Volume Manipulation: Overtraining For Overgrowth!

Volume manipulation can help you make new muscle and strength gains. Use this 4-week program of overtraining and then tapering down back to normal to bust through your current plateaus!
"How often should I go to the gym?" This is one question that always comes up in consultation with individuals seeking improvements in size or strength. The answer is far from simple and recommendations from strength coaches can be completely opposite depending on the philosophy of the training advisor.

Training Frequency

Some people may say that training frequency should be reduced in order to allow increased recovery and sufficient muscular adaptation following a training session. Increased rest may also be planned to prevent or avoid a training plateau (when performance no longer improves despite administration of a training stimulus). The opposing view is to increase the training frequency in order to apply a greater stimulus to the muscle and demand a greater level of adaptation. Therefore, basing a workout design solely on training volume is not optimal.

Certainly, it is important to design the program with sufficient rest and recovery intervals so that the optimal training adaptations will be obtained from the effort given in the weight room. In fact, at the end of a training session, an individual gets weaker throughout the workout. It is the recovery period between training sessions where tissue adaptation occurs and enables the individual to return stronger and bigger for the next training session.

Training Volume

The training volume of each individual workout can also be manipulated to allow for greater recovery or an increased training stimulus. A reduction in the amount of sets or repetitions will decrease the volume in a given training session. In contrast, performing additional sets is the best manner to increase the overall training volume of a workout.

Training Intensity

Training intensity is the final variable that can be manipulated in the training prescription. It may in fact be the most important factor in determining the neuromuscular response. As a detailed description of the adaptations to different training loads is an article in itself, let us generally consider high-intensity (greater than 90% of your one rep max) loads as most effective in training the nervous system and moderate-intensity (70-90% 1 RM) loads most effective in stimulating hypertrophy of the muscle fibres. An individual that has been lifting consistently at a single intensity most certainly would benefit by varying the load for a short-duration training phase (i.e. 3-6 weeks).

Use "Abnormal" Routines To Make New Gains?

Lifters stuck at a plateau may need to consider alternative and novel program designs to elicit further gains in performance. A "novel" training routine could be followed for a short period (2-4 weeks) and would stress the neuromuscular system in a manner that it is not accustomed. This may promote adaptations in the neuromuscular system that could enhance immediate performance or future training sessions. Each of the above variables can be manipulated within a single training program to help achieve maximal results in the gym.

I theorize that a period of overstress followed by a period of reduced training volume and frequency will result in even greater adaptations than normally occur with regular training frequencies and recovery intervals. The program is based on "tapering" strategies used by elite athletes prior to important competitions. Tapering is defined as periods of high-intensity training followed by a brief "unloading" phase. In theory this may enable complete neuromuscular adaptation to the training stimulus and allows for rest and recovery prior to competition. The basic concept of the following program design is similar to the "tapering" concept as the trainee reduces the training volume in order to allow for maximal adaptation (whether it be muscle growth OR maximal strength development).

The Program

WEEK 1

This week should be characterized by 6 full training sessions. A typical "bodybuilder" routine of a 3-day split, perhaps as legs, chest and back, and shoulders & arms would be performed. The split would be repeated twice and followed by a rest day. The intensity (weight or load) is moderate (8-12 RM) and the volume is high. Exercises would be predominantly single-joint to isolate the particular muscles.

Sample Program For Week 1

Monday: Legs
Tuesday: Chest And Back
Wednesday: Shoulders And Arms
Thursday: Legs
Friday: Chest And Back
Saturday: Shoulders And Arms
Sunday: Rest

Tips: Use 8 - 12 reps per set and high volume. High volume would mean to use many sets per bodypart. Stick to isolation exercises, rather than big compound ones.

To find workout programs, click here.

WEEK 2

Total training frequency is reduced by 1 session (~20%) and the training frequency of each body part is cut in half to a single session per week. Again, a typical "bodybuilder" routine is performed. The training split would be changed to 1 body part per day, for example, chest, legs, back, shoulders and arms. The training intensity in this week would be higher (6-8 RM) for the entire program. Total weekly training volume is lower due to the reduced frequency BUT/ daily volume is greater per muscle group due to the isolated training routine.

Sample Program For Week 2

Monday: Chest
Tuesday: Legs
Wednesday: Back
Thursday: Shoulders
Friday: Arms
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Tips: Use 6 - 8 reps per set and high volume. High volume would mean to use many sets per bodypart. Stick to isolation exercises, rather than big compound ones.

WEEK 3

Four training days (2 total upper-body and 2 lower-body workouts). The intensity of this week should be slightly reduced from Week 2 for 1 of the 2 workouts per body split. For example, on Monday, an intense lower-body workout (6-8 RM) may be performed, while a moderate intensity lower-body workout (10-12 RM) may be done on Thursday. Multi-joint exercises should be performed to recruit many muscle groups to compensate for the lack of isolation exercises. In fact, no direct work should be performed for the shoulders or arms unless time permits at the end of the upper-body training day.

Sample Program For Week 3

Monday: Lower Body (6 - 8 Reps Per Set)
Tuesday: Upper Body (6 - 8 Reps)
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Lower Body (10 - 12 Reps Per Set)
Friday: Upper Body (10 - 12 Reps)
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Tips: Use compound, multi-joint exercises.

WEEK 4

A return to high-intensity training (6 RM) offset by the lowest frequency and volume of training over the course of the program. Three training sessions should be performed this week, in a similar split to WEEK 1. Allow for a full day of rest between each training session to provide the optimal recovery period.

Sample Program For Week 4

Monday: Legs
Tuesday: Rest
Wednesday: Chest And Back
Thursday: Rest
Friday: Shoulders And Arms
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Tips: Use 6 reps per set.

Why Does This Program Work?

This program borrows from scientific principles but is also based on several theories of recovery. It is merely a suggested training routine that is extremely safe and may prove to be extremely successful in developing strength and mass. However, slight variations in the program may prove to be more successful between individuals. For example, a lifter may respond better to different lengths for each training phase. For example, some trainees may have greater success lifting in the high-volume phase for up to 3 weeks before entering a reduced-volume phase.

As well, one of the attractive attributes of the program is its flexibility. It should appeal to individuals that have varying levels of life commitments. For example higher volume phases or increased training frequencies could be scheduled during relaxed times of a student's semester and then "tapering" weeks could be planned around exams to take advantage of an increased recovery time. Businessmen may consider overtraining prior to a business trip or vacation.

It is important to maintain a distinction between tapering and detraining. Tapering permits the optimal adaptation to a stimulus while detraining indicates a loss in performance due to the removal of a training stimulus. It is important to reduce training stress only far enough that adaptation is allowed to occur at maximal levels, and not so that the organism returns to a pre-training state due to lack of stress. It is important to determine exactly what length to time should be devoted to applying overtraining and how long should be committed to recovery emphasis. The length of the recovery period may depend on the training intensity just prior to the reduced frequency phase. As a rule, the final stage should be maximal intensity and the lowest volume.

Conclusion

The training program is certainly advanced in both theory and in the demands it makes of the trainee. It is not recommended that a lifter with less than 6 months lifting experience attempt this program. Certainly the first week of high-volume training at a high frequency will test the recovery system of even many advanced lifters. The program was meant to provide a variation in the training stimulus, something that is generally recommended to occur frequently in an individual's resistance training regimen. The risk of injury in this training program is minimal provided proper exercise technique is followed. In fact, a study at McMaster University where subjects trained 6 days per week for 8 straight weeks resulted in only minimal minor overuse complaints.

Author: Kelli Trampe is currently finishing her studies in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. She can be reached at Kellitrm@aol.com.