In Defence of GVT (or other high-volume programs)

flatwhite Hardgainer, Muscle Gain, Training 0 Comments

GVT aka German Volume Training is a training protocol popularised by Charles Poliquin. GVT is also known as the 10 sets methods, dates back to mid-70’s and originates from Germany. Hence the name. This approach was used by national weightlifting coaches to increase muscle mass of their athletes in the off-season. Poliquin, ever the canny marketer/business man coined the name GVT and it has stuck. It has also been hugely popular with gym junkies looking to build muscle mass. Recently, a couple of studies (here & here) have tried to identify whether GVT is all it crake up to be. Their findings suggest it is not. In fact, they found doing half the number of sets to be superior. If we look a little closer though, it is possible to identify some interesting data which might tell a different story. Read on to find out why GVT might actually be an incredible muscle building strategy…

 

Disclaimer: I have no allegiance/love for GVT. I have used it. I found it boring, but effective. The same goes for most of the client I have used it with. With that said there are plenty of effective training strategies I think are just as effective and not so boring. The reason for this article was something interesting I found in the data which might help you build more muscle/plan your phases of training better.

A Bit More Detail on GVT

 

To quote the researchers, “A typical GVT session involves performing 10 sets of 10 repetitions (i.e., 100 repetitions) for two compound resistance exercises at loads of ~60% 1RM or 20RM. Together with this high training volume, the recovery between sets is relatively short (~60–90 s) to induce greater metabolic stress (e.g., build-up of metabolites such as lactate).”

 

In the first GVT study the authors compared the results of 10×10 for compound exercises plus utilising assistive exercises for these body parts. The found, “no additional gains in muscle hypertrophy can be achieved when following a modified version of the GVT program compared to training with five sets over a duration of six weeks”.

Seems like a slam dunk for anti-GVT, right?

Then, they did a follow up study. This time for 12 weeks. Just in case 6 weeks had not been long enough for differences between 5 sets and 10 sets to manifest. They found…

“Results of our study suggest 10 sets compared to five sets per resistance exercise over 12 weeks is no more effective for increasing muscle strength and hypertrophy.”

It’s a home run. GVT sucks! Lights out Charlie P. Your GVT was overhyped and underperformed.

Not so fast!

Your Training Age/History is a Factor

Firstly, GVT originated with NATIONAL LEVEL WEIGHTLIFTERS!!! Their job was literally, lifting weights. They were genetically gifted. Didn’t have to do other jobs and were probably on a ton of drugs. I’m guessing the previous sentence does not describe you. That doesn’t mean that you should immediately discount the efficacy of GVT, but you should be aware it probably isn’t needed for a beginner.

If you are more advanced, have been training consistently for a number of years and are looking to add muscle to your frame then it might be more appropriate. If your training volume is also relatively high, but NOT as high as GVT then, it might be effective. If you currently, do 3 sets per body part then, jumping to 10×10 is excessive. You should incrementally work towards this volume of work. If, however, you routinely do 7-8 sets and progress is not forthcoming then, utilising 10×10 might be a great fit for you.

In these studies the authors describe the participants as,

“Participants had a minimum of one year of resistance training experience at the recreational level and had been performing at least three resistance training sessions per week consistently over the previous three months.”

 

They don’t sound like the sort of people who need 10×10 to grow. On that basis it is no wonder 5×10 was sufficient.

GVT might be a useful strategy for these guys…Pic courtesy of generationiron.com

If you look a little closer at these studies I think we can identify some issues which mean we need to question the headline “10×10 worse than 5×10 for hypertrophy!” After all, this is what almost every fit pro with a PubMed account did after seeing these studies released.

Firstly, we aren’t comparing 10×10 with 5×10. We are comparing 10×10 + 4×10 with 5×10 + 4×10. In effect, 14×10 versus 9×10.

There is a volume sweet spot. Finding yours is key to maximising your gains

Given other research has indicated that exceeding 10 sets per muscle group within a session increases the chance of “junk volume” (training volume with no additive effect on anabolism) then 10×10 might be fine. So, too is 9×10 (the group known as 5×10), but 14×10 is (the “10×10” group) is too much.

Also on the leg day the authors replaced the squats and deadlifts (or leg curls) often promoted for use in GVT with leg presses and lunges. These are all fine exercises. The alterations do, however, raise some questions.

 

First up, would the results have been different had the original exercises been used?

 

Certainly, most would consider these exercises to be more “bang for your buck”, so it is possible. Comparing squats and deadlifts to leg presses and lunges is a bit like apples to oranges. Or perhaps satsumas to nectarines (what is the difference between those anyway?). In all honesty, we won’t know if there is some magical synergy between 10×10 and squats or deadlifts. Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? No.

 

To test the above theory, we would have to do 10×10 using squats and deadlifts compared to leg presses and lunges. At that point, you end up just testing exercise selection rather than 10×10 though. As in, testing squats versus leg presses. Is it possible that the big barbell lifts combined with 10×10 have a 1+1=3 relationship? Possibly, but I think it is unlikely the efficacy of the specific exercises is a major factor which explain the results. What might be a significant issue is the cross-over between the exercises selected…

Pic courtesy of live strong.com

Is there an excessive cross-over of volume in this study?

