The Importance of Varying Training Intensity and Volume

Once you become accustomed to training and create a foundation based on consistency, it is very easy to fall into the trap that you must go “hard” every day in the gym. Many people, beginners and advanced athletes, feel as if they need to push themselves to the limit every day in order to benefit from their work. However, that is not the case. In this blog, we will discuss ways you can approach your training through the lens of intensity and volume, in order to maximize your gains.

Background- What happens if you train too intensely, or too much, every day?

There’s no better feeling than completing an extremely tough workout and laying on the floor, gasping for air, and feeling proud of emptying your tank. However, that should not be every day, whether you are training for strength, performance, overall fitness, or health. What happens if you train to failure or too intensely or too much every day?

  • Poor hormonal response – when you train, specifically strength training, the goal is to release an anabolic hormone response, which is the release of hormones that build muscle. When you are training too hard every day, you are putting your body under a lot of stress and not allowing it to recover, thus your cortisol levels rise leading to increased muscle protein breakdown (i.e, increased muscle loss).

  • Increased risk of injuries– when you train too hard every day, your body will respond with fatigue, achy joints, sore muscles, all leading to a decrease in performance. This is usually when injuries occur; people continue to push their body when it’s not ready for the high intensity. Physically, your body is not primed to handle the workload  and neurologically, your body is not ready either. Think of it this way– usually if someone competes in a difficult competition, it is encouraged that they take a few days off after, to allow the body to rest. If they jump back too quickly and go right into a few heavy sets of back squats, they will be putting a high risk to themselves for an  injury.

  • Extreme fatigue, poor recovery– no one likes being tired, especially when it impacts your normal life tasks. If you train too hard every day, your hormonal response will be altered suboptimally and your fatigue will shoot up. Some things that are noted from those who train too hard every day are: brain fog, difficulty carrying out simple tasks, poor recovery from day to day, poor sleep, and  negative changes in their menstrual cycle.

  • Stalling/lack of progress– more is not always better. When you are training, you are putting your body under stress and it needs time to recover from that stress. Training is the “undoing” and the rest/recovery/low intensity days are the days where the body is repairing and making gains– this is called supercompensation. Supercompensation is a wave-like process, where the person can handle the same, or more of a load, with ease in the subsequent workouts if recovery is part of the equation.  Someone may be able to squat 200 lbs one week, and the following week they may be able to squat 210 lbs with the same rate of perceived exertion if they recover properly; if they train too hard all the time and don’t recover, then the following week they probably won’t be able to squat the 210 lbs with the same level of effort. If you look at any sound training program, there are recovery days, low intensity days, deload weeks, and periodization/waves of variation of intensity from cycle to cycle.

  • Overtraining and  Rhabdomyolysis (aka Rhabdo) – these are extremes for someone who trains too much and over their limit. These are two things we definitely want to avoid, especially since it takes a while to recover from them and they can be life threatening.

    • Overtraining: “Prolonged maladaptation of biological, neurochemical, and hormonal regulation mechanisms”.

      • Symptoms: Decreased force production, increased sickness and infection, and chronically suppresses several physiological systems in the body.

    • Rhabdo: muscle injury where your muscles break down.

      • Symptoms: Weak muscles, muscle stiffness, muscle pain and a change in your pee color (dark or cola-colored).

How can you regulate your intensity?

  • Autoregulate as needed – you may have a perfect plan where your intensity varies throughout the week and it’s perfectly balanced for you, but not everyday you will feel perfect or as planned. There may be days where you are more tired or sore than expected, maybe you’re battling stress, or you had poor sleep– in these cases, it’s okay to go off plan and adjust as needed. Instead, adjust accordingly so that you can stay on track but also not jeopardize your health and body. For example, maybe your workout called for a 3-rep max back squat, but you feel fatigued from the training session the day prior; instead, adjust it to a 3-rep back squat to an RPE (rate of perceived exertion) 7, so that there is still some gas left  in the tank and you’re not burning yourself out. Life to lift another day!

  • Vary intensity through cycles – your training cycles can vary in length. Below are two different cycles, one that is hypertrophy/muscle-building focused (cycle 1) and one that is strength focused (cycle 2). Notice that within each cycle, the overall intensity varies from week to week but there is a deload week at the end of the 3-weeks to allow for recovery. Deload weeks are described in more detail below. Usually, to get stronger, increase fitness, increase muscle mass, or get faster, you will need to ramp up intensity progressively– you cannot just go too hard and/or operate at your limit from the beginning and attempt to maintain that throughout. You have to start moderate, and build from that to a high intensity, which should only last temporarily before you take a deload and run through it again.

    • Cycle 1 – accumulate volume, moderate to high intensity

      • Week 1 – 3×8

      • Week 2-  3×10

      • Week 3- 4×10

      • Week 4- Deload; cut volume by 50%

    • Cycle 2- strength focused, high intensity

      • Week 1- 3×5 @ 75% (avg)

      • Week 2- 3×3 @ 80% (avg)

      • Week 3- 1×5, 1×3, 1×1 @ 85% (avg)

      • Week 4- Deload

  • Take recovery and full-rest days during the week – not everyday is a hard training day. Some days should feel easy, some days should prioritize zone 2 heart rate work, some days should be focused on low impact exercise, some days will be more mobility focused…not every day includes sweating profusely, barbell movements, going as heavy as possible, and heavy breathing. This helps with the supercompensation effect, as mentioned above. Below is an example of an active recovery day:

    • 30 minute EMOM workout with the focus on moving at a zone 2/conversational pace. It should not feel difficult and should be done at a difficulty rating of 6/10 at most. Following the EMOM, there is a ~10-minute mobility session:

      • EMOM (every minute on the minute) x 30 minutes:

        • Minute 1: 40s row

        • Minute 2: 40s bike

        • Minute 3: 40s ski

      • Complete 3 sets of:

        • 5 box step downs/leg

        • 60s couch stretch/leg

        • 8 cuban press

        • 60s KB anchored thoracic extension

  • Take deload weeks – read more here: Telos Blog: Take Advantage of Deload Weeks

Whether you are someone looking for a good base of general physical preparedness or training for a specific goal, we can help you reach your goals with our sound programming and expert coaching. Click below to schedule your free intro!