Strength Programming: Quantitative vs. Qualitative ChangesIf you train at the same intensity and volume over and over again, using the same exercises, then you will adapt to that level of stress but not more. This is known as accommodation. Your body has grown used to the stress like a long-term and not well-liked houseguest; it will not go above and beyond to make the training sessions easier, but it will change to tolerate them just fine.
Qualitative vs. Quantitative Programming
By: Nick Soleyn, Editor in Chief
Our bodies come with impressive resistance to disequilibrium; they want everything to stay the same. They are stubborn, which is understandable since their operational conditions—temperature, hydration, blood volume, etc.—exist in a pretty narrow window. We’ve got dynamic systems that help adjust and moderate small, daily fluctuations. These systems react like they are trying to keep the bubble between two lines on a level, using automatic physiological responses and behavioral changes like sweat, thirst, hunger, blood pressure, and heart rate to help keep things steady. Long-term, however, the body’s systems settle into its routine, and it becomes stubborn about any change we try to force on it.
Lifting weights is our attempt to hijack this process of settling in to meet our strength goals. Because the body is stubborn, a single, isolated training session will not benefit us much. The exertion and resulting fatigue will cause short-term changes, but one workout (without more) is unlikely to lead to long-term improvements in muscle mass, bone density, and general strength. After an outlying bout of activity, your body will eventually settle back into its normal state. Our goals require that we create a new normal through successive training events.
Even then, we run into the same problem: change requires change.
If you train at the same intensity and volume over and over again, using the same exercises, then you will adapt to that level of stress but not more. This is known as accommodation. Your body has grown used to the stress like a long-term, and not well-liked, houseguest; it will not adapt to go above and beyond to make the repeated training sessions easier, but it will change enough to tolerate them.
Accommodation is the Enemy of Progress
Accommodation is a problem. Pick any combination of exercises, loads, volumes, and frequencies that works well for you today, and it will work less well for you next week. If you want to train for years, you need a plan that helps you make changes to beat accommodation over and over again.
“To avoid or decrease the negative influence of accommodation, training programs are periodically modified. In principle, there are two ways to modify training programs:
Quantitative—changing training loads (for instance, the total amount of weight lifted)
Qualitative—replacing the exercises”
(Zatsiorsky, Science and Practice, 6.)
Elite and seasonal sports athletes will often rely on qualitative changes to change the stress of their in-the-gym workouts, varying exercises almost constantly. This appears to work because competition regularly interrupts their strength progress. It would be a mistake for the person whose goal is to get a little bit stronger now and for the next few decades to similarly replace and change exercises every time they start to struggle.
An isolated quantitative change to training changes only the magnitude of the stress without changing its structure. That structure is based on a person’s most immediate goals. We make the well-reasoned assumption in barbell training that squats, presses, bench presses, and deadlifts are both good measures and good builders of strength. A simple progression starts with these lifts or those that a person uses to get the closest to them and adds weight consistently. This avoids accommodation by increasing the magnitude of the stress without changing the exercises and (as a result) the desired outcome. This makes volume and intensity the two the simplest quantitative change to avoid accommodation.
An isolated qualitative change to training changes the nature of the stress. These changes form a different structure and lead to different adaptations to training. For example, a paused bench press will have a slightly different training effect than a touch-and-go bench press. A three-day per week training program will have a slightly different effect than a four-day split where either is appropriate for a given lifter. Or the changes may be more dramatic: Maximum effort heavy singles are different kinds of stress than strength volume in the 3 to 8 rep range, and 12-20 rep ranges are different still. The qualitative difference may be complementary, but they are not the same. So, you may have very advanced lifters who alternate between maximum effort, strength volume, and hypertrophy volume in a given week. That’s because they are chasing concurrent stressors in an effort to avoid accommodation and get a little bit stronger. (Listen: Conjugate vs. Concurrent Training.) It would be a mistake for the novice, who can improve her deadlift by adding a little bit of weight to the bar next time, to constantly vary the quality of her training. That will come later when it becomes necessary for the same small improvements.
M.E.D. Training Principles
The minimum effective dose for training is the smallest change to affect or continue the biological response to training, in which we anticipate training to rely on cumulative effects for as long a time as can be managed by the trainee. Said another way, if you want to train and make progress forever, you have to make small adjustments now so that you do not run out of things to do, running into accommodation, stalling, and getting frustrated.
The “smallest change” then can be understood on a spectrum. Once you have a program structure that works for you, you want to maintain the quality of that stress for as long as possible. So, quantitative changes will be the first and “smallest” changes you can make because they don’t mess with the exercises and organization that are already working for you. As progress slows down, warranting new stress, you should continue to prefer quantitative changes over qualitative ones. This means that we will often manipulate volume and intensity before changing the exercises that make up a program. We will tend to select exercises that look a lot like our main lifts when the time comes to introduce them. And we will tend to prefer sets and reps that focus on strength and force production before we choose ones that focus on muscular endurance and hypertrophy.
Small changes depend entirely on the lifter and their stage in training, but the general preference of quantitative changes over qualitative ones for general strength and quality of life should help preserve the lifter’s steady progress. Strength will never depend on what happens today. It is a process of constant change, in which we should savor and indulge for as long as possible, making small changes—extending the process of making progress—because we can.