The Concept of Workload
by Bill Starr
Understanding and using the concept of workload is very valuable to anyone who’s seriously interested in getting stronger. It provides you with useful information on just how much work you’re really doing. This, in turn, helps you analyze your current program and plan your future workouts. If you don’t know exactly how much total work you’re doing, this planning process is usually hit-or-miss.
Workload refers to the total amount of weight moved in a given day, week or month,. it is simple to calculate: Multiply the amount of weight on the bar by the number of reps performed, then the figures for all the sets together. While this process is quite basic, it’s often misunderstood. This is partly because there are two aspects of workload: the total amount of weight lifted, which is the volume, and the intensity of an exercise or workout. These two factors are closely related, but they’re not the same.
Here’s the difference. Monday, a heavy day, finds you using the following weights on the squat for five reps each: 135, 225, 295, 345 and 375. Throw in one back-off set of 295 for eight, and you have a workload for this exercise of 9,215 pounds, which you accomplish in 33 reps. The number of reps is important, for it has a bearing on the intensity, and I’ll explain that in a moment.
Friday is your medium day. You take the same warmups – 135, 225 and 295 for five reps – but then you do triples with 355 and 390, along with a back-off set of eight with 295. Your total workload is 7,870 pounds, which you do in 29 reps.
Wait a minute, you say. Since you actually handled a heavier weight than you did on Monday, isn’t this also a heavy day? No, because not only is your total weight lifted less than Monday’s total, but your intensity is less as well.
To determine the intensity, divide the number of reps into the total amount of weight lifted. On the heavy day you moved 9,215 in 33 reps, which gives you an average lift of 279 pounds. That’s your intensity for the squat on that day. On your medium day you moved 7,870 pounds in 290 reps, an intensity of 271 pounds.
Which means your light day needs to fall sufficiently below that. I believe that workload is the most valuable factor in determining poundages for your light day. In far too many instances ambitious lifters will do too much work on their light day and end up overtraining. As a general rule I have my lifters use 50 pounds less on their light squat day than they used for their top set of fives on their heavy day. So, if you did 3785 for five on Monday, you only use 325 for five on the top set of your light day.
Until you establish a solid foundation, you should only do one set at this weight, but after that I suggest building up to three work sets with the same weight. In the above example you’d do 135, 225, 325, 325 and 325 for five reps each with no back-off. This adds up to 6,675 pounds, performed in 25 reps, so the intensity is 267 pounds. That keeps you within the parameters of the heavy, light and medium system.
Quite often strength athletes feel they’re not doing enough work on their light day and start to add extra sets or more reps. One of my athletes at Hopkins was stuck at the same top-end weight for his fives and triples for more than a month. since this is rather unusual for anyone who adheres to the outlined program, I asked if he was following the routine on the board exactly. Sheepishly, he confessed that he believed the light day was much too easy, so he’d been doing 10 reps with his work weight rather than just five. “But fives were too easy,” he staunchly declared.
Even so, by doing 10 reps with those weights, he’d moved his workload to 17,850 pounds, almost double what he did on his heavy day. Without the benefit of a light day he became chronically overtrained, and all progress halted. Once he adjusted his routine and started doing fives on Wednesday, he began making progress right away.
I had another athlete who broke the light day rule, but he did it in such a subtle manner that I had difficulty spotting it. He was using the correct weight on his light day but was slipping in one extra work set. When I finally saw what he was doing and confronted him, he stated that he thought he could use the extra work, and since the poundage wasn’t really taxing, he didn’t believe it could hurt. That one extra set of 325 for five moved his total workload up another 1,675 pounds, pushing it above the medium day. Once again, the little bit of additional work on his light day was hurting his medium day, which in turn adversely affected his next heavy day.
There’s a very fine line between doing enough work and overtraining. Calculating workload is one way to know exactly what you’ve done in a session, as well as for the week and month. The figures don’t lie, and you can use them for your benefit.
Workload is extremely useful for telling you when to add more work exercises, sets and/or reps to your weekly schedule. The key to progress is to move the workload up in a steady, consistent manner. Beginners can usually add to their workloads rather quickly once they’ve spent the time to build a solid base. Beginners have lots of enthusiasm and energy, and their workloads aren’t yet so demanding that they can’t recover properly. Once the weekly workload approaches 75,000 pounds, however, you have to slow your progress.
