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.
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.
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:
Note: There was eventually a spin-off program called Advanced German Volume Training 313 which used lower reps per set, but this method is not the one on trial today.
In the original German Volume Training article and later in the book, Coach Poliquin made the following claims:
First, let’s look at the marketing claims: using elite lifters as proof that it works.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
Understanding this will allow us to evaluate the true value of GVT as a hypertrophy protocol.
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:
Fast-twitch fibers are brought into play when the level of effort is 80% of your capability. This can occur either by:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.