April 19, 2016 in Programming
Takeaways:
  • Work capacity is a metric that measures the magnitude of an athlete’s training.
  • Having a baseline for the average volumes completed throughout a training cycle provides valuable information and data about how to progress over time.
  • Training density is a metric that takes into account the amount of volume an athlete achieves within a specific number of reps.
  • To increase training density, an athlete would be seeking to achieve similar or higher amounts of volume, but decreasing the amount of reps it took to achieve that workload.
  • Once a system is in place for tracking weighted average intensities, an athlete is then able to understand his or her tolerance for training at higher or lower intensities.
Introduction

This three-part blog series suggests that many powerlifters have a narrow vision of progressive overload. In part 1, we defined progressive overload. In part 2, we argued that short-term overloading, such as simply ‘lifting more than what you did last week’, will eventually lead to plateaus in strength. In this blog, we’ll identify three areas within your training where progressive overload can be achieved by focusing on a more long-term perspective of strength.

Please note that these three areas constitute only a small sample of metrics that can be tracked, analyzed, and used to effectively understand overload principles. This blog is not intended to represent a complete list of metrics or the full list of metrics that are tracked and analyzed by MyStrengthBook©.

Metrics for the Long Game

1. Increase work capacity

Work capacity is a metric that measures the magnitude of an athlete’s training. In powerlifting, the magnitude of training is a function of how much volume an athlete accumulates over time. Volume is calculated by multiplying the number of sets, reps, and load to produce an overall tonnage. For example, if an athlete squats 5 sets of 5 reps at 100lbs the overall volume accumulated within that training session is 2500lbs.

When increasing work capacity, we need to consider the maximum amount of work an athlete can achieve in the gym while still yielding positive adaptations and avoiding residual fatigue that leads to overtraining. For example, an athlete might be able to perform a high amount of work for a short-period, but maintaining that same workload for multiple training sessions or weeks does not allow adequate recovery to see maximum adaptation. Maximizing work capacity is all about balancing the stress caused from an individual workout or series of workouts with the amount of time it takes an athlete to recover. Therefore, if the goal is to increase work capacity, an athlete must have knowledge on two important training metrics.

First, an athlete must have some knowledge about how much work is normally completed within a training session or week. With this metric, it can be further broken down to each of the powerlifting exercises, or an accumulation of all powerlifting movements. Knowing what constitutes a high volume or low volume training session or week is completely based on an individual athlete’s training history and experience. However, only by knowing what constitutes the high and low volume days and weeks can an athlete start to determine the appropriate training volumes. Going further, having a baseline for the average volumes completed throughout a training cycle provides valuable information and data about how to progress over time.

Second, in order to continue seeing positive adaptations, athletes seeking to improve their work capacity must understand what sorts of increases can be tolerated from that baseline. For example, I previously worked with an athlete who increased his squat volume by 20%, bench volume by 10%, and deadlift volume by 15% for every 12 week training cycle within a 1-year period. This athlete was able to handle these percentage increases while still recovering effectively and achieving personal bests after a taper phase. These sorts of percentage increases are not recommendations, as all metrics are highly personalized, but the example does demonstrate that there is an optimal rate of progression as it relates to increasing work capacity. The key is to use your training metrics to determine how to increase work capacity in the most effective way based on your training tolerances, rate of adaptation, and recovery.

A small caveat to mention: increasing work capacity is supposed to create fatigue. This fatigue is what causes your body to adapt; so while you’re increasing your work capacity, you shouldn’t expect to be at peak performance. It’s only through planned rest periods, i.e. returning to baseline volumes or lower, where an athlete will be able to realize his or her strength gains. This is called a ‘super-compensation effect’ – a topic for another time. Furthermore, a well-planned training cycle is going to include periods of increasing and decreasing volumes for particular training outcomes, especially when considering the competition cycle.

2. Increase training density

Training density is a metric that takes into account the amount of volume an athlete achieves within a specific number of reps. Understanding training density provides context to how volume accumulation is interpreted within your training session or weeks. Keep in mind, whether it’s tracking volume, or any other metric, having contextual information and reference points will be critical to effectively interpreting your training data and using it to plan future workouts.

Training density is measured by adding how many lifts (or reps) were completed for a particular powerlifting movement. For instance, if an athlete squats 5 sets of 5 reps at 100lbs the training density is calculated by the total number of lifts (or reps) performed — a total of 25 reps. In order to have a reference point for this data, we need to assess the total amount of volume accumulated within this workout. At that point, we can make a conclusion about the training density by saying: it took 25 reps to complete 2500lbs of volume. To increase training density, an athlete would be looking to achieve similar or higher amounts of volume, but decreasing the number of reps it took to achieve that workload.

