Training Methods On Trial: German Volume Training

Does GVT Work As Claimed?

Twelve pounds of muscle in 12 weeks, plus big strength gains. Those were the claims about German Volume Training. Here’s what we know now.


Enter the Courtroom, German Volume Training

In this series, I investigate near-legendary training methods that make bold claims. Most come from a time when we knew less about muscle growth and strength than we know now. I’ll examine these methods through a modern lens and see if they’re as good as originally advertised.

In the first installment, we looked at the breathing squat approach. Today, we’ll put German Volume Training on trial.

What Is German Volume Training (GVT)?

The first thing that stands out with GVT is the loading scheme: 10 sets of 10 reps. Right off the bat, there’s something appealing about using a scheme with the same number of reps and sets, a lot like the 5x5 system.

But true GVT is not simply doing 10 sets of 10 reps. You have to use specific rest periods and load. Coach Poliquin, who popularized the approach, also recommended a specific tempo. However, I doubt that the originators of the approach (either Rolf Feser, German National Weightlifting coach, or Vince Gironda, the first bodybuilding “guru”) used a specific tempo.

GVT is 10x10, yes, but performed a specific way:

  • With the same weight/load for every set.
  • With a load that’s easy at first – around 60% of your 1RM, a load you could do for around 20 reps.
  • Using 60-90 seconds of rest between sets.

Note: There was eventually a spin-off program called Advanced German Volume Training which used lower reps per set, but this method is not the one on trial today.

The Claims

In the original German Volume Training article and later in the book, Coach Poliquin made the following claims:

  • GVT was so effective that German weightlifters were going up a full weight class during the “off-season” or early preparation period – around 10-12 pounds – in 12 weeks.
  • It was the cornerstone of Canadian weightlifting Olympic medalist Jacques Demers, known for his huge legs.
  • It will make you blast through strength plateaus.

Does GVT Hold Up?

First, let’s look at the marketing claims: using elite lifters as proof that it works.

Claim 1: Did Jacques Demers build his legs with GVT?

Verdict: It was one of the programs he used in his many years of training, but it did not stand out as the method that built his legs. In reality, Jacques was built to have huge legs. He was short and very big-boned (built to be thick) and even had short legs for his height. He was born to have dominant legs.

Explanation: I trained with Jacques for a year. We talked often, and I actually asked him point blank if 10x10 built his legs. His answer was, yeah, he did that once in a while, but not that often. He certainly didn’t believe that GVT was the approach that led to most of his gains.

I was also trained by Pierre Roy (Jacques’s coach at the time) and he never had me do over 6 reps on squats, much less 10 sets. Of course, coaches can change their approaches, but if 10x10 was as magical as claimed, he’d certainly have kept it in.

Claim 2: East German weightlifters would go up a full weight class by using GVT.

Verdict: They likely did go up a weight class (gain 10-12 pounds) in the off-season, but that’s something pretty much all weightlifters do. I doubt it had anything to do with GVT. It had more to do with eating more and, knowing the East German reputation, state-sponsored doping, which could be more aggressive in the off-season.

Explanation: Weightlifters, except for the super-heavies, all train at a heavier weight than their competitive weight class (at least at the highest levels) and make fairly drastic weight cuts for the big competitions.

Training at a heavier body weight allows them to eat more, recover better, and gain strength faster. Then they try to maintain that strength as much as possible while making weight. So, really, “going up a full weight class” might sound impressive in an article targeting people not aware of the game, but for a weightlifter (or powerlifter) it’s business as usual.

The weight gain has more to do with a rebound after an aggressive weight cut prior to competition. It’s kinda like training a hockey player who comes into training smaller and fatter from a season of not lifting seriously and eating mostly in restaurants, then claiming you helped him gain 15 pounds of muscle and lose 10 pounds of fat during his off-season training. A large part of it is simply regained muscle.

And don’t forget, the East Germans are known for their state-sponsored doping regimen. This regimen is a lot more aggressive during the off-season since they were not subject to out-of-competition testing back then.

Claim 3: The East Germans did GVT for 12 weeks.

Verdict: Maybe, but unlikely.

Explanation: East Germans periodized their training and almost never stuck to the same training block for more than 6 weeks, much less 12. While I don’t have access to actual East German programs from the 70s and 80s, I know the Soviet model that was the foundation for the German model. It didn’t include sticking to a single loading scheme for that long, especially not one as non-specific to weightlifting as 10x10 with a fairly light weight.

Not to mention, the super high volume of work on specific exercises could lead to excessive muscle damage that might, over time, lead to stagnation and regression.

Will GVT Work Well For Hypertrophy?

Is GVT as good as claimed for building size? In the original article and book, Coach Poliquin explains that GVT is super effective for growth:

“Gains of 10 pounds or more in 6 weeks are not uncommon, even in experienced lifters!”

The mechanism, according to the original article and book?

“The program works because it targets a group of motor units, exposing them to an extensive volume of repeated efforts, specifically, 10 sets of a single exercise. The body adapts to the extraordinary stress by hypertrophying the targeted fibers.”

Claim 4: Imposing a large volume of work on the same motor units/muscle fibers is a huge stimulus for growth.

Verdict: That’s just not how it works. As fibers receive a very high workload and become fatigued, new fibers are brought into play. And even if it worked the way the original article claims, it would lead to LESS hypertrophy because the growth-prone fast twitch fibers would never really receive any stimulus.

Explanation: The muscle fibers recruited during a movement are dependent on the level of effort required. The more effort the muscles need to produce, the more high-threshold fast-twitch fibers are recruited.

When the level of effort required is roughly 80% of your maximum, you’ll be recruiting a large proportion of the fast-twitch fibers. When you start your set of 10 reps with 60%, you’re not recruiting the fast-twitch fibers.

But here’s the dual problem with Coach Poliquin’s explanation: If, as he claimed, you keep using the same muscle fibers throughout your set (and from set to set) you will never recruit and stimulate the fast-twitch fibers. And these are the only ones with significant growth potential.

But lucky for us (and GVT), you do not, as Coach Poliquin claims, keep using the same fibers over and over. What happens is that with every repetition, you accumulate peripheral fatigue. This makes each rep harder and harder, requiring more and more effort. As the reps require more effort, you bring in new fibers, eventually bringing the fast-twitch fibers into play. Each rep causes a fatigue of around 2 percent.

The first set of GVT would look like this:

STARTING WEIGHT: 60%

  • Rep 1: 60% effort
  • Rep 2: 62% effort
  • Rep 3: 64% effort
  • Rep 4: 66% effort
  • Rep 5: 68% effort
  • Rep 6: 70% effort
  • Rep 7: 72% effort
  • Rep 8: 74% effort
  • Rep 9: 76% effort
  • Rep 10: 78% effort

Understanding this will allow us to evaluate the true value of GVT as a hypertrophy protocol.

Claim 5: GVT is superior to other loading schemes for hypertrophy.

Verdict: False. GVT will likely not be more effective than doing 4-5 sets of 10 reps or doing 3 sets of 10 reps of three different exercises.

Explanation: The key to hypertrophy is the number of effective reps done in your workout. An “effective rep” is a repetition that combines two elements:

  1. It recruits a large proportion of the growth-prone fast-twitch fibers.
  2. It imposes a high level of intramuscular tension on the fast-twitch fibers.

Fast-twitch fibers are brought into play when the level of effort is 80% of your capability. This can occur either by:

  • Using a load that’s at 80% of your 1RM on a lift or more
  • Accelerating as much as possible
  • Accumulating fatigue during the set so that the later reps of a set represent an effort level of at least 80%

That’s for fast-twitch recruitment. But, by itself, it’s not sufficient to produce growth. You need a high level of tension imposed on those fast-twitch fibers.

For example, plyometrics/jumps/throws/explosive movements do recruit most of the fast-twitch fibers but will NOT cause significant muscle growth. That’s because the faster a movement is, the less tension is imposed on the fibers.

When you’re moving fast, the actin-myosin bridges responsible for muscle contraction connect and disconnect really fast, meaning there’s never a high number of bridges at the same time.

  • Less cross bridges = less intramuscular tension (and more momentum = less tension too)
  • Less intramuscular tension = less growth

So you should go slow on purpose? Not so fast! Going slow on purpose will put more tension on the fibers, but it might not recruit the fast-twitch fibers. To get growth stimulation, you must reach a point where you’re moving slowly, despite trying to move fast or push hard.

