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The best high-volume training plan for natural bodybuilders More training, more growth

Der beste hochvolumige Trainingsplan für natural Bodybuilder Mehr Training, mehr Wachstum

In Olympic weightlifting, the word "tonnage" is used to describe how much total weight was moved during the training session. We also refer to this as "work volume". Tonnage is important, but when it comes to hypertrophy in a natural bodybuilder, there is an optimal dose.

If a natural bodybuilder overdoes it with volume, he will overload his nervous system or cause his cortisol levels to skyrocket - both of which will stall his gains. However, I have used a system for natural bodybuilders that utilizes high volume.

Before we get to the details, let's take a look at what we're talking about and what our bodies do.

4 types of exercisers

Different people are stimulated by different types of training:

1 - The Volume Type

These are exercisers who naturally prefer to perform a larger number of sets in order to stimulate their muscles. They do not usually push their sets to their limits in order to be able to complete the planned volume. If you are familiar with the various experts, Dr. Mike Israetel, Pat Davidson and John Meadows fall into this category. For them, a gradual increase in volume over time is the primary driver of hypertrophy.

2 - The intensity type

These are exercisers who prefer to do fewer work sets, but give their all on those sets and go to muscle failure (or very close to muscle failure) or beyond. Dr. Scott Stevenson, Dorian Yates and Mike Mentzer are good examples of this.

3 - The load type

These exercisers are mainly concerned with increasing the weight on the bar. We find this type more often among powerlifters or they refer to themselves as powerbuilders. There is a wide range of approaches in this category, ranging from linear progression / progressive overload to the conjugate model. However, these approaches have one thing in common: strength is the primary goal.

4 - The process type

This trainer is all about precision. Perfecting technique, keeping records of everything, analyzing data and a good program that delivers results are the things these people train for. They are all about the details, which doesn't often lead to them getting in their own way by constantly analyzing.

We don't have many of these exercisers among bodybuilders and strength athletes. Sure, many exercisers love to talk shop about technique and data, but it's not their top priority. Note: This type is common among the keyboard heroes on the internet who love to argue about everything and need studies to try something new.

When hypertrophy is the main goal

Among those who are primarily interested in muscle gains, we have primarily the volume and the intensity followers.

The intensity followers tend to literally kill themselves in the gym and they get worse results when they increase volume as they can't dial down their efforts. For them, it's all or nothing. And if they force themselves to go down a gear, they are not satisfied and it kills their motivation.

Volume followers often burn out during a high-intensity program due to the high levels of adrenaline and cortisol these programs produce. They are often unable to achieve the necessary level of intensity to make a low volume program work - and even when it does work, the low volume is unsatisfying and kills their motivation.

Cortisol - the number one enemy

Cortisol is the enemy of the natural bodybuilder trying to get muscular. It can limit muscle growth if its levels are chronically elevated.

  • It can make protein breakdown more extensive than protein synthesis.
  • It can increase myostatin levels (which inhibits muscle growth).
  • It can inhibit the immune system (repair of muscle damage is driven by the immune system ).
  • It reduces the transport of nutrients to the muscles

There is a strong link between training volume and cortisol production. One of the functions of cortisol during exercise is to mobilize stored energy so that you have enough fuel for your training session. The higher your training volume, the more energy you need, which means that more cortisol is released.

It's understandable that this is one of the reasons why results will decrease when you reach a certain amount of volume per training session.

But intensity (and load) can also increase cortisol levels. Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone, but "readiness hormone" would be more accurate. Basically, the purpose of cortisol is to get you physically and mentally in a state where you are able to fight or flee.

Cortisol mobilizes energy so you don't run out of energy in the middle of a fight, but it also increases mental alertness and focus, blood flow (to carry oxygen to the muscles) and contractile muscle strength. The latter three are directly based on an increase in adrenaline levels. Let's look at this in more detail.

How cortisol increases adrenaline levels

Cortisol increases adrenaline levels by increasing the amount of enzymes responsible for converting noradrenaline into adrenaline (phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase). The more attention and drive a situation requires, the more adrenaline your body will produce, which means that cortisol levels will rise.

In training, this means that the more threatening a set is or the closer you get to the point of muscle failure, the more adrenaline/cortisol will be released. A set to muscle failure will increase adrenaline levels more than a set that you finish 3 to 4 repetitions before reaching muscle failure. A maximal attempt will also result in a sharp increase in adrenaline/cortisol levels.

Volume, intensity (training to muscle failure and beyond) and maximum weights can all increase cortisol levels. Depending on how your brain is wired, one of these will have a stronger effect than the others.

I know people who burn out quickly on high-intensity, low-volume training a la Dorian Yates, but at the same time respond well to and feel comfortable with high-volume training. For many others, it's the other way around.

My "best training program for natural bodybuilders" works amazingly well for those who do well with volume. But what about those who can't handle intensity? Are they doomed?

