The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

The Variable Recovery Training System

10/24/12
Variable-recovery

To move forward in strength training, sometimes we need to go back in time. I've been able to combine two well-established concepts – high-volume training and variable recovery among body parts – into one somewhat novel system. And the results have been outstanding!

As Randy Roach elegantly revealed in his book Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors Volume I, the golden era of bodybuilding that began in the 1960s brought about some significant changes in training. No longer was it about weightlifting with heavy loads and few sets – it was about weight lifting (space intended) with moderate loads and many sets.

Around half a century ago, Vince Gironda was one of the first to implement high-volume training with methods such as the classic 10x10, 8x8, and 6x6 systems.

These systems work – they were successful back then and they're still successful today – and when you combine them in a variable split framework, look out! You get a potent hypertrophy effect that lasts a long time. In other words, you can stay on a regimen like this for weeks, even months, and still make progress.

The framework is built on a variable recovery system that exists in strength training, wherein smaller body parts, such as shoulders, arms, and calves recover more quickly and thus can be trained more often than larger body parts, such as thighs, chest, and back.

Using this concept, an advanced athlete could train legs three times in two weeks, chest and back twice in one week, shoulders and upper arms three times in one week, and forearms and calves every day.

Dr. Fred Hatfield brought this to life in his 1989 book Power: A Scientific Approach. Hatfield devoted an entire chapter on this new, advanced system of training that "can take you to the next intensity plateau."

According to Hatfield, "An attempt is made to train each muscle when it is ready to be trained - never sooner, and never later." Table 1 demonstrates his variable split system over a 30-day period.

Table 1 - Variable split 30-day schedule (Hatfield, 1989)

  Upper Back Lower Back Thighs Lower Leg Mid-Section Shoulders Upper Arms Forearms Chest
1 X X   X X     X  
2       X   X   X X
3     X X X   X X  
4 X     X       X  
5       X X X   X  
6   X   X     X X X
7 X     X X     X  
8     X X   X   X  
9       X X   X X  
10 X     X       X X
11   X   X X X   X  
12       X     X X  
13 X   X X X     X  
14       X   X   X X
15       X X   X X  
16 X X   X       X  
17       X X X   X  
18     X X     X X X
19 X     X X     X  
20       X   X   X  
21   X   X X   X X  
22 X     X       X X
23     X X X X   X  
24       X     X X  
25 X     X X     X  
26   X   X   X   X X
27       X X   X X  
28 X   x X       X  
29       X X X   X  
30       X     X X X

Although Hatfield is credited with the original idea of variable split training, it was really Shawn Phillips who popularized the system in the mid-1990s through the pages of Muscle Media 2000 (for you newbie's, that's the mag TC used to run before he became Editor-in-Chief of T Nation).

In an article titled "Variable Split Training Programs: A Look into the Future of High-Tech Bodybuilding," Phillips introduced "the newest bodybuilding technology" with a 17-day schedule (Table 2).

Table 2 - Variable split 17-day schedule (Phillips, 1995a)

  Chest Shoulders Triceps Legs Back Biceps
1 X X X      
2         X X
3            
4     X X    
5 X         X
6   X X   X  
7            
8 X X       X
9     X   X  
10       X   X
11            
12   X X      
13 X       X X
14            
15     X X    
16   X     X  
17 X         X

At first it may seem like a complicated system. Even Bill Phillips, the founder of Muscle Media 2000, and Shawn's brother, admitted in his May 1995 "Uncensored Q&A" column that it was explained to him about 10 times before he started to understand and accept all the ideas.

Apparently, the system, then in its infancy, was being used successfully with several accomplished bodybuilders and well-known fit celebrities including Sylvester Stallone. Variable split training appeared quite promising, although still a bit confusing.

Shawn Phillips then presented a simplified 2-week schedule of the system (Table 3) in the September 1995 issue of Muscle Media 2000.

Table 3 - Variable split 2-week schedule (Phillips, 1995b)

MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT SUN
Chest
Arm-A
  Back
Arm-B
  Chest
Arm-C
Legs  
Back
Arm-A
  Chest
Arm-B
  Back
Arm-C
Legs  

If you consider that chest work involves the shoulders (anterior deltoids) and triceps, and back work involves the shoulders (posterior deltoids) and biceps, then variable split training can be condensed even further over a 3-day schedule.

