T Nation

Muscles Feel Dead with Less Volume

Hi everyone, this is my first post here and I’m not sure if there’s some sort of introduction policy – at any rate, this post will serve as a sort of history, and I ask a question at the end. Feel free to just skip down to the question part if you want!

I’ve been training (horribly, for the most part) for about seven years now. I would estimate about 10% or less of my total workouts have built any muscle at all. Nevertheless, I started off at about 140 lbs, 6’, ~8% bf my junior year of highschool and made my way up to ~255 lbs at 6’3", ~10-15% bf, so I have at least seen some level of success, if only briefly.

Until recently, I had always been very averse to reading about bodybuilding on the Internet or in books, preferring to just experiment in the gym. It’s hard to know who to trust in this shady business! I slowly became more comfortable turning to this site for information however, after reading Thib’s beginner series articles, the quality of which was instantly apparent to someone who had, unfortunately, spent years learning these things the hard way.

About six months ago I read Bricknyce’s Bodybuilding Bible thread, and learned about ramping sets. I know it may sound pathetic, but I had gone well over six years without ever trying anything other than straight sets, 4 x 5-15 reps! This sparked a big turning point for me, and I was inspired to learn everything I could from these boards. I got to thinking about what worked and what didn’t.

I read about DC training and low volume approaches in general. I had always scoffed at HIT style training and never thought twice about it until just recently. I read MODOK’s bodypart twice weekly thread and something just clicked…

After reading MODOK’s thread I thought back to the time when I made my best gains. With about four years of training under my belt, I finally realized that muscle building required food, and lots of it (please understand, I was very, very stupid and prejudiced coming into bodybuilding – it’s a miracle I’m not dead yet after the idiotic things I’ve put myself through).

At the time, I ramped up my daily caloric intake to a very strict, clean 4,500 even though I was just a measly ~185 pounds. Summer had just begun and by the time I went back to school, I was up to 215, with only a minor dent in ab visibility. Sadly, I went back to eating crappy dorm/frat food and things have never been quite the same since.

During this time I used a 3 way split: legs/shoulders, chest/triceps, back/biceps, and abs everyday. Lots of volume per workout: 3-5 exercises per body part, 4 sets of 8-12 each (or 12-16 for legs). I did this cycle twice a week, and took Sunday off… well, at least that was the plan.

See, I also ran two miles each way to the gym and, needless to say, I was completely exhausted all the time. I probably made it to the gym an average of 4-5 times per week, often missing days because I literally felt sick at the prospect of running down to the gym (on a full stomach too, ugh).

But I was able to keep up with such a demanding routine, nonetheless, and I consistently added weight to the bar every workout in the big lifts. I saw massive growth on everything but my arms (thus began my grotesque muscle imbalances).

The point is, I was able to make good beginner gains, but as time went on it became clear I still had a lot to learn if I was ever going to get the kind of body I wanted (which, by the way, is not that of an IFBB pro – I’m not that delusional!). In the ensuing 2-3 years I did manage to gain another 30 lbs or so, but a higher proportion of it was undoubtedly bodyfat.

I hurt myself countless times. I gave up deadlifts for good, blew the hell out of both my shoulders, got serious pain in my tricep tendons, acquired some chronic strains in my biceps tendons, had to deal with chronic lower back pain, and worst of all have seen my poundage PRs gather dust. At the end of my freshman year of college I benched 225 for ten reps; tonight, four years later, I did it for seven.

But I am getting smarter. In the past couple of months I’ve corrected tons of little mistakes in form, workout structure and diet. The biggest hurdle was probably realizing I just didn’t have the hip flexibility for a full high bar olympic style squat. Also learning how to tuck my elbows and retract the scapula on bench press. Of course, I still have a long way to go.

As I mentioned earlier, MODOKs bodypart twice weekly thread really set my imagination off. I thought back to that summer of incredible gains, how much I loved working every bodypart twice weekly on a three way split – after all, hitting a bodypart just once a week never felt right to me.

I thought about how, just like him, I hated doing all the dumb little flys and pullovers and three bench press variations. It always seemed like 90% of the benefit was just from those first couple sets of bench press, rows, pulldowns, squats, skullcrushers, bicep curls, etc.

------ Alright, here comes the question! (and most relevant details, lol) ------

So here’s where I find myself now, after years of experimentation and thinking everything over. I went back to a three way split, along with a rest day at the end.

Legs / Calves
Chest / Back
Shoulders / Arms / Calves.
Rest.

On a good day, I’ll ramp up to a top set of about 5 or so nice, controlled reps to failure in the first exercise. This usually ends up being about 5-6 sets total, all in the same rep range. Then I’ll move on to the next exercise, do a set or two to get a feel for the movement, and then hit failure again at about 10 reps. I then repeat that process except in the 10+ rep range.

