Understanding variations in training frequency, volume, and intensity over time
by: Kelly Baggett
They All Can Work!
The truth is, they all can work and they all can be ideal, just not at the same time or all of the time. What you need to do is determine what type of training will be most productive for you at any given time. That's what I hope to do here.
Generally speaking, a beginner progresses well off of greater frequency and lower volume. A beginner could put together a program consisting of strength, endurance, and speed work performed all in the same workout, at the same time, as often as 3-6 days per week. At this point, the biggest factor holding him back will be general fitness as well as technical and tactical issues. Therefore he needs constant stimulation, movement rehearsal, and basic fitness.
Such a program might look something like this:
Workouts would consist of the following, 3-4 days week. Just pick a handful of 5-6 movements and go after them. When doing bodyweight movements such as these, it's easy to handle the volume.
Hanging leg raises
One leg squats (or pistol squats)
Standing Long jumps
Dynamic flexibility movements
low intensity jumps
Form work on squat and bench press.
Once an athlete has built a solid foundation they would then progress into more of a traditional routine of squats, deadlifts, benches, sprints etc. They would train the movements at least 3 times per week at a lower session volume.
There are 5 phases with regard to frequency and volume that almost every athlete goes through to reach the peak of his abilities. The opimal approach that works through one phase will probably not be the same optimal approach in a different phase. The beginner phase is phase I.
Phase I- Is the beginner phase and is characterized by the above.
Phase II- Is the intermediate phase and is characterized by a general lean towards lower frequency. The magnitude of performance will increase substantially during this phase.
Phase III - Is the high-intermediate phase and is characterized by a humongous increase in the magnitude of performance with a subsequent decrease in volume tolerance.
Most people who have been training for 2 or more years are stuck in between phase II and III. They are stronger, faster, and more powerful then when they were beginners and they probably find they can train maximally less frequently. Yet they aren't anywhere near approaching the limits of their ability. They tend to do too much junk volume and lean towards overtraining rather then undertraining.
There are 2 more phases but before we cover them let's talk about the transition from beginner to intermediate.
When one advances into the intermediate phase, he increases his ability to create stress, yet the ability to recover from that stress doesn't improve to the same extent. This is why a more advanced sprinter might need more time off after a hard session then a beginning sprinter. It's why a really strong lifter might need an entire week to recover from a heavy lift but a beginning lifter can max out and then come back the very next day and max out again. It's why a pro football player needs 2 weeks off to fully recover after a game yet jr. high kids can play tackle football without pads every day and never complain. It's why NBA players piss and moan about playing a game every other day and high school kids say "I can't believe their complaining, - I can play EVERY day without getting worn down." It's why some of the strongest men in the world only go heavy on a lift once every 10 days. It's why the worlds biggest bodybuilders only train a bodypart once per week. The list goes on and on.
Greater Intensity Initially Means Reduced Recovery
The greater the magnitude of performance you can generate the less training you tend to tolerate, at least initially. Before the nervous system can adapt to intensity and volume, it has to be able to put out intensity, or close the gap between "potential" performance and "current" performance. Therefore, as one becomes better able to "turn it on" they no longer recover from the frequency as well. So, during the intermediate phase this will initially necessitate a reduction in frequency. Instead of training 3-6 times a week he might only be able to handle twice a week, yet he will have improved across the board.
As he improves the absolute magnitude of his efforts further he might only be able to handle training once every 4-7 days. This is the high intermediate phase. All this is assuming one is using distributed loading, with full recovery in between sessions.
To put it in descriptive terms, let me give you a history of one of my athletes squatting, vertical jumping performances, and training frequency, and show you what they look like through each phase.
185 lbs squat at 140 lbs bodyweight/ 27 inch vertical jump/ Training 3 times per week
300 lb squat at 145 lbs bodyweight/34 inch vertical jump/ Training 2 x per week
405 lb squat at 155 lbs bodyweight/41 inch vertical jump/training 1 x every 5-7 days.
