Three magic words: minimum effective dose. The littlest amount of work needed to create a positive and meaningful change in performance. In very simple terms: how many sets and reps do I need to do to get stronger? How often do I need to train?
Why is that so important? It is not important. It is THE most important variable in training. Volume must be earned. There is no such thing as high or low volume when it comes to strength training. There is the right amount of volume to drive adaptation. More leads to overtraining. Less is just a waste of time. The right amount of training is the minimum effective dose. Once a benchmark is established volume increases as needed only if necessary to continue drive adaptation.
The word small is quite deceiving, indeed. For a beginner 3 sets of 5 reps at about 75% of 1RM twice a week can be enough to PR in a deadlift. For an experienced powerlifter to break a PR can take up to 5 sets of 5 reps three tomes a week, and anything less than that simply would not move the needle. The question then becomes: how can I figure that out? How do I know when to stop? What if I can do more? What if I am not doing enough?
Dilemma. The best course of action is the good old method of trial and error. Test. Set a benchmark for volume. Train for a while. Retest. If you did not PR then make a little change here and there and see if that works or not. Nothing wrong with it. Generations and generations of Olympic-level athletes have been built by trial and error. But we can do better.
Here is where velocity-based training (VBT) comes into play. Let’s talk about open sets. Open sets is nothing I invented. I do not take any credit for it. Professor Carmelo Bosco (1943-2003) pioneered this method back in the 80s but only published it in the latest edition of his masterpiece La Forza Muscolare in 1994. I came up with a catchy name for it. Open sets can be extremely challenging and taxing, yet the method itself is astonishingly simple. Follow the steps:
1- choose your target velocity and match it with the most appropriate threshold for velocity loss. Make sure to use the right amount of weight to stay on target.
2- start with a few sets of 3 reps. Rest 3 minutes between sets. Some reps will be fast and some will be slow. Look at the average velocity per set.
3- keep adding sets of 3 reps every 3 minutes. Stop when average bar velocity from set to set drops below threshold.
I like to work between 0.45 and 0.55 m/s for strength with a velocity loss of roughly 20%.For power I bump it up to 0.75 and 0.85 m/s with a velocity loss no greater than 10%.
Example: you are crushing sets of 3 reps at 75% of 1RM. Your target velocity is 0.5 m/s and you set the threshold at about 0.4 m/s which corresponds to a 20% velocity loss. There is no magic number here. Sets of 3 reps are fairly common when testing to build a force-velocity profile. Chances are if you have done it in testing you will be able to do it in training. The same protocol can be done with sets or 2-5 reps as long as you establish a good baseline in testing. Get a few sets under your belt. Make sure to rest 3 minutes between sets. Some rep will be faster some rep will be slower than 0.5 m/s and that is ok. Roughly 4-5 sets in you will start feeling fatigued. Keep going. Stop when average bar velocity drops below 0.4 m/s.
It may take 10 sets for you to finish the workout. It may take 4 sets. It does not matter. You know that whatever number of sets and reps you squeezed in was enough for the day. You worked on quality instead of quantity, the quintessence of the so-called minimum effective dose. YOUR minimum effective dose. Volume will vary - and should vary - based on fatigue. This is probably the most primitive form of autoregulation but it works like a beauty.
As weeks go by you will start moving the same weight faster and faster. Intensity will go up and your rep-count will inevitably start to decrease. Once you move the same weight more or less twice as fast as you used to it is time to reassess. Progressive overload at its finest. Simple. Yet, very elegant.