Many athletes believe that increasing their training volume—either by adding more training sessions to their weekly schedule or by extending the duration of their existing workouts—is key to making rapid gains or to breaking through plateaus. After all, most elite athletes train multiple times a day—surely they must be doing something right? While it’s true that an increase in volume can bring about faster and more pronounced changes to one’s fitness, it’s not without its risks. Any major change to an athlete’s training program needs to be taken into consideration. Increasing your volume is no different. Here are 7 times it might not be a good idea for you.
1. When you lose intensity in your workouts
CrossFit workouts are designed to maximize intensity. When training with intensity, athletes experience greater adaptations to their physical fitness and health, hence why CrossFit founder and CEO Greg Glassman advises all CrossFit trainers to be impressed with intensity, not volume. While many athletes will look to increase their training volume to seek further gains, Games athlete and Level 1 Seminar Staff member James Hobart writes not to “mistake volume for intensity and end up training for 90 minutes at 60 percent when 60 minutes at 90 percent might have been more valuable.”
2. When you have difficulty recovering from workouts
Part of the reason you aren’t able to sustain your intensity is likely due to your inability to recover from a high-volume training program. Remember, it’s the time spent in rest where we actually become stronger, faster and fitter. Your body needs time where it’s not under physical stress in order to repair the microscopic tears to your muscle fibers. When these fibers are ‘rebuilt’, the muscle grows and becomes stronger. If you’ve increased your training volume to the point that you enter the gym feeling fatigued and weak, then not only have you set yourself up to have a poor training session, but you’re also increasing your risk of injury. In this instance, you need to either place more emphasis on the quality of your recovery, or reduce your training volume.
3. When increased volume isn’t matched by smart programming
If you plan to increase your training volume, it’s important to first analyze why you want to increase it in the first place. Is it because you’re not happy with your rate of progress? If that’s the case, an increase in training volume should be matched by smart programming. Sure, if you’re not seeing gains of any kind, then your programming might need a complete overhaul.
On the other hand, if you feel that your programming was effective but it’s just a question of a lack of volume that’s holding you back, consider what the proposed additional volume will consist of. Suppose you train with fairly high loads four to five times a week. When you add extra training sessions to your weekly schedule, are you going to continue to lift with heavy loads? Probably not, since the additional stress (both physical and mental) could break down your body, make you feel weaker and even lead to injury. The smart thing to do would be to fill your additional volume with movements, skill work, loads, and varying energy systems that haven’t been getting as much attention (such as gymnastic work and aerobic capacity).
Another factor to be cognizant of is the rate at which you begin to introduce higher volume into your programming. Is your body, your mind, your schedule going to be able to adjust to a sudden and sharp spike in training volume? Or would you be better served by gradually introducing one to two extra workouts per week until you reach a load you are happy with?
4. When you lose motivation to train
Just as your body will let you know when it needs a break, so too will your mind. High intensity training fries the central nervous system, which connects your brain to the motor units in your muscles. Without sufficient rest, you’ll start to experience mental fatigue. Getting up to train will start to become a chore. Instead of looking forward to your workouts (which should be the best part of your day, especially if you’re so serious about your goals that you’re beefing up your volume), you begin to despise them. And when you lose the desire to work out—and to work out with intensity—then there’s really little point in turning up to the gym at all. This is where smart programming becomes so important. The best programs have built-in active recovery days that often have athletes do something away from the gym that’s low-impact and low intensity, such as biking, hiking, rock climbing, or playing sports. That way, the athlete is able to do something active while simultaneously giving their mind (and body) the chance to recoup from the strains of CrossFit.
5. When your schedule doesn’t allow for it
Training for long periods multiple times a day isn’t easy, least of all when you have to contend with a full-time job, family, relationships or other commitments that warrant your time and attention. You may be a very dedicated person and the idea of getting a session in before work, during lunch and again after work might not seem like too much of a hassle, but that kind of commitment also requires sacrifice. You don’t want to sacrifice your job, otherwise how will you get the money to eat and train? Obviously you don’t want to sacrifice your friendships and relationships either. It can be hard to maintain those connections when your schedule becomes limited as a result of increased volume. Some days, you simply have to forgo training in favor of one of the aforementioned commitments. And when that starts happening regularly, it’s time to rethink your training volume.
6. When it no longer matches your goals
Seven-time CrossFit Games competitor Chris Spealler declined an invitation to compete at Regionals, despite having qualified based on his 2016 Open performance. Via his Instagram page, he gives a few reasons why, including: one, I know my personality and it would be difficult for me to do it just for fun, and two, it’s been a great transition year for me in helping Garret Fisher and Nathan Bramblett and so many other great athletes. I would like to be there for them.
Spealler knows that his goals have shifted to helping coach other athletes make it to the Games, just as Rich Froning stated that he wanted to spend more time with his family when he retired from Individual competition after the 2014 Games. The goals of these athletes shifted, so they no longer needed to train at the volume and intensity required to make it to the Games as individual competitors. The same goes for how you should approach your programming with regards to volume. Goals shift all the time. Perhaps you achieved what you set out to accomplish, or there’s another major event happening in your life that becomes the primary goal. One should have some purpose behind the intent to increase their training volume. Once that purpose goes away, is it worth the physical and mental toil to train so frequently? That depends entirely on you.
7. When an increase in training volume doesn’t equate to an increase in learning new skills
We become fitter athletes by becoming smarter athletes—that is to say, through learning and practicing new skills (such as new techniques for handstand push-ups or the clean). However, putting what you learn into practice takes a high level of concentration and focus—focus that can get hampered through mental fatigue as a result of a vigorous training schedule. We all know that it’s much harder to concentrate on a task when we’re mentally fatigued. This is backed up by a study published in the American Physiological Society, which asked participants to perform a mentally fatiguing task prior to a difficult exercise test. As you’d expect, they reached exhaustion more quickly than when they did the same exercise when mentally rested. “Mental fatigue did not cause the heart or muscles to perform any differently; instead, our “perceived effort” determines when we reach exhaustion.” Essentially, if our minds our brains are fatigued, they’ll have a far harder time getting our muscles to respond and perform the tasks we’re asking of them—and that is especially true when learning new skills such as muscle-ups and handstand walks.
Photo credit: Erwin van Leeuwen/CC BY-NC-ND-2.0