Turn the Volume Down

by Johnny Pain

Ok, so there’s something that I’ve been hearing a lot of recently that’s been bothering me. I’m the first to admit that there is more than one way to accomplish things when it comes to strength training, dieting, etc. However, there are some things that I feel people do simply due to an erroneous belief of the necessity of such actions in order to achieve a specific goal or adaptation.

It’s no secret that I am from the intensity school of thought with regards to training as opposed to the volume school. I favor brief, hardcore strength training sessions designed to provide a stimulus sufficient enough to yield a favorable adaptation with adequate food and rest.

Many of those who read this site, or my books, share a goal of building muscle mass. I can assure you with one hundred percent conviction that there is no need for a ton of volume in order to accomplish this task. All that is required is that you stimulate the muscle adequately (this is tied to the severity of the stimulus, not the duration, or the number of repetitions), feed it, and rest it enough to allow your body to make the necessary repairs and come back bigger and stronger.

My beliefs are evident in my training methods presented in my book “The Greyskull LP: Second Edition”, and even more so, in my upcoming book “The Greyskull Method for Powerbuilding”. You do not see long, boring sessions outlined featuring a large amount of sets of various movements for a muscle group, but rather a small number of sets (often times only one) which are to be performed with all-out intensity, leaving nothing on the table.

This intensity is present in the rep max sets in the Greyskull LP, and in the rep range, and rest pause work in the Powerbulding book. I’ve often stated that the Greyskull LP can be completed with every bit as much result in terms of strength and size development (assuming the diet and recovery aspects are the same) without performing the first two sets of five (for all major movements except the deadlift). The first two sets essentially serve as a volume safety net for those who have not yet learned to generate the requisite intensity. This idea ensures that the masses reading the book, who do not have the benefit of a coach to guide them, or the experience (yes it requires experience) to push themselves to the level of effort required to ensure that they maximize the stimulus for the day.

A brand new trainee simply does not know how to train with intensity just yet. They need to put some time in in order to learn what that means. For them, the first two sets are there to make sure that the job is done. For the trainee who has spent some time under the bar (I hate that cliché too), and has learned how to push until it hurts and then crank out two more until it feels like they are going to die, and then two more after that, there is simply no need for anything beyond that one, ball busting effort.

Perhaps the most annoying (to me) place that I see this idea of unnecessary volume being recommended is in the performance of (God I hate this phrase) “assistance work”. Can we just accept that the term is borrowed annoyingly from Powerlifting where all movements are designed to assist the performance of the competitive lifts, the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift? If you are a legitimate, competitive Powerlifter, then by all means call anything that isn’t one of those movements an “assistance movement”, but if you’re not, then accept that you are lifting weights period, and that all movements share the same importance if size and strength development are your goals.

A trend I see more and more is the inclusion of multiple high rep sets performed with very low intensity of a certain movement or movements after the GSLP work is done for the day. Take for instance the curling movements. A trainee desiring bigger arms might bust out five sets of ten curls after his GSLP session in hopes of egging them on to grow. What he doesn’t realize is that I am certainly not in the business of cheating anyone out of growth, and actually include said movements in the basic templates so that you DO grow. If you trust me, understand that the two sets recommended performed to failure in the recommended rep range will do more for growth than fifty half-assed reps after the fact.

I also see dips commonly used in the same manner. Trust me, if you aren’t providing an adequate stimulus each session in the LP by pressing or bench pressing, some bodyweight dips thrown in at the end are not going to magically save you. Nut up and hammer the all holy fuck out of the rep max set of bench press, close grip, press, or whatever movement you are to complete for the day, and you will not only not want to do dips after you’re done, but you will outright know that they are not needed as a result of the god-awful sensation you feel throughout your body. Enter the all-important stimulus, the prelude to growth.

