Volume, Frequency, Types of Exercises, and More
This article is about to tell you everything you want to know about one of the most important cornerstones of bodybuilding—but first, I want to tell you a quick story.
Last summer, I was working with a college lacrosse player who wanted to put on some size in the off seasons. (At 6’2’’ and 180 pounds, I didn’t blame him.)
Between some tweaks to his diet and some changes to his program, we packed 15 pounds on him during the summer, and when he walked in the door the coach looked at him and said, “I thought I told you to gain some weight?”
This kid went from 180 to 195, with only 3 pounds being fat, and to be honest… he really didn’t look all that different. He didn’t even measure that different. His chest circumference increased by about half and inch, and his arms barely grew. In short, he increased his overall body weight by nearly 10%, and he looked the same.
Not something you’d like to experience, right?
Me neither. I’d prefer to actually look like I gained some muscle—and this is where specialization comes in.
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with clients for a number of things: athletes for performance enhancement, cougars for getting their butts firmer, and more fat loss clients than I can count.
And, of course, through my coaching program and articles in bodybuilding magazines and websites, I have a ton of experiencing with muscle building; packing mass onto smaller frames has always been a passion.
I’ve always found that I enjoyed designing (and executing) specialization programs more than anything else—that is, writing workouts for guys looking to bring up lagging body parts.
Perhaps it’s because I take an approach to training that is based primarily on improving aesthetics and symmetry. Or perhaps it’s because I have always been outspoken in my opinion that physique goals are intensely personal, and people have every right to “design” their body’s results as they see fit. Whatever the case, I’ve always encouraged people to use them in their training.
So, here is my pitch:
I firmly believe that because full body muscle growth slows dramatically for advanced trainees, specialization programs are often superior to programs aimed at increasing overall size.
There, I said it.
And it’s not like people really disagree with me.
Just look at any muscle magazine: every other week there is a chest program, or a back program, or a leg program. These are all specialization programs aimed at increasing the size or strength of a specific body part over a short duration.
Having said all that, here are a few of the many reasons I prefer specialization programs.
Whatever theory of training you subscribe to, whatever program is your “go-to” for mass gain, if you’ve been training for a few years, then you probably didn’t get to where you are a pound at a time—but rather in 5-10 pound growth spurts that took place intermittently over the years.
This is true for the vast majority of my clients and athletes, and it has certainly been true for me personally.
The more muscle you have, the harder it is to gain muscle. Although in a broad sense, this is because you are going closer to your genetic ceiling, one of the more specific reasons is that your body simply cannot continue to grow under the same conditions.
More advanced trainees are stronger. Lifting heavier weight for a comparable number of reps is more taxing on the nervous system and the general metabolic processes involved in recovery.
In almost all cases, as you progress, your ability to train for full body growth will be far greater than your ability to recover from such training.
Given that the above statements are true (and you can tell they are, because I put the word “fact” in front of them, which as everyone knows is binding on the internet), even when you put on some muscle in a given time period, it’s generally distributed over your entire frame.
Gaining a few pounds of lean body mass is always nice, and I would never say it isn’t a goal worthy of effort or achievement. It just sucks when you achieve it and you can’t visibly notice it. And when you’re already pretty well developed, that’s often what happens, even if you do everything “right.”
Training with the goal of increasing the size of a single muscle or muscle group has a lot of benefits, which I’ll get to later, but the main one is visibility. People notice. More than that, you notice—and as you know, nothing is as satisfying as actually seeing the results in the mirror instead of the measuring tape.
So if you can only have the occasional growth spurt, why not dedicate a spurt to something that will be visibly noticeable, intensely satisfying, and realistically achievable over a short duration?
For intermediate and advanced trainees (or even beginners who are looking to pack on some noticeable muscle with minimal fat gain), I believe in short, single-minded bursts of training for 3-6 weeks, and no more.
Now here’s the truth: there are some incredible programs that can help you lose fat and gain muscle—like Final Phase Fat Loss or The Super Hero Workout, and while all of those are effective in their own right, if you really want to take your results to the next level, a specialization program is the perfect way to follow that up.
Oh, didn’t I mention that specialization programs don’t require extreme “bulking” diets that usually lead to excess fatness? Nice little bonus for ya.
So, today, I’m not going to give you a specialization program: I’m going to teach you how to design your own.
When writing a specialization program, the first things to consider are volume and frequency. It should go without saying that when prioritizing a muscle, you need to train it more—Not only with more sets and reps, but a much greater frequency, too.
For a specialization program to be optimally effective, it must meet the following criteria:
In a perfect world, I’d have people training once every 36 hours. When that isn’t possible, every other day is the next best option. At the bare minimum, you should be able to figure out how to squeeze in three workouts per week.
