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How to Measure Volume in Strength and Conditioning Programs

Written on May 4, 2012 at 1:56 pm, by Eric Cressey

During my first ever live Facebook Fan Page Q&A last night, I received the following question, and wanted to use today’s post to expand on it:

Q: How do you go about measuring volume in strength and conditioning programs? I feel like it’s glossed over in a lot of textbooks and courses when it comes to programming.

A: This is an incredibly tough question to answer – and trust me, it’s a question I’ve given a lot of thought!

Early in my career, I tried to come up with elaborate equations to calculate volume, but it was tough for a number of reasons (many of which I discuss in my e-book, The Art of the Deload).

First, not all exercises are created equal. A curl can’t be weighted the same as a deadlift variation, for instance.  The more joints an exercise involves and the greater the distance the bar travels, the more stressful it is.  

Many people will make the argument that because one can use more weight on the deadlifts than the curl, the total volume (total reps x load) takes care of itself.  The problem is that it doesn’t take into account the distance the bar travels or the amount of muscle mass involved.  Let’s say a lifter can deadlift 500 pounds, quarter-squat 500 pounds, and barbell supine bridge 500 pounds.  I can guarantee you that the 500 pound deadlift takes of a toll on the body than the other two because there is greater amplitude required and muscle mass recruited.  The “total tonnage” argument is a sound one, but not a perfect one.

Second, all volume isn’t created equal.  Imagine having three crazy stressful training sessions back-to-back-to-back on Mo-Tu-We, then four days off.  Then, take the exact same training loads, but space them out Mo-We-Fr.  I guarantee you that the body’s perception of the stress of the third session will be far greater in the first scenario – which to me is the important reason we consider volume in the first place.  Timing and overlap matter.

Third, let’s say that you go in to the gym fresh and squat on the first day of the training week.  We’ll say that you do four sets of five reps at 315 pounds for a total tonnage of 6,300 pounds.  Then, exactly one week later, you go in and do 15 sets of lower-body training, and then go and squat at the end with the goal of getting that 6,300 pounds of “volume” again.  Since you’re exhausted, you need to do ten sets of two reps instead. Wouldn’t that volume of squatting hit you like a ton of bricks?  The duration of the session and your accumulated transient fatigue changed the game.  

Fourth, not all lifters are created equal.  At a body weight of 185 or so, I hit a 660 deadlift, and after I this lift, my entire body hated me for about a week.  

My wife (an optometrist) freaked out when she saw that I’d bursted some small blood vessels in my eyes and face (it actually looked like I had freckles for about four days).  As I recall, I did about two sets of lunges after this pull before realizing that I should shut it down for the day.  I wasn’t hurt; I was just exhausted.

Conversely, for a 1000-pound deadlifter who outweighs me by 150 pounds, this is speed weight.

And, to really exaggerate my point, imagine a brand new female lifter who is learning to deadlift with the training plates (10 pounds/side = 65 pound deadlift).  If she does a whopping 11 reps (65lbs x 11 = 715 lbs), she’ll have accumulated more volume than I did on this day.

In short, “appropriate” volume is 100% specific to the lifter’s experience, age, gender, training goals, fatigue status, injury history, competing demands, and a host of other factors that I didn’t even cover!

That said, when it really comes down to it, it’s just something you learn in time by observing, writing, and trying out hundreds/thousands of programs. It’s like a sixth sense for me by now.

I will, however, make one observation that never seeks to amaze me:

I’m always surprised at how much volume it takes to attain a level of fitness, but how little volume it takes to maintain that level of fitness.

To that end, most strength and conditioning coaches devote their entire career to finding a good mix of a number of factors to offer clients and athletes a great training effect, but we’ll never know what an “ideal” mix of these factors is simply because factors like volume can be so cumbersome to interpret.  For that reason, writing strength and conditioning programs will always be as much art as it is science.
 

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21 Responses to “How to Measure Volume in Strength and Conditioning Programs”

  1. Ornulf Johnsen Says:

    Sooo… Lifting 660 X 1, or 65 punds X 11 count as volume? For me an unaducated, what is the purpose of volume anyway? High repetitions for stamina? Low repetitions for strength? Where does speed fit into all this? With respect, Ornulf

  2. Kevin Brower Says:

    Finding a client’s volume threshold and what methods work best for their recovery/periodization/etc is one of the hardest things to do as a strength coach. I think where most coaches (not just strength coaches) go wrong is controlling volume in the weightroom, but then forgetting about conditioning volume, or field work, or speed training. I see too many coaches punishing poor play with conditioning, when overtraining is what’s causing the poor play. Great article! Thanks Eric!

