Lifting weights builds muscle (adoy).
Lifting more weight builds more muscle.
So, does doing a titanic number of sets and reps build the most muscle?
Advocates for a strength training technique called German Volume Training (GVT) say the answer is “yes.”
The philosophy behind GVT is simple:
10 sets of 10 reps.
Typically, you follow that basic format for each of your compound exercises, and then use a more traditional number of sets and reps (like 3 x 10) for your accessory exercises.
It’s simple, brutal, and catchy … but is it effective?
That’s what scientists at the University of Sydney wanted to find out in a 2017 study titled “Effects of a Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength.”
Dr. Eric Helms has been studying how strength training affects muscle growth for most of his career as a researcher, author, and bodybuilding coach, which is why I wanted to pick his brain on this study, and what it means for us fitness folk.
Here’s his take…
(Rather listen to this interview instead? Click the play button below.)
Mike Matthews: Dr. Helms, PhD is back, and back to talk about German Volume Training, and also just high-volume training in general. He’s going to be breaking down a study for us that was reviewed in his research review. I’m excited to put this information out there because it’s something that I actually do get asked about fairly frequently, GVT in particular, and also just high volume training. Most people know you can’t go balls-to-the-wall all the time, but they will ask if it’s a good idea to do occasionally for short spurts of time. Eric is going to break it all down.
Eric Helms: For sure, yeah. This study is titled “Effects of a Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength.” I’m going to try to pronounce the lead author’s last name by Amirthalingam. That’s probably not right, and my apologies to the author.
Mike: That’s pretty good.
Eric: It’s close enough, or not, but I did my best. Let’s put it that way.
Mike: Not bad for a PhD.
Eric: Just a really cool study to see come out because when I was coming up and first lifting weights German Volume Training was something pretty much you’d only read about on forums or on like T-Nation, and if I remember correctly it was first posited by Charles Poliquin, of all people and he talked about it.
Mike: That’s funny, because it was a thing when I got into weightlifting, like doing squats 10 by 10. That was something that everybody in the gym that was cool did.
Eric: Yeah, to be fair, Charles Poliquin, as much heat as he gets these days for avocados and other things he said, he was actually the first person who recommended setting up training in a daily undulating manner. He’s had a few pretty decent training ideas, and things only went downhill after a certain point. Anyway, a little bit of respect to Charles P there. Just the fact that there’s a study on something that was more so like an internet lifting culture thing is just really cool to me.
Eric: This is an article that Mike Zourdos reviewed, and he, along with me and Greg in our first issue of MASS. It’s a really useful study because I think the research community has done a good job in establishing the link between volume and both strength and hypertrophy gains, and it’s pretty clear. But, I think what we haven’t done a good job is on kind of tempering that message to let people know that, hey, any adaptation, it’s going to follow a parabolic curve.
What that means is that as you’re increasing volume you’re going to get this kind of diminishing returns as the volume keeps going up. Eventually, you’re going to increase volume to the point where you’re not making further gains, you’re just doing more volume. Then you start coming down the other side of that slope where you’re adding volume, but you’re actually progressing slower, or even not progressing because you push yourself way past your adaptive capabilities, and you’re starting to get beat up and you’re not recovered.
Mike: Do you want to quickly just define volume for the listeners so we make sure we’re on the same page in terms of our terms?
Eric: Sure. I think people define volume differently. You’ll hear people define it as sets times reps times load and give you a tonnage value. I think that’s probably only appropriate when you’re comparing it within yourself. In research, a lot of the times the way we will practically control volume is we’ll assign a rep range, and a certain number of sets, and then the people will train to failure or close to it or at the same percentage of 1RM. You’ll have a matched relative volume where you’ll have a matched number of sets to failure.
Mike: It’s like number of hard sets, kind of.
Eric: Yeah, that’s probably the most practical way to kind of think about your volume is number of hard sets. If you really want to get analytical about it you could look at the number of hard sets in different repetition zones because I think you probably wouldn’t compare a hard single to a set of 10. This is a study on German Volume Training, and for those who don’t know that’s a regimen, like you said, that 10 by 10 setup. It’s going to be matched in this setup, at least in terms of per-set basis, the difficulty.
