Training Stimuli: Managing Volume, Intensity, and Recovery
Dosage is everything
Let’s explore how to dose volume, intensity and recovery for optimal results. Unfortunately, googling a program and using it just isn’t going to hack it. A training dosage is not just 3 sets of 12 at 65%. Dosage is about the perfect amount of training for your body to achieve the desired outcome.
‘Tommy’ might be able to train on 6 hours of sleep per night, but ‘Fred’ burns out on the same training plan with less than 8 hours per night. Two people of the same race, sex, height, weight, and even body composition will not react the same way to the same stimulus. It’s just the way it is! Family history, health history and genetics play a strong role here that we can’t change. The other part of dosage is knowing how to find the correct ratio of rest, intensity and volume for your specific goal.
While one thing works for one person (or a lot of people) it won’t work for everyone!
Balancing Intensity and Volume
Two major things can go wrong if intensity and volume are not balanced correctly:
- You’ll find yourself plateauing and cease improvement, or;
- You’ll find yourself exhausted and cease improvement (or a decline in performance)
When either of these occurs, you’ve probably got your numbers mixed up, incorrect, or simply not cycling correctly. Sure, there are a million other things which could be going wrong, so let’s pick up on the biggies.
- Too much intensity at a particular volume
In this scenario, you’re working at loads that are doable for a few sets, but not sustainable. 5 to 8 sets at 12 to 15RM is enough to burn out a muscle for a while. Most people wouldn’t be able to hit that muscle again for about 7 days. For example, seated row at 75%max performed at 12 repetitions for 8 sets is a great deal of work, and probably up to failure for most people. The intensity and volume are both high; 75%max is great for sets of 8, but when we’re talking about a total of 96 reps in a single training at that intensity, it gets a little more tricky!
In this scenario, most people would find themselves exhausted after a few weeks, and performance would cease to improve. Even a good amount of rest may not be enough to see moderate gains. Of course, the outcome depends on the unique capacity of each person.
- Manageable volume and intensity, but incorrect ratio.
Here, you’ll be completing sets and reps in which either the intensity or the volume is too low. If you take until the 5th set before feeling like the last few reps are very challenging, we can safely say that the intensity is likely not enough to vastly improve performance in either strength or in mass.
Intensity is easy to augment… simply add more weight and see how it goes! Volume can be adjusted in multiple ways: add more repetitions or sets, or add a couple of new exercises to the same muscle/ muscle group. You’ll be asking it to adapt to a greater stimulus without adding intensity.
Recovery and Recuperation
Intensity vs Recovery…
As the intensity of a workout increases, so too should the recovery time. Increasing the volume of training does not put the same demand on the body as increasing intensity. For this reason, if you are unable to rest and recover from your workouts, you should NOT be increasing intensity! This applies to every athlete, at every level. The effect of personal life on training is a lot greater than many think. For example, stress from school, work, or relationships means a reduction in the body’s ability to recover. A reduction in training intensity must follow to prevent overtraining.
This is a classic mistake we see in so many impatient athletes at any level. Athletes in sports that require more central nervous system work, like weightlifting, require even more rest than strength athletes. CNS adaptation and recovery require the most nutrition and rest.
Volume and Recovery…
Training at higher volumes requires lest rest because the intensity will naturally be lower. Endurance athletes train at low intensities that last for several minutes or hours. Jogging vs sprinting, for example. These athlete are able to recover within 12 hours and have another training. This is the equivalent of choosing weights that you could perform around 50 repetitions of. Less intense = less rest.
Nothing can make up for rest and recovery. Dorian Yates gives the example of rubbing sandpaper on his palm. Imagine rubbing sandpaper on your palm one day. The scratch will require time to recover and heal. Now what if you rubbed sandpaper on the same spot the very next day, or anytime before the skin had healed over? The msucles work in the same way. Rest. Allow recovery and healing before loading up again.
Managing Weaknesses or Imbalances
Intensity and volume of exercises that are for regulating weaknesses or imbalances are not the same as regular training. Intensity should be low and volume should be moderate to high. A few sets completed at around 50% for 12 to 20 repetitions is the ideal way to improve a weakness or imbalance. These movements should be performed before complex movements so as to fire up the muscle in preparation.
Be careful not to get ahead of yourself as you try to work through imbalances. Patience and sustained effort are key!
It all comes back to dosage…
We talked about dosage in the beginning because there is no one-fits-all program. There is no mathematical equation that works best for everyone. Seeing how a program works for you over 6 to 8 sessions is usually a good indication of how and where you might need to adjust your training stimulus.