  3. Shannon Wallace Jr Says:

    Well written Eric. The volume has always been elusive in most strength training programs as to the right amount. I agree there are so many factors and intangibles, it is almost impossible to absolutely get it right every time with every athlete. When our programs are written at 368 we always leave room to adapt and adjust when needed to maximize the energy levels a client has at the current time. This helps us program safely and effectively.

    Thank you for sharing, your posts are based off of science, art, and just plain common sense.

    Keep training strong,
    Shannon

  4. Conor Says:

    Nice post Eric. So many areas to consider with this type of question.

  5. Alicia Says:

    I busted blood vessels in my eyes and around my nose delivering my twin boys 16 years ago and had forgotten about that until this post – I think you’ve finally hit on it, Eric, heavy DL’ing is like childbirth! Fantastic job on all the recent articles; thank you for educating the masses!

  6. Andrew Gallaher Says:

    Hey eric I didn’t get a chance to make the live Q&A but I’m a competitive Muay Thai Fighter and I’m doing my best to balance lifting with fight training.

    My average Muay Thai session will last 2-3 hours and probably burn at least 1500 cals per session. I’m training 6 days a week and trying to lift 4 days.

    Do I just scale down my sets during lifting?

  7. Patrick O'Flaherty Says:

    Factoring in density (weight lifted per unit of time) is one missing piece of the puzzle. It took Eric about 6 seconds to complete the concentric portion of the lift. In comparison the example of the person doing 75 lbs. x 11 reps x 3 seconds per rep = 33 seconds. Eric lifted 110 lbs. per second versus 25 lbs. per second. Eric’s density was 440% higher.

  8. npf Says:

    Probably one of your best blogs imo Eic. You always come with awesome stuff anyways

    The coach of ther seattle mls team said it best “train as hard as you should, not as hard as you can”. Things like hrv are helping coaches get more accurate reading on their athlete’s status.

  9. Keshav Says:

    Great insight, as always. Thanks, Coach!

  10. Erika Says:

    Volume training is a way to watch your performance levels. In 2011, I experimented with 13 weeks of heavy volume training. I set myself to a 30-second limit for each test lift and performed a total of 8 sets each. The lifts were for the deadlift, the bench press, and the front squat. Each week I tested the same lifts and recorded the results. My exercise plan was periodized, so each day I had a routine to follow, but on Fridays, it was always back to testing. The results have been recorded and charted. I found a number of correlations with bodyweight and lift performance, total volume of one lift versus another, total volume and stress levels (in the last several weeks, I learned I had to move across the country, which was a surprisingly unpleasant experience for which to prepare- the thirteenth test is post-move). It has been my goal to find a pattern to which someone can plan a lifting program and take advantage of certain “peaks” and “valleys” for performance training. I unfortunately did not chart any biological events until two months ago, but I can assert from my experience that menstrual cycles have an effect on endurance performance. I’m a 29-year-old female weightlifter, 126-lbs.

  11. Joe MacGowan Says:

    All very good and salient comments. I use volume as a guage of intensity when training my lifters. I also use predominetly muscle fibre type in relation to the emaphasis of the training. If I am intending gains in “top end” strength then attention to tempo and therefore muscel fibre type (fast twitch) as well as rep range needs to be taken into account – if the majority of the work is done in the higher rep range (at lower percentage of one rep max) then the load and volume is predominently empahsising endurance and rep strength. To adequately hit the top end you need to train the top end and do the greater proprtion of work in the higher weight / lower rep ranges. As a competitive powerlifter for many years we constantly adhered to the notion of in the early stages of a programme; getting fit for the demands of the programme followed by increasing hyperthrophy then increase in rep strength and then absolute stregnth rounding off with power – get fit- put some mass on put some strength into it than add power. You no doubt will recognize this as the lay mans version of periodization – anatomical addaptation, hypertrophy, strength, power. When you check your volume check that its appropriate in its work load to the goal you have at that stage.

  12. Matt Says:

    Eric,

    What about daily RPE and bio markers such as cortisol and test. Obviously out of reach for most, they are great tools for fatigue and volume monitoring.

    Observation tools such Screening and performance tests also play a part.

