Determining Program Workload: How to Compare Different Programs Total Volume/Tonnage

By Ryan Darling, RMT, R.Kin, CSEP-CEP, B.Sc, M.Sc. Kinesiology (Owner/Operator, RD Athletics – Therapy & Training)

Have you ever felt unsure of how to transition a client to your programming format who has come to you from another trainer with a different style? When set and rep schemes are vastly different, how can you be sure that the program you design is different, but not too significantly different in that it leads to over or under training? Or in the case of a current client, are you unsure of how to write their next program in a way that works towards improving their overall work capacity?

Calculating total load or total volume of a training program is, in my opinion, a vital and necessary component when changing a client from one program to another. If we do not properly manage the total volume or work load, and make either a 50% increase or corresponding 50% decrease in this number without adjustments to other modalities (intensity, speed, rest intervals etc), we could end up hurting a client with too much too soon. Or, we may leave them feeling like they took a leisurely stroll compared to their usual sessions and they might question why they are paying you to train them!

From the most basic standpoint, calculating a program or day's workload is quite simple and can be summed up as follows: multiply sets, reps and load used for each exercise to come up with a total volume or workload number. 

For example:

A1 – BB Box Squat 3 sets of 15 repetitions @ 135 lbs
A2 – BB Military Press 3 sets of 15 repetitions @ 95 lbs

For the above example, the volume or tonnage for the squat is 3 x 15 x 135 = 6075 lbs and for the military press is 3 x 15 x 95 = 4275 lbs.

To get a full picture, perform the above calculations for all exercises on each day to come up with both daily and weekly totals. 

Calculating these totals helps with programming in two ways:

1) With clients you may see only 2 times per week, this ensures you space out the exercises you are using over the 2 different days so that your total volume is relatively close.

2) When bringing on new clients or switching current clients to a new program, this allows you to compare the new program with their current or completed program workload. If increasing work capacity is your goal, for example, this gives you a clear snapshot to see if the new program you've written is actually a higher work load. Note: Increasing capacity is not always the goal. As you can imagine, the balance between intensity and total work load must be respected. Work done at very high intensities (above 85% 1 RM) must be done judiciously to avoid fatiguing the central nervous system. But that is a topic for another article.

Most accomplished trainers and strength coaches will often perform this task intuitively, but if you are a newer trainer or have never performed the calculation, give it a try. It is something that all  through my schooling I was never shown, and I came upon once I was working in the field. But it is definitely an important number to be tracking with your clients to ensure you are working toward the desired goals for that training block.