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 How to Choose the Right Frequency and Volume for Workouts

How to Choose the Right Frequency and Volume for Workouts

Reading Time: 8 minutes 7 seconds


DATE: 2020-05-01

The number one way your clients will keep coming back and training with you is by getting results.

In the gym, this means ensuring you have your clients dialed into the best programming to succeed. But this is no easy feat. No two clients are alike. They all have different preferences when it comes to working out.

One of the primary goals when it comes to training is muscle hypertrophy. Hypertrophy occurs when your cells are enlarged following a workout. It is the response of your body to the stimulus of exercise, in which your muscles send signals to your brain that better tissue needs to be built in the affected areas.

But that doesn't mean that you just load down the weight rack and point them to it. The problem with pursuing excessive hypertrophy is that you run the risk of injury. Thus is the crux—how do you program in the "Goldilocks" zone of not too little, not too much, but just right?

Well, that comes down to two factors: frequency and volume of workouts.

What are Frequency and Volume Referring To?

Frequency is how often a person exercises and volume is the amount of lifting that they do in each workout.

For instance, if your client is working out three times a week, then that's their weekly frequency. This can get more complicated for top-performing athletes, but for most of the people seeking your services, this will be about how many days per week they train, not how many times per day and the like.

Volume refers to the amount of work required in your programming, as in the number of repetitions throughout a workout. We'll get more into this in the sections that follow, but for now, consider total volume to be the total amount of reps and sets accomplished each time your client works out.

Other considerations go along with training volume, such as intensity. This must be taken into consideration when programming your volume, as one working to build strength is going to need a lower rep range than an endurance workout.

How Does Frequency Impact Results?

Train too infrequently, and results will be slow to come—which will likely result in your client's motivation going down the drain.

However, if you train too frequently, you run into two problems: lack of recovery and increased likelihood of injury.

As such, you want to aim for what's right for your client's level of development.

What About Volume for Hypertrophy?

In terms of volume, it's the same balance as with frequency. You want to make sure the amount of work performed is at the optimal volume for hypertrophy. Too little volume will lead to too little results. Too much volume and you're likely to get injured and to get worse results from a comparatively harder workout.

Wait, Worse Results from a Harder Workout?

Yes. When it comes to workouts, you can overtrain. Sometimes this leads to injury, but sometimes, it simply means your muscles have been overloaded to the point where the extra effort isn't making any difference, only increasing the likelihood of getting hurt.

This is why it's really important to factor in the right volume in your clients' workout routines.

How Do I Find the Right Balance for My Clients?

Ultimately, you have to ask a few questions. Everything begins with goals. At some point, your client had an idea in their head as to what they wanted out of engaging you for your services.

So, what are they looking for? Do they want strength gains? Increased muscle mass? Are they an advanced lifter looking to get to a higher level?

Then, you have to assess their level of fitness. If this is a new client, never simply take their word for it. Administer a proper fitness assessment that is as generalized as possible, and aimed at ascertaining their overall fitness level. Periodically re-administer this assessment so that you have benchmarks to show progress.

For more advanced clients you've been training, but perhaps have hit a plateau in their progress, you can administer a fitness assessment that's more targeted to their goals. For instance, if their goals are purely to bulk muscle, you can focus your assessment on exercises that will give good indicators of progress in the future—for example, the assessment could be one rep maxes for particular lifts.

Similarly, if your client is more of an endurance athlete who trains for obstacle course races, the assessment might be endurance exercises that work with both aerobic and anaerobic training.

In any event, the main factor for a proper assessment is something that will give you, one, a baseline for their fitness level, and two, an idea of how much frequency and volume to put into their training program.

So, at this point, we know what their goals are and we know their fitness level. What's next?

How to Draw Conclusions

Knowing their goals and fitness level will allow you to reverse-engineer the right programming.

For those at lower fitness levels, you are going to employ lower frequency and lower volume. This is also the case if your client is rehabilitating an injury. And remember, injured or not, make absolutely certain that your client has the approval of their healthcare provider before starting a workout program.

For those at higher levels, you will need to increase both frequency and volume.

But most people you train will fall somewhere in between. This is where your knowledge and experience really come into play.

Let's say you have a bench press test in your fitness assessment, to evaluate a new client's upper body strength and endurance. Setting the weight relatively low, say around 50-75 lbs., will tell you a lot about their ability to perform in future workouts. If they can only lift this weight a few times, then you will want to program accordingly.

There are many ways to adjust frequency and volume for bench presses based on this. If they're only able to lift that weight five times, then you could focus on either heavier weights at lower repetitions or lighter weight at higher repetitions.