405 squat at 155 lbs bodyweight/41 inch vertical jump/training 2-3 x per week + sports practice
455 squat at 160 lbs bodyweight/43 inch vertical jump/training 2-3 x per week + sports practice
So you can see that after the beginning stage his squat went from 300 lbs to 405 lbs. His VJ went from 34 to 41 inches. Yet his ability to tolerate volume decreased. In the advanced stage he built up the ability to tolerate volume and in the elite stage he once again intensified his performances. This athlete was a martial artist thus his sport necessitated he compete in a weight class. I'm sure most of you would be satisfied with what he was able to do in the "high-intermediate" phase.
Now, as mentioned above, many people are stuck in between the intermediate and high intermediate phase. The magnitude of their performance may not be as good as the guy in the above example, or it may be better, yet it's the same situation.
Most of these people who are at the Intermediate stage will immediately benefit more in their chosen endeavor, be it powerlifting, speed/vj training, and even bodybuilding, if they focus on improving their ability to generate high intensity efforts. Therefore, they will make immediate gains with a low frequency full recovery setup where their focus is on breaking personal records as often as possible. They'll train 100% balls to the wall rather infrequently, highly intensive, and then recover fully. They'll do better with a limitation on anything that isn't absolutely necessary such as any conditioning or endurance work. In short, the motto should be "improve or go home" and the training should be balls to the wall each session.
The reason many struggle reaching the 3rd phase is becuase they use too many conflicting demands without the ability to adapt to those demands (too much junk volume and not enough focus on constant improvement).
Make Progress or Go Home
Now, I know people love to rag on HIT training but it's basic tenet of "make progress every workout and recover 100% completely", does offer some positives. It does teach a person how to display a peak effort and how not to hold back. It fosters the ability to generate mental intensiveness. Other programs that emphasize full recovery combined with peak efforts like inno-sport's AREG scheme are very valuable here. If we look to bodybuilding, saying "HIT" is a no-no, yet we do have Doggcrapp training with an emphasis on doing one extended set per body part every 5 days and beating records every workout. That program could be called HIT and people make excellent gains.
We have Poliquin training, where "go heavy or go home" is the mantra and cardiovascular exercise is shunned. Poliquin will usually have guys train a muscle grouping once every 4-5 days.
Where They Go Wrong
Where people go wrong with some of these approaches is avoiding general fitness activity and thinking they have to recover 100% to train at all. But that's not to say these approaches don't have their advantages, especially when taking an athlete from intermediate to the high-intermediate phase.
Going From High Intermediate to Advanced
However, once one reaches the high intermediate stage the only way they will progress past this point is if they increase their ability to tolerate volume. During the high intermediate phase the ability to maintain volume of performance will suffer. If you want a prime example of an athlete at this point think of David Boston a couple of years ago. At the high-intermediate stage, one may become very fast and explosive, yet lack endurance. They will probably need to recover several days after a hard effort. They may become very strong yet find they have to rest an eternity in between training sessions to fully recover. They will probably find that pretty much anything makes them sore and anything not related to their specific ability interferes with that ability. For example, a football or basketball specialist will probably find that any conditioning work will cause immediate decreases in their speed or vertical jumping ability.
Constant high intensity or injury?
It's important to note that an athlete at this stage who continues to try to hammer intensity, intensity, intensity, with full recovery, full recovery, full recovery WILL become injured. If training at this level is prolonged, the training is infrequent enough, and low intensity work is nonexistent enough, that connective tissue will become too weak for the muscles as it will not receive enough blood flow and begin to lose it's proper functional ability. That's why HIT style routines often cause injury and burnout.
Ok, now let me emphasize that one of my prime initial objectives with the majority of athletes I work with is to get them to what I call this "high intermediate" level ASAP. I do it a little differently though. I never get away from low intensity "circulatory" and general fitness work and I provide more intensity manipulation to avoid stagnation and deconditioning. However, the focus is still on breaking records every heavy workout or at least as often as possible. In general that will often take an initial reduction in overall training volume.
Now this "high-intermediate" training does have it's disadvantages but there are more advantages. Any basic and semi-intelligent setup incorporating a good mix of general fitness, strength, flexibility and conditioning can get a person to the intermediate level but most will start running into plateaus around that point. Remember, before you can generate intensity and maintain that intensity (volume), you gotta be able to generate that intensity. In other words, you can't have everything all the time.
