Plan your training using intensity, volume, frequency

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Manipulate the intensity, volume and frequency to your personal needs and you can easily create your own training plan. In this article you will read how to do this and what the biggest mistakes are people make.

The most straightforward training plan tells you something about the intensity, volume and frequency of your workouts. Let’s have a quick look at what these parameters mean.

Intensity tells us how hard you are exercising at the moment. Walking your dog is at a lower intensity than running as fast as possible. RPE, speed, heart rate or power can quantify the intensity. If you produce more power while running, biking, swimming, rowing, etc. then your heart rate will be higher and in general you will go faster. You rate of perceived exertion (RPE) will be higher as well. Intensity alone is not enough to know how hard the workout is. A sprint is more intense than jogging, but what if the sprint is only 50 meters and you are jogging a marathon…

Volume can help by telling you more about the duration of a workout. In our example, a marathon obviously has more volume than a 50-meter sprint. Therefore, distance or duration can quantify volume. Sometimes you can choose your own volume, but if you join a group class you probably follow volume instructions.

The combination of volume x intensity tells you how hard a workout is. A simplified example:

One workout may take 1 hour and your rate of perceived exertion is a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. Another workout may only take 0.5 hour but you give everything you got and your RPE is 10 out of 10. The first workout (1-hour x 5 RPE = 5) could be equally hard as the second (0.5-hour x 10 RPE = 5). Let’s not dive into the exact numbers, but understand that:

you need to look at volume and intensity to understand the characteristics of a single workout.

Frequency is the missing link between a single workout and a training program. Frequency tells you how often you exercise. Workouts per week could be an easy way to quantify frequency. You will immediately understand that performing a hard workout (volume x intensity) once a week is a totally different training program than doing that workout multiple times a week. After reading the simplified example of volume x intensity you will also understand that two hard workouts per week may be as hard as 4 medium workouts per week. In other words:

it makes no sense to look at intensity, volume or frequency separately.

Use intensity, volume and frequency to create your training program

If you want to boost your cardiovascular system and get fitter, you have to push yourself every now and then to get those results. If you don’t challenge yourself, you won’t adapt. That however does not mean you need to challenge yourself at intensity, volume and frequency. But where to start?

When you are not a professional athlete, my guess is that often at least one of the 3 ingredients for a good training program is limited. Maybe at a certain point you don’t have the motivation to go out for a high intensity workout. Or maybe you don’t have enough time to do a high-volume workout after a long working day. Your frequency could be limited as well, because you have other hobbies or because you are often busy with bringing your kids to their (sports) activities.

All of these limitations are perfectly normal and should not be a problem for your training plan. You just need to balance out the ingredients differently. Weekends could be perfect to increase volume and decrease intensity. Busy weeks are perfect to increase intensity and decrease frequency. Be creative and avoid the two most common mistakes.

Common mistakes to avoid

When a good balance is the way to go, the most obvious mistake to make is to be out of balance. I have personally experienced a lot of athletes who don’t have the time to train long (volume) and often (frequency). This would not be a problem if they did not forget to increase the third ingredient: intensity. But often they do forget, and sometimes even on purpose “because the pro’s train at low intensity as well”. If that is the case, then you should also copy their volume and frequency to get the same results. Which you can’t, because you have other commitments to.

If you want to become or stay fit but don’t have a lot of time, increase your intensity!

You’ll be surprised how fit you can be in a fraction of time.

Of course, it is also possible to be at the other side of imbalance. You train too hard too often. This can happen especially when you don’t take into account that work for instance, is a stressor as well. (Work)stress decreases your ability to cope with a high amount of training stress. Easily said: you can’t train like a pro when you don’t recover like a pro. And sitting behind a desk while working (you) is not the same as laying on a couch focusing on recovery (pro athlete).

In practice

If you want to log and quantify your workouts, you could multiply RPE x Duration (hours) x Workouts per week. Or use any of the aforementioned quantifiers. You then easily see if you balanced the three ingredients correctly. If you want to be sure you don’t apply too much training stress, measuring your HRV could be a good way to monitor this.

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