Sometimes exercise hurts so good. There’s the jelly legs at the finish of a 5K, the burn after a set of squat jumps, the sting of taking a foam roller to your IT band — and then there’s German Volume Training (GVT).
The premise: Crank out 10 reps of each exercise you do for 10 sets. It’s grueling, yes, but after just a few workouts you’ll see major gains in lean muscle mass, as well as fat loss.
GVT is believed to have originated in Germany in the 1970s. It became popular in the 1990s when Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin used it to train professional athletes. Also known as the “10-sets method,” GVT works because you target muscle fibers with a high volume of work in a short amount of time.
A typical routine is performed in supersets, switching back and forth between two exercises. “You knock out a very specific number of motor units [individual neurons within a muscle, and all the muscle fibers they cause to contract] and completely trash them,” says Poliquin. Your body adapts to this stress by hypertrophying the targeted fibers, or making the muscles bigger.
When combined with proper nutrition, GVT produces incredible gains. By increasing muscle, you boost your metabolism even when you’re not exercising. And because GVT is so simple, you don’t need a serious strength-training background. The quick results are great motivation to stick with the routine, and it’s safe, too, Poliquin says. Since you don’t go to failure on every set, you don’t risk doing any lasting damage to your muscles.
In Poliquin’s original GVT program, the exercises in each workout are antagonists, which means they work opposing muscle groups. For example, an upper-body push exercise is paired with an upper-body pull exercise, or a lower-body exercise targeting the front of the legs is paired with one that works the back of the legs.
You’ll notice that the upper-body lifts in the program outlined on the next pages are antagonists, but the lower-body pairs work some of the same muscles. The reason? Our version of GVT includes only multijoint exercises, which tend to engage all the muscles of the lower body. For instance, you can’t perform a squat or a lunge with only your quadriceps.
On upper-body days you’ll follow the original GVT format: Lift for 10 sets of 10 reps, performing the two exercises in supersets.
On lower-body days, you’ll lift for 10 sets of six reps of each exercise separately, resting between sets. The volume is less because most novice lifters don’t have the strength endurance to complete 200 reps of multijoint legwork, Poliquin explains.
1) Find your rep maxes. For upper-body exercises, which are performed in sets of 10, you’ll need a weight you can lift approximately 20 times, also known as your 20-rep max. For lower-body exercises, performed in sets of six, use a weight you can lift for a maximum of 12 reps.
2) Start lifting. Upper- and lower-body exercises will require a different number of repetitions.
- Upper body: Complete 10 reps of exercise A. Rest for 90 seconds. Perform 10 reps of exercise B. Rest for 90 seconds. Repeat until you’ve completed (or at least attempted to complete) 10 total sets, or 100 reps, of each exercise.
- Lower body: Complete six reps of exercise A. Rest for 90 seconds. Complete a second set of the same exercise. Repeat for 10 sets. Complete six reps of exercise B. Rest for 90 seconds. Complete a second set of exercise B. Repeat for 10 sets.
- Lifting tempo: Poliquin recommends that the concentric, or lift phase, of each exercise be performed as fast as possible with no pause at the top of the movement. The eccentric, or lowering phase, is performed slowly (approximately four seconds) with no pause at the bottom. This tempo makes for a killer-hard routine, but it’s critical for seeing optimal results, says Poliquin.
3) Progress it. Poliquin recommends keeping a detailed journal of reps completed in strict form in each set. When you can complete all reps and sets of an exercise, add 5 pounds. For best results, follow this program four days a week for six weeks.
Feel free to change the days on which you perform each workout, but make sure you follow the order of these workouts and rest days.
Monday: Lower Body
A. Barbell Back Squat, 10 sets x 6 reps
- Secure a barbell evenly across your shoulders, gripping the bar overhand, just a little wider than your shoulders.
- With your feet hip-width apart, push your hips backward, letting your knees bend. Your back should maintain its natural arch as you lower your hips as deeply as you can while maintaining good form. Keep your knees tracking in line with the middle toe, and keep your heels firmly on the floor.
- With your knees continuing to track over your feet, rise to the starting position.
B. Alternating Dumbbell Lunges, 10 sets x 6 reps
- Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding dumbbells at your sides.