 

Many GVT templates promoted involve a quad dominant squat (e.g., high bar Olympic style or front squat) with leg curls. While the squat chosen will hit the quads, hamstrings, and glutes the leg curls only target the hamstrings. The substitutions made by the authors, however, target all of these muscles with both exercises. Leg presses and lunges challenge the quads, hamstrings and glutes. So, these muscles don’t do 10×10, they do 20×10.

 

A final point to consider on this is that doing 10×10 on lunges is more like 10×20 as each leg has to do 10 repetitions. This is hard! I mean really freaking hard. And long. Mind numbingly long. From a psychological standpoint, it would be hard to push yourself through 10×20 lunges for 6 or 12 weeks. Perhaps the participants in the 10×10 group were unable to maintain motivation needed to train with the intensity of effort required to make gains.

 

So, is exercise selection a factor. In one way, shape, or form…probably.

 

I get why the researchers chose to change the exercises, however, it means we are not really testing GVT for legs as it is recommended. This makes it a little unfair to assess the efficacy of the original GVT plan. But I don’t think it discredits the findings to any great extent.

 

Take a closer inspection of the second study and things get even more interesting…

 

At the 6-week mark (halfway through the study) the GVT group had significantly greater gains in muscle mass of the thighs. Remember that in this study they were essentially doing 24 sets for the hamstrings and quadriceps. So, at the 6-week mark 10×10 (actually doing 24 sets per muscle group) was far superior to 5×10 (actually doing 14 sets per body part). Does this mean that radically high volumes for short periods of time are, in fact, excellent for hypertrophy? Possibly.

 

At the end of the study the GVT group actually dropped back below baseline in thigh muscle mass. Based on this the GVT groups responded excellently for 6 weeks, but at some point, between week 6 and 12 their results fell off a cliff. If we take these results at face value, it seems GVT (or even higher volumes) are very effective in the short-term. It appears the participants just did the GVT protocol for too long. The strange drop in muscle mass from weeks 6-12 is hard to explain. The most likely explanation t my mind is that they became overtrained and could not recover from these radically high training volumes. On this basis structuring your training where you have short-term (approx. 6 weeks) blast phases, followed by lower volume training might work very well. This would be a classic functional overreaching approach where you briefly push to, and perhaps, slightly beyond your ability to recover before backing off. This is the underlying principle of my ChristMASS training program.

It might. Especially if you do it for too long! Pic courtesy of gymjunkiez.com

Assuming the functional overreaching is the explanation for the gains in this study it might make sense to set-up your training to focus on a body part(s) for a block of training. Then, in the subsequent phase reduce volume for those muscles and emphasis others. This is commonly known as specialisation training and I have written about it before here.

 

In my experience, both functional overreaching and specialisation phases can be very powerful hypertrophy tools. Thus, I think this is a useful takeaway strategy to consider for your training once you have reached intermediate/advanced training status.

 

Another explanation for the drop-in muscle mass is simply that the participants didn’t eat enough to support the high volumes they were handling. I think it is unlikely that the whole group would suddenly suffer from this and lose their appetite. Perhaps they were only able to sustain the level of eating they managed in week 1-6 and they continued to dig a bigger recovery ditch which required increased calories. This may well be true; however, the other group would likely have found similar drops.

 

Perhaps the boredom factor of 10×10 kicked in. Motivation might have dropped. Perhaps the participants in this group were unable to keep training hard enough with this volume of work &/or the monotony of the program and simply got a detraining effect through a lack of motivation/drive to train. This seems extremely likely should you try to follow 10×10 for 12 weeks. However, in a lab setting with research assistants motivating you it is less likely. With that said I can easily believe that there was some drop-in performance purely because of a lack of motivation in the 10×10 group.

 

Finally, it may be a case of the law of diminishing returns. The more the signal (via GVT) was sent the smaller the return in terms of adaptation until this response became muted. The training stimulus might just have become “stale”. This could be termed adaptive resistance. The body no longer perceives the GVT workouts as an overloading stimulus and stops adapting. Perhaps the sheer volume of sets expedited the process of this occurring in the GVT group. After all they achieved the same amount of total training volume as the 5-set group did in the entire study much quicker. Is it possible that this stimulus ended up being completely ineffective? I think the likelihood is a combination of overtraining, under-eating and adaptive resistance.

 

Another possibility…

 

Perhaps there were some measurement errors in the study. The huge increase and then dramatic losses are quite remarkable. Is it possible a few rogue measurements distorted the results? I wouldn’t say that was an impossibility. Especially given study one (the original 6-week study) didn’t show any dramatic changes in muscle size of the legs.

 

Long story short 10×10 might not be “bad”. It might be right around the upper limit of effective volume per session. The addition of extra sets on top might be excessive though. A contrarian viewpoint might be that for a short period of time GVT is a superior hypertrophy strategy for legs, but exceeding 6 weeks risks losing all your gains. Or possibly, the researchers had an outlier (or 6) in the 12-week study who were super-responsive until they were non-responsive. Or maybe, they just messed up a measurement. Who knows? Just be aware that doing 10×10 might still work, but you can do many other training programs that also work.

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