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Imagine it’s 1979 and you want to do pullups. Already hanging from the bar is Roy Callender, third in the previous year’s Mr. Olympia. You’d better hope he lets you work in, because he’s not moving on for another hour or so. And 25 sets at the pullup bar are just the beginning. Callender’s back routines typically consisted of 85 sets, and his entire back/biceps/forearms workout could last six hours! All his body parts went through similar endurance sessions. Callender is an extreme example of volume training, but his success illustrates that more is sometimes better. With proper nutrition and enough rest between workouts, volume training can lead to more voluminous muscles.
In the beginning, which is to say the first half of the 20th century, bodybuilders trained their entire physiques in every workout. By necessity, they couldn’t do many sets per body part per workout until split routines divided their workload. When routines were broken up, volume climbed. It peaked in the late ’70s and early ’80s with Callender, Casey Viator (third in the 1982 Olympia), and Johnny Fuller. All three top pros did in excess of 40 sets in each body-part routine.
Nobody sprints through an ultramarathon. Likewise, there is a limit to how long most people can maintain even moderate intensity when they’re grinding through around 1,000 reps per quad workout, as Viator did. Boredom and complacency can set in. Your body’s energy and hormonal levels will lag. So let’s acknowledge that ultramarathon workouts are incredible feats. Clearly, some bodybuilders have had great success with them. But let’s also move on to a more realistic and effective style of volume training. For that, we look to four-time Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler.
We’ve included the quad routine Cutler used in preparation for the 2003 Mr. Olympia. It has a more realistic 23 working sets. (He also typically did one warmup set of each exercise.) You’ll also notice it covers a lot of exercises. Viator used to do just four exercises for quads but plow through 10 sets of 20–30 reps of each of those. With only 23 total sets, Cutler doubled Viator’s exercise total (counting leg extensions twice). In that manner, he worked complex muscle groups, like quads and back, from a variety of angles.
Cutler achieved such a diversified attack by doing only two or three working sets of most exercises. Another factor was reduced rest. By keeping his breaks between sets to around one minute, he was able to get through his entire workout before his intensity waned. Similarly, the four-time Mr. O kept his reps in the low-moderate range, so he could impart maximum intensity throughout each set. Still another factor he used was a late-workout blowout. Note that he ended his quad workout with dropsets, a technique that boosted intensity when it was most likely to lag. All in all, Cutler managed to turn up the volume and variety to marathon levels but still sprint through his workouts with ultimate effort from his first rep to his last.
“I’m a volume trainer and I always will be. I want to make sure I’ve done all I can in every workout. I’m not concerned with how many sets that takes.” – Jay Cutler
*These are dropsets. The initial 6-8 reps are followed immediately with 5-6 reps with half the initial weight.