- Step forward with your left leg and bend your left knee. Make sure that knee tracks evenly with your middle toe. Allow your right (back) heel to lift up so that only the ball of the foot remains in contact with the floor. Keep an upright posture with your abs engaged and shoulders pulled back.
- Push off on your left foot to return to the starting position.
- Repeat with your other leg. Each complete left-right movement counts as one repetition.
Tuesday: Upper Body
A. Dumbbell Incline Press, 10 sets x 10 reps
- Lie on an incline bench, holding weights just outside your shoulders, with elbows close to your torso. Maintain contact between your lower back and the bench, and keep your feet flat on the floor.
- Press dumbbells up, extending your arms. Bring weights together at the top.
- Lower weights back to shoulder height.
B. Bent-Over Dumbbell Row, 10 sets x 10 reps
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hold dumbbells at your sides with a neutral grip (palms facing inward).
- Bend forward at the hips about 45 degrees, keeping your back flat and knees slightly bent. Keeping your body tight, pull the dumbbells toward your body, level with your upper abdomen. You should feel your shoulder blades move together in the middle of your back.
- Lower weights to start position.
Wednesday: Rest Day
Thursday: Lower Body
A. Barbell Front Squat, 10 sets x 6 reps
- Stand with feet slightly wider than your shoulders.
- Remove a barbell from the rack and place it evenly across the front of your shoulders, hands under the bar but not gripping it tightly; let your shoulders (not your wrists) support the bar. Keep your elbows up, almost as high as your shoulders, and pointing straight ahead. Keep your chest up and look forward.
- To start the squat, bend your knees, push your hips back, and lower your body until your hips are at least even with your knees.
- Keep your knees tracking in the same direction as your toes, and rise to the starting position.
B. Romanian Deadlift, 10 sets x 6 reps
- Remove a barbell from the rack with a shoulder-width, overhand grip and hold it in front of your body, arms straight. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Push your hips back and slightly bend your knees to lower the bar. Keep your back neutral as you lower the bar to just a few inches off the ground. At the bottom of the movement, strive to have your back nearly parallel to the floor.
- Extend your hips and knees to stand upright again.
Friday: Rest Day
Saturday: Upper Body
A. Close-Grip, Supinated Lat Pulldown, 10 sets x 10 reps
- While sitting with your feet flat on the floor, adjust the pads of a lat pulldown bar so they touch your thighs.
- Stand to grasp the bar with a narrow, underhand grip and then resume the seated position.
- Pull bar down in front of shoulders to below your chin, keeping your elbows in line with the sides of your torso.
- Straighten your arms to return the bar to the starting position.
B. Dumbbell Bench Press, 10 sets x 10 reps
- Lie face-up on a flat bench. Maintain contact between your lower back and the bench, and keep your feet flat on the floor.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand just outside your chest, elbows pointing downward at a
- 45-degree angle.
- Extend your arms upward, allowing the dumbbells to come together directly above your chest.
- Lower the weights to the starting position.
Create Your own GVT Workout
Feeling creative? You can put together your own German Volume Training routine using a wide range of exercises. Just follow these basic principles:
- Choose exercises that engage multiple muscles, says Poliquin — ideally those that involve movement at more than one joint. For example, a squat involves hip flexion and knee extension, but a leg extension machine requires only knee extension. The more musculature involved, the more metabolic work and the more hormones released.
- When possible, avoid pairing two exercises that both recruit the same muscles. For upper-body workouts, always make sure that one exercise is a pushing movement and the other is a pull, says Poliquin. For example, you can pair an overhead press and a wide-grip row, but you would not combine a press with a pushup.
- Vary your hand position and grip to allow for a greater variety of muscles worked. You can place your hands in a wide or narrow position. Your grip can be supinated (underhand), pronated (overhand) or neutral (palms facing the sides of your body).
- Incorporate some body-weight exercises, such as chin-ups and pushups. These are especially effective because of the amount of musculature they engage, Poliquin says. To make sure an exercise is appropriate based on your rep maxes, you can modify it. For example, if 20 pushups are easy for you, try doing them with your feet elevated. Too hard? Do them on your knees.
Nicole Radziszewski is a freelance writer and personal trainer in the Chicago area.