Volume Training Conundrum
The evolution of volume training - riding the pendulum in both directions
Featured Weight Training Equipment: bench press, barbell, knee wraps, leather weight belt
Training volume, how much or how little we weight train, has always been a topic that has fascinated and intrigued me. When I was a young Olympic weightlifter, I trained a lot – as was advised by my adult lifting mentors. Our standard training template was to train three days a week, every other day, thrice weekly, using “whole body” routines that, as the name implies, worked all the muscles of the body in a single session. Whole body training required a lot of time to work through.
Every Tuesday and Thursday night a half a dozen teen training partners from my neighborhood would gather together to train in my basement. Once the session began with the first set of the first exercise, one after the other, weakest to strongest, each man/boy would perform in turn as the others watched. We would work through 4-5 sets per exercise, hitting ten or more exercises in succession in each and every marathon lifting session. We performed so many exercises that in order to fit them all in we would work up to a single, all out ball-busting top set in each lift and then move on.
Needless to say, the training was brutal and all participants were top athletes. The competitive macho alpha male atmosphere took these training sessions to the next level of intensity. This was the varsity and no sissies were allowed to participate. Here is a typical example of a training routine we would perform in my basement circa 1967. We’d slog through this twice weekly two full hours per session. In each lift we’d work up to a top set and the top set rep target would be determined by nearness of the next lifting competition – we were all competitive lifters and all had competitions in our near future.
- Olympic overhead press
- Power snatch
- Squat/split snatch
- Power clean
- Squat/split clean and jerk
- Jerk off the racks
- Calf raises on a stair-step
- Bench press
On Sunday we’d get together and have a mini-competition: press, snatch, clean and jerk, mostly all out maximum single reps, showoff reps. Any or all of the three powerlifts, the squat, bench press or deadlift, could and would be contested. Sunday was all about setting single rep personal bests in whatever lift struck our fancy. Sunday was a veritable day at the beach compared to the Tuesday/Thursday 50-set per session “normal” workouts.
We took whole body training about as far as it could go. This is time-intensive, body-shocking, trench warfare training that eventually created the need for the “split routine.” Split routines were easier on the mind and the body; spread three days of work over six days; bodybuilders split the work in half, shorter sessions, half as long, done twice as often.
Whole body training, hitting every muscle three times a week and hitting it hard, was iron boot camp; this was the progressive resistance equivalent of Navy Seal BUDs hell week. This type of training hardened us in ways unimaginable to those that have never experienced it. Whole body training sessions are shattering. But as Nietzsche noted, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” Amen to that.
Those that endured got a lot stronger and established a future benchmark, a frame of reference for future training efforts. This type of training got results – but you had to slam calories in order to survive. It took food and sleep to stand up to the repeated beatings you subjected your body to. In retrospect, this type training is best left for the young rookies seeking, above all else, muscle and size: you need resiliency and I feel in hindsight that this type training is best left for the young and resilient and has value as an alpha teen rite of passage.
The Sunday sessions were pure joy, like a pick-up basketball game. Around noon a smaller group of stronger lifters would gather together with the express purpose of working up to a single all out rep in the bench press, snatch, clean and jerk or any of the powerlifts. Sunday was a party atmosphere and truth be told, usually illegal drinking went on before, during and afterwards.
The prevailing smelly orthodoxy of that ancient era was that a muscle needed to be trained three times a week. Unless you blasted a muscle every 36 hours, it was universally agreed, any and all muscle and strength gains would cease, degrade unwind and go backwards. The unchallenged science of the time was laughable by today’s standards. The ‘studies’ used were flawed beyond belief.
Because of this unquestioned scientific orthodoxy, coming up in the 1960s everybody, the Olympic lifters, powerlifters, bodybuilders, everyone used high volume whole body training. Bodybuilders of the 70s shifted from whole body routines to split routines. Three marathon weekly sessions were split into six. The typical pro-level bodybuilder of the late 1960s and 1970s began routinely performed 600 + sets per week. Arnold, Franco, Sergio and Zane were consistently hitting 700 + sets per week!
My first volume revelation and reduction came when I began training with superheavyweight world champion Hugh Cassidy. Hugh was an inherent heretic. Always a free thinker, he slashed the overall training volume by 33% when he reduced from thrice weekly to twice weekly. He was not recovering session to session, so he eliminated one of three sessions. Hugh radically reduced the size and scope of the training menu.
We would gather twice weekly at Cassidy’s basement to barbell squat, bench and deadlift, then do some sort of overhead press and finish with arms. With 4-5 training partners working in quick rotation, the Cassidy twice-weekly training sessions would take two full hours to complete. Afterward a hardcore session, walking up the nine steps in Hugh’s basement caused your legs to tremble and buckle and required herculean effort.
I began with thrice weekly training for my first eight years. I morphed into Cassidy’s twice-weekly groove for the next five years. The next bus stop in my volume reduction journey was when I began lifting with Mark Chaillet and Mark Dimiduk. Chaillet was a world record holder in the deadlift and Dimiduk won the IPF world championships in the 220-pound class. Both men were freaking fearsome, as lifters and as men. Both mentored under Hugh and both men cut back on Cassidy’s already reduced volume by another 33%.
Their training template had them train each lift once a week. Thrice weekly in the 60s to twice weekly under Hugh and now once weekly – could this work? How much less could you do? Chaillet was training the squat and bench press on Monday – working up to a lone heavy set. He deadlifted on Thursday; no other lifting was done. Yet he set world records right and left.
Dorian Yates revolutionized bodybuilding training with his once-a-week train each muscle approach. He trained like Chaillet, Dimiduk – along with Ed Coan. Lamar Gant, Dan Austin, Gene Bell and Doug Furnas, everyone was training lifts once a week and blasting muscles one time per week. The pendulum had now swung 180-degrees the other direction. The high volume extreme was best exemplified by Arnold hitting 700 sets a week; the low volume polar opposite was exemplified by a wide range of men setting world records and developing incredible muscle mass performing a paltry 50 to 100 sets per week.
Ken Fantano schooled me on the ultimate in volume reduction: one-day-a-week power training; you perform all three barbell lifts in a single session on Sunday. Is this not the most irreducible expression of intensity-biased training?
Fantano squatted an ass-on-heels 944 double and bench pressed 633 for a double, done without a bench shirt. Circumstance dictated that the local hardcore weightlifters in his area could only get together to train together once a week. I was a warehouse supervisor at the time and it was impossible for me to train mid-week. So the Fantano once-a-week squat/bench press/deadlift template was making the best of a bad situation.
Interestingly enough, everybody improved: after ten weeks of training one day a week, I won the Connecticut State championships in the 220 pound class, squatting 660, benching 375 and deadlifting 655. I was thrilled. I had initially been completely dismayed at the prospect of once a-week training and felt sure I would regress: instead I was able to squat triple bodyweight wearing knee wraps and a leather weight belt.
The bottom line is that volume can work either direction and should be modulated. Get out of your comfort zone and try a volume completely opposite whatever you are currently using. Volume modulation can blast you out of whatever smug zone of complacency you find yourself mired in. The real gains lie in attacking weaknesses, not continually playing to your strengths.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.