Extremely low volume training has been around for decades. This type of training, prescribing anywhere from 1 to 8 sets for each muscle group in sessions lasting less than 60 minutes (often less than 45 minutes), is just as appealing to gym rats now as it was forty years ago.
Why is this method of training, whose shelf life wasn't supposed to have lasted longer than the seventies, still going so strong? Is it because it's so different from everything else? Is it because its proponents are such charismatic individuals? Or is it because it actually produces results?
This article will explore the pros and cons, and give you the tools to make low volume training work for you.
It works, but it's not all about the volume
People are always asking me if such-and-such a program will "work." Let me tell you a secret: just about any program will work. In fact, I will go so far as to say that every single program will work, provided that it isn't irrational. What makes a program irrational? An imbalance in the stimulation/restoration ratio. Here are the main offenders:
Programs not providing enough stimulation on a systematic basis
The best example that I can give you is what I call "daddy and mommy training." A guy or a gal decides to train, but never really makes an effort to work hard on each set, never tries to add weight or reps, never gets out of their comfort zone. This could also be called "social training," because these folks are evidently in the gym to socialize, not to build muscle or strength. This is the extreme, but even people who don'tspend their gym time gossiping with their friends or trying to pick up chicks still might not be working hard enough to force their bodies to grow.
Training in the comfort zone.
Programs providing adequate stimulation but too much restoration time
Rest is the most neglected key to muscle growth, no doubt about it. More gym effort has been wasted because of insufficient rest than for any other reason.
However, too much rest is just as bad as too little rest. The training session represents the stimulus. If it's strong enough it will force the body to adapt by making itself bigger and stronger. I say "force" because the body really doesn't want to add any extra muscle to your frame, it's a metabolic burden.
Now, if you have too much time between bouts of stimulation, the body will undergo a process called "involution" during which the gains from the preceding session will be lost because the body regards them as unnecessary (the same type of demand doesn't present itself on a systematic basis). So you end up stimulating a small amount of muscle growth with one session, then losing it all before your next session.
A good example of this type of irrational program is exemplified by Mike Mentzer toward the end of his career, who recommended training as infrequently as once every 10-14 days. Don't get me wrong, I do respect the early work of Mentzer, but his later work was plumb loco.
Mentzer: plumb loco toward the end.
Programs providing adequate stimulation but insufficient restoration time
Let's say you're a hard worker and are thus able to train intensely enough to force the body to adapt to the physical work you're having it perform. And the training sessions are properly planned. In theory you should be able to have your body add muscle and strength on a regular basis.
In some cases, however, it doesn't happen. More often than not this is due to not having enough restoration time planned into your routine. Growth occurs mostly when you rest. No rest equals no growth! And it's not as simple as thinking that your chest will recover the day you work your legs.
You see, training has both local and systemic effects. You're causing injuries to the muscle you trained and activating the growth mechanism for this muscle. You've also depleted local glycogen stores. These are the local effects of training. However, a training session also leads to the production of cortisol (catabolic stress hormone) and catecholamines, as well as fatiguing/draining the nervous system. These are the negative systemic effects of training.
If you don't take enough restoration time, the systemic effects might be sustained and lead to a condition of chronic fatigue, short-term overtraining, or even adrenal burnout. All of these obviously negate the muscle growth that might have been stimulated by your training session.
Programs providing excessive stimulation
Bodybuilding legend Lee Haney said it best: "stimulate, don't annihilate" your muscles. Excessive stimulation means doing too much work or using too many advanced techniques within a training session. As I've mentioned about a zillion times in my previous articles, we're often enslaved by the emotional aspect of training.
We want that muscular body so badly that we always feel like we're not doing enough in the gym. I once designed a program for a client who wanted to emphasize his chest. So I had him do a spec program, performing chest work twice a week, 4 exercises per session. Believe it or not, I caught him doing seven exercises for chest during each session, three more than I had prescribed!
Lee stimulates. He never annihilates.
Society has conditioned us to believe that the more we do, the more we get. Work more hours, get a bigger paycheck. Study more, get better grades, etc. Unfortunately, it just doesn't work the same way in weight training, because we're limited by our body's capacity to tolerate and recover from physical stress. Programs with too much volume or too many advanced techniques might leave you shaking and hurting after a workout, but they also might leave you the same darn size for several presidential administrations.
These, then, are the main categories of irrational programs. So as long as a training system doesn't fall into one of these categories, and is based on trying to improve your performance in the gym as often as possible, then the program will work. Not all programs will work to the same extent, but they should all lead to results.
So yes, a properly designed low-volume program willwork. However, for it to work optimally, the quality or difficulty of the work being performed must be high enough to avoid falling into the "excessive restoration" or "insufficient stimulation" categories.
And now we come to the shocking truth about low volume programs: despite the name, the reason they work isn't because of the low volume. The reason they work is because what little you do is so damned hard. So hard, in fact, that you simply can't do more.
Without gut-wrenching hard work, lowering the volume doesn't make much sense. The lowered volume is only to allow the body to adapt to the super hard demand of the few sets being performed. You need to work so hard on each set that doing more would be counterproductive. That's the secret of effective low-volume training. If you use a low volume of training without the required increase in hard work per set, you won't get results.
Keys to an effective low-volume program
The keys to a successful program are pretty much the same, no matter what your training philosophy is:
The stimulation/restoration ratio:
To stimulate maximal progress you must put a stimulus on your body that's significant enough to force the body to adapt positively (increase muscle mass, gain strength) without exceeding your body's capacity to tolerate training stress.
The magnitude of the training stress can be increased by adding more volume, training more frequently, increasing density by taking less rest between sets, lifting heavier weights, and training harder on each set.
When talking about low-volume training we obviously can't increase the training stress by doing more volume, as it goes against the design of the system. We can't shoot for density either, why? Because high density training (short rest intervals between sets) doesn't allow you to rest enough to give an all out effort on the few sets you're doing. Lifting heavy weights can be included in the process, as we will see later.
But the main way to magnify the training stimulus during low-volume training is to take each of the few sets you're doing close to death! I'm not talking about training to failure... failure is when the set actually starts!
The stress induced by each of those 'death sets' is so high that you can't perform a lot of them; 3-6 work sets for most muscle groups and up to 8 for back which is a more complex structure. It also means that you need your 'growing days'. For maximal growth to occur you'll need to take at least 2 and preferably 3 days of rest per week on non-consecutive days.
Simply put, if you're to continue forcing your body to pile muscle on, you'll need to progressively ask more of it. Otherwise there will come a time when your body will be fully adapted to the training stress, and you won't need to grow bigger and stronger anymore. Low-volume training allows two types of progression: either lifting more weight (gradually adding more iron to the bar every week) or increasing the level of difficulty of each set.
Increasing the difficulty of a set means going to failure... and beyond. In some cases, way beyond. You can do it by using one or more of these techniques once you reach muscle failure:
Once you reach failure you pause for 10-12 seconds and then resume the set, trying to get 2-4 more reps with the same weight, again to muscle failure.
Once you reach failure you lower the weight by 50% (of the current weight) and continue to perform reps to failure.
Once you reach failure you hold three, 3-5 seconds pauses during the range of motion of the exercise. A second version is to hold the midrange or full contraction point for as long as possible.
Upon reaching failure, your partner grabs the weight at the end on the concentric (lifting) motion and spots you as you lower it as slowly as you can. Perform reps until you can't lower the weight under control.
These aren't included in the table, but can be used in 'beyond failure steps with the same weight'. Basically when you reach failure with a weight you continue to perform reps in the strong half of the movement.
The following table illustrates a possible way of putting these techniques together.
The 'hardness' factor – Levels of Difficulty
1-2 reps short of muscle failure
Regular set short of failure
Regular set to failure
1 step beyond failure with lower weight
Regular set to failure + drop 50%
1 step beyond failure with same weight
Regular set to failure + rest/pause
2 steps beyond failure with lower weight on both steps
Regular set to failure + drop 50% + drop 50%
2 steps beyond failure, same weight on first step, lower weight on second step
Regular set to failure + rest/pause + drop 50%
2 steps beyond failure, same weight on both steps
Regular set to failure + rest/pause + static hold
3 steps beyond failure with lower weight on all three steps
Regular set to failure + drop 50% + drop 50% + drop 50%
3 steps beyond failure with same weight on first step and lower weight on the other two
Regular set to failure + rest/pause + drop 50% + drop 50%
3 steps beyond failure with same weight on first 2 steps and lower weight on the third step
Regular set to failure + rest/pause + static hold + drop 50%
3 steps beyond failure with same weight on all three steps
Regular set to failure + rest/pause + static hold + slow negatives
You'll note that these methods are arranged by levels of difficulty. So you could progress in your program by going from a level 2 set to a level 3 set. For example:
Weeks 1-2: Level 2
Weeks 3-4: Level 3
Weeks 5-6: Level 4
Weeks 7-8: Level 5
Week 9: de-load with Level 1 sets
Weeks 10-11: Level 6
Weeks 12-13: Level 7
Complete focus and singleness of purpose
This type of training requires an iron mind just as much as a steel body! You must be able to tolerate excruciating pain since when the average trainee's set ends is where yours should begin. Also, since you have very few sets to get the job done you simply can't afford to lose focus for even one set. "Yeah, but I can always do one more if I have a bad set." No, you can't! A wasted set will only dip into your recovery capacity, doing more work on top of that might slow down your rate of progress.
