We’ve all heard the saying “Less is more.” But in the case of training, that’s false - more is more. We should all strive to train to our maximal recoverable volume - i.e., the most amount of training we can do and still recover enough to train consistently and achieve our goals.
How do we find that sweet spot where we’re forcing an adaptation, but not driving ourselves into overtraining? The answer lies is periodization - not just of macrocycles (yearly), microcycles (weekly), and mesocycles (4-6 weeks, usually) of training, but daily regulation of volume and intensity to stave off excess fatigue. Overreaching is a type of training phase in which the volume is deliberately excessive, in order to force an adaptation. The lifter will often experience a loss of strength. But the phase is only meant to be temporary, and the volume is eventually scaled back as loads increase.
What we want to do is drive as much stimulus to the muscles as possible while minimizing fatigue of the central nervous system. Even in an overreaching mesocycle, we want the majority of fatigue to be localized to muscles and not the CNS. Excessive CNS fatigue will prevent daily sessions from being productive because the athlete will simply be unable to complete the necessary volume at the prescribed loads.
For example, a squat development mesocycle might comprise six weeks of increased frequency and volume of squatting. Squatting can be very stressful on the CNS, so the coach needs to adjust the load appropriately in order to ensure the lifter isn’t overwhelmed by the volume and intensity right off the bat. Typically such a cycle will begin with relatively higher volume and lower load, then slightly reduce volume over a course of weeks
Using ancillary exercises
While managing load and volume for key exercises is the time-tested method of staving off fatigue, there’s another method that can allow the athlete to maintain volume and intensity without inducing excess CNS fatigue: using ancillary exercises that are designed to hit the main muscle groups that drive the primary movement, but don’t induce as much general fatigue.
A great example of this is belt squats. Belt squats allow the lifter to produce a natural squatting motion and use heavy load without the general fatigue that accumulates from having to stabilize a heavy barbell on the shoulders. A typical squat progression in a powerlifting program, for example, might look like this:
Build to a 3RM
Reduce weight by 10% and perform 5 sets of 3 reps
Performing 5 sets of triples at 90% of your 3RM is undoubtedly going to be very tiring. But if belt squats are substituted for the volume work, the lifter can train the musculature of the legs and hips at high intensity and volume without generating as much systemic fatigue as would be accumulated doing the same amount of work under a barbell.
Training to maximal recoverable volume isn’t an indefinite process - far from it. On the contrary, it’s a phase in a periodization cycle that we should aim for, but then dial back. Periodization simply refers to planned training cycles that vary in frequency, intensity, and volume. The standard division is:
Macrocycle (long term, anywhere from 6 months to a year)
Mesocycle (months or multiple weeks)
The macrocycle represents the broader goals and training plan. Each micro- and mesocycle is designed to help the athlete achieve their goals by manipulating the above-mentioned variables. A strength-focused mesocycle, for example, will often start with lower loads but higher volume and frequency. As the load increases, the volume is decreased slightly, and frequency may be dialed back as well. After peaking at maximal recoverable volume, the athlete will enter a deload that allows them to manage inflammation and recover from the intensity of the previous mesocycle while still reinforcing the motor skill essential to proper execution of the core lifts.
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