Natural bodybuilding champion Sean Sullivan discusses variable split training; an approach that focuses on training each muscle group on its own cycle.

Natural Bodybuilding WorkoutI am often asked questions about the science of bodybuilding, training and nutrition. Most common questions revolve around how many days per week should someone train, how many reps per set and what type of volume should the workout entail. People expect me to sort out the facts and provide a one size fits all solution to their training needs. In the area of training science, there have been a great many breakthroughs over the last 50 years, and much contradictory information to go along with it. It seems science and the real world don’t always get along.

There is also the problem of media introduced training programs. These usually feature some steroid-induced monstrosity that is posing all nicey-nicey with some weights pushing a workout he more than likely has never seen until that issue came out in print. This workout will be blindly followed by 1,000’s until the next issue arrives and the program is changed in favor of the next “big” innovation featuring another similar looking physique.

I am not here to present such information, and I don’t have any photos on hand of the current Mr. Unigalixympia. This information is based on science and real world results. The concepts are not my own. I have only researched and disseminated the work of others. I am also sure this information will be met with great enthusiasm, and soon after forgotten by most. Why? Because it will have to be individually tailored to meet your specific needs. Due to individual recovery patterns you will have to develop a schematic to assist you with your schedule.  Also, this is not a typical split where you work each muscle the same days each week, it is ever changing and the volume is dependant on what is trained and when.

I have learned through the dissemination of the Hormonal Manipulation Training program that use of a program is not based on results for many, but convenience. This program, like HMT, is not easy to follow, but I assure the results are far greater then the traditional methods. So if your still interested lets take a look at what Variable Split Training (VST) is all about.

Variable Split Training

To understand VST you must first look at the term “split” and how it is used in most traditional training methods. The term split refers to your normal training schedule, or how your train your body during the course of the traditional seven day week. An example of the three day, full body split would be training the whole body every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On a four day split you may go upper body Monday and Thursday and lower body Tuesday and Friday. On a six day split you may train one muscle per day on the same day each of the six days of the week with one day off. This is a traditional split.

Variable split means that program has no constraints, or no repeated pattern. On a traditional split each Monday may be devoted to back and biceps. On a variable split this combination may only be repeated once every 10-12 workouts. Each workout on variable split is unique, chest and triceps one day, chest, deltoids and back another, or chest as a solo workout on another.  The hierarchy of the system is not day specific, but based on independent muscle recovery with no regard to muscle groupings or a certain day of the week. This program is designed to prevent overtraining AND undertraining a muscle and not convenience to its user.

In VST the recovery time for a muscle is assessed independent of other factors and the recovery time is used to plan the next training session. This moment in time is referred to as the “absolute optimum” time to for re-stimulation. The absolute optimum time does exist, and VST is the only way to take advantage of this time for every muscle group.  The absolute optimum time is the point in time between the training stimulus (workout) and the return to the homeostatic state (pre-training norm). Each muscle has a point of overcompensation where another bout of training stimuli (workout) should best be planned so your at the top of the training bell curve.  The training stimulus results in a fatigued muscle.

For some time the muscle’s output is diminished. Your body will sense this damage and set out to repair the muscle. The effect in response to this damage is for the body to repair the muscle so it’s better then its original condition. This over-repair, rebuilding the muscle stronger and bigger is overcompensation. The period of overcompensation will only last about 24-36 hours and then it will slowly return to its homeostatic state. This return to its previous state is called involution, and once back to the original state you have lost the opportunity to take advantage of the overcompensation point. If you hit the muscle at the overcompensation point the muscle will be able to handle a greater load and hence greater gains. If you train before this period you will overtrain and once you have returned to the homeostatic state your back at square one. This window of opportunity VST is the only way to effectively take advantage of this time for every muscle group.

Variable Split Training

Modern training splits often result in some muscle groups being under-trained and others being overtrained. This is the shortcoming of most standard split programs. You end up training at the recovery time of your slowest recovering body part and not when the muscle is at its overcompensation period. If you look at the body as five major muscle groups (chest, shoulders, back, legs and arms) that can leave up to four muscle groups under trained and one trained just right. On most modern splits, legs are the slowest recovering body part closely followed by back.

