by Mitch Hauschildt, MA, ATC, CSCS
Training volume is extremely important to consider with all training, whether we’re talking fitness, strength and conditioning, or rehab. Modifying the overall make up of the amount of work being performed is a major component of periodization. That, along with exercises selection, is the most common way that people are progressed through a system over time to see meaningful results. If we don’t change volume over time, plateaus develop and progress slows.
Traditionally we think of volume being expressed in terms of sets and reps. For the most part, sets and reps give us some good framework to work within. Even though the overall volume is the same, there is a pretty big difference between performing 2 sets of 12 reps and 6 sets of 4 reps. One allows you to perform high loads to improve strength and power while the other scheme is good for improving muscular endurance under lower loads. Understanding the difference and using the proper scheme to reach our desired outcome can be important for reaching your goals.
While sets and reps are a convenient and easy to use solution for prescribing volume, I think we have developed a love affair with it that just doesn’t make that much sense for most people. Yes, sets and reps are a great way to perform intervals and account for things like metabolic demands, loads, and recovery. But, most of the people who are reading this blog aren’t high end strength and conditioning coaches with athletes who need highly specific training programs.
Most of you are working with youth athletes and/or rehab patients. With those populations, I believe strongly that quality of movement is much more important that quantity. With that in mind, prescribing volume such as 3 sets of 10 reps pushes people to continue performing reps to get to the prescribed volume, regardless of what the reps really look like. This can lead to poor quality reps much of the time.
Motor learning often takes place as we approach or enter a state of fatigue. If the quality of our movements becomes compromised in that moment, or brain will tend to remember the poor pattern rather than the high quality rep that was likely performed when they were rested. When this happens, we take what likely had the beginnings of a great training session and destroy it.
The solution? Give a total number of reps that you want performed and tell them to make sure they are great quality, but they get to break it up however they want. This still gives you the ability control overall volume, but it takes away the pressure that our patients and clients often feel to simply complete a set. I would rather have 20 sets of 1 rep that are all performed with very high quality any day of the week instead of 2 sets of 10 reps with 4 crappy reps at the end of each set.
The nervous system is very sensitive and must be respected to see improvements. Fatiguing the nervous system too quickly is the fastest way to the bottom for most people. We need to observe them and then teach them to be listen to their body. Push their limits, but keep their fatigue under control.