What these researchers did is they essentially took two groups of “trained,” and I put quotes around that because they were that well-trained if you kind of look at their starting strength numbers. They’d been in a gym. They weren’t unfamiliar to lifting weights I think is probably the best way to put them, maybe recreationally-trained would be a good term. They took these two groups, had them train three times a week on an upper, lower then upper fashion. That is actually quite similar to the real world where you’re training upper body twice as much as legs, and you know you shouldn’t, but you do it anyway. Then they had one group doing five sets of 10 on each one of those exercises, and the other group doing 10 sets of 10, I believe that’s on the main lifts. This is for a six-week period.
That’s a lot of volume when you think about it. Per muscle group that’s like 30 sets per week in the 10 by 10 group. Then, it’s even a fair amount of volume in the five by 10 groups. That’s about 15 sets per week per muscle group. Now, the reason why I bring that up is because we’ve had a semi-recent meta-analysis come out by Schoenfeld and colleagues who looked at the dose response relationship between volume and hypertrophy, and found that it starts to kind of plateau and max out. Actually, that’s not true. Somewhere around 10-plus sets is where the highest hypertrophy response to volume occurs. We don’t have enough data on higher volume than that to actually see where that trend keeps going. It might plateau.
Mike: That’s per-week?
Eric: Per-week, exactly right. That means that even the “low volume” group is doing 50% more volume that has really been effectively analyzed with kind of a pretty solid data set. It’s not to say that 15 sets wouldn’t be better than 10 on average in a large population of trained lifters. It’s just that there’s not enough studies where we’re taking really high volumes and putting people through training programs to establish that. This is a useful study in that it starts to kind of investigate where are these boundaries, and it gives us some instructive value on what happens. Anyway, these guys are doing their training. It consisted of compound lifts and isolation lifts. They did bench press, lat pull down, incline bench, seated row, and crunches on day-one. They did leg press, lunges, leg extensions, leg curls, calf raises, just kind of a typical leg day on day two. Then they came in and they did shoulder press, upright rows, triceps, biceps and then more ab work on day three. These are on non-consecutive days.
Again, one group did basically twice the volume of the other group, and interestingly enough, it was the group that was doing five sets of 10, not 10 sets of 10, so 15 sets per week per exercise, or per muscle group, I should say, that actually gained more lean body mass and more strength than the group that did more volume. That is a very clear kind of proof of principle that, indeed, you can do too much volume. I think going back to the training age of these individuals, when you are this early in your career there’s no point, and, actually, there’s a detriment to doing way more than you need to progress because it can just slow down that progress.
Mike: And make for grueling workouts that you don’t like, which is not a good introduction to weightlifting.
Eric: That’s right. Weightlifting and bodybuilding and kind of like the CrossFit culture and the fitness culture in general we tend to really glorify a little bit of masochism and promote hard work. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are aspects of that that’s good. It tells you, you work hard and you get rewarded for it. At the same time, not everyone who comes into fitness has that kind of little sick, twisted person inside like we bodybuilders have. Just because we’re kind of the leaders and looked up to because we have good physiques and we have the training experience and knowledge doesn’t mean that everyone getting into fitness has the same goals or the same mindset. What we don’t want to do is kind of push that philosophy on people who that might actually turn them off, or turn them away when having six-pack abs is fine and dandy, but the real benefit is changing your lifestyle and staying active and living a healthier, longer life and feeling empowered.
I think that’s the real reason why most people want to get into lifting. By kind of taking it in that angle, like we said, like just having these grueling, punishing workouts, that’s not always a beneficial thing by any means. Clearly here quantitatively, objectively it wasn’t. Yeah, I think the take-home message here is that it’s probably better to err on the side of doing a fair amount of volume, but not the most you can handle. That’s not the same as the most you’ll benefit from, and that probably has a strong relationship to one’s training age.
Mike: Something else to be said for people that are new, again, I think that, and I’m just speaking from experience, like emailing with a lot of, lot of people, where I think they try to make it more complicated than it needs to be in the beginning. Because if you take your average guy, he starts lifting weights, he’s looking at, let’s say, 15 to 25 pounds of potential muscle gain, depending on his genetics and compliance and diet and lifestyle and so forth, you don’t need super-fancy programing to get there. A lot of people get there with something like Starting Strength or 5×5.