Below are two options. Forearms and calves can be trained every workout in either split if they're a lagging body part.

Day 1: Chest & Back
Day 2: Legs & Abdominals
Day 3: Shoulders & Arms

Or

Day 1: Chest & Biceps
Day 2: Legs & Abdominals
Day 3: Back & Triceps

I've used these training splits for years with great success. There's not a week that goes by without prescribing at least one of them. Rest days between workouts will vary depending on the situation, and we'll talk about that shortly.

The bottom line is that variable recovery among body parts is built into the system and it produces consistent results. The only drawback is that most individuals will stagnate after 4-6 exposures of each workout, and then require a new routine.

For the most part it's not a problem, but eventually the mind and body will desire a change from the constant change!

Is there a way to extend the duration over a few months rather than a few weeks and still make progress on a plan like this? In other words, could you be married to just one program and still be on the honeymoon a few months later?

The answer is yes. The key is to provide both sufficient variety and recovery in your training to make progress over a long period of time.

You won't last long doing the same thing repeatedly without some form of change, and you won't last long if you don't provide enough recovery for each body part. It must be just right – not too much, and not too little of either.

Here's how to do it:


The System

goal-physique

To increase variety and recovery of large, compound, multi-joint movements, as well as promote balance between anterior and posterior chains of muscles – particularly during high-volume traininga good plan of attack is to sequence the big movement patterns over 6 days rather than 3 days in the following manner:

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6
Vertical Pull Vertical Push Squat Horizontal Pull Horizontal Push Deadlift

The templates below demonstrate this training split. Within this variable split framework:

• All A exercises are compound, multi-joint movements that are trained less frequently with greater recovery.
• The remaining B-F exercises are single-joint movements that are trained more frequently with less recovery.

Day 1

  Exercise Tempo Rotation Sets Reps Rest
A Mid-Grip Chin-Up 3010 1
2
3
10
8
6
10
8
6
90 sec.
B Preacher Reverse-Grip Cable Curl 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
C Seated Hammer Curl 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
D Incline DB Curl 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
E Hand Gripper 1010   1 50 10 sec.
F Seated Calf Rraise 1010   1 50 10 sec.

Day 2

  Exercise Tempo Rotation Sets Reps Rest
A Seated DB Press 3010 1
2
3
10
8
6
10
8
6
90 sec.
B V-Handle Pressdown 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
C Flat EZ-Bar Triceps Extension 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
D Rope French Press 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
E Hand Gripper 1010   1 50 10 sec.
F Seated Calf Rraise 1010   1 50 10 sec.

Day 3

The Variable Recovery Training System
  Exercise Tempo Rotation Sets Reps Rest
A Back Squat 3010 1
2
3
10
8
6
10
8
6
90 sec.
B Seated Leg Extension 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
C Lying Leg Curl 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
D Reverse Hyper 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
E Hand Gripper 1010   1 50 10 sec.
F Seated Calf Rraise 1010   1 50 10 sec.

Day 4

  Exercise Tempo Rotation Sets Reps Rest
A Seated Cable Row 3010 1
2
3
10
8
6
10
8
6
90 sec.
B Preacher Reverse-Grip Cable Curl 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
C Seated Hammer Curl 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
D Incline DB Curl 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
E Hand Gripper 1010   1 50 10 sec.
F Seated Calf Rraise 1010   1 50 10 sec.

Day 5

  Exercise Tempo Rotation Sets Reps Rest
A Flat DB Press 3010 1
2
3
10
8
6
10
8
6
90 sec.
B V-Handle Pressdown 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
C Flat EZ-Bar Triceps Extension 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
D Rope French Press 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
E Hand Gripper 1010   1 50 10 sec.
F Seated Calf Rraise 1010   1 50 10 sec.

