Understanding Volume

Great article by Blaine Sumner on explaining volume and how to use it properly in your training.


There are many controlled dimensions of the strength training equation and even more uncontrollable dimensions. When laying out a program, the things we can control are intensity, frequency, sets, reps, weight (to a point), volume, and exercises. The things we cannot fully control, and have a more significant impact on our success are injuries, atmosphere, getting sick, how strong the competition is getting, etc. Since we only have full control over a part of our journey, it’s imperative to understand these variables fully and control them as such.

In this article I am going to touch on the Volume component and go into more depth as it is frequently misunderstood. First let’s put some brief explanations of the most common training constraints.

INTENSITY: Generally proportional to a % of your one rep max. But higher intensity does not always mean harder. For example doing a single at 90% of a one rep max is easier than a set of 5 at 85%, even though the single is “higher intensity”. Generally, the higher the intensity, the lower the reps.

FREQUENCY: How frequently you perform the lift, usually in the units of “times per week”. In powerlifting 1 time per week is common. 3 times per week is high frequency. Anything more is very high frequency.

SETS: The number of sets you perform for a given exercise. I only count working sets, meaning warm-up sets don’t come into play in the volume equation. More on this later.

REPS: The number of reps performed on a given set. In the powerlifting movements, anything at 8 reps or above is very high reps. 5-7 is high reps. 3-5 is moderate. And 1-3 is low.

WEIGHT: The poundage of weight moved. More is better.

VOLUME: The granddaddy of them all. Intensity, frequency, sets, and reps all are components of the grand ol’ volume. Generally, volume is calculated by sets X reps X weight; it is called volume because it is three dimensional, like the volume of a jar being length X width X height. For example, your workout consisted of bench press at: 1 X 5 X 275 and 2 X 3 X 315, then the total volume for that workout would be (1 X 5 X 275) + (2 X 3 X 315) = 3,265 lbs. We call the unit ‘lbs.’ for simplicity even though that is not entirely accurate. Volume is likely the most important training aspect as it must be increased over an athletes career, too much will lead to injury and overtraining, and too little will lead to stagnation.

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