There are several effective ways to increase your workload slowly and avoid overtraining. You can do it by adding a few extra sets on the way to your top-end weights, performing them either as warmups or intermediate sets. Another method is to do them as back-off sets after you handle your heaviest weight. They can also be done at the top end, but this technique is only for advanced strength trainers.
The best method for beginners and intermediates is to add extra back-off sets. Two sets done with a weight some 50 pounds less than max for eight to ten reps adds considerably to the workload without being overly fatiguing. Once again, caution should be the order of the day. Many, in their zeal to make rapid gains, do too much too soon and end up going nowhere. If they continue to overtrain, they become stale or even get injured. This is most prevalent on the bench press because everyone is so anxious to move that poundage up and up. So, instead of doing one or two extra sets, the ambitious beginner does six or seven, which results in too much work.
You have to increase in workload slowly. That gives your body time to adjust to the new stress and be prepared for yet more work. Push the numbers up too fast, and your progress will come to a grinding halt at any level. The rule of thumb I’ve found to be effective is 10 percent a week for beginners and intermediates and, when you reach the advanced level, 10 percent a month. It may not seem like much, but adding 7,000 pounds to a monthly workload is considerable.
The question invariably comes up, “How do I know when I should add more work.” The best method is to judge by your recovery. Early on you may get quite sore from the tamest workouts, but after a few weeks the same program becomes rather easy and you’re not at all sore the next day. That’s the signal to move your workload up a notch.
Adding a couple of sets and one auxiliary exercise is the next step. On the bench press, for example, doing two extra back-off sets with a moderate weight and two sets of straight-arm pullovers for high reps is plenty. The extra work will get you a bit sore, which is good and indicates that you have worked the muscles sufficiently. If you stay sore for three or four days, though, you did too much. Knowing the difference is certainly one of the keys to success in strength training.
At some point, however, it actually becomes detrimental to add more exercises, sets or reps because it makes the workout too long. This brings up the question, “How long can a workout be and still be productive?” Many authorities currently contend that anything over an hour is too much, explaining that after an hour the testosterone supply is depleted and you cannot get stronger. I don’t agree.
I do believe that testosterone plays an important role in strength development – but not the only role. If a person has built a solid base of training, he or she can benefit from longer workouts. I’ve had a great number of athletes who were able to train hard and heavy for two continuous hours and still make personal records on their final exercise. It’s largely a matter of conditioning.
Two-hour sessions should not be the norm, however. I reserve these longer workouts for the heavy day. The other workouts should not last more than an hour and a half. That being the case, how is it possible to move the workload up even more? Add another light day. Schedule this additional session right after your heavy day, on Tuesday. This workout should be quite short, especially at first. It’s a perfect day to do those extra exercises that don’t seem to fit into the other workouts, and it’s also a good time to work weak areas or slip in some additional beach work.
The final method of adding workload, two-workouts-a-day training, is only for the very advanced. This concept has to be brought into the total workout picture very gradually. It’s easy to get so excited about doing the extra sessions that you become overtrained in the first week. You don’t really feel the fatigue until the end of the week, and in many cases it’s too late by then. Sickness and injury often occur, so whenever an athlete embarks on two-a-days, I restrict him to one double session a week for at least a month. Sometimes it’s even wiser to limit the double session for two or three months.
Several of the top Olympic lifters at the York Barbell Club used double sessions, and they helped tremendously, but we had a rather ideal lifting situation back then. We had a gym on the premises, ample time to train, plenty of vitamins and minerals at our disposal and jobs that weren’t that strenuous. Even with all those advantages, no one did more than two double sessions per week, and most did only one.
When I first used the workload factor, I was confused about how I should figure the auxiliary exercises for the smaller muscle groups. For example, calf raises done with 250 pounds for three sets of 30 seemed to be throwing the entire concept completely off, for the amount used on that one exercise exceeded my squat work for the entire week. I came up with an idea that works nicely. In my notes for each session I enter the auxiliary exercises in brackets next to the other work done for that bodypart, so I can look at my weekly chart and see that the huge total for my legs was largely due to my adding some extra calf raises, rather than from an increase in my squat load.
