Unraveling Definitions

No system of measuring training volume can tell you much of anything besides the broadest of brushstrokes about doing too little or too much work.

  • We don’t have any clear way besides arbitrary cutoffs to decide what exercises gets counted in the volume categories (leg press vs. barbell squat)

  • We don’t have any clear cutoff thresholds for counting the lowest possible intensity

  • You might be right about the training intervention but wrong about why it’s working

I’ve been optimistic about the reductionism of training decisions since I first learned about volume and intensity and saw graphs to visualize that data. On a dashboard overview in a coaches’ command center (in my head), there’s a bunch of graphs of things like volume and intensity over time, fatigue, changes in estimated 1RMs, frequencies, lift progressions. There’s this beautiful idea about being able to take the complex lives of athletes and their lived experiences and reduce it to numbers: numbers you can digest, quantify, and make decisions from. Uncertainty, be gone! Stand back, I am DATA MAN.

Unfortunately as I’ve learned in the six years since I had that vision, at best, tracking (even meticulously) moves us slightly closer to individualization some of the time. My first inkling here was that in bodyweight readings, daily weigh-ins are prone to a lot of noise from the changes to meal timing, sodium content, and fluid consumption throughout the day, not to mention what time you weigh yourself and when you last went to the bathroom, how much clothing you’re wearing, how accurately you use the scale. Body weights might go up and down over a single week in the range of 1-3%. Which, imagine if you were making nutritional decisions on a daily basis. It’d be the epitome of a yo-yo diet.

This is why it’s a better idea to look at weekly averages instead, or comparing weekly averages against each other. Or even biweekly averages to arrive at a trend of what’s really going on.

But the situation is just as volatile if we’re looking at training responses. We’ve got a few ways we can measure volume:

  • Tonnage

  • NL

  • Hard Sets

I remember trying to decide if I would count leg press as a squat movement or as an accessory, or whether I’d track supplemental lifts like close grip bench press along with the main lift or in their own category. In some athletes, leg pressing is some serious business and represents some of their main non-squatting work. It’s heavy, it’s high RPE, it causes fatigue, it causes adaptations. Where does that go? If we don’t include it, then by the numbers it doesn’t matter if it’s there or not. If we include it, it’s on a par with barbell squats, which doesn’t quite feel right. Is there a middle ground? I’ve had similar conversations with myself over barbell hip thrusts.

One of our major problems here is that that no matter how we slice up the pie of training volume, we’re really just making arbitrary cutoffs. Bodybuilders like to look at volume per body part. Okay cool, but what about dumbbell bench press, which simultaneously works more than one muscle group. Do you count it for both triceps and chest? For everyone? Maybe yes if the athlete is doing dumbbell bench press as a main lift, but not if they’re a powerlifter and we count it as an “accessory”. Did anything change but the label we applied? Not really. Powerlifters like to look at volume per movement group, divvying things up my looking at squat-like movements, bench-like movements, and deadlift-like movements. Where does leg press fit? Should sumo block pulls count the same as conventional deadlifts, even though an athlete might be able to handle way more weight on a sumo block pull? Or front squat, where the athlete handles less weight? At each of these junctures, a coach makes decisions with no consensus besides their best guess at what a movement is most like.

I think so many of us coaches remember learning about the Schoenfeld 2014 paper equating volume across different training styles and ingraining the “volume is the driver of progress” idea, but without really knowing what we meant by volume outside a simplified research context. If people only ever squatted, bench pressed, and deadlifted, life would be so much more simple and it’d be easier to call a rep a rep. As usual, things are more complex the deeper you look.

A look at intensity shows equal difficulties in wrangling a reliable definition. We could just keep it simple and look at percentage of an athlete’s one-rep max, but we know that at the same percentage, athletes have differing perceptions of difficulty based on muscle composition, lifting efficiency, experience level, genetic factors, gender, morphology, and so on. We could just stick with RPE and I think we gain some worthwhile ground by doing so, but where’s the low end cutoff for what’s counted? At TSA, we still think that RPE 5 and 6 stuff has merit in getting athletes stronger and regularly program work down there, even at rep counts that wouldn’t warrant much to write home about. But it matters how many reps we’re doing too…a set of 8 at RPE 8 has a different kind of feeling than a set of 2. That’s where measures like volume load and INOL come from, attempting to clarify a bit of what kind of work is being done. If we’re using load drops, we’ve got to shift to looking at the actual weight on the barbell again.

Does a maximal set of chest flies, even rep-matched, do the same for us as a machine chest press? What do we mean when we say “do the same”? Of course, we’re not outside the realm of science here. We can still run experiments and compare interventions to answer questions like these, in controlled, simplified studies.

And then there’s stress. Even if you managed a pretty concise or at least team-wide definition of volume, the experience of a person stressing over an upcoming test, sleeping less, having anxiety about bills, etc. Kudos to Mike Tuchscherer for running real trial and error here on methods of quantifying global readiness/stressors/fatigue. After a few conversations together, I learned that many of Mike’s efforts here didn’t result in actionable or even consistent information. I’m still optimistic we can get some broad trends here and I think I’m learning that simpler is better.

Here’s a few more wrenches to toss in:

  • Novel movements raise soreness and RPE for a few weeks

  • RPE changes based on what exercises you’ve done directly before (deadlifting after squatting vs. deadlifting as your first movement)

  • The same exact exercise has different fatigue responses in athletes. An efficient deadlifter is going to fare better than his 6’5” newbie counterpart.

  • Have fun accounting for accommodating resistance in a quantified way.

  • Strength is specific but sometimes lack of specificity is good, sometimes it isn’t.

  • Even the idea of reps being equal was put into question by recent ideas of exertion load, see Greg Nuckols’ response here and associated original formulations of the idea.

Individualization is truly trial and error and it’s a coaches’ goal to have some system for getting us there besides my new favorite method, rolling some dice for your sets and reps. These days I think about training responses more like turning on a gas burner under a pot of water. Turn it on for a minute and turn it off and there’s some associated change in the temperature of the water with a lingering increase and then decrease. I think more in probability and gradient rather than discrete quantity, more about trends and less about days or weeks. I’ve let go of some of that perception of control I thought I had and I’m far more okay with my own uncertainty and the messiness of biological processes, the imprecision of labels like “volume”, “effect”, “intensity”, “caused”.

This might be one reason for devolving the older periodization paradigms to an emerging strategies kind of start-with-a-fixed-microcycle way of training, but I feel like we’re still not closer to answering some of the above concerns, considering the variations in e1RMs, imprecision with block cutoffs, exercise labeling. I was really happy to have discovered the work of John Kiely and Matt Perryman, who began unraveling some of the things I took for granted, and for Mike T and others for continuing in that vein.

There’s not really a point here or a solution but if I had to leave you, dear reader, with one thing, it would be that biological systems and especially those on an individual level are complex. Exercises are complex, definitions that at surface level look simple are also complex. Once we accept that, we lose some dogmatism and maybe get a little closer to a path forward.

Bryce LewisComment