It’s funny you mentioned a lot of lower body training or that people are training upper body too much and lower body too little. One thing, though, that I’ve found with people that start with strength training programs is that because the lower body volume tends to be quite a bit higher than the upper body, their legs and butts grow a lot faster, this is guys in particular, a lot faster than their pecs and biceps, and they don’t like that. They like a more modified program where it’s maybe you start with a push-pull legs, and then add in some accessory work for the pretty muscles. That, alone, gets you, at least in the beginning for the first year or so, everything that you can possibly get. If that gets you your 20 pounds of muscle, and it’s put into places that you’re happy about, then, what else do you want?
Eric: Yeah, that’s 100% right. It doesn’t take anything fancy, and it doesn’t take anything extreme to make really good progress in the beginning. Some people go, “Well, what’s the cost? What if I like training more?” Well, every time you step in the gym, unfortunately, there’s a risk of injury there. When you’re first starting out you don’t want to ingrain bad habits. If you’re doing this right, and you’re using some relatively high-risk, high-reward movements like your squats, your presses, pulls, deadlifts, things like that manner, RDLs, different variations of it, effective exercise is you want to make sure that when you’re in there lifting you’re not only trying to stimulate the muscles in your body, but also learning the skills of being someone who lifts weights so that you have a lower likelihood of injury over time.
I had a tough time seeing, for example, in this study the starting 1RMs for bench press were like 80 kilograms, so 176 pounds. In the other group they were 70.7. We’re talking people who are benching like 150 to 185 for a one rep max. They’ve been lifting probably hard for three to six months in most cases. That’s really not the person who should be in there punishing themselves with 30 sets per week. I guarantee you the quality of those sets are going to go right down the drain, and the risk of injury will probably go up as you’re going to be training in a fatigued state with poor form on risky movements. I think it’s difficult to take a long view when you’re 19 and you’re just starting lifting weights, but, man, I can tell you as a 34 year old looking back there are things that I wish I had, perspective that I wish I could have had at that age when I first started.
Mike: Yep, same. I totally understand and agree. What, then, would you say to people who are, let’s say they are intermediate or advanced, and are looking to, let’s say, whatever their programming normally is, and make it a lot harder for a temporary period of time? Let’s say they’re going to be in a surplus, and they get plenty of sleep and maybe even they’re in their 20s, so they’re in their prime hormonally. If GVT, if this approach isn’t the way to go, what would you say to those people?
Eric: Excellent question. The cool thing about research is, at some level, these single studies can compare one versus the other and tell you what’s better, but they don’t tell you a whole lot about what you should do. To actually figure out what you should do you kind of have to look at broader, yet lower resolution data, like some of those meta-analyses I talked about. We’re fortunate to be in a time where there’s been a bunch of meta-analyses on things like protein intake, meal frequency, volume, et cetera. We’ve got a few key metas that have looked at all the studies on a given topic, and they’re kind of told us, “Hey, if you’re someone on the bell curve you’re probably going to respond best to this.” That’s going to apply to about two-thirds of people.
What we know is that you probably want to be training each muscle group around two to three times per week, and you probably want to be doing probably at least around 10 sets per week per muscle group. I think that’s a great place to start. If those have decent effort, and you are getting 10 sets per week spread out over two to three sessions, really, that’s like three sets on two days and four sets on another day, or maybe a five by five on one day, and then three by 10 on another, and then a couple of sets of flyes, like if that was bench, bench and flyes. There’s many ways to set that up, and none of them are going to be better than the other, unless they work better for your schedule or your personal preference.
I think first thing you do is set up, “Let me get in the ballpark of what we think is probably be in the ballpark of optimal.” Then from there you go like, “I’m not the mean of 15 studies on trained individuals. I am me.” You have to then look at your progress. If you’re making measurable progress in terms of strength over, say, two to three month periods, which, I think, is a reasonable amount of time to track progress for an intermediate or an advanced lifter, I don’t mean a lot of progress, I mean measurable. So, yeah, added five, 10 pounds on a lift, that’s awesome. Then you’re doing something right. If you are stalled, but you’re feeling well-recovered, and you think maybe you want to experiment with pushing up the volume. My advice would be, like you said, do it while you’re on a calorie surplus, maybe do it off of a deload or do an introduction block coming into it so you can acclimate to the volume. Then make a reasonable increase in volume, not a crazy increase.
If you think about what they did in this GVT study, I guarantee you the people in this study were not doing 30 sets prior. If you are currently doing, let’s say, 10 to 12 sets per muscle group per week, and you want to increase it, I would go to maybe 15 to 16, not to 30. Don’t triple your volume. Think about maybe increasing it by a quarter. I think that’s a very reasonable increase, and you’ll feel that, and you’ll notice it. If it was a successful increase in volume that actually produced gains, then you’ve learned something.