If you opted for the heavier weight option, your client's workout volume would be lower, e.g., fewer sets and reps. However, at a lighter weight option would see a higher volume.

Either way, for a beginner like this, the frequency—or number of times per week they train that muscle group—would probably start at two times per week to ensure adequate recovery for beginner muscles.

How Do Frequency and Recovery Affect Muscle Growth?

The number of training days in a week, combined with their spacing apart, has a lot to do with the likelihood of your client's success.

This is because the body needs time to repair the tissue that's been worked. When you exercise a muscle, there are micro-tears throughout the tissue, which forces the body to rebuild that muscle that much stronger.

If the body hasn't had enough time to recover, you can waste a workout, or even cause muscle damage.

How Does a Lack of Recovery "Waste" a Workout?

All the time your body is in this repair mode, your muscles are getting stronger. It isn't the workout alone that builds muscle, rather the workout triggers the process which results in muscle building.

This is why you must be careful when trying to move your clients to a higher frequency of workouts. If you increase their frequency too quickly, they won't get the full benefit of the workout.

How Do I Know When There's Been Enough Recovery Time in a New Client?

One great way to determine if your client has recovered is their degree of muscle soreness.

Remember that delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is a real thing. Some people won't feel peak soreness for up to 48-72 hours. Some people will feel peak soreness the next day. Until you have worked with your client long enough to know their recovery schedule, start low. Learn their body and how they recover.

The good news is that within 4-6 weeks, they should be ready to take their fitness assessment again. Base your increases in frequency on how much they improve.

How Does Volume Impact Muscle Size?

In terms of muscle size, it's a little more nuanced.

More reps and lower weight will develop muscles differently than lower reps and higher weight will.

But, there's a really important misconception that still needs to be stated. Oftentimes (more traditionally encountered among women), there is an idea that lifting heavier weights will cause you to bulk muscle like a bodybuilder. This is not the case.

To bulk muscle, you must eat the right number of calories in the right macro categories to supplement muscle bulking. As such, many female weight lifters find they ended up more trim with a lower body fat percentage.

Calibrating Volume Appropriately

However, not everyone wants or needs to be strong. Sometimes, it's more about training endurance—again, this is completely based on their goals.

And remember that you should be discussing and demonstrating the importance of rest intervals or rest periods in between sets. These will allow your client to ensure they are doing what's necessary while staying safe.

You will likely want to base your exercise on the number of sets per workout.

For instance, in the beginning, you might be using a 5x5 circuit at a lower weight to get them used to lifting, and they're doing bench press, squats, deadlifts, and upright rows. This means the volume of this workout would be:

Bench Press:

5 set of 5 reps = 25 reps total


5 set of 5 reps = 25 reps total


5 set of 5 reps = 25 reps total

Upright Rows:

5 set of 5 reps = 25 reps total

After a few weeks of this, your client should see some improvement in the fitness assessment, and then, you can specialize their workouts based on their goals. Let's say this client wants to get stronger and build more lean muscle mass to maximize their metabolic rate to cut fat.

At this point, you can start testing the waters for their one-rep max (1RM). This ensures they have experience with weights before trying to find their 1RM, as this can be dangerous without.

Then, you can graduate them to something more sophisticated, like this:

Bench Press:

1 set of 10 reps at 50% 1RM

1 set of 8 reps at 60% of 1RM

1 set of 6 reps at 70% of 1RM


1 set of 10 reps at 50% 1RM

1 set of 8 reps at 60% of 1RM

1 set of 6 reps at 70% of 1RM


1 set of 10 reps at 50% 1RM

1 set of 8 reps at 60% of 1RM

1 set of 6 reps at 70% of 1RM

Upright Rows

1 set of 10 reps at 50% 1RM

1 set of 8 reps at 60% of 1RM

1 set of 6 reps at 70% of 1RM

Putting It All Together

As you can see, it's going to take some thinking and analysis on your part as the personal trainer. This is what makes you so valuable to the client. You are a professional who has been trained to do this. A lot of times, all you need is a good process.

Once you have cycled enough clients through initial fitness assessments and followed up with benchmark fitness assessments, you will be able to see in the numbers how your programming needs to change to fit their needs.

So, make sure that you're not cutting corners and that you're really putting the time into doing this right.

Dialing in the right frequency and volume can be a difficult challenge. Follow this process, and you will have it figured out in no time!

Ready to take your training career to the next level? Take on ISSA's Master Trainer course! Your elevated knowledge will enable you to help more people and make more money. Get started today!

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