Techniques for Building Intra-Session Volume

There are various ways of defining training volume, from a quantifiable amount of stress, to the typical sets x reps x load (tonnage), or sets x reps (NL), or potentially the total amount of “hard” sets done. All these methods attempt to quantify work, such that a coach or an athlete can compare apples to apples between training approaches, or figure out how much total work to increase in order to continually progress. I don’t think the picture is clear on “x amount of additional volume will cause Y amount of training adaptation”, but at least the overarching idea is clear, that athletes need more volume over time to continually adapt.

Let’s pretend that we have an athlete who needs a fair amount of volume (defined totally arbitrarily). I will outline some methods of increasing volume outside two very obvious ways. What we are NOT considering:

(1) Doing more per-exercise sets in a single session. If you old session was 5x5, the new session could be 8x5. We would probably get at least some technique breakdown from accumulated fatigue and lack of focus by the 6th set. This is not ideal

(2) Adding another session per week. If you squat three days per week, this amounts to adding a fourth session on another day. This is a fantastic way to add more volume, but is more commonly known and will be excluded from the body of the article.  

Its important to note that the methods below are not mutually exclusive, that even the above two methods are totally fine, and this is just about expanding your toolkit as an athlete or coach by considering other options. You may find that one or more methods correspond to different psychological states…maybe a certain athlete responds well to the idea of working up to a top/heavy set before dropping the weight and doing more work. Or others of more warmup/ramping sets. 

(1) Top Sets and Drop Down Sets

ex. 2:

  • x 5 @8.5, fatigue 5%, set cap 5

(work up to a set of 5 at RPE 8.5 before taking 5% off the bar and continuing to do sets of 5. Perform no more than 5 backoff sets)

ex. 1:

  • 1 x 3 x 85%
  • 5 x 3 x 77.5%

 

 

Here, the athlete works up to a heavy top set first. This is great if we need to prioritize a certain intensity at a certain stage of an athlete’s training, but still need them to get in more sub maximal volume. The athlete gets to feel something heavy AND is able to perform their best at it because they don’t have accumulated volume-related fatigue built up. Then, the athlete drops the load down and continues performing more work, building total volume. I’ve shown both an autoregulated version and a percentage-based version above, but we can imagine looser guidelines as well, such as “work up to a heavy single, and then do sets of 5 until you feel form breaking down” or something like that. This still gets at the idea that we are prioritizing heavy work but also want to build total volume. 

(2) Work-up/Ramping sets

ex. 2:

  • 1 x 4 @7
  • 1 x 4 @8
  • 3 x 4 @8.5

ex. 1:

  • 1 x 5 x 50%
  • 1 x 4 x 60%
  • 1 x 3 x 70%
  • 3 x 5 x 75%

Athletes rarely ever jump straight into their working sets cold without touching the barbell and doing a few warmup sets, at the very least. However, one way of building volume involves forcing the athlete to “warm up” by following a specified loading scheme. Perhaps this is more work than the athlete normally does, and as such, we’ve got additional volume in their program. Its a further question what value (if any) the volume at 50% and 60% really has for the athlete, but I consider volume above that point to have real value for the athlete. By standardizing the warmups for the athlete instead of leaving it self-guided, you can build work capacity and total volume. In the first example, the athlete is performing an extra 12 reps before beginning their working sets, and in the second example, an extra 8 (but heavier) reps before their main work. 

