Achieving Your Goals: Training Volume and Frequency
When we talk about ‘training volume’ in exercise physiology, we are usually talking about the total volume of weight lifted in a session (reps x sets x weight). That is pretty exact and give us a useful picture as to how much stress is put on the muscles. When we talk about high volume training, we are talking about sets with reps of usually 10. This is conducive to lots of muscle growth, especially for those using performance enhancing drugs (or PEDs).
Training frequency is how often you are performing said workout. These two concepts, volume and frequency, are the bread and butter of performance. Mess with any of those two things in the wrong direction and it doesn’t matter how fancy your programming is, the athlete will under perform.
Because I meet a surplus of women being lied to about what it takes to lose body fat and build muscle (aka: get ‘fit’ or ‘toned’), I also meet many women who constantly over work themselves into stress issues and eventually hormonal issues.
I want to say it loud and clear for those of you who are frustrated in their weight loss journey: You do not have to pound yourself in the gym, day after day, focusing on intensity, not leaving the gym until you are cover in sweat and only get one day a week to be a blob, in order to achieve your fitness goals.
Women often stick with the same female oriented fitness tasks that ultimately lead them to disappointment or frustration. Zumba classes will not bring you a physique anywhere close to that which resembles those on a fitness magazine. Body pump classes are good in theory but lack the instruction and mind muscle connection of weightlifting and pilates. Pilates lacks the ability to correct functional movement patterns and build bone density - both of which is very important for aging gracefully, maintaining independence, and overall health and healing.
There is nothing wrong with these activities other than the expectations people place on them. You should absolutely enjoy the fitness you do and those listed above are very enjoyable. If you are training to improve over all health, then you should also be training for strength and power. These are the first things to go as we age and the method of training that promotes bone density, muscle growth, and ultimately leading to calorie burn.
I understand shying away from weightlifting. It seems like an aggressive and complicated sport. Not to mention, you have to navigate gyms chalk full of sweaty men. And many women feel as if they should shed some of their femininity if they are to partake in aggressive sports. But the problem is, women are taught they must physically work too hard to catch their dream. Weightlifting is challenging, but it isn’t so hard that you have to grunt and scream and sweat and race five time a week.
The work is really in the mental side more than the physical. You need to be focused on executing only a handful of things - but you have focus on them frequently and with a but of determination and intensity.
Let’s talk about how you need to be focused. Firstly, pretend you are working from a blank slate. Just don’t think about anything you have read about exercise or fat loss. Let’s just talk about the basics.
There are four things your need in order to be successful. Do this for 6 months, put your body and brain on auto pilot for six months, make this a habit and THEN make a decision about what you are going to do next.
The most successful fit folks have a set time to work out on a regular basis. There is NO getting around this. If you workout and you got results, you were consistent. For those that are just starting out on their first workout ever, twice a week will make a big difference in your life. Try this for one to three months then step it up to three times a week.
If you are intermediate or even a seasoned pro, I recommend weightlifting four times a week. Yup JUST FOUR training sessions a week of 60-80 minutes. I have found this to be the most sustainable for everyone. Many of the most accomplished strength sport practitioners known to the podium stage work out this much. At a certain age and point in training, your recovery is more important than your workout. If you are lifting five days a week, drop those sessions down to 30-50 min
The four times a week plan is also so pleasant to follow if you have an important job, kids, social activities or other commitments or interests. Much past the age of 30, we start to pay for the choices we made in our 20’s. This is when hormone issues rear their ugly heads. If you were a hard charging kind of person back in the day, you might find that this ability to push through and beyond in your fitness and professional life is taking its toll on you and your emotional health.
In addition, four days a week will give you more room and energy to participate in other physical activities like dance classes, pilates, bike rides with the kids or the weekend hike. Organized lifting session five or six days a week often leave people too exhausted to do much else. Think about the urge to sit on the couch all day on your day off. This isn’t good. You want to feel refreshed, maybe a touch sore, energized, lighthearted, have space and desire to explore and live your life in your free time.
Low Cortisol Physical Activity
This is often under looked and HUGELY beneficial. Things like walking, dancing, taking the stairs make great impacts in your overall physical health. Remember the 10K step craze? Yeah, that's because you SHOULD be getting some walking into your daily routine .
Walking improves posture, mood, circulation and digestion. It can also be the space for great ideas and solutions to come to light. Walk during your lunch break, walk in the morning or walk right after dinner. Just frequent bouts of 20 minutes will do you good and make a big difference on the scale. This is also a great substitute for exercise when we miss a session. We feel sluggish when we are sluggish. Your best bet is to just walk, stretch and move freely frequently to break up stagnant energy in your body.
Outline a Plan
When you get to the gym, you need a plan. You will need a program if you have very specific goals but even if you are there for just overall health and fitness, you will need a plan.
Your plan will be the outline to your workout. Training splits are a great way to walk into the gym and be prepared. In the linked article, there are a number of training splits you can choose from.
If you are doing general weightlifting (or even training for a powerlifting meet), my favorite split is the four day deadlift/push/squat/pull. This means you are working upper body and lower body twice a week. It is also easy for nearly everyone to figure out! One day you are working on all pushing exercises (overhead press, push ups, chest press, tricep press, dips) and the next you are doing all deadlift and accessories (deadlift, single leg DL, hip thruster, step up). There are lots of overlaps of exercises on the leg days and some wiggle room depending on your goals.
This is my current split. Since my goal is to increase my squat to 250 lbs., I am squatting twice a week instead of having a deadlift day. But I am still doing the same deadlift accessories. This will ensure enough time with the squat to improve but still build lots of posterior chain muscle.
Congruent Eating Habits
Your nutrition has to be congruent with your goals. You can’t out train a bad diet. You get one cheat meal a week or two small treats if you are lucky. And this cheat meal can’t be a whole pizza and a box of cookies (I used to do it) because this will throw off your caloric deficit for the week. I’m not even saying you have to weigh and measure your food OR reduce the amount of calories you consume. But you do have to be conscious and aware of what you are eating, consistently choosing better nutrition for yourself.
People try to make good nutrition into rocket science. It’s just not that complicated. In fact the basis for good nutrition is painfully simple. It just takes more effort and time than people are willing to apply.
Check ingredient lists and start avoiding things with added sugars (chemical, artificial and real), vegetable/seed oils and soy products. Focus on whole, unprocessed food. Get an InstantPot or CrockPot and learn to slap a few high protein dishes together. Think ahead of time about what you are going to eat.
Just like lifting all of this takes time and skill but you will be much better for the effort. Your ego will delight in the fruits of this effort and challenge. At first it will be difficult with lost of slipping but when you start getting somewhere, you will be so proud and motivated. Just stay on task giving yourself grace but not excuses.