Volume Training and Isolation

This page on Volume Training is for those of you who want to put on muscle but don't want to risk life and limb lifting heavy weights. In fact, I would say that this page is primarily for weight lifters who are middle age and beyond and who want to save their joints and back from the rigors of typical bodybuilding routines (and yet still put on muscle of course). Volume Training is a godsend for those of you who want to look good and train more naturally.  Seriously, how are you going to squat or bench press heavily by yourself anyway?  How many of us can find a training partner that wants to be at the gym the same time as we do?

In spite of all these obstacles, virtually all the body building sites and magazines that I know ignore Volume Training and emphasize heavy, "Olympic-type" lifts:  benches, dead lifts, squats and so on. What they don't tell you is that eventually the price will be paid for lifting like this.  There are very few weight lifters who can make it into their 40's and 50's doing these kind of heavy lifts without joint injuries. If only they had stuck to lifting that our bodies were built for:  repeated lifting or Volume Training.

Fitness Rx is one of the few fitness and bodybuilding magazines that is honest with its readers and it cites a recent journal article that reports that almost all lifters who do regular and heavy bench pressing experience shoulder injuries. [1]  Tendon ruptures of the biceps are surprisingly common for those doing big bench presses as well. [4]  Even my fitness idol, Jack LaLanne, struggled with injuries because of the intensity of his workouts during his youth.  In the last half of his life, he had to do the majority of his exercising and feats of strength in the water because of the damage done from overuse and overexertion to his joints and tendons.  Again, I have never heard of anyone saying that they have suffered a significant injury from Volume Training.

So can it be done?  Can you put on mass using less heavy weights?  Certainly!  Not only will volume, if done right of course, help keep you injury free but it will pack on muscle while its at it.

What is Volume Training?  Volume Training simply refers to the non-traditional idea of building muscle through a lot of sets and repetitions and lower weight.  (The technical definition is simply the total sum of weight lifted, i.e. the sum of sets multiplied by reps multiplied by weight.)  One of the most well-known of these techniques is to take about 60% of your one rep max (the most you can lift for that exercise with one repetition) and then do ten sets of ten repetitions.  (Google on German Volume Training.) 

Example:  Let's say that you can curl 70 lbs maximum for one repetition.  You would, as an initial guess, take 60% of 70 lbs, or 42 lbs and do ten sets of ten reps with that.  The following week you would try again but increase slightly the weight and so on.

NEWS FLASH:  A 2010 study recently found that doing about 24 reps at 30% of your one rep max put on as much muscle as doing 5-10 reps at 80-90% of your best. [5] [6] The key, according to the study findings, was to go to fatigue. In other words, it doesn't matter that much how you do exhaust your muscles just so you do it.  But let me ask this:  who is more likely to get hurt:  the guy benching 5-10 reps or the guy benching 24 reps?

Of course, most guys don't want to do Volume Training because it requires you to work with less weight.  We want to lift as much as possible because, after all, someone might be watching us.  Well, swallow your pride and realize that Volume Training works:  it packs on muscle AND is much safer than traditional lift-a-baby-grand-piano techniques.  Volume Training will make you very sore by the way.

Remember:  your goal with Volume Training is to avoid the kind of debilating injuries that plague body builders and power lifters in their 40's and beyond.  I can only tell you tell you that I have never hurt myself doing Volume Training, but I have hurt myself any number of times doing the traditional, balls-to-the-wall lifting with heavy weights.  And, by the way, I am a fairly careful lifter, but one small mistake with heavy weights and you've got yourself a nasty, months-to-heal injury on your hands.  Better to stick with Volume Training, especially for those of those pushing forty.

One might say that, once again, you've got to use brain over braun.  Is that anything new?  Let the younger guys rack up the stacks of 45 lb plates.  Trust me:  half or more of them will be limping around in ten to twenty years from hurting their backs or elbows or shoulders or hips or knees.  It's easy to do as you start getting to those heavy weights.  as the body building magazines recommend - Olympic lifts like the squat, bench press and dead lift - you're going to be lifting a lot of weight.  You only get one mistake and you're hurt for potentially years or decades.

