There are a lot of philosophies when it comes to physical training, but they are all rooted in one core principle: you need volume to progress. To that end, the repetition is the foundation of every training methodology out there. There is compelling evidence that the math of training volume (sets X reps X load) is a key consideration for triggering hypertrophy – your body adapts to “doing more” by becoming more adept at doing so.
Most programs are set-up using fixed and rigid set and rep schemes (e.g., 3x3, 5x5, 10x10, etc.). However, problems can arise when one assumes that progress in training can continue to occur in such a linear fashion.
Take Mark for example. He’s a new lifter who starts out using 100kg for his 3 sets of x 6-8 reps on the deadlift for four weeks and adds 5kg to the bar every subsequent session. Now, if you look at the weight on the bar and the number of repetitions performed, many untrained athletes would think that the volume looks decent for a new beginner.
However, such a linear progression will only work for so long. There will come a point in time where progress grinds to a halt and the body fails to respond the way it did initially at the start of a programme. An accurate guess as to why this is would mention how the stimulus has lost its physical novelty and that the body has adapted to the imposed demands. A brief deload might help get things back on track, but the effects would be short-lived. Assuming that Mark is already 16 weeks into his current programme, he would be striving to move 180kg for 3 sets of 6-8 repetitions. If this sounds absurdly miraculous, that’s because it is.
The drawbacks of such an approach are two-fold. One is that they ignore the drop-off rate at which adaptation occurs. Secondly, it assumes that the athlete will consistently turn up for every training session in the best physical and mental state. To address this, both new and experienced lifters can consider utilising Total Volume Training (TVT), a philosophy where there is a linear increase in training volume as opposed to mechanical load.
The core of TVT structure is that it ensures volume increase every week and it removes any potential for the false perception of progress. Getting stronger is more than just about moving more weight – you don’t want to push your body to the point where it starts to compensate by engaging in faulty movement patterns just to get a weight up. This also doubles as a safety precaution to ensure you are physically conditioned to move up in weight. The strength of your joints, tendons and ligaments matter more than that of your muscles if we’re talking about staying injury-free and ensuring longevity in sport.
For Mark to put this into practice, he can start from his original programme and progress to a point where he settles on a challenging weight done for 3 sets of 5 repetitions. From here, his focus will shift towards a gradual increase in training volume per session, from a total of 15 repetitions to 25 repetitions. This can be done by either increasing the total number of sets or repetitions per set; it doesn’t even have to be evenly distributed across sets. Upon reaching his target, he will have “earned” the right to go up in weight. A good rule of thumb is to aim for an increase in total volume of between 30-50%.
Even if absolute strength is the main goal, muscular hypertrophy should be a key focus throughout the bulk of your training. A bigger muscle holds a greater potential for resisting and exerting force. By ensuring that you progress first in volume, you provide a strong base for hypertrophy while setting the stage for greater levels of realisation in strength.
Being overly focused on a strict set/rep structure can distract you from what matters most when it comes to getting stronger – actually getting stronger! Remember that training is meant to achieve a specific effect. By ignoring that, you rob training if its substance and meaning – this applies to the TVT method as well. Invest in the right process, but not at the expense of the outcome!