Volume training for natural bodybuilders

Yes, the higher the volume, the higher the cortisol production. However, other factors are also involved. For example, the perceived exertion (PRE) of a set plays an important role in cortisol production. A set with a very high rate of perceived exertion - a set that feels close to the limit - will increase your cortisol levels more than a set that represents a 6 out of 10 on this scale - a set where you could still entertain yourself on the side.

For this reason, it is possible that 10 sets of 8 repetitions with a perceived exertion of 7 out of 10 will result in a weaker cortisol release than 5 sets of 8 repetitions with a perceived exertion of 9 out of 10. This is especially true when intensity causes a greater release of cortisol than volume.

Excessive volume will be a problem for most natural bodybuilders, but others need more volume to stimulate muscle growth as they release the same amount of cortisol when they push themselves to their limits - even if they perform a lower number of sets. The solution for these exercisers is to keep the perceived effort per set lower when using a higher volume approach.

Higher intensity and lower volume is fine.

Higher volume and lower intensity (lower perceived exertion) is fine.

It is the combination of higher volume and higher intensity that is problematic for natural bodybuilders.

Evaluate the perceived exertion

The key for a natural bodybuilder who is a volume guy is to maintain the right level of perceived exertion. Here's what you should expect from each level:

Rate of perceived exertion in training activities:

  • PRE 10: Maximum effort - you couldn't have done more
  • PRE 9.5 Near max effort - you couldn't have done more reps, but could have used a little more weight
  • PRE 9 Extremely heavy - You could have done one more repetition
  • PRE 8 Heavy - You could have done 2 more repetitions
  • PRE 7.5 Quite heavy - You could have done 2 or maybe 3 more repetitions
  • PRE 7 Challenging - You would have done 3 more repetitions
  • PRE 5-6 Comfortable - You would have done 4 to 6 more repetitions
  • PRE 1-4 Very easy - It feels like a warm-up

Few exercisers can train at a level of 9.5 to 10 every session - even if they think they can. Most people are fooling themselves if they think they are training to muscle failure. In reality, most only reach a level of 9 when they supposedly reach the point of muscle failure.

Those who can really reach a level of 9.5 to 10 are the ones who respond best to high-intensity, low-volume training - and they are also the ones who burn themselves out even with high-volume training. Why? Even when they shift down a gear, they still train at a level of 8.5 to 9.

How far should you go with your sets if you are a natural bodybuilder and opt for a volume approach? Use a level of 7 to 8 on the perceived exertion scale most of the time, although you can sometimes go as high as 8.5.

I usually use an undulating approach like this:

  • Week 1: Level 7 (3 reps in reserve)
  • Week 2: Level 7.5 (2 or maybe 3 reps in reserve)
  • Week 3: Level 8 (2 reps in reserve)
  • Week 4: Level 8.5 (1 or maybe 2 reps in reserve)

This could be followed by an unload week with a perceived exertion of 6 before starting a new cycle. Or you could go straight into a new cycle as this one starts with a perceived exertion of 7. This will reduce the stress response to your work sets and balance out the high volume of work.

How can this work? After all, we don't push ourselves to our limits most of the time. The key is the progression of tonnage.

During each week in the four-week block, you increase the tonnage by performing more reps while using the same weight. In the next block, you increase the weight and reduce the starting reps and work your way up again.

By using the same weight for four weeks, you can significantly reduce mental stress, which helps prevent excessive cortisol production.

Let's take a look at what a three block program might look like;

Example using a percentage of your 1RM:

Note: the percentages are for illustrative purposes only. While they are a useful starting point, the level of perceived exertion is more important than the actual percentage.

Block 1 - 65% of the 1RM

  • 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

Block 2 - 70-72.5% of the 1RM

  • 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

Block 3 - 75-77.5% of the 1RM

  • 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

Unloading week

Example using a specific weight:

Let's look at what tonnage might look like on an exercise. Imagine an exerciser with a 300 pound max weight on the bench press. The progression could look like this:

Block 1 - 195 pounds

  • 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)

Block 2 - 215 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)

Block 3 - 235 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)

This was followed by one or 2 unloading weeks with 3 sets of 8-10 reps with a perceived exertion of 6-6.5.

As you can see, there is an increase in tonnage from week to week and from block to block. Even if the sets are not maximal, this will lead to significant adaptation (muscle and strength gains).

How often should you train when using this approach?

For natural bodybuilders, training frequency is more important than for chemically assisted bodybuilders. For naturals, the training session is responsible for 80 to 90% of the increase in protein synthesis that leads to muscle growth. Steroid users have drugs that support them around the clock.

This increase in protein synthesis continues for about 24 to 36 hours after training. So to maximize growth, it's best to train each muscle more often. Natural bodybuilders should aim for three times a week, and twice a week is better than once.

In my original "best training plan for natural bodybuilders" there are 6 training sessions per week and the body is divided into pulling and pushing muscles. So each muscle is trained three times a week.

This works quite well due to the low volume of the training sessions (4 work sets per muscle and a total of 10 to 12 total work sets per training session). However, with a higher volume approach, you will not be able to recover from 6 training sessions per week.

