Understanding Programming: Volume, Intensity & Stress

One of the programmes we use for our Strength Circuit

Working out alone vs. working out with others

When I became part of the BCG I had previously spent a few years working out by myself in commercial gyms. I’m not going to spend too much energy on dissecting just how horrible those kinds of spaces can be, but that was a secondary consideration at the time; I was training by myself purposefully, and with the intention of interacting with others as little as possible. I wanted to get in there, lift, and get out.

Training for me was, and still is, the primary way I combat my depression and anxiety. Getting under a heavy barbell, squatting it and trying to stand up again, takes pretty much 100% concentration, otherwise you end up squished. This level of concentration is incredibly calming. A lot of the constant mental ‘noise’ that I experience goes away, and stays away, at least for a short time. So the point of training for me was also to reach that point of intense focus. Suffice it to say this is not a very sociable state to be in.

The atmosphere and environment at the BCG was completely different to pretty much every other gym I’ve been too. You’re encouraged to approach the session as a group effort, and while I don’t think I personally ever got used to this, it created a wonderful sense of camaraderie. This comradeship extending beyond just small talk in between sets, and created a space that actively encouraged people in their efforts, applauded their accomplishments and progression, however big or small, helped nurse injuries both physical and otherwise, and commiserated with them when a huge effort fell just a little short of the goal.

You will pretty much never get as excited as you will get on PB night, watching someone who a week previous had never even been under a barbell, hit their very first one rep max.

The difference between these two experiences, from working out purely for and by myself, and then training alongside others, was instantly noticeable. It was more than simply going from being by myself to being around people, it went from training by myself to actually caring what the others were up to, how they were progressing, how they were feeling about their training.

The blog posts I’ll be writing are going to try and reflect on that as much as possible. That training can be a group activity in more ways than simply sharing a space.

The first thing I wanted to write about was a basic mental model of training that I’ve used over the years, that has helped me make informed decisions about my training, about what to do and why to do it.

Volume and Intensity and Stress

If you spend anytime reading online about physical fitness you will see a huge number of terms and phrases thrown around, often with very little context or hints as to what they mean, and how they can be applied to your own training.

The two terms you will probably see the most, particularly when used to describe training methodologies, are Volume and Intensity. To better understand these two terms, we are also going to talk about Stress.

Collectively these terms help us talk and reason about our training, and make better choices about what to do and when to do it.

Volume and Intensity

It helps to talk about volume and intensity at the same time, because it’s almost impossible to disconnect the two.

Fitness programs are often prescribed in the following form:

  • Squat 5×5
  • Bench 5×5
  • Deadlift 5×5

And so on, with the name of each exercise to perform followed by the number of sets and the number of repetitions per set. So in the above example, you would first do 5 sets of squats, performing 5 squats each set, and resting sufficiently between sets.

Volume is how we measure the overall amount of ‘work’ done for each exercise. The simple formula is weight on the bar x sets performed x reps per set. So if you squatted 100kg in a workout, your overall volume would be 100kg x 5 sets x 5 reps per set = 2500kg.

The partner of volume is intensity, which is commonly expressed as a percentage of a person’s one rep max in an exercise. This is the maximum amount of weight they can lift for one repetition in that exercise, so if your one-rep max in the bench press was 100kg, performing a bench press at 80% intensity would mean putting 80kg on the bar.

Volume and intensity interact very closely, for example you would probably only be able to perform 1-2 reps with a weight that is around 90% of your max. Your volume is automatically limited by the intensity. The general rule is, the lower the intensity, the more volume you can probably do. If you can do 6-10 reps with a weight that is 90% of your max, you have probably calculated you max wrong.

Training is stressful – and that’s the point!

When we do any kind of training, resistance training with weights, cardio focused training like running or swimming, or even martial arts, we are inflicting stress on our bodies. Our bodies respond to this stress by adapting to it, so that the next time the same stress is encountered we can overcome it.

This is a pretty primitive survival mechanism at work, our bodies are almost going “Yikes! Something is trying to kill me! Better get swole so next time I won’t nearly die.”

Why all this matters in the first place

More than clever sounding ways to talk about your training, these terms help in understanding why our training looks the way it does, and helps us plan what to do and when. Understanding these terms means we won’t go into the weightroom and do something silly like try and hit a 1 rep max 5 days in a row, or go to total muscle failure on 8+ sets.

