One of the biggest questions when it comes to strength training is how much volume to use to achieve maximal gains.  Yeah, 3 sets of 8 reps works great for a beginner but if you have been doing 3×8 for the past 10 years you may have stopped getting any significant results, oh say 9 and 1/2 years ago.

I have even seen old programs that my clients have given me that was put together from a past trainer or friend of theirs  that has 3×10 of every exercise across the board.  It seems to me like people are really attached to the numbers 8 and 10.  8, 8 repetitions ah, ah, ah.

Even more important than the actual exercises (unless you still have an “arms” day in which case you should…..) is the manner in which you vary the intensity and volume in order to adapt to said loads.  Basically, you should be altering those variables in order to avoid hitting the inevitable plateau.

I wrote a post a while back where I got into the Law of Accommodation which basically states that it is inefficient to use standard exercises or a standard training load over a long period of time.  Training programs must vary in order to

To avoid or decrease the negative influence of accommodation, training programs are periodically modified.  In principle, there are two ways to modify training programs: quantitative or qualitative.  Basically, you want to regularly change the loading parameters for the exercises in your program which can be done a few different ways.

  • Change the reps
  • Change the sets
  • Change the load
  • Change the exercise variation
  • Change the rest

I am NOT talking about that crap you hear on the P90X infomercial that says you need “muscle confusion” to make gains.  That is a garbage term and should be stricken from your memory.  Our muscles don’t need to be confused, they need to be trained.  

This is where having a solid periodized training program comes in.  So what exactly does that even mean?

Periodized Training=Variation on a weekly/monthly basis

Simple, right?

Sort of, but there are so many different loading parameters and many ways for someone to get stronger that it is hard to pinpoint which one will work best for you or your client.  I don’t want to get into these today but here is a great article by Eric Cressey on T-Nation that breaks down some of theses loading protocols.

My recommendation for beginners is to follow a linear periodization model.  Simply, you want to focus on one characteristic per phase (4-6 weeks) whether it be strength, size, speed, endurance, or sexiness.   I’m not saying that you won’t make gains in other areas (everything you do trains sexiness) but you should stay focused on one area for at least a month in order to make solid gains.  This works well because in theory, it is difficult for the body to make gains in multiple areas although it is possible.

For a more experienced trainee, a more complex model such as undulating periodization may be more beneficial.  This type of training gets a little more tricky as you are training multiple systems at once and varying the intensity weekly and in some instances daily.  Whats interesting is that this method tends to be more beneficial to the advanced lifter and just as beneficial for the beginner.  One program I recommend checking out is Eric Cressey’s Show and Go since he did a phenomenal job of putting this model into practice.  

The big difference for the beginner is that this is a lot more technical and for most will be confusing as hell.  I use my judgement when using this type of programming with my clients but for most beginners I focus my attention on getting them to learn the lifts first and foremost.  Here are the steps that I go though with a beginner’s resistance training program:

  1. Learn the lift
  2. Focus on hypertrophy/volume
  3. Focus on strength

Improve the lifts.  Increase the weights.  Make gains.  It is that simple.

If you want to learn more about how to design strength training programs I recommend checking out:

Here is some research on various periodization models for coaches:

Written by Steve