The same rule applies to curls, triceps work and shoulder exercises. Two sets of 20 reps with 100 pounds on pullovers will add 4,000 pounds to the total workload, but since they’re not as strenuous as bench presses, inclines or overhead presses, unless they’re bracketed, the figures could be misleading.
Then there’s the problem of the exercises you perform without any resistance, like chins and dips. Some people prefer not to include those movements in their total workload until they’re able to use some resistance. Others count their bodyweight as the resistance. It really doesn’t matter what approach you take as long as you’re consistent. Workload is a tool to help you, and it’s not a true comparison of anyone else’s program – unless, of course, that person is using the same criteria. You bracket these exercises so you can easily tell if you’re making progress. They should not alter the total workload appreciably, since you’re basically using the same weight throughout.
It’s valuable to use workload to analyze the amount of work you’re doing for the major muscle groups. Break down the into segments for the shoulder girdle, back and legs. You can quickly determine which area is getting the most attention. Most people are really not aware that they’re giving so much priority to one area until they take the time to calculate their workload. Almost always they discover that they’re doing a great deal more for their shoulder girdles than they are for their back and legs – while it should be the other way around. Balancing the workload properly is most important for consistent, steady strength gains. Strength originates in the center of the body, so it only follows that this area should get priority in any successful strength program. Trying to build a body disproportionately not only creates an unsymmetrical physique, but it eventually leads to problems in the form of injuries.
Workload is most revealing to the strength athlete who’s planning on entering a contest. Cycling is currently in vogue among powerlifters, but few take the time to calculate their workloads and so they miss an important aspect of preparation. The typical cycle begins with lifters handling relatively light weights for fairly high reps, eights or 10’s. They then graduate to the intermediate stage, where they lift moderate poundages for five or six reps. Finally, they move to the last stage where they do top-end weights for very low reps, twos or threes.
The flaw in this plan is that the athletes actually lower their workloads and even their intensity as they approach a contest. The European Olympic lifters did just the opposite, and I find their system much more logical and productive. I have my athletes move their workloads up and up, only backing off one or two weeks before a contest. They then lower the workloads drastically but continue to keep their intensity level high. They enter the contest with a huge backlog of work and go through the competition with a sense of ease, for they have a reserve of strength.
I’ve had powerlifters move their weekly workloads up to 180.000 pounds and Olympic lifters to 200,000 pounds. Needless to say, with that kind of training background a meet is a walk in the park.
There are other uses of workload. For example, it’s very useful for someone who’s starting back after a layoff. Doing too much too fast is an easy trap to fall into, especially if you were at a high level before you stopped. If you try to move back to your previous workload too rapidly, however, you invite problems. Figure out what you were doing before the layoff, then start conservatively and move back to that number gradually.
One winter I stayed with friends in Carmel Valley. We were quite isolated, and there were no gyms available, but I did have a 100-pound set at my disposal. I decided to try and match my regular workload with that small amount of weight. At the time I was handling close to 18,000 pounds on my heavy squat day, and I determined that if I did two sets of 80 reps with the 110, I’d match my workload for the lift.
I understood that the intensity factor would be down, but since I had no alternative, I went ahead. To say that the 80 reps were grueling would be a gross understatement – I don’t think any strength athlete really enjoys doing high reps. I used the same plan for my deadlift and bench press, ultra-high reps, until I matched my previous workload for that lift.
I did this twice a week for six weeks, and when I finally did get to a gym, I found to my pleasure that I was only down 15 pounds on my top-end sets of five for the squat, deadlift and bench. I gained the 15 pounds back quickly, for I had developed a solid endurance base with the high reps.
I have one final point. Since I believe in constantly altering the set and rep sequence and always include in my program some sessions with low reps, I’m not really concerned with the intensity factor. With variety built into the program, the intensity takes care of itself.
Establishing a solid foundation of consistent, hard training and slowly expanding it is the only way to achieve a higher level of strength. It’s much like building the base of a pyramid. Once that base is sufficiently wide, you can elevate the top.
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