What is Functional Volume?
Functional Volume – the maximum number of contractions in a movement that an athlete will perform based on the testing parameters of his or her sport
Functional volume -and training for it- is a principle, not set a number.
It’s like intensity: It’s relative to the sport, the athlete and their current level of readiness.
Functional Volume is based upon the Test.
Before you can determine what your training protocols should look like, you need to analyze what you are preparing for.
Sometimes this process is simple. For example, Marcy is preparing for her first 5k run. For her, determining the testing volume of her event requires zero mental processing. She is required to run five kilometers.
Even for some CrossFit workouts, determining functional volume is easy. Let’s take Doug who is a recreational CrossFit athlete. He is currently preparing for “Murph” where he will run 1 mile, do 100 Pull-Ups, 200 Push-Ups, 300 Air Squats, and run another mile, all in a 20lb weight vest. He is required to run 2 miles, complete 100 upper body pulling reps, 200 reps of upper body pressing, and complete 300 squatting contractions.
More movements to analyze, but still super simple.
Lastly, let’s look at Brody, who is preparing for a CrossFit competition at his local box. A month before the event, they released the events…
Event 1 (9am)
3 Rounds for Time
-18 Wall Balls
-15 Calorie Row
Event 2 (12pm)
-300 Double Unders
-30 Deadlifts 275lbs
*every 100 DU and every 10 Deadlifts, move up 1 lane
Event 3 (3pm)
Then, 5 Rounds of…
-4 Ring Muscle-Up
-4 Squat Snatch 155lbs
-8 Bar-Facing Burpees
Therefore, Brody needs to prepare for 54 Wall Balls, 45 Row Calories, 36 Toes-to-Bar, 300 Double Unders, 30 Deadlifts, 800m of Running, 20 Ring Muscle-Ups, 20 Snatches and 40 Bar-Facing Burpees.
As Brody’s coach, I would put these movements into movement pattern silos to determine how many contractions of each movement Brody needs to be prepared for…
Confused? Read Measuring Volume in CrossFit (Pro)
Basically, when the event and their volume (work) is known, things are pretty simple.
The first way the Sport of Fitness gets more complicated is when events are a time priority. In other words, an AMRAP. Now you have to estimate your score to be able to determine your volume.
The second complication is unknown events. Often workouts aren’t announced until you are required to perform them.
This makes preparation exponentially more challenging.
For an event like the Open, you have to do a data analysis of previous years to get a ‘best guess’ as to what you could see in the future.
So that’s exactly what I did…
CrossFit Open Functional Volume (Analysis of Test)
Here we are… we have all this data, but do we know what to do with it?
Having the functional volume data from your test is just step one.
Consider the test as the endpoint to the training; the destination on the road map.
However, even more important than the endpoint is where that athlete currently stands: their starting place.
It’s then the job of the coach to determine the road map to get to point A to point B.
Getting an athlete to do Open functional volume in all movements, all the time is a poor idea. Never touching those numbers and expecting to perform well on that event is just as much of a bad idea.
The goal now is to figure out what an appropriate block of training might look like for a specific athlete.
So that’s exactly what I did…
CrossFit Open Comp Prep Sample (Analysis of Training)
Let’s take a look at Ann who is a high-level, sub-elite CrossFit athlete prepping for the Open. She placed 1132rd on the worldwide leaderboard last year and hopes to crack the top 1000 this year.
This will not be a comprehensive look into her training, rather it’s just a snapshot of three different sessions that will be progressed over several weeks (3 shown) leading into the Open.
For each of the training priorities I will explain (1) why it is something relevant for Ann to work on, (2) what her previous training has looked like up to this point, and (3) compare her past training cycle against the Open Functional Volume for her desired placing (Women’s – Open Division – 1000th Place).
Frequently Asked Questions
(1) How much above the functional volume is productive?
If elite males have to be prepared to hit upwards of 200 wall balls in a workout, what number should they build to in their training?
Does it make the most sense to stay right at that number, or would it be better to build higher than that so the test is easier than their training?
In short, I don’t know.
But I do know it is likely dependent on the athlete and the specific movement.
For example, if that elite male athlete was already stronger than much of the field and needed more endurance and repeatability training, then maybe accumulating two sessions per week with wall balls into the low to mid 200s would be productive.
However, if another athlete needed to be able to express 95%+ of their 1RM strength in the Open because they are weak relative to the field, then having so much squatting volume might inhibit the expression of their strength and make them place worse overall.
My advice would be most athletes should build to be able to handle 100% of their functional volume ±15% without dramatic compensations appearing.
