A basic guide to programming variables for strength training.
If you are new to strength training, you may find programming discussions to be very confusing. Both lifters and coaches may be using terms that you don’t understand, at least in the context of strength training. This article will hopefully resolve some of your confusion and give you a better understanding of what people are talking about when discussing programming. There are eight programming variables. None of these are hard to understand; it is just learning what the definitions are within the context of strength training programming.
Exercise Selection: This variable is pretty straight-forward. Exercise Selection is merely what exercises we are choosing to perform within a given program.
Load: Load is how much weight; how much weight is loaded on the barbell, dumbbell, weight stack, machine, etc.. If a barbell is loaded with 225 lbs, the load is 225 lbs. The load is simply another way of saying how much weight.
Intensity: Intensity is how hard. How hard was the rep or set? A higher intensity set will be harder than a lower intensity set. It is prevalent for intensity to refer to a percentage of a one-rep max. It is important to note that if the intensity is being based on a lifter’s percentage of 1 rep max (which is probably the most common way intensity is objectified), it has to be within the context of the sets and reps performed at that percentage. A higher percentage does not always mean a higher intensity. For example: If a lifter performs a set of 3 reps @ 75%, this would be considered a low-intensity set of 3 because most male lifters can lift roughly 90% of their 1RM for a triple. However, if this same lifter performs a set of 8 reps @ 75%, this would be considered a high-intensity set because, for most male lifters, a set of 8 at this percentage would be very close to if not completely maximal. Maximal is the max amount of reps they could do at that given weight/intensity. It is important to note that, although used somewhat interchangeably, load and intensity are not the same thing. The load is how much weight is on the bar regardless of the intensity. Intensity is how hard the set or rep was irrespective of the load. However, please be aware that in general, programming discussion, intensity, and load can and will be used interchangeably because, generally speaking, when the load goes up, so does the intensity.
Volume: Volume is the product of reps x sets. It is the total amount of reps completed. For example: if you squat 3x5 (3 sets of 5 reps) on Monday, your total squatting volume for Monday is 15 reps. Volume can be calculated over any time frame, such as the total volume done over a single training day, total weekly volume, or even total amount of volume performed over an entire training cycle. Regardless of the time frame, it is still sets x reps. Be aware that in most circles, volume only refers to working sets and does not count warm-up sets and reps.
Tonnage: Tonnage is the product of volume x load (sets x reps x load = tonnage). For example: if you squat 200x3x5 (200 lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps) your tonnage would be 3,000 lbs (200 x 15 = 3,000). Just like volume, tonnage can be calculated over any time frame, from a single training session, weekly tonnage, monthly tonnage, or even the total tonnage over an entire training cycle.
Frequency: Frequency is how often or how many times a lifter trains or how often a given lift is performed, typically within the time frame of a week. If you squat three times a week, your weekly squatting frequency is three times a week. If you begin squatting four times a week, your squatting frequency went up. In most circles, frequency is typically measured weekly.
Specificity: This variable can be quite vague, depending on the context. Generally speaking, specificity is how specific the program is to helping you achieve your goals. If you are training for a Powerlifting meet, certain programs will be more specific to Powerlifting than others. You would not want to use a program that is more specific to Olympic Weightlifting to prepare for a Powerlifting meet and vice versa. Secondly, specificity can be in reference to how specific your exercise selection is to the four primary barbell lifts (the squat, deadlift, press, and bench press). For example, a front squat is less specific to the low bar back squat than a paused low bar squat because it is less similar to the parent movement. Some programs intentionally begin less specific and become more specific over time.
Density: Density is how much work is done in a given training session. The more work that is done during a training session, the denser the session is. For example: on Monday, you performed a workout, and this workout took you 60 minutes to complete. The following Monday, you perform the same workout, but this time, it only took you 45 minutes to complete. The 2nd Monday’s workout was denser because you completed the same amount of work in less time.
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what these variables are and their definitions. Understanding what these variables are is key to understanding what people are talking about when discussing programming.