Volume/Intensity/Frequency Relationship in Strength Training

Reg Park - Strength Training LegendVolume, intensity, frequency. The basics of proper programming in strength training. Obviously, if your program doesn’t deliver results you expect, then you screwed up in one of these three. Of course, assuming that you already made training resistance progressively harder over time. Seems that people nowadays have no idea how to find right and, importantly, proper balance between volume, intensity and frequency. So if these three strength training variables are so important, then how can you mix them right? This article will explain you how. But at first you need brief overview of what volume, intensity and frequency are.

Training Volume

In couple of words, training volume is amount of work done. It can be measured in different ways. For example, training volume can be estimated in total reps per exercise, in total amount of sets per training session, in total amount of weight lifted in exercise per training session, in total amount of sets or reps per day or per week, or per year etc. Proper training volume is regulated by recovery ability of the person and his/her goal. If your goal is pure strength or sparing strength and muscle during calorie deficit, then you need less volume. If your goal is to build muscle, then you definitely need more (and some individuals grow only if you add even more volume than that). Most of bodybuilding routines nowadays are plain old high-volume training.

Training Intensity

Training intensity, in layman terms, is how hard you train. In words that are more scientific, it is the percentage of your 1 repetition maximum. The closer your working weight to 1RM – the harder you work, the higher the intensity, the less reps you will be able to perform in set, the more time you’ll need to fully recover between sets, the less total sets you’ll be able to perform etc. Intensity is very important in gaining strength as well as in building muscle, as well as in sparring muscle during calorie restriction diet. It should be kept pretty high if your goal is pure strength and/or getting ripped. However, if your goal is building as much muscle as possible you need a bit lower intensity to allow more volume.

Training Frequency

Training frequency is how often you perform certain move, practice certain exercise or train certain muscle. Frequency can be high and low. High frequency means at least 3 times per week, but usually even more. Low frequency is no more than 2 times per week but usually even less. Well, there’s no hard rule on this but in my opinion such classification is not far from the truth. Frequency is great for neural adaptation. This means that it’s great for building strength and skill. Also it’s pretty good for building muscle as you get stronger faster while adding more total volume. For fat loss it’s probably not the most important variable.

Volume, Intensity and Frequency Relationship in Strength TrainingVolume, intensity and frequency relationship in strength training

How to Mix Them Properly?

As you can see from picture above, training volume, intensity and frequency are mutually exclusive variables. The more you increase one of them – the less should be two other. This means that if you increase the volume, then your intensity and frequency should go down for you to be able to progress. As well as if you increase frequency, then intensity and volume should go down. You got the idea.

Why is it so? The answer is recovery. To progress you need to recover between training sessions. In other words, if you don’t do more reps or sets, or perform harder exercises, or lift heavier weight, etc. from session to session (or at least several sessions per month if you’re at intermediate level), then you’re probably not recovering between them. In such case you need to decrease one of the variables (or all of them) and see how you doing. You will probably need to do this until you find the right amount of each variable individually for you. One tip: if you need to lower one of these training variables, I would go with volume first and intensity and frequency second.

In my experience, most of the people progress nicely on low volume high frequency programs. On the other hand, high volume low frequency mid intensity programs work with much less success. And by the way, the same goes for deloading. I would rather do less reps or less sets with heavy weight to deload than the same set-rep scheme with lighter weight. It seems former actually refreshes you, while latter makes you weaker. But that’s just experience.

Well, when you’ve found out what volume/intensity/frequency mix is optimal for you to recover and progress, you can experiment with variables to get different results. You can lower the intensity, increase the volume and frequency and see what this will do for you. For example, instead of bench pressing once a week do hundreds of push-ups every day. Or you can increase intensity and lower volume and frequency. For example, instead of squatting moderately 2-3 times a week do a heavy max effort session once every 10 days and see what this will do for you. Of course, you need to understand one thing: you need to find a “sweet spot” in volume/intensity/frequency mix. How do you know whether you’ve found it? Easy. You should progress to heavier exercises, more weight, do more reps and/or sets etc. That’s how you know it.

Closing Thoughts

Strength training programming isn’t rocket science. It’s pretty basic in nature. You need to understand several things and you’ll be able to reach you goals. And training volume, intensity and frequency are those things. If your program doesn’t work, you should check these training variables (or let someone else do this dirty job). Simple as that. Thanks for reading. You would do me a favor if you share my stuff to your friends. Feel free to contact me through roughstrengthmailbox@gmail.com.

Play rough!