The currently popular one muscle per day/per week program takes this leg and back recovery into account, and the rest of the program is based on leg and back recovery. On the normal five day split. I often find that my legs are properly recovered but I am ready for chest in four days and arms almost every other day. Why? Because larger muscles like legs and back reach deeper muscle fibers and also require more neurological recovery time before the fiber can optimally fire again. Smaller muscles like arms and shoulders recover far more quickly due to less deep fiber stimulation and shorter neuron twigs (neurons have twigs that run along the length of the muscle fiber and branch out through the muscle.

Smaller muscles have shorter twigs and fewer neuron requiring shorter recovery periods and fewer sets to stimulate growth. Yes, a case can be made for the involvement of smaller muscle groups when training a larger muscle, for example the triceps involvement in chest work, but these secondary workouts provide only moderate stimuli for growth. Even after a hard back workout to total fatigue, the average trainee can do an arm workout well within the normal seven day programmed recovery threshold.  So if you're training your legs just enough, and your back almost enough, why are you training the rest of your body not enough?

The VST program is designed to target the stimulus to the muscle during the period of overcompensation, but that point is an individual adaptation and also different for each muscle. The point of overcompensation is affected by age, training age (number of years training), loads placed on the muscle, diet, fast twitch fiber distribution, sheer muscle size and the intensity of the contractions. For simplicity’s sake you can work from shear muscle size and realize a larger muscle requires more recovery then a smaller muscle. I recommend you begin with the recovery of legs and back and work around all other body parts from there. The legs and back can impede growth if trained too often by throwing the body into a catabolic state throughout the body and impede growth.

Now using the seven-day week, I would begin by training the legs one day out of seven, so legs would be trained once per week. For back I would start with five days between workouts as a minimum. Now most trainees fail to properly stimulate the back when training; however, a properly executed back workout would take six days minimum recover for most. Chest, although smaller then the leg and back group is densely packed and five days between would be a minimum. Shoulders are a smaller group, but over-utilized in upper body training, so again five days would seem proper for most. Biceps and triceps normally recover in three days and calves and forearms as little as two.

Take Time Off From Working OutNow once you arrive at your recovery rates you need to structure your program and I recommend using a calendar or making a spreadsheet and begin plotting your workouts. This will make the VST workable and you will not have to constantly ask yourself “what am I training today”? I always recommend taking a week off every 8 to 12 weeks so arrange your training block from your first workout through the last workout before your next de-training period. The number of days you train is also a varied thing, but for my model I will go with five days per week. I prefer to train no more then three days in a row and then take a day off, so my split is a 3 on, 1 off, 2 on, 1 off.

I then start the first three workout using a common three day split; chest, shoulders and triceps day one, back and biceps day two and legs day three. I then take each muscle independently and using the recovery calculations, I place each training session on the calendar, one muscle group at a time, until all groups are in place and the period is complete. For example, on legs I simply count six days and place my leg workout on that day. Next is back, and I count five days and place my back workout on that day, and so on. This may seem simple, but I have to first X out my off days and make sure I have no more then three body parts per day, and that there are no incompatible relationships.

For example, doing heavy legs and back the same day would not be good so I will adjust my schedule by one day (24 hours) to accommodate for that. With this program you must also consider the details such as exercise selection, intensity and the volume of each workout. You don’t just take a three sets of ten approach. It’s more complex than that. There will also be days where you train only one muscle and days where your doing up to three.

On a day with only one muscle, say chest, you can use far greater intensity and volume then on a day when you have chest, back and triceps. On a day when I hit a solo muscle and know I can really kill it, I may also add an extra day for recovery. This actually allows the cycle to be groomed better and there is less contrast and multiple muscle group days. Once my calendar is set all I have to do I look each day to see what my workout will be. The lack of repetition is actually enjoyable and I find far more enthusiasm towards my training on this program.