If I feel like it, I won’t bother changing exercises and will just do all three sets on the same exercise, dropping weight to hit the appropriate rep ranges. I haven’t decided which approach I like more yet – this is something I’m currently experimenting on.

(Astute readers may recognize this bit as stolen from the Phil Hernon thread that’s linked inside of MODOK’s once weekly thread).

So all in all, I do about 3 sets to failure (~10 s
12:40 AM - cephissus: ets total, which includes ramping) twice a week for most body parts.

I try to eat 5000 calories a day across five meals, at least 50g protein (probably more like 70) per meal, ~100 g carbs (I’m getting a little fat though, so I’m trying to cut this down a bit). Three solid meals and two shakes, usually. I’m currently about 245 lbs / 6’3" / ~10-15% bf.

Truth be told, dieting has always been the hardest part, and many days I probably only get more like 4000 calories.

So here’s the question, the part that’s always dogged me: while things may go good for a while, it always seems like, sooner or later, I reach the point where I just CAN’T feel my muscles working very well. They remain cold and unwilling to lift the weight! No matter how fast or slow I ramp up, whether I decrease my weight or just grit my teeth and try to push through it, my progression always stalls!

I’ll walk into the gym and just never know what the outcome is going to be like. I’ve had some of the best workouts of my life since I started lifting smarter these past few months, but they still mostly suck, and I’m really starting to lose hope – thinking I’m severely over-trained, adrenal fatigue, thinking I have horrible genetics, etc.

Tonight, for example, I did barbell rows. It felt good at first, just lifting the bar for ten reps. I got a little burn, some slight sensation going, but then as I did 95, 135, 155, 185… each set my muscles felt progressively duller and less responsive.

I want to lift with intensity, and trust me, I know and love the sensation of doing a mind-blowingly hard set (anyone ever read Thib’s Hungarian Oak Leg Blast article? I actually did that workout for 8 weeks… oh man) – it just seems physically impossible! I wish it were a matter of willpower, because I have plenty of that… but sadly it doesn’t seem to be the case.

I think to myself, “can I really be overtraining on just 3 sets to failure per bodypart, twice a week?!” when, just a few summers ago, lifting similar or even HEAVIER weights, I would routinely do 15+ sets to failure in grueling, 2 and a half hour workouts? In those days I would get huge pumps and deep soreness, adding weight to the bar every workout or two (ie every week).

These days I do less than half the volume, ramp my sets, have better form – in short, seem to do everything more intelligently – and yet I feel deflated and limp, cold and fragile. Sure, I’m a little older and don’t have as much youthful energy, but that doesn’t seem like it should make much of a difference to me.

Anyway, if you have bothered to read this far, thank you very much. I’ve put this post off for a long time since I don’t want to burden people with hopeless, confused, or obnoxious questioning, but I’m feeling particularly exhausted at this point, trying to figure out everything on my own.

Furthermore, I would also like to express my gratitude to members of this board and website such as Christian Thibaudeau, Bricknyce, MODOK, Professor X, Cephalic Carnage and others for their informative posts.

You think too much, seriously.

Maybe this link will help you with your mind muscle connection:

[quote]somespace wrote:

I’ve been training (horribly, for the most part) for about seven years now. I would estimate about 10% or less of my total workouts have built any muscle at all. Nevertheless, I started off at about 140 lbs, 6’, ~8% bf my junior year of highschool and made my way up to ~255 lbs at 6’3", ~10-15% bf, so I have at least seen some level of success, if only briefly.

I try to eat 5000 calories a day across five meals, at least 50g protein (probably more like 70) per meal, ~100 g carbs (I’m getting a little fat though, so I’m trying to cut this down a bit). Three solid meals and two shakes, usually. I’m currently about 245 lbs / 6’3" / ~10-15% bf.
[/quote]

Hi, sorry to sound dubious, but I’ve quoted these two sections for a very specific reason. You are describing a pretty good level of development, 10-15% BF, so if you are having the problems you are stating I would be surprised. Are you overstating your development a little?

If you are where you are at something is clearly working and you are probably just overcomplicating things.

Might be way off base here.

Anyways, when in doubt based on what u describe you should go live in CC’s thread for a while.

[quote]GluteusGigantis wrote:

[quote]somespace wrote:

I’ve been training (horribly, for the most part) for about seven years now. I would estimate about 10% or less of my total workouts have built any muscle at all. Nevertheless, I started off at about 140 lbs, 6’, ~8% bf my junior year of highschool and made my way up to ~255 lbs at 6’3", ~10-15% bf, so I have at least seen some level of success, if only briefly.