Alex

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45 thoughts on “Volume/Intensity/Frequency Relationship in Strength Training

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  7. phil

    just wanted to say a heartfelt thanks for this excellent and rare high-impact article. which i have been digesting and implementing over the course of this summer and which has done wonders to re-align my training focus. i’m 48 yrs old and at this age, in order to keep my metabolism cranked up and to energise/freshen myself up for the day ahead, i find that training daily six days per week works best for me (5x calisthenics/1x weights), first thing in the morning in a fasted state. however, i was regularly hitting some kind of invisible wall or plateauing-off all too frequently and knew it had something to do with how often and how much i exercised, yet couldn’t quite put my finger on it and define the problem in precise analytical terms. your article has spelled out clearly the interplay between the various approach variables to exercising and i’ve now been able to define and adjust my training to a level where it’s now mainly a matter of fine-tuning the intensity level to find that sweet spot while constantly maintaining an inverse relationship between frequency and volume. it’s taken a bit of a mental re-adjustment to tone down the volume, but was surprised at the advances in technique and strength i have made since. great stuff, thanks again and good luck with your excellent site!

    Reply
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  13. Carlos

    Hi Alex! I just discovered your blog and it has pretty awesome knowledge, I want to thank you for sharing it. I stumbled upon your blog reading an article you wrote for “my mad methods”, about training with calisthenics with High Frequency. I really like the idea of training 5 / 6 days a week. Have you any written any other article about this type of regimen? I still have some doubts, like the volume in sets and reps (aproximatedly) for each day and if it’s counterproductive train pullups (or pushups, whatever movement you like) everyday or it’s okay just with doing different variations every session. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Hey, Carlos. Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I have such article. Here you go: One Skill a Day Program

      Regarding doing the same exercise every day, I had success with such approach. Check this article out. It has some answers to your question. However, I feel that variety will work better most of the time. You can read my thoughts here and here.

      Stay tuned, man.

      – Alex

      Reply
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  16. ZH

    Hey Alex,

    Just found this article of yours. I initially contacted you for advice, but never got around to linking up with you.

    This article really places into simple terms, what should and is a simple but critical understanding of programming a workout, but so many people can’t put across simply.

    Reply
      1. ZH

        Hi Alex, yeah, got caught up in work, then correcting some of my form. Still, I plan to chat with you at some point, still your articles are really great especially since I really agree with your approach to working out!

        Reply
  17. Simon

    hey man, i got a question. i’m 15 years old and i’m trying to make a training program. i hear that the best beginner split is 3 full body workouts a week. That means the frequency is pretty high right. And i want to train for strength and performance, not so much for mass. I’m thinking of doing sets of 5 reps. so that makes the intensity relatively high. So with the frequency and intensity pretty high, the volume most be pretty low. But how low? how many reps a week for each muscle group is optimal. I don’t want to overtrain nor undertrain. whats the optimal volume for my goal? thanks!

    Reply
      1. Simon

        thanks man! and just a random question out of nowhere. It’s about progressive overload. instead of increasing the weight. Can you just decrease the rest between sets and get the same results? just something i have been wondering.

        Reply
        1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

          Simon,

          In regards to progressing forward – yes. If we are talking about getting stronger and bigger, then theoretically – yes; practically – you never know until you try.

          – Alex

          Reply
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  22. Keith

    Would you say that this formula applies to all forms of resistance training? That is, if I did say 3 varying workouts a week with (heavy) kettlebells & sandbags instead of free weights, would that still be considered high frequency? And since I’m using KB’s & SB’s, should I assume its high intensity?

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Keith,

      In short, yes. Resistance is resistance. If you are interested in gaining strength with KBs and SBs, treat them the same as barbells and dumbbells. If you are into calisthenics, remember that for the majority of advanced exercises, you need to add “skill” to the equation.

      – Alex

      Reply
      1. Keith

        Thanks for getting back. I’m afraid I don’t follow the last part about “advanced exercises” and what you meant by adding skill. I’d appreciate if you could elaborate.

        Reply
        1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

          Say, you want to get stronger in the Planche position. Experimentally you find out that you can consistently get stronger doing a volume of 30-60 seconds once a week at high intensity. At this point, the equation seems to be correct, but in several weeks, you find out that you don’t progress well. This happens due to lack of skill work. In this case, all you need to do is either to implement HLM work, or to use “Grease the Groove” method (just google it).

          The situation I described is relevant to almost all advanced bodyweight/gymnastic skills.

          – Alex

          Reply
  23. Carlos

    Great post Alex. However, I think it’s more useful to look at volume in a macro scale (how much volume are you lifting per week, month, or better yet per training cycle). So if your looking big picture, volume would equal reps+sets+weight+frequency. So in reality you only have two variables: intensity and volume.

    Reply
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  25. Nick Cipriano

    This is a great article! I do have a question on this however, how would training to failure have an impact on volume/intensity/frequency? Would that imply higher “intensity”?

    For ex.
    High frequency/high volume training higher reps to failure? is that viable?

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Nick,

      Well, training to failure has its benefits. However, it is very demanding on your nervous system.

      You won’t be able to do high volume while training to failure. And you probably won’t be able to do high frequency.

      – Alex

      Reply
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