Sample Variable Split Training Schedule

Week 1

  • Monday - Chest/Delts/Triceps
  • Tuesday - Back/Biceps
  • Wednesday - Legs
  • Thursday - OFF
  • Friday - Delts/Triceps
  • Saturday - Chest/Biceps
  • Sunday - OFF

Week 2

  • Monday - Back/Triceps
  • Tuesday - Legs
  • Wednesday - Delts/Biceps
  • Thursday - OFF
  • Friday - Chest/Triceps
  • Saturday - Back/Biceps
  • Sunday - OFF

This is an oversimplified version of VST, and the schedule incorporates my specific recovery patterns for overcompensation, but it should be able to provide you with a format to begin construction of your own VST program. Once again I would like to point out that this research is not my own and has been inspired by the work of Dr. Fred Hatfield, Charles Poliquin, Sean Phillips and others. This method has been around for quite a long time, and I first read of this approach back in the early 80’s. The only reasons this method is not more widely accepted is due to the complexities of setting up your training colander.

Most trainees prefer to spend far more time on exercise and weight selection then muscle groupings on a recovery based program. Humans gravitate to what is comfortable and the standard 2 on 1 off, 2 on 2 off split is comfortable. You know exactly what your training each day through the entire program. There is far less confusion, but there is also a greatly diminished training effect. By simply planning out months in advance on a calendar it takes much of the confusion out of the VST program. It also allows for far greater variety in your workouts and puts the fun back into the workout because each workout is different.

Rep Ranges For Maximum HypertrophyEffect Of The Repetition On Muscle Fiber Size

Now that we have our schedule down, let's discuss rep and set selection and workout volume. How many reps per set is a highly debated topic. In general, most will tell you that the 3-6 ranges will develop strength and some hypertrophy, 7-12 range hypertrophy and 15+ endurance. Before I can recommend my preferred rep range, I want to review the muscle cell. A muscle cell is comprised of many different components, each requiring a different form of stress for it to adapt. Each component of the cell makes up the overall size of the cell itself, and ultimately the size of the muscle.

Muscle cells are made up of myofibrils, mitochondria, sarcoplasm, capillaries, fat deposits, glycogen, connective tissue and other subcellular substances.  The membrane surrounding the cell is the sarcolemma. Just beneath the sarcolemma are the cell’s nuclei. The fluid inside the cell contains the myofibrils and is the cell’s contractile elements. The fluid is called the sarcoplasm, and is actually a gelatinous protein substance. Tiny organelles called mitochondria are found between the myofibrils and are responsible for oxidative metabolism and production of adrenosinetriphosphate or ATP.

Each part makes up an approximate percentage of the cells total size and each has a different method of overload. For example, the myofibrils make up 20-30% of a cell's size and are overloaded in the 6-12 rep range. The mitochondria make up 15-25% of a cells size and are overloaded  in the 15-25-rep range. The sarcoplasm makes up 20-30% and is worked in the 7-10 rep range and with exocentric training.  Fat deposits, glycogen and other subcellular substances are mostly affected by nutrition and rest factors. The muscle cell is a very complex entity and no single method of training can force an adaptive process to occur in all aspects of the cell.

All of the cell's components take up space and therefore contribute to overall muscle size. Each component responds to a different form of stress by adapting to that stress. Once adaptation has occurred a greater amount of stress must be delivered at the right time for greater development. To maximize cell size a wide variety of stressors must be applied to the cell allowing a greater number of the cell’s components to be developed. High reps, low reps, fast movements, forced reps, cheat movements, iso-tension and everything in between should be preformed to make the muscle grow. And finally, the overcompensation period must be determined for each muscle group to both recover and hypertrophy. So as you can see, limiting yourself to one type of rep pattern will not allow for maximum hypertrophy.

Now putting it all together we need a variety of rep patterns for maximum hypertrophy. High reps are often overlooked by bodybuilders, but the high rep sets will increase mitochondrial mass and can account for up to 20-30% of the gross size of a muscle. Performing high reps with continuous tension will force a greater number of capillaries to form enabling the vascular bed surrounding each cell to become more prolific, thereby contributing to greater size. The fluid portion of the cell, the sarcoplasm, will also increase and will contribute as much as 25-30% of the cell’s total size.

The lower rep work will increase the number of myofibril elements in a cell and that accounts for 20-30% of the cells size. Fast, explosive movements tend to affect the fast-twitch (low-oxidative) fibers more then the red slow-twitch (high-oxidative) fibers. The slow-twitch fibers respond more to the higher reps with a lighter load and slower movement. So at a minimum, each workout should incorporate sets of 4-6 explosive reps done with a normal cadence. Sets of 12-15 reps done at a moderate speed and holding the contracted and extended portion of the rep and sets of 20-25 done in a slow continuous tension with no rest or pause through the set.

