Volume Training: Build Strength and Muscle with No Equipment

man doing handstand on cliff

One word – volume training.

Volume training is something that I’ve had incredible success with in my own training routine during this quarantine. And with gyms closing back down again after having just reopened, I figured it would be a good time to share this little tidbit of information.

The theme of this article is going to be “you don’t need as much weight as you think you do.” There are plenty of ways to build up muscle and strength using just your bodyweight or light weights.

What’s Volume Training?

For some people, volume training is when you lift weights while blasting Slayer over your $2000 sound system and pissing off your neighbors. For others, its when you prioritize the reps, form, and tempo of your lift over the amount of weight you use. This results in doing a lot of slow, controlled reps that put tension on your muscles for a longer period of time.

I learned of this when I attended a colleague’s workout class. In that class, all we did was do 1 deadlift every thirty seconds for 30 minutes. It was called the “60 Deadlift Workout” and it was HARD. It also won the Most Creative Workout Name of the Year Award sponsored by Coca-Cola.

This was an awesome workout that made you feel like you were wasting your time for the first 20 minutes and then progressively kicked your ass the last 10. We gradually went up in weight throughout the workout and eventually all the muscle stress compounded. My glutes and hammies felt like they were on fire for days after.

The trainer who ran us through it said that she got the concept from a style of training called German Volume Training. GVT involves the use of lighter weights (about 60% of your max, or whatever you can lift for about 20 reps), combined with high reps over a longer period of time and a strict tempo to get impressive results.

GVT has you lift for 10 sets of 10 reps, 90 seconds rest between sets, while holding a bratwurst in your mouth the whole time. After you’re done you have to slam a 22oz Hefeweizen and then chop down a tree… wait that’s a Canadian thing. Whatever, forget it. I’m sure you can tell where the truth ends and the bullshit begins.

What We Can Learn from GVT

So how can we the concept of volume training to our advantage when we don’t have access to hundreds of pounds of weight plates? Well, if you can’t make your load heavier, then you need to put your muscles at a disadvantage and require them to put out more work.

German volume training requires lifters to exhibit good form and keep to a strict tempo. Lifters must perform the descending part of the lift over 4 seconds and then lift back up over a period of 2 seconds. This keeps the muscles engaged and loaded the whole time.

You ever seen someone doing a bench press that looks more like an epileptic episode?

Workout Lift GIF by Ben L - Find & Share on GIPHY

That’s the exact opposite of what you’d want for holding to voluming training principles… or just living a well-rounded life. Instead, you’d want a good push up where you slowly lower to the ground across 4 seconds, and then push back up for 2. Demonstration of control is key.

Loading your muscles in this way, maintaining control of the exercise, and THEN asking your muscles to do that a total of 100 times is what taxes them to the point that you’ll see gains with very little weight.

Applying Volume Training to Your Workout Routine at Home

So how do we make all of this wonderful information work for us?

Body weight exercises often make a good starting point. You’re supposed to start at a weight that you can push for around 20 reps, remember? Well, most people who are in fairly good shape can do around 20 pushups or around 20 sit ups, for example.

If you’re not quite there, don’t worry, you can’t still practice these principles, it will just take a little more work to build yourself up. Or you can modify by doing pushups on your knees or sit ups with a pillow behind your back to start with.

With whatever exercise you are doing, start practicing holding good form. It’s not about finishing the reps, it’s about finding how many reps you can do while doing the exercise well. When you find that number, do multiple sets of that exercise for the number of reps you can perform.

What is “good form?” It’s different for each exercise. In general, though, good form usually means having a neutral spine position, controlling the movement throughout the entire exercise, and fully engaging the target muscles. This goes a little beyond the scope of this article, but it’s something I’ll be covering much more in the future.

Most importantly, don’t resort to flopping around like a possessed epileptic fish on hot coals just to complete the workout. This is not only a waste of time, it’s counterproductive.

Check out this short, 10 day program that is designed to get you started on this style of training. I use pushups as the example exercise, but you can sub in whatever exercise you want.

Volume Training Pushup Program

DayRepsSetsRest between setsTempo (down phase/up phase in sectons)
Day 121030s2/2
Day 241045s2/2
Day 3Rest   
Day 451060s2/2
Day 551060s4/2
Day 6Rest   
Day 771060s4/2
Day 891090s4/2
Day 9Rest   
Day 10101090s4/2
Click here for the downloadable PDF version.

Take Aways:

  • Building muscle and strength with lower weights can be done
  • Volume training involves maximizing the strain on your muscles with a lower weight and repeating that for high reps
  • You need to be disciplined in form and the speed by which you do the exercise for it to work
  • Apply this to your routine by picking an exercise you can do reliably, practice doing that exercise well, and utilize my free short program to help you get started.

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Photo by Fatih Altas on Unsplash