Training Intensity & Volume Variation Across a Weightlifting Cycle - Weightlifting Woman

I’ve gotten a lot of questions asking how I space out my training volume and intensity across the seasons – both throughout the week but also throughout each “cycle” and throughout the entire year. Thus, I’ve put together some helpful charts and graphs to visualize my perceived volume and intensity across different time periods.

Note that the following information is reflective of my own personal goals and needs as an athlete (and what I want to get out of my life in terms of being physically active) and is by no means reflective of how you or anyone else necessarily needs to focus your training. But, it’s what’s been working for me so far based on my current goals, and it’s just cool to see how stuff is laid out, right?

 

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First off, let’s start with this chart…which sort of shows EVERYTHING at a glance.

Training Volume and Intensity Year Long Graph Chart - Weightlifting Woman

CHART 1: Here’s a quick visual snapshot of how my training goes across a year and corresponding to the major events that I participate in. There is no actual “value” or number for the Y-axis…well I guess you could call it “training load” but it’s not like I tie an actual number or % to it.

 

First off, note that these charts that I have drawn are not 101% accurate to the intention of the programmer, but rather based on my perceived effort  (and just how I see the training load vary throughout the year). The charts are NOT generated by numerical spreadsheet calculations at all and are free-hand illustrated by me using my favorite graphic design illustration software so it’s not like it represents very strict numbers.

 

I consider myself to be a very active person, even during my “off seasons” as I try to get in at least 30 minutes of activity (sometimes just walking, or light aerobic work, or yoga if need be) at least 5-6 days a week.

I usually don’t take more than 1 week throughout the year where I don’t do any type of intensive exercise whether it be aerobic, strength, or a combination. For example, last year on my honeymoon we went at least 4-5 days without “touching a barbell” or dropping by a gym to do weights although we trying to get in plenty activity through large volumes of walking everywhere.

Some key points to take away from the above chart #1:

The Pink Area Under the Curve – Volume

First thing’s first – notice that my overall volume of training (indicated by the pink area) is NOT THE SAME throughout the whole year! No, in fact I purposefully cycle up and down the amount of actual (and perceived) volume throughout the year because…well if I went at 100% all year then I would totally burn out!

My volume of training increases throughout a training cycle (starting about 12 weeks out) leading up to a major competition – but also I give myself a high training volume around the time of the CrossFit Opens in order to work on my metabolic conditioning and strength-endurance – my heart rate stays sustainably high whereas with in a weightlifting cycle, I only have spurts of increased heart rate every 1-2 minutes whenever I do sets of lifts.

What exactly do I mean by “volume”? I define it as the amount of time I spend under load, resistance, or with an increased heart rate multiplied by the intensity of the weight I am bearing (amount of weight on the barbell, or how much power output I have to give).

DURATION OF WORKOUT  x  INTENSITY OF LIFTS = TRAINING LOAD 

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The Blue Line – Intensity (heaviness of weight lifted)

I wanted to represent the amount that I was lifting relative to my “max lifts” throughout the year – which usually peaks just twice…at the American Open and for Nationals. Throughout the Crossfit Opens, my goal is mainly to maintain strength and to also work on strength endurance (lifting higher volume of light-to-moderate weight) without necessarily trying to PR any lift.

 

The Green Dotted Line – Focus on Aerobic & Metabolic Conditioning Work

Since I still love to stay active when I’m not “actively in training” for a weightlifting competition, I tend to use my off-season to focus more on building up the gas tank – as in…doing longer duration, sustained activity where I maintain my heart rate in the “cardio” zone. Although, I want to mention the moments where the line builds up a little during peak moments in my weightlifting cycles are because I like to add in 2-3 days of 30 minutes of aerobic activity as my active recovery days to promote a little extra fat loss and to lean out before I have to weigh in on competition day (trying to make weight).

 

The Orange Dotted Line – Strength Focused Training

This basically coincides with the “intensity” line but demonstrates the amount of focus my training has towards building purely “strength” rather than aerobic conditioning.

 


 

Let’s narrow down the time frame now into what volume/intensity would look like in a 12-week training cycle leading up to a major weightlifting competition:

Intensity Within a 12-Week Training Cycle Chart - Weightlifting Woman

CHART 2: Here is a graph showing approximately how I approach intensity across a 12-week training cycle leading up to a major competition (American Opens or Nationals) where the goal on the 12th week is to “peak” and be at my absolute strongest.