Repetition Selection And Hormonal Response (HMT)

First let's look at the relationship between testosterone boosting and rep selection. We know through endless research that testosterone, the holy grail of muscle building hormones, is triggered through specific training. That training consists of heavy movements, specifically heavy explosive compound movements done at 85% of one rep maximum for sets of 4-6 reps. The rep speed should be constant with a explosive acceleration. Forced reps are great to increase the intensity of the exercise as well.  Testosterone boosting has long-lasting effects, but they are compromised when too many sets of this type are done too frequently, or the volume is too great.

By manipulating this rep pattern infrequently, say two to four sets of squats, deadlifts and push press per week, you can maximize the effects. All high intensity training will increase your testosterone level to some degree, as long as the sessions are kept short. It will not be as potent as s testosterone boosting squat workout, but it will enable you to extend the effects of the workout as you focus on manipulating other hormones. If squats and deadlifts are out of the question then leg press or rack deadlifts can also fit the requirement, but squats and deadlifts are the king of testosterone boosting workouts, and yes ladies, this means you too!

Negative only training has been shown to force the muscle to secrete insulin like growth factor 1 and fibroblast growth factor, two powerful autocrine/paracrine anabolic hormones. This type of training causes extreme soreness and muscle trauma, and again, needs to be done infrequently. Sets need to be limited to 2-5 Negative only sets of 6-10 reps. That is a 10-15 second negative with a 3-5 second pause between the reps. Between all sets stretch, and if you’re not familiar with Dante’s stretch protocols then I would research it. Movements using this type of training session should be heavy with a maximum stretch at the bottom and peak contraction at the top. Hold the top and bottom positions for 2-4 seconds. Again this training needs to be infrequent with 14-21 days between negative only sets for the same body parts.

Another aspect of lifting is growth hormone manipulation training. If you combine a heavy compound exercise with an explosive positive and slow negative, and a single-joint movement for the same muscle, a pronounced GH releasing effects occurs. This superset will boost GH secretion and increase GH receptors on the trained muscle. The second exercise needs to be lighter and you should go for the burn. Reduce the range of motion as the muscle fatigues to optimize the burn. A superset of bench press done heavy with a 5-6 second negatives for 6-10 reps, combined with cable crossovers done for 15-25 controlled reps and 4-5 partials or burns at the end would be an ideal chest combination. Only the combination of more GH secretion (the compound exercise) and increasing the GH receptors on the muscle (quick burns) will induce muscle growth.

High rep work added to your workout followed by a carb/protein drink post training can maximize the insulin effect of muscle building. Insulin will shuttle carbs into one of two places, fat cells and muscle cells. When training depletes glycogen in the muscle and brings in as much blood as possible, i.e. high rep work, then follow the session with a high GI carb drink. You can better train the muscle to store carbs and maximize the anabolic effects of insulin.

Think about your carb depletion workouts pre-contest. They are designed to do just this, and then maximize the volume with carbs and shuttle the nutrients into the muscle cell. Why do we only do this pre-contest? Would it not be best to throw in a few sets of this type each workout and harness the growth and recovery potential of insulin? Use a typical carb depletion workout set of high reps 15-25, and short rest fast tempo sets. Use non-traumatic movements, cables and machines, and reduce the range to increase the pump and force more blood into the muscle. Follow the workout with a high-GI carb simple protein post-workout shake. An hour or two after training take in another high carb moderate protein meal.

Muscle tension will rapidly increase the number of androgen receptors on the trained muscle and negate the effect of the cortisol receptors. By increasing muscle tension, and decreasing fiber trauma you can harness the power of the secreted testosterone, IGF 1 and GH in the muscle. The reduced fiber trauma will decrease cortisol production and receptors as the training induces fiber growth. This type of set would be the opposite of the negative sets. You want to accentuate the positive part of the movement and negate the negative effect. The negative workout will maximize trauma, but this workout is designed to minimize it.

