Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Base building part 6 - Bottom line intensity

Something I keep scratching my head about in regards to what some people write or say about my training methodologies, is the lack of volume in my training, or my training principles.

Every time I read this, I am completely confused.  Perhaps because I am dumb founded by the fact that a guy that thinks he did 15 singles (15 total reps), thinks he trains high volume, then calls my training "low" or "moderate" volume after a workout in which I have done 200+ reps.

I think volume can be a very misunderstood thing sometimes.

Volume isn't just sets, or just reps, it's about the total volume of work done.  It's everything.  It's both the weight lifted, the  intensity used, and the amount of sets and reps used in those intensity zones.

We could get really confusing an throw in frequency as well, but I don't want to do that.  Let's just stick with volume.

I think what you have to distinguish is, where does "volume" start?  If you're a 500 bencher, does your 135 warm up count?  No?  Why not?  Most people say "because that's too light".

I'd tend to agree.  So the answer is, where does the weight on the bar become relevant enough to be considered worthy of helping us get stronger?

The myth of 1 top set -

For many years, I did the "one big set" thing.  It works.  Let's get that out of the way right now.  I hate it when people say that you can't train that way and get big and strong.  You can.  Period.  It's tough for sure.  I don't train that way any more because eventually going balls out on one top set will start to suck the life and love of training out of you.  Well, it did for me.  Especially if you don't know how to manage your real intensity, or perceived intensity.  Doggcrapp was a very productive way of training for me for a two year period.  However after I took my last break from it, I was never able to "get up" for that kind of training again.  I dreaded it more than Adam Lambert dreads vagina.

The real issue is, is 1 top set REALLY 1 top set once you get to a decently strong level?

Let's take a look at a couple of bodybuilders training routines, from video.

bodybuilder a - 
Incline Press -

Hammer Strength Press-

Incline Flyes -
2 sets

Cable Crossovers -
1 set

bodybuilder b -
Flat Bench -

Incline -

Decline -

Bodybuilder A is of course, Dorian Yates.  Bodybuilder B is Ronnie Coleman.  Yet Ronnie had the rep for being a really high volume guy, and Dorian the ultimate low volume guy.  However, throughout training discussion people consider you a "low volume guy", if you only do 1 set with your heaviest weight.  This makes ZERO sense to me.  Ronnie did "3 top sets".  Dorian did 4.

Let's clear up some nonsense.

Your total volume isn't defined as something as simple as how many sets you did with your heaviest weight.

Both Dorian and Ronnie worked up to 1 "top set".  However Dorian really minimized his warm up sets.  Ronnie did a lot of warm ups, especially rep wise (I didn't list his reps because he did so many and I didn't feel like counting).

So while they both did one set with maximum weight for a movement, Ronnie undoubtedly did more volume work than Dorian.  You know why?  Because those "warm up" sets count.  At some point they start counting, anyway.

Capt. Kirk said that he generally did 1 working set during his heyday.  However, on the days he was working up to 800x1 for his max single with no belt, no wraps, how did he get there?

Just a guess, but maybe.......


So, for the "he's a low volume guy", they only count the 800x1.

"Well if he were a high volume guy he would have done a bunch of singles with X amount of weight."

So does only the top set count?

Where to start counting volume?

The key in understanding volume, I think, lies in a pretty gray area.

Namely, total tonnage and intensity.  Both real and perceived.

Kirk based a whole part of his meet prep on working up to a max set of 8.  His best single was 800x1, and his best set of 8 no belt, was 655.

That's 82% for 8 reps in a top set.

On the flip side of that, you have Sheiko, the Russian powerlifting method.

So where do you start actually counting what is "work" and what's just warming up?  This is the question not a lot of people ask when they start talking about what counts towards volume, and what does not.

One thing I do not like, and have tried many times, is "technique work" for lots of volume using really light weights.  Like 50% and less.  In other words, that "speed" shit you hear about.  I'm not a fan.  I don't think you can "get faster".  I know, I know.  Some other coach disagrees.  That's fine.  If you can get faster, I think it will really be negligible.   

