Volume and Intensity Periodization Using Autoregulation

Volume and Intensity Periodization Using Autoregulation

When it comes to the muscle building process, there are several "truths" that we must not ignore:
  1. Progressive overload is king. To maximize muscle gains, you must continue to challenge yourself with more weight when possible.
  2. After a substantial amount of strength has been built, the addition of volume (or tonnage) is a quality method of encouraging the body to increase muscle mass. This must, of course, be done with an eye on improving overall strength.
  3. The combination of volume and heavy weight can take its toll on the human body, leaving you battered and bruised.
At some point, as an intermediate lifter, periodization of volume and/or intensity (weight relative to your one rep max) may become a useful tool. You can't go hard and heavy each week. Yes, some of us handle volume and intensity better than others, but eventually, it catches up to us.

Related - Concurrent Periodization - The Development of Strength and Muscle Size

Let's say you start out as a weak twenty-year-old. Your bench press is 95 pounds for a few reps, and when you squat it feels like 135 pounds might send you to an early grave. You are shaky, and in need of form improvements. Desperate to pack on muscle and look better, you push forward.

Many months pass. Your training volume remains consistent, which means the number of sets you are using per workout. Strength levels increase, and before you know it you can bench press 225 for reps, and squat 315 for a five-spot.


At this point, gains start to slow. This is life as a natural liter. Rapid progress simply isn't sustainable. With that said, it is at this point where volume additions might become a valuable training tool. Volume will not only assist with optimal muscle gains, but it will also help you push past strength plateaus. These additional strength gains also help you to build muscle.

But before we get into the nuts and bolts of possible ways to add volume, let's explore tonnage.

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Article author and Tiger Fitness Editorial Director Steve Shaw.

Tonnage - Overall Pounds Lifted

Tonnage is the number of reps you perform on a given exercise multiple by the weight. So if you perform a 5x5 (5 sets, 5 reps) on the bench press using 200 pounds, your total tonnage moved is:
  • 5x5 = 25 total reps. 25 total reps x 200 pounds = 5,000 pounds.
As you move from a novice to an intermediate lifter, tonnage natural increases. Let's consider the example of a novice lifter who starts with a 95 pound bench press, and improves it to 200 pounds.
  • 95 pounds x 5 reps = 475 pound tonnage
  • 200 pounds x 5 reps = 1000 pound tonnage
This is a tonnage increase of 110%.

Now let's say our lifter starts a 5x5 bench press program, and moves from 95 pounds to 225 pounds. The overall tonnage increase is:
  • 95 pounds x 3 sets x 5 reps = 1,425 pound tonnage
  • 225 pounds x 3 sets x 5 reps = 3,375 pound tonnage
This is a tonnage increase of 137%.

During this time the volume of sets and reps was NOT increased. It wasn't needed. The lifter was packing on strength and muscle at a rapid rate.

But now the real struggle sets in. While it took our lifter two years to add 130 pounds to his 3x5 protocol, it might take another two to three years to bump this up to a 275 for a 3x5. Let's look at this tonnage increase.
  • 225 pounds x 3 sets x 5 reps = 3,375 pound tonnage
  • 275 pounds x 3 sets x 5 reps = 4,125 pound tonnage
This is a tonnage increase of 22% over a two to three year period. Compare this to the 137% increase experience during the first few years of training. Quite a dramatic slowdown. And this rate of increase only gets worse with time.

So the question becomes: Just how do we increase tonnage when we are struggling to improve our strength? The answer involves adding sets.

Let's backtrack and look at our intermediate lifter. If he would have bumped volume AND weight, his overall tonnage would have increased. This creates a potential for improved muscle and gains. The greater the challenge, the greater the potential reward.
  • 225 pounds x 3 sets x 5 reps = 3,375 pound tonnage
  • 275 pounds x 5 sets x 5 reps = 6,875 pound tonnage
This is a tonnage increase of 104%. Quite a substantial increase over the 3 sets by 5 reps protocol.

Now, certainly, the addition of sets could possibly slow the rate of progression slightly, but only because of the volume difference. It is unlikely that the rate by which you add one rep max strength will slow. The opposite is likely to happen. There is a good chance you will be stronger.

Here's what I mean...

Let's say it took you two years to bump your bench press 3x5 from 225 to 275 pounds. During that same time, and because of the extra two sets you added, perhaps you could "only" get to 265 for 5 sets of 5 reps.