Over the course of a training week, an athlete might recognize he or she has squatted 100 reps to accumulate 10,000lbs of volume. In order to increase training density, an athlete must use lower rep ranges and higher intensities to acquire similar amounts of volume. Over time, progressively overloading training density would require an athlete to understand his or her training volumes, the number of lifts required to reach those volumes, and then strive to match those training volumes by doing less total reps. Using the example above, progressive overload would be achieved if an athlete could squat 90 reps (10 less reps) to accumulate 10,000lbs of volume (the same amount of volume).

3. Increase weighted average intensities

Intensity refers to the bar load as a percentage of an athlete’s one-rep maximum. Your one-rep maximum can then be stated as 100%, and any load below your max would be represented by a proportional percentage. Increasing weighted average intensities within a training cycle can be an effective way to program progressive overload principles. But, let’s stop for a moment and define ‘weighted average intensities’.

Averages are associated with a distribution of how many reps are performed under specific intensities – this distribution can be either narrow or wide. For example, in a workout that is 5 sets of 5 reps @ 80%, the distribution of intensities across the rep range is at its narrowest point since no other loads are lifted. The average intensity is easy to calculate here – it being 80%. However, calculating averages becomes less straightforward when the sets, reps and intensities start to vary (increasing the distribution).

For example, let’s examine the following workout (six sets total – assuming their 1 Rep Maximum is 100lbs):

70% * 5
70% * 5
75% * 4
75% * 4
80% * 3
80% * 3

(A) Prescribed workout
(B) The intensity used in that set (based on 100lbs 1RM)
(C) The load (B) x 1RM
(D) The number of sets
(E) The number of reps for each set
(F) The volume accumulated in these sets (C) x (D) x (E)
(G) The volume for that set divided by the total volume (F) / (J)
(H) The weighted intensity that adds to the overall average (B)x(G)
(I) The average intensity for this workout is the summation of the ‘weighted intensity’ (H).
(J) The total volume accumulated in this workout

In order to calculate the average intensity, we must place more ‘weight’ on the fact that a higher amount of volume was completed at 70% (700lbs) when compared with less volume at 75% (600lbs) and even less at 80% (480lbs). When we calculate a weightedaverage intensity the volume is now considered as a relevant and important component on the average. This differs from a ‘mean’ average intensity; which is the normal average that is used in day to day activities by many people. The reason MyStrengthBook© uses a weighted average intensity is because a ‘mean’ average intensity only calculates the middle value used in the population without considering the relevant importance that the ‘intensity’ has on the total average. For example, using the above workout, if you included a set of 40% for 1 set of 1 rep, although only 40lbs of volume was achieved by this set, the 40% bears just as much influence on the average as for example the 70% sets where 700lbs of volume was achieved. As a result, this would bring your ‘mean’ average intensity down. Using a weighted average this 40% has little influence on the overall average as it only accounts for 2% of the total volume.

In order to properly analyze data, expert statistical and data analysis skills must be used. This is what MyStrengthBook© will help athletes accomplish.

Once a system is in place for tracking weighted average intensities, an athlete is then able to understand his or her tolerance for training at higher or lower intensities. We must recognize that, much like our other metrics, there is going to be planned periods throughout the training cycle of higher and lower intensities. However, one method for programming progressive overload is trying to match or exceed your baseline volumes by using higher intensities. For example, if an average week of squat volume is 10,000lbs with a weighted average intensity of 70%, then moving forward you can aim to incrementally progress your weighted average intensity for the same volume – trying to do 72% for 10,000lbs.

By viewing weighted average intensity in relationship with volume, we can shift our focus from analyzing a single workout to broadening our analysis to the long term effects of training. In other words, thinking about lifting more weight than you did in your previous session become less important than programming over training weeks and months. Keep in mind it’s this shift from the short-term, ‘individual day’ focus, to long-term ‘weeks and months’ focus, that needs to be adopted as we move from being novice to advanced athletes.

Conclusion

Each of the above metrics cannot be viewed in isolation. Training variables from the number of sets and reps completed to the bar load will have an impact on the associated training metrics. Tracking and analyzing training metrics will allow you to understand the numbers surrounding your training. Over time, having a repository of metrics that you can integrate one with another to analyze your training becomes critical in how you program workouts and training cycles. Progressive overload in not a linear progression of singular outcomes (like bar load), but rather an interconnected web of training variables that ebb and flow over the course of an athlete’s career.

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