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Does German Volume Training Get You Strong, Or Just Big?

It’s incredibly common to hear bodybuilders and strength athletes ask the question, “What’s the fastest way to pack on as much muscle as possible?”

Newbies, right? Always looking for shortcuts, always thinking they can hack the system, never understanding that gaining muscle and strength is a patient man’s game. You need to commit to long term progress. That’s the secret of success in any endeavor, right?

Well, yeah. But that doesn’t mean that some programs aren’t more effective than others — if you’re willing to endure the pain.

Here we’re going to talk about one of the most famous and most brutal training protocols for muscle: German Volume Training (GVT).

What Is German Volume Training?

Popularized by legendary strength coach Charles Poliquin, GVT involves a lot of volume, little rest, and a limited timeframe. Generally speaking programs can be crazy intense and short or more moderate in its intensity and more sustainable. GVT is the former: you go hard for three weeks and then you don’t try it again for at least six months.

“When I was a kid, I realized that in the Western world, German weightlifters were probably the most advanced in training results,” Poliquin told BarBend. “So I went to the national training center in Leimen, and the then national weightlifting coach Rolf Feser explained how they would do periodization with ten sets of ten, ten sets of five, and ten sets of three. They were big believers in the law of repeated efforts: one of the reasons people don’t get strong is because they simply don’t do enough sets.”

Here’s how it works. You perform three workouts over five days and repeat that cycle six times, making for a 30-day program. (More advanced trainees might be advised to do the program for three cycles.)

Each workout has four exercises in two supersets, A and B. Both “A” exercises are performed with ten sets of ten at 60 percent of your 1-rep max, with ninety seconds between sets: A1, rest 90 seconds, A2, rest 90 seconds, repeat a ten times. Sixty percent of your 1-rep max might feel frustratingly light for the first few sets. It won’t by the end.

“You start at sixty percent of your max in order to be able to do all ten sets of ten, but if you find you can compete all ten reps then you should increase the weight by four to five percent on the next workout,” says Poliquin. “At the end of the cycle, you’ll get closer to a higher percentage of your 1-rep max, partly because you develop more work capacity.”

After you’re done with the two hundred reps, you move on to three per “B” exercise.

When it comes to selecting the exercises, you really want to select movements with a lot of “bang for your buck.”

“You need to do something like back squats and leg curls, but you don’t want inefficient exercises like goblet squats or even the leg press,” says Poliquin. “You do ten reps to failure on a squat, you’ll likely vomit. Do it on the leg press and your rate of perceived effort is probably 60 percent of what it would be on the squat.”

So you want to do exercises that recruit a lot of motor units, all the way down to the accessories. The French press recruits more muscles than tricep pressdowns, for instance.

Sample German Volume Training Workout

Here’s one of the classic GVT programs, courtesy of Poliquin himself.

Day 1: Chest and Back

German Volume Training Chest & Back Workout

Day 2: Legs and Abs

German Volume Training Leg & Abs Workout

(*Take a weightlifting belt and buckle it. Attach it to the low pulley of a cable crossover machine. Lie down on your back in front of the machine, and hook your feet in the belt. Then pull your knees towards your chest.)

Day 3


Day 4: Arms and Shoulders

German Volume Training Workout Arms & Shoulders

(*While seated on the edge of a bench with your torso bent over, raise the dumbbells out to the side, making sure the top two knuckles – the ones closest to your thumb – are in line with your ears at the top of the movement.)

Day 5


Then What?

If you’re enjoying the results, this thirty-day cycle is sometimes followed up with a fifteen-day cycle: three workouts cycled three times.

Day 1: Chest and Back

German VOlume Training phase 2 workout 1

Note: Rest 90 seconds between each “A” exercise and each superset; rest 60 seconds between each “B” exercise and each superset.

Day 2: Legs and Abs

German Volume Training phase 2 workout 2

Note: Rest 90 seconds between each “A” exercise and each superset; rest 60 seconds between each “B” exercise and each superset.

Day 3


Day 4

German Volume Training phase 2 workout 3

Note: Rest 90 seconds between each “A” exercise and each superset; rest 60 seconds between each “B” exercise and each superset.

Day 5


Does German Volume Training Build Strength?

GVT is generally considered a hypertrophy program. Can it build strength — say, for a powerlifter?

It would be for a powerlifter who wants to move up a weight class and wants the weight they gain to be quality weight,” says Poliquin. “One version I sometimes recommend for for powerlifters is 10×6 for a cycle, then do cluster training or another phase with 10×3. So go in and out of the periodization, but the rule is you’re using constant weight until you can do all ten sets.”

Prefer to see how you go with the classic 10 x 10? No problem, but maybe keep it to the off season and frame it as a way to build conditioning first and strength second.

“You will get stronger, but it’s more about how fit you are,” says Poliquin. “Ten by ten is mainly for people who want to increase work capacity or muscle mass or maximal strength. So when you do 6 you will get some strength, but not as much as if you do 4. Id you do 6, you get more muscle mass, but do 10×3 and you won’t get as much muscle mass. So it’s a sliding scale.”

Wrapping Up

One thing Charles Poliquin made clear repeatedly in his interview is that this program is not for the faint of heart and even if you’re a hyper driven squat beast, you still shouldn’t attempt it more than once or twice a year. But if you make some room for it in your training, sleep a lot, eat a ton, and take your foot off the gas once those four weeks are up, then you should find yourself with quality mass and some strength to go with it.

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Nick English

Nick English

Nick is a content producer and journalist with over seven years’ experience reporting on four continents. His first articles about health were on a cholera outbreak in rural Kenya while he was reporting for a French humanitarian organization. His next writing job was covering the nightlife scene in Shanghai. He’s written on a lot of things.

After Shanghai, he went on to produce a radio documentary about bodybuilding in Australia before finishing his Master’s degrees in Journalism and International Relations and heading to New York City. Here, he’s been writing on health full time for more than five years for outlets like BarBend, Men's Health, VICE, and Popular Science.

No fan of writing in the third person, Nick’s passion for health stems from an interest in self improvement: How do we reach our potential?

Questions like these took him through a lot of different areas of health and fitness like gymnastics, vegetarianism, kettlebell training, fasting, CrossFit, Paleo, and so on, until he realized (or decided) that strength training fit best with the ideas of continuous, measurable self improvement.

At BarBend his writing focuses a little more on nutrition and long-form content with a heaping dose of strength training. His underlying belief is in the middle path: you don’t have to count every calorie and complete every workout in order to benefit from a healthy lifestyle and a stronger body. Plus, big traps are cool.

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