By Michael Krueger
There are three basic factors to consider when designing a training program. Along with intensity and volume, there is frequency. You can’t push each of these to the maximum or you will burn out big time. You can push two and moderate the third and come out fine; but how do you program that, and what does that mean?
Most trainees have a personal preference among these factors just owing to their personality or lifestyle in general. Despite knowing what you like, knowing when to push ahead and when to back off on these factors can be difficult but is absolutely necessary to long-term success.
Misunderstanding or ignoring an issue with any one of them can derail an otherwise good program.
The Three Factors
How often per week “should” you work out? I can give you study supported data for any number you’d like. If six different people told me six different stories with six different goals, I could give them six good reasons to work out one to six days per week. Everyone is different, and that’s an important point to keep in mind going forward.
Most people don’t really consider their performance or progression when considering the frequency of their training. In a perfect world, progression toward their goals would be the motivating factor. In the reality, the driving force for deciding how often they train is dictated by their real life, everyday schedule. Most people have other priorities that beat out training, and they try to figure out how to get in a workout within that context. Sometimes that is the best they can hope for.
How hard “should” you work out? Once again, I could show you a lot of data on intensity. It is all over the place, just like the studies on frequency. There are recommendations calling for all out totally exhausting sessions and others that say never to go over 80% of heart rate maximum and always stay two repetitions short of failure.
People tend to train the way they “like” to. Some people like to feel exhausted after a workout, or they like the “pump” they get with hard training. There are lifting classes that use very low intensity, then there are Cross-Fit gyms and everything in between.
The popularity of spinning classes shows that high intensity is popular in aerobic training as well. But then again, the long slow distance marathon and ultra-distance competitors are also out there training hard but in a totally different way.
How long “should” you work out? Some people spend hours in the gym while others are the “get in and get out” types. I have never been a “gym rat,” although I have spent enough time in gyms to know that they do exist. Now that the big clubs offer food and smoothies, I think some people would never leave if they weren’t forced to.
Some people will train for multiple hours because they have determined that the activity in and of itself is a priority for them even if they can’t show that it’s what they need to progress. They just want to do it and that’s it. More specifically, for most people an hour-long workout is about the limit. Once again, it has more to do with scheduling than it does with effect on performance.
There is sort of an optimal number of times per week to train. Of course, it all depends on your goals, genetics, and lifestyle in general. It sounds like a copout, but that’s just the truth of the matter. To get this all figured out, you need to start somewhere, and figuring out how often you can actually commit to training is probably the best place to begin. Just be aware that it’s bound to change over time depending on how the other two factors play out and how important progress is to you. It’s complicated, and it can be confusing and frustrating; but it’s necessary to come to terms with this.
For most people, five times per week is the most I’d recommend. I do know people who get by on just one workout per week. They don’t progress and they don’t improve, but they get by and they train that way because that is the best they can do at this time. The most days I know of some one training right now is six times per week, and I doubt they are going to stay on that schedule for much longer; burnout is on the horizon.
To begin with, you determine your frequency by simply looking at your schedule and being realistic about what you can do. Then look at your goals and see if they are compatible with your schedule. Odds are, your schedule is less flexible than your goals, so you may have to temporarily adjust your goals. As difficult as that can be to accept, it may be necessary.
Volume includes not just sets, reps, miles, or meters but also how much time you can invest per training session. Your schedule will in many ways decide if you can spend an hour working out or only 30 minutes. If you need to travel to and from where you work out and if you need to change clothes or take a shower afterward, you may be talking about a couple of hours of time commitment even if you are only training for 45 minutes.
Once you know how much time you can invest in your session, you can plan your workout. While which exercises you do and how many sets of those exercises you do should be determined by you goals, most of the time this is not the case. Most people find that they like to do a particular rep range and only like to do certain exercises. Some people hate to do more than one set per exercise and would prefer to do additional different exercises instead.
Total volume also depends on your fitness level. If you need to rest a lot between exercises, or if you need to walk during your run, you won’t be able to do as much volume as you would if you could keep up your pace. This, of course, should improve over time, and when it does it will require additional adjustments.
Lastly, the intensity question arises. This is obviously intertwined with the other two factors. Once again, how hard you work should be determined by your goals but often is guided simply by how you like to train or how much time you have.
Some people are very social while training and their intensity suffers because they are taking a lot of rest time. Then this rest time plays into the total time they are spending “exercising” even though they aren’t really accomplishing much. This adds to the “volume” while reducing the intensity and overall just degrades the workout, but if that’s what they like, that’s what they are going to do.
Truly intense workouts are generally short workouts. So, if you are time crunched, they can be a very good way to train. What defines intensity depends on your current fitness levels and how hard you are willing to push yourself.
Hard, high-volume training can’t be done often, so it’s good for people who can only get into the gym twice a week. They also need to like pushing themselves to the limits of their endurance.
Frequent, high-volume training can’t be done intensely, so it’s good for people who have a lot of time, like to socialize while exercising, and don’t like feeling exhausted.
Frequent, intense training cannot be coupled with high volume. Because you’re going to be there for a little while most days, it’s a good training modality for people who have ready access to their place of training. They also have to enjoy doing one heavy set of a single exercise to exhaustion (like a power lifter) and then coming back the next day to do it again using a different exercise.
You Can Do It
By learning how to manipulate each of these three factors as needed, you will be able to create your own optimal workout program for any phase of your life. Understanding and accepting your lifestyle, personality, and goals and integrating them with those three factors are paramount to always having an effective program no matter what’s happening in your life.
Applying this knowledge will enable you to get into the gym and train the best that you can today, tomorrow …
…and for the rest of your life.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected]