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Power-Volume Training

The Ultimate Strength-and-Power Program

How much did I do last month when we maxed out?’ asked Rusty as he slid onto the bench and under the bar.
‘Ya got 265 if I’m not mistaken,’ I said.
‘Yer not.’ Richard, my other workout partner, was thumbing through our training journal.
‘And how much we got on the bar now?’ asked Rusty, looking up at me.
‘I just loaded it to 275.’
‘Hope I can get it.’
‘You can’no problem.’

Rusty sat up, chalked his hands and then lay back on the bench again. He gripped the bar with his pinkies on the power rings, took two deep breaths, unracked it and blasted the weight up as if it was just another warmup. ‘Wow, that felt light,’ he said.
‘Not bad for a guy who was only doing 220 a month ago,’ I replied.
‘How many more singles we gonna do?’ Richard asked.
‘Until we hit our max.’

Over the next 20 minutes Rusty proceeded to pump out several progressively heavier singles until he hit his max at 325 pounds, a 105-pound increase in only two months. He tried 330 but just couldn’t lock it out. ‘I’d never have thought I’d be so strong today,’ he said as we all took turns doing our assistance work, dumbbell floor presses. ‘You’d be surprised what the right training would do for ya.’ ‘Not anymore, I wouldn’t,’ he said.

That story is 100 percent true. It happened just last week at about the time I was sitting down to write this article. It was the culmination of several years of training and experimentation plus a lot of reading of the research. While Rusty is a relative beginner’you always make the best improvements when you first start out’his gains are still very impressive.

Here’s a rundown of the routine he used to increase his bench press so dramatically, starting with an explanation of why this type of training works.

Methods of Building Greater Strength

In powerlifting and Olympic-lifting circles there are two schools of thought regarding how to increase strength in any of the various lifts. You can either dramatically up the volume on a particular lift, or you can discover your weak points and work to eliminate them. Both methods work, but I believe the first is the best way for beginners to grow. Advanced lifters usually understand what their weak points are and how to go about improving them.

The Russians are prime examples of lifters who spend dramatically increased time and effort on a lift to make it stronger. It’s not uncommon for Russian lifters to train all of their lifts three to six times a week and drop most of their assistance work.

Louie Simmons and the members of his Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio, are prime examples of people who subscribe to the second school of thought’although they still use a lot of volume.

They rarely train heavy on the classic powerlifts. Instead, they do maximum efforts on assistance lifts to improve their weak points on the classic lifts.

Two of the best routines I ever used were the Westside Barbell approach and Bill Starr’s system. Bill’s method involved frequent training on all the basic lifts, while Simmons’ approach requires infrequent training using a vast number of lifts. They both had their shortcomings. With Starr’s approach I found myself growing a lot of muscle and getting stronger at first, but the growth rate began getting slower. My progress always stalled about six weeks into the program, at which point I’d switch to another style of workout before going back to the Starr system. With the Westside approach I got stronger on the different lifts I trained, and I got a whole hell of a lot faster, but classic lifts’the ones I was trying to increase’just didn’t go up that much. On the other hand, I gained a good deal of muscle.

Power-Volume training takes advantage of both styles, giving you a lot of variety plus plenty of work on the lift you’re trying to improve. It’s a blending of Bill Starr’s and Louie Simmons’ systems, and it works. ALL Strength Solutions

In order to be effective, a strength routine must incorporate several types of training that, in essence, strengthen the central nervous system. Power-Volume training incorporates all of them.

1) Dynamic lifting
2) Very heavy training (max singles, doubles or triples, never more than five reps)
3) Partial reps
4) Frequent training

Dynamic Lifting

One of the best innovations of recent years is dynamic reps. In dynamic training your goal is to move the bar’or your body in some instances’as fast as possible for a limited number of reps and a relatively high number of sets. Too many reps and you start to slow down; too few sets and you don’t get the CNS benefit or the benefit of learning the groove.

For targeting each lift, there are several exercises best suited for explosive reps, as they’re called. Three exercises are good for improving the bench press. The first two involve plyometric training: Smith-machine ballistic bench presses and plyometric pushups. On the Smith-machine ballistic benches you actually throw the weight out of your hands at the top and then catch it as it comes down. On plyometric pushups your body leaves the ground instead of the bar. Both exercises, while beneficial, are best used as assistance sets in a Power-Volume program.

The best exercise for improving your bench press is flat-bench presses performed with bands. Basically, bands help prevent deceleration in dynamic training; that is, they fight the body’s tendency to slow the bar at the top of the movement. When you use bands, the tension at the bottom of the exercise is the same as it is when you don’t; however, with bands tension increases as you press upward, the most tension being at the top.

Bands are also very good for squatting, and you can use them on regular squats done with various stances as well as box squats and bottom-position squats.

