Volume-Based Training Pyramid Workouts for Strength, Mass & Definition

Volume Training

Be sure to find the right training plan for your individual goals

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It is undeniably true that size and strength are positively related and that training for one will almost certainly produce gains in the other. However, this relationship is not so close that optimum gains are achievable in both by utilizing an additional approach to training. In fact, accomplishing the two goals is highly unlikely because different physiological mechanisms come into play when planning other for size or peak strength output. Unless bulking is structured to stimulate each of these mechanisms properly, it is doubtful that significant long-term progress will be achieved in both at the same time.

Problems typically appear when one trains for size and peak strength output together because the training is usually geared toward low-repetition strength training in the mistaken belief that heavy lifting will also accelerate size gains. Despite some improvement in size as well as strength, gains are often limited because such lifting rapidly leads to development of the overtraining syndrome and the volume of work performed is usually far too low to properly stimulate physiological mechanisms related to growth.

Conventional heavy training programs almost always employ low-repetition movements (i.e. 5-6 reps) performed for at least 4 sets with very heavy loads (80-85 percent of maximum or more). The nerves regulating muscle function are forced to discharge at a very high rate of activity. This increase in nerve-impulse traffic produces a more forceful muscle contraction. Strength is improved by a shift in the balance between excitatory and inhibitory neuronal (nerve) inputs so that muscle excitation and force production are favored. Strength is increased principally by neuronal learning. The disadvantage to this form of lifting for the bodybuilder, however, is that the nervous system can be easily overtaxed when discharging at such high rates, and mechanisms related to learning rather than muscle hypertrophy (growth) are stimulated. Neuro transmission reserves are also easily depleted and/or inhibitory pathways over stimulated with the result that ultimately a reduction in strength output will occur in order to reduce the chance for musculo-skeletal injury from the sustained heavy lifting. The general body build and training style of powerlifters serves to highlight the effects of such training. These athletes often require prolonged periods of rest between heavy training sessions (many days to weeks), and their level of muscle development is often well below what one would expect for the amount of weight that they can lift.

Programs which best stimulate muscle growth should emphasize high-volume work using moderate loads. Such workouts not only stimulate growth in all muscle fibers, but they also enhance anabolic hormone secretion, which accelerates the growth-promoting process. While this form of training is highly effective for promoting growth and strength, it does have certain limitations from the standpoint that maximum strength output is not emphasized.

On the surface it seems as though training for size and peak strength output together would be nearly impossible given the contrast in requirements to properly train each. Certainly conventional training methods do not approach the problem efficiently. A traditional program of pyramiding is usually employed to achieve both size and peak strength. It utilizes a series of sets which increase the load while decreasing the repetitions. However, this approach markedly understimulates growth since the volume of work in such a workout is far too low. Moreover, the progression usually occurs too quickly and the pyramid becomes "top heavy," with the bulk of the program emphasizing heavy, low-repetition lifting. Overtraining soon follows because nervous-system discharge rates are overtaxed and they usually do not recover adequately before the next workout. It is not just muscle that requires time to recover from training. With this type of exercise size stimulation is underemphasized and strength training overemphasized to the point of easily producing staleness.

Since a conventional pyramid program leaves something to be desired, what training system can be utilized to achieve both size and peak levels of strength? The answer to this question is "volume pyramiding." Volume pyramiding incorporates a training technology designed to generate one of the most efficient systems available for achieving large-scale increases in muscle mass as well as high levels of strength output.

In a volume-based pyramid program all available muscle fibers (fast-twitch, slow-twitch and intermediate-twitch fibers) are stimulated and exhausted to promote rapid fiber growth and anabolic hormone secretion. To accomplish this result, the loads lifted must be at least 50 percent of maximum, or preferably about 60-70 percent of maximum. High-volume work must be performed so that the fibers will become completely exhausted. High-volume exercise generally incorporates a repetition scheme ranging between 12 and 20. Sets are also relatively high, but the actual number depends upon one's level of experience and the nature of the training program. In a volume-based pyramid 7 sets per exercise appears to be just about right. This high volume of work will lead to compensatory adaptations related to improved performance and growth. It will also produce large amounts of lactic acid. Lactic acid serves as a chemical messenger for triggering natural growth-hormone release.

Volume pyramiding ensures that peak levels of pure strength are attained by incorporating a bout of heavy lifting after the high-volume portion of the program, thus stimulating high discharge rates from excitatory nerves that regulate muscle fiber contractile forces. The volume portion of the program concludes after about 6 sets have been performed and the repetition scheme has gradually decreased to no fewer than 12. A final heavy set is done using about one-half of the repetitions employed for the last set of the volume phase of the exercise. Of course, the weight for this final set and repetition scheme should increase accordingly. About 6 repetitions are needed for this set in order to provoke high nervous-system discharge rates for a period of time long enough to induce the learning effect, and to ensure that the weight is not so heavy that proper form cannot be maintained. A weight of 80-85 percent of maximum should be about right for this final set of the pyramid. Good form must be I maintained but the set should also be heavy enough that i very little lifting reserve is left after 6 repetitions.

There should be little need for a second heavy set. The heavy lifting phase must be very brief because training too much in this way will overtax nervous-system impulse traffic to the muscle. The risk of overtraining will be markedly elevated if a second set is performed, but, if your recuperative abilities are phenomenal, it can be incorporated into the pyramid. If subsequent workouts feel harder than the first one, you have overtrained and must delete the second heavy set from the program (regardless of presumed recovery abilities). The elevation in risk for overtraining with a second heavy set is particularly true when you consider that the high-volume work will have already delivered a potent dose of exhausting exercise to the muscles and nerves.

An example of volume pyramiding is illustrated in the accompanying figure. Sets are paired according to repetition schemes -that is, 20 repetitions are performed with the first pair of sets (sets 1 and 2), 15 repetitions for the next 2 sets (sets 3 and 4), and so on. With each decrease in repetitions there should be a small increase in poundage (i.e. about 10 pounds). If the poundage increase is very large, the volume (i.e. total repetitions) portion of the program will markedly drop off and the overall program objective will not be met. The onset of fatigue must be delayed by incorporating the technique of staggered volume training. This is a way of "supersetting" groups of sets between two bodyparts.

The figure shows the first 2 sets done for 20 repetitions each (bottom of pyramid). After completing these 2 sets, switch to another exercise that activates an opposing muscle group in the same body segment (i.e. push/pull exercises) and perform 2 sets in the same fashion. Return to the initial exercise and perform the next 2 sets of 15 repetitions with a slightly heavier weight. When these sets are completed, perform the alternative exercise in a similar manner. This technique is continued for the sets remaining in the pyramid.

The advantage of this pyramid program is that it stimulates both size and peak strength output while minimizing the chance of overtraining. Although gains in size and strength are interdependent, the primary physiological mechanisms governing high-level responses in each require different training strategies. Volume-based pyramiding incorporates physiological principles designed to achieve high-level gains in both size and strength.

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