(3) Pyramid Work

ex. 2:

  • 1 x 6 x 72.5%
  • 2 x 5 x 75%
  • 3 x 4 x 77.5%
  • 2 x 5 x 72.5%
  • 1 x 6 x 70%

ex. 1:

  • 1 x 5 x 70%
  • 1 x 4 x 80%
  • 1 x 3 x 85%
  • 1 x 4 x 77.5%
  • 1 x 5 x 72.5%

If we have already looked at drop down sets and we’ve looked at ramping sets, we can consider the pyramid just a combination of these two ideas. As we can see in the examples above, the amount of volume added is quite significant. The first example amounts to the athlete performing a 5 x 4 and the second amounts to performing an 8 x 5. Thats nothing to sneeze at! But unlike simply performing an 8x5, we get variation in load and a less monotonous training approach. Is it necessary? Surely not, but in some cases it is more well tolerated than simply giving straight sets. Note in the first example, only the reps and intensities are in pyramid (first ramping up and then back down), and in the second example, sets too are ramped up and then back down again. If you choose to use this method, be mindful of the accumulated fatigue, such that later in the pyramid, the athlete may not be able to handle the same loads they have earlier on (which is why, in this case, the drop-down intensities are lower). 

(4) Ragged Method

ex. 2:

  • 1 x 3 x 85%
  • 1 x 6 x 70%
  • 1 x 4 x 75%
  • 1 x 7 x 72.5%
  • 1 x 2 x 85%

ex. 1:

  • 1 x 7 x 72.5%
  • 1 x 4 x 80%
  • 1 x 8 x 70%
  • 1 x 3 x 82.5%
  • 1 x 5 x 75%

The ragged method was first introduced to me by the programming and writing of Boris Sheiko, who described it as better-tolerated in athletes than the pyramid. It is similar in volume and structure…as we can see in the examples above, there are detailed instructions of exactly what jumps in intensity to take, and how many reps to perform, but that the total amount of work done here is really a 5x4, or a 5x5 (average 5.4 reps in ex.1, and 4.4 reps in ex. 2). Maybe this helps an athlete avoid the monotony of straight sets. Looking at this plan, I get excited that the work is not static…it changes every set and there is a new challenge every set. We can see too that the volume built using this method is significant, and can be made more or less depending on the implementation by the coach or athlete.   

(5) Autoregulated Numbers of SETS with an RPE Cap (AMSAP)

ex. 2: 

Y x 3 x 90% 

ex. 1:

X x 5 x 75%

This is one of my favorites lately, especially in athletes with a lower training max on a specific lift. You fix the number of reps and the intensity, and instruct the athlete to continue performing sets until a designated RPE. You can also impose a maximum number of sets so that things don’t get too out of hand. The great thing is that it’s autoregulated…some days the athlete might go in and hit 5 sets, but with the same instructions manage 10 sets the next week. I find this is especially useful where the relationship between reps and intensity falls outside what “normal” athletes respond to. In females and bench press especially it seems athletes can tolerate massive amounts of training volume, and further that it might be a necessary step to progressing the bench press. This also is a useful method where you simply don’t know what an athlete is capable of. You might throw in an AMSAP (as many sets as possible) every few weeks until you see that they can tolerate generally 7x5x80% very well. That’s probably outside what normal athletes are capable of, and you might never come to that conclusion without pushing the boundaries every once in a while. 

(6) Splitting Up Volume with an Intervening Exercise

ex. 2:

  • Squat 3 x 3 x 82%
  • Bench Press 3 x 8 x 70%
  • Squat 4 x 3 x 80%

ex. 1:

  • Bench Press 3 x 4 x 77%
  • Squat 5 x 3 x 75%
  • Bench Press 3 x 5 x 75%

In each of the cases above, the total volume performed on Bench Press or Squat might be a 6x5 or 7x3 respectively, which might be too much to handle in a single bout. By splitting up the volume with another exercise and then coming back to the movement, you are a bit more well-rested and capable of managing the movement. Of course, this also makes the entire session last longer as you will likely have to warm up a second time for the second instance of the movement. This is a serious concern for the coach and the athlete. This is also a good method of incorporating training variation in the second instance of the movement. Maybe the athlete does deadlifting first, and then block pulls after an intervening exercise. Or bench press and then paused bench after an intervening exercise. 


The possibilities in programming are endless, and these are just a few more tools to add to your programming belt. 

Bryce Lewis1 Comment