You must perform some type of dynamic-rep training in order to prevent your body from getting slow, which it will do if you start performing a lot of heavy training without taking that precaution.

Heavy Training

There’s no way you’re going to become superhumanly strong and experience strength gains quickly without doing a heavy session every week. And when I say heavy, I mean rarely more than three reps, with loads in the 90-to-100 percent range.

The problem with constantly training that heavily on the same exercise is that your body adjusts to the lift, and after a few weeks your lift begins to regress. You can solve the problem by performing maximum-effort training, rotating your exercises every three weeks at least. The more advanced you are, the more frequently you need to rotate the exercises.

Partial Reps

You’ll also need to do some type of partial reps at least once every three weeks. Partials get you used to holding heavy weights at arm’s length or at the top of the lift, and they accustom your body to a much heavier load than it’s used to lifting. You can use partial reps on assistance exercises and on one of the core exercises you rotate on your heavy days.

Frequent Performance of Lifts

When you perform a lift at least twice a week’although three to four times per week often works better’you take advantage of something called synaptic facilitation. Doing a lift frequently causes the synaptic connections in your muscles to learn faster, increasing your strength on the lift much more quickly. Russian strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline refers to it as ‘greasing your groove.’ Call it what you want, you must perform each lift frequently to take advantage of it.

Power-Volume Rules

The parameters of this system aren’t set in stone, for the most part. You can change them to suit your needs and your training level, but there are a few rules you absolutely must observe:

1) Train each lift at least three days a week on a heavy/light/medium program. Once you become an advanced lifter, you can up it to four days a week, adding a second light day. 2) Keep track of your workload on each lift; that is, keep a log and calculate your total poundage lifted. If you don’t do that and you aren’t used to the system, it’s very easy to overtrain by doing too much work on the light and medium days. The Russians are also prime examples of the importance of calculating workload. They use essentially the same system that I’m discussing here.

3) The first workout day of the week is your heavy day, when you work up to a max of five, three or one on a particular exercise’or on more than one exercise if you’re doing a full-body workout. The more advanced you are, the more frequently you need to rotate exercises and the more exercises you need to have in your arsenal. Most trainees will max out on the exercises they’re trying to increase every five or six weeks. The exceptions are very advanced trainees who have made the best gains throughout their lifting careers by training almost exclusively on a particular lift or lifts. They’d do better to alternate cycling rep ranges with cycling exercises.

4) The second day of the week is your light day, when you use 35-to-45 percent of your maximum weight on an exercise or exercises for eight sets of three reps; that is, when you use bands. If you lift sans bands, increase the weight to around 50 percent. It doesn’t matter how sore you are from your first workout. Just train.

5) The third workout is your medium day, when you use around 70 percent of max for 10 sets of 12 reps. If you’re using bands, you can use a little less weight. Once you’ve done the program for some time, you may add a couple of singles at a slightly heavier weight. Just make sure that your total workload for the day doesn’t come too close to what you do in your heavy session.

6) Each session must also involve some type of assistance work, which varies according to the day. You use the compound movements on your heavy and medium days and exercises that limit you to less weight on your light day.

Sample Programs

Here’s a week’s worth of workouts. Remember that you change things every week, but the example below will give you a clear idea of how the system works.

The routine calls for a full-body workout at every session. That’s the best type of Power-Volume training for most bodybuilders, powerlifters, other athletes or anyone who just wants to pack on strength and mass all over.

Note that 135 x 5 means 135 pounds for five reps. If three parameters are given’e.g., 100 x 2 x 5’sets are listed before reps; so it’s 100 pounds for two sets of five reps.

Heavy Workout

1) Close-grip bench presses
135 x 5, 175 x 3, 225 x 3, 245 x 3,
270 x 3, 290 x 3, 300 x 3*,
305 x 2**
Total workload for lift: 5,800
2) Lying triceps extensions
135 x 2 x 8
3) Cross-bench dumbbell
pullovers 100 x 2 x 5
4) Bottom-position squats
135 x 5, 225 x 3, 275 x 3, 315 x 3, 365 x 3, 405 x 3***, 425 x 1****
Total workload for lift: 5,855
5) Hanging leg raises 3 x 20
*Barely got the lift.
**Missed the third rep.
***Hard lift.
****Couldn’t budge the weight on the second rep.