Jason Pegg and I had a conversation about this a few times, and he noted "I'm fast.  If I make a lift, it looks fast and easy.  I can't grind shit."

Of course, someone who knows better would want to tell Pegg that "well you need to practice grinding".


Some people are grinders, and some people are fast.  I honestly don't think you can transform your very maximal lifts into one or the other.  In fact, some people grind everything.  While others like Pegg, make everything look fast.

I think it's a waste of your time, to work on trying to make yourself become something your body is not wired to be.  Like the Samoan who has 9" wrists and is strong as fuck trying to become an Ironman athlete.  Much like the Johnny cochran Chewbacca defense, it makes no sense.

Go with your strengths.  When you concentrate on nothing but improving all of your weaknesses, at best, you can make your weaknesses mediocre, while your strengths take a dive because you've been neglecting them.  Use your strongest tools to become a champion.  Don't waste all of your time trying to bring your weaknesses up to average Joe status.  Because that's about all they are going to be.

If you're a fast lifter, you're going to be fast.  If you're a grinder, don't spend hours and hours doing needless "speed work".  Just get stronger.  This keeps shit simple.  You should be using all of your "warm up" sets to practice being as explosive as possible anyway.  If you're not doing that, start doing it.  Then you save yourself one of those ridiculous "speed days" in the gym.  That's good training economy.

Back to volume........

In Sheiko, you squat and press twice a week and pull once a week.  Generally speaking.

In Shekio 29 for example, you squat twice a week every week.  Over the course of a month you use anywhere from 70% to 85% for multiple sets of reps.  No singles ever (how do those Russians get so strong not working at 90+% and not living on singles?).

To add to this equation, let's add in Prilepin's table.

According to the table, below 70% STILL has some merit.  So can we get stronger using less than 70% of our 1RM?

My immediate answer would be "yes of course".  However, it would all depend on how you trained that particular intensity zone, what movement, and the volume you used.

This is not any different than the higher the reps get, the less they generally come into play with your 1 rep max.  Going from 22 reps max to 28 reps max may not have a very big carryover to your 1RM for that movement.  Going from 6 reps to 10 reps will undoubtedly have tremendous carryover, unless you're some kind of strange twitch mutant.  Anyone that turns 85% of their 1RM (roughly 6 reps) into roughly 75% of their 1RM, got stronger.  Strength training is that simple.

In that same vein, training below 70% may get a little iffy in terms of what you can do with that, to increase your very top level strength.

So where I am going with this is, the less than 70% zone probably has merit in some way for getting stronger.  But for kicks and grins we can safely say 99% of the time, that 70% is the bottom line for what will always be enough (minimally) to use in order to get stronger.

Prilepin lists the 70% range as needing 24 reps for being optimal.  Since I'm all about being optimal 24 reps can be split in a lot of different ways.  But just to keep shit easy, it's 25 reps.  Hey that's 5x5.

What did Sheiko do with 70% when it was used?

Week 1 - note - in Russia it's 60%5repsx2sets

day 1 - Squat - 50% 5x1, 60% 5x2, 70% 5x5 (lookie!)
day 3 - Squat - 50% 5x1, 60% 4x1, 70% 3x2

Week 2 -
day 1 - Squat - 50% 5x1, 60% 4x1, 70% 3x2
day 3 - Squat - 50% 5x1, 60% 4x1, 70% 3x2

Week 3 -
nothing on day 1
day 3 - Squat - 50% 5x1, 60% 4x1, 70% 3x2

Week 4 -
day 1 - Squat - 50% 5x1, 60% 4x1, 70% 3x2
day 3 - Squats - 50% 5x1, 60% 4x1, 70% 3x2

Now this is kind of disingenuous because outside of week 1 and day 1 of week 3, there is always work done after 70%.  We won't go into that because what we are trying to find here, is the bottom line on volume.

I think it's clear from both Prilepin's table and Sheiko, that the 70% is in fact countable towards "strength building".  If that is what we are after, then it's probably important in the grand scheme of your programming, to take your 70% work into account towards your actual volume.

