A look at German Volume Training starts this new series, where Wolf puts his keen eye on popular workout programs, shows you how they work and what are the pros and cons of each.
Commentary, Overview, Critique, Appraisal, Bashing…
The series will present a mixture of all of those. I won’t go into detailed descriptions of how the programs are done, neither can I do it as well or as thorough as the articles I’ll link to at the beginning of each article, nor is there the focus of the series. I’ll rather try to give an objective commentary of the said programs in the overall context of the bodybuilding theory and practice which I believe in and which I promote through my articles. This might have sounded a bit contradictory, but it really isn’t so, since the principles which I adhere to are based on peer-reviewed research and over half a century of practice by non-elite natural bodybuilders.
An important thing to understand is that most of the programs I’ll write about work, and out of those that do work, most are terrific – but not for everyone at every time, and this is basically what I hope to teach you in these articles. There are programs that you should avoid at certain levels of training, then, some won’t fit your goals, others should only be used sporadically, then there are some that can be tweaked to fit you under certain conditions, etc. After reading the series, you should be able to decide whether a particular approach is right for you, and when and how to use it.
The last thing I’d like to mention in this introductory part are the last few words of the series’ title. Lots of amateurs and hobbyists who lift weights, and especially those that lift at home, tend to frown when something is labeled as “bodybuilding” or “bodybuilder’s”, or simply think that the article isn’t for them. As I pointed out in one of my previous articles, proper natural bodybuilding is about being strong and healthy, while caring, in varying degrees, for your physical appearance as a result of that training. You may ask yourself now, why put the “bodybuilder’s perspective” part in the title anyway?
You see, basically everything that involves lifting weights can help any aspect of the sport – you may perform Olympic lifts as a bodybuilder, do back squats if you’re a kettlebell practitioner who strives for KB pistol squats, do triceps isolations if you’re a powerlifter, and so on. Because of this, you can use all these programs regardless of what your primary goal is. I’ll, however, look at their merits and drawbacks as someone whose training goal is maximizing hypertrophy for the long haul.
All the programs will be looked upon in a fairly uniform manner. We’ll begin with a short introduction which summarizes essential parts of the program, its origin and purpose, and give some links to articles which explain them in detail. Then, we’ll see how do these programs behave when we analyze them through a simple training model which I explained in this article. After this, we’ll get more specific, and comment on unique qualities of examined programs and how well do they fare for a bodybuilding trainee.
A note – no recommendations will be given on how to modify these programs, although I do have many ideas for tweaks which I either have found to work, or think they would. I feel that doing so would dilute the diversity of the list of routines we’ll examine, and remove uniqueness from each of them. Most of them are great on their own, and there’s no need to cram them into uniform hypertrophy routine models in an attempt to make them “better”. Remember, diversity is a treasure, and this holds special value in the sport of bodybuilding.
German Volume Training – Intro
German Volume Training (GVT) is a peculiar training method whose sole purpose is putting on muscle mass. This is basically how its main popularizer, Charles Poliquin, describes it (I won’t go into commenting his claims of possible gains within 6-12 week periods, since I hope my readers have enough knowledge and experience to be able to tell an exaggerated claim from a realistic one).
The basic idea behind the program is simple and has been around for a while in various forms (Vince Gironda’s 8×8 as opposed to Poliquin’s 10×10), and always for the purpose of promoting fast mass gains: basically, you take one or two exercises per bodypart, and hammer them away with tons of volume in the moderate rep range. GVT protocol has you picking just one main exercise for (a group of) bodypart(s), and doing 10 sets of X reps with the same weight. The number of reps in each set varies according to trainee’s level of fitness and stage of the program he’s using. Once you’re able to do full 100 reps in good form, you bump the weight up. You can add an accessory movement, but the volume on it is kept fairly low, limited to two or three sets.
There is a reason for putting GVT in the very first article of the series: it’s a typical program may or may not work for you, given various circumstances. There are many reports of it working perfectly, and even more reports of it being a failure. I have personally tried it on two occasions, done it to the letter, and nothing miraculous happened – it behaved like any less-then-optimal training program I had tried, I hadn’t lost anything, but there also weren’t incredible jumps in strength or size (I was bored to death, but we’ll get to that later).
Examining The Variables
Let’s examine the program by looking at its variables, as described by our simple model:
1) Intensity – usually spot on, if you’re doing the version which is appropriate for your training level (it is a bit light for my preference, but otherwise, it works fine). For beginners, your start with the weight that you can do 20 reps with. This would go between 50 and 60% RM, which is too low for more experienced trainees, but could work perfectly well for people who are training for less than a year. For more advanced trainees, it is recommended to start at 12 reps, which bumps the intensity to some 70%, which is usually believed to be the sweet spot for hypertrophy gains (I, personally, don’t believe that such a thing exists, but 70% RM is still a good intensity for bodybuilding purposes).
