by Mike Arnold
“The Century long struggle for supremacy between High and Low Volume Training”. The old saying “The more things change, the more they stay the same” is as true in bodybuilding as it is anywhere, particularly when it comes to training. Despite the passage of nearly 100 years, the struggle for dominance between the various training philosophies remains as elusive as ever, with each method laying claim to its fair share of devotees. Although virtually dozens of noteworthy training systems have been developed over the years, most tend to gravitate towards either a high or low volume approach. In fact, no other variable associated with the training experience has provoked such strong disagreement or inspired such spirited debate. For a time, these two schools of thought were so opposed to each other that adopting one meant rejecting the other, automatically consigning the individual to the faction of his choosing without room for compromise.
In order to understand how we arrived at this juncture, we must look back to the very beginning of the sport; a time when bodybuilding was nothing more than a sideshow to the vastly more popular sport known as Weightlifting. In those days, bodybuilding competitions were not held in their own venue, nor were they sanctioned by the IFBB. There was no prize money involved and any prestige associated with these events was miniscule by comparison. As decided by the AAU (the only sanctioning body at the time), bodybuilding competitions were to be held in strict conjunction with, but secondary to weightlifting competitions. Only after the conclusion of the main event were the bodybuilders allowed to take the stage, with the majority of the participants being crossovers from weightlifting.
With a large number of our original bodybuilders coming from a weightlifting background and with strongmen being the only other example of men who used weights to elicit bodily change, it was only natural for bodybuilders to embrace the training methodologies associated with these sports. For this reason, early bodybuilding training revolved around a very basic, low volume approach, with most bodybuilders electing to perform 3 full-body workouts per week. 1-2 exercises per bodypart was the norm, with 2-3 rotations (i.e. circuit training) considered standard. For the most part, things continued this way until Joe Weider hit the scene in the 1940’s. Advocating a high-set approach, Joe was able to influence large numbers of people through his magazine business, which at the time was the only magazine that focused solely on bodybuilding. The ever-growing number of top-ranked professional bodybuilders which graced the pages of his publication, as well as supposed in-print admissions from these same pros extolling the superiority of high-volume training, all served to lend credibility to the multi-set approach.
As a result, the popularity of high-volume training skyrocketed, reaching its peak in the 1970’s. A typical training session involved 20-30 sets per bodypart, with each bodypart being worked 2-3X per week, depending on whether it was off-season or pre-contest. By this point, the dominance of high volume training was attributable to more than just clever marketing and written testimony, as evidence of its effectiveness began to present itself in the form of flesh & blood examples such as Sergio Oliva, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill pearl. Possessing an amount of muscle mass never before seen on a human being, these men were the perfect promotional tool for high volume training.
However, this all changed with the arrival of Arthur Jones, who would challenge the status quo with a new method of training appropriately termed High Intensity Training, or H.I.T. Jones proposed that muscle hypertrophy was stimulated primarily by intensity of effort, rather than duration of effort. Unlike the high volume advocates, who neglected to back-up their position from a scientific standpoint, Jones attempted to utilize both science and logic to justify his teachings, while conducting multiple “experiments” designed to validate his unique approach.
The most notable of these was the Colorado Experiment, involving a young Mr. America winner by the name of Casey Viator. Conducted in 1973 at the University of Colorado and while under the tutelage of Arthur Jones himself, Casey was said to have gained 63 pounds of lean mass within a 28 day period using single-set training to failure. Documentation, including intermittent bodyweight updates and before & after photos of Casey’s amazing improvements, were presented as proof of the superiority of High Intensity Training. While most acknowledge the timeline for the transformation, as well as the transformation itself, certain key facts were omitted from the final report, which when left undisclosed are sure to cause the observer to form a skewed perception of what actually occurred.
In Casey’s own words “I had an accident and had gotten gangrene in my hand and had to quit training for six months. My weight went down to 190. Mr. Jones said, “Go down. See how far you can get”. I went down to 168. I was really skinny. I was on 500 calories a day.” It was in this state; severely malnourished and over 50 pounds below his previous best weight that Jones decided to have Casey begin the Colorado Experiment. While at the University, Casey remarks that “they caged me, force fed me, and trained me like an animal.” Obviously, anyone under such circumstances would have gained a tremendous amount of muscle mass, regardless of what training program was used. Still, results of the now legendary Colorado Experiment spread like wildfire, circulating throughout all four corners of the bodybuilding community.
Although Jones was successful in bringing about greater awareness of the importance of intensity in the muscle growth process, high-volume training remained by far the most popular training style in use at that time. Roughly 5 more years would pass before high-volume training met its next legitimate challenger, which came in the form of an uncrowned Mr. Olympia. Mike Mentzer was a die-hard, low-volume, high-intensity trainer who coined the term “Heavy Duty” to describe his own particular version of H.I.T. Rather than employ deceptive antics in his quest to validate his methods, Mike put his nose to the grindstone and built a physique worthy of a perfect score at the 1979 Mr. Olympia, beating Frank Zane in the pre-judging (many believe this was Frank’s best-ever showing), but losing the show after being defeated in the posing round.