What does this have to do with GVT? Well, our first set would stimulate pretty much zero growth:

STARTING WEIGHT: 60%

  • Rep 1: 60% effort
  • Rep 2: 62% effort
  • Rep 3: 64% effort
  • Rep 4: 66% effort
  • Rep 5: 68% effort
  • Rep 6: 70% effort
  • Rep 7: 72% effort
  • Rep 8: 74% effort
  • Rep 9: 76% effort
  • Rep 10: 78% effort

At no time in the set do you reach a point where the level of effort is at or above 80%. You never have a high level of fast-twitch fiber recruitment.

Now, that doesn’t mean GVT is worthless. With every set you do, you start from a slightly more fatigued point, especially considering the short rest periods used in GVT (60-90 seconds).

By set number 5 or 6, the level of effort is close to what it would be if you were using a 12RM. It might look like this around set 6:

  • Rep 1: 70% effort
  • Rep 2: 72% effort
  • Rep 3: 74% effort
  • Rep 4: 76% effort
  • Rep 5: 78% effort
  • Rep 6: 80% effort
  • Rep 7: 82% effort
  • Rep 8: 84% effort
  • Rep 9: 86% effort
  • Rep 10: 88% effort

That would give us 5 effective reps, similar to a set of 10 reps done at a 12RM weight. The end result? On paper, GVT would provide the same hypertrophy stimulus as 5 sets of 10 reps using a more challenging starting load. To be clear, 10x10 at 60% should work about the same as 5x10 at 70%.

This is something supported by two studies. The first one (Hackett) compared two training protocols for 12 weeks: 10x10 versus 5x10. (1) After 12 weeks, both groups gained the same amount of muscle mass. In fact, the 10x10 group had started to lose muscle from weeks 6 to 12, illustrating that the workload might be excessive for many natural lifters.

A second study (Amirthalingam) did a similar experiment: 5x10 versus 10x10, this time for six weeks. The 5x10 group gained more muscle and strength than the 10x10 group. There was still growth in the 10x10 protocol, but less than the 5x10 protocol.

The point? GVT works, but not any better than 5x10. There’s also the very real problem of imposing an excessive training stress which could lead to stagnation or even regression, not to mention a high level of central fatigue.

GVT and Central Fatigue

Central fatigue is a weakening of the excitatory drive from the nervous system to the muscles. The weaker the drive, the harder it is to recruit the growth-prone fast-twitch fibers. A high level of central fatigue will lead to lower force and power production. It will also make it harder to stimulate hypertrophy, even if you reach failure.

Central fatigue is caused by the accumulation of metabolites, like calcium ions, that are leaked with every significant muscle contraction (the more intense the contraction, the more ions are leaked), as well as afferent signals from the muscle, tendons, and fascia to the nervous system. Specifically, perceptions of discomfort (“the burn” or being in a hypoxic state), pain, or effort. The more you have, the more central fatigue builds up.

Furthermore, insufficient rest periods can also increase central fatigue by not allowing for the proper clearance of metabolites. That’s why most studies looking at the impact of rest intervals on hypertrophy found better results from resting three minutes between sets rather than one.

It’s another reason why GVT isn’t more effective (and can even be less effective) than a lower volume of work: the high central fatigue build-up from the high amount of work and short rest periods makes the later sets – those that should have the best growth potential – a lot less effective.

Also, the central fatigue will negatively impact the rest of the workout, and it might carry over to the next day’s session.

Plus, Poliquin’s GVT prescription calls for the A1/A2 approach, meaning you do GVT on two antagonist exercises (e.g., bench and row) together, alternating them. That will cause even more central fatigue.

Claim 6: GVT will allow you to blast through strength plateaus.

Verdict: Highly unlikely.