What do you think is going to yield better results, hammering the hell out of a body part, resting it, allowing it to recover (much easier to do from one or two sets than from six or seven), feeding it, and then coming back to hammer it again later in the same week, or beating it into submission with well-below maximal weights for an extended period of time once per week, or worse, twice, while it isn’t fully recovered?

If you want to train volume style it is your right to do so. If you prefer that style of training, then by all means have at it.


If you trust my methods already, and are interested in training with intensity, forcing your body to adapt and grow by making the weights your bitch, don’t fall victim to the line of thinking that says volume is needed for hypertrophy.

Turn down the volume if you choose this path. Crank up the effort, make the set fucking count, eat like a horse coming off of the Zone diet, and sleep like a pill head with mono.

Johnny Pain is the man behind StrengthVillain.com as well as the East Coast’s notorious Greyskull Barbell Club and several other ventures. He is the author of several books on subjects pertaining to strength and conditioning. He can be found comically entertaining questions on his Q and A forum at StrengthVillain.com or can be reached for consultations, training seminars, or speaking engagements at john@villainintl.com.

Also, you can follow him on Twitter: @thejohnnypain


11 Responses

  1. In Gladiator you include things like high rep dips and sled drags, as well as lots of cumulative volume throughout the week in the form of frequency method pushups, chin ladders, and the weekly warmups. Certainly this could be considered ‘volume’ work as well? Is this also a ‘safety net’ to ensure adaptation?

    May 7, 2013 at 3:19 am

    • The sled drags are in there more as a conditioning bit than a strength training movement. I do like frequency pushups and chins throughout the week, especially for those interested in general strength/fitness. Keep in mind that I’m addressing more specifically those going after strength and mass gains primarily in this one, and that I feel that there is a definite separation when it comes to the actual dedicated strength training session for this purpose.

      May 7, 2013 at 3:26 am

      • That makes sense. I guess for where I’m at (an early stage intermediate) the pushups/pullups have had a mass building and strength benefit, but this may not apply to more established trainees.
        Either way, I’m certainly not arguing against intensity 😉

        May 7, 2013 at 3:37 am

  2. Brian Rowbotham

    I totally agree with you on the bodyweight dips. However, I’ve noticed huge gains when adding in weighted dips for 2×6-8 once a week after pressing.

    May 7, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    • Of course you would. The key there is a weighted movement performed for 1-2 sets in a rep range that promotes hard work. Keep up the good work.

      May 7, 2013 at 5:22 pm

      • Brian Rowbotham

        Thanks for the encouragement. Currently sidelined from barbell work after breaking a thumb needing surgery yesterday but once I get back at it I’m shooting for the BW+two plates as a minimum goal for dips with 135 as a long term goal.

        May 7, 2013 at 11:57 pm

  3. Lucas Silva

    When the powerbuilding book will be ready?

    May 12, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    • ASAP Lucas. Making sure it’s the best product I can deliver.

      May 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm

  4. Ivan

    This is exactly what I needed to read Johnny. I’ve been struggling with the GSLP lateley and was thinking of going back to Madcow because it has one set of 5 instead of three like your method. But, now that you told me it’s OK to do one max effort set I’m going to keep up with the GSLP and see what happens.

    I am also contemplating dropping the frequency method chins and push-ups because my elbows have been killing me and I blame the volume. Would it be better if I simply switched to the ladder method instead of dropping them altogether?

    I would also like to know if the two sets you recommend for rows and curls require warmup sets. I usually do them without warming up but they are starting to get heavy and I’ve been wondering if I should ramp up to them the same way I do with the big lifts.

    Thanks for this article. Great information in here. Looking forward to more writing from you.

    May 15, 2013 at 7:24 pm

  5. Scott Beall

    I agree about insufficient recovery, John. I’m constantly telling new clients to slow down their rest periods. Guys get so anxious/bored in the gym, they often retard their results by not taking the time to recover.

    On the other hand, this also means I’ve gotta come up with more conversation material, haha!

    June 5, 2013 at 8:55 pm

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