When we think about gym related progress, we typically consider the load we are capable of lifting. Whether we are talking about a 10 rep max (RM), a 5RM, a 3RM, or a true 1RM, we tend to measure progress by improvements in strength.
And, ultimately, there is nothing wrong with this.
A direct strength measure (such as that seen in RM testing) provides us with a tangible measure of progress. As such it can give us a clear demonstration that the hard work we have been putting in is genuinely paying dividends.
Unfortunately, this train of thought can have some repercussions.
One of which is the way it can influence an individual’s perspective of progress. This results in the thought that the only way to progress is to throw more weight on the bar. This describes progress through increases in intensity.
Progressing through Increases in Intensity
By adding more weight to the bar, we increase the load we need to lift. This describes an increase in intensity.
Increasing intensity is one of the key ways we can make an exercise (or exercise session) more challenging, subsequently implementing the principals of progressive overload and allowing us to become stronger.
So say hypothetically we are doing 3 sets of 5 deadlifts as our main strength work, and to progress we add 2.5kg to the bar each week. As a result we continue to do 3 sets of 5, but the weight at which we perform it at increases. This elicits tangible improvements in strength, and follows the principals of progressive overloads perfectly.
But, unfortunately, this can’t go on forever.
Eventually we will hit a bit of a plateau.
During which, we may no longer be able to hit our prescribed number of reps. Or, we can hit them, but our form deteriorates badly after each rep, until the 5th rep looks less like a deadlift and more like a 7 car pileup.
This is when progressing through increases in volume can become extremely valuable.
Progressing through increases in Volume
By increasing the amount of volume we perform each session we are still implementing progressive overload into our training, but doing so in a different manner (without adding any weight to the bar).
So building on the above example, say hypothetically we do reach our current ‘upper limit’ in regards to exercise intensity. In this scenario, we can’t go any heavier because our form begins to break down significantly (which is obviously not a good thing). Rather than increasing the weight, we can start performing additional sets at the same weight.
So from 3x5, we can go the 4x5 the following week, and then 5x5 the week after that.
This allows us to progress by increasing the amount of volume performed at a given intensity each session (which can also trigger additional muscle hypertrophy). While this in itself is a form of measurable progress (we are undertaking more total work per session AKA progressive overload), it can also have another key benefit.
By increasing the amount of reps we are performing of a particular movement each session, we can improve our technical proficiency of that movement. As our ability to express strength relies heavily on the capabilities of our nervous system, this can lead to improved neural efficiency, and subsequently increased strength.
By allowing ourselves to improve our performance of a movement at a given weight through increase in volume, we can then set ourselves up for future increases in intensity (which we can now handle).
So using the above examples, we can manipulate increases in volume and intensity to elicit a solid training response. This might mean starting with a weight that we can perform for 3x5, and then adding a set each week until we can perform it for 6x5.
Once we master this weight at 6x5, we increase the weight (progressing through increases in intensity) while also reducing the volume back down to 3x5. We then start the process again with the new weight.
Which would look something like this:
Week 1: Deadlift 3x5 @150kg
Week 2: Deadlift 4x5 @150kg
Week 3: Deadlift 5x5 @150kg
Week 4: Deadlift 6x5 @150kg
Week 5: Deadlift 3x5 @155kg
Week 6: Deadlift 4x5 @155kg
Week 7: Deadlift 5x5 @155kg
Week 8: Deadlift 6x5 @155kg
Using both intensity and volume to improve we can set ourselves up for long term, sustainable progress, that is visible each session!