Finding The Best Strength Training Plan By Understanding Volume And Intensity
Give Me The Fish (GMTF): Most strength training plans will help you get stronger, but the question is for how long? This question brings about the endless pursuit of what is the best strength training plan. If you are trying to find the right plan for you, it’s essential to understand how stress affects the body. And, more important, how it affects you. The best strength training plan is one that controls progress through volume and intensity. Volume and intensity directly affects how and if your body can adapt and if it will recover better and stronger.
You can be off to a good start by keeping the following things in mind:
- Know your specific goals
- Keep the plan simple
- Account for the 6 limiting factors (energy systems, nutrition, fatigue, musculature, central nervous system, and biomechanics).
- Apply volume and intensity to break through injuries and plateaus.
- Ignore everything else.
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Finding The Best Strength Training Plan
It’s crazy how many people ask about training plans like there’s some magical cheat code to get big, strong, and more fit.
Some plans do work better than others, and if you are just looking for something new and unique to keep it interesting I get it. But, there is a big difference between looking for the “best strength training plan” that will give you the secret sauce to get big, and just trying to save yourself some time in developing your own.
I hate to break it to you, but there is no cheat code and there is no mystical training plan.
And, this is coming from a guy that does this for a living and sells training plans.
The only trick is understanding that your body adapts to stress. So when it confronts something repeatedly that doesn’t kill it, but close to, it adapts to make its near-death experience not happen again in the future.
Hence why the real trick to building muscle is always volume and intensity. Intensity meaning heavier or faster or in physics terms, Force = Mass x Acceleration. And volume meaning how often that force is applied.
And the reason why you have to consistently increase these is that after you’ve done it, and you didn’t die, your body adapts to it.
So, you have to keep giving it a reason to keep getting bigger and stronger and that is where moving heavy stuff a lot of frick’n times comes in.
So, I just Keep Adding More? Nope.
Now, with that in mind, there’s a big misunderstanding when it comes to adding volume and intensity.
Most people know that it has to be progressive, whether it’s forced on them by putting too much weight in a bar and being pile-driven into the ground, or because of the onset of muscle soreness, and at some point injury.
But rarely did they actually associate that with the specifics of what went wrong in their training.
More isn’t always better and volume and intensity in different contexts mean different things.
When it comes to training, this misunderstanding comes from not understanding how the body adapts to stress.
Understanding Stress Adaptation
In 1936, Dr. Selye noticed that when organisms came upon a stressor they had three phases they went through. The first phase was the alarm face, basically the “oh shit phase”, this is where the organism takes some kind of damage, and aka some kind of stress.
This stress can range from something that the body can overcome, barely overcome, or can’t overcome.
The outcome of that stress on the organism determined the outcome of the next two phases.
The next phase was the adaptation phase. This is where the body starts recovering the area, to adapt to the stress.
Here, if the organism was able to overcome it, but failed to cause damage, the organism didn’t change.
If the organism overcame the stress but sustained damage, it came back better.
The third phase was only reached when the stress that was placed on the body was so great that it could not recover from it. In this case, the organism died.
This discovery by Dr. Selye is what drives our understanding of training.
His work is what led to the development of the “General Adaptation Syndrome”.
Understanding Training Under Dr. Selye’s Guidelines
When it comes to training, the goal is to stay in the first two phases, and not go to the third.
(Third is organism death, which we would rather avoid for obvious reasons.)
No, this doesn’t mean you die.
To really understand how this plays a role, you have to understand that Dr. Selye’s work better refers to individual cells and not to the human body as a whole.
When you train, you are purposely trying to damage your cells, so they can heal, and adapt to be better and stronger.
But, not cause so much damage where they die.
The problem is when you do something too much, or too new, then you hit the third phase.
The third phase is easily recognizable by muscle soreness (which is basically just cell death happening), or by the sign of training regressing and you getting worse.
Tying In Cell Stress to The Greater Picture
Now, that we understand how training stresses cells, we have to tie this into how we adapt as a whole.
We learned from Dr. Selye that we need to be able to just barely overcome stress (minor damage) in order to heal and come back stronger, but how do we determine what is too much and too little?
Especially when it’s quite obvious that we are composed of thousands of different parts that all have different work capacities (combination of volume and intensity).
We do this by understanding what our limiting factors are on the lesser end and then determining what our upper limits are through past history, current PRs, trial and error in training, and keeping accurate notes.
Tying All of This Into Finding The Best Strength Training Plan
If you haven’t picked it up yet, the best strength training plan is formed rather than found.
It’s formed by picking the most basic strength training plan we can find. The least exercises the better, with clearly defined rule sets and assumptions.
The words my athletes often hear is “consistent, controlled, specific, and methodical”. Treating your workouts more as a controlled science experiment allows you to actually understand what helps your body and what doesn’t.
This is why the best strength training programs like Starting Strength, 5/3/1, and 5 x 5 are great for beginners.
How I train my athletes has lots of stolen parts from all of these training plans.
They are easy to understand, easy to teach, easy to modify, and easy to see what is going right and what is going wrong.
Once you have a program in place, you don’t change anything unless it’s broken
My Recommendation For The Best Strength Training Plan
I hate being asked about training plans unless I know a person’s specific goals. Someone who has a goal of being a great runner, trains for triathlons, or is a competitive athlete, will have a different training plan than someone who just wants a 400lb squat.
Almost all of my athletes start on a three day a week program on an A/B schedule, with at least a 1-day recovery day in between. It looks like this:
- Squat 3 x 5 reps, 2-3 min rest in between each
- Bench 3 x 5 reps, 2-3 min rest in between each
- Barbell Row 3 x 5 reps, 2-3 min rest in between each
- Squat 3 x 5 reps, 2-3 min rest in between each
- Press 3 x 5 reps, 2-3 min rest in between each
- Deadlift 1 x 5 reps
- Pullups TBD (based on max pullups) x 1 rep w/15 sec rest
Then we modify from there.
Some athletes will look like this for months, others rapidly shift in a few weeks. But, we know to switch because we are being “consistent, controlled, specific, and methodical,” which makes noticing limiting factors easy.
There is no out-of-the-box “best strength training plan”.
The moral of the story, the best strength training is a journey and not a cut and paste recipe book.
If you don’t understand how to do this, find a Coach.
Any strength coach worth their salt should be able to identify any issues and modify your training plan. And, if they are good, they should be able to teach you how to do this on your own.
It’s a small price to pay to learn significant things about your body, how it works, and how it functions. This is an essential skill that everyone should be able to do.
Keep that forge burning,