Day 6

  Exercise Tempo Rotation Sets Reps Rest
A Bent-Knee Deadlift 3010 1
2
3
10
8
6
10
8
6
90 sec.
B Seated Leg Extension 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
C Lying Leg Curl 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
D Reverse Hyper 2010 1
2
3
3
3
3
12-15
10-12
8-10
60 sec.
E Hand Gripper 1010   1 50 10 sec.
F Seated Calf Rraise 1010   1 50 10 sec.
back-squat

There are many concepts involved with this routine, such as autoregulation (quality over quantity), horizontal sequencing (complete all sets of one exercise before moving on to the next), rest-pause training (using short rest intervals between reps to extend a set), linear and alternating periodization (volume and intensity alter each rotation and cycle in a wave-like manner) and, of course, variable recovery.

Let's take a closer look at how these come in to play.

First and foremost, never sacrifice quality for quantity. Although I'm providing a guideline for you to follow, your performance on that day will dictate the actual training outcome.

As you can see, a high volume of work is prescribed for the multi-joint A movements. The first rotation involves 10 sets of 10 reps, the second 8 sets of 8 reps, and the third 6 sets of 6 reps. You'll perform several cycles of these famous Gironda set/rep schemes until stagnation occurs, or until you're bored to tears. For some individuals it will happen sooner, and for others later, but rest assured, it will happen!


Loading Parameters

Okay, this is how the program works. We'll use the first rotation of 10 x 10 as an example.

After a few warm-up sets, your first work set will involve 10 reps with a 10RM load (i.e., a load that you can perform a maximum of 10 reps with and not 11). After 90 seconds of rest, perform the same weight again. You should drop 1-2 reps. At that point, lower the weight by 10 pounds and repeat the process.

Normally, you'll perform 2 sets per load, sometimes more. If you perform the same number of reps with the same load, don't change the weight until you drop 1-2 reps.

Research shows that greater workloads are achieved over a number of sets with constant repetitions rather than constant loads. Therefore, reducing the load to maintain repetitions may be more effective than reducing repetitions to maintain the load.

Assuming that you choose the right initial weight, reducing the load every other set will allow you to autoregulate effectively since a sudden drop of 3 reps or more would indicate a loss of quality. In other words, terminate any exercise if you drop 3 or more reps from one set to the next. Continuing beyond this point would be counterproductive.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to gauge a dramatic reduction in performance if you decrease the intensity (load) every set.

For the B, C, and D exercises, a range is given. You must stay within that range. If you drop below the range from the first to the second set, don't do a third set. Use your judgment to pick an appropriate load.

For instance, if the rep bracket is 12-15 that day and you accomplish 15 reps on the first set and hit 14 for the second, there's a good chance that you'll get at least 12 reps on the third, so keep the weight the same.

However, if you do 14 on the first set and drop to the 12 on the second, lower the weight for the third set. And if you're just able to squeeze out 12 on the first set, then you must lower the weight for the second set and likely for the third set as well.

Also key is to recognize if you haven't fully recovered from the previous session.

How? Simple – if you do a lower number of repetitions with the same weight used previously for that particular set/rep scheme or if a slight increase in load results in a significant decrease in reps (below the prescribed rep number), then you haven't sufficiently recovered and should not perform that exercise that day.

If it happens right off the bat with the A exercise, then don't work out. Skip the training session altogether. You'll need an extra day of rest. However, if it happens on any of the remaining exercises, just skip that exercise for the day.

So to recap the autoregulation process, the number of sets you perform will depend on you, not on a fixed "guideline" number. Don't feel forced to perform a "set" number, which can "set" you up for failure if the body can't respond one day.

Instead, the body gets what it needs that day. This will ensure that you continually progress throughout the duration of the program.

That's how you handle things within a workout. Now here's how you handle things between workouts.


Periodization

pulldown

There are three basic methods of periodization: standard (constant variables), linear (step/staircase), and alternating (undulatory/wave). To improve strength over several weeks, research indicates that linear periodization is superior to standard periodization, and alternating periodization is superior to linear periodization. This program incorporates aspects of both linear and alternating periodization.

Progressive overload is important, but the progression should be gradual. Don't kill it! Small, incremental gains (a.k.a. "the kaizen principle") are the key to long-term success. Doing too much too soon will lead to a quick plateau (best-case scenario) or injury (worst-case scenario). So don't shoot your load too early – slow and steady will win the race on this program.

