There are countless exercises and training modes that you can choose from to help you reach your goals. Once you have selected training activities that meet your needs and identified the types of athletes you are working with, there are three primary factors that you can manipulate with your programming: intensity, volume, and density.
Intensity + Volume
Intensity and volume are closely related to each other, believe it or not.
Intensity might be defined by some trainers, coaches, and exercise scientists as the amount of stress a particular activity causes the nervous system. Volume can be thought of the amount of time or number of repetitions that particular activity requires. Due to metabolic and/or neural limitations, it is very difficult to execute activities with high intensity for a high volume. Therefore, it is generally agreed that volume and intensity have an inverse relationship.
High-intensity activities generally require a large amount of speed, power, or force production (and effort in general) and thusly can’t be properly executed for long duration or for a high number of repetitions. An example would be a sprint, jump, throw, or other explosive movement. A high-intensity activity in the weight room might be a maximal effort lift, or a lift executed with submaximal weight but with maximal speed.
Of course, high-intensity training is best utilized when trying to improve maximal strength, speed, or power and those volumes generally start low and gradually rise as the athlete adapts. Lower-intensity training is usually necessary during the learning phase of any skill, in addition to being used to improve metabolic function, endurance, and work capacity. The volume of these lower-intensity activities can therefore be much higher. A lower-intensity activity might include easy jogging or strength training with very light resistance. Intensity and volume are pretty well understood, especially in how they apply to each individual activity or workout.
Density, however, doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as it deserves.
While volume and intensity are at the top of every discussion about training theory, the reality is that determining density is almost always the first step in designing a training program. Density refers to how the volume and intensity of training are distributed within a particular block of time. And since we know that volume and intensity have, essentially, a simple inverse relationship, properly manipulating density is actually one of the more difficult tasks when designing a training program. Some programs advocate relatively even-spaced density, primarily due to time restrictions.
But experienced coaches and trainers understand that by clustering density at appropriate times, you can achieve a much more effective training response. For example, a collegiate long distance runner may need to average about 340 miles of training during a particular training month to optimally compete in a 10 kilometer race at the end of that month. One possible way of manipulating density while still achieving this total volume is to run 90 miles the first week, 70 miles the second week, 95 miles the third week, and 65 miles the fourth week.
By alternating between high-density and low-density weeks, we are allowing our runner to moderately regenerate immediately following an intense week. Regeneration is when most physiological adaptation occurs and by allowing our runner to recover, we will almost always see a better training response than if he had simply ran 80 miles per week.
In sports like basketball or volleyball where competition density is high, effectively managing training density is even more important for achieving optimal performance and staying healthy throughout the season. Many collegiate teams such as the University of Oregon football program are increasing their work density to become more efficient and allow for better recovery. Oregon’s practices are famous for being fast-paced and about one hour shorter than most collegiate practices.
The results? An extremely speedy offense that is fitter and reacts better to game speed situations...and a consistently high winning percentage and national ranking.
By better understanding how intensity, volume, and density are related and manipulated, coaches and trainers are able to put together a much more efficient training plan. Although the science is relatively complex, the basic premise is simple. First, establish when you should train, then determine how much training is appropriate for that time, and only then do you decide how hard you should be working. Unfortunately, many trainers and coaches take the opposite route: how hard, how much, and then how often.
But by carefully considering the often overlooked principle of density when organizing your training, athletes everywhere can be healthier and much more effective on the field.