You didn't get to 275 for a 5x5. So what. Which lifter is stronger... Lifter A, who performs 275x3x5, or lifter B who performs 265x5x5? My bet is on the second lifter.

Periodization of Volume and Intensity

Nothing in lifting is simple. Obvious statement. No matter what type of approach you use, the heart and drive of the lifter will fuel progress. With that said, let's explore some simple ways to periodize the addition of volume and intensity, or weight relative to your one rep max.

Will be using autoregulation. This simply means that we will not force weight additions, but let them come to us when we reach specific goals or targets.

I am not a fan of linear progression. It takes the mindset that weight must be added weekly at any cost. The focus is moved from quality reps, using good form, to hitting a specific number of reps. This often occurs at the expense of good form.

I'm not about that life.

Basic Periodization of Volume and Intensity

Here we are going to move from two sets to five sets. The final set for this exercise will be performed for as many safe reps as possible. Stop that set when you either feel like you might fail on the next rep, or your form starts to break down.

When you are able to reach eight or more reps on your final set, add an addition set the next time you perform this exercise. Let's look at an example.

Our lifter is able to perform a bench press of 225 pounds for 2 sets of 5 reps. During his next workout, he knocks out 5 reps on the first set and 6 reps on the second. Because he failed to reach 8 reps on the second set, no sets are added.
  • Set 1 - 225 x 5
  • Set 2 - 225 x 6 (Performed for max reps)
Several weeks pass, and our lifter is finally able to knock out 8 reps on the second set. Because he has reached his goal, it's time to add in a third set.
  • Set 1 - 225 x 5
  • Set 2 - 225 x 8 (Performed for max reps)
The next workout goes like this:
  • Set 1 - 225 x 5
  • Set 2 - 225 x 5
  • Set 3 - 225 x 6 (Performed for max reps)
Once our lifter reaches 8 or more reps on the final set, a fourth set will be added. This process repeats itself until a fifth set is added. Once this occurs, and out lifter reaches 8 or more reps on the fifth and final set, we add 5 pounds to the bar and drop back down to two total sets. The process is started all over again.
  • Set 1 - 225 x 5
  • Set 2 - 225 x 5
  • Set 3 - 225 x 5
  • Set 4 - 225 x 5
  • Set 5 - 225 x 8 (Performed for max reps)
Note that we are both periodizing intensity and volume. As the volume of sets goes up, the intensity is dropping slightly. Performing 2 sets of 5 reps is far more intense (weight relative to your one rep max) than is performing 5 sets of 5 reps.

As the volume goes up, the intensity goes down. When the intensity goes up, the volume is dropped.

Advanced Periodization of Volume and Intensity

A similar protocol, here we will be pushing for 8 reps per set before adding another. Start with 2 sets. It's best to pick a weight that allows you to reach 8 reps for the first set. Your first bench press workout might look like this:
  • Set 1 - 225 x 8
  • Set 2 - 225 x 6 (Performed for max reps)
Once you reach 8 reps for both sets, it's time to add a third set.
  • Set 1 - 225 x 8
  • Set 2 - 225 x 8 (Performed for max reps)
Third set added. A few weeks later your workout might look like this:
  • Set 1 - 225 x 8
  • Set 2 - 225 x 8
  • Set 3 - 225 x 7 (Performed for max reps)
Continue this pattern until you are able to perform 5 total sets of 8 reps. At this point, you add 5 pounds to the exercise and drop back down to 2 total sets.
  • Set 1 - 225 x 8
  • Set 2 - 225 x 8
  • Set 3 - 225 x 8
  • Set 4 - 225 x 8
  • Set 5 - 225 x 8 (Performed for max reps)
Here, the periodization of intensity is more dramatical. It will take a longer period of time to progress from 2 sets to 5 total sets, but the strength payoff is worth it.

End Notes

You can apply these same principles to any exercise, and set and rep scheme. Perhaps you are doing cable curls. Start with 2 sets of 15 reps and build up to 5 sets of 15. Or for barbell rows, start with 2 sets of 10 reps and work up to 5.

The possibilities are endless.

You must understand that tonnage will not always be consistent. That's OK. On average, the tonnage you will use during this style of periodization will be greater than on a conventional set and rep scheme.

In addition, the cycling of volume and intensity should treat your body a little better. Finally, performing only safe and quality reps will also work to keep you healthy and lifting in the long run.
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