Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

One Year of Low Volume Training

by John Petrizzo, DPT, SSC | January 11, 2022

john petrizzo training the squat

At the time of this writing I am 38 years old. I have consistently trained with weights since I was 16, and during the intervening 22 years I have tried just about every type of strength training program you can think of. Fortunately, from early on in my training I recognized the benefits of performing the big, basic exercises with progressively heavier loads. I had the good fortune of reading the work of writers such as Starr and McRobert at a young age and eventually stumbled upon Rippetoe and Starting Strength.

All of these Iron Game authorities preached the use of relatively simple programs consisting of only a handful of compound lifts, performed with lots of effort, and ample recovery time. Following their example I have been able to gain a modicum of strength and muscle mass over the years. My best lifts are a 540 squat, 358 bench press, 620 deadlift, and 255 press all done in competition around 240 pounds of body weight. To be clear, I don’t consider myself particularly big or strong, but I know I am a lot bigger and stronger than I otherwise would be thanks to following the methodologies of the authors mentioned above.

As the years have gone by, like most of us, the available time that I have to train has become more and more compressed. I have always worked multiple jobs, in part because I enjoy what I do, and in part so I can have the privilege to afford to live in the great state of New York. In the fall of 2020 my wife and I welcomed the birth of our son. At the same time my mother was dealing with complications from a stage-4 cancer diagnosis. To say that life stress was at an all-time high and available time to train was at an all-time low would be an understatement.

Between managing my newfound familial responsibilities as a father, trying to be a supportive son to my mother, and my work schedule, I knew that getting my training done would become more challenging than it ever had before. However, what I also knew was that not training was not an option.

I am a little embarrassed to admit that training is my only real hobby. In the past 22 years I seriously doubt that a single week has gone by that I have not touched a barbell. At 38 I still look forward to my training sessions as much now as I did when I was a teenager. After spending some time considering different options, the only reasonable solution that I could come up with to address my lack of available training time was to significantly reduce my training volume.

For those of you who are not familiar with the term “volume” as it relates to strength training, volume is simply the total number of times an exercise is performed. A workout in which an exercise is performed many times is a high-volume workout whereas a low-volume workout is one in which the exercise is performed only a few times. This is regardless of intensity. Intensity has been defined as the load a lifter is using relative to their absolute strength. Work done closer to an athlete’s 1-repetition maximum (1RM) is therefore of a higher-intensity when compared to lighter loads (Practical Programming for Strength Training, 3rd. Ed). With this in mind, it is easy to see how volume and intensity will be inversely related as an exercise performed at a high volume simply cannot be performed at a very high intensity. In recent years I think it is fair to say that there has been a general trend within the field of strength training to assume that more training volume yields superior results to less training volume with some authors even going so far as to claim that increasing training volume may be the most easily modifiable variable causing beneficial adaptations in an exercise program (Figueiredo, de Salles, & Trajano, 2018).

Once my son was born, my training goals became simple. They were as follows:

  • Squat, press, deadlift, bench press, and power clean a minimum of once per week

  • Perform some conditioning work and chin-ups an additional one to two times per week

  • Get all of my training sessions done in under an hour

In order to accomplish my goals, I decided that I would only perform a single work set on the primary lifts. That may sound like a bit of a radical approach to some, but I was intrigued by the idea because it was something I had never done for an extended period of time before. Additionally, despite the current popular opinion, there is actually a fair amount of research evidence (as flawed as the research in our field may be) that has shown single-set protocols produce similar results to their multi-set, higher volume counterparts (Carpinelli & Otto, 1998). The caveat to this approach is that in order to reap any potential benefit, you must work extremely hard during that single set.

For most of the year I spread out the 5 primary lifts (6 if you include chin-ups) over two training days with two additional days of brief high-intensity interval work performed on either an air bike or a row ergometer. However, there were a few months where performing multiple lifts per session was not feasible, so I simply performed one lift per day with a conditioning session added on to the end of the week. Both scenarios offered me enough flexibility to get my training done in whatever time I had available, and I am pleased to say that I did not miss a single scheduled training session over the course of the year.

Similarly, in terms of load progression, I decided to modify an old program that fellow Starting Strength Coach Andy Baker had written for me a few years back as it had worked very well for me in the past. You can read about the general outline of the program here.

The premise of the program is simple in that you start each training cycle performing sets of 8 reps and add weight each week for as long as you can until you eventually hit an all-out heavy set of 3 reps. Once I did that, I would start the process over again with a load that was a little heavier than what I began the previous cycle – the goal of each successive cycle is to continue to beat your previous best set of 3 reps. I followed that same protocol for the four primary lifts and weighted chin-ups. For power cleans, I stuck to sets of 3 reps or fewer. This is essentially what amounts to a form of linear periodization and is not the best approach for novice or early intermediate lifters for the reasons explained in detail in Practical Programming for Strength Training.

Going into this program I was pretty skeptical that I would be able to make progress and the best I felt I could hope for would be to maintain my strength until my schedule allowed me to spend more time in the gym again. However, I have been pleasantly surprised that I not only was able to maintain my strength using this approach, I have actually been able to make progress. Over the course of the past year, my strength on all the main lifts has improved, and I am pretty amazed considering I am spending less time training than I ever have before.

My purpose for writing this article is not necessarily to extol the benefits of low volume training, despite the fact that I have found it be beneficial for me, but rather to try to reinforce the point that there is no replacement for consistency and effort in the gym. Utilizing a program that sticks to the basics, allows you to train regularly and with a high level of effort, and applies the principle of progressive overload in a manner that is consistent with your level of training advancement will never steer you wrong. Everything else is just window dressing.


1. Carpinelli, R.N., Otto, R.M. (1998). Strength training single versus multiple sets. Sports Med, 26(2): 73-84.

2. Figueiredo, V.C., de Salles, B.F., Trajano, G.S. (2018). Volume for muscle hypertrophy and health outcomes: the most effective variable in resistance training. Sports Med, 48 (3): 499-505.

3. Rippetoe, M., Baker, A. (2013). Practical Programming for Strength Training (3rd ed.). Wichita Falls, TX: The Aasgaard Company.

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