I try to eat 5000 calories a day across five meals, at least 50g protein (probably more like 70) per meal, ~100 g carbs (I’m getting a little fat though, so I’m trying to cut this down a bit). Three solid meals and two shakes, usually. I’m currently about 245 lbs / 6’3" / ~10-15% bf.
[/quote]

Hi, sorry to sound dubious, but I’ve quoted these two sections for a very specific reason. You are describing a pretty good level of development, 10-15% BF, so if you are having the problems you are stating I would be surprised. Are you overstating your development a little?

If you are where you are at something is clearly working and you are probably just overcomplicating things.

Might be way off base here.

Anyways, when in doubt based on what u describe you should go live in CC’s thread for a while.[/quote]

I very much doubt he is 245lb at 10-15% bf or he would be having no trouble with 225lb on the bench press what so ever, unless his arms are so long that his hands touch his knees.

Ok - 6’ 3" at 245 and around 10% bodyfat? I heard that correctly? And that’s “horrible development” to you?

I mean, 245 on that height isn’t huge, but at 245 relatively lean, you should really be in pretty goddamned good shape.

This is obvious but - pics?

Senior year of highschool, after one year of lifting.

At the end of the summer I mentioned in my first post, ~215.

This morning, ~245. Maybe I’m not very accurate on the bodyfat? I don’t know; it’s just a guess.

These pictures show my development over 7+ years, which is almost embarrassing! Like I said before, probably only 10% of my total workouts (especially after the first two or three years) seemed like they contributed anything to my development. Since I cut down the volume and started ramping about 6 months ago, I’d say that probably 25-40% of my workouts seem to be effective at all.

The rest are still miserable, frustrating experiences that leave me feeling very weak and fragile.

Looks like you have some good back width and are able to flex them.

/silverlining

lol

Dude - I think you look pretty good for your training age. I mean, if you wanted to look like Jay Cutler by now, I guess you should be disappointed, but based on that third pic, you look like you’ve made good progress. Legs & arms could use more size, but I think you’re being way too hard on yourself.

Everyone has dogshit workouts sometimes - we’re not machines, we have ebb and flow to our feelings and energy, mental state etc.

I’d say that you’re making good progress, and you shouldn’t be so negative.

I guess since no one has said this yet… EAT MORE if progress is stalling!

P.s. I gotta take my own advice :stuck_out_tongue:

Very nice lats.

didnt read the thread but please train your arms.

Okay first of all you said you’re running/walking 2 miles to the gym every session, that sounds like it could easily be the source of your inability to warm up/perform some days, you’re just tiring yourself out before you even hit the weights and that’s obviously counterproductive. Also it kind of sounds like you’re not eating enough before your workouts, and do you have anything during? Try eating about 25% of your daily intake 1-2 hours before you train and taking some peri workout nutrition, like gatorade or a better concoction if you can afford it.

What weights do you use from week to week? Are you grinding against the same load every session more or less? From what I can see you have decent leg and back width development and are pretty lean, it might just be time
for you to gain some weight and focus on arms/delts a bit more than you are.

Also do you change the load from week to week on your top set? I find that when I hit different weights from week to week it helps to keep me motivated while performing the same movement ie.

hit 225x7 the first week
second week hit 235x5
third 245x4
fourth maybe 215x9
then 225 again and try to hit a PR in reps or hit 230 and try to keep your reps up

and so on

Personally doing this has help keep me from getting down, and I think it has a positive training effect although it might just be in my head. This is especially useful with small movements like curls and such since you can’t always add a little more weight and PR every session…

You sound like your a hard worker and a thinker so this might not be helpful to you. Hopefully you can find the missing link in your routine.

Good luck

Are you ramping up in the traditional BB’ing manner? Something like this (using bench for example):
bar x 12-15 (whatever it takes to get some blood in the muscle and warm up the joints)
95 x 8-10
135 x 6-8
185 x 3-5
200 x 1-3
225 x as many as possible

Or is it more of the “force spectrum” ramp CT describes? Something like this:
bar x whatever
135 x 1-2 (feel set)
165 x 5
175 x 5
185 x 5
195 x 5
205 x 5
215 x 5
225 x 5 (max)

Are you possibly pushing your ramping sets too close to failure (which could result in you burning out your nervous system before you ever reach your top weight)?

Also, as far as feeling dead, you might want to try some of CT’s “activation” type exercises at the beginning of the workout to “wake up” the nervous system before beginning your regular workout if you not feeling it. Or, if you are feeling particularly tired on a given day, do an entire “neural activation” workout (see the livespill of CT’s forum for more details) and just call it a day.