This would put the elite males between 170-230 wall balls in a session.
Certainly not every workout has to be in that range, but having some concrete numbers as a starting place is helpful.
(2) How far below the functional volume is acceptable?
Just like it’s important to ask, “How much is too much?,” it’s just as important to ask, “How much is not enough?”
I just mentioned that 100% of functional volume ±15%, but keep in mind 16.4 / 17.4 only had elite males doing between 55-72 reps.
Obviously this is well below the functional volume, which is why I didn’t use the average and choose to look at the volume of the individual tests instead.
And this happens fairly often in CrossFit workouts: one movement has high volume, while others never accumulate very many reps and stay well below the functional volume.
A great example is 18.3. If I’m preparing Ann for a 1000th place finish in a workout like that, she needs to do 540 Double Unders (160% of functional volume) in 14 minutes, but then she only needs to do 40 Overhead Squats, and 20 Dumbbell Snatches.
This illustrates the importance of two things:
First, this shows that the functional volume metric is an average and you need to go back through individual workouts to see what the highest threshold was on any given movement. Knowing the for a 1000th place female, Double Unders have been tested between 200 and 540 reps is just as important as knowing the average.
Second, that 18.3 example shows that not every piece or session has to get all the way to functional volume. It’s perfectly fine if a movement only has 20 or 30 reps, provided it assists in accomplishing the intention of that session and plays well with the other movements at hand.
My advice would be don’t worry about hitting functional volume all the time, but when you construct pieces that are preparing yourself or your athletes for the Open, calculate the volume and make sure it matches the demands of the Sport so you are prepared when the time comes.
(3) Should functional volume be measured by individual sessions or within a microcycle?
In my article Measuring Volume in CrossFit I show how I calculate volume on a weekly basis (microcycle) when it is relevant for a particular athlete. However, I believe calculating and progressing volume within a single session or workout is equally useful and important to track.
Personally, I calculate (work priority – aka. For Time) or estimate (time priority – AMRAPs) the volume in a workout as the first step in determining volume for the training week.
I’m saying I measure by session and by microcycle, and that’s also what I would recommend doing to you.
Track the volume of movements (or patterns) within an individual session, and then use that to figure out the total number of contractions per week.
This gives you a more well-rounded snapshot of the training and allows you to progress volume in one without progressing the other.
(4) Is functional volume relevant for athletes with low movement proficiency?
Let’s say Ann was inconsistent with her Ring Muscle-Ups. Does it make sense for me as her coach to continue to bump up her volume week over week in her Open foundation phase?
However, as soon as she consistently hit reps, even if it’s singles or doubles, I would argue that’s probably not a bad approach at all.
Volume is a tool.
It’s job is to create tolerance to a specific pattern and prep the athlete for more dense work down the road.
If you give more and more volume to an athlete who has poor mechanics or is missing reps, you’re reinforcing the wrong thing. That’s a recipe for injury and failure.
However, giving an athlete progressively more and more of a newly acquired skill can help the athlete refine the pattern, discover little efficiencies, and cement it into their wheelhouse.
(5) How much should functional volume change for an athlete in their off-season?
Up until this point I’ve been answering the questions in a way that assumes athletes are preparing for the Open or a similar style event, where they are either in a Sport Foundations or Competition Prep phase of training.
Obviously, in these phases of an athlete’s training year, tracking volumes and cross referencing it with the Functional Volumes from the Open is wise.
However, what should volume look like in an athlete’s off-season?
Beginner: If an athlete is relatively new to the Sport of Fitness, they should probably continue to build volume as they learn and refine new skills.
You will never learn to do double unders fast and efficiently unless you do double unders…and do a lot of them.
And good luck learning to snatch if you do it once per week.
The beginner just needs time doing to the d*mn thing.
So build their volume as their skill proficiency allows.
Intermediate: Once that athlete gets to the point where they have developed some actual capacity in most or all of the movements needed for an event -like the Open- it’s time to start being a little more tactical in how and when you give them volume.
Since they have developed their ability to express their fitness in mixed modal environments, they now have more potential for generating damage as well.
For the intermediate athlete undulate volume, intensity and density, where as one climbs the other elements are maintained.
This will allow for continued progress without injury or burnout.
Advanced: If an athlete is in the latter half of their fitness career and they have all the skills and capacities they need for the Sport, it’s time to dedicate energy to refining their craft and improving their relative weaknesses.
No training quality or movement should be left untouched, but with a higher training age and countless reps under their belt, these qualities and skills won’t disappear after some time away either.
For the aged, high-level athlete, training is simultaneously less delicate and more complicated.