In Olympic weightlifting, the word "tonnage" is used to indicate how much total weight was lifted during the session. We also call it the "volume of work." Tonnage is important, but when it comes to hypertrophy and the natural lifter, there's an optimal dose.
If a natural lifter goes overboard on volume, he or she will burn out their nervous system or skyrocket their cortisol – both of which will make gains stall. But I developed a system for natural lifters using high volume.
Before we get to it, let's take a look at who we're talking about here and what their bodies do.
Four Kinds of Lifters
Different people are stimulated by different types of training:
1 – Volume People
Lifters who naturally prefer to perform a greater number of sets to achieve muscular stimulation. They normally don't push each set as hard to be capable of doing the planned volume without crashing. If you follow the various experts, Dr. Mike Israetel, Pat Davidson, and John Meadows fall in that category. For them, gradually increasing volume over time is the main driver of hypertrophy.
2 – Intensity People
These are people who prefer to do fewer work sets, but push these extra hard – to failure (or very close to it) or even beyond. Dr. Scott Stevenson, Dorian Yates, Mike Mentzer are good examples. Paul Carter's preferred style is also more slanted toward intensity than volume.
3 – Load People
These people are mostly about adding weight to the bar. We'll find them more often among the powerlifting crowd, or they see themselves more as powerbuilders. In that category we can have a wide variety of approaches, from linear progression/progressive overload to the conjugate model. But they have one thing in common: strength is the number one goal. Think: Jim Wendler.
4 – Process People
They're all about precision. Perfecting their technique, writing down everything, analyzing data, and seeing a well-planned program deliver results is what they train for. They're all about minutia and often suffer from paralysis by analysis.
We don't have that many of them among bodybuilders or strength athletes. Sure, many lifters love geeking out over technique and data, but it's not their number one priority. Note: This type tends to be common among keyboard warriors who love to argue about everything and then need studies to allow themselves to try something new.
When Hypertrophy Is The Main Goal
Among those who are mostly interested by muscle gain, we have mainly the volume and intensity people.
The intensity people tend to kill themselves and get worse results when they go higher volume because they can't scale down their effort. They are all-out or nothing. And if they force themselves to "stop short" they don't feel satisfied and it kills their motivation.
The volume crowd often burn out on high intensity programs because of the high adrenaline/cortisol it produces. They're often unable to reach the required level of intensity to make low volume work and, even if they do, the low volume is unsatisfactory and kills motivation.
Cortisol – Enemy Number One
Cortisol is the enemy of the natural lifter trying to get jacked. It can limit muscle growth, if chronically or excessively elevated, by:
- Making protein breakdown higher than protein synthesis
- Increasing myostatin levels (which inhibits muscle growth)
- Inhibiting the immune system (muscle damage repair is driven by the immune system)
- Reducing nutrient transport to muscles
There's a strong connection between training volume and cortisol production. One of the functions of cortisol when training is the mobilization of stored energy so that you have enough fuel for your workout. The more volume you do, the more fuel you require and this means more cortisol release.
Understandably that's one of the reasons why, if you reach a certain amount of volume in a workout, results will start to diminish.
However, intensity (and load) can also increase cortisol. See, we often call cortisol the stress hormone, but "readiness hormone" would be more accurate. Basically, cortisol's purpose is to put you in a physical and mental state to be able to fight or run away.
It mobilizes energy so that you don't run out of fuel in the middle of the fight, but it also increases mental alertness and focus, blood flow (to deliver oxygen to the muscles), and muscle contraction strength. The latter three are done indirectly via an increase in adrenaline levels. So let's get into that.
How Cortisol Increases Adrenaline
It does so by increasing the amount of the enzyme responsible for converting noradrenaline into adrenaline (Phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase). The more a situation requires alertness and drive, the more adrenaline you'll produce which means that cortisol goes up too.
In lifting, the more threatening a set is, or the closer to your limit you go, the more adrenaline/cortisol will be released. A "death set" will spike adrenaline a lot more than a set with 3-4 reps in the tank. A max effort lift will also create a huge jump in adrenaline/cortisol.
Volume, intensity (going to failure or beyond), and maximal loads can all increase cortisol. However, depending on how your brain is wired, one will have a greater effect than the others.
I've known people who burned-out rapidly on a low-volume/high intensity program à la Dorian Yates, yet who could respond well and feel great on a higher volume approach. For many others it was the opposite.
My Best Damn Workout for Natural Lifters worked amazingly well for those who can tolerate volume. But what about those who can't tolerate intensity? Are they doomed?
Natural Volume Lifting
Yes, the higher the volume, the greater the cortisol production. But other factors are involved. For example, the perceived effort of a set plays a huge role in cortisol production. A set very high on the rate of perceived effort (RPE) scale – one that feels close to your limit – will spike cortisol a lot more than a set that's a 6/10 – one that you could likely do while having a conversation.
As such, it's possible that 10 sets of 8 reps at an RPE of 7/10 could cause less of a cortisol increase than 5 sets of 8 at an RPE of 9/10. Especially if, in your case, intensity causes more cortisol release than volume.
Excessive volume will be a problem for most natural lifters, but in others they'll need more volume to stimulate growth because they get just as much cortisol release from pushing themselves to the limit even when they do a lower number of sets. The solution for them is to keep the RPE per set lower when using a higher volume approach.
- Higher intensity and lower volume is fine.
- Higher volume and lower intensity (lower RPE) is fine.
- It's the combination of higher volume and higher intensity that's problematic for natural lifters.
Rate of Perceived Effort
The key for a natural lifter who's a volume person is to maintain the proper level of perceived effort. Here's what you should expect from each level.
Rate of Perceived Effort in Lifting Activities
|10||Maximal Effort||You couldn't do anything more.|
|9.5||Almost Limit Effort||You couldn't have done more reps, but maybe could've done a bit more weight.|
|9||Extremely Hard||You could do 1 more rep.|
|8.5||Very Hard||You could do 1 more rep.|
|8||Hard||You could do 2 more reps.|
|7.5||Fairly Hard||You could do 2 more reps for sure, maybe 3.|
|7||Somewhat Demanding||You could do 3 more reps.|
|5-6||Comfortable||You could do 4-6 more reps.|
|1-4||Very Easy||It feels like a warm-up.|
Now, few lifters can actually do a level 9.5 or 10 in a regular workout, even if they think that they do. Most people fake themselves out when training to failure. In reality, most are at a 9 when they hit "failure" during a regular training session. Those who can get to a true 9.5 and 10 regularly in training are those who respond the best to low volume/high intensity training and who burn themselves out when they do high volume work. Why? Because when they "pull back" they still do an 8.5 or 9.
Just how hard should you push your sets when you're natural and decide to use a "volume" approach? Go mostly with a 7-8 RPE most of the time; sometimes going up to an 8.5.
I normally use a wave-like approach, like this:
- Week 1: RPE 7 (3 reps in the tank for sure)
- Week 2: RPE 7.5 (2 reps in the tank, maybe 3)
- Week 3: RPE 8 (2 reps in the tank)
- Week 4: RPE 8.5-9 (1 rep in the tank, maybe 2)
Then we could do a deload at an RPE of 6 and start a new cycle. Or start right off with a new cycle, since it starts at an RPE of around 7. This will minimize the stress response to your work sets, counterbalancing for the higher volume of work.
So how can it work? I mean, we aren't pushing close to our limit most of the time. The key is tonnage progression.
Every week in the four-week block, you increase tonnage by adding more reps while using the same weight. Then on the next block you increase the weight and lower the starting reps, once again working your way up.
By using the same load for four weeks, you can also greatly decrease the mental stress, which will help prevent excessive cortisol production.
Let's look at what a three-block program could look like:
Example Using A Percentage Of Your 1RM
Note: The percentages are only for illustration purposes. While they're a decent starting point, the RPE is more important than the actual percentage.
Block 1 – 65% of 1RM
- Week 1: 4 sets of 8, RPE 7
- Week 2: 4 sets of 10, RPE 7.5
- Week 3: 4 sets of 11, RPE 8
- Week 4: 4 sets of 12, RPE 8.5-9
Block 2 – 70-72.5% of 1RM
- Week 1: 5 sets of 6, RPE 7
- Week 2: 5 sets of 8, RPE 7.5
- Week 3: 5 sets of 9, RPE 8
- Week 4: 5 sets of 10, RPE 8.5-9
Block 3 – 75-77.5% of 1RM
- Week 1: 7 sets of 4, RPE 7
- Week 2: 7 sets of 6, RPE 7.5
- Week 3: 7 sets of 7, RPE 8
- Week 4: 7 sets of 8, RPE 8.5-9
Example Using Specific Loading
Let's look at what the tonnage of what one exercise could look like. Imagine a lifter with a 300-pound max bench press. The progression could look like this:
Block 1 – 195 pounds
- Week 1: 4 sets of 8 (6240 pounds)
- Week 2: 4 sets of 10 (7800 pounds)
- Week 3: 4 sets of 11 (8580 pounds)
- Week 4: 4 sets of 12 (9360 pounds)
Block 2 – 215 pounds
- Week 1: 5 sets of 6 (6450 pounds)
- Week 2: 5 sets of 8 (8600 pounds)
- Week 3: 5 sets of 9 (9675 pounds)
- Week 4: 5 sets of 10 (10750 pounds)
Block 3 – 235 pounds
- Week 1: 7 sets of 4 (6580 pounds)
- Week 2: 7 sets of 6 (9870 pounds)
- Week 3: 7 sets of 7 (11515 pounds)
- Week 4: 7 sets of 8 (13160 pounds)
Then you'd deload for one to two weeks with 3 sets of 8-10 at an RPE of 6-6.5.
As you can see, there's an increase in tonnage from week to week as well as from block to block. Even if the sets aren't maximal, this will still lead to significant adaptations (muscle growth and strength gains).
How Often Should I Train Using This Approach?
For natural lifters, frequency of training is more important than it is for enhanced lifters. For natties, the training session is responsible for 80-90% of the increase in protein synthesis that will lead to muscle growth; steroid users have drugs to help with that 24/7.
This increase in protein synthesis lasts roughly 24-36 hours after the workout. So to maximize muscle growth, it's best to hit every muscle more often. Three times a week is what natural lifters should shoot for and twice a week is better than once.
In the original Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural Lifters you have 6 weekly sessions and the body is divided into pushing (pecs, quads, delts, triceps) and pulling (back, hamstrings, biceps) muscles. So everything gets hit three times a week.
That works well because of the low volume of the workouts (essentially 4 work sets and 10-12 total sets per session). But with a higher volume approach, you can't have those six weekly workouts and recover as a natural lifter.
Volume and frequency are inversely proportional. That's why with this system, training three to four days a week is best. Normally an on/off approach or training Mon/Wed/Fri/Sat are ideal.
Here are two possible splits:
- Monday: Whole body
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Whole body
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Whole body
- Saturday: Abs/loaded carries
- Sunday: Off
- Monday: Whole body
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Whole body
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Lower body
- Saturday: Upper body
- Sunday: Off
So it's a high frequency approach in that everything gets hit twice, but the overall frequency is lower. If you find recovery hard, you can even cut it down to three weekly sessions, cutting the Saturday session on option A.
When using this approach, exercise selection is somewhat of a catch-22. On one hand, we want movements with a longer range of motion and the capacity to load more to reach a higher tonnage/workload. On the other hand, we don't want too many exercises with an excessively high neurological demand.
