The reason that the high-frequency, high-volume workouts performed by most bodybuilders of the '80s and '90s wasn't effective for the average lifter is because it combined a lot of sets with a lot of reps with moderately heavy (to heavy) poundages. For the average, natural bodybuilder who also has a regular life and job outside of the fitness industry, this threefold combination of sets/reps/heavy weight is nothing less than the hypertrophy harbinger of doom.
For high-frequency and high-volume training to be effective, it must follow the two following "rules":
1) If the weights lifted are going to be heavy (by heavy I am referring to 70% of one-rep maximum or higher—preferably higher) then the reps must be low, and the sets can be high.
2) If the sets and the reps are going to be high, the weight lifted needs to be light. And by light, I am talking about sets with 50% of one-rep maximum, or even lighter.
Now, let's take a look at how these two methods should be utilized:
If you have followed a lot of my articles or training programs, then you are probably familiar with "rule #1." Without boring you to death with explaining this form of training, I'll go ahead and show you what an example week of training might look like. This program would be the kind utilized by a powerlifter who wants to both 1) increase his strength on the 3 lifts, and 2) gain some muscle mass. Here goes:
Squats: Work up to a fairly heavy weight (approximately 95%) of one-rep maximum following the "21 Rep Rule." (See my earlier post on the "21 Reps.")
Bench Presses: Same as squats
Deadlifts: 8 sets of 3 reps with 80% of one-rep maximum
Bench Presses: 10 sets of 3 reps using 75% of one-rep maximum
Squats: 10 sets of 1 rep using 85-90% of one-rep maximum
Bench Presses: 12 sets of 2 reps using 80% of one-rep maximum
Deadlifts: Use the 21-Rep rule on these, same as Monday's exercises
Squats: 10 sets of 3 reps using 75% of one-rep maximum
In addition all of these core lifts, you could also include several sets of overhead presses, barbell curls, chins, dips, and some abdominal work. Just be sure to keep either reps or sets low on the assistance work.
On to "rule #2." If you have read my articles in the past, then you might be surprised that I would recommend this kind of training. Well, as you get up in "training years"—I've been lifting weights hard now for about half my life, and I've been training really dang heavy a lot of the time, which does take its toll—you begin to learn some tricks of the trade that allow you to still train frequently and stay in good shape, without having to train heavy all the time. Besides, I learned about this from Bill Starr. And like everything Bill Starr writes, while I might not agree completely with him, he always does have some damn good advice to dish out and serve. One thing that Starr always recommended for older athletes was ultra-high rep training done very frequently. (I believe that Starr himself currently trains this way—could be mistaken—performing a full-body workout 6 days per week with a lot of sets and a lot of reps.)
For this kind of training to be effective, first off it can't be done with heavy weight. In fact, if you decide to give this kind of training a go, start really light, and add weight every day if you have need to add weight at all. Second, it must be done frequently. If you are using 50% of your one-rep maximum, for instance, on the dumbbell bench press, you are going to be able to recover so that you can train the lift—or the muscle group—three, four, five, or even six says per week.
Of course, this is also the benefit of this form of frequent training. When you are training with such light weights, you CAN train frequently. This training doesn't take a toll on your central nervous system—and if your central nervous system has recovered, then you can train again. Those of you who have ever tried any bodyweight-only training—like the kind that has been recommended by Matt Furey or the kind performed by some of the folks over at Dragondoor—will understand what the hell I'm talking about.
Okay, for this one I'm not going to outline any specific routine. This kind of training should be more "instinctive"—or if you understand my pseudo Zen/Tao way of training then it could be described as "awakened" training. However, there are some ground rules that should be followed (at least, at first). Here they are:
1) Train your entire body 4 to 6 days per week.
2) At each session, pick 3 to 5 exercises that work the whole of your body. For instance, dumbbell squats, steep incline dumbbell bench presses, deadlifts, standing overhead barbell presses, and barbell curls would be a good choice of exercises.
3) For each exercise, perform 3 to 5 sets of at least 30 reps. Remember, keep the weight light at first and add weight as you get used to the high reps and the frequent training.
4) As you get more advanced, add sets and reps to your exercises instead of adding exercises.
Now, to be honest there are even more ways to use these 2 rules than what I've laid out—and there are even ways to combine the rules; see my "High Frequency Focus Training" in the March '09 issue of Iron Man magazine, for instance. However, we'll save that for another post or another article. Besides, it's time to go train.