Your total weekly volume is going to be pretty high: Between three and four training sessions per week, you’re getting a lot of total work for the selected muscle group. I recommend that you aim for 40 to 50 sets per muscle group week, broken into as many sessions as possible. Here’s how I’d break down 50 sets:
Moderately High Intensity
Given that you’ll be training with both high volume and high frequency, finding the right intensity is important. As a starting point, I recommend using roughly 90% of your max in a given rep range.
So if your 10 rep max on the bench press is 225 pounds, use roughly 200 pounds for sets of 10. This recommendation stands, regardless of the rep range.
One of the best things about specializing a body part is you get to shy away from the basics and really get into some fun exercises. While it’d be impossible to list all the combinations of all the exercises, each workout would need to consist of the following:
I hope I don’t need to define this for you. Just know that big movements are always at the core of any program. Examples include squats, deadlifts, overhead press, pull-ups, close grip bench press, dips, lunges, bent-over rows and floor presses.
Each workout should have at least two compound exercises.
Movements requiring explosiveness are great because they increase strength, power, coordination, and recruit muscle fibers that other exercises leave behind. Examples include jump squats, kipping pull-ups, push presses, cleans, explosive push-ups, jump lunges and cheat curls.
I recommend including one explosive movement per workout.
Stop pretending you don’t like biceps curls. Sure, you can probably get big arms without them, but how sweet is that pump? Other examples include lateral raises, swiss ball leg curls, cable flies, triceps extensions and calf raises.
For the purposes of specialization, I recommend adding two isolation movements per workout.
Specific to specialization programs, unilateral movements (compound exercises that use just one limb, rather than two) are effective because they recruit a greater number of High Threshold Motor Units (HTMUs).
They’re also a great way to improve symmetry and help with muscle imbalances, but for the purposes of maximally recruiting HTMUs, I normally recommend that your unilateral movements correspond with your heavier workouts.
Examples of great unilateral exercises are: single leg pistol squats, single arm over-head presses, single arm dumbbell chest presses, Bulgarian split squats and dumbbell rows.
You should include at least one unilateral exercise per specialization workout.
These are the exercises you aren’t really sure how to classify. Oftentimes, it’s stuff that crazy strength coaches like me come up with just to mess with you. While they tend to be really bizarre things that make people look at you funny, they are often also radically effective and innovative movements that can help bring your training to the next level. Included in this category are: Siff lunges, fly-aways, javelin presses, drag curls, Bulgarian jump squats, lumberjack presses, renegade rows, side-to-side pull-ups and pike push-ups.
At least one exercise per training session should be new, innovative, and wacky. (If you need some examples, cruise around my YouTube channel for about 30 seconds and you’ll see a few.)
It should go without saying that a lot of these may overlap: a wacky exercise may also be explosive, or a compound exercise might be somewhat wacky. Use your best judgment to figure out which exercises are going to make the program the most fun and effective for you.
One of the things I notice about specialization programs is that almost no one mentions how to train the rest of the body. You’d think increasing the size of a single muscle was as simple as adding in a few extra sets and whatever they decide the Chest Exercise of the Month is. At best, you’ll see something along the lines of “put all other body parts on maintenance.”
It’s not that simple.
When people make broad recommendations like “put everything else on maintenance” it leaves trainees with a lot of room to screw things up by doing too much and inhibiting results.
Correct manipulation of volume is tricky, and honestly, I like to err on the side of caution. I’d much rather have people do a bit too much for the prioritized body part and a bit too little for everything else.
To that end, I really tone down the volume for other body parts.
After all, what does “maintenance” really mean? You need to define it. For me, it means you need to accept that your focus is your focus, and everything else takes a back seat. So when I tell someone to put something on maintenance, I mean they should train it as little as necessary. That means not losing strength or mass. In most cases, this is a lot less than you think.
The majority of people can hold onto muscle mass by doing a full body circuit once per week, which is is a pretty decent starting point.
I do understand the concern and fear of losing mass, and I’m not discounting the validity of it. I just take a more pragmatic approach to things: If all you care about is having big legs, who cares if it feels “wrong” to only train chest once every 10 days, or even less?
If at the end of the program you have bigger legs, you accomplished your goal and you and your big legs can go back to training chest again.
I’m certainly willing to agree that you can gain muscle—even as an advanced trainee—on programs focused on whole body growth, but the result is usually not impressive.
On the other hand, there are a lot of great programs from a lot of great coaches that can lead to significant growth over a considerable length of time.
For me, that’s not good enough.
I believe in acceleratory, single-minded bursts of focused training, intended to produce dramatic results in a relatively short time-frame.
Given that mindset, specialization programs are great for someone like me. They’re quick, fun, and the visibility of the results are intensely satisfying.
Bigger arms in four weeks? Sign me the hell up.