The best way to do it is to have a harder neurological session on Monday, a lower one on Wednesday, and moderate one on Friday (and Saturday if you've picked option B).
A template could look like this:
- A. Squat variation
- B. Hip hinge variation (NOT deadlift from the floor)
- C1. Horizontal press
- C2. Horizontal pull
- D1. Vertical press
- D2. Vertical pull
- A1. Isolation/machine quad or glute exercise
- A2. Isolation/machine hamstring exercise
- B1. Isolation pec exercise
- B2. Isolation back exercise
- C1. Isolation triceps exercise
- C2. Isolation biceps exercise
- A. Machine compound quad-dominant exercise (leg press, hack squat, pendulum squat, etc.)
- B. Glutes or hamstrings, lower stress compound lift (hip thrust, reverse hyper, glute-ham raise, etc.)
- C1. Horizontal press machine (machine bench press, Smith machine bench, Smith machine incline, etc.)
- C2. Horizontal row machine or pulley
- D1. Vertical press machine
- D2. Vertical pulling machine or pulley
Can I Change These Exercises from Block to Block?
A lot of lifters, like me, need variation in their training. And since, in this approach, it doesn't come from loading schemes or training methods, it has to come from exercise selection. So can we change the exercises from block to block?
Honestly, the program should work better if you keep using the same lifts (at least on day one and ideally on day three). But that's mostly theoretically true. If you lose motivation after five weeks because you're getting bored, your training focus will decrease and results will suffer. If you need more variation, you could actually get better results by including some changes.
Can I Mix It Up With The Exercises?
Need more variety? Here's a quick guide from the "theoretical best" to "theoretical worst" solutions.
Keep the same exercises on all the sessions throughout the whole 12 weeks of the program.
Keep the same exercises on all the days except day two (easier day). Changing the exercises on that day won't actually make a huge difference.
Keep the same exercises on day one. You can do whatever changes you want on day two from block to block and on day three (and four if you picked the four days a week option) you can change the exercises, provided you move to a movement where the range of motion is similar, and the load you can use is similar or greater than in the preceding block.
Not ideal, but can work if you need a boatload of variation
Change exercises on every day from block to block. But on compound exercises, respect the same rules as above: similar range of motion and similar or greater load. For example, going from front squat to back squat is acceptable.
Randomly changing the exercises from block to block just because you feel like it.
But regardless of the option you pick, (even if you're switching exercises from workout to workout), make sure you're doing those same exercises for the duration of the block.
Volume Requires Workout Nutrition
The three main reasons cortisol will be released during a workout are:
- The need for energy mobilization.
- Getting close to your limit on a set (or several sets).
- Using loads that create psychological stress or a "fear" response.
Basically anytime you release adrenaline, you'll have increased cortisol first.
With this volume approach, you rarely if ever reach a point where factors two and three come into play. So the main driver of cortisol will be the need to mobilize stored energy to fuel your efforts and maintain a stable blood sugar level.
This is why workout nutrition is chiefly important. Even without discussing amino acid transport and uptake by the muscles, carbs before and during the workout are at their most important during a higher volume session by decreasing the need to mobilize stored energy.
Can it work without it? Sure. But results will be better with workout nutrition.
Theoretical vs. Real Life
"Christian, in your previous series you were all about the low volume and super-high frequency. Now you're giving us the opposite option. What gives?"
The most important element when it comes to making gains is training hard with laser-like focus. And to do that over weeks and months you need to keep your motivation high. As such, if your program doesn't fit what you like to do in the gym, even if it's the absolute best way to train, you'll get subpar results.
If you're a volume person, the theoretical best approach (lower volume, higher intensity, higher frequency) will give you the worse results in the long run. But that doesn't make traditional high volume better.
This plan is for those who prefer higher volume. It presents a way to do it while minimizing the potential problems. There will always be more than one way to skin a cat. It's just a matter of finding out which one works best for you.