  13. Darren Says:

    Very well said Eric.

    I think one of the best things about your work is the practical point of view.

    Early in my career I tried to follow 10% volume principles glossed over in resistance training manuals only to discover that some people are above and others below, and that coaching really mattered more than ‘to-the-letter’ programming.

    Thank you

  14. iver Says:

    Nice post, probably lot of coaches do not understand the subject, just using tables and charts. “To that end, most strength and conditioning coaches devote their entire career to finding a good mix of a number of factors” – this is my favorite. Goals, individualization, common sense, experience, observation, etc. This is the reason young coaches should have mentors. I spent some decades with world class wrestlers, and now after x years, it is funy how lot of them achieved scimilar results with totaly different volume and type of training. Also, lot of talk several years about overtraining, but almost nobody talks about overloading, and it is easy to ruin the functional performance of the athlete or movements in everyday life(long and short term). The goal of an athlete is not to become powerlifter but to have better performance. Even for average Joe, training goal should be health first, not making personal record every week. Thanks Eric, you should repeat this from time to time :)

  15. Andy Says:

    Hi Eric,

    i was wondering what is the highest training volume you have experienced an athlete managing for a prolonged period?

    or maybe a average volume figure you find people can handle before it negatively impacts their other training.?

    I am wondering as i have a manual job that requires a fair amount to be moved each week & been thinking for awhile that it might be holding me back fitness wise especially after reading this.

  16. james costello Says:

    Hey Eric.
    Hreat info. I had s similar question to the original feed of “volume” but, I was more interested on replacing the “work” load in pitching a baseball. I also was curious if there is a formula or formulas that can show the amount of work (metabolic) during a single pitch. I know Tom House has a “variable” that he uses that can be close to mechanical efficiency. Is there such a variable that can be used in power lifting?

    Thanks E!
    JC

  17. Jimmy Lamour Says:

    This is a very timely article as we are in the mix of our summer athlete training. I agree that training volume must be evaluated daily. Also, we as coaches must remember the goals of the athletes and clients. If we continue to improve performance and keep them injury free we can stay safe by keeping volume low. I also thing we have to count all stressors as part of our volume formula.

  18. Marc Says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Eric. I like how to bring to light the concept that not all volume is created equal. I see many training logs that treat exercises the same. They contain identical rep ranges whether trainees are performing calf raises or deadlifts. Thankfully intelligent trainers like you exist to remind folks that exercises are not simple widgets that can be mindlessly plugged into a template.

  19. bujanin Says:

    10. Erica

    hey Erica, i’d be v.interested to know what effects your menstrual cycle had on endurance performance. for example did you lean more towards lifting with an endurance consideration than strength consideration at certain points in your cycle?

    Mr Eric Cressey this article was well recieved thank you.

  20. Mike T Nelson Says:

    Good points and I agree with them.

    What I have to be a good work around is to

    1) keep track PER PERSON
    This way they are only comparing them to themselves, and assuming they lift in the same way, the other biomechanics stuff (limb length, stance, etc) comes out in the wash

    2) Track overload via
    a) intensity (weight)
    b) volume (as you state above)
    3) density (as was stated above in the comments)

    Nothing fancy, just start a stop watch when you start set 1 of your working set. Do your work. Hit stop once you rack your last rep. Take the volume/time for density.

    This solves the issue of taking more or less time to complete the same volume.

    I track this on a spread sheet and then compile the data. We tend to see improvemens in volume, volume, volume, density, and then intensity.

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

  21. Stephen Thomas, PhD, ATC Says:

    Eric nice post. I agree measuring volume is basically an impossible thing since there are so many factors that play into the equation. Do you think muscular fatigue would be a better measured? When examining your examples comparing a one rep max to a light weight with high repetitions the similarity is muscular fatigue. Both are obtaining the same amount of fatigue. In addition, its not really large volume that causes injuries, its both acute and chronic muscular fatigue. When muscular fatigue occurs our mechanics are altered and secondary muscles are recruited. This results in improper movement strategies which lead to increased stress on tissue and eventually injury. This will start as an acute occurrence and if an adequate amount of rest is not obtained it will become chronic. Muscular fatigue also is easier to measure. It can be calculated by a % reduction in MVIC or just a plain reduction in weight or repetitions for a given exercise. Since I’m just a boring researcher and not strength coach I would enjoy to hear your take on this. Thanks!

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