2) Volume – sufficient, potentially excessive. If there’s something you won’t have a problem with while doing GVT, it’s volume. You’ll always be doing enough reps to trigger hypertrophy. Depending on which part of the program you’re following, and your own recovery abilities, the volume of 60-100 reps on a major exercise, plus around 30 reps on the accessory one, might be excessive and hence detrimental (more on that later).
3) Frequency – perfect for some bodyparts, excessive for others. For example, the original program has parallel bar dips (a pushing complex exercise) on one day, and then bench pressing two days later, both for the high volume of 10 sets. This is most likely beyond the recovery of an average trainee. On the other hand, legs are done once every five days, which is an appropriate frequency given volume and exercise choice.
4) Rest – great, both if done straight-setted or supersetted. Prescribed rest times allow low proximity to failure given the high volume and low intensity.
Random Comments On Specific Aspects Of The Program
There’s one thing that needs to be said regarding GVT. It’s boring. Probably the most boring routine you can imagine. You come in fairly often to do the same exercise (yes, one exercise) for a particular bodypart, and you do 10 sets of it (I seriously recommend brining matches or something similar, so you can keep track which set you’re at), and do the same number of reps on each of them. On top of that, rate of weight increases is quite low compared to some other routines, including the ones commonly used (not discussed in the series).
I’m putting this first because this really is a legitimate obstacle to making the best out the program (which, as we have just seen, fares quite well when put through the variable sieve). To train properly, you need to have the drive to succeed, you have to be motivated to go in there and smash the weights in order to grow. This becomes even more important if training is your pastime, something you do because it’s fun and enjoyable and because it doesn’t resemble labor in any way. So, with a program as tedious as GVT, there’s a strong chance you’ll come to the gym without training enthusiasm, you’ll slack your work sets, have poor concentration, and basically wait till those 10 sets are over so you can go home and hope to grow.
Things, of course, don’t have to be this way, but there’s a good chance they will, and if you notice any of these “symptoms of slacking”, drop the program immediately and switch to something else. Efficiency is the most important component of training, and if it’s gone, gym time basically becomes a-waste-of time.
When And How To Use German Volume Training
This brings us to the issue of program sustainability. It is obvious that a program like this can’t be your main one, which you’ll return to most of the training year and which will give you your best gains over a longer period of time, but GVT isn’t designed to be used as such in the first place. It’s usually recommended that GVT be done for 6 5-day minicycles before progressing onto the next phase, which will last 3 more minicycles. As I said in the intro, I won’t be giving out opinions on how this could (or should) be modified – let’s just say that, for all the reasons listed in this section, spending 6+ minicycles on GVT might be too much.
The specific set-rep scheme used on the program does, however, allow for it to be used as a semi-accumulation phase in your macrocycle. What I mean by that is, during your training year, you’re most likely lifting heavy almost all the time. This doesn’t refer exclusively onto phases during which you’re focused on the lower part of the rep range, as the intensity used on GVT is always lesser than that of a regular program: doing 10 sets of 10 reps requires a lower starting weight (hence lower intensity) than doing 3 sets of 10 (providing that your goal is to hit failure on the last set, of course). Because of this, GVT can be used as the “light” phase in your training cycle. I put the word “light” under quotation marks since GVT is still (a lot) harder than any deloading or cruising phase that is commonly used, so this can’t really be seen as a rest from training, but more like a temporary lightening of training intensity, not necessarily for recovery purposes.
Leg Day Blasting
GVT also suffers from some exercise issues, some potential ones, some quite realistic. The first thing that should be noted, though, is that I like the program’s major lean onto the side of compound exercises, and the fact that isolation exercises are are used (almost) strictly as accessory movements, but there are still a few things I’d like to mention that strike the eye.
I don’t like the leg day. If doing 10 sets on other days might divert you from training because of boredom, 10 sets of squats will make you avoid gym due to, well, the fact that you’re doing 10 sets of squats. I did it on multiple occasions, and haven’t liked it any single time. Now, before some people start urging me to grow some male gonads, I’d like to ask how many of you did 100 rep squats, and how many of you have managed to do it for a few weeks in a row. I’m not talking about high frequency squatting routines such as Smolov, but 10 straight sets of 10 rep squats done with fairly minimal rest in between. Maybe it’s just my mentality, but I don’t see the fact that it hard and demanding as the biggest problem.
