JT’s Lab: Volume Training

Recently, the CrossFit Journal published an article by Brian Wilson describing a new method being employed by Potomac CrossFit to work on their member’s “Goats”. There are plenty of people at CrossFit Fenway making incredible progress towards their goals, but we’re always looking for more ways to help you make faster progress.

To that end, all of the trainers decided to start testing out variations on this Volume Training protocol, using different movement and training frequencies. This article may help explain why you’ve seen us doing some “non-CrossFitty” training, and why there are frequently long strings of numbers written all over the walls of the facility.

What is Volume Training?

Volume Training is a simple method to increase your strength – which then increases your work capacity. The reason it’s called “Volume” is that it is a way to increase the overall number of reps you perform without training to failure. I like it because it’s a very simple, very strictly bounded training method: you need 20 minutes, no more and no less.

On each minute, you attempt to perform a targeted number of reps. That target number will be small: not more than six. The goal is to maintain that number of reps for the entire twenty minutes – it is okay to lose strength and do fewer, but do not vary by more than two reps. For example, if I start with 5 reps in minute one, I want to finish minute twenty by doing 3-5 reps. Any fewer, and I’ve set that number too high to start. If I finish with 5 reps across the board, it’s time to increase the starting reps or increase the difficulty of the movement. (For a few examples, you can remove assistance bands, change your pull-ups to L-pull-ups, or change your rope ascent style.)

Choosing the Movements

Volume Training works well on simple bodyweight movements that need improving, particularly upper body movements. The movements you choose should be slow, The goal here is building the strength that underlies the more high-intensity movements we use. Volume Training is not the place to work on your explosiveness – CrossFit has lots of other effective ways to train that.

“Pulling” is one big category; movements in that area would include ring rows, pull ups, and rope ascents. “Pushing” is another broad category; pushups, ring dips, and handstand pushups are all pushing variations that can be trained. Outside of that, you could potentially work on other strength/skill movements: pistol progressions, muscle-ups, toes-to-bar, even double-unders could potentially benefit from an approach like this.

For my experiment, I decided to work on pullups and ring dips. I chose these movements to work one pushing and one pulling strength move. Both of these I need work on, and would like to become stronger so that I can move faster in metcons.

Establishing the Starting Point

At the start of this program, I could perform 10 kipping pullups when fresh, but could do maybe one dead-hang pullup – certainly not two, and not always one.

For dips, I could perform several unassisted – my maximum was 7 consecutive dips when fresh. However, that is nowhere near the strength needed to attack WODs effectively, and so I always scaled to a red band when a WOD called for Ring Dips.

So where does one start with Volume Training? I chose starting points based on my estimations of my capacity. For Ring Dips I chose 2 as my initial goal – and that was a bit high. I couldn’t make it all the way through on the first two days, but that’s okay: once my reps gave out, I put half a red band in place and did a slightly assisted reps for the remainder of the minutes.

For pullups, I knew I could not maintain any unassisted for twenty minutes, so I chose 3 with a single red band. That might have been high, but I knew I could use mental toughness to ensure I got at least one rep in each minute. My goal was to improve quickly, and to get rid of the red band as soon as possible.

Fitting It In

Where does Volume Training fit in to our standard CrossFit classes? I recommend doing it after class – you’re nice and warmed up, loose and limber and ready to exert in a simple strengthy way.

Of course, if that doesn’t work for you I recommend doing it before class. Or at lunch. Or after work. Or at home. The most important thing is that you do it. Frequently, I find that people make an excuse in arguing about what the “ideal” time to train is – and that excuse keeps them from actually training. Don’t sweat the details, just get it done.

Remember, Volume Training is 20 minutes that targets a bodyweight movement. This does not require the barbells or kettlebells at CrossFit Fenway. You can do this training using a pull-up bar in a doorframe at home, or the end of your bed for pushups at home, or just about anything anywhere.

For me, I find it easier to make structured time when I am in the facility – and usually find that I’m there with enough time before a class to starts that I can do my Volume Training before class. Your mileage may vary; just find a way to get it done.

How often should you run this? No more than 3 times per week for each movement, and no less than one rest day in between each session. I’d also suggest not training more than two movements at once, and not training two similar movements: don’t train ring dips and handstand pushups at the same time. For my two movements, I chose to alternate days – Monday Dips, Tuesday Pulls, Wednesday Dips, Thursday Pulls, Friday Dips, Saturday Pulls, and Sunday as a true Rest Day.

Trying It Out

So, having chosen movements, set targets, and established a schedule, it was time to try it out. Here’s a simple chart that shows the total reps completed in each training session for each movement. You’ll notice that they increase steadily.

Session 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Comments
Ring Dips 16 25 34 41 45 50 55 WOD off 67 29* 31* * with 20# vest
Pull Ups 30* 37* 46* 20 22 27 29 23 33 28 37 40 * with red band

So, how was that? I got rid of the red band on pullups after just 3 sessions, and I’m doing much better now. I’ll keep going with this; I want to move on to L-pullups and pull ups weighted with a vest eventually. You’ll notice that they always increase, but not in every session. I found that my dead-hang pullup strength was very sensitive, and very connected to my sleep and nutrition. (Session 8 was done on 2 hours of sleep, for instance.)

The dips showed even more dramatic improvement – my work capacity has exploded! For the last two sessions, I transitioned from 3 and 4 reps of bodyweight dips to wearing a 20 pound weight vest for 1 or 2 reps. In the middle of the training I did a WOD with a CrossFit Fenway class: AMRAP 10 of 10 Dips and 30 Double Unders. I got 4 rounds as RXd… and it was my first RXd WOD with ring dips.