Don’t worry too much about calculating workload on assistance exercises unless the assistance lifts you do are compound movements and more damaging to your nervous system. Light Workout

1) Flat-bench presses with
bands 135 x 8 x 3
Total workload for lift: 3,240
2) Bench dips
bodyweight x 2 x 15
3) Sumo deadlifts 225 x 8 x 2
Total workload for lift: 3,600

Medium Workout

1) Flat-bench presses with
bands 225 x 8 x 2
Total workload for lift: 3,600
2) Parallel-bar dips (weight
strapped to belt)
bodyweight+45 x 2 x 10
3) Wide-grip chins
bodyweight x 3 x 10
4) Box squats with bands
275 x 8 x 2

Total workload for lift: 4,448

Specialization Program

This sample program is designed for people who specialize on the bench press. You can apply the same type of workout to target push/pull movements, squats, power curls or any lifts that lags.

While I didn’t include workload totals for the major lift on the following program, the principle holds: Workload is very important.

In addition to the workouts listed, you need to do some type of lower-back, hip and leg work. I’ve used this type of workout while preparing for a bench-only meet or trying to bring up a bodypart. During those periods I trained my other lifts only two times a week and not as intensely as usual. On this program you could perform your bench workouts on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and do your squat and dead workouts on Tuesday and Saturday.

Heavy Workout

1) Bottom-position
flat-bench presses 135 x 5,
175 x 3, 225 x 1, 245 x 1,
275 x 1, 295 x 1, 315 x 1,
320 x 1*
2) Two-board presses
205 x 5, 225 x 5, 245 x 5**,
250 x 5***
3) Lying dumbbell triceps
extensions 40s x 2 x 15
4) Parallel-bar dips
bodyweight x 2 x 15

*Missed in the middle of the movement.
**Hard, barely got the fifth rep.
***Missed fifth rep.

Light Workout

1) Flat-bench presses with
bands 135 x 8 x 3
2) Bench dips
bodyweight x 3 x 15
3) Chins (alternating grips)
bodyweight x 3 x 10
Medium Workout
1) Flat-bench presses with
bands 225 x 8 x 2
2) Explosive-rep pushups
bodyweight x 5 x 4
3) California presses 135 x 2 x 10
4) Stiff-arm pullovers 115 x 2 x 8

More Tips

Here are some suggestions to help you get the most out of your training. As you develop from a beginner to an advanced strength athlete, you’ll have to tweak the program slightly. Also, keep in mind that what you read here are just suggestions. After using the program for some time, you’ll know your body better and be able to tell whether to add to or reduce the volume of work you’re doing.

For Beginners

1) After the first week you don’t have to be so meticulous about calculating your workload for the major lifts at every workout. Just make sure you check them every couple of months, particularly if you’re feeling tired or overtrained. You may be surprised at how much work you’re actually doing on your light and medium days and need to cut back a little.

2) In addition to rotating your exercises on your heavy day, make sure you rotate your assistance exercises as well. After about three weeks of doing a particular movement, you’ll start to lose strength. Variety is very important if you want to keep gaining strength.

3) If you’re just starting out lifting weights, you don’t need to rotate your core heavy exercises every week. You may wait up to three weeks before switching to another one. If you’ve been lifting for some time but are new to the techniques used in Power-Volume training, you may want to rotate exercises every two weeks. If you’re more advanced than that, rotate every week.

4) After a couple of months of training don’t be afraid to take a week off. It will give your body added strength when you start training again. Just don’t take extended layoffs more frequently than every couple of months. Advanced Tips

1) Be sure to change exercises or repetition ranges every week. If you’ve found a particular exercise especially helpful on a certain lift, feel free to do it for another week, but make sure you rotate the reps. For example, if you work up to a max single on the exercise during one week, work up to a max triple or max five the next.

2) Don’t be afraid to add workouts. Contrary to popular opinion in the West, extra workouts actually aid in recovery. If you follow a Monday-Wednesday-and-Friday schedule, start out by adding a light workout on Tuesday. The workload should be less than what you do on the Wednesday light workout but not by much. After several weeks feel free to add another light workout on Saturday, using about the same workload you use on Tuesday. The extra workouts will help you take advantage of synaptic facilitation.

3) Another way you can take advantage of synaptic facilitation is to add some sets of flat-bench presses, squats or deads on your heavy days, after you’ve done your core exercises. The sets should not be too taxing’70 percent of max for four sets of three reps should be plenty.

4) If you compete in powerlifting meets, don’t take a week of rest every couple of months’unless you compete infrequently. Instead, reserve your off time for the week before the meet. That will help you to be at your strongest, without undertraining, if you’ve been lifting steadily for a few months.

Final Thoughts

Please give this system a go. I know you’re probably skeptical about doing that many workouts, but you won’t be if you give the program an honest try. Don’t do it for only one week and decide it’s not working for you.

Even if you’re a bodybuilder, don’t hesitate to use Power-Volume training. The variety will probably be much needed, and the extra volume will add more muscle than you thought was possible. In addition, it will be functional muscle. You’ll be strong, not just look strong. IM

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