The Interaction Between Volume, Intensity, and Frequency: Why Each Matters

As mentioned last week, adherence is what should be considered and addressed before doing anything else. What should you do after you answer those 4 questions? Understand VIF.

VIF stands for Volume, Intensity, and Frequency. These components that I quickly defined in a previous article influence one another greatly. These components are the “bones” of a training program while periodization is the tendons and ligaments that connect bones together in a sensible and familiar way.

I’m going to use this article to help you put VIF into context in respect to program design but raising some questions for you to think about and providing some insight on how to structure the elements of VIF.

Volume

As mentioned previously, volume is simply a calculation of the total amount of work you perform (Sets*Reps*Weight). If you did 3 sets of 10 curls at 60 pounds, your total volume would be 3*10*60=1800 pounds of total volume. As I will discuss in a later post, volume should, over time, increase. This should be pretty intuitive if you consider the definition: you should be doing more work over time if you continue to improve your body composition and/or strength.

My two cents on volume relates to structuring your volume and how much work to do on a weekly basis. The volume needed to progress is a highly relative element for trainees. What I mean is that the work needed to progress depends on factors like training age (how long you have been training).

When designing a program, take into account how experienced (or inexperienced) you are. Individuals who have never trained before often acquire “newbie gains” for a period of time before making progress gets more difficult than it was before.

If this sounds like you, DO NOT GO NUTS ON THE VOLUME. Aka: don’t go crazy in the gym because you saw a monster athlete doing it. He/she is able to go crazy because they built up the tolerance and adaptations necessary to work that rigorously. You as a newbie will not be able to work like they do and risk potential injury if you try to do so.

So what should a newbie do? Newbie gains will drive a lot of progress in the beginning with little training volume. This is an opportunity to learn correct exercise technique and form while still making progress. Building good habits and movement patterns from the beginning will pay off greatly when you really start training hard because you will mitigate injuries and be able to handle more work, leading to more gainzzzzz.

Newbies should start with little to no weight on the bar or very light dumbbells to learn the movement patterns and correct technique. It’s likely you will increase strength and mass quickly (possibly weekly), and the weight you used last week will be very easy. Take advantage of the quick gains and increase the weight, sets, or number of sets you do. Somehow, increase volume. What’s important when you do increase volume is to not overshoot it. Take it gradually and intelligently. If you’re unable to complete the extra reps/sets/weight with good form but you want to do more than last week, don’t. The focus right now is the habit formation and proper technique. There’s nothing wrong with slow, steady increases because the weight will come with time.

Another thing to know is to not load up on volume on one day because you will likely get too fatigued to finish or complete the reps with satisfactory weight. Give yourself enough training days to reach your volume while not loading up too much on any given day to avoid injury and excessive fatigue.

One last thing: My next portion is about intensity and I go into how people should train given their goal. This doesn’t really apply for brand new trainees because strength and hypertrophy will come with just lifting. Point of this is just get your ass in the gym and learn to lift carefully and have fun with it. Specialize when you have more experience under your belt.

I will cover what intermediate and greater trainees should do in my progression post because I will basically be repeating myself if I write it here too.

Intensity

Intensity is, simply, the weight you lift for a certain exercise. More specifically, it’s the percentage of the athlete’s 1RM. The closer the weight is to 1RM, the greater intensity it is said to have or be.

Intensity matters because it will drive certain adaptations depending on the intensity used for training. For example, if your main goal is to get stronger, you should be training mostly in the high intensity area. A 2014 study by Brad Schoenfeld and others showed that strength gains were greater in the group who trained at a higher intensity than the moderate-intensity group¹. What’s interesting about this study is that the volume was equated in both groups, so it makes it more likely that intensity was the telling factor here. In that same paper, hypertrophy was similar between the groups¹. What this means is that certain goals require more specialization of your volume more than others.

Typically high intensity training is thought of as the “low reps, heavy weight” idea and low to moderate intensity being “moderate to high reps, moderate to light weight”.

