Not on steroids? Grow anyway. This smart training strategy is designed for natural bodybuilders who love high-volume workouts.
In Olympic weightlifting, the word “tonnage” is used to indicate how much total weight is lifted during the workout. We also call it the “volume of work.” Tonnage is important, but when it comes to hypertrophy and the natural lifter, there’s an optimal dose.
If natural lifters go overboard on volume, they’ll burn out their nervous system or skyrocket their cortisol – both of which will stall gains. But I developed a system for natural lifters using high training volume. Before we get to it, let’s look at who we’re talking about here and what their bodies do.
Different types of training stimulate different people. For example, “load people” are mostly about adding weight to the bar (the powerlifting crowd). “Process people” are all about precision: perfecting their technique, writing down everything, and analyzing data. They’re all about minutia (and are often keyboard warriors).
But those mainly interested in hypertrophy are the volume and intensity people:
- Volume People: These are lifters who naturally prefer to do a greater number of sets to achieve muscular stimulation. They normally don’t push each set as hard because they want to be capable of doing the planned volume without crashing. The idea is to gradually increase volume over time to drive hypertrophy.
- Intensity People: These are people who prefer to do fewer work sets but push these extra hard – to failure (or very close to it) or even beyond.
The intensity people tend to kill themselves and get worse results when they use higher volume because they can’t scale down their effort. It’s all-out or nothing. And if they force themselves to “stop short,” they don’t feel satisfied and it kills their motivation.
The volume crowd often burns out on high-intensity programs because of the high adrenaline/cortisol they produce. They’re often unable to reach the required level of intensity to make low-volume work, and even if they do, the low volume is unsatisfactory and kills motivation.
Cortisol is the enemy of the natural lifter. If chronically or excessively elevated, it can limit muscle growth by…
- Making protein breakdown higher than protein synthesis
- Increasing myostatin levels (which inhibits muscle growth)
- Inhibiting the immune system (muscle damage repair is driven by the immune system)
- Reducing nutrient transport to muscles
There’s a strong connection between training volume and cortisol production. One of the functions of cortisol when training is the mobilization of stored energy to fuel your workout. The more volume you do, the more fuel you require. This means more cortisol release. Understandably, that’s one of the reasons why results will start to diminish if you reach a certain amount of volume in a workout.
However, intensity (and load) can also increase cortisol. We often call cortisol the stress hormone, but “readiness hormone” would be more accurate. Basically, cortisol’s purpose is to put you in a physical and mental state to be able to fight or run away.
It mobilizes energy so that you don’t run out of fuel in the middle of the fight, but it also increases mental alertness and focus, blood flow (to deliver oxygen to the muscles), and muscle contraction strength. The latter three are done indirectly via an increase in adrenaline levels. So let’s get into that.
Cortisol increases the amount of the enzyme responsible for converting noradrenaline into adrenaline (Phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase). The more a situation requires alertness and drive, the more adrenaline you’ll produce, which means cortisol goes up, too.
In lifting, the more threatening a set is, or the closer to your limit you go, the more adrenaline/cortisol is released. A “death set” will spike adrenaline a lot more than a set with 3-4 reps in the tank. A max effort lift will also create a huge jump in adrenaline/cortisol.
Volume, intensity (going to failure or beyond), and maximal loads can all increase cortisol. However, depending on how your brain is wired, one will have a greater effect than the others.
I know people who burn out rapidly on a low-volume/high-intensity program yet respond well and feel great on a higher-volume approach. For others, it’s the opposite.
My Best Damn Workout for Natural Lifters works amazingly well for those who can tolerate volume. But what about those who can’t tolerate intensity? Are they doomed?
Yes, the higher the volume, the greater the cortisol production. But other factors are involved. For example, the perceived effort of a set plays a huge role in cortisol production. A set very high on the rate of perceived effort (RPE) scale – one that feels close to your limit – will spike cortisol a lot more than a set that’s a 6/10 – one that you could likely do while having a conversation.
As such, it’s possible that 10 sets of 8 reps at an RPE of 7/10 could cause less of a cortisol increase than 5 sets of 8 at an RPE of 9/10. Especially if, in your case, intensity causes more cortisol release than volume.
Excess volume will be a problem for most natural lifters; others will need more volume to stimulate growth because they get just as much cortisol release from pushing themselves to the limit, even when they do a lower number of sets. The solution for them is to keep the RPE per set lower when using a higher volume approach.
- Higher intensity and lower volume are fine.
- Higher volume and lower intensity (lower RPE) are fine.
- The combination of higher volume and higher intensity is problematic for natural lifters.
The key for a natural lifter who’s a volume person is to maintain the proper level of perceived effort. Here’s what you should expect from each level:
- 10 – Maximal Effort: You couldn’t do anything more.
- 9.5 – Almost Limit Effort: You couldn’t have done more reps, but maybe you could’ve done a bit more weight.
- 9 – Extremely Hard: You could do 1 more rep.
- 8.5 – Very Hard: You could do 1 more rep.
- 8 – Hard: You could do 2 more reps.
- 7.5 – Fairly Hard: You could do 2 more reps for sure, maybe 3.
- 7 – Somewhat Demanding: You could do 3 more reps.
- 5-6 – Comfortable: You could do 4-6 more reps.
- 1-4 – Very Easy: Feels like a warm-up.
Now, few lifters can actually do a level 9.5 or 10 in a regular workout, even if they think that they do. Most people fake themselves out when training to failure. In reality, most are at a 9 when they hit “failure” during a regular workout. Those who can get to a true 9.5 and 10 regularly are those who respond the best to low-volume/high-intensity and who burn themselves out when they do high-volume work. Why? Because when they “pull back,” they still do an 8.5 or 9.
