Exercise volume is a valuable component of a fitness training program to consider as you start to look at the bigger picture of physical activity and exercise. Training volume looks at the overall load of activity you complete within a given time frame. Training volume can be examined based on a given exercise, a day of activity, across a week’s activities, or a full training cycle. The type of training you are participating in will change how you can measure and define training volume on a small scale.
When we explore volume and identify ways to measure volume, we can identify a few specific common units in the literature. Typically for aerobic activities, volume is measured as: kilocalories per week (kcal · wk−1), MET-minutes per week (MET · min · wk−1), or MET-hours per week (MET · h · wk−1). This volume would be measure based on the relationship between the total time of activity and the intensity of the activity over the course of the week. This measure can change over time as it is also influenced across a lifespan or training cycle based on individual adaptations to exercise. That is to say that over time as you are following a running training program, your training load may be the same but you can travel a further distance utilizing the same amount of energy as your body adapts to maintain a lower intensity at the same speed (or the same intensity at a faster speed).
If you are participating in muscular strength based activity, instead of using a kilocalories per week based measure, you may instead want to use a measure of total weight moved by taking the (sets · repetitions · weight used).
If you were performing a dumbbell biceps curl for 3 sets of 10 repetitions with 25 pounds in each hand (50 total pounds), that means you had a total daily exercise volume of:
- ( 3 sets · 10 reps · 50 pounds ) = 1,500 pounds for your biceps curls
If you performed dumbbell biceps curls twice per week within your program, that means your total weekly exercise volume of biceps curls would be 3,000 pounds.
When it comes to training volume, the common question that arises is – how much is enough? and what is too much? Finding this balance is an essential component of developing an individualized, progressive, and meaningful program.
How much is enough?8
When looking specifically at health related benefits, we see large scale studies that are identifying the rate of 1000 kcal · wk−1 through a combination of moderate and vigorous intensity activity are related to lowered risk of cardiovascular disease and premature mortality. We see this relating directly to the recommendations listed in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, American Heart Association (AHA), and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommendations discussed in the earlier.
What is too much?8
Typically, when the conversation of “too much” exercise comes into play, it is not necessarily the actual participation in exercise that is the root cause of the problem or even the individual’s total training volume. “Too much” often relates more directly to the type of exercise being performed and the intensity of that exercise. Highly strenuous activity, particularly that the individual is not accustomed to, is often the cause of potential injury/illness related to exercise which include coronary heart disease (including acute myocardial infarction and sudden cardiac death) and musculoskeletal complications (such as soft tissue injuries).
Higher intensity activities such as running, competitive sports, and exercise that your body is not physically accustomed to increase the risk of potential complications including musculoskeletal injury, muscle soreness, and a loss of strength (attrition). In extreme cases it can lead to a condition called rhabdomyolysis (or “rhabdo”) which is a condition where the damage to the skeletal muscles is so great that the tissue begins to break down and impact vital organs in the body which can occasionally lead to kidney failure, cardiac arrhythmias, and in rare cases, death. While the occurrence of rhabdomyolysis is very rare, it can occur in both experience and novice individuals who participate in eccentric exercise that they are not accustomed to, particularly in hot environments.
Low- to moderate- intensity activities have a relatively low risk of complication associated with participation. For this reason, the development of initial fitness and maintaining good balance within a program of low- to moderate-intensity and manageable higher intensity activities are key to identifying a starting point for total volume and progression through a fitness program.
Carol Garber, Bryan Blissmer, Michael Deschenes, et al. Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2011, 43(7), 1334-1359. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318213fefb