Three fundamental concepts in muscle and strength building are volume, intensity and frequency. Volume is the total amount of work that you do, the number of sets and reps for a given period of time. Intensity refers to how hard you work in each set, or how close you come to “failure” – the point where you would not be able to do another repetition. It is widely believed that there is an inverse relationship between these two, as volume goes up, intensity must come down, and vice versa. Frequency refers to how often you work a particular exercise or muscle group. If you are performing lots of sets and/or some very intense sets, it is believed that you can’t do it very often. Frequency is rarely manipulated in the other direction or used as a measure of progress. The rule seems to be that as volume and/or intensity go up, frequency must come down.
I don’t necessarily believe this.
It’s common in the mainstream strength-building world to strive for progress on the first two dimensions. For example, as we grow stronger we may do more sets and/or more exercises and/or more reps per set. This is an increase in volume. Or we may progress by adding weight or difficulty to the exercises and by coming closer to failure in each set. This is an increase in intensity. But the conventional wisdom always holds that as you increase on any of these dimensions, the others must decrease, and particularly for the present discussion, if you increase volume or intensity, you will need to reduce frequency. You need to rest, and the more work that you do the more rest you need.
I smell a challenge.
It stands to reason that a third way to progress would be to increase frequency while keeping the other two variables constant. And what’s even more intriguing is the idea that we can progress on all three dimensions at the same time if we play our cards right! If I do X amount of work today and then again three days from now, a form of progress would be to do that same amount of work two days from now with the same quality of performance. Following that, I might be able to do the same work every day. And then I might be able to do a bit MORE work every day. This is where it gets exciting for me, as I am an avowed conventional wisdom buster. If you ever tell a weight-lifter that you work the same muscles or exercises every day, you’ll be met with some combination of skepticism, laughter, and shock. But doesn’t it make sense that as I grow stronger, I should be able to do the work more often? Shouldn’t I be able to recover more quickly because I am stronger, better, and more experienced?
Why is conventional wisdom busting so exciting? It’s not just that it gives me a thrill, like an amusement park ride. Although, it does. But beyond that it’s about not blindly accepting as fact something just because it is written somewhere. Meaningful progress throughout history has often come from those who challenged the status quo and who said “if you tell me that I can’t do it, then I’m going to do it!” It’s also about thinking for yourself rather than letting others think for you. Because they may not be thinking at all, but rather selling. More time to rest between workouts means more time to look at advertisements for “recovery products” that are apparently essential to help you bust through barriers and make gains. For example, for only $54.99, you can get the “twisted lemon lime RX-3 Reconstruxion muscle recovery supplement (made with Stevia, although the other ingredients are not readily apparent. Also comes in “Frosty Pina Colada”, “Fruit Punch Fury”, “Raspberry Lemonade” and “Crisp Green Apple”.) You can also get “RX Base Stack Pre / Post Recovery ($129.97), RX-2 X-LR8 Post Workout Protein ($59.99) and the Mechan-X Joint Recovery Formula ($49.99)“. Yum!
In the real world, maybe true gains include the ability to do more work more often (without supplements). I believe that the body works this way. Gymnasts certainly work this way. I believe that we should be able to (gradually) increase volume, intensity AND frequency and as long as we do it in a systematic and incremental fashion, we should be able to make progress on all three dimensions – volume, intensity and frequency – at the same time.
I tested this. In my day job I am a data analyst for a large non-profit community health center in Washington, DC. I’ve applied my experience with data to my workouts over the last couple of weeks in order to test whether or not I can make progress doing the same exercises every day, to or near failure.
I did three exercises: push-ups, pull-ups and squats. I performed one set of each exercise per day and recorded the total number of reps that I was able to do. I tried to go as close to failure as I could while keeping good form, and I tried to exceed my performance from the prior day.
Here are the results:
You can definitely do the same exercises every day to or near failure and still make progress. That said, a few ideas became clear to me as I did this experiment. First, this is almost as much a mental game as a physical game. For example, on the first day I did 20 push-ups, 20 squats and 6 pull-ups. Although I was a bit out of practice when I started this experiment, I certainly could have done more that first day. I think I subconsciously set myself a low bar to start. (However, on the first day I could not have done anywhere near what I did at the end of the two weeks.) Second, with each passing day I was more motivated to beat the prior day’s numbers, so each day I worked a little harder and tolerated a little more pain, burn and fatigue in order to get there. So the actual experience of intensity grew over the course of the two weeks. Third, and most relevant to this discussion, I was still able to improve performance the next day. Each day I knew the totals I needed to beat, and it was never easy to do so, but I never actually failed to nearly match or exceed the prior day’s totals. So again, I’m not sure I ever reached true failure but rather came a little closer to it, and worked harder, each day. And on some days I probably could have eked out another rep or two but may have subconsciously not wanted to set myself up for failure, so to speak, the next day. Any way you look at it, though, my reps steadily increased along with the intensity and burn, while the proximity to failure each day remained about the same after the first few days. This is progress.
In this scenario, volume and intensity were systematically increased in the form of more reps performed in a single set in the same amount of time. It is important to note that I did not systematically increase frequency in this experiment. Rather, I kept it constant. But my squat total tripled, my push-up total increased 2.5 times, and my pull-up total more than tripled. Under conventional wisdom these kinds of gains would require proportional increases in rest. Under this unconventional wisdom they did not.
This experiment really brought into focus for me the importance of effort. We’ve all seen people in gyms merely going through the motions and never progressing and never appearing to work very hard. On the other hand, we’ve seen people try to lift too much weight on their first set, such that they struggle on the second rep, form goes out the window immediately, and they fail on the third rep. At that point the workout is essentially done and you’ve accomplished very little. The true money is in the well executed set where each rep retains good form but the last few reps burn and really challenge you. And when you feel that you’ve really had enough, you should try one more. Muhammad Ali said that “I only start counting when it starts hurting. That’s what makes you a champion.”
If one were interested in continuing this experiment, the next logical step would be to add a second set of each exercise per day. You would also want to keep the timing as constant as possible, so the amount of rest between attempts can be systematically decreased. For example, you might do your first set of each exercise at 8:00 AM each day and then your second set at 8:00 PM. You could progress frequency by moving the second set earlier in the day and then as progress continues, if it does, add a third set per day.
The Next Experiment
I really enjoyed this experiment and was surprised by the results. I expected my gains to plateau after a few days. But one thing I did not like was how easy it was to sacrifice quality for quantity. My rep quality was good throughout the experiment but certainly much worse after 48th push-up, for example, than the 12th. It’s very easy to relax form when that numeric goal is in sight. Therefore, for my next experiment, I am systematically increasing volume, intensity AND frequency, while keeping form excellent throughout.
I expect this new experiment to be much more extensive and the results to be much more revealing. I will explain how it will work in my next article.