More isn’t always better. More and better training leads to better results, but if all you do is add a great deal of work very quickly then you’re going to hit a wall.
If you’ve read part 1 of the series on periodization, you’ll know that specificity and overload are the first requirements for improvement in any exercise program. This means that without these things, you’re left treading water endlessly, barely improving. By adding difficulty slowly and steadily over time, you can adapt to a greater level of activity and grow bigger and stronger.
But in part 2 you probably read about how adding a great volume of training isn’t always better. When you continually add sets, reps, and weight to your exercises you see additional growth and strength, but as you accumulate more and more volume you also accumulate more and more fatigue, which can mask your progress and throw off your ability to train further. Fatigue management becomes an important tactic, and taking occasional breaks known as deloads can help alleviate fatigue so that you can continue to improve.
What if I told you you could skip that whole process altogether, and never have to take a deload? Sounds perfect! Most lifters honestly hate taking time off, and just wish they could keep going without having to take a break. I know I’ve been one of those people in the past.
This can be achieved through the use of a process called autoregulation, which means that you’re altering the difficulty of your training based on your readiness for exercise on any given day. Autoregulation isn’t a necessity, but is an alternative to the traditional approach that allows you to dynamically alter your training load to avoid excessive fatigue buildup.
In general, a quantity of volume can be considered as too high for either of the two following reasons:
It compromises your short term recovery.
This means that it’s hard enough that it takes longer than normal to recover from, and as a result you aren’t fully recovered by the time your next workout for that muscle group rolls around.
For example, let’s say that you can normally do about 4 sets per workout in the bench press and you typically take about two days to recover. So you plan a system in which you bench 3x/week, every other day with 4 sets, for a total of 12 sets over the course of the week.
Now let’s say you up the number of sets per workout to 5. Now you’ve jumped from 12 to 15 sets per week, and this is a pretty big jump - just by adding one set per workout you’ve added an additional 1/3rd of volume above and beyond what you were doing before. You can’t recover as quickly, so now it takes your body about 3 days to recover from this level of volume.
This might be fine if your recovery abilities improve or if you drop to 2x/week training instead of 3x/week, but as it stands it takes longer to recover (3 days) than the time between your workouts (2 days). If you try to train again in 2 days, you won’t be fully recovered, your numbers will be off, and you won’t be able to progress as well as before. Thus, this has compromised your short term recovery.
It compromises your long term recovery.
Let’s say that you can easily handle 3x12 at 135lbs in the bench press one week. You feel good, so you add 1 set and perform 4x12 at 135lbs the following week. But the third week, you struggle even to hit 4x8 at 135lbs. What happened?
You were capable of doing 4x8 @135lbs, but for some reason you were not fully recovered by the following week. At this point, your recovery may catch up in the fourth week, allowing you to complete 4x12 @135lbs again, or better. If it doesn’t, a deload will prevent fatigue from continuing to accumulate, allowing you to catch up.
With that in mind, there’s a few different flexible methods and strategies you can use to determine an optimal volume by purposefully pushing your limits. These strategies can be used to monitor your recovery through autoregulation in order to pull back on volume as needed (or take a deload) when it becomes clear that you’re hitting a wall.
Add sets until you drop.
With this method, you’re testing the daily limits of your volume. For most people, this is about 2-6 heavy sets per muscle group, though of course it varies by muscle group. Find a weight that takes you to near failure on a given exercise and rep range. Then, perform sets with that weight and rep range until you start losing more than 1 rep per set.
For example, you choose 135lbs on the bench press and 10 reps as your target. You go 10/10/10 in the first 3 sets. So far so good. In the fourth you hit 9 - not bad, but a sign you’re probably going to fail soon. On the fifth set you hit 8 - so you stop doing more sets. At this point you know that 4 sets is probably the most you can handle in a single day. Repeat with each lift to determine your recovery in that lift. You can use this to structure future training and set the number of heavy sets per exercise per day, and you can also retest this monthly or every few months to monitor changes in acute recovery.
Add sets until it compromises weekly recovery.
In this method, you’re adding sets consistently across all training sessions until you see your weekly recovery tank, as in the example of long term recovery being compromised.
Let’s say you train the squat twice per week at 3 sets per workout, for a total of 6 sets, plus some lighter assistance work in the form of the leg press and leg extension. For a few weeks, you can keep your leg press and leg extension volume to be basically the same (not increasing sets or reps) and instead focus on adding sets to the squat itself. On the first week, 2 workouts of 3 sets each. On the second week, 2 workouts of 4 sets each. Repeat this process until you start to see your numbers stagnating, and then pull back and deload. You now know your weekly recovery rates, and can again use this to structure your own training.
Let’s say that you got to 6 sets per workout (for a total of 12 sets per week), but in the following week you were unable to complete 7 sets per workout for a total of 14 sets per week. This means that 12 sets per week is your functional upper limit in terms of how much volume you can handle. Now that you know this, you might set your weekly volume right at 12 sets, or maybe a little bit lower to be on the safe side. You can also now split those sets up however you want - 2 workouts of 6 each, 3 workouts of 4 each, 4 workouts of 3 each, etc.