Movements need to be done with a 4-6 second positive, and a 2-second pause at the top and bottom and a 1-2 second Negative. Train strictly and keep the muscle under tension for as long as possible, Use static holds at the end of each set to really increase the tension on the working set, and get a maximum contraction at the top of each rep. Use movements that have the greatest range of motion and peak contractions such as leg extensions and hack squats for the quads. Avoid bouncing and too many sets as long workouts this will burden recovery and release cortisol.  I would suggest 2-4 sets of this type be done every few workouts, but not the same day as negative only sets.

As for the total volume of the workout, well that will vary based on many factors to include, number of muscle groups trained, the size of the muscle group, training age, muscle size, overload selection and nutrition factors. I would prefer to see greater intensity applied to the workout and less volume. Far more trainees are guilty of using too much volume rather then too little. When planning my training volume I prefer to look at the total training time and go from there. I feel those of an advanced training age (10+ years) should be in the gym no more then 45 minutes. Moderate training age (5+ years) up to one hour and novice (1+) up to one hour and fifteen minutes. Plan the volume according to those guidelines and you will better avoid the overtraining bug.

On days where I train only one muscle group, say back, I will plan my negative sets to go along with a few low rep testosterone boosting sets, some moderate speed work in the 10-12 ranges and my high rep work. After an increased volume workout of this type it’s usually best to add another 24-hour recovery period before the next workout for that same bodypart. On a three muscle group day, say chest, shoulders and triceps, select only a few exercises for 2-3 sets, each with one exercise in the 4-6 rep range, one in the 10-15 reps range and one in the 20-15 rep range. This allows maximum saturation and lower volume for that workout. Again this type of training takes some thought before each workout, but is far more effective and enjoyable then following the exact same leg workout for 12 weeks at a time.

Overtraining And Scheduled Layoffs

There is a fine line between just the right amount of training and too much. All weight training causes stress on the body, and that stress is the stimulus for muscle growth. How the body adapts to that stress will either create a larger, stronger muscle, the pre-stress condition, or it will trigger a stress so great the body will have difficulty adapting to it. Bodybuilders and athletes everywhere have pushed too hard and sent themselves into the overtraining spiral. Most often when they reach a plateau the natural response is to push harder, train more and take less time off. More often then not this desire to excel will cause you to succumb to the effect of overtraining.

Adaptive stress can quickly become destructive stress and all your hard work will suffer. Eastern European countries in their effort to excel in the world of athletic endeavors did much of the early research on the phenomenon of overtraining.  The Eastern European scientists defined the condition as a dip in training effect caused by an imbalance between the amount of stress applied to the body (or mind), and the individual’s ability to adapt to it. Western researchers have more clearly defined the effects of weight training and overtraining and have noted four basic types of overtraining, attitudinal, muscular, neurological and endocrine.

Attitudinal overtraining is the social, emotional or psychological factors associated with the individual’s loss of desire to train. These can be caused by personal problems, financial problems, work stress or anything that has an impact upon your mental attitude. Mental burnout can cause lethargy, loss of attention, skipping workouts or sloppy workouts.  Attitudinal overtraining is actually not as easy to diagnose, as the trainee usually feels guilty about his lack of training desire and pushes himself to the gym even when the workouts are less then productive.

Also, once diagnosed, the trainee may resist any attempt to correct the cause, relationship problems for example, or feel that have no effect on the training program and continue to train. This can lead to other types of overtraining that are more critical and create long-term problems or injury. When faced with “burnout” the best remedy is to take a few days off and concentrate on relieving the outside stressor, and refresh the desire to return to the gym.

Muscular overtraining is caused by the body's inability to fully recover from the previous stress or loads placed on the muscle. When the muscle fiber is not sufficiently recovered there is usually a corresponding loss of strength and flexibility. Muscular overtraining is usually the most easily to identify as it is accompanied by lethargy, muscle soreness (delayed onset muscle soreness or D.O.M.S.) and a general feeling of unpreparedness towards the workout. I find most trainees can easily identify muscular overtraining and take the proper remedy of an extra day or two off before attacking that bodypart again.

Neurological overtraining has been distinguished as two different types by the Eastern European’s, Addisonic overtraining and Basedowic overtraining.  Addisonic was so named because many of the symptoms resemble Addison’s disease, a nervous disorder brought on by stress. Some symptoms include: overtired feeling, loss of appetite, low resting pulse rate, hypotension (low blood pressure) with a corresponding increase in diastolic blood pressure immediately after stress (+100mm GH). These changes result in no inability to sleep, change in metabolic rate or body temperature and this makes it difficult to diagnose. Only complete recovery between workouts, proper training volume and periodic layoffs can prevent this type of overtraining, and if not kept in check can lead to Basedowic overtraining.