If training causes stress, we can easily understand that increasing either volume or intensity will lead to more stress. Wait, that means more training adaptations, so I should just do 10 sets of 100 reps with 90% all the time right?! GAINSVILLE: POPULATION ONE.

Sadly, no. Stress is, well, stressful. Too much of it over time and you start to fall apart – sleep becomes erratic and not restful, you experience low mood and low energy, injuries occur more frequently and are more persistent, your subjective experience of physical pain is greater. In a single session there is also an obvious limit to stress, you can’t lift a weight after a certain point no matter how hard you try.

So there is a physical limit to the amount of stress we can induce on ourselves before it becomes counterproductive.

Not only that, when we inflict stress on ourselves it takes a certain amount of time before our bodies actually adapt fully. We have to actually recover from the stress, and again, there is a limit to the amount of overall stress we can recover from in a given period of time.

Recovery can take days or even weeks depending on the degree of stress; you won’t be walking on a broken leg sooner than you will after gently spraining your ankle, and although a grisly example the principle is exactly the same for training.

Progressive overload

The last thing to talk about is the point I touched on briefly above: Once we have adapted to a given level of stress, the next time the same stress is encountered we can overcome it.

So, over time, we need to increase the level of stress. We can do this either by manipulating intensity, or by manipulating volume. You can also do things like increase the difficulty of the exercise (no squatting on a bosu ball though!) but when you are just starting out it’s probably easier to just focus on doing more work either by adding weight or adding sets and reps.

Quick recap

  • The end goal of training is to cause a physical adaptation, and to cause this adaptation this we inflict the appropriate stressor on our bodies. Too little stress and nothing happens.
  • There is a limit to the stress we can induce in a single training session as well over a given period of training. We need to be mindful and induce only the amount of stress we can recover from.
  • To make sure we are setting up our training with respect to this delicate balance, we manipulate the two training variables of volume and intensity. Volume and intensity are closely linked, so a change in one will require a change in the other.
  • To create a sufficient amount of stress we need to be performing a sufficient amount of volume, and to be able to perform a sufficient amount of volume means training at a reasonable (not too low, not too high) intensity, and this overall amount of ‘work’ needs to increase over time.

How to apply this information

Now you hopefully understand a bit more with regards to how training causes stress, and how the main training variables work together. Now we can use this mental model to make sensible decisions in the weight room. Below are some example scenarios that we can apply this model to. These are based on things that I have experienced directly, hopefully you will be able to spot areas in your own training where this model will prove useful as well.

Say for example, you are feeling pretty beat up. Low mood, low energy. Interestingly enough though muscle soreness is not a good indicator of training stress, everyone gets sore and while chronic pain is not something to train through, temporary soreness is probably not an indicator you’re doing too much.

But regardless, whatever the factors, you’re feeling done in, and maybe you need to back off the training stress a little. Instead of 3×5 do 3×3 for a week or two until you start to feel ready and eager to start increasing training stress. This is commonly known as a deload and part of literally every intelligent training program you will find.

Another example, say you want to improve your technique on front squats. The best way to learn a movement pattern is to repeat the movement over and over, so pick a low-ish intensity and do a lot of volume until you feel confident with the movement. Then, reduce the volume and start increasing the intensity.

Have you been stuck with an exercise for ages and despite how hard you try, you can never seem to add more weight to the bar? Well, luckily you have read this article, and now you understand that increasing the intensity of an exercise is not the only way to increase the stress you can get out of it. Lower the weight a little, and create a progressive overload by slowly increasing the volume every session.

If you were doing 3 sets of 5 before and stalling, try adding sets and reps until you are doing 5 sets of 10. Once you reach 5×10, reduce the volume and try increasing the intensity again. Done properly you should of been able to induce sufficient stress to drive adaptation – and will find that you blast through the plateau you encountered before.

What if you wanting to take part in one of the BCG’s famous PB parties? To get ready for testing your one rep max you can start to increase the intensity of your exercises in the weeks leading up the PB party, and at the same time slowly decrease the volume over the same time period, so you feel fresh and ready for when you need to express you new found strength.