This method takes longer to test with (usually about a month) so you may want to test it less frequently, say once a year or only at the very beginning of a training cycle.
Use drop sets to track changes in strength.
Another method I’ve often used well is the use of drop sets. We are capable of estimating a single repetition maximum (the heaviest weight you can lift for a single rep) by using a 1RM calculator.
The numbers aren’t perfect because every person’s individual work capacity will vary a bit. Women and endurance trained athletes will be able to perform more reps at any percentage but choke faster when approached with heavier weights, and strength trained athletes may be able to perform fewer reps at any percentage despite being able to handle much greater weights than their numbers suggest.
Say you were doing sets of 5 on the bench press at around 80%. Then, for your last set of the workout, you drop down to 70% and perform as many reps as you can before failing, probably somewhere between 10 and 12. This shouldn’t fatigue you as much since it’s just a single lighter set to failure, and you can plug the results into a 1RM calculator to track weekly changes in your theoretical 1RM. If you see your 1RM going down two weeks in a row, it may be smart to pull back on volume a bit or take a deload.
This method tends to work best with strength athletes. Typically, 1RM calculators work best with a 10RM or heavier, which corresponds to about 70-75% intensity and above. Those training for size might be working at closer to 60-70% intensity, so this isn’t truly a drop set and may be unnecessarily fatiguing. For strength athletes, however, you’re typically training at 75% or higher, so dropping back to 70-75% should always be easy. This method is also focused on changes in your 1RM, so it makes sense that it would work well with strength athletes, who train exclusively to increase that 1RM.
Use autoregulation and flexibility to determine volume load on a session by session basis.
This method is similar to those proposed by Mike Tuchscherer, who is known for applying autoregulation to strength training.
As you may know from looking into the 1RM calculator above, we can roughly guess how many reps a lifter can perform at any given intensity. An 80% intensity, for example, generally allows for about 7-8 reps max. Typical training is taken to near failure to reap best results, so you might be training with 5-7 reps per set @80% of your 1RM. This is the traditional method of ordering effective sets.
What if, instead, you purposefully do fewer reps than you really can? By performing sets of 3-4 @80%, you’re lowering the challenge and working further from failure. This may be an example of a lifter simply not knowing their limits and not appropriately pushing themselves. However, by greatly increasing the number of sets involved, you can also still get a serious and effective workout in. Normally you might do 3x5-7 @80%, but if you’re doing 6x3-4 @80% you’re getting in roughly the same amount of overall work while also allowing yourself to be a bit more careful about form and sensitive to changes in your current fatigue level.
This works well with a structure in which you have a flexible number of sets per week. You might allow yourself between 5-8x3-4 @80%. By allowing yourself to be more flexible on sets and reps, you can stop when you find form breaking down or fatigue preventing you from completing a full set. This allows you to perform more or less volume per workout depending on your readiness that day.
Monitor other methods such as grip strength, HRV, RPE, biofeedback.
Another method is to use some other form of external biofeedback. Biofeedback refers to the use of tracking some kind of metric derived from the signals your own body is giving you, and using those changes to monitor your current level of fatigue.
HRV refers to heart rate variability, a method in which you track changes in your heart rate from day to day. This allows you to get a long term look at your current stress and recovery levels, but unfortunately the equipment is currently pretty expensive, making it a less useful option.
Grip strength is a classic test. By using a grip strength dynamometer you can test your current grip strength. Studies have shown that current grip strength actually correlates very well with your current stress and readiness levels, so by tracking your grip strength repeatedly over time you can get a feel for your readiness. If you’re doing well on the test, push for more work that day. If you’re doing poorly, aim for less. This method is generally advocated by David Dellanave.
Another similar method is flexibility testing - by testing one stretch repeatedly, you’ll note that you’re a bit more flexible if you’re ready for a workout and a bit less flexible if you aren’t. This method may be less precise, but is extremely easy to implement.
RPE, or ratings of perceived exertion, is a method of assigning a subjective difficulty rating to your work. By giving a set a rating of difficulty between 1 and 10, with 1 being trivial and 10 being the absolute hardest set you can complete, you can measure how difficult your training is. This is often used in conjunction with a variable set method such as the one given in example 4 - if your RPE gets above an 8 or a 9, it’s probably time to back off. Reserve an RPE of 10 for less frequent work and important sessions like 1RM tests. Studies have shown that lifters are often very good at understanding and using RPE and get more accurate with it over time, so it can be a useful tool for organizing your training.
These methods aren’t perfect, and can take some practice to get used to. However, they can be rather powerful if you apply them in the right way, enabling you to regulate your training on the fly and avoid crashing or needing to take a deload.
- Periodization For Beginners
- Intermediate Periodization: Weekly Training Organization
- Intermediate Periodization: The Linear Periodization Trap
- Advanced Periodization: Phase Potentiation
- Linear Periodization Done Right
- Understanding Sets, Reps, and Intensity
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