This is why most people get zero result from low-volume training: they lack the mental fortitude and concentration skills to milk each set enough to achieve an optimal growth stimulus in very few sets.
If you like to talk and be social in the gym, this isn't the type of training for you! "Yeah, but when the set is over I can relax and talk to my buds." No, you can't! Each set is like the 100-meter sprint finals at the Olympics: it requires maximum concentration, focus, and singleness of purpose. Do you think that top sprinters joke and talk about their weekend right before a race? Heck no! They think about the race, they visualize, they get psyched up and put themselves in the proper mindset to give an optimal performance. That's what you have to do.
If you're a gym socialite, this kind of training is not for you.
Focus can also be applied to the execution of the exercises themselves. You should always try to make every single rep as close to perfection as possible. Even when the muscle is burning and you feel like your tendons are about to apply for retirement, you need to keep every rep solid.
A perfect rep should include a controlled eccentric/lowering phase (but not necessarily slowly... 2-3 seconds is good), a good stretch of the target muscle in the low position, and an explosive (well as fast as you can, as fatigue sets in you won't go very fast) concentric/lifting phase. On the lifting phase you should also squeeze the muscle as hard as you can.
Control, stretch, explode, and squeeze. Every single damned rep.
These are the three main elements that will make or break low-volume training. Yes, these factors are also important to other types of training systems. However, because with low-volume training you have very few sets to get the job done, they're all the more vital.
Low-volume training splits
Low-volume training has used all types of training frequencies. Low-volume of training always include at least 2-3 days of rest per week, often up to 4. But the frequency at which each muscle is being trained can vary depending on your source.
For example, the first Arthur Jones low-volume system often used whole-body routines performed three times per week. In that case the volume for each muscle group was super low (1-3 sets per muscle group) to accommodate the very high training frequency.
The now popular method of bodybuilding coach Dante Trudel (DoggCrap) normally has trainees hitting each muscle group twice per week, or twice every 10 days. 2 to 4 sets are performed per muscle, per session.
Other low-volume proponents like Dorian Yates, Trevor Smith (who was over 400 pounds and could incline press over 600 pounds for reps), Marc Dugdale, and Lee Labrada all preferred to train each muscle group once a week, utilizing 4 to 8 sets per muscle group.
Regardless of the frequency you use with low-volume training, you should follow these two rules:
a) Always rest for at least 2 non-consecutive days per week, 3 is better and 4 is optimal for skinny hardgainers. Growth occurs when you rest, not when you train.
b) Stick to 4-8 total sets per muscle per week. If you decide to train each muscle group 3 times per week, it means that you should do no more than 1-3 sets per workout for a muscle group. If you train each muscle twice per week you can do 2-4 sets per workout, and if you train each muscle once per week you can use 4-8 sets in that workout.
Here are some low-volume splits that have been used:
Dorian Yates-inspired split
Monday: chest & biceps
Tuesday: lower body
Thursday: back & rear deltoids
Saturday: shoulders & triceps
Marc Dugdale-inspired split
Monday: chest, biceps & calves
Thursday: back & hamstrings
Saturday: shoulders & triceps
The late, great Trevor Smith (on right)
Trevor Smith-inspired split *
Monday: chest and calves
Wednesday: shoulders and triceps
Thursday: back and biceps
* Note that Trevor actually used to train chest and shoulders/triceps on consecutive days. While it obviously worked for him, I feel that the average trainee needs more rest since these muscles are overlapping.
Tuesday: lower body
Thursday: back & biceps
Saturday: shoulders & triceps
Dante Trudel inspired split
Monday: chest, shoulders, triceps, back
Tuesday: lower body, biceps, forearms
Thursday: chest, shoulders, triceps, back
Saturday: lower body, biceps, forearms
Monday: lower body
Tuesday: upper body
Thursday: lower body
Saturday: upper body
Monday: whole body
Wednesday: whole body
Friday: whole body
I've often said that you can tell the difference between a decent coach and a great coach by the exercises they select. The key is selecting the movements that will provide the greatest gains in a specific individual. What is optimal for me might not be the best exercise selection for you.
Proper exercise selection depends on your body structure (limb lengths, shoulder and hips width) as well as your muscle dominance. For example, the bench press or incline DB press are great movements to build the chest in individuals who are either "chest-dominant" (chest proportionally stronger than shoulders and triceps) or who have a balanced development in all the pressing muscles. However, if someone is "shoulder-dominant," these might not be the best choices.
Not so good for shoulder-dominant individuals
See, it's not as simple as saying that compound movements are superior to isolation exercises. In many cases it's true, however in other case the proper isolation drill might be superior to compound movements.
Exercise selection is even more vital during a bout of low-volume training, because you must use a low number of exercises, 2-3 per muscle group. There's simply no room for a subpar movement.