Conclusions

Sleep well. Eat clean. Do your Volume Training – it works. It’s a great way to move from assisted or scaled bodyweight movements to the full RX.

Prescriptions

If you do WODs with any bodyweight movement scaled currently, we can design a Volume Training program for you that will get you to RX very quickly.

Pushups: If you are doing WODs from your knees, it’s time to get planked. Start your volume training by maintaining a strict plank form for pushups, but with your hands on an elevated surface. You can start at a window ledge if you have to – wherever it takes to get 3 pushups for 20 minutes. Then move down gradually to 24″ boxes, 20″ boxes, closer and closer until you’re on the ground doing full pushups for lots of reps! If you want to get even more ambitious from there, start adding weight vests.

Pullups: Simple. Start with bands, and ditch them as soon as possible.

HSPU: Full range of motion is the key. Use band harness and work on maintaining a good vertical form. Decrease the amount of band assistance on the “top band” of the harness gradually, until you no longer need the help.

Rope Climbs: Start with rope pullups. Then move on to rope climbs. Then eventually to “start from seated” rope climbs, and eventually get to L-seated hand-over-hand rope ascents and descents.

Something else? Ask us! Eric and the rest of us at CrossFit Fenway are more than willing to work with you and identify a plan for you to make progress quickly!

Appendix: Complete Data

This is the full record of my four weeks of volume training on Ring Dips. Each table is 20 entries: 4 columns of 5 minutes each. Read it starting at the top left, going vertically down, then over to the start of the next column. (Example: On the first day, 2/18, I held 2 reps for the first 5 minutes and then dropped down to 1 rep per minute.)

Your log book may end up looking something like this. It’s a good way to track your work minute-by-minute, and at a glance you can see how smoothly you’re progressing from session to session.

Date 2/18
2 1 1 -
2 1 - -
2 1 - -
2 1 - -
2 1 - -
Total 16
Date 2/20
2 2 1 1
2 2 1 1
2 2 1 -
2 1 1 -
2 1 1 -
Total 25
Date 2/23
2 2 2 1
2 2 2 2
2 2 2 1
2 2 1 1
2 2 1 1
Total 34
Date 2/25
3 2 2 2
2 2 2 2
2 2 2 2
2 2 2 2
2 2 2 2
Total 41
Date 2/28
3 2 2 2
3 2 2 2
3 2 2 2
3 2 2 2
3 2 2 1
Total 45
Date 3/2
3 3 3 2
3 3 2 2
3 3 2 2
3 3 2 1
3 3 2 2
Total 50
Date 3/4
3 3 3 3
3 3 3 2
3 3 3 2
3 3 3 1
3 3 3 2
Total 55
Date 3/7
WOD. AMRAP 10:
10 Ring Dips,
30 Double Unders.
4 rounds as RXd
Date 3/9
Traveling:
Missed Training Day
Date 3/11
4 4 3 3
4 4 3 3
4 3 3 3
4 3 3 3
4 3 3 3
Total 67
Date 3/14
Weighted: 20# Vest
2 2 1 1
2 2 1 1
2 2 1 1
2 2 1 1
2 1 1 1
Total 29
Date 3/18
Weighted: 20# Vest
2 2 1 1
2 2 2 1
2 2 1 1
2 2 1 1
2 2 1 1
Total 31

This is the record of the first four weeks of volume training on Pullups, formatted in the same way as the previous tables. (This is just how I write it down in my journal, to be space-efficient.)

Date 2/19
1 Red Band
3 2 1 1
3 1 1 1
3 1 1 1
3 1 1 1
2 1 1 1
Total 30
Date 2/22
1 Red Band
3 2 1 1
3 2 2 2
3 2 2 1
3 1 2 1
3 1 1 1
Total 36
Date 2/24
1 Red Band
3 3 2 2
3 2 2 2
3 2 2 2
3 2 2 2
3 2 2 2
Total 46
Date 2/26
Unassisted
1 1 1 1
1 1 1 1
1 1 1 1
1 1 1 1
1 1 1 1
Total 20
Date 3/1
Unassisted
2 1 1 1
2 1 1 1
1 1 1 1
1 1 1 1
1 1 1 1
Total 22
Date 3/3
Unassisted
2 2 1 1
2 1 1 1
2 1 1 1
2 2 1 1
2 1 1 1
Total 27
Date 3/5
2 2 2 1
2 2 1 1
2 1 1 1
2 1 1 1
2 2 1 1
Total 29
Date 3/8
2 1 1 1
2 1 1 1
2 1 1 1
1 1 1 1
1 1 1 1
Total 23
Date 3/10
2 2 2 1
2 2 2 1
2 2 1 1
2 2 2 1
2 2 1 1
Total 33
Date 3/12
2 2 1 1
2 2 1 1
2 2 1 1
2 1 1 1
2 1 1 1
Total 28
Date 3/14
2 2 2 2
2 2 2 2
2 2 1 2
2 2 1 2
2 2 2 1
Total 37
Date 3/16
2 2 2 2
2 2 2 2
2 2 2 2
2 2 2 2
2 2 2 2
Total 40

  4 comments for “JT’s Lab: Volume Training

  1. Erin Kate
    March 22, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    Awesome results. I think I will be trying this.

  2. Tripp
    April 24, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Do you have any suggestions for volume training muscle-ups? I cannot do a muscle-up so would I maybe want to try a combination of ring pull-ups and dips or something like that? How about pistol progressions? Should I scale those with a band?

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