I recently spoke with a colleague around their training and how they are aiming to get fitter. They told me how a member of their gym advised to increase the amount of exercises they do to get fitter. Their argument was to follow a “More is better” approach. To improve leg strength do more leg exercises, to be aerobically fitter, run and row more. Whilst this may seem logical, from experience I would disagree. Focusing on intensity first and then volume will likely improve your fitness more effectively, here’s why…
Read time: 12 minutes
One workout a day is enough…
Let’s put this one to bed straight away. For the majority of the population one workout a day done correctly is enough. Put simply, volume should not be the go to answer. Sure, it has its place, from time to time you may need to increase the volume of your chosen activity. Running for example, if you plan to run a marathon with no previous marathon experience, logic dictates that your running volume must increase. However, this increase is within the overall picture and built up over time.
I personally believe volume takes time to accumulate. Even at top-level sports. That’s why you see long distance runners progress through distances rather than just jump straight in at the longest events. For us mere mortals, we will get far more bang for our buck by focusing on intensity. Think about it, the whole point of training is to force adaption. We want our bodies to adapt to the stimulus we put on it.
If we are hammering multiple workouts a day, we are not allowing our bodies to recover from them. Instead we are just piling more and more stress upon ourselves. As we progress through the volume the effort we have left to put in gets less and the stimulus we elicit decreases. So, we get a point where we’re that worn down, the training we are doing is no longer pushing our bodies to adapt. Instead we are just coping, trying not to break.
The thing is, intensity is uncomfortable and most people don’t like that…
Intensity exposes us to the stimulus we need to adapt much quicker and in heavier doses. Think of it like cooking. If we have all the time in the world we can set the heat to medium and let food gradually cook. However, if you’re in a rush, the heat gets whacked up high and you make the food cook quickly. The food adapts much faster.
Essentially, our training is the same. Intensity is turning up the heat of our training to push our bodies to adapt much faster. Higher volume will just mean you need to take longer to recover. Before I go any further, it’s important to understand we can’t sustain high intensity for long periods. So don’t think you can have the best of both worlds, you’ll burn out. The issue is, the more heat you apply the more it burns. Therefore, with training the more intensity we apply the more it will feel uncomfortable. This is the thing people don’t like but don’t want to admit.
Ask yourself, would you rather row 1000m at 80% three times or row 1000m flat-out once? I know which one I’d pick given the choice and the final distance would be 3000m not 1000m!
I firmly believe that most people push the “more is better” mantra as it’s easier and people think it looks better. As I said, volume has its place in training. However, doing more at lower effort is far easier than pushing yourself all out over shorter domains. If anyone tells you otherwise they’re lying.
Whilst is may seem impressive to hear someone is about to hit their 3rd training session of the day. Is that person really willing to push themselves as hard as they need to? Or are they trying to convince themselves they’re working hard by covering up a fear of suffering with tons of work/volume?
But more elite athletes train with higher volume…
Well yes and this argument always comes back. I am not doubting that they do either, however there are a number of factors that allow them to do this. Firstly, it’s normally their job, it is all they do and they don’t have other responsibilities or day-jobs taking up their time. This means they can space out their training sessions to recover. Also, the volume of each session is far lower whilst the overall volume is higher – This allows for higher intensity of each session.
Secondly, they have spent years building up to that volume. They didn’t one day decide that they were going to complete 6 workouts a day and just went for it. They probably spent years being sore from 1 workout a day, then 2, then 3 etc. Adaption to the stimulus occurred and they then added in more volume. Over time, they repeated this process and ended up at the point they are at now.
Thirdly, there are even some elite athletes who still train at lower volume but higher intensity. Some male Chinese weightlifters only tend to squat once or twice a week. This seems crazy to some people when you consider the whole point of the sport stand up heavy weights. However, the once or twice a week they do squat will hurt like a motherfu$ker and stimulate the adaption they need. Their overall volume is low but intensity high, they work harder not longer.
Don’t worry, over time you can still increase volume…
Eventually, a point where the level of intensity for an activity is sufficient will be reached – your coach should help identify this. Once the level of intensity is sufficient, look to increase volume. In my opinion, volume should only increase once the ability to consistently cope with intensity for a certain area of fitness is reached. I’m talking about being able to cope with month’s of training at an improved level of intensity to where you started.
For example, 20 clean & jerks at 60kg took you 15 minutes. Now you could do 30 clean & jerks at 60kg in 5 minutes twice a month if needed and not feel beaten up. So, look to increase the weight of your clean & jerk repetitions and therefore the intensity.
Trying to move on to higher volume before this point is somewhat counterproductive. The likelihood is, you’ll lose the intensity that is makes you adapt because you can’t yet handle lower volumes of it. This just leaves your body worn down, not recovered and guess what… not as fit.
So what’s the take away?
If you really want to improve your fitness, stop thinking you need to do more. More isn’t better, better is better.
Focus on ramping the intensity of your training sessions up, not the amount of exercises you do in them.
Stop pretending you’re working hard by doing a lot at lower effort. Instead, learn to suffer a bit and bring some intensity to your workouts – It probably won’t feel nice.
Intensity doesn’t have to be lung busting stuff. It may be forcing yourself to maintain a position in your squat. 25 perfectly executed air squats will leave you with more positive adaption than 50 sloppy ones.
Be honest with yourself and where you’re at. Do you really need to accumulate 20km worth of rowing over the week or will 10km at higher intensity work better?
Research ways to increase intensity, less rest, heavier weight, better positioning, go faster etc.