The Three Variables of Training

Coach Liam Lalor

To cultivate a healthy body and an equally healthy spirit, one should move their bodies well and move them often. Now, how one moves them, with what effort, and how often remains up to the specific needs and wants of a given individual. That much, regardless of approach, seems a consistently and well-established truth. It infers the principle of specificity. Which is to say, if you’d like to become an efficient long distance runner, and your close friend would like to increase their 1RM bench press, then your paths of movement and training will be quite different than one another. It’s logical enough.

Where things get sticky for most is knowing what protocol is good, which one is bad, and which one is best for them. Of course this depends on goals, which I would always recommend having. Goals can be broad or they can be particular, the latter being most ideal. For an example in scale - maybe you’re looking to improve your overall strength, or maybe you’re in need of some shoulder stability or proprioception work. Whatever the focus might happen to be, I hope to shed some basic but helpful light. In general, there are three important variables to consider when developing an approach to training.


How often? To start, something is better than nothing. Moving is better than not moving. That said, this is where goals become crucial. Knowing the long-term, or the short-term, is important. Knowing the timeline. Are you training for an event? For improvement? For rehab? 8 weeks? 16 weeks? A year? To see quantifiable results, consistency and advancement (ie. progressive overload) are key. Recovery is a large player in determining frequency, with muscle groups benefiting from 48 hours rest after exertion. A general rule of thumb, then, would be 2-3 days a week, for at least 6-8 weeks to start. If you’re strength training, or aerobic training, or performance training, this remains a steady recommendation.


How heavy? Intensity, in the language of weight-lifting, refers to the measure of the movement in relation to maximum effort (generally speaking). For example, let’s say you have been training for months to improve your squat strength. If you are back squatting, and you know that your 1RM back squat is 225 pounds, and I have told you to squat 90% of that weight for 4 reps – I would be alluding to intensity. Knowing your 1RM in different compound exercises is helpful, and can be achieved with relative accuracy using methods that do not necessarily include a maximal effort lift (high risk for beginners and advanced alike). Different ranges of intensity are used for different focuses. Intensity can also refer to RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion, Borg scale). Intensity is a significant factor when it comes to progression of a training program. Manipulating intensity will alter the stimulus and therefore help to drive specific adaptation.


How many? Volume refers to the amalgamation of work done in a day or week or month through the variables of programming. Number of sets, reps, frequency of training, and intensity all contribute to volume. The greatest impact to volume comes from total number of sets and repetitions. Volume is arguably the most significant factor when it comes to gains, particularly in hypertrophy (muscle building). Too much or too little volume will effect recovery and adaptation directly, so being aware of volume is essential. Intensity and volume have a typically inverse relationship, to manage the value of both – depending on the goal. 3 sets of 10 reps, or 5 sets of 3 reps, or 8 rounds of intervals - it will all be relative to the number of workouts and level of intensity a week or in a month. Think of volume as accumulation – the total sum of work done.

These variables all serve as pillars that uphold the integrity of smart training. Developing a well-rounded understanding of these principles, and their respective importance, will only serve to bolster one’s approach to training and one’s optimally effective response to it.