While complete exercise selection depending on your body type and muscle dominance is outside the scope of this article and will be a series of its own, I like to use the following 'basic' guidelines when it comes to low-volume exercise selection:
• For a dominant muscle (a muscle that responds well to training) I suggest using only 'big movements': the exercises in which you can use the most weight for the target muscle group.
• For an 'average muscle' (a muscle that's neither a super easy responder nor a stubborn one) I recommend two 'big movements' followed by an isolation exercise.
• For a 'stubborn muscle' I suggest using a pre-fatigue approach: starting with an isolation exercise and then performing either one 'big movement' plus one more isolation one, or two 'big movements'. The key is to start with the isolation one.
Pre-fatigue is a technique that I recommend only for a stubborn muscle group. This technique is effective because by isolating a muscle you 'prime it' (both neurologically and physiologically) so that it's recruited more easily during the subsequent 'big movement'. The localized pump from the isolation movement also enables you to better 'feel' that muscle working during the compound drill (enhanced feedback) and are thus able to have a better mind-muscle connection with that stubborn muscle.
Here are some examples of possible exercise selections. Note that this is not an exhaustive list. You have my permission to choose other exercises.
Chest exercise selection
If you're pectoral-dominant or balanced:
A. Flat bench press
B. Incline DB press
C. Chest dips
If you're shoulders-dominant:
A. Decline dumbbell flies
B. Decline bench press
C. Cable cross-over
If you're triceps-dominant:
A. Flat bench dumbbell flies
B. Wide grip bench press to the clavicle
C. Low-incline DB press
Flat-bench dumbbell flies
Back exercise selection
If you're latissimus-dominant or balanced:
A. Chest-supported T-bar rowing
B. Supinated chin-ups
C. Rope lat pulldown
D. Seated rope row to the neck
If you're biceps/forearms-dominant:
A. Machine pullover or straight-arm pulldown
B. Rope lat pulldown
C. Bent over lateral raise
D. Seated rope row to the neck
Bent-over lateral raise
Quads exercise selection
If you're quadriceps-dominant or balanced:
A. Back squat
B. Close-stance leg press
C. Short step lunges
If you're gluteus-dominant:
A. Leg extension
B. Front squat
C. Sissy hack squat
Hamstrings exercise selection
If you're hamstrings-dominant or balanced:
A. Romanian deadlift (DB or barbell)
B. Reverse hyper
C. Lying leg curl
If you're lower back-dominant:
A. Lying leg curl
B. Leg press feet high on board
C. Standing leg curl
Lying leg curl
Deltoid exercise selection
If you're lateral deltoid-dominant or balanced:
A. Seated DB shoulder press
B. Arnold press
C. Seated lateral raise
If you're front deltoid-dominant:
A. Seated lateral raise
B. Scott press
C. Cable lateral raise or leaning-away lateral raise
If you're triceps-dominant:
A. Seated lateral raise
B. Bradford press (never lock out)
C. Cuban press
Triceps exercise selection
If you're triceps-dominant or balanced:
A. Close-grip bench press
B. Triceps dips
C. Lying DB triceps extension
If you're shoulders-dominant:
A. Decline close-grip bench press
B. Decline EZ bar triceps extension
C. Rope triceps kickback
If you're chest-dominant:
A. Decline DB triceps extension
B. Overhead EZ bar triceps extension
C. Cable triceps press-down
Close-grip bench press
Biceps exercise selection
If you're biceps-dominant or balanced:
A. Preacher curl or machine preacher curl
B. Seated hammer curl
C. Standing reverse EZ bar curl
If you're forearms-dominant:
A. Wide-grip/elbows-in preacher curl
B. Seated supinated (palms up) DB curl
C. 1-arm preacher curl (preferably with low pulley)
While the volume of work is low, each set is extremely demanding. For that reason, you need to take a relatively long rest between sets. If you don't, your performance will decline, and the training stimulus will suffer as a result.
You need to start every set recovered enough to be able to put forth the inhuman effort required by this style of training. At least 2-3 minutes are required for upper body, and up to 4-5 minutes for legs. During that time you shouldn't just be sitting around picking your nose, or yakking about your weekend. You should be reflecting on the preceding set (did you give it all you've got?) and psyching yourself for the next set.
It's not just a rest period, it's a mental preparation period. It might, in fact, very well be the most important part of the workout.
Every rational training program will work, provided that progression, effort, and discipline are part of the equation. A properly designed low-volume program is no exception. Low volume isn't necessarily the best way to train, and it's not for everyone. When used correctly, however, it will spark dramatic results.
It can also be used in a larger scheme: alternating periods of low-volume, high-volume and maximal weights, each period lasting 4-6 weeks is a very good way to train and keep on progressing.
But remember: to make this program work you must absolutely compensate for the low volume with supreme effort. Every single one of the few sets you do must be a true test of your will.