Now obviously the next stage would be Phase IV.
Phase IV - The advanced phase
Phase IV is the advanced phase and is characterized by maintaining the ability to generate increased intensity from the high-intermediate phase, while tolerating greater volumes of work.
This would be the ideal time to switch to a more advanced CONJUGATE PERIODIZATION type setup if the athlete has not done so already. This will enable an athlete to not only maintain the heightened intensity, but also perform and train at a much higher frequency. During this phase, one will add in quite a bit more training designed to boost the work capacity. Volume will fluctuate much more. The end result is that, instead of having to rest days in between training sessions, one will recover much quicker and still be able to maintain a heightened effort. This makes it necessary for all team sports because sport requires:
1. repeated near maximal efforts
2. frequent training
3. frequent practice
4. strength and power endurance
5. fast recovery
In a sport where the deciding factor does not require endurance and is determined soley by the magnitude of the performance (shotput, high jump, long jump, 60 m sprint, o-lifting, powerlifting etc.), one important thing about being able to tolerate increasing volumes is that you can then intensify performance by tapering or dropping volume. Before you can intensify through tapering you have to have some volume built up so that you have something to taper into.
Real World Examples
Now if you take around at some other sports like powerlifting you'll see that they've caught on to this work capacity. Westside guys have caught on with the introduction of sled work and extra workouts etc. Bodybuilders haven't caught on yet but they will. Sprinters and swimmers built up a lot of volume and then "taper" the volume heading into a meet. Any setup that follows the basics of Conjugate periodization "concentrates", or increases volume, and then lowers that volume to heighten performance. When you can train with increasing volumes you increase your adaptation ability.
With the high intermediate athletes I work with, I'll bring in extra work and it'll be designed to build up the working capacity. This work could take many forms. It could be increased training frequency and volume at reduced load and volume. Or alternate loading and volume(concentrated strength loading). It could be "tempo" work, sled dragging or any number of other varieties. It could also be additional hypertrophy and technical work, as muscle mass gains will mean a given amount of neural energy will translate into a stronger contraction. Improved technique will allow the more efficient use of energy.
But what we're going to do here is build the ability to tolerate volume. If we were to add something like interval sprints we'd put them in for a month or so and then back off. When we do back off, the ability to maintain performance will have drastically increased and there will also usually be an intensification of the absolutes. So not only are you running around faster, jumping higher, and lifting more weight then before, but you're able to keep it up play after play and day after day.
Finally, as one continues down this path, not only only can he train at a high intensity but also at a high intensity and high volume. This is phase V.
Phase V- The Elite
Phase V- is the Elite phase and during this phase one will be near the peak of their natural abilities.
High level olympic lifters are a good example of athletes that reach the "elite" level through precise frequency and volume management. If you'll notice, olympic weightlifters train under government sponsored programs and many of them would be champion level powerlifters even though they don't do squats etc. for maximum weight. They also train with dramatically higher volumes. The likely reason for this is, because of their support and coaching, they are able to put into practice the best of what science has to offer and the exact things I'm talking about here. A powerlifter is disadvantaged because there are no government sponsored powerlifting programs that I'm aware of so they have to figure out all this stuff on their own, thus, as of now, most champion powerlifters operate in Phase III mode although we're seeing more phase IV's because of smart coaches.
Your goal is probably to eventually get to the elite level. Now, getting to the elite level doesn't mean that your performance will necessarily be "elite" in your chosen sport. It just means that you're able to perform near the peak of your natural ability. At least you now have a general idea what that roadmap looks like.
If you think about your performance and compare it to what I described above it shouldn't be too difficult to figure out where you are.
If you haven't trained at least a couple of years then you're most definitely a beginner or intermediate.
If you can train maximally every day or several days per week, yet the magnitude of your performance is less then impressive, then you're an intermediate who needs to get to high-intermediate.
If the magnitude of your performance is fairly impressive, yet you struggle with work capacity and frequency of training, then you're a high-intermediate who needs to get to advanced.
If the magnitude of your performance is impressive AND you do well with high volumes then you're probably ready for intensification through reduced volume.
So that about sums it up! See where you're at right now, identify your current training to see if it meets up with your needs, and plan out your path!