"You can do anything if you start light enough.”
As this article had progressed from just ‘my thoughts’ to a full blown article I should provide a proviso before you read it. This article comes from the perspective of a lifter who has:
- Already built a strong base of strength, muscle and power.
- Accrued some injuries.
- Wants to lift for health, fat loss and/or muscle maintenance.
For a novice just starting out I believe there are better approaches to gain muscle and strength quickly, which will be covered in future articles. Now that’s cleared up, here’s my take on higher volume training.
This article will look at:
- How to increase training volume safely, with real life examples.
- How to minimize the chance of overtraining despite higher volume.
- The benefits of the above.
For the past couple of years I have been increasing my weekly training volume. At first it started off as a way to safeguard against lifting heavy weights, I know for most people that sounds a little strange. Surely more weight = better, right? Well sure for most people that’s probably true, however I had injuries to think about. So I needed a way to work the muscles without having to use the types of weights that would have exposed me to injury.
I started off training full body 3 days a week with what I would consider now to be a very tame schedule. Typically 5 to 7 exercises done for 3 sets each. Only one day was actually heavy, the other was a light day and the last was a medium-heavy day.
Here was a typical week back then:
To be done for 3 sets of 10 each with relatively relaxed rest periods of 3 minutes between sets.
- Dumbbell Rows
- Side Laterals
- Leg Extensions
- Leg Curls
- Dumbbell Curls
- Dumbbell Extensions
To be done for 3 sets of 15 with a stricter rest period of 1 minute between sets.
To be done for 3 sets of 12 with a rest period of 2 minutes between sets.
I then moved on to increasing the number of exercises, I would consistently do up to 10 exercises for 3 sets each.
Here was a typical heavy session with those changes:
- Bench Press
- Pull Ups
- Bent Rows
- Stiff Leg Deadlift
- Seated Press
- Upright Rows
As you can see additional exercises were added increasing the overall volume. Most things were still done for 3 sets of 10. The light and medium day would eventually employ more exercises as well, while keeping the same rep scheme individual to each day.
The next major volume increase was to increase the number of training days. First 4, and now 5. So that’s 5 full body sessions per week. Each session has around 12 exercises done for 3 sets each. Typically I would perform 3 heavy sessions, interspersed with a lighter session and a medium session.
So let’s break that down a little
Each session must cover the 5 areas that I consider essential. There must be a benching exercise, a chin or rowing exercise, an overhead pressing exercise, a squatting exercise and a deadlifting exercise. These are very loose categories, for deadlifting on some days just something simple like good mornings would do. For overhead pressing it doesn’t always mean heavy presses, although they certainly should be there, however side laterals will do on light days.
- The next progression would be to add exercises. Add additional exercises in, smaller isolation exercises at first and later on compounds.
- The next progression would be to add additional days. I would always add a medium session first. Get used to the new exercises and increased weekly volume before going at it more intensely.
- Time your rest between sets. You need to keep an eye on the clock with this type of training, You can’t take your time with a full body routine, every exercise deserves the same attention. I like to start a new set every minute. That works for me, with a quick tempo that means I normally get 30-40 seconds rest between sets.
- Slow down your reps on at least some sessions per week. Something I have experimented with recently is slowing down your rep speed. I’m not going to make any exact recommendations but at least 3 seconds on the negative and 1-3 seconds on the way up. This should provide just as much stimulation to the muscle with much less strain on the connective tissues and joints, thereby making it easier to recover from.
- Vary your exercises. Within my 5 full body sessions of 12 exercises each, rarely do I use the same exercise more than once a week. Variety helps to keep the body away from overtraining.
- Avoid training to failure. Your sheer volume will make up enough of a training effect. Training to failure may well push you over that balance.
I think important to note at this juncture is that I wouldn’t expect everyone to increase training volume to this extent, however it can be done and as I have seen it is a desirable way to train for me at least part of the year.
So having said that let’s look at benefits:
- Fat burning. I have never been in as good shape as I am in now. The constant full body training five times a week burns a bunch of calories. Also as a nice bonus many trainees believe in a thing called EPOC, which seems to result in an increases metabolism for a certain length of time after training. More training equals more fat burning, equals leaner you.
- Increased cardiovascular training. The way I train now resembles more circuit training than the heavy lifting I prescribed to for years. My heart is in much better shape and my ability to handle the work capacity is tremendously improved.
- Increases muscle mass. Working higher reps has a positive effect on the muscle. With a higher rep/lower weight set you’re much more likely to tire out the muscle rather than the connective tissues or neuromuscular system. More muscle stimulation means more muscle growth.
- Increased energy and flexibility. While I’ve been training so frequently I have noticed minor injuries becoming much less common. I feel like I have more energy and flexibility on a day-to-day basis.
Don’t get the wrong impression of all this though, I still think strength is the key. What I do know now for certain is that there are different ways to build strength and those different ways have different benefits. For years I built strength with low reps and I got moderately big and moderately lean. I’m bigger and leaner now by far and just as strong, albeit in different rep ranges and fitter. For me that’s what bodybuilding is about, being muscular, healthy and strong. I’m sold on a higher volume approach, a wise lifter once told me in reference to training volume “you can do anything, if you start light enough” and I’m looking forward to seeing how far I can take it.