Basedowic overtraining is so named because those symptoms resemble Basedow’s disease, another neurological disorder far more severe than Addison’s disease. Symptoms include lethargy, increased sleep requirements, reduced appetite, weight loss, increased resting pulse rate, headaches, slight increases in body temp, increased blood pressure, reduced reaction times and a reduction in mental acuity. This is an easy condition to diagnose, but difficult to fully recover from. This is the type of overtraining commonly seen in Army Ranger School graduates.

I took part in a study after I attended the Army Ranger School in 1988 that gauged the recovery of the graduates by taking full readings both before and after the grueling school. It was found that complete recovery took as long as one full year! Imagine the implications this could have on a competitive lifter? Yet it is not uncommon to see advanced competitors push themselves to a point where no further progress is seen for years after being diagnosed with Basedowic overtraining. Only long periods of detraining and proper nutrition will counteract the neurological effects of this type of overtraining.

Endocrinal overtraining is when one or more of the hormonal cascade pathways becomes disrupted and causes a diminished hormonal profile. Thyroid hormone problems are common in dieting bodybuilders. By cutting calories too low the thyroid produces less of the active thyroid T-3 and fewer conversion enzymes that convert T-3 to T-4. This causes an inability to lose fat and the metabolism slowing down. A further reduction in calories will only compound the problem and if carried too far the metabolism may take years to recover. Endocrine overtraining can manifest itself anywhere along the hormonal cascade and disrupt the homeostasis of the body preventing muscle gains. Proper training, rest and nutrition strategies will combat the problem.

Now onto layoffs. I always recommend a periodic layoff to prevent any of the forms of overtraining discussed above, and particularly attitudinal factors. A week of rest after 8-12 weeks can only benefit the trainee and there will be no loss of training effect. There has been much research on this topic and some coaches, like Bryan Haycock, consider it the most important element in continued progress. Bryan calls his layoffs “strategic deconditioning” and has this to say about the concept:

"What does strategic Deconditioning mean and how do we apply it to continue growing? Strategic deconditioning is simply a period of time free from training which is long enough to allow a reversal of some of the acute adaptations in muscle tissue, referring specifically to the repeated bout effect. This usually requires 9 - 12 days straight with no training. The term strategic is used because this 9 - 12 day period is not chosen at random or whenever you begin to feel "burned out" or even simply lose interest. It is done every 6-8 weeks depending on whether you finish your cycle with 5 rep work or with eccentric work respectively."

Don't confuse deconditioning with recuperation. Recuperation denotes a restoration or re-building of the tissue. This is what your average personal trainer commonly advocates. He or she will tell you, "Give the muscle plenty of time to rest before you train it again." This pattern of training will not only produce slower gains but you will inevitably plateau more quickly, albeit a fully recuperated plateau. Your muscles will be fully recuperated within the first 7 days of the deconditioning period. At 7 days you will also still retain most of the repeated bout effects. Additional down time is required to allow the muscle to lower it's defenses. 9-12 days is just long enough to allow deconditioning, but to prevent undue muscle atrophy.

If you have ever followed Paul Crib’s Max-OT program, he also advocates the rest week. In Max-OT circles this is known as cyclical recovery or CT. This is what Paul Delia has to say on CT:

"Taking a week off from training every 8 to 10 weeks is very important for overall recuperation and muscle growth. Many people have a psychological barrier to taking time off from training. They feel like they are going to shrink. Not so. In fact, with Max-OT, after your week off for CR you will usually come back bigger and stronger."

This week off allows your body to repair and grow. It is literally recovering from 8 or 10 straight weeks of heavy training. Fed properly, your body during this CR phase will be in a very high "anabolic" state. Muscle growth and repair will be constant, 24 hours a day.

One very important thing, do not do any type of strenuous aerobic or anaerobic activity during this week. You don't have to be a slug, but refrain from any exhausting or physically taxing activities. This is a recuperation week that is a key element in Max-OT.