Explanation: Sure, muscle mass is correlated with strength POTENTIAL. A larger muscle has the potential to be stronger than a smaller muscle. As such, gaining muscle will raise the ceiling on how much weight you can lift. However, consider the following:

  1. GVT will not build more muscle than other protocols.
  2. The original GVT protocol never has you lift heavy weights. If you don’t practice lifting heavy weights, it’ll be much harder to increase your performance with near-maximal weights. First, because of psychological reasons. When you never go above 60% of your max on the bar, try putting 90% on there and see how it feels. It’ll feel like a ton and can easily psych you out. It will also trigger protective mechanisms that inhibit your force production.
  3. A high level of central fatigue is not conducive to strength performance.
  4. The CNS is as important, if not more so, than muscle size when it comes to strength performance. GVT completely neglects that component and might even detrain it.
  5. The high volume of low-load work could even lead to a loss of fast-twitch fibers, which will get converted to intermediate fibers. These intermediate fibers have better resistance to fatigue but less strength and power potential. A medium-to-long period of GVT could make your body better suited for resistance work but a lot less for strength.
  6. Both studies mentioned earlier found fewer strength gains from 10x10 versus 5x10. In the Hackett study, it wasn’t statistically significant, but it was still lower. In the Amirthalingam study, it was significant.

I never got stronger on my 1RMs when doing GVT – one of the reasons I stopped using it more than 15 years ago. Also, it bored me out of my mind.

My Final Verdict

GVT doesn’t live up to the hype. Its mythos was built on cool stories, an intellectually appealing structure, the belief that “more is better,” and a confident and convincing preacher.

Don’t get me wrong: it works. GVT will increase muscle mass, but it just doesn’t work any better than other less draining and less boring programs. With most people, it won’t even work as well as other plans.

We are adjourned.

References

References

  1. Hackett DA et al. Effects of a 12-Week Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy-A Pilot Study. Sports (Basel). 2018 Mar;6(1):7. PMC.
  2. Amirthalingam T et al. Effects of a Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Nov;31(11):3109-3119. PubMed.
11 Likes

I don’t read muscle magazines and did not try this until the “advanced version” came out on T-Nation way back when. I tried it once and had some good results in terms of hypertrophy and developing endurance. It made me slightly weaker and, as TC said, is not very exciting to do. I did not gain much weight but did look better. I cannot recall how fatiguing it was.

I’ve seen the later criticisms and the research claiming five by ten is more effective, which I believe. But that doesn’t make this ineffective, I see little harm in trying it once with a mix of other things. One thing it does do is the same as the Wendler deduction, “forces people to use weights they can actually handle”, which is definitely true if you can do ten by ten. It was cool you gained neurologically impetus to complete the set just when Poliquin said you would (eg the fourth set was easier).

I don’t train other people and judge things by their personal effect. Maybe part of the problem is the extravagance of the original claims. Though natural, I tend to respond well to total increased load, (Repssetsweight), and did so on this program too. It was more effective than many other things I tried, though optimized volume worked as well or better.

Poliquin was a borderline “carnival barker” with some of his fitness hacks. Guy was full of fecal matter all jakced up on PEDS. No surprise he dropped dead of a heart attack. 100 reps per body part are not good for your joints over the long term plus you’re most likely to die of boredom after 6 weeks

Great research and info CT.

3 Likes

You score BINGO again. Another long-overdue and much-needed critique of another “miracle” system which the drug-free average-gened might waste time and energy using.

Personally, I think the Kazakhstan protocol is where it’s at.

Essentially wave loading, a pretty good strength approach

Nah the Uzbekistan protocol works better

1 Like

Really? He scored? Anyone over 15 years of age could figure out this program is pure advertisement nonsense. How do I know??? Because I did this program…back in the 90s as a teenager! :rofl:

But seriously, if this program got posted here in a week as the featured article with a simple name change, tempo specifications, at least 75% of the readers (especially the ones that call another grown man “Coach” even when he isn’t their coach) would be starting it the next day.

Ah, I miss the good ol days when training ADD could only be fed by the monthly Flex subscription. At least people got 4 weeks instead of one day on a program so they could judge for themselves if its nonsense.

But, you know, the path never traveled…

1 Like

I’ve run Vince Gironda’s similar 8x8 program numerous times and never found it that great for adding mass as promised. Rather, I’ve found it very good for increasing work capacity, getting lean and increasing mental fortitude. Perhaps, I’m not eating enough.

1 Like

That is 100% the problem if one is not gaining mass.

Gains are not made out of exercise: they are made out of food. Exercise helps favorably distribute the amount of those gains toward muscle rather than fat, but if you take 2 trainees, have one eat a sumo wrestler diet and do no exercise and have one do all the training and eat like Christian Bale in “the Machinist”, the former is going to be the one who gains muscle.

