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Lower Volume, Bigger Gains

Lower Volume, Bigger Gains

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Moving into my 22nd year of hitting the iron, I've never felt stronger about this tenet: you can't train at a high frequency and/or a high volume all the time. If you've read this article here at ProSource, you know I'm a proponent of changing training frequency, volume, and training splits on a monthly basis. This allows for periods of systematized and planned over-reaching, and periods of lower-frequency and lower-volume training to permit super compensation to occur, opening the door for the body to both recover and "soak up" all the hard work in the weeks and months prior.

I've espoused this philosophy to dozens of individuals who have come to me for help when they've hit a plateau and are beat up. These individuals are typically intermediate to high-intermediate trainees, age 30+, with several years of training under their belt. The problem is, while they typically are very receptive to my advice and feel it makes great sense, they rarely follow through with such an approach. Most people fear lower frequency and volume training will cause their strength, size and conditioning to plummet, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, those who fail to heed my advice end up hurt, sick, weaker and less motivated to train.

Just like you can't stay in "fat loss mode" year round (in a moderate to severe caloric deficit fearing the loss of your 4 pack) and expect to build any appreciable muscle, the same can be said of your training. You can't run yourself into the ground all the time performing 4-6 day/week 30+ set workouts and expect your body to recover and grow stronger. Planned and systematized periods of lower volume and frequency training is invaluable, and it sets the stage for further gains in size and strength.

Brief Periods of Lower Volume Training
Before I continue, please let me be clear: I am not a proponent of year round, "full time" low volume and frequency training. I am not proposing you devote yourself to an HIT or Super Slow training philosophy which, in some variations, has you training once every 7-10 days for a handful of sets for the entire body. However, you can learn some things from followers of that type of philosophy in that they prioritize progression, strict form, hard work, intensity (in terms of momentary effort), a focus on multiple joint movements and recovery. I think the general principles are fairly sound, but I don't think a steady diet of this is any way optimal.

Learning The Hard Way
With that out of the way, I have to confess, I'm guilty of not following my own advice, which is what actually led me to write this article. While I've seen the phenomenal results a varied frequency and volume plan of attack yields, I guess I just thought I was special and could neutralize the consistent training stress 4-6 day/week programs bring. I couldn't. In the last 6 months, I've blown my back out a couple times, and I'm still dealing with nagging infraspinatus and medial elbow pain in my left arm.

I knew better, mind you, and, in fact, the couple times I did my back in, I actually said to myself "Yep, I'm likely going to feel that disc move on this next set, and be laid up for 2-3 days, but what the hell?" Same thing with the rotator cuff and elbow pain: even though I felt every ramp up set between 135 & 250 in a bad way, it didn't stop me from carrying on with my bench press or overhead press work sets.

About 3 weeks ago I had had enough. Something had to change. I analyzed my approach the last several months and it was eye opening:
  • Consistent 20-30 set workouts, per muscle group, usually twice per week (consistent 5-6 day/week training).

  • In addition to the volume mentioned above, I was training at or above 85-90% of 1RM on at least one exercise each and every workout.
If you add the above to the fact I was totally skimping on mobility work, soft tissue work and stretching, working 10 to 14 hours per day, had not been taking a quality omega supplement like ProSource's Omega 1250 for joint health, and not getting nearly enough sleep, well, it's no wonder I felt like crap and was beat up.

So, for the last couple weeks, I've changed my approach. I went to a 3 day per week upper body/lower body/total body format. This cut my training frequency basically in half, with 5-6 days/week being the norm for months prior to this. While I was still hitting each muscle group twice weekly, the total volume paled in comparison to what I was doing before.

I was doing 50-60 total weekly sets for upper body pressing (chest, shoulders and triceps) and pulling (lats, upper back and biceps) muscles each. I was doing 40-50 sets for lower body. With the new approach, I'm doing 20-30 total sets on the upper-body-only day, 15-20 sets on the lower-body-only day, and 20-25 sets on the total body day, but this amount of volume is split between all the major muscle groups on the respective days as opposed to being totally devoted to 2-3.

In addition, on my main exercises which start each workout, I'm cycling my intensity a bit, and over a 4 week block I'll only approach 90% of maximum one time. Much of the work is being done in the 70-80% range. This is a far cry from weekly work in the 85-90% range.

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The Benefits of Lower Volume Training
Well, what's happened? Several things. One, my back feels great. Two, while it still bothers me, my cuff and elbow pain has dramatically improved. Three, I'm sleeping better, and, four, most importantly I just don't feel achey, groggy, tight and I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO TRAINING AGAIN! My strength numbers on big exercises (which had dipped due to fatigue and injury) are back to previous norms based on rep max equivalents.

The take home message here is that you should not fear lower volume and lower frequency training. On the contrary, assuming it's periodized properly and mixed in with periods of higher volume and frequency, it should absolutely be embraced.

Supplement Suggestions
[Editor's Note: As Patrick has mentioned, the emphasis here is on changing things up and offering your body an opportunity for recovery. Carry that philosophy over to your daily supplementation, as well. In addition to Patrick's suggestion of adding a joint-health support supplement like Omega-1250 to your regimen, try a supplement you haven't experienced before, whether it's ProSource's Super Enzymes for improved digestion, an overnight, extended-release protein like BioQuest's Ultimate Casein, or a stimulant-free diet-support product like ProSource's Tonalin CLA or Razberi-K. You'll very likely discover a supplement that will make a real difference in your performance and physique!

Primed For Further Gains
Get over your fear: you won't shrink up, end up squatting or pressing an empty barbell, or be demoted to the assisted chin-up/dip machine. What will likely happen is that you'll feel a helluva lot better, come out of that stage stronger, and be primed for further gains during the overreaching periods.

If you feel like hell, have plateaued, or are lacking enthusiasm, take a close look at your program over the last couple of months and see if a reduction in volume and frequency for 4-6 weeks would serve you well. I'd be willing to bet it would!

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