Here are a couple examples of how to structure your workouts:

Sample Progression for Back Squats

WO #1 WO #2 WO #3 WO #4 WO #5 WO #6
225 x 10 245 x 8 265 x 6 230 x 10 250 x 8 270 x 6
225 x 9 245 x 7 265 x 5 230 x 8 250 x 7 270 x 5
215 x 10 235 x 8 255 x 6 220 x 10 240 x 8 260 x 6
215 x 8 235 x 7 255 x 5 220 x 9 240 x 7 260 x 5
205 x 10 225 x 8 245 x 6 210 x 10 230 x 8 250 x 6
205 x 9 225 x 7 245 x 5 210 x 8 230 x 7 250 x 5
195 x 10 215 x 8   200 x 10 220 x 8  
195 x 8 215 x 7   200 x 9 220 x 7  
185 x 10     190 x 10    
185 x 9     190 x 9    

Sample Progression for Seated Leg Extensions

WO #1 WO #2 WO #3 WO #4 WO #5 WO #6
100 x 15 110 x 12 120 x 10 105 x 15 115 x 12 125 x 10
100 x 14 110 x 11 120 x 9 105 x 13 115 x 10 125 x 8
100 x 13 110 x 10 120 x 8 105 x 12 105 x 11 115 x 8

On the final E and F exercises that you'll perform at the end of every workout, do 50 reps total of each exercise, but use a weight that you can only get 20 reps out initially.

Once you fatigue, rest for 10 seconds, and then continue for as many reps as possible. When you can no longer do another repetition, again rest for 10 seconds, and keep going in this manner until you hit 50 reps. It's basically one long set with 10-second rest breaks when you need them.

As an example, in the following workout, you should be able to do more reps (with the same weight) before your first rest break than you did in the previous workout. If that doesn't happen, stop immediately - don't complete the set. You'll come back stronger next workout if you heed this advice, but if you insist on pushing on, you'll go backwards.

Eventually, if you play your cards right, you'll be able to accomplish 50 continuous reps without stopping once with that initial 20RM load. When that happens, you can increase the resistance next workout and start all over.

Sample Progression for Hand Gripper:


Ivanko Super Gripper - Spring Positions 1 & 3

Workout 1: 20 + 10 + 10 + 10
Workout 2: 25 + 15 + 10
Workout 3: 30 + 20
Workout 4: 35 + 15
Workout 5: 40 + 10
Workout 6: 42 + 8
Workout 7: 45 + 5
Workout 8: 50

Ivanko Super Gripper - Spring Positions 1 & 4

Workout 9: 20 + 10 + 8 + 7 + 5
Workout 10: 25 + 13 + 7 + 5
Workout 11: 27 + 13 + 10
Workout 12: 24 (stop here, not fully recovered from previous workout)
Workout 13: 27 + 8 + 5 + 5 + 5
Workout 14: 30 + 10 + 10
Workout 15: 35 + 15
Workout 16: 37 + 7 + 6
Workout 17: 38 + 12
Workout 18: 40 + 10
Workout 19: 42 + 8
Workout 20: 45 + 5
Workout 21: 50

Ivanko Super Gripper - Spring Positions 1 & 5

Workout 22: 20 + 10 + 10 + 10

Etc.


No Core?

bicep-curl

The powerful hip muscles, along with the chest and back, can handle high loads, and thus require greater recovery. Notice how all exercises that involve these muscles have a strong core involvement. Therefore, no additional abdominal work is required - the area is getting worked every session!

With the elbow and knee flexors and extensors, less weight is used and less recovery is required. And for the smaller body parts that are associated strictly with the ankle and wrist joints, these are generally endurance (predominantly slow-twitch) fibers that can be trained often, even daily for that matter.

I've found great success on this program by training 3 days in a row and then one day off, however your age and stress levels can influence your ability to recover. You may need to insert some additional rest days into the rotation.

Remember, you can determine if the frequency is correct by how you perform on the very first set of the A exercise. If it hasn't improved, keep inserting rest days until it does.

I've talked about a similar concept in a previous column of "The Cat's Lair", on T Nation, but here's a good guideline to follow:


The 3 Days On, 1 Day Off Approach

Use this approach if you're in your late teens or early twenties, still going to school, get plenty of sleep, get plenty of sex, eat right for the most part, and live in your parents' home:

Monday: Day 1
Tuesday: Day 2
Wednesday: Day 3
Thursday: Off
Friday: Day 4
Saturday: Day 5
Sunday: Day 6
Monday: Off
Etc.