I could go on citing others such as Charles Poliquin, Ian King, Dr. Fred Hatfield and Dr. Steven Flisk just to name a few, but I think my point is clear. A scheduled week off is the best way to avoid overtraining and to ensure continued growth and improvement.

Exercise Selection, The Final Piece Of The Puzzle

One of the most pervasive views among bodybuilders is that different exercises for a specific muscle group with target fibers at different points along the muscle belly. This is not tenable due to noncontiguous innervation. As stated previously, nerves entering the muscle branch out into twigs. Each twig transports the electrochemical charge that causes each cell to contract. Not only do all of the cells serviced by the single neuron contract upon stimulation but they do so at the same level of strength and all along the muscle belly. It is impossible to isolate a small quadrant of a muscle, the fibers will either fire or not.

Does this mean all we have to do is perform the basic movements and no supplemental exercises? Yes and no. Where only a basic movement will benefit overall hypertrophy there is still a crossover effect of various movements to the surrounding synergistic stabilizers muscles. Most major muscle groups are also divided into sub-groups. The chest for example is made up of the sternal pectoralis (lower chest) and the clavicular pectoralis (upper chest). The upper portion of the chest has nerves stimulating it that are not involved in the contraction of the lower portion. There is no question that each can be stimulated separately, and should be for maximum development. There is no way; however, to stimulate the inner chest or outer chest separately. It may feel that way when doing a set of wide grip dips or dumbbell bench press, but both are stimulating the neurons along the lower chest more then the upper chest.

The next factor in exercise selection is the compound movement over isolation movements. The incline bench press will more directly stimulate the upper pecks, but the deltoids, triceps and many other muscles are also involved in the contraction. With cable crossovers you eliminate more of the stabilizer muscles and in effect provide more direct stimulation to the chest region. With higher rep training some of the smaller muscle groups will give out long before the target group receives sufficient overload, so the cable crossover would be a much better choice for 20 reps then the bench press. Once again variety is key and exercise selection must also meet the various requirements for cell hypertrophy. At a minimum three exercises would be selected, a core or compound movement for the lower rep explosive sets, another for the medium rep sets of 12-15 and an isolation exercise for the high reps sets. A good example of a triceps workout would look like this:

  • Close grip bench press: 2 sets of 4-6 reps done with an explosive cadence.
  • Seated triceps extension: 2 sets of 12-15 reps at a 3-1-3-1 tempo (3 seconds to raise the weight, hold the contraction for 1 second, 3 to lower and 1 second stretch at the bottom).
  • Cable triceps kickback: 2 sets of 20-25 reps done in continuous tension.

Once again this only touches on the basics of the VST program. There are many more factors involved and this process must be individualized to each trainee. I have only provided the basics and uncovered a new approach to program design. I do not expect this method to become popular for most, it is quite involved and most trainees do not want to carry a schematic around in the gym every day. But for those of you who are looking for a new approach that will definitely improve your recovery and increase results give VST a test run. After the first eight-week cycle the program actually becomes easy to follow, simply repeat the previous eight-week structure, or make slight changes to the workouts but use the same monthly template. If your tired of the modern splits, and feel like something new then this is as far away from the norm as you can get.

mark yutzi
Posted on: Sun, 03/07/2010 - 20:37

This article makes alot of sense. I have worked out for about 10 years now and just now realized that I should definatley shake things up!!!! Can't wait to get to the gym tommorow and I will let you know how my workouts go over the coming months. I am super motivated and just wanted to say thanks for the refresher!!!!!

Thomas Kenney
Posted on: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 11:49

Makes damn good sence. It definatly gave me a new perspective on a more complete workout. Anxious to see the results. I felt i was doing a complete workout by hitting the muscle groups from all angles and changing reps...on differenr days. By changing the reps during the workout makes total sense. Quite often we overthink and fail to see what is right in front of us...thanks 4 knocking the blinders off.

Posted on: Tue, 02/23/2010 - 22:50

That was the best training article I have read in ages. Thanks for the advice Sean, I will definitely be taking this on board and adjusting my training using the principals you've mentioned. I will definitely be keeping a eye out for more articles from you at M&S. Thanks again

Posted on: Sat, 02/27/2010 - 20:03

Thanks Simon, I have several more articles to come including one that ties in the diet aspect with the training to max the endocrine system.