Volume and frequency are inversely proportional to each other, so 3 to 4 days per week is best for this system.

Here are 2 possible splits:

Option A

  • Monday: Full body workout
  • Tuesday: No training
  • Wednesday: Full body training
  • Thursday: No training
  • Friday: Full body workout
  • Saturday: Abdominal muscles / Loaded Carries
  • Sunday: No training

Option B

  • Monday: Full body workout
  • Tuesday: Free workout
  • Wednesday: Full body workout
  • Thursday: No training
  • Friday: Lower body
  • Saturday: Upper body
  • Sunday: No training

This is a high-frequency approach, as each muscle group is trained three times a week, but the overall frequency is lower. If you still find it difficult to recover, you can reduce the total to 3 training sessions per week and omit the Saturday training session in option A.

The exercises

If you use this approach, the choice of exercises can be a little tricky. On the one hand, we want exercises with a greater range of motion and the capacity to use more weight to achieve a higher tonnage/workload. On the other hand, we don't want too many exercises with excessively high neurological demands.

The best way to achieve this is to perform a neurologically harder session on Monday, a less hard one on Wednesday and a moderate one on Friday (and Saturday if you have chosen option B).

A template could look like this:

Training session 1

  • One squat variation
  • One hip hinge exercise (NO deadlifts from the floor)
  • C1. horizontal press
  • C2. horizontal pull
  • D1. vertical push
  • D2. vertical pull

Training session 2

  • A1. Isolation/machine exercise for quadriceps or gluteus
  • A2. Isolation/machine exercise for the leg flexors
  • B1. Isolation exercise for the chest muscles
  • B2. Isolation exercise for the back
  • C1. Isolation exercise for the triceps
  • C2. Isolation exercise for the biceps

Training session 3

  • Quadriceps dominant machine exercise (leg presses, Hackenschidt squats, pendulum squats, etc.)
  • Gluteus or leg flexor multi-joint exercise (hip thrust, reverse hyper, glute ham raise, etc.)
  • C1. Horizontal press on the machine (bench press on the machine, bench press on the multi press, incline bench press on the multi press, etc.)
  • C2. Horizontal rowing on the machine or cable pulley
  • D1. Vertical press on the machine
  • D2. Vertical pull on the machine or cable pulley

Can I change these exercises from block to block?

A lot of exercisers need variety in their training. And since variety in this approach can't come from the load pattern or the training methods, it has to come from the exercise selection. So can we change the exercises from block to block?

Honestly, the program should work better if you keep using the same exercises (at least on day 1 and ideally on day 3). But this is mainly theoretically true. If you lose motivation after 5 weeks because you're bored, then your training focus will wane and your results will suffer. If you need more variety, then you could indeed achieve better results by making a few changes.

How could I change the exercises?

Need more variety? Here's a quick guide from "theoretically best" to "theoretically worst".


Keep the same exercises for all workouts throughout the 12 weeks of the program.


Keep the same exercises for all workouts except day 2 (easier day) for the entire 12 weeks of the program. Changing the exercises on this day will not make a big difference.


Keep the same exercises on day 1. You can make any changes you want from block to block on day 2. On day 3 (and 4 if you chose the 4 training day option) you can change the exercises provided you choose an exercise where the range of motion is similar and the load is similar or greater than the previous block.

Not ideal, but it can work if you need a lot of variety

Change the exercises from block to block every day. However, respect the same rules for multi-joint exercises as above: similar range of motion and the same or higher load. Switching from front squats to classic squats, for example, is acceptable.


Randomly changing exercises from block to block simply because you feel like it. However, regardless of the option you choose (even if you change exercises from session to session) you should ensure that you keep some exercises for the duration of the block.

Volume requires the right training nutrition

The three main reasons for cortisol release during exercise are:

  • The need for energy mobilization
  • Pushing to the limit on one or more sets
  • The use of weights that cause psychological stress or a 'fear response'

Basically, every time you release adrenaline, you need to release cortisol first.

With this volume approach, you rarely reach a point where point 2 and point 3 come into play. The primary driver for cortisol release will be the need to mobilize stored energy to provide sufficient energy for exercise and maintain stable blood glucose levels.

This is the reason why training nutrition is crucial. Even without addressing amino acid transport and uptake by the muscles, carbohydrates before and during exercise are of paramount importance in high-volume training sessions as they reduce the need for mobilization of stored energy.

Theory vs. real life

When it comes to making gains, training hard with razor-sharp focus is most important. And to do this for weeks and months at a time, you need to keep your motivation high. And if your program isn't what you want, then even if it's the absolute best way to train, you'll only get sub-optimal results.

If you are a volume guy, then the theoretically best approach (lower volume, higher intensity, higher frequency) will give you worse results in the long run. But that doesn't make traditional high volume training any better.

This plan is for those who prefer a higher volume of training. It presents a way to do this while minimizing the potential problems. Of course, there is always more than one way to solve a problem. It's always a question of finding out what works best for you.


By Christian Thibaudeau

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