Treat your 70% work as REAL work.  I'm not sure where the idea that strength work only happens after 80% when 70% and 75% see as much love as the 80+% range in the Sheiko programs.  So understand the value of 70-75% in your programming.  Not only can you get stronger using that range, but it is probably less impacting on your recovery.

So back to Kirk's totally made up sequence for working up to 800x1.

If he did something like that, warm up wise, anything at 70% or over could be considered as meaningful work.  Well 70% of 800 is 560.



All "work".  So if you buy in to what I'm selling here, then Kirk was still getting good solid strength work for 5 sets here.  Not one.

Is he meeting Prilepin's table for optimal?  No.  But working up to a true 1 rep max isn't really strength building for the most part.  It's strength demonstration.  But when you look at all the work that Kirk put in for weeks leading up to that, he clearly spend most of his time in the 70-85% range for reps.  He's probably not going to meet the "optimal" range for volume, however he made up for it with perceived intensity.  In other words, he worked his ass off.

Some people might want to debate the semantics of this back and forth, and that's fine.  The mental masturbation crew has to have something to do for the day.  The point of it all, is to understand the starting point for where you can train, and still get stronger without having to "wing shit" in the gym, or wreck yourself recovery wise.  Not having a plan is never a good idea.  Understanding that for the majority of us, the bottom line of where we can get strong, is incredibly important in programming design.

The most important part of all of this however, is deciding what speaks to your training soul the most.  Some guys really love working up to a single ball busting set, and trying to break rep PR's week in and out.  Other guys really like hitting the volume and sort of milking their way up the strength ladder.

Let's get some bullshit out of the fucking way here.  They both work.  Science can suck my dick.

Are there big, strong, jacked dudes that train low volume with high PI?  Hell yes.

Are there big, strong, jacked dudes that train high volume with intensities all over the map?  Hell yes.

However drawing a bottom line for your "base training" can be very helpful because you can line up months and months of productive training, without needing a layoff or deload because of physical aches and pains.  I think most people eventually need mental breaks from the gym, however the body should always feel GOOD.  You should not be digging yourself out of a recovery hole because your body is always beat down.  

For the guy that competes twice a year, the 70%-75% can be an area for the great majority of the months would be incredibly ideal.  The other great part about this is that when prepping for a meet, even less time would be required to peak.  Possibly 4 weeks instead of 6-9.

But that's an entirely different article.  Hah!


  1. Paul, random question here since I know you're a bit of a nerd (I mean this in a good way)...Do you find that at work you feel foggier or mentally "slow" after a real hard day(s) of training? I'm an engineer and I notice that I feel not nearly as sharp when I've been pouring it on in the gym. I'm trying to strike a good balance here, but it's been difficult.

    1. Yes, most definitely. This is how I know that my CNS is fried.

      hahahahah But seriously, yes. I do.

      If you're not taking in a fair amount of carbs during your training, try that. Also a good carb meal within an hour of trianing. Lots of white rice or potatoes.

    2. Thanks for the suggestion. I've been at 50g intra and 50g post for a while now. Perhaps there's something else at play here?

    3. Bust 100 or so during training, and another 100 after. Maybe 30 before, but slow digesting kind.

    4. Ok but it's your fault if I get the beetus.

    5. You most def will not get the beetus.

    6. Minor nutrition nerd info: your brain uses between 100-125g of blood sugar every day just doing what it does. If all you are doing is eating 100g of carbs, you'll need more to make up for what training did to your supply.

    7. to Ferrous Maverick
      The math is simple:
      For a 200lb man with 15% bodyfat you’ll need 2,500-3,000 kCal depends on your training effort.
      Protein: @ 1gr of protein per lb = 200gr = 800kCal
      Fat: @ 25% of kCals = ~80gr = 720kCal (out of 3000kCal)
      Carbs: The rest: (3000-720-800)/4 = 370gr
      If, as you say, he’ll eat only 100gr of carbs, and 200 grams of protein,
      He’ll need about 200gr of fat, ie 60%
      That’s a low carb/high fat diet. (Fat=60%, Protein=26%, Carbs=14%)
      I don’t think Paul likes those kinds of diets…

  2. Good article Paul, and sorry for calling you low volume lol

    1. I think most everyone calls me that and never bothers to look at my training that I post up every week.

  3. This is an amazing article. Great breakdown here.

  4. Not really the point of the post I know, but in breaking down the Ronnie's and Dorian's workouts, they both did about the same amount of volume, as you noted. However, Ronnie did that workout TWICE a week and Dorian "just" the once. Just a crazy frequency, given how hard that dude worked.

