High Volume Training: What’s the story?

When we discuss weight training, one of the key things we talk about is the volume of work done. Volume can mean different things to different people.

To Mike Mentzer and the HIT gang, volume was the number of sets done. Most bodybuilders still think in these terms; the number of sets per body part.

To athletes and strength coaches, volume takes on a different meaning. In this circle, volume is generally measured as the number of barbell lifts done (NL), or as the tonnage of a workout (sets * reps * weight used).

Volume is also manipulated by the frequency of workouts. If you lift once a week, you’ll have less volume than someone lifting three times a week, all things equal (note that this isn’t always the case; you can take the workload of a single workout and spread it across multiple sessions).

There’s a pretty wide gap between these two groups, not to mention in between them. The bodybuilders will argue over doing just a few sets (HIT) or doing a whole lot of sets to “blast the part” (the high-volume workouts you read in the muscle mags). As a rule, if you’re after physique goals, and aren’t using steroids to help things along, you’re better off keeping the volume in check. This doesn’t mean one set, nor does it mean one workout every 21 days (this has actually been suggested, so I’m not making it up). It means keep things in check.

What about strength athletes? Here it gets a little fuzzier. Bodybuilding requires a specific set of conditions, and creates a specific kind of stress in the muscle tissues. Strength gains can overlap with this on occasion, but by and large pure strength training is a different animal. This is what I want to talk about.

One of the most commonly cited sources for estimating the volume of training is called Prilepin’s Table. This piece of Internet mythology has been circulating around for quite awhile. Allegedly it originates in the works of Soviet researcher/coach AS Prilepin. In this table, Prilepin associates given training percentage zones (90%, 80%, and so on) with the best number of reps in a set, and the best number of total reps (NL).

Prilepin’s Table

Percent ZoneReps Per SetOptimal NLRange of Lifts

Prilepin’s Table actually came from an article translated by Bud Charniga . It’s an interesting read, if you’re into such things, as it covers the hows and whys of the methodology. At any rate, Prilepin’s Table has become somewhat infamous in strength training circles, and it’s been used as a justification for lots of things.

If you notice the 55-65% zone, for example, you can see where the Dynamic Effort workouts from Westside Barbell come from. Likewise for the Max Effort days. Prilepin’s Table isn’t without flaws though; for one, it’s an analysis done on Olympic weightlifters, and what works best for the Clean & Jerk and the Snatch isn’t necessarily applicable to the more strength-based lifts. Jim Wendler has suggested that sticking to the low-end of the rep and volume recommendations would be a good idea, and I tend to agree.

For example, if you’re working with 85% loads, you could stick to 10 total reps and 2 reps per set. This would work out to 5 sets of 2, and it just happens that this is a pretty solid setup for something like like the squat or bench press. At 70%, which tends to be “the magic spot” according to a lot of guys, you’d end up with 4-6 sets of 3, possibly as much as 8 sets of 3. Looks good so far.

In a more applicable setup, we’ve got Boris Sheiko’s powerlifting workouts. Sheiko adapts a lot of the Russian weightlifting methodology, and it’s very evident when looking at his programs. He starts out novices with a more basic three-day per week setup, gradually adding more volume and more days. His high-level lifters train 5-6 days a week, sometimes twice a day. Needless to say, this isn’t something for the beginner to try.

In America, we’ve got the legendary Brian Siders. Siders is a legend in his own right, moving around ridiculous weights under IPF conditions. He’s also well-known for his insanely high training volume. Here’s something he suggested for an intermediate lifter, for example. Again, not something for the beginner or otherwise unprepared to just step into.

So how do you, the willing novice, implement such training? I’ll go over that, along with my recent exploits, in part 2.