Appropriate Intensity and Volume in the Gym
Why “More” Isn’t Always “Better”
Chances are that, if you’re reading this, you probably do not struggle with showing up for the gym. You do the damn work. You train often, and you train hard.
You have gym discipline.
At least, you have half of it.
You “do the hard stuff, even when you don’t feel like it… especially when you don’t feel like it”.
But, chances are that, if you’re reading this, you likely struggle with the other half of gym discipline: “sticking to the program, and not overdoing it when you feel good”.
While the vast majority of folks struggle with the first half of discipline (showing up consistently), many otherwise mature athletes struggle with the latter half:
Stick to the program
Follow the prescribed volume and intensity.
Prioritize recovery, rest, and make sure to live your life outside of the gym.
Stay the hell home on your (super necessary) rest day!
Listen: we get it. It’s so tempting to do more on days that we feel motivated and fired up. It’s so tempting to do just a couple more sets, a couple more exercises, or to push just a little harder than your program has prescribed for the day. It can be so tempting when you leave the gym feeling good to go home and lace up the running shoes for Workout #2.
These are the exact moments where gym discipline is absolutely paramount.
You might be thinking to yourself, “What’s the harm in doing a little extra? Isn’t that the whole point? That’s how the best of the best differentiate themselves from the rest: doing more.”
And you’d be right. Kind of. Let’s talk about it.
What Separates The Best From The Rest
Whether it was through coaches past or sports media, we’ve all heard how all the Kobe Bryant’s of the world got so damn good. They show up early, and they stay late. They work harder and longer than any of their competitors. They grind. Following their examples, it would make some sense to assume that – “the more work that I work, and the harder I work, the better results I’ll get. The more I put into it, the more I get out of it.”
But this can be a misguided and criminally misunderstood concept, especially amongst strength and endurance athletes. You see, Kobe Bryant wasn’t working himself to the bone, day-in, day-out. He just practiced more than anyone else on the planet. He wasn’t destroying his body in the gym, or doing countless suicide sprints. He was shooting free throws and practicing flawless layups. Over, and over, and over. He wasn’t working out. He was practicing. That’s what made a world of difference between him and the rest of the NBA. We refer to that kind of work as skillwork. In sport, skillwork is wildly important but it likely isn’t significantly impacting an athletes body or ability to recover.
Work in the gym has a different intent – Apply enough stress to elicit adaptation. For active folks like us, that requires harder work than your average gym goer. That also means recovery discipline.
Additionally, the highest-paid athletes in the world invest millions of dollars into recovery: nutrition, massage, hot and cold therapy, and no doubt some pharmaceutical assistance.
So if you truly want to improve skills and techniques, you need to practice, not beat your body to a pulp. You need to lean more into recovery inside and outside of the gym, and you need to apply appropriate intensities.
Intensity in the Gym
Lifting intensity can be simply defined as “one’s proximity to muscular failure during a given exercise”. A general rule of thumb that I personally like to assign is “two in the tank”. For example, if I were to do an exercise for 10 repetitions, I would select a weight that, gun to my head, I could only do for 12 repetitions.
Generally, two reps shy of failure for most of your strength/hypertrophy is perfectly sufficient to elicit most if not all of the positive adaptations we’re looking for, and any advantages that might come with training to true failure (“I couldn’t do another rep to save my life”) come with a much higher recovery cost. Strength gains can absolutely be made with intensities much lower than 2 Reps In Reserve (RIR), and for newer lifters, hypertrophy will come much easier as well.
Volume in the Gym
Volume, put simply, is “the amount of work one is doing within a training period”. It’s the number of sets times reps within a given training day, week, month, etc.
In my own training and coaching experience, and based on the scientific literature I’ve consumed, 10-20 sets per muscle group per week is ideal for most lifters.
Some more advanced trainees may benefit from slightly higher weekly volume, but the odds that you, the reader, fall into this category is, frankly, slim. That is how steroids and hormones work: They don’t inherently make you huge, they help you rush the recovery process and train hard again the next day.
So if you find yourself tempted to do “just a couple extra sets” for a particular muscle group that you want to grow, remember this: exceeding your ideal training volume might not only yield diminishing returns, but may actually inhibit and prevent the growth and progress for that particular muscle.
In short, stick to the goddamn program, and be patient.
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