The 2 Days On, 1 Day Off Approach

Use this approach if you're in your thirties, have a family, work full-time, try to get eight hours of sleep but it's more like six on most nights, skip breakfast every once in awhile but try for four meals a day, and get sex once a week if you're really lucky, but ya' gotta pull tooth and nail for it:

Monday: Day 1
Tuesday: Day 2
Wednesday: Off
Thursday: Day 3
Friday: Day 4
Saturday: Off
Sunday: Day 5
Monday: Day 6
Tuesday: Off
Etc.


The 1 Day On, 1 Day Off Approach

Use this approach if you're in your forties and beyond, you run your own business, you're lucky to make it home for dinner most nights, you live off two or three meals a day with plenty of coffee to keep you going, you can barely afford three hours a week to train, your son wants a car even though his grades suck, your daughter is planning to wed a guy she met online last week, your wife couldn't be any bitchier if she tried, and sex is only something you see on cable:

Monday: Day 1
Tuesday: Off
Wednesday: Day 2
Thursday: Off
Friday: Day 3
Saturday: Off
Sunday: Day 4
Monday: Off
Tuesday: Day 5
Wednesday: Off
Thursday: Day 6
Friday: Off


Wrap Up

Some strength coaches believe that you need to stay on a program for several weeks, even several months to truly make progress.

Others insist that you will stagnate after just a few weeks – not only will progress halt, but you'll be more susceptible to injury if you keep pressing on. This camp believes that more frequent changes are necessary.

Well, the variable recovery system provides the best of both worlds. It offers enough variety with sufficient recovery to allow you to make progress for a long period of time.

Don't be afraid of change, just be afraid of changing too soon! Give high-volume, variable split training a shot, and then welcome the results over the upcoming months.


References

Alvar, B., Wenner, R., and Dodd, D.J. (2010). The effect of daily undulated periodization as compared to linear periodization in strength gains of collegiate athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(Suppl. 1), 1.

Church, J.B., Bishop, P.A., Smith, J.F., Richardson, M.T., and Secor, S.M. (2004). Recovery following resistance exercise in men and women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18(4), e4.

Fröhlich, M., Schmidtbleicher, D., and Emrich, E. (2002). Training control in hypertrophy training: Intensity vs. repetition [Abstract]. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Sportmedizin, 53(3), 79-83.

Hatfield, F.C. (1989). Power: A scientific approach. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books.

Hatfield, F.C. (1993). Hardcore bodybuilding: A scientific approach. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books.

King, I. (2002). Get buffed! Ian King's guide to getting bigger, stronger and leaner (3rd ed.). Reno, NV: King Sports.

McRobert, S. (1998). Beyond brawn: The insider's encyclopedia on how to build muscle and might. Nicosia, Cyprus: CS Publishing.

Monteiro, A.G., Aoki, M.S., Evangelista, A.L., Alveno, D.A., Monteiro, G.A., Piçarro, I.D.C., and Ugrinowitsch, C. (2009). Nonlinear periodization maximizes strength gains in split resistance training routines. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(4), 1321-1326.

Phillips, B. (1995, May). Uncensored Q&A. Muscle Media 2000, 43, 18-23.

Phillips, S. (1995a, January). Variable split training programs: A look into the future of high-tech bodybuilding. Muscle Media 2000, 41, 136-139.

Phillips, S. (1995b, September). Three time's a charm for arm growth! Muscle Media 2000, 45, 138-141.

Prestes, J., Frollini, A.B., De Lima, C., Donatto, F.F., Foschini, D., de Marqueti, R.C., … Fleck, S.J. (2009). Comparison between linear and daily undulating periodized resistance training to increase strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(9), 2437-2442.

Rhea, M.R., Ball, S.D., Phillips, W.T., and Burkett, L.N. (2002). A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(2), 250-255.

Roach, R. (2008). Muscle, smoke & mirrors: Volume I. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

Willoughby, D.S. (1993). The effects of mesocycle-length weight training programs involving periodization and partially equated volumes on upper and lower body strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 7(1), 2-8.

Zatsiorsky, V.M. (1995). Science and practice of strength training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

10/24/12