Does Volume Training really work?  You instinctively know the answer.  Ever seen a mechanics forearms?  He doesn't generally lift that much, yet he looks like Popeye, matey.  Why?  Because he does hundreds of smaller "lifts" with his arms throughout the day and the net result are forearms that would grab the attention of any woman. Again, it's volume, volume, volume. And who has the biggest cuads you've ever seen?  Olympic power skaters are right at the top.  In fact, male ballet dancers have huge quads and gluts that would put most guys in a gym to shame.  None of these guys use weights!  They are essentially doing Volume Training with their own body weight.

Finally, who has the type of build that women admire most? Is it the freakishly massive steroid-built body builders doing Olympic lifts?  No, it's gymnasts who lift nothing more than their own body weight in a unique type of Volume Training over and over and over again.

Note:  There is quasi-verification of using Volume Training in a recent study.  Scientists recently found [2] that doing 40% of your one rep max, a low weight indeed, at a slow pace - three seconds up and three seconds back - done to exhaustion gave greater growth hormone response than traditional weight lifting techniques.  This has left the researchers scratching their heads.  These results should be considered preliminary, but maybe going to very low weights and slowing down your reps is just what the Endocrinologist ordered.

Does Volume Training take more time at the gym?  Not really, because you should not do more than one exercise per muscle group.  Furthermore, you should generally not exercise any muscle group more than one time per week.  (You won't want to if you've done it right:  you'll stay sore for days.)

One other question that may have crossed your mind is "what should I do if I'm not going to lift heavy, Olympic Style lifts"?  Well, I would recommend Isolation instead.  Now that is blasphemy in weight lifting circles.  But let me tell you why I've never believed in Olympic lifts:  I've got a huge chest for my body type and weight and I've rarely done a bench press.  That's right - I started with flyes in college and that's really the only exercise that I've eever done for my chest.  And my pecs are large enough that I actually don't want them any bigger. 

So why are flyes so effective?  Because they hit nothing but your chest.  If you do them right, your chest will be screaming the next couple of days without risking life and limb like you have to do with trying a bench press by yourself. There are similar isolation-type exercises for all the muscle groups and they all work just great. 

What really counts in putting on muscle is Muscle Tension.  Several studies have shown that it's really the amount of tension put on the muscle that is so critical for growth. [3]  A beautiful example of this is lying tricep extensions where one lays on one's back on a bench and brings the weights down to the forehead and then back up.  This leave the tricep in a stretched out, high tension state and will make the back of your arms scream with pain the next day.  You will also find they make your triceps grow very fast even though you have not lifted that much weight.  You can probably do double the weight if you do the standard cable triceps pushdown.  But you will get less muscle growth with those because tension is so critical.  This is not really an example of Volume Training but illustrates that you do not have to lift heavy to get big significant mucle gains.

CAUTION:  It is possible to hurt your joints if you move jerkily and stretch the tendon or muscle too far.  Be careful and study the basic lifts to understand the way to lift properly.  And, of course, work with your doctor if you have any medical condition whatsoever!

CAUTION:  Also, studies have shown that it is probably dangerous to do weight training without cardio afterwards. If you're a weight lifter, and I hope you are, see the Sexercise link for details. You may also want to consider reading the Overtraining link if you're the over-zealous type. 

Finally, feel free to Contact Me with any questions about these strategies.


1)  Fitness Rx, 9/08, p.24.

2)  Physiological Sciences,2008,58(1):7-14

3) Intl J Sports Physiol Perf,2008,3:279-293

4) Sports Med Arthroscopy Review,2008,148-161

5) PLoS ONE, 2010, 5(8):e12033, "Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men"