The Only 4 Training Variables You Need to Plan Your Own Workouts
Programming for yourself can be a tricky business. It seems like there is an infinite number of variables to control and consider. But the truth is there’s not.
There are only four.
The Only Important Variables
The exercise itself, volume, intensity, and density are the only things that can be manipulated in a program. Every possible change you can make falls within one of those four categories. And for long-term progress, knowing how to change them, and when, can make all the difference. But it’s not rocket science once you understand the role each element plays.
So, aside from your given exercise, you have these additional variables:
- Volume is a product of how many sets and reps of a given exercise you do, as well how many times per week you do it (also called frequency).
- Intensity is a reference to how heavy you are training in comparison to what would be your absolute potential in that lift (often called a 1RM, or the load you could lift once and once only).
- Density is how fast you can lift your given volume in a workout - 100 reps done at a given load in thirty minutes is a less dense workout than the same reps and weight done in 28 minutes.
1. Exercise Selection
Back when the only training information you could find was a bodybuilding magazine, a lot of articles talked about muscle confusion. Muscle confusion was this idea that by using a different workout every time you trained you’d make more progress. The only problem with that idea is this little principle called SAID - specific adaptation to imposed demand. SAID says you get good at the things you do repeatedly.
If, for instance, you wanted to get really good at push ups and pull ups, you’re going to get better by making sure to do lots of push ups and pull ups in your training. See what I mean by it’s not rocket science?
"Don’t get fooled by so-called muscle confusion and think that you’ll progress faster by swapping your training around every session."
What SAID does is make you aware of the need for consistency in training. If the event you’re training for has running, then run. If it’s the RKC, then do the basic six RKC movements. If it’s military recruit training, then you need running and calisthenics. Don’t get fooled by so-called muscle confusion and think that you’ll progress faster by swapping your training around every session.
Instead of “mucle confusion,” think specialized variety. Specialized variety exercises are those that are similar to your goal, but just different enough to force some change. This is actually where people got the idea of muscle confusion, but then they took it a step too far. For instance, if my goal is to get better at push ups, I might integrate ring dips, push ups on rings, push ups with my feet on a box - anything that looks similar but isn’t exactly the same push up variation I’ve been working with.
Because kettlebells come in big jumps in size, and a few years ago came in only 8kg jumps, moderating volume and intensity with them is easy. Most guys will have a top weight for most exercises around 32kg. That is, they’ll be able to use the 32kg bells for most exercises, but won’t get a huge number of reps in. The 16kg kettlebells, on the other hand, will be nice and light and guys will feel like they can train with them all day long. Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes are the 24s. The 24s just end up being the Goldilocks bell for most guys, as they can do most things well for a decent number of reps.
"The goal of training is to improve, not test, and by allowing ourselves to have easy sessions with the 16s, we will give the body time to rest, adapt, and improve."
If we imagine the 16s are 50% of your best, the 24s are 75%, and the 32s are 100%, then we have an easy way to moderate intensity. Given that the average yearly intensity, even for elite strength athletes, is around 72% (+/- 2%) we can do the following:
If you train with 32s today, then train with 16s the next time you train, and 24s the time after. Even if you did the exact same workout, because you’ve changed the intensity, your body will respond differently. The goal of training is to improve, not test, and by allowing ourselves to have easy sessions with the 16s, we will give the body time to rest, adapt, and improve. That’s how supercompensation works.
The take home points with intensity are this:
- Follow every hard workout with an easy one.
- If you’ve got the stones to do hard workouts, then have the stones to be disciplined enough to do the easy days, too.
- If you train more than three times in a week, don’t add extra 100% sessions, add more easy and medium sessions to keep overall intensity around that 72% mark.
We can also make it far simpler to moderate volume than many would have you believe. The important thing to remember is that you won’t be changing volume and intensity at the same time - you only need to change one variable to force adaptation.
Note: For these examples, you would keep the weight the same. Using the above kettlebell examples still, and assuming the 32s are our limit bells, let’s also assume that five sets of five reps in a given exercise is our best effort.
If five sets is our best effort, and we remember that we need to follow our hardest workout with our easiest, then the next workout should be either 2 or 3 sets of 5 or 5 sets of 2 or 3. The reason is that if 25 reps is our best, then we can safely assume that 12 to 15 reps isn’t a huge challenge and will allow us to recover enough to adapt and push harder the next time we get to our hardest workout. In between the hardest and easiest workouts, we’d again have our Goldilocks sessions, which in this case would be something like 5 sets of 4 or 4 sets of 5.
"The important thing to remember is that you won’t be changing volume and intensity at the same time - you only need to change one variable to force adaptation."
Looking at the rep ranges, if we take 25 reps to be 100%, then the 12 to 15 of the light day is 48-60% and the 20 reps of the medium day is 80%. A week done in this fashion gives you an average intensity of around 78% - a little high, but close enough to allow you to keep progressing long term.
Changing density and waving the effort follows the same pattern. Let’s say that you typically use ten minutes as your goal time. Again, if we’re changing density, we’re only looking to change density while keeping the other variables the same. If you typically perform 50 reps in 10 minutes for your hardest session, then the following workout you’d do 25, with the medium workout having 35, for an average intensity of 73%.
No Recovery, No Improvement
What most people find when starting to use a system like this is that some sessions feel ridiculously easy, especially for those who turn every workout into a competition. But it’s those easy workouts that allow you to improve - without recovery there can be no improvement.
"The exercise you’re dong is the last thing you adapt to. So, while specialized variety can be a great way to inject fresh progress into your training, it is the other variables you should address first."
And because of the SAID principle, you will get better at the things you do. That means that active rest leads to better gains long term compared to full rest, or days off, as you’re adding exposure to the thing you’re trying to improve, but doing it in a way that doesn’t impair further recovery.
The odd thing about all of this is that it is the exercise you should seek to change last, not first. It’s intensity you adapt to first, followed by volume. The exercise you’re dong is the last thing you adapt to. So, while specialized variety can be a great way to inject fresh progress into your training, it is the other variables you should address first.
Programming for yourself isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s not rocket science either. Just remember:
- Allow yourself the easy days so you can adapt.
- Always follow your hardest day with an easy one.
- Spend more time on easy and medium sessions if you want to improve longer term.
More Like This:
- The 7 Laws of Training According to Dr. Fred Hatfield
- The Deload: The Path to Bigger, Faster, and Stronger
- Cross Training Doesn't Work
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
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