In the strength and conditioning world, we frequently hear that quality is more important than quantity regarding training. For those athletes who adhere to this, they find their training improves along with their performance, while they also experience a decreased risk of injury. Those who don’t follow this see their injury rates increase while their performance level drops.
Both as a strength and conditioning coach working with athletes and students and as a chiropractic physician treating many different types of injuries on a daily basis, I stress this same concept to my students and patients while they are working through the training and rehabilitation programs I design for them. I would rather they do 1 set of 8 reps with near-perfect or perfect form, than 2 sets of 8 reps where the last 2-3 reps of each set are poor quality, yet they “did” 16 reps.
When I started lifting with barbells in 1985, I was lucky to find a coach who stressed proper technique. But back then, we were also concerned with getting all the reps that were programmed in a set. There were definitely a few sets throughout my twenty-year powerlifting career that had some not-so-good quality reps in them. These were kept to a minimum, but being a type-A personality and a lover of numbers, I was always gunning toward getting the set done.
As I became smarter with my training and continued to study the body and its responses to training, I learned to focus more on the quality and not so much the quantity.
Now wait a minute. The title of this article is Quality AND Quantity. The word “and” is substituted for the word “over.” Am I going against what I preach, both professionally and personally?
The answer is no. Here is why the word “and” replaced the word “over.”
Why the Word “and” Is Between Quality and Quantity
When I design strength and conditioning programs for my clients, I always stress proper form and technique. Always. My background of engineering and being a physician pushes me in this direction—not to mention this is what we teach at StrongFirst. As I like to say, we never want to sacrifice one part of the body to help another part.
However, all my clients have goals to achieve. That’s why they contacted me in the first place. They want to see something changed with their bodies, health, and/or performance on the field, hockey rink, or track. To achieve these goals, we need to focus not only on form and technique while training (i.e. quality), but also the volume, or sets and reps, required to stimulate the body to change (i.e. quantity). Therefore, quality and quantity. (Note: Don’t you love writing that is similar to a geometric proof, paragraph style?)
At the StrongFirst SFL Barbell Certification, we spend four hours teaching and discussing programming and the different facets associated with it. During part of these four hours, I cover this concept—that quality and quantity are important together, in almost equal amounts, when it comes to forcing the body into the physiological and neurological adaptation necessary to achieve the goals set forth earlier.
Some of you may be thinking I was dropped on my head as a baby one too many times. I cannot confirm or deny that allegation, but what I can tell you is that I am of sound mind and body when making this statement.
Let’s explore how this works in the strength and conditioning realms.
Quality and Quantity in Training Conditioning
First, we will start with the conditioning aspect and choose the historically favorite and often-repeated five-minute 100-rep kettlebell snatch test.
That’s an average of 1 repetition every 3 seconds, continuously. If your technique is sound and your strength endurance is good, most people, on average, can do a rep every 2-2.5 seconds. This will allow you to either finish the snatch test early at 3.5-4 minutes, or finish closer to the five-minute limit but having set the kettlebell down a few times for rest.
Enter the sample student who wants to go to the StrongFirst SFG Level I Certification and needs to pass the snatch test, but is currently able to only do 60 reps for the five-minute time frame. After clearing up any flaws in snatch technique, we then design a training program for the student to be able to achieve the required 100 repetitions in the snatch test.
Here is where the quality and quantity equality concept comes in.
First, the quality part of the student’s reps is important. To even attempt the cherished five-minute snatch test at an SFG Level I Certification, a student must first pass the snatch technique test (5 reps each side for a total of 10 reps). Once a student has demonstrated good snatch technique, he or she earns the privilege to spend 300 seconds showing that he or she can do 100 reps in that time frame.
Quality is important here as students will now go well beyond the 10 reps required for the snatch technique test. They will need to be able to maintain the quality of each rep to keep their performance up and risk of injury down, especially as they may go into oxygen debt and build up lactic acid in their bloodstream.