If it made you really, really beat up and not progress anymore, then maybe you just need to evaluate other aspects of your training or other aspects of your life. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you actually managing stress in your life? Does your schedule make sense with how much volume you’re trying to do? Are you trying to pack too much into too few days? All those are possible things, and many more beyond what we can cover in this podcast. I think the take-home message is that if you do want to increase volume, do it in a manner that is respecting where you’re at, and you’re increasing volume for a purpose. The purpose being to make more progress, not just increasing volume because you want to do more volume.
Mike: Well-said, I like it, and for how long? Let’s say that that person is listening, and they’re going, “Cool, so I’m going to bump my volume up by about 50%, my number of hard sets.” How long would you recommend? Would you say go as long as you’re progressing and feeling good, or would you put a more hard limit on it before they go back to normal?
Eric: This is a tough one. This is where you kind of have to go back to that classic saying of “Know thyself.” If you’re someone who has a history, because now we’re talking about intermediates and advanced here, if you have a history of grinding yourself into the dust and taking it too far, and you’re notoriously bad at coaching yourself, you probably want to institute a regular deload so that you can kind of get out of your own way. I would suggest doing that every four to six weeks where you just take a down week. If you’re doing hard sets, make those moderately hard sets. If you’re training normally to eight to 10 RPE, drop that down to six to eight, and then just drop your sets down by a third. It should be a week that, obviously, you’re not going to lose anything. You’re just going to kind of hit pause and allow the fatigue to dissipate while you then get back into it.
I think in terms of how much time will it take for you to see progress, if you’re smart about it, and you kind of do a little bit of a taper at the end, somewhat of that deload I described, and then you decide to test your strength, I think for an intermediate or advanced, somewhere between eight to 12 weeks you should be able to see some level of progress on at least the majority of your lifts. If you’ve done that, then that’s good.
Let’s say you’ve got “big six” because you’re focused on hypertrophy, you’re doing front squat, RDL, overhead press, a row, a chin-up, and another pressing movement, another hip hinge movement, and you test them all over the course of a week, and more than half progress and the other hold still, that’s great. I think that’s good progress. I think a lot of intermediate lifters, especially, they think that progress is defined by the progress they saw as a beginner.
Unfortunately, that’s just not going to happen again unless you decide to jump on gear. You’re not going to have those kind of newbie gains again. That’s not an endorsement of gear, by the way, it’s just saying that-
Mike: What are you saying, then?
Eric: It’s a solution to being an intermediate … No
Mike: That’s what Instagram says.
Eric: That’s right, well, they don’t tell you that explicitly.
Eric: Yeah, like, for example, my bench press in the first year of training went from a plate to two plates. That’s a 90 pound increase in my bench. For the next 90 pounds, when I went from 225 to 315, that took me another two years, and then from there it really slowed down. For me to get to 315 to now just under 365, as I train in kilos here in down-under land, that’s taken me another nine years. The point is is I gained 90 pounds in six months to a year, and then another 90 in two years after that, and then the last 40 to 50 has taken me nearly a decade after that. I think that’s just kind of the reality of the situation. If you aren’t comfortable with that, you’re going to be thinking you’re not making gains when, in fact, you are.
At a certain stage progress is progress. Even if that’s two and a half kilos or five pounds on a squat or a deadlift every two training blocks, that’s still quite good, and it adds up. I think you have to kind of have the perspective of, “Look, this is a lifestyle for me now. This is something I do. Am I going to not be lifting when I’m 45?” If you ask yourself honestly you probably haven’t thought about that, but you’d go, “Well, no, of course not. I want to keep lifting.” And you go, “All right, well, if I’ve got 25 more years to progress, then, actually, I’m doing fine.” You kind of have to take that view at a certain point, or you’ll be kind of doomed to frustration.
Mike: I totally agree. Perspective matters. Okay, great, so, there it is, German Volume Training, high-volume versus moderate volume. If you really liked what Eric has to say and you want to check out his research review, it is called MASS, and you can learn about it at strongerbyscience.com/MASS. I will say, I highly recommend it. I read it every month. I learn a lot from it. It has articles from Eric, from Greg Nuckols, from Mike Zourdos. Again, they do a great job, so I highly recommend you check it out.
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