In Part 1 of this article series, we discussed the idea of manipulating the variables rather than the exercises. Choosing to manipulate volume, intensity, frequency and duration instead of the exercise requires discipline and dedication to the process of developing strength. Simply changing from a standing barbell curl to a seated dumbbell curl is like switching tools without ever really having learned to use the first tool. This article will develop your skill in the application of your tools (exercises).
Manipulating the Variables
Perhaps you are a trainee who has been on autopilot for too long. You venture into the gym, knowing precisely what dumbbells to grab and what sets and repetitions you will be performing because it is the same thing you did during your last workout and the one before that. This routine, while comforting, is the ruination of effective strength training. What follows will be a guide to manipulating the variables and achieving your goals.
Determine Your Goals
Step one is deciding what you want to accomplish. Since we are focused on building strength, your typical cop out answer of increasing tone or increasing the size of your arms will not cut it. Whether it is setting a new personal best in body weight pull ups (a strength endurance goal) or setting a personal best in one repetition dead lift (a maximum strength goal), you must define your goal because it determines how to manipulate the variables. Your goals must be specific, yet achievable. Choose something that truly sparks your interest because you will stick with this goal until successfully completed.
The first training variable to manipulate is the frequency of your training. According to body building mythos and so called conventional wisdom, your frequency is dictated by how many times per week you choose to hit a specific body part. Now that you’ve chosen a specific strength goal, do not concern yourself with isolating pieces of your body. You will train to enhance your body’s adaptation to your chosen goal. Personally, I believe that since I breathe every day, I should exercise every day. No whining about over training. Once you understand the intelligent manipulation of the other variables, daily training is easily achieved. There are many successful permutations in the frequency of training: every day, five days per week, three on one off, two on one off, two on one off, two on two off and the classic three days per week. Choosing the correct training frequency is a function of proper planning. If you work four 10 hour shifts followed by three days off and create a schedule of daily training, you will probably find yourself missing workouts on the days you work, so plan accordingly. In this situation, coordinating three days of training for the three days off work then one day off – two brief training sessions during the work week followed by one day off, and you will be ready for the next three training days.
Lifestyle, training history and goals should weigh heavily on your choice of training frequency. Any program will fail if you do not follow it, so create a situation in which you will succeed.
Define intensity. What comes to mind? Probably training to failure. A mental image of a big guy, baseball cap turned around backwards, screaming in pain as he struggles through that last unsuccessful repetition where failure has been achieved. But where is the intensity? Was it the baseball cap turned around backwards? Intensity, I would argue, is more accurately defined as a mathematical percentage of your one-rep maximum. Power lifters and Olympic lifters have utilized the percentage-based definition for a very long time. Olympic lifters routinely lift 300 to 400 pounds overhead. Power lifters move over a ton of iron during a competition. Again, there is no confusion, no esoteric ramblings about the Holy Grail of failure, just a simple, clear-cut percentage. Now with a clear and identifiable variable, intensity can be manipulated with precision.
How to manipulate your intensity will depend upon your goal and your frequency. If your goal is strength endurance (pull ups, for example), then your frequency should be daily, and the intensity will vary greatly. Using a percentage of your maximum repetitions, you will perform sets of 85 percent on day one, 35 percent on day two, 55 percent on day three, off day four, and on day five you work at 90-plus percent. You then rest for a day or two and begin the rotation over again. This prevents you from becoming stale at an exercise and allows you to train frequently without overtraining.
If your goal is maximum strength and you have chosen the classic three days a week, then you can refer to the second part of my deadlift article and choose a peaking plan that will show you how to manipulate the intensity. What you will find is the same wavy rotation of intensity where volume decreases as intensity increases. Free your mind from the shackles of failure and the fear of having an easy day. Nothing is the same every day, and your training intensity should not be either.
Volume is easily defined as the amount of work performed. This can be charted in tonnage lifted or repetitions preformed. What does matter is that the volume you impose during your training will depend directly upon your goal, your frequency and your intensity. If you have the discipline to choose daily training, then your volume will be low. If your goal is to increase muscle size, then you must impose a fairly high volume of moderate to high intensity training with reduced frequency to allow for growth. If your goal is increased strength, then a low volume of high intensity imposed frequently will be most successful. Low volume, in general, will be in the range of two to three sets at one to five repetitions. High volume, in general, will range from five to 20 sets of five repetitions. With dedication and intelligence, you will amaze yourself with the volume you can train your body to handle.
The duration of your training will depend upon your goal, your frequency, your intensity and your volume. Daily training can be as brief as five to 10 minutes or can simply be individual sets spread throughout a day. If your volume and intensity are relatively high, then your training duration can extend anywhere from half an hour to over an hour, even though some of this time will be rest. The duration of your workout should be easily adjusted to fit the demands of your lifestyle, and always have a plan B. If your schedule changes suddenly, you should still be confident that you can accomplish your training by hitting the essentials in a shorter time period. Physiologically speaking, there is a hormonal drop off when you train with short rest periods and go beyond 45 minutes in length. So tailor the duration of your training to fit your life and your goals. Also understand that as you train for strength and you begin to use longer rest periods between sets (three to five minutes), your workout time will increase.
Rest periods become important and can be utilized to create great variety and intensity in your routine. Performing sets of pull ups with 20 seconds of rest between sets will impose a significantly increased stress versus resting for five minutes. You use the shorter rest periods to work on things like lactic acid tolerance or imposing a “cardiovascular” effect. You use longer rest periods to ensure that you are rested and ready to give a good focused effort during strength training. If you are training for maximum strength and you feel you can knock out your sets with a one minute rest or less, then you need to re-evaluate your intensity. This manipulation of rest periods will impact the duration of your training, and it gives you another tool to use.
Putting It All Together
While not as comfortable as autopilot, the intelligent manipulation of frequency, intensity, volume and duration is far more successful. Defining a goal and creating a tailored program to achieve that goal will focus your training and take you places you thought were out of reach.
||Daily (5-6 days per week)
||Varied – 60% - 85%of 1 repetition max
||Low – 1 – 2 sets of 1 – 5 repetitions
||3 days per week
||Varied – 70 – 80% of 1 repetition max
||Moderate to High 5 – 20 sets of 5 repetitions
|Strength-Endurance (Pull-ups for example)
||Daily 5-6 days per week
||Varied but generally 50 – 60% of your repetition max
||Varied but multiple sets of about half of your repetition max throughout the day. Can total over 100 reps per day or as low as 20 reps per day. A high volume day is followed by a low volume day.
||2 – 3 days per week
||Varied – 50 – 105% of one repetition max. See Deadlift Part 2 article for details
||Varied – See Deadlift Part 2 article for details. Can vary from 5 to 10 sets depending on the plan.
Points of Interest
All of these goals and plans are subject to modification to suit the individual.
Notice an inverse relationship between volume and intensity and frequency – if you are going to train frequently then the volume and intensity will be lower. If you are going to train with less frequency then the volume and intensity are increased. It would be the same to say that if you choose to lift with greater intensity then the volume and frequency would be decreased to compensate.
- See the second part of the deadlift article for information on peaking plans and manipulation of these variables.
- For hypertrophy you must impose a moderate intensity but a higher volume, hence the greater number of sets at a 70 percent intensity.
- Rotating through various goals for the same lift will prevent “staleness” and ensure continued adaptation.