 

Some key points to take away from this chart:

  • At the start of the 12-week cycle I’m definitely nowhere hitting close to my 1RMs or PR weights – in fact, weights that are about 80% of my 1RM usually feel like a 1RM at the time! During the first 3 weeks of the cycle, it’s all about getting my central nervous system back into check and feeling the loads of barbells on my body.
  • I build up to competition day in “waves” that are about 3-4 weeks at a time. I find that after 3 weeks of increasing percentages of my working weights little by little that I need a week to back off a bit and deload so my muscles and mental energy have time to rebuild and refresh for the next wave of 3 weeks.
  • About 2 weeks out from competition I usually end up going for maximal effort lifts (PRs, etc) before I back off for a couple weeks – this is to allow some time to deload before I go all out again.
  • I usually schedule 1-2 smaller local meets in preparation for the larger meet as a “tune-up” and to use the day to focus on strategy for how my warm-ups will go and how to make sure I sustain energy for both the Snatch portion and for the Clean & Jerk portion a couple hours later.

 


Lastly,  let’s look at a “week” at a glance.

 

Here’s what a typical week looks like for me while in the midst of a weightlifting training cycle – in terms of how intense my days are.

Weekly Intensity Weightlifting Cycle

Here’s a chart showing the variation of intensity throughout the week…this is an example how a week is laid out although there will be lots of varations of what movement happens on what day depending on my focus for that cycle.

 

I actually used to “lift” 5 days a week, and then in the past year whittled it down to just 4 with more recovery-focused days in between because I think 5 days of intensity was beating me to the ground. I also found 4-day training to fit into my schedule better also having a full time job and two part-time gigs on the side as a coach and as a freelance designer.

The weekday workouts had to take place in the afternoon after school, and weekends I could basically pick a time in the middle of the day to get done.

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Main points to take away from the chart:

  • I usually have one “very intensive” day where I work up to my heaviest weights for the week – though this day isn’t always increasing week-to-week. Some weeks I don’t work up as heavy, and some weeks I go all out if I’m performing well.
  • I hate dead rest days where I basically don’t do anything, unless it’s a day right before a super big competition where I really need to not walk around and deplete my energy stores. I like to get in some moderate aerobic activity that gets my heart rate up to about 50-70% max HR without going much over that.
  • More rest days programmed around more intensive days.
  • Back-To-Back lifting days usually alternate more leg-focused vs more overhead / shoulder focused.
Example Weekly Programming Weightlifting - Weightlifting Woman

Here’s an example of how I might spread out movements across the week – although I don’t follow this same structure all the time. The movements might vary day-to-day depending on what my focus in on that cycle.

 

Above, I’ve included an example of what lifts I would do on certain days…although looking back at past history of programming the last 2 years this definitely is not the exact way I’ve done everything day-to-day…but I hope it gives you a glimpse at least of how things are laid out.

Basically…I do not lift heavy everyday all the time. Recovery is your best friend (and my best friend) when it comes to gains.

Depending on what my focus is for those few weeks (working on a stronger jerk, or building up pulling strength, or just building up the squat to a higher number) sometimes the movements and where they happen in the week (and how often they happen) will vary.

The main consistent piece though throughout the week is usually the intense day that happens once a week (either Saturday or Sunday depending on schedule) where I usually work up to something heavier than the percentages I do throughout the middle of the week for working sets of doubles or triples.

Also, note that I rarely every have veered away from this programming throughout my cycle at all – I actually prioritize my daily schedule and activities so I can be certain to get in my lifts on the days they are programmed or prescribed. Every now and then I might have a day where I have to stay at school for an event on lets say…a Wednesday, and can’t get the workout in so I push it to a Thursday. Yet, I really religiously try to stick to the days of the programming as absolutely 99.9% as I can because consistency is the only way you know if something is really working for you. 

Minimize the variables and control all the controllable factors as strictly as you can. Diet, workout schedule, sleep…that’s all stuff you can control.

weekly-intensity-crossfit

 

I wanted to show this chart as it relates to how I’ve been structuring the intensity of my weeks during the Crossfit season where I’m not “weightlifting” day-to-day but going with the class programming. Note I really don’t have any extra special personalized programming at the moment when it comes to this…I’m just dropping into the classes I coach throughout the week and maybe spend an extra 5-10 min after class working on a skill or so. I really don’t do extra workouts though (other than 30 minutes of light rowing) beyond what our gym programs.

