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Training principles: Volume, frequency, and intensity



Staff Member
Aug 11, 2010
The most basic principle, from which everything else flows, is that your program is determined by your fitness goals.

I cannot stress this one enough. No one can (or at least should) tell you what sort of training program you will follow if they do not know your fitness goals. A sedentary person just looking to get into better shape will not train like an intermediate bodybuilder interested in adding muscular body weight, and neither of these people will train like a powerlifter who is only interested in strength gains.

Progressive resistance weight training.

There is a finite amount of productive work you can do in a single workout. Remember, the stress you place on your muscles with resistance training tears them down on a molecular level. The workout itself is destructive. It is your body's native ability to adapt to the stress you place on it with weight training that makes you stronger and bigger over time.

Training volume and intensity operate together to create stress which in turn damages the muscles and triggers the body's adaptation process

Quick illustration of your body's ability to adapt to slight damage from an external stressor.

You hoe in your new garden a half hour a day, 4 evenings a week after work. You don't use gloves. At the end of the Summer you find you've developed calluses all over your palms. Your body reacted to the slight irritation from the wooden handle by creating thick, hardened skin over the damaged skin.

You hoe in your new garden 8 hours a day, two days in a row one weekend. Monday morning your hands are blistered so badly you can't hold a pen. The stress you placed on your hands from the wooden handle of the hoe overloaded your body's adaptation system.

The body's ability to adapt is why progressive resistance weight training works to make us bigger and stronger, rather than just progressively weaken us.

Training volume

Very simply put, volume is sum of the number of sets and reps performed for a given muscle group. You'll hear a huge variation in the amount people claim is productive. Generally though, smaller muscle groups like biceps need less volume to stimulate adaptation (either strength or growth). Larger one like quadriceps need more. Low volume might be a single set of 8 reps of bicep curls, whereas high volume might be 10 sets total (or more) for biceps.

Higher volume training tends to be more effective at triggering muscular size increases, while lower volume tends to encourage more strength gains. (The hows and whys of this are beyond the scope of this thread)


Intensity is the degree of stress you place on the muscle within a given time period, usually one set. Working a muscle group with x amount of weight to the point it cannot perform another rep without altering the exercise form or rate of speed is momentary muscular failure. Curling 45lbs with a barbell 8 times and only being able to curl it halfway the 9th time is MMF.

Intensity can be substantially increased with rest/pause and forced reps. Waiting just 5-15 seconds so that you can do a 9th rep or having a partner give you just enough aid to do a 9th rep pushes the muscle group beyond MMF. Intensity goes up.

But then volume should go down.

You can do 5 sets for bis, first 3 sets to just short of MMF, then the last two to MMF, OR you can do 2 sets to MMF with two R/P reps added onto the end of each, BUT you cannot do both without changing training frequency.


Obviously we're talking about how often you work a given muscle group. It will be dependent upon your training volume and intensity, both of which flow from your identified fitness goals.

Generally you want to train more frequently if your primary goal is muscular size increases. Less frequent workouts would be appropriate for a trainee principally interested in strength increases.

Training frequency should go down as training volume and/or intensity goes up. Remember, the calluses vs the blisters? Training every 3-4 days might be appropriate if you only do one set to MMF per bodypart, but would not be ok if you did 8-10 sets per bodypart.

Putting it all together.

Training volume, training intensity and training frequency are all interdependent. You need to consider them all and understand their relationship to one another when planning your program. Not doing so can either lead to undertraining or overtraining.