The Overarching Training Principles & Variables

Written by: Josh Bradshaw, MS(c)

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Think back to a time where you first started looking for training guidance. Whether it was to break a plateau, build bigger arms, or develop a stronger squat, you likely didn’t have to look very far to see how many different methods were out there to choose from. With every fitness influencer, celebrity trainer, and IG model claiming their methods to be ‘the best’, how do we make a decision and where do we start? Well, the good news is that with everything training and nutrition related, each viable method produces results for the same underlying reasons: principles. There are foundational principles that lay the groundwork for every sound training plan. 

Fundamentally, methods are what you see practiced on a day to day basis: the routines, programming strategies, etc. and are used to achieve a principle.

Where methods are many, principles are few.

The Overarching Training Principles

The principle of specificity states that the type of physiological demand placed on the body will determine the emerging adaptation (commonly referred to as the Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID) Principle). Essentially, if you want to get really good at something, your training should look like that ‘thing’, or at least stress the underlying systems involved.

A study done by Rossi et al. (2018) demonstrated this principle (1). They divided their subjects into three groups: 

  • Group 1: all sets done with the squat
  • Group 2: all sets done with the leg press
  • Group 3: ½ sets done with the squat, ½ leg press

Every other variable was held constant between groups. At the end of the study, they tested each subject’s squat strength and made comparisons to their baseline strength numbers. You may be able to guess their results.

Without getting super nitty-gritty with statistics, the group who only squatted gained the most strength in the squat. If you want to get better at squats, you should squat often. However, all three groups improved their squat strength from pre to post, even the group that only did leg presses. This indicates that specificity exists on a continuum. It is not an all or none, on or off switch. More so, it reflects how close your current training is to your desired outcomes.

Here’s an idea of what this would look like for a powerlifter:

From “The Pendulum of Specificity in Application” by Jordan Feigenbaum, MD, MS, — barbellmedicine.com

As a powerlifter’s goal is to lift as much weight in the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift, this makes sense. If you are training to be as strong as possible, we know you need to experience high intensities and get sufficient practice with the movement on a semi-frequent basis as strength is a skill. Gaining strength in high rep ranges isn’t as effective for developing maximal strength, it is rep range specific (2).

But what would this graphic look like for hypertrophy training? I’m glad you asked, because here’s where things get interesting.

The occurrence of hypertrophy is much more of an architectural change in response to demands placed on the body, more specifically, skeletal muscle tissue. Of all training goals, hypertrophy is the most forgiving adaptation and requires the least amount of specificity. It can result from various loads and rep ranges (more on this to come).

The next two principles are interrelated and can be considered sub-principles of specificity. Overload generally refers to methodically increasing the difficulty of a training session with the intent of stressing the body at a higher level than it is accustomed to. Although the most commonly known application would be adding weight to the bar, you will soon see there are many ways to achieve this principle. Overload is usually applied in an acute sense, where progression is concerned with the long-term, systematic and gradual increases of stimuli.

Adapted from Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 4th Ed. (Haff, 2016)

As an aside:
This is something I would really like to get across… It’s important not to be dogmatic and attach your identity with ‘how’ you train. Before thinking there is one ‘best’ method, focus on achieving the overarching training principles, whatever your method, and you will be well on your way. There are many roads to Rome.

The Application of Training Principles — Acute Training Variables

Within every program, every logical method used involves “acute training variables.” These include things such as training volume, exercise selection, training intensity, rest periods or density, training frequency, exercise order, and others. In this installment, the primary focus will be on volume, intensity, and frequency.

To make sure everyone is on the same page, here are some definitions of terms we will be using:

  • Volume: the amount of ‘work’ done, typically quantified by the number of ‘working sets’ done, also referred to as ‘volume-load’ in the literature (sets x reps x load)
  • Intensity: this variable determines the ‘type’ of adaptation and can be quantified in two ways – intensity of load/a percentage of a 1RM (absolute intensity) or an intensity of effort/proximity to failure (relative intensity)
  • Frequency: the number of sessions in a given time frame, or the number of times a certain body part is trained

These variables are key components of every training program out there (yes, even the bad ones). It is important to note that your training volume, intensity, and frequency are not mutually exclusive; each one of them are interrelated with the other two and by manipulating one, you will automatically change the others to a considerable degree.

The V-I-F Relationship

When we examine the mixed research findings on hypertrophy, we can really see how the big three V-I-F are intertwined. In 2017, a meta-analysis by Schoenfeld and colleagues found ≥10 sets to be superior to 5-9 sets per week for muscle growth (3). It was proposed that a dose-response relationship exists between volume and hypertrophy. Later, more data began to surface in favor of such a relationship with Schoenfeld et al. (2019) reporting the greatest hypertrophic outcomes (for some body parts) when performing 45 sets per muscle group per week (4). At this point, many people fell into a ‘more is better’, black or white mentality. 

