Set 5: 32kg x 5 reps

Not only did I only get 5 reps with the 32kg, but the 4th and 5th rep probably were not very solid.  Or perhaps, I could get all 5, but couldn’t budge a 36kg if I tried.  In addition, out of 25 reps, the first 15 were spent building up to “work set” weights.  Following this format, I wouldn’t make a whole lot of progress.  Now, let’s look at another approach:

  • Round 1: Set 1: 20kg x 2 reps, Set 2: 24kg x 2 reps, Set 3: 28kg x 2 reps
  • Round 2: Set 1: 32kg x 1 rep, Set 2: 32kg x 2 reps, Set 3: 32kg x 3 reps
  • Round 3: Set 1: 32kg x 1 rep, Set 2: 32kg x 2 reps, Set 3: 32kg x 3 reps
  • Round 4: Set 1: 32kg x 1 rep, Set 2: 32kg x 2 reps, Set 3: 32kg x 3 reps
  • Round 5: Set 1: 32kg x 1 rep, Set 2: 32kg x 2 reps, Set 3: 32kg x 3 reps

Now, the total reps for the workout only went up by 5 reps from 25 to 30, but the total sets went from 5 to 15.  Instead of the lead-up reps adding up to 15, consisting of 60% of the total workout, now the lead-up reps add up to 6, making up 20% of the total workout.  On the other end, instead of only getting 5 shaky reps with 32kg, making up 20% of the total workout, I got 24 total reps, all of them solid because I never went over 3 reps per set.  And those 24 reps made up 80% of the total workout.

This is a very “doable” workout, meaning that it is repeatable.  There are many volume workouts that are very difficult, but they aren’t necessarily repeatable.  An old popular volume program is 10 sets of 10, but it’s not a workout that you’d want to repeat.

So, I could follow this exact pattern, once a week for 6-8 weeks, without making any changes.   When I finished, I would do a simple test workout of 5 reps per set, going up in weight each set until I couldn’t complete 5 reps of a given weight.  Most likely, using these weights as examples, not only would I get 5 clean reps with the 32kg, but I would get at least 3 reps with the 36kg, and possibly 1 or two with the 40kg.

Another manipulation of Volume consists of varying the total number of reps from workout to workout.  I currently do this with my Snatch workouts.  I really like the :15 on / :15 off pattern.  I’ll do as many reps as I can with one hand in :15, rest :15, do as many reps as I can with the other hand in :15, rest :15, and repeat.  I try to keep the number of reps done every set consistent from set to set.  I will do this work-out every week, starting at 6 minutes, and adding 2 minutes each week, until I finally complete 20 minutes.  I pick a weight that I could have completed 10 minutes of as my starting point, and by backing off and re-attacking I can build the momentum to blow beyond where I previously thought possible.  Once I get the 20:00, I have two choices: I can either keep going until I get to 40 minutes, or I can go up in weight and start over, depending on my goals.  Currently, I have a goal of making the 24kg feel as easy as the 16kg does, so I am slowly inching myself up, 2kg at a time.  I’m currently up to the 22kg for 12 minutes.  Once I get to the 24kg, I’m going to try to get to the 40 minute mark.

I can manage this workout once a week.  One other day I do the 90 snatches in 4:00 with a 20kg to prepare for the pacing required for the Level 7 FitRanX test, and then on a third day I might do a moderate number of heavy swings (50-80 reps).  I give these details to give some perspective.

Stay tuned for Part 2, when I get into Advanced Volume programs, and how Density can come into play!

Tim Peterson, Chief FitRanX Instructor