This is because I’m using Crossfit at the moment as a means to “mentally recover” from being so weightlifting focused. Although the volume I’m feeling is physically very high, mentally for me it’s not as intensive as being focused on a specific end goal of a major competition.

During these couple of months, I don’t want to feel like I’m tackling on an individualized program with an intention of hitting X [number] on X [date]. I’m doing this for fun and for some variety, and if I happen to place high or make it to regionals then that’s pretty cool! But I know my bio-mechanical advantages lie more in weightlifting as a sport for me as opposed to Crossfit because of my height and bodyweight and how weightlifting utilizes weight classes.

However, I feel that I can keep driving myself further month-after-month and year-after-year through switching things up, never getting bored, and always feeling refreshed with different things aside from always being so barbell focused.

Even still, although I’m doing different type and volume of training, I still make it a point to include some rest/active recovery days, as well as days that feel more intensive (and some moderately intensive).

 


 

OK, So how do I know if this is all working? How do I know if this is the best way to approach my training load month after month?

Well, to be honest, I really don’t know if this is the 100% best way for me!

BUT, following this progression consistently so far has given me significant improvements in my strength and lifting and has continuously built me up stronger every year in many ways. In fact, my “Crossfit” performance has even sustained or improved with just focusing on Weightlifting for a few months (in which strength is my largest limiter when it comes to matching up to other athletes in the sport of Crossfit).

The biggest thing that I can vouch for is that I have stayed consistent with a programming when it’s given to me and haven’t really experimented with too much variation or different types. The biggest gains I have seen are when I stick to specifically programmed days that have a goal or end focus at the end of the cycle (or waves within a cycle) without throwing in too many random variables or other things that could affect the level of muscle fatigue, recovery time, physical load or mental load – such as choosing to squat heavy on a day that doesn’t have squatting.

A program is written with factors in mind such as how much power output there is each day, the intensity and volume, what muscle groups are being utilized, the load and duration muscles are under each day, and most importantly, the recovery time needed to get the most gains while still stimulating the body to deal with more intensity. I’m literally afraid to do anything that will heavily impact the intent of the program (such as going much heavier than the percentage prescribed to me for that day even if I’m feeling strong) for the purpose of not over-taxing my body earlier than I need to during a cycle.

You’ll never know if a program is “working” as effectively as it could unless you adamantly stick to it.

Another thing to note is…the stronger you get and the more advanced you get at your sport, the more precise and focused you need to be to many any sort of marginal gains. Beginners and amateurs gain a lot through getting strong quickly…but it’s the advanced lifters and the elite who gain more in the end through absolute refinement of technique so it’s 100% perfect when paired with pure strength.

That being said, depending on what my goals and focus are, I can choose to stick with a similar method of programming or try to experiment with something else if I feel it addresses what I need most as an athlete and as a competitor in the sport I want to compete in. I definitely vouch for sticking to something consistent at least for the “cycle” of a couple or a few months because I believe that’s the time it really takes to see progress and effectiveness long term. Yes, there are definitely “short” cycles out there that are meant to help with short-term, quick gains but if you’re looking to improve overall technique and strength at an advanced level, you need to build up that base strength over several weeks and months.


The Big Takeaway

All in all to summarize, I hope this article has given you a bit of insight as to how a weightlifting training program might be structured generally across a year, across a cycle and also within a week. However, please don’t consider this to be THE way to do things, as I (and my coaches) are always changing things up and experimenting with different ways of structuring workouts and movements to benefit me as an athlete, and to help me focus on building up my weaknesses and enhancing the strengths I do have.

What can you take away from this all?

  • Intensity shouldn’t be maintained at the same level day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, and possibly even year-to-year.
  • Same goes for volume – your body needs breaks throughout the seasons in order to recover and build effectively without burning out.
  • Recovery, again, is your best friend. They are just as important to schedule into your week as your “workout” days are.
  • You might find it helpful or necessary to have mental breaks along with physical breaks – try out new things, switch up programming, or get away from a barbell (or just weightlifting focused) for a bit in order to refresh yourself every now and then so you can come back with more vigor.
  • The above is just oneapproach to programming…but of course you and I are very different and you might require different waves of volume or intensity at different times in the weeks, months, or throughout a year to adapt to your age, training age, lifestyle, schedule, life stressors, past injuries or mobility limitations, and other factors.

There you have it. If you have any questions about anything above please PLEASE feel free to add a comment below and I’ll answer it here!

Happy lifting!