Interestingly, other papers such as Ostrowski et al. (1997) and Aube et al. (2020) did not support this theory (5,6). Both observed a main effect of time (meaning every group using different amounts of volume grew), but no statistical significance between groups (meaning no single condition was superior to the others; they saw similar average responses). Another study done on “German Volume Training”, Amirthalingam et al. (2016) found 10 sets per exercise to be no better than 5 sets per exercise (7).

Conflicting results are nothing new in exercise science. Regarding training volume, this has been a recurring theme for some time now. It’s important to know that individual studies are not designed to tell you how to train, rather they are constructed to answer a question and gain a better understanding on how an independent variable such as volume may impact a dependent variable like muscle hypertrophy or strength. With that in mind, a careful analysis of the methodology must be done to get a clearer picture of their findings and make a sound interpretation.

So can we say more sets is better or worse? What should we think about the proposed dose-response relationship?

Let’s take a look at the details…

These findings are confounded by how each study organized the training stress. Schoenfeld’s 45-set study utilized a full body, 3x/week frequency, while the Ostrowski and Aube studies used a 2x/week frequency. Should every study utilize the same amount of weekly sessions, these observations may not have been as contrasting. Sure, even if we increased/decreased the number of training sessions, the total work done at the end of the week would be the same. However, manipulating your training frequency can be the difference between practical (but still challenging) sessions and overkill. For example, 45 sets per week split up over three sessions would be much more doable (and higher quality) than trying to get all the work done in one or two sessions. 

These conflicting results are demonstrating a clear interaction between the big three training variables.

Here is a good way to think about things…

Imagine you’re cooking meals for the next few days and you throw some chicken in the oven. In order to cook it properly, the temperature has to be high enough and the food has to cook for a long enough (but not too long). In this analogy, the set temperature is equivalent to your training intensity and the duration is like your training volume. If the temperature is set too high, the food is burnt. If you let it sit too long, it’s still burnt. The more you cook, the better you get at fine-tuning the temperature and duration to get the perfect results. Likewise, there is a sweet spot that you need to find for your training. 

But what about frequency? Well, we can think of that as how many times per week you choose to make food. If you know you can only make 10 meals from this specific batch, it comes down to how many days you like to cook, how fresh you like your food, and preferences.

Hopefully that made sense…

From the time I was first exposed to an evidence-based training approach, I would say the most significant lesson I’ve learned is the importance of making educated decisions based on the highest quality of data. From there, anecdotes and observations can guide individual/personal adjustments. This applies to many things in and out of the gym.

Regarding meta-analytic data on these training variables, the following suggestions can be made (for hypertrophy):

  • Volume: 10-20 sets per body part per week
  • Relative Intensity: ~3 reps in reserve or less
  • Absolute Intensity: any (60-80% is generally the most time-efficient way to accumulate required volume)
  • Frequency: 2+ sessions per body part per week

As you can see, this is a VERY broad range. This is acknowledging how individual differences play such a large role in strength training. Over the course of your training career, you will have to experiment with turning the dials (or doing the cooking…haha) on each of these to find the optimal setting for yourself.

Finding proper organization will be key to long term success. In Part II, I will go over strategies to find an optimal frequency and tools to use to better organize your training. Stay tuned!

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment below or contact me via email – JoshTBrad@CompetitiveBreed.com

References

  1. Rossi FE, Schoenfeld BJ, Ocetnik S, Young J, Vigotsky A, Contreras B, Krieger JW, Miller MG, Cholewa J. Strength, body composition, and functional outcomes in the squat versus leg press exercises. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2018 Mar 1;58(3):263-70.
  2. Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of low-vs. high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2015 Oct 1;29(10):2954-63.
  3. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of sports sciences. 2017 Jun 3;35(11):1073-82.
  4. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, Grgic J, Delcastillo K, Belliard R, Alto A. Resistance training volume enhances muscle hypertrophy but not strength in trained men. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 2019 Jan;51(1):94.
  5. Ostrowski KJ, Wilson GJ, Weatherby R, Murphy PW, Lyttle AD. The effect of weight training volume on hormonal output and muscular size and function. Journal of strength and Conditioning Research. 1997 Aug 1;11:148-54.
  6. Aube D, Wadhi T, Rauch J, Anand A, Barakat C, Pearson J, Bradshaw J, Zazzo S, Ugrinowitsch C, De Souza EO. Progressive Resistance Training Volume: Effects on Muscle Thickness, Mass, and Strength Adaptations in Resistance-Trained Individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2020 Feb 13.
  7. Amirthalingam T, Mavros Y, Wilson GC, Clarke JL, Mitchell L, Hackett DA. Effects of a modified German volume training program on muscular hypertrophy and strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2017 Nov 1;31(11):3109-19.

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