Just how hard should you push your sets when you’re natural and decide to use a “volume” approach? Go mostly with a 7-8 RPE most of the time, sometimes going up to an 8.5.
I use a wave-like approach like this:
- Week 1: RPE 7 (3 reps in the tank)
- Week 2: RPE 7.5 (2 reps in the tank, maybe 3)
- Week 3: RPE 8 (2 reps in the tank)
- Week 4: RPE 8.5 to 9 (1 rep in the tank, maybe 2)
Then we could do a deload at an RPE of 6 and start a new cycle. Or start right off with a new cycle since it starts at an RPE of around 7. This will minimize the stress response to your work sets, counterbalancing for the higher volume of work.
So how can it work? I mean, we aren’t pushing close to our limit most of the time. The key is tonnage progression.
Every week in the four-week block, you increase tonnage by adding more reps while using the same weight. Then, on the next block, you increase the weight and lower the starting reps, once again working your way up.
By using the same load for four weeks, you also decrease mental stress, which will help prevent excessive cortisol.
Let’s look at what a three-block program could look like:
Note: The percentages are only for illustration purposes. The RPE is more important than the actual percentage.
- Week 1: 4 sets of 8, RPE 7
- Week 2: 4 sets of 10, RPE 7.5
- Week 3: 4 sets of 11, RPE 8
- Week 4: 4 sets of 12, RPE 8.5-9
- Week 1: 5 sets of 6, RPE 7
- Week 2: 5 sets of 8, RPE 7.5
- Week 3: 5 sets of 9, RPE 8
- Week 4: 5 sets of 10, RPE 8.5-9
- Week 1: 7 sets of 4, RPE 7
- Week 2: 7 sets of 6, RPE 7.5
- Week 3: 7 sets of 7, RPE 8
- Week 4: 7 sets of 8, RPE 8.5-9
Let’s look at the tonnage of what one exercise could look like. Imagine a lifter with a 300-pound max bench press. The progression could look like this:
- Week 1: 4 sets of 8 (6240 pounds)
- Week 2: 4 sets of 10 (7800 pounds)
- Week 3: 4 sets of 11 (8580 pounds)
- Week 4: 4 sets of 12 (9360 pounds)
- Week 1: 5 sets of 6 (6450 pounds)
- Week 2: 5 sets of 8 (8600 pounds)
- Week 3: 5 sets of 9 (9675 pounds)
- Week 4: 5 sets of 10 (10750 pounds)
- Week 1: 7 sets of 4 (6580 pounds)
- Week 2: 7 sets of 6 (9870 pounds)
- Week 3: 7 sets of 7 (11515 pounds)
- Week 4: 7 sets of 8 (13160 pounds)
Then you’d deload for one to two weeks with 3 sets of 8-10 at an RPE of 6 to 6.5.
So, there’s an increase in tonnage from week to week as well as from block to block. Even if the sets aren’t maximal, this will still lead to significant muscle growth and strength gains.
For natural lifters, training frequency is more important than it is for enhanced lifters. For natties, the workout is responsible for 80-90% of the increase in protein synthesis that will lead to muscle growth. (Steroid users have drugs to help with that 24/7.)
This increase in protein synthesis lasts roughly 24-36 hours after the workout. So to maximize muscle growth, it’s best to hit every muscle more often. Three times a week is what natural lifters should shoot for, and twice a week is better than once.
Volume and frequency are inversely proportional. That’s why with this system, training three to four days a week is best. Here are two possible splits:
- Monday: Whole body
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Whole body
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Whole body
- Saturday: Abs/loaded carries
- Sunday: Off
- Monday: Whole body
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Whole body
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Lower body
- Saturday: Upper body
- Sunday: Off
It’s a high-frequency approach in that everything gets hit twice, but the overall frequency is lower. If you find recovery hard, you can even cut it down to three weekly sessions, cutting the Saturday session on option A.
When using this approach, exercise selection is somewhat of a catch-22. On the one hand, we want movements with a longer range of motion and the capacity to load more to reach a higher tonnage/workload. On the other hand, we don’t want too many exercises with an excessively high neurological demand.
The best way to do it? Have a harder neurological workout on Monday, a lower one on Wednesday, and a moderate one on Friday (and Saturday if you’ve picked option B).
A template could look like this:
|B.||Hip hinge variation (NOT deadlift from the floor)|
|A1.||Isolation/machine quad or glute exercise|
|A2.||Isolation/machine hamstring exercise|
|B1.||Isolation pec exercise|
|B2.||Isolation back exercise|
|C1.||Isolation triceps exercise|
|C2.||Isolation biceps exercise|
|A.||Machine compound quad-dominant exercise (leg press, hack squat, pendulum squat, etc.)|
|B.||Glutes or hamstrings, lower stress compound lift (hip thrust, reverse hyper, glute-ham raise, etc.)|
|C1.||Horizontal press machine (machine bench press, Smith machine bench, Smith machine incline, etc.)|
|C2.||Horizontal row machine or pulley|
|D1.||Vertical press machine|
|D2.||Vertical pulling machine or pulley|
Remember, the three main reasons cortisol is released during a workout are:
- The need for energy mobilization
- Getting close to your limit on a set (or several sets)
- Using loads that create psychological stress or a “fear” response
Basically, anytime you release adrenaline, you’ll have increased cortisol first.
With this volume approach, you rarely, if ever, reach a point where factors two and three come into play. So the main driver of cortisol will be the need to mobilize stored energy to fuel your efforts and maintain a stable blood sugar level.
This is why workout nutrition is important. Even without discussing amino acid transport and uptake by the muscles, carbs before and during the workout are at their most important during a higher volume session by decreasing the need to mobilize stored energy.
That’s why a product like Surge® Workout Fuel becomes so valuable on a program like this.
Can the plan work without it? Maybe. But the results will definitely be better with it.