Turn Up the Volume: The Issue of Sustainable, High Volume, Powerlifting Programming

TAGS: motor pattern efficiency, Kyle Keough, high volume training, rate of force development, increasing strength, overtraining

First, here's a bit of context regarding this article on high volume training. Over the last few months, I've been dabbling in higher volume training for both my squat and bench press. Additionally, I’ve been training my deadlift regularly. Yesterday, I sat down and charted the total number of bar lifts (NBL) at different intensity ranges over the past thirty days, and I found that, between the big three lifts, I had logged the following number of attempts:

  • 70–79%, 503 repetitions
  • 80–89%, 417 repetitions
  • 90–100%, 13 repetitions

In the wake of the first few (successful) months of this new training methodology, I’ve been fielding questions regarding high volume training and its sustainability. One question that comes up regularly is “how do I know when I’m ready for high volume training?” This is a massive question, so I’ll divide it up into two more manageable sub-questions.

Question 1:

“What constitutes physical and psychological preparedness for high volume training?”

Answering this question necessitates that we first examine high volume programming and delineate the attributes that are most useful for a lifter in being successful with this approach. If you’re going to run high volume programming indefinitely (i.e. for longer than a single three-week cycle), the following must be taken into consideration:

  • Your ability to recover: This goes without saying and it includes an uncommon commitment to recovery and your work capacity. For most people, this is only attainable psychologically once there is something “at stake” in their training. Most casual trainees won't willingly eat a particular diet, go to bed early every night for a full night’s sleep, remove stress inducing aspects from their lives, or do all the necessary preventative/recovery work to maximize their training because such things require a strong investment in the direction of their training. So, high volume training will require a psychological investment in recovery. Now, one’s work capacity takes years to develop, which is why most lifters on high volume programs have considerable experience. Surviving the myriad potential overuse hiccups of such programming is made easier through lots of experience. This is true at a physiological level when you start to talk about tendon and ligament strength, bone density, and other things. Whether you believe in neural fatigue or not, the more a lifter is already acclimated to a particular volume of work, the less likely that lifter will feel “burned out” (whether for neuromuscular or simply psychological reasons) by an increased workload.
  • Your technical proficiency: If a lifter’s technique regularly breaks down in a fatigued state, one of two things will likely happen when training with high volume—the lifter will either work through and develop his technical weakness until it is no longer apparent or (more likely) the lifter will get hurt. Very generally speaking, only two types of lifters can perform a near maximal attempt without any technical breakdown—absolute beginners and absolute veterans. The rest of us are more than likely dealing with some amount of disproportionate development in either muscle group strength or our strength curves, and this disharmony among strengths and weaknesses makes us less technically proficient as lifters.
  • Your technical efficiency: Efficiency could refer both to motor pattern efficiency and rate of force development. Advanced lifters perform movements in a fast and efficient manner, and I believe that this, in turn, makes recovery easier for them because they don’t accumulate the same level of fatigue, and that fatigue is evenly proportioned throughout major muscle groups. Take a slow squatter who does good mornings out of the hole and run a high volume squatting program. That lifter’s lumbar will likely be fried early in the program. Fatigue accumulates, which causes the performance of the good morning to become more severe and leads to more disproportionate fatigue absorbed by the lumbar. This leads to even slower, grinded reps and so on. Lifters like this, from the logs I’ve read, either mysteriously catch their second wind toward the end of the program and realize the fruits of their labor or they get hurt. Most intermediate lifters have obvious weaknesses in their strength curve or become good at grinding out weights. I’m not the most experienced lifter, but my RPE@9 sets on the squat, bench press, and deadlift look very different from other intermediates in that I don’t suffer the same level of slowdown or technical breakdown. That isn't to say that my technique is perfect on these lifts, but I’m at least consistently bad in certain respects, and my technique doesn't deteriorate much as I fatigue.

The psychological and physical qualities that seem to matter most for high volume training are, in summation, one’s ability to recover (and one’s commitment to recovery), technical proficiency, and technical efficiency.

Question 2:

“How can I tell if I’ll be able to run high volume training indefinitely?”

Now, sustainable high volume training sounds like an oxymoron and I’ll tell you why. "High volume” training is a relative construct, not an absolute one. What I mean is that what constitutes high volume for you might not be the same for me. I say that I’m using a “higher volume” approach to training, but that is only because my volume currently is high relative to external standards (i.e. the performance of others), and I have no control over these. The adjective “high,” when fixed to volume, intensity, or exertion, usually contains the valence of unsustainability. So, when someone says they’re training with high _____, the implication is that this type of training is a short-term implement, not a long-term solution.

So what I’m trying to say is that “high” volume shouldn’t refer to an absolute number but a relative one. “High” volume is volume greater than what you’re currently experiencing, not X number of bar lifts per month. In addition, “high” connotes unsustainability because the increase in volume is a new stimulus that extends beyond your capacity to simply adapt to it for more than a short interval in time.

So if you’re using what you consider to be high volume training, you aren't going to have the capacity to sustain it. Put in other terms, look at three-week, high volume programs like Smolov. Those who experience this type of programming as “high” volume yield the greatest short-term gains and the greatest subsequent drop in maximal strength once they stop.

We have an intermediate level lifter with a 255-pound bench press max who ran the Smolov Jr. program. Prior to this, his volume was very low, so the discrepancy between his previous volume and that of Jr. was cavernous. He tested his max at 295 pounds at the end. He then did a meet a while later and, after not having done Jr. for a while and bringing the volume back down, failed 286 pounds at the meet. The tremendous 40-pound gain was catalyzed by the discrepancy in volume, but the pendulum swung back to a sub-286-pound bench press. For him, Smolov Jr. was “high” volume training.

I ran Jr. and put five pounds on my max. I then reran it without too much difficulty. My swing was very small, but the swing back was virtually nonexistent. For me, Smolov Jr. was “higher” in volume, but I wouldn’t say that it was “high” volume.

So how does one know when ___ volume is sustainable? I think the clearest indication would first be the amount of progress one makes while on it and the amount one’s strength atrophies once off it. This might sound paradoxical, but the less you benefit in the short-term from high volume training, the more likely it will be sustainable long-term for you. The greater the pendulum effect, the less likely you’re capable of sustaining that level of volume.

If you want to sustain higher volume training indefinitely, consider the following:

  • The best way to make the transition is to keep track of your volume over a long (multi-year) period of time and increase volume over slow increments. Some sort of loading/deloading scheme at a macro level works best, and this could even conceivably be done by switching between more and less volume-heavy programming.
  • Measure your performance against that of your peers along three criteria: recovery, technical proficiency, and technical efficiency. If you score above average in all three areas, it’s very, very likely that you’re capable of training with above average volume.

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