2 Likes

A blast from the past. Back at t-nation after a break from here since I joined in 2009, and GVT is still here, so must have something going for it. Done it in the times of early T Mag Poliquin, got me in great shape returning to the more normal stuff. Do this 100 % with a dedicated training partner for six weeks or so, and you’ll be better off for it afterwards. Not a be all end all or any magical mystical thing, just something you’ll probably not regret spending six weeks to adding to a year-round plan.

Why are you here? We get it, your wisdom is beyond our years. On a related note, some guy called me “Chief” at the grocery store today…what a dork amirite? I’m not his chief! Pedantics sure are fun :wink:

2 Likes

Same here, but those reasons are why I did it, not for the mass.

1 Like

Another great article from CT! CT is probably the only guy to really break this down in a scientific/graphical way.

Thanks for the knowledge CT.

There is also what I call the “fat and flat stage”…

Being big strong but somewhat fat is, in a way, ok as you feel dominant strong and intimidating.

Being “smaller” but lean is ok because being lean looks darn good.

But in-between there is a phase where you just look smaller and not yet lean enough to look better. That’s the phase where most “big strong guys” fail.

2 Likes

"Because I did this program…back in the 90s as a teenager! "

Which is exactly my point: although you quickly realized it didn’t accomplish for you what it claimed it would, you nevertheless wasted time doing it, since you had no article like this one to explain why you didn’t need to bother trying it.

I agree with you that figuring “out that a program is advertisement nonsense” usually occurs within a couple years after whatever age someone begins weight training. You likely started training with the typical lack of information most of us begin with, so only by personal experience eventually recognized GVT as exaggerated, marketing nonsense.

But, you did try it, so did waste your time trying it, correct?

I’m age 66, been bodybuilding since 1971 when I began at age 15, back in the pre-internet, all-we-had-were-the-magazines-and-mail-order-publications-as-sources-of-information era. Like many of us do, then and today, I realized within a couple years that most of the “latest, cutting-edge information!” is hype, recycled-and-renamed methods, and self-promotional marketeering. I’ve observed the consistent success of marketeering hype for five decades.

So, yeah, I agree with you that beginners - - and even intermediates – who desperately want gains so will gullibly, naively grasp at “the newest, latest, most effective program/supplement/exercise/technique!” have and always will form the profit base for the iron industry. Even when articles like this exist to expose the hype, more than plenty of guys will believe the hype anyway. The fitness and iron industries bank on that fact.

But, the fact that many will ignore the articles like this one doesn’t mean EVERYONE will ignore them. Knowing myself at age 15, being one who even then researched training, nutrition, and physical culture history constantly wanting to understand the science and see the objective data if possible, I wish such articles had existed and were as easily available then to help me have avoided wasting time and effort with unnecessary programs and methods during my first two or three years of bodybuilding.

If you’d had an article like this available before you tried GVT, you probably wouldn’t have wasted your time with GVT, correct?

Articles such as this serve an important purpose. Nope, not everyone will read them, nor will all that even read them heed them…but plenty who otherwise would waste time on overhyped programs and methods will read them, heed them, and avoid wasting time. You might have been among those who did read and did heed.

So, I reiterate, BINGO. This is another valuable article toward helping beginners and the otherwise-uninformed, -misinformed, and/or -inexperienced avoid wasting their time and efforts.

Exactly.

I’m age 66, been bodybuilding since age 15. As a PED-free, I run an annual schedule for bodyfat percentage, which puts me at about 11-12% BF during the warm-weather, shirtless seasons of May 1 through September 30 of each year.

From October 1 through December 31, I gain as many as fifteen pounds on my 5’8" light-boned frame. (My wife of 42 years married, my three daughters, and even my three sons are all great cooks and bakers, so I use those “pie months” to indulge my gluttonous nature.)

When I cut calories beginning each January 1, and then slowwwwly shed the added bodyfat, it’s always been that point when I’ve shed about 10 of those added 15 or so pounds that I cringe when I look in a mirror. The first time it happened manyyyyy years ago, I recall panicking and being tempted to quit my calorie cut.

But, as I learned, continuing to shed bodyfat to get past that “smaller but still smooth” phase inevitably yields visible definition/separation and finally achieves that “cut-giving-the-illusion-of-size” look when the last of those 15 pounds is shed by May 1.