Never tried something like this before, as I try to keep my workouts as simple as possible but this it sound like a good idea. The problem is, I usually can’t even string two good workouts in a row these days, so I can’t establish even a basic system of progression!

For example, in my opening post I mentioned I got 225 x 7, well just two days ago I hit bench again and only got a to a top set of 185! This was actually the better of the two sets in my opinion, as I felt it a lot more in my chest. Still, I had to stop early due to some strain in the pec tendon at lockout.

[quote]Sentoguy wrote:
Are you ramping up in the traditional BB’ing manner? Something like this (using bench for example):
bar x 12-15 (whatever it takes to get some blood in the muscle and warm up the joints)
95 x 8-10
135 x 6-8
185 x 3-5
200 x 1-3
225 x as many as possible

Or is it more of the “force spectrum” ramp CT describes? Something like this:
bar x whatever
135 x 1-2 (feel set)
165 x 5
175 x 5
185 x 5
195 x 5
205 x 5
215 x 5
225 x 5 (max)

Are you possibly pushing your ramping sets too close to failure (which could result in you burning out your nervous system before you ever reach your top weight)?
[/quote]

I’ve tried both methods. Back when I was most successful (several years ago) I used the first method, just with 4 straight sets at the end instead of a single top set. More recently I’ve been favoring the second. I’ve had very good and very bad workouts with both methods.

[quote]Sentoguy wrote:
Also, as far as feeling dead, you might want to try some of CT’s “activation” type exercises at the beginning of the workout to “wake up” the nervous system before beginning your regular workout if you not feeling it. Or, if you are feeling particularly tired on a given day, do an entire “neural activation” workout (see the livespill of CT’s forum for more details) and just call it a day.[/quote]

Thanks for recommending this! I remember watching the videos a while back but I wasn’t paying much attention because it seemed pretty esoteric, and I generally don’t like to stray too far from the beaten path. After re-watching some of the videos from the training lab though, it actually makes a lot of sense. I’ve already started experimenting with this stuff.

I’ve actually thought about this a lot just recently.

I recall a chest workout I had several months ago. Ever since I hurt my shoulder bench pressing two years ago, I haven’t been able to use weights that could actually challenge my chest. Slowly, I learned to correct my bench technique, and I think I’ve almost got the hang of it.

Anyway, I first learned the form preached over at EFS thanks to a post by CC, and had started to test it out. The first week or two went great, and I got good activation and pumps in my chest, but then stalled out. Frustrated, I, for some random reason, decided to try the “force spectrum ramping” or whatever it’s called found in the I,BB articles. To my total astonishment, I ramped up to a new PR in bench with no complaints from my pec or bicep tendons!

Nonetheless, I wasn’t very satisfied because I didn’t feel much in my chest (I was using powerlifting style arch at the time). The next workout, I did the same thing, and ramped up very explosively, 3 rep sets, etc. After hitting 225, I wasn’t satisfied with the lack of sensation in my chest, so I dropped the arch and dropped back down to 135, and started re-ramping. To my surprise, immediately my chest felt incredibly explosive! I ramped back up to 225, getting 4 perfectly smooth reps and the biggest pump and burn I’ve possibly ever had, and not a single twinge of pain in my shoulder!

I attributed this effect to using better form (ie scapula retraction, proper elbow tuck), and dropping the arch (so as to focus on the pecs more). Sadly, in subsequent workouts I ramped up the traditional manner (ie bar x 10, 95 x 10, 135 x 10, 185 x 10, maybe a top set with 205, not as explosive, etc) and didn’t get the same results at all.

I was extremely disappointed, but for some reason never considered the possibility that my incredible performance the previous workout had been not just due to the scap retraction / elbow tuck, but the explosive, low rep ramping to high weights.

This possibility occurred to me out of the blue yesterday, when faced with the prospect of yet another disappointing tricep session. So I sat down on the bench, slapped on the weight, and did some very explosive, low rep ramping all the way up to 225 on close grip press. Now, usually I get to about 155-165 on this exercise for a top set, and it feels awful and my muscles feel totally dead and inactive. After ramping up to the point where I noticed a dropoff in acceleration (225), I dropped the weight down to 185. Indeed, my muscles felt much more active than usual, and I could lift the weight smoothly and get a good pump. They still weren’t nearly as responsive as my chest had been to a similar treatment several months ago, but much, much better than usual nonetheless.

If anyone else has used the “perfect rep” / “I,BB” style ramping CT advocates, please chime in! Since, when ramping up initially I don’t feel much fatigue in the muscles at all, I’m compelled to drop the weight and do a higher rep set or two immediately after the ramp ends. That seems sensible to me, but I’m not sure if that’s how others do it.