If your goal is strength, training heavy more often will be greater than training with light or moderate weights. If your goal is to build muscle and get bigger, you can train either heavy, moderate, or light. It comes down to a matter of preference because the research shows it will be the same IF the volume is or would be equal. That’s the important distinction because volume is often lower when training at higher intensities because the lifts are much more taxing on your body than light or moderate lifts, and may leave you feeling beaten down.

The takeaway from here is to experiment and see what works for you to 1) Reach your goal and 2) Allow you to achieve the volume you need. If you find that you don’t like training heavy and you just want to build muscle, it’s perfectly okay to spend more time training light to moderate, for example.

Frequency

Here is where we tie at all together. Frequency is the number of times you train in a given time period, often measured in a week. Thankfully, there is not magic frequency that will maximize your gains. What’s important here is to learn what works for you and provides you enough time to recover. Maybe you want to train every day of the week, but you’re brand new to training. That’s not actually necessary or better than training 3-4 times. You may not recover your muscles quickly enough risking injury.

Find out the frequency that will allow you to work, recover, and enjoy other aspects of your life. Maybe you want to train daily, but you can’t do anything else with your time if you do. If it takes a toll on your relationships, work, or other matters in your life, you should most likely reduce the frequency or adjust another variable. It’s not essential to train every day. I can’t stress enough to find what works for you. Typically, you want to give your muscles 24-48 hours to recover before you train them again, so ensure you give yourself at least that much time. Depending on your volume for the previous day(s), you may need more or less time.

Frequency is a useful variable for structuring your volume because you can allocate volume to training days depending on how often you’re going to train or what day is going to be what focus to allow you to complete the exercises you have set out for yourself (to maintain adherence). For example, If you’re squatting, benching, and deadlifting once a week and training 3 times a day, but you find yourself struggling to recover or see progress you could increase your frequency and space out some of the volume so you can recover since you’re training less on any given day and. Maybe you could move half of your squat sets to the 4th training day if squatting is wearing you out on that day.

It’s all about structuring your training to allow yourself to remain compliant. It comes back to adherence being the most important variable in any training program.

To conclude, VIF is what comes next as the most important set of factors when designing a program. Volume is important to increase over time as it will drive your progress (make sure you do it intelligently). Intensity is important to  adjust and structure based on your goals. Frequency is a useful tool for managing adherence and adjusting your volume to ensure you can hit certain intensities and giving yourself time to recover.

References

¹Effects of Different Volume-Equated Resistance Training Loading Strategies on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men

 

 

 

 

7 Comments

  1. If I’m trying to compare workouts it makes sense that I would multiply my number of sets by the reps per set and then by the weight moved to get a volume number for that day. How would I go about calculating a body weight exercise or something like a row machine where the intensity of the exercise can’t be measured by the weight of a bar?

    1. Great question! You can still certainly track your volume with bodyweight and non-weight baring exercises. You can use your body weight as the “weight” portion of the equation and focus on the progression of sets and reps over time relative to your body weight. You can also load up most if not all bodyweight exercises with some type of load (pullups with a dip belt, plates on your back for pushups, etc.), so you can measure your volume and progression that way too. For something like a rowing machine, progression and volume can be tracked by sets, reps, and the resistance used on the machine.

      Does that answer your question?

      1. Yeah, it makes sense to do it that way but it seems to assign an unfair weighting to bodyweight exercises when comparing workouts that include both weighted and unweighted exercises. Since body weight is treated as negligible in exercises like the the Back Squat, it seems like the only way to appropriately track a bodyweight exercise is to set the weight as 1 or to apply some kind of percentage multiplier to the activity to keep its volume from appearing greater than a weighted exercise.

        1. I see what you mean; and you’re right that it would give preference to combined exercises like a back squat. You can set the weight as 1 just to satisfy the calculation, but I would say the more important thing to focus on for bodyweight and non-traditionally loaded exercises is the progression. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to calculate the volume for each and every little exercise that you do. Measuring reps and sets (and weight if you find a way to load the movement) while monitoring progress over time will cover most of your bases with bodyweight and non-traditional exercises. Don’t get so lost in the numbers that you don’t have enough time to go to the gym, know what I mean? lol.

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