Mike would go on to form a very successful and relatively lucrative personal training/consultation business, charging as much as $200/hour for his services. Throughout the “1980’s, Mike and others continued to expound on the advantages of low-volume, high intensity training through magazines, books, seminars, personalized instruction, and various mail order courses. Never the less, high-volume training maintained its position as the premiere training system all throughout the 1980’s, with the overwhelming majority of gym goers electing to include some form of volume training within their program.
It is difficult to dismiss just how much of an effect Arnold had on the bodybuilding community as a whole, particularly when it came to training. As the most popular bodybuilder in the world for over 2 decades and with a pre-retirement physique that was considered by many to be the best ever seen even a full decade after his exit from the sport (with the sole exception of Lee Haney), Arnold was looked up to more than any other bodybuilder on the planet. As an avid proponent of high-volume, high-frequency training, many adopted a similar mind-set out of allegiance to their bodybuilding idol. They reasoned “If it was good enough for Arnold, then it is good enough for me”.
However, in just a few short years the bodybuilding world would be rocked to its core. Conventional training would be turned on its head and from that moment forward, the way bodybuilders trained would be forever altered. This change can be traced back to a singular moment in time, when the true potential of low-volume, lower-frequency training was revealed in all its glory to the unsuspecting masses. The year was 1993 and the place was a dirty underground gym in Birmingham, England. At just 6 weeks out from the Mr. Olympia contest, Dorian Yates would display a level of development never before witnessed by the bodybuilding world. To make a long story short, pictures were taken, pictures were published, and minds were blown. So far beyond was Dorian’s physique from the rest of the pack that even today, those famous black & white photos are still held up as an example of mass and condition par excellence. In short order, bodybuilders began to reduce both their volume and frequency of training, while putting greater effort into a more limited number of sets.
Within just a couple of years we began to see professional bodybuilders pack on extraordinary amounts of muscle mass, with many approaching, and a few even exceeding the standard for size that Dorian set that day in Birmingham, confirming the effectiveness of this new way of training. During the 6 years of Dorian’s reign, it seemed as if everyone, to one degree or another, was influenced by Dorian’s training philosophy. No longer was the high volume, high frequency approach blindly accepted as the most effective way to train. Instead, bodybuilders began to think about what they were doing both in and out of the gym and how it affected their progress. It was now a thinking man’s game, with bodybuilders demanding explanations rather than relying blind faith, and although many individuals played a role in making this revolution a reality, it was Dorian who ultimately brought it to fruition.
Fast forward to the year 1998. Dorian was retired, Ronnie had assumed the throne and changes were once again on the horizon. Although many of the lessons learned during Dorian’s Olympia winning years remained a permanent fixture of training law, there was one bodybuilder in particular who caused everyone to re-question what they had been taught over the previous decade. Displaying a level of development that eclipsed even Dorian, Ronnie Coleman proved that there was more than one way to build freakish’ amounts of muscle mass. Training each bodypart twice weekly with multiple sets over a 6 day period, Ronnie was a throwback to a bygone era, with a workout routine that had more in common with Arnold than his contemporaries.
Anytime a bodybuilder sets a new standard in any area, whether it is muscle mass, conditioning, or posing & presentation, lesser bodybuilders have a natural tendency to begin patterning themselves after the more successful individual. We saw this take place with each successive Olympia champion and now it was Ronnie’s turn to reinvent the wheel. Terms such as “lightweight”, “yeah, buddy”, and “nothin’ but a peanut” were thrown around gyms all over the country, while heavy-ass squats and deads became an absolute prerequisite for being able to claim hardcore status.
Just a few years later, we saw yet another example of high-volume training in action when Jay Cutler ascended Mount Olympus. Often performing even more sets per bodypart than Ronnie, but training each bodypart only once every 7 days, Cutler was “pump” trainer who moved quickly during his workouts, focusing on exhausting the muscle through metabolic fatigue. Despite taking very few sets to muscular failure, Jay was still able to become one of the most massive bodybuilders of all time. However, lest you think that Jay was a “finesse” trainer who utilized light weights, think again. Jay was extremely strong, having been filmed incline pressing 405X 14 just weeks before his 2009 Olympia. Squats with up to 675 lb squats, 405 lb barbell rows, and other similarly heavy lifts were all part of the typical Cutler training experience.
Between Dorian, Coleman, and Cutler, their training styles could not have been more different, yet all three of these men can claim to be among the largest bodybuilders of all time. When watching their workouts, it becomes apparent that they all shared one common trait—they were all extremely strong, pushing up poundages that few bodybuilders will ever come close to approaching. So, regardless of which training style one chooses to utilize, it appears that progressive resistance remains the single most important component in building maximum mass.
These days the bodybuilding community enjoys a relatively even mix of training styles, with each individual deciding for himself what is best depending on his current circumstances. With science continuing to reveal new and exciting information pertaining to the muscle growth process, it has become clear that no single training system ever had all the answers, as both high and low volume routines work to stimulate growth through both similar and dissimilar mechanisms. In fact, limiting oneself to a single training methodology may be more likely to hold back one’s progress rather than help it. For this reason, bodybuilders have become less dogmatic in their training viewpoints, instead seeking to find the value within each system/method available.