I see so many people at the gym sabotaging their gains because they either don’t do nearly enough, or do way too much. Some people don’t want to get huge or are afraid of injury so they don’t use enough weight, or only train a couple times a week. It is nearly impossible to make any gains without consistent training and decent volume. Others of us have a more is better mindset and push our bodies to the limit every day. Training in this constant state of fatigue is just as detrimental to progress as not training enough.
So how much volume and intensity should you be doing? This is an extremely difficult question to answer, as it is very different for each person based on genetics, gender, training experience, etc. For example, women can generally handle more volume than men. Also, the more trained you are, the more volume you can handle. It will take time for you to figure out for yourself, but I will give you a few ideas to start you out.
#1. You must work, and you must work hard.
In order to see progress, whether is be in gaining muscle, strength, or endurance, you must provide enough stimulus to the body in order for it to adapt. This includes volume and intensity. If you go to the gym and only do a couple sets, barely breaking a sweat you will not see results. If on the other hand, you do a lot of sets, but do not use heavy enough weights to cause damage to the muscle you will also not see results. The same can be said for endurance training. If you want to improve your 10k time you will not do this by running short distances once in a while (not enough volume) or by walking 10 miles every day (not enough intensity). You have to push your body in order for it to change. Working out should be hard.
#2. You must progress your workouts as you progress.
This is probably where I see the most people go wrong. In order to keep improving you have to keep progressing your volume, your intensity, or both. Many of us start out on our workout journey, see some gains, and continue to do the same workouts with the same weights over and over again. Our bodies adapt to the stimulus we put on them, so progress will come to a halt if you are not consistently increasing the stimulus. If you squat 100lb for 5 sets of 5 your body adapts and gets stronger. So in a couple months of doing this workout it will be easy for you, and you will have to lift more weight in order to keep getting stronger.
#3. Recovery is king.
Something that many of us don’t realize is that gains don’t happen in the gym, they happen when you’re recovering from the gym. When you hit a hard workout you cause damage to the muscles. Then when you are relaxing or sleeping your body repairs the muscles, and this is when they grow. This means that if you train too hard too often your body will not have the time to repair itself before your next sessions. If you never allow your body the time and give it the resources (proper nutrition) to recover, you will never see any progress. The more recovery you allow, the harder you can train. If you are unable to get proper sleep, nutrition, or have too much stress, you will need to reduce your training volume accordingly. Recovery is just as important as training, so don’t ignore it.
It all comes down to finding the balance of pushing yourself hard enough to make gains, but not so hard that you are unable to recover. Finding that balance is tricky, as it is different for everyone, and is a constantly moving target. (The fitter you are, the more volume you will be able to handle). What you really have to do is learn to listen to your body. Start by making sure your workouts are hard. They should hurt, the weight should feel heavy, you should feel tired, and you should get sore. BUT it should be possible. Don’t go so far that you can’t finish the reps without extremely long breaks, or that you can’t move the next day. Then make sure you do everything you can to recover. This includes eating plenty of healthy food, sleeping, and relaxing. The best way to determine if you have recovered properly is how your next workout goes. For example, if you do 5 sets of 10 squats at 100lb on Monday, then on Thursday, your next leg day, you struggle to do 100lb for a set of 6, you are not recovered from Mondays workout. In general, if you are struggling to accomplish something that is typically doable for you, you likely need more time to recover.
It will take some trial and error to find the amount of volume that your body can handle, but once you find that sweet spot you will see great progress. The secret to all the gains: train really hard, but not too hard 😉