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How a Misuse of Volume & Intensity Harms Athletic and Skill Development... And how to fix it.

A lot of training is much less productive than it could be due to our lack of understanding of how volume and intensity conflict with each other and our failure to identify the goal of an exercise or training session.

We can quickly fix the lack of understanding with some very simple examples.

If we imagine a full spectrum of running events, from a 40-yard dash to ultra marathons, the 100m sprint and the 200m sprint would both be way over on the left and would be considered short distance. But if we look at the times from the world’s best, we see that the 200m is done at a lower average velocity than the 100m, and that it requires more than double the 100m time to complete.

This is an example of volume limiting intensity, but if we flip things around and look at the other side of the spectrum, we can imagine an ultra marathon runner taking off into a full sprint off the start line and then being unable to finish the race. Now we have the intensity exerted limiting the volume we’re able to complete.

As a side note, we have to separate “intensity” from “effort.” Every one of these running events, at least when done competitively, are done at the athlete’s full effort, but intensity is dictated by the volume.

Note how quickly performance drops over time. As our higher-power energy systems (ATP-CP) run dry, weaker systems provide more of the energy. This is a fundamental law of the human body that can only be *slightly* improved, but not changed.

So, now that we have an understanding of this volume-intensity continuum, we can properly analyze our training goals and select parameters to achieve them. Let’s start with the simple examples then dive into how this applies to sport and skill training.

If the goal is speed and power (intensity):

  • Duration of each set or action must be under 5 seconds.

  • Effort must be maximized throughout the set - move as fast as possible.

  • Rest periods should be long enough to repeat the same effort over again without fatigue inhibiting our outputs.

  • With the exception of specifically targeting repeat sprint ability (in the volume category - different goal), we should not repeat sets beyond the point where our performance begins to drop.

  • Whatever resistance might be present (bodyweight, external weight, sled, etc.) must be light enough to allow the movement to occur at fast speeds.

If the goal is increasing strength/force output (intensity):

  • Duration of each set must be under 5-10 seconds.

  • Rest periods should be long enough to repeat the same effort over again without fatigue inhibiting our outputs.

  • We should not repeat sets beyond the point where our performance begins to drop.

  • Resistance should be heavy enough that it is near our current maximal ability. If it isn’t, we should be moving it as fast as possible to maximize intent.

If our goal is tissue development or endurance (volume):

  • Duration of each set is will depend on the intensity range we’re working in, but should be significantly longer than our previous examples.

  • Rest periods can vary. Fatigue may be more or less desirable depending on the complexity of the exercise (we want to maintain proper form and focus)

  • Performance drops are expected as fatigue sets in.

  • Resistance should be light enough that we can perform the desired high volume of repetitions without cheating the exercise.

These are very simple, isolated training examples. In the gym, training can be very black and white in this way. On the field or the court where you train your sport, there’s a lot more grey area but the same principles apply with the addition of the consideration to skill acquisition.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the following experience: You’re a drill in practice that has a skill component (shooting, dribbling, etc.), as the drill goes on fatigue builds up, and your ability to express your skill drops drastically. You can normally shoot with, say, 75% accuracy uncontested, but now you’re missing 8/10 shots.

When this happens, I think it’s a failure in the practice design that harms skill acquisition. You could make the choice to add more rest periods to keep fatigue lower to improve the practice of the skill, or you could choose to reduce the intensity of the drill to allow more total (quality) reps to be completed. Think back to prior examples, you’ll be able to get way more quality shots up doing spot shooting with a rebounder than if you’re playing 1v1 at a high intensity.

So we need to allocate goals to each drill in practice in order to apply the appropriate parameters to it.

If we want a high-repetition drill to learn a new skill/habit or further develop an old one (volume + skill):