Today we are going to speak of the importance of Controlling Your Variables
When it comes to lifting weights, especially heavy weights, then there are four very basic variables used within the gym: volume, intensity, frequency, and exercise type. Within those variables are other smaller sub-variables, such as rest periods and lifting tempo, but the focus is on the four big variables. Controlling these variables appropriately is what ensures long term success in the iron game.
First, let’s define these variables. Volume can be measured as the amount of work you are doing. There are of course numerous ways to measure this, and ideally, numerous ways are utilized to provide a more thorough view of your training. Volume can be measured as number of lifts, such as the number of sets, and or total weight lifted. It can be broken into more detailed numbers, such as number of sets or reps within a certain intensity range. One volume measure is not very useful by itself is because one measure cannot provide a complete picture. A workout that involves 1000 pounds of volume could consist of a single rep with 1000 pounds, a set of 10 with 100 pounds, a set of 100 with 10 pounds, or 10 sets of 2 with 50 pounds. All these are very different workouts, yet result in the same poundage. For this reason multiple measures of volume are important.
A good way to increase volume in your progression plan would be say you are doing 10×3 program to build mass and strength at a dramatic degree. The week afterwards we’d do 10×4, the week after that 10×5. Doing this you have added 10 reps per week extra. This is a great way to increase volume as after 2 weeks it’s a total of 20 extra reps and normally gives a dramatic increase in strength and size.
Intensity on the other hand is a measure of the weight in terms of percentage of a 1 rep max (1RM), not how much you grunt and yell. There are a few different ways to measure intensity. The most popular is working off of a previously established 1RM. Another way is rep max calculators. While these are not always accurate for a lot of people, they are at least consistent and can be used when working up to a 1RM is not practical. Lately I have been using what I call rep intensity to describe intensity. If I work up to 3×3 as my top set but could have done a 4th it was a rep intensity of 4. Likewise, if I could have done an additional 2 reps, it would be a rep intensity of 5. I feel this eliminates the nuances of 85% versus 83% and makes planning a bit simpler.
A good intensity plan would be like this. Say you are doing a 5×5 program. You would increase the weight by 2.5lbs every week to keep it intense. Or another way that I enjoy is, let’s say you are stuck on a weight such as the squat, or bench press, you can’t get past this weight and adding 2.5lbs to the bar is becoming increasingly hard. What we’d do is instead of having a 2 minute break as you are now we’ll reduce it to 1.30 then to 1 minute. This increases strength DRAMATICALLY. Now try adding 2.5lbs to the bar, Half of them we are able to add another 10/12lbs to the bar after doing this kind of training.
Frequency is how often the lift is being performed or how often the body part is being worked. Since most everyone organizes their training around the 7-day calendar week, frequency is usually expressed by how many times per week something occurs, although frequency certainly isn’t limited to a weekly basis. For those that want to take this variable into greater detail, rest periods between sets as I mentioned above could also fall under this frequency variable as well.
A good way of increasing the frequency of your training is to do a lagging body part MORE times per week. Let’s say your chest lags, You could train it with the bench press on Monday, the dip on Wednesday, and incline bench or flies on the Friday! This is another form of training I love. When I was squatting 600lbs at a body weight of205lbs, natural I was squatting 3 times per week!
Exercise type. This can be viewed from very broad terms as simply looking at exercises as a leg exercise or back exercise to the very specifics of the exercise. Since greater detail allows for greater control, I suggest looking at it in the most detailed way possible. Take your grip in a little on bench? That’s a different exercise. Doing box squats? I would call a 14 inch box different than a 13 inch box. While these are very close and can be comparable with conclusions being drawn from one variation in regards to another, the most accurate conclusions are made from identical exercise comparisons.
This is one of the easiest ways. Let’s say you’ve been doing chinups for 3×10 turn it to wide grip pullups for 3×10. Go from the bench press to the dip, do hammer curls instead of regular curls, Do rack pulls etc.
So now that we understand the definitions how do we best take advantage of these variables? First we have to have some way of measuring and recording these variables. This is where a detailed journal comes into play. What did you do last week? Last month? The last couple of months? If you have no clue then how do you know what you should do next week or for the next month? If you are closer to your goals but don’t know what brought you there, then you don’t know what will continue moving you forward to your goals. The answer needs to be more complex than just “I am doing XYZ program.” I see lots of forum posts that read, “I did So and So’s program for a while and saw good results. Now I am thinking of doing this other program which is totally different. What is your opinion?” If the first program was effective, why would you trade out an effective training system for one of unknown effectiveness? If you enjoy lifting weights and the enjoyment you get out of your time in the gym is more than enough reward for you then that is fine–there is nothing wrong with it. If switching programs is what you feel will make your time in the gym more enjoyable, then have at it. However, if you are lifting weights to achieve a specific goal, you need to have a tight rein on your variables. While your pursuit might be a marathon, no one ever won a marathon by getting off the route constantly. In fact, the person that constantly gets off the route probably isn’t even going to finish the marathon. Implementing change needs to be done a little at a time and needs to serve a specific purpose. Change for the purpose of change is not a specific change.
So what does having a tight rein on your variables mean? It means knowing what the above variables are in your program, and when appropriate, making small changes to those variables. Maintaining frequency–maintaining the number of reps and the bar weight and doing the same exercise but doing an additional set–is a way to increase the volume while keeping everything else the same. Doing this is a good way to measure the effect of an increase in volume. Increasing the volume through doubling your reps and doing many more sets with much lower intensity and with a different exercise you might get closer to you goals but what exactly was the variable(s) that helped? You changed so much you can’t list what was effective, and the next time you start to stall out you still won’t have an idea what to change to continue making progress. As a side note, realize due to the inverse relationship between volume and intensity an increase in one usually is accompanied by a decrease in the other. Otherwise, we would regularly be able to lift heavier weights for more reps.
Let’s do a real world example, shall we? One of my athletes went through 8 weeks of training and hit some awesome PRs (he is a power lifter so obviously trains for powerlifting), Anyway after the initial 8 weeks he went back to where he lived some 400 miles from me and over the next 8 weeks he saw his strength decrease by a large margin. (His prs were lower than when before he came to train with me!) I looked over his training and saw that the one main difference was more reps were being performed at 90% and above.
Not only this but more sets were being taken to a rep max Ie muscluar failure rather than leaving a rep in the tank. The difference in these numbers wasn’t all that great but it was significant. I made small changes based off of that observation. 8 weeks later and we’d beaten his PRS all over again. and his strength is currently still improving. Had I constantly made big changes to all the variables, I would have mostly been throwing darts blindfolded and unable to replicate the occasional random bull’s-eye. In part, this trend was also easier to spot due to a well-organized training journal. Like most lifters out there,
Take a year to implement only changes that serve a specific purpose. Lay out detailed plans and then work them. Implement small changes when necessary and record the results. Even if you hit periods where you don’t make progress, you will at least know what is ineffective for you as an individual. After a year of this, I assure you that you will be a better coach for yourself–and a better coach leads to more success.