You see, when I do something as exertive, I like to have the feeling that I’m doing some work, that I’m imposing stress onto my body that will force it to adapt and become stronger. With GVT squats, all I seem to be doing is counting (or loosing count of) sets, and getting more and more winded up every time I put the bar back on the rack. Again, maybe it’s the wrong mindset, but I this just isn’t the kind of training that I like putting a lot of work into. Another thing regarding doing so many squats, especially in the beginner phase: not only it requires you to be sure of your form, but also that you had passed through some sort of high rep squatting, so you can put aside both muscular and cardiopulmonary fatigue (and mental one, if I might add) and keep your form tight through all the 10 sets – a trait which I don’t tend to associate with people who have been lifting for less than a few years.
Posterior Chain Training Problems
Leg day, take two. The program also recommends doing 10 sets of 10 on the lying leg curl. I spoke about this quite a few times – hamstrings are power muscles, they’re predominantly fast-twitch in fiber composition, made for speed and short bursts of power. I mentioned already that GVT beginner phase verges on the brink of ineffectiveness on the intensity side, but compensates for it with volume and and the fact that it’s meant for beginners, who can grow off lower intensity ranges. Hamstrings don’t fit this picture, as their fast-twitch fiber composition means that your starting weight for the first set won’t be around 60% RM, but much lower, closer to the very ineffective 50%.
Training programs, like any creation that encompasses knowledge, skill and art, need to have some beauty in them – symmetry, roundness, consistency, all the things that are noticed and appreciated by an experienced eye. Because of this, I understand that, like all the “major” exercises in the program, leg curls had to be put onto 10×10 protocol, but this doesn’t negate the marginal efficiency of this approach. This is probably the only hard, training component of the program that I truly don’t like and would’ve thrown it out if possible.
Next thing that bothers me is the Phase 2 leg day recommendation for doing 10 sets of 6 on the deadlift. I believe that the optimal volume for deadlifts is 5-15 reps per week (these are only the reps done on working sets). This isn’t just because all the exercise characteristics of the deadlift, from the intensities used, muscles involved, to the common, rest-paused way of performing sets, point to a few sets of low reps as being an optimal approach – it’s the sheer magnitude of the exercise that makes it too stressful to allow for more work to be put into it, more often. 60 reps of deadlifts every 5 days seem like overkill to me, besides the fact that it’s a dangerous practice injury risk-wise.
Common Issues With High Workout Volume
GVT also has 10 sets of curls. Now, the issue here isn’t necessarily the fact that you’d be curling for 10 sets, although most of you probably know how I’d react to such an idea. The real reason lies with the fact that isolation exercises are much harder on joint and tendons than compound exercises, both when viewed relatively (comparing, for example, the amount of weight you move in a row as opposed to that moved in a curl) and, in some instances, absolutely (there are mostly stretch-centered isolations, like preacher curls).
This is actually a problem with this program as a whole. Your joints, tendons and soft tissues can only take so much beating week after week, before problems such as bursitis and tendinitis start to appear. And remember, our goal is, after all, training longevity. You don’t want pains that’ll limit your training and everyday functioning. This is another reason why I recommend that GVT be done for shorter phases, and, in the context of entire training career, fairly seldom. Pursuing such a high volume routine, especially the one which also incorporates very high volume on isolation movements, could be disastrous for your joints in the long run.
Another thing worth mentioning at the very end are possible overuse injuries. Truth be told, this won’t happen if you follow the original routine to the letter, but most people like to tweak routine, or, if they like it, extend it beyond its expiry date. The repetitive demand component of an overuse injury is here already, hidden in heaps of volume thrown around every session for single exercises. If you add the time component to it by doing GVT for regular periods of 12 weeks, or more often than maybe once a year, you could face that sort of problems as well.
In the article, we have a short overview of the German Volume Training routine. The main intended purpose of the routine is hypertrophy. Training variables of the program stand fairly well, with some issues with low frequency, too high a volume and high frequency.
The biggest problems related to it actually stem from the high volume component, as they make program dull and repetitive, and expose the trainee to a higher risk of injury. The risk of injury component is also present if we examine the exercise choice of the program, especially its lower body parts, which tend to suffer from multiple issues. Overall, the best usage of the program would be if taking a break from higher intensity lifting, which is done throughout most of the training year, while still wanting to do some work in the gym (i.e., not go on a deload).
Don’t miss Part II: Next time, we’re examining popular beginner strength programs – Starting Strength and Stronglifts – when done with bodybuilding goals in mind. Stay tuned!