Second, the quantity of reps is important because students need 100 reps to pass the five-minute snatch test. Simple, right? Yes, it is, but for some, it may prove to be a daunting task as our student trains to build up his or her strength endurance capability.
Here, quality comes back and joins the quantity part of the equation in the form of better and more efficient reps. If your reps have good quality, increasing the quantity will be easier as there will be less energy expenditure for each succeeding rep versus if your form was sloppy. Sloppy and inefficient technique sucks your strength endurance tank dry quickly and increases the likelihood of injury.
The above example of the conditioning aspect of quality and quantity can be applied to many different strength-endurance and endurance events and sports: cycling, rowing, track and field, swimming, weight training, etc.
Quality and Quantity in the Strength World
In the sport of powerlifting, there are three events. The (back) squat, bench press, and deadlift. I will use the squat for my example.
In leading up to when I squatted my personal record of 705lbs/320kg, I used this principle of quality and quantity every training session. Unlike building up the strength endurance/conditioning to complete the kettlebell snatch test, I was training for absolute strength—one rep, one attempt, a new personal record at the upcoming National Championship powerlifting meet. But to get to that new record, I had to lay the foundation to be able build that level of strength on top of it.
That foundation—in my opinion and in the opinions of John Davis, Reg Park, Paul Anderson, Doug Hepburn, various Russian scientists, and our CEO of StrongFirst, Pavel Tsatsouline—is best created with sets of 4-6 reps.
I chose sets of 5 in a non-linear cycle (see Hartle’s Cycle below) with the number of sets and reps varying from week to week. At this point, I was focused on the quantity and hitting the numbers—the weight and sets/reps prescribed for that particular training session—to adequately stimulate the body to adapt and become stronger to hit my new PR goal.
Note: This off-season cycle delivers fantastic strength gains and can be repeated two or three times in a row, adding ten pounds to every workout every time, before moving to a peaking cycle. Up the rest from 5-6 minutes in weeks one and two to 7-9 minutes on week four. The only lifting equipment used for this cycle were lifting shoes and wrist wraps. (Courtesy StrongFirst SFL Manual)
What about quality? What was all that preaching above about quality? Hang on. While achieving the prescribed quantity, I also made sure my technique and form was spot on. My training partners knew what I expected my form to be and they promptly let me know if I deviated from those expectations during any set
Even while building absolute strength, I was still focused on quality and quantity. For example, in the second week of the Hartle Cycle, I was programmed to hit 5×5 at 80% of my raw 1RM. My quantity was 25 reps total, separated into 5 sets. To recover enough between the sets, I usually took five to six minutes of rest. I wanted my heart and respiration rates to return as close to normal as I could before commencing the next set. This also helped me make sure I was recovered enough to keep the quality aspect of each rep high and still achieve the right quantity. If needed, I might take 7-8 minutes between the last two sets to allow more recovery as I started to fatigue and still achieve the quality and quantity goal.
Following the above program, and making sure my quality and quantity goals were achieved, allowed me to squat my new persona record of 705lbs/320kg at the 2004 USA Powerlifting Nationals Championship!
Following a meet, I always conducted a self-debriefing on how the training went and what it translated into at the event. Looking at my training numbers and the achievement of my meet PR demonstrated to me the effectiveness of following the quality and quantity idea. It was not only a learning experience as a strength and conditioning coach, but also as an athlete. Practicing this quality and quantity approach would carry over several years later to my successful training for the five-minute snatch test.
a conjunction, used as a function word to indicate connection (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
While we need to be ever focused on the quality of our training, regardless if it is for strength endurance or absolute strength gains, we must also focus on the quantity of the reps.
This dual focus will allow us to increase our performance in whatever endeavor we are training for by forcing the body into physiological and neurological adaptation. This adaptation is what will have us be able to achieve our goals. At the same time, we are lessening the chances of injury, which is also paramount to obtaining our goals.