High Volume Training: What’s the story? Part 2

In the last segment , I went over the concept of high-volume/high-frequency training.

To summarize briefly, high volume weight training as used by bodybuilders isn’t very productive; but a high volume of work used by strength athletes can be of benefit.

Why doesn’t it work so well for bodybuilders? Bro-ish bodybuilders use high volume because they’re after a pump. In their mind, the pump is more important than anything else; more important than progression, weight on the bar, or tension-time.

Since those concepts are the responsible factor behind muscle hypertrophy (aka, bigger muscles), these are what you should work on. Something like 5 sets of 5, or 3-4 sets of 10, or something along those lines will go a lot farther towards getting a muscle bigger than doing 10 variations of the same exercise for 5 sets of 12 each.

The story changes for a strength athlete. When you have an exercise that you want to improve, it makes sense to train it often. The nervous system likes repetition. If you’re a powerlifter, you want to get good at the squat, bench press, and deadlift. If you’re an Olympic weightlifter, you want to improve the clean & jerk and the snatch.

Olympic lifting has really been the pioneer of this method. It’s not unheard of for some of these guys to train 5-7 days a week. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ll have heard of the legendary workouts of the Bulgarian OLers under Abadjiev – lifting six days a week for mammoth 8-hour workouts (before you get a wild hair, keep in mind that 1) these were Olympiads that had nothing else to do, 2) quite a few of them were demolished by the volume, and 3) Bulgaria has an extensive history of failing drug tests).

I mentioned in the first part how Boris Sheiko has adapted this idea to powerlifting, as has Brian Siders. The logic follows here: if you want to get good at the lifts, you train the lifts as hard as you can, as often as you can.

For practical reasons, this means you’ll be keeping the intensity down. A range of 70% to 80% of your 1RM is the most commonly suggested; you’d be smart to err on the lighter side of this range. What about sets and reps? You’d probably be smart to keep things in the 1-6 range. I know I prefer doubles and triples for things like the squat and bench, with singles being the winner when it comes to deadlifting. But this is not a hard and fast rule; as long as the intensity is where it needs to be and you’re not tiring yourself out by taking sets to the point of failure, you’re ok.

Speaking of that, this is probably the biggest mistake you could make: getting stuck in the mindset that you have to work a muscle group to exhaustion. While that’s one take on things, if you try that on a high-frequency setup you won’t last long. This also goes for those of you that are just convinced it won’t work because you don’t get the feedback that exhaustion and soreness will provide. For this approach to work, you have to get away from that mindset. The effect comes from the volume and the practice with your exercises, not from fatigue and exhaustion.

If you’re knew to this, start light. Training three times a week is more than enough unless you’re a well-conditioned brute. Something like the ubiquitous 5×5 routine floating around the ‘net, or one of the versions laid out in Practical Programming would be a very good place to begin.

From there, you can branch out to diversifying and specializing your exercises, adding workouts, and so on.

The gist of it will be to use a variation of full-body lifting, or if you’re really in need of the recovery time, an alternating upper/lower body split. Contrary to popular bodybuilding myth, you don’t have to do an exercise for every single part to have an effective workout. You can focus on a handful of lifts, or even specialize on just one or two.

For example, the original 5×5 routine by Bill Starr focused on the squat, bench press, and power clean. The newer version circulating the Internets involves the squat, bench, and barbell row. Pavel Tsatsouline’s Power to the People! routine suggests picking just two exercises, the Olympic press and the deadlift. Doug Hepburn used the upper/lower split, focusing on one lift each day.

Recently (within a week of this writing, 1 July 2008) I’ve been taking some cues from Sheiko and Brian Siders with my own little mish-mash of a program:

Monday – 2-board Press and Box Squat, 6×3 ~70%
Tuesday – Incline Bench and Front Squat, 6-8×2-3
Wednesday – 2-board Press and Deadlift, 6×2 ~80%
Thursday – Bench Press and Box Squat, 10-12×2-3, ~55-65% (Dynamic Effort workout)
Friday – Max Effort work for bench press and lower body (4-6 heavy singles with a special exercise)
Saturday – 2-board Press and Front Squat, 6-8×3, ~75%

After the two big lifts, I’ve been throwing in assistance work in the form of pullups, glute-ham raises, scapular retraction work (face pulls, bodyweight rows, dumbbell rows), and tricep pushdowns. Keep in mind that this is somewhat customized for me, as I can’t really bench full ROM due to ongoing shoulder problems, and for the same reason I need to keep in a high volume of upper back work.

The beauty of this setup is that I can take out workouts if I’m not feeling up to par; take out Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and I’ve still got a decent workout going on. If I feel up to more, I can do the full routine. Or do what I did last week, when Thursday was busy — I moved that workout to Friday, Friday’s workout to Saturday, and dropped the regular Saturday workout.

The percentages and set/rep schemes are borrowed from Prilepin’s Table (from part 1), and can be seen reflected in the other routines I’ve mentioned as well.

Some suggestions:

  • Keep in mind that you won’t necessarily have a “program” in the sense you’re used to. A methodology like this is very modular and flexible; you can add and remove workouts very easily, without really affecting the overall flow of things.
  • Don’t limit yourself to the templates you see on something like the 5×5. For example, I’ve modified that particular routine to develop the front squat (6×3 on Monday, back squats 2×5 Wednesday, up to a heavy triple or single on Friday), the overhead press (Progressing from 5 to 8 singles on Monday, strict military press or bench press 2×5 on Wednesday, 3-5 heavy singles on Friday), and several other lifts. Be flexible and creative.
  • When adding days, you have two strategies. You can either load up or you can gradually break yourself in. Loading up would involve jumping from your current workout to training 5-7 days a week. Obviously this is going to be hard on the system. You might feel beat up, worn out, tired, hungry, and have a strong desire to avoid the gym. This is normal; in fact, it’s expected and can be exploited. If you use this approach, jump in for a week then back off. If you go longer than that, it’s possible that you’ll overwork yourself too much and need a longer recovery period.
  • If you choose to gradually build up, I’d suggest following the pattern of progression laid out by either Sheiko or Mark Rippetoe. In other words, do things in small increments and let your system adapt to the extra work. If you don’t, you risk running yourself down. Add a moderate session, break yourself in for a month or two, then increase the work load. Do that for a few more months, then add another moderate session. And so on.
  • Keep the weights on the low side, especially at first. I’m not kidding; I know you’re looking at the 70% number and thinking “yeah right”, but I’m serious. If you’re lifting very frequently, you will not be able to handle very heavy weights every day. Maybe once a week you can work up to some heavy stuff, but the majority of your workouts need to be with moderate or light weights.
  • If you’re not the kind of person that can pace him/herself, this way of doing things is probably not for you. If you just can’t hit the gym without turning yourself into a fiery ball of wreckage, you’re better off with another way of doing things.