The 3 Stages of Real Strength Training

The Training Volume Secret

Volume Defined

Volume is the total amount of work you perform in the gym during any given workout. We measure this work by sets, reps, and the weight being used. Reps and weight are the actual mathematical definition of work. Work (volume) = distance (repetition) multiplied by force (weight).

Managing volume in training is probably the hardest thing for lifters to understand. However, you need to understand it so you'll never overtrain or under-train again.

We must stress the body only with the amount of volume we actually need. Too much and you'll overtrain and lose gains; too little and you won't stimulate an adaptation: muscle or strength gains. As strength increases, more reps are needed to continue to make gains. However, there's a point where the reps must taper and decrease in order to keep the progress going.

As a beginner, you need very little stimulus to create an adaptation. Doing more isn't going to make you grow any faster; it's just going to slow your progress. You must be patient and let the body grow. After your warm-up sets, three working sets of five reps on the bench, squat, and lat pulls are all you need to stimulate the body enough to grow.

It's boring, but enjoy it. You'll wish gains came this easy when you're older and stronger. Below is an example of this training method:

Day 1

  • Bench Press: 3x5
  • Lat Pulldown or Barbell Row: 3x5
  • Squat: 3x5

Day 2

  • Off

Day 3

  • Repeat day 1 with 5 or 10 more pounds on all the lifts.

Day 4

  • Off

Repeat this model from week to week. It's seriously this simple. Lift, eat, sleep, and grow.

You might not even need to spend an hour in the gym at this point. And it might not feel like you're getting shredded or putting in hard work. Why? Because you just aren't strong enough to make it hard. Benching 95 pounds for 3 sets of 5 is going to take about 10 minutes, warm-up included. Same with a 135-pound squat.

All the more reason you should focus on this and get away from being weak. This can be the hardest stage of training. It's bland, it's boring, and you don't feel like you're doing a lot. Just focus on your numbers for motivation and watch them go up because this is the quickest way to escape weakness.

Deadlifts and overhead pressing should eventually be added after a couple of months of this basic beginner stage. They simply just aren't that important right now.

It's now 3 to 6 months after you started (maybe even longer depending on just how new you are), and aside from adding a few curls at the end of each workout and totally blowing off one or two workouts to get a bodybuilder pump session in, you've stuck to the boring yet very progressive program.

Now you're squatting in the 300s, benching in the 200s, and deadlifting in the low 400s. At this point, gains are starting to get harder to come by. The body needs more stimuli to promote more adaptations. This is because you're starting to get strong! Your body has become resilient to the loads of work and you're growing hair on your chest.

This is where the classic 5x5 method come into play. We're still focused on the big barbell movements; we're just adding more sets and reps to each training day. This is probably the most popular strength method out there. A typical variation (in this case, the Texas Method) looks like this:

Day 1 (high volume)

  • Squat: 5x5
  • Bench: 5x5
  • Deadlift: 5x5

Day 2 (light)

Day 3 (high volume or rep maxing)

  • Squat: 5x5 or 5RM squat (the most weight you can do for 5 reps)
  • Bench: 5x5 or 5RM bench
  • Chin-Up: 2 sets

This training hell will build mental fortitude that's hard to develop in any other way. Lots of people jump ship at this point and find other ways to make gains, but you're not going to be one of them. You'll earn mad respect from the veteran lifters if you can look them in the eye and say, "I survived the Texas Method."

You can't stay in hell too long or you'll get burned. Your lifts are now strong enough that doing a single heavy set of a major compound movement is very taxing on the body. This is why reps need to start to drop off in the major barbell movements. The weight is so heavy that your equation needs to be rebalanced (remember, volume is a combination of weight and reps).

This is where we start to throw in assistance exercises – secondary compound movements like Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, incline bench, dumbbell work, etc. These exercises help stimulate the body without the brutal volume of the big lifts.

Your program should have one compound exercise for the day, with one heavy set, and a shit-ton of accessory exercises that complement the major movement. This is one of the reasons Westside methodology works for those who are insanely strong – low volume on the big lifts. This type of training will look something like this:

Day 1

  • Squat: 1x5
  • Good Morning: 3x8
  • Leg Press: 2x10
  • Prowler: 20 yards x 3 sets

Day 2

  • Bench Press: 1x5
  • Dumbbell Incline Press: 3x12
  • Lying Triceps Extension: 3x12

Day 3

  • Rack Pull: 1x5
  • Deficit Romanian Deadlift: 3x8
  • Lunge: 3x8
  • Chin-Up: 3x8

Day 4

  • Overhead Press: 1x5
  • Dumbbell Bench Press: 3x12
  • Dip: 3x12

Notice that the frequency of the major barbell movements has dropped off. Again, because we're so strong at this point, the stimulus created has a longer lasting effect. We don't need to bench three times a week anymore, so we won't.

This is a great way to check if you're in the right stage of your training progression. There's a normal amount of soreness to be expected from training. Some tender traps and pecs, along with tight hamstrings and quads for a couple days out of the week is to be expected, especially if these movements or rep schemes are new to you.

Then there's debilitating, system-wide, chronic soreness, the kind where you can't get off the toilet, sit up in bed, or reach your arm to grab the protein bag out of the cupboard. If this is happening day after day, your volume is too high. This isn't healthy.

For the gain-obsessed, this type of training won't induce progress. Soreness like this is literal destruction of the body that's not repairable. Dial back the volume and watch the gains return.

Aaron Fick is a strength coach, specializing in the barbell. After his service in the U.S. Army, as a heavy platform artilleryman, he began coaching everyone from special-forces operators to Division-I athletes. Aaron is continually working to spread the fundamental truth of health and performance in barbell strength training. Follow Aaron Fick on Facebook