Have you ever wondered why certain athletes can get so muscular and strong on so little volume? There is no doubt that many of these athletes are rare genetic specimens, but often I think there is more to it than that. Having our own sensitive responder on our coaching staff, Jeff Alberts, we get handed questions all the time on how he manages to be so muscular on such little volume. There is no doubt that Jeff responds very well to weight training in general. However, I would argue that the amount of volume most “non-responders” truly need for progress might be closer to the needs of an athlete like Jeff, once you really take a look at how much of the “non-responder’s” current volume is of low quality.
Now, let me state up front, this is my opinion based on observation, not any scientific study. It is merely anecdotal observation of coaching hundreds, possibly thousands, of strength and physique athletes over the past decade or so. Indeed, with such a “sample size”, you bet we’ve seen more than a few athletes like Jeff in our tenure as coaches who respond really well to training, as well as many “non-responders” who often think they need a lot of volume to progress. A common theme when observing athletes like Jeff, is that they seem to progress in muscularity using similar amounts of volume over their entire career. Obviously, tonnage increases over the years as they get stronger and use heavier loads, but often little to no change occurs in the total number of sets performed as a method of progression. Why might this be?
I’ll let that question simmer as I explore another common theme often shared by these “high responders”: the effort put into each rep. Have you ever seen Jeff get his hands dirty in the gym? Excluding his lighter warm up sets, every one of his repetitions from the first rep of the first set to to the last rep of the last set is done with a high degree of intentionality. Form is pristine, body English is negligible, very little force is produced by the passive components of his muscle (e.g. he doesn’t bounce out of the eccentric to get a rep started), and you can see how each rep effectively targets the muscle. With that said, there is one change from the first to the last rep of his sets…the final reps are much slower as he approaches failure. Indeed, you can see even moreeffort put forth by him to grind through his final reps without form deviation as a set concludes. Simply put, Jeff’s quality of work is higher, and he takes sets closer to failure (while still maintaining great form), than your average “non-responder” on a high-volume program.
In the current climate of volume-focused discussion, we often lose the focus on load and proximity to failure. Heavy loads take care of the issue for you, when you’re working with 6-8RM loads and heavier, like a powerlifter, all your muscle fibers have to come to the party and your form and focus needs to be pristine to keep you safe. Sure, this is a grueling and inefficient way to rack up volume, and not recommended for the pure bodybuilder, but in some ways a powerbuilder/powerlifting approach to training is idiot-proof when it comes ensuring adequate effort (if not efficient or ideal). On the other hand, the more common approach of using mostly moderate loads, with some heavy and some light loads while tracking RPE that we recommend here at 3DMJ, can be problematic if not performed properly. While tracking RPE, or specifically, how many reps from failure you are is an important tool, those who have never gone to true muscular failure often underestimate their true capacities. When using light to moderate loads, such as is common in many bodybuilding programs (at least for certain phases or exercises), if you aren’t fully cognizant of your true maximum capability, it’s easy to rack up a lot of reps and sets that are far enough from failure to be largely “junk volume”. Sure, you’ve generated fatigue from pure metabolic output, and eventually get a decent pump and burn, but with that fatigue and pain, further reps start to look sloppy with a good amount of cheating or limiting ROM. The end result looking back on your “high volume” program, is a lot of sets far from failure that didn’t do much, and then a few sets that you took closer to failure, but with crappy form that didn’t do a great job of targeting the intended musculature.
There is a whole lot of un-quantifiable volume/data that I am talking about here. However, since I love the numbers, I will try to represent these unquantifiable differences in a quantifiable way. So, let’s do a comparative theoretical analysis of the two examples given above.
High volume, low intensity/low RPE for the first set and a half & sloppy reps for part of the last set.
Lower Volume, moderate intensity/higher RPE from the first reps and controlled but slow reps at the end.
Now, while this is a completely theoretical example, and I don’t hang my hat on these actual values, at least hypothetically you can see how once the “garbage” volume is taken away, volume could be nearly the same. Or at least, close enough for us to see how the gap between a “high” and a “low” responder might not be all that much. Finally, let me say there are certainly folks who need more volume to optimally progress, for example our very own Eric Helms through multiple repeated tests over years of training has found that his upper body responds to pretty damn high volume and frequencies of training, and his quality of work, proximity to failure, and the loads he uses during powerlifting phases are all up there. But, more often than not, when a random person comes out of the wood works as a self-diagnosed “low responder” who needs a ton of volume, the issue tends to be form, effort, and quality. So, take a hard look in the mirror and maybe give a shot at seeing what magic you can cook up with lower volume at a higher quality in your next mesocycle.