  5. Great series Paul. Quick question, my second eldest son is hitting some decent numbers for a 19 year old kid at the moment, but is very definitely still an intermediate trainee. I've bought both SLL and LRB365, i'm running 365 at the moment. He wants to enter into a strength/mass phase with a view to competing (powerlifting) in September. My question, are the intermediate routines from SLL or the Big-15 Mass Building section in 365 a better option? Thanks Paul.

  6. From Pavel's 10 Commandments of Free Style Periodization. Thoughts?

    1. The volume and intensity are not dependent on each other. All volume/intensity combos serve their purpose.
    2. Vary your volume and intensity every workout. Make sudden jumps rather than gradual changes. If you don't mind the math, employ the 60% rule to your volume planning.
    3. Change your exercises every 4 to 6 weeks.
    4. High intensity training should be employed infrequently. It is only marginally effective for hypertrophy and primarily causes short-lived strength gains. Frequent use of heavy weights and training to failure are also detrimental to future gains.
    5. High volume is the key to bodybuilding success. An advanced bodybuilder's high load workout should include up to up to 150 reps per body part.
    6. Limit each workout to a narrow rep range: 1-3, 4-7, 8-12, and 12+ Do not employ pyramids.
    7. Vary the intensity(both poundage and proximity to muscle failure) within each workout while staying in the specified rep range.
    8. 4-12 reps are the meat of a scientific bodybuilding regimen. No more than one out of three workouts should dedicated to very low, 1-3, or very high, 12 and over reps.
    9. Relatively easy sessions are more effective than complete rest. Active recovery workouts may be planned or taken instinctively.
    10. Controlled short term volume overtraining followed by low volume/high intensity taper is a very powerful training anabolic. You may plan for concentrated loading or simply take advantage of the accidental overtraining every ambitious trainee is prone to.


  7. Great post Paul. I've always been kind of confused as to what people define as low or high volume and this article did a good job of breaking things down.

    I did have a question - it's completely off topic and I hope it's not too much of a personal one, but here goes....

    I know you mentioned before that you're on TRT and I was wondering if you've ever had any issues with controlling your hematocrit/hemoglobin from getting too high?

    The reason I ask is because I have legit low test levels and want to look into the HRT route, but was curious as to how people deal with the potential issue of raised HCT? I'm not sure if this is a common problem with legit TRT doses (100-125mg per week) but I've always wondered how these guys who are running blasts and cruises with AAS deal with this issue aswell. I'm assuming therapeutic phlebotomies are common in that case.

    Anyway, hope you don't mind me asking.

    All the best

    1. I don't run blast/cruise. A CC a week is my "cycle (most guys flat out do not believe this). So I've never had any problems.

    2. That's a nice low dose, you may or may not believe the doses some guys are taking atm... But put it this way some guys are taking 30x what you're taking

    3. I know the doses of lots of high level guys in detail. Again, they ask me "why bother?" when I tell them that's what I take.

    4. Cause you lift to get stronger and enjoy lifting not get stronger by taking stupid doses and risk your health lol

  8. This actually puts some more science behind the Texas Method split I modeled after the guys at and the TM books. I use the first half of the week to do 70%-75%x5x5 and the second half of the week working up to a top set of 3 reps.
    Mentally, I find this way of training to be beneficial as I enjoy both types of training and don't have to choose one over the other or cycle back and forth.

  9. I'm confused as to who be calling your training low volume! I see you doing things like 5-10 sets of 5 on front squats then pause squats or multiple trebls on dreads. Also considering your philosophy on intensity training, wouldn't make sense to be low volume lol

    Grats on the sldl pb that's serious lifting. Here in the UK a lot of guys do sldl for their deadlift, no one really does good mornings.

    Check this out