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Variation Training for Muscle Growth

By Sean “Sully” Sullivan


Weight training is as varied as diet. Everyone has the best program and every new champ brings a change to the way millions of us train. Why? As athletes we seem to take up the charge of the latest sensation with no regard to the thought process that went into the program. When Arnold was king we all did 2-hour workouts with 30 sets a body part. Then came Mike Mentzer and we all went to the 3-day per week one set phase. Lee Haney became king and moderate volume and high reps were in vogue. In Dorian Yates’s day it was blood and guts intensity and then we shot back to the volume theory with Ronnie Coleman. Dante uses high intensity with his Dogg Crapp training program. Who is right? Well, all of them actually. Why? Because they all found what worked best for them, but that may not be what is best for YOU!


I cannot provide you with a best program, but just like a diet, I can provide you with some variables to add and get you on your way. First, all training programs will work…and all programs will stop working. This is due to the adaptogenic response. Vince Giranda thought this out back in the 50’s and came up with the 21-day-on 7-day-off program. You would train on a program for 21 days, do a 7 day transition into the next 21-day program, and so on. Fred Hatfield was one of the first to write extensively about this topic in the early 80’s. His research led him to what is known as the 21 day window. After approximately 21 days your body will acclimate to the stimuli and gains will be diminished. The program may still work, but each cycle completed will produce fewer results. Charles Poloquin goes with a 6 workout plan. After the sixth workout for a program he changes all the variables because the body had adapted. I am not sure the 21-day window fits all, but I do find that in 3-6 weeks I have fully adapted to a program and need to change things around.


How much you change is another topic of debate. Some, such as Ian King, feel the program must change from the ground up – reps, speed of the reps, number of sets, number of days training, etc. If you fall in line with the Max-OT theory (see ast-ss-com for info on Max-OT) you only change order of exercises or the day you train a specific body part. The point is the body does need change to have progressive results. How much and how often is up to you, but I do have methods to determine program effectiveness. Some of my clients change workouts weekly or even daily, others once a month. It again depends on many variables. There is one constant I have found. The older your training age (number of years training) the more often and more dramatic the change needs to be.


Another aspect of training is hormonal manipulation. Training needs to provide two functions, fiber stimuli and hormonal secretion. There are scores of studies confirming certain types of training produce significant release of certain hormones. How much of that release can actually be used by the body for muscle increase and fat loss is debatable. Empirical evidence suggests there is merit to hormonal secretions and training. An example is testosterone. Research has concluded that testosterone is secreted in large amounts from heavy lower rep loads and shorter duration workouts. A typical 45 minute heavy squat workout will raise testosterone levels far greater then a giant set back workout with lesser loads performed for 90 minutes. The giant sets will, however, trigger a greater GH (growth hormone) release than the squat workout. This becomes another variable in training – cycle workouts based on specific hormonal secretions. One way to do this is by alternating specific workouts over a 2 to 3 week cycle. For example, do heavy low rep work over a 3 day split week #1. Week #2 could be a 5 day split using giant sets for 12 reps to get a pump effect and GH release. Week #3 could be a moderate volume week with negative reps to increase IGF-1 release (another hormone). The point is to put some logic in your training and base the program on your goals.


I have come up with many program designs that I base on my clients’ goals. These programs are then tweaked, taking in variables such as chronological age, training age, body type and whether they are in a negative caloric diet (pre-contest mode). Specific ideas and designs I use are not necessarily a product of my own. I have found that most information is not unique to the coach or trainer. There are some cutting edge and new program designs out there and I will provide you with a list of the best to review and research for your needs:


The Max-OT training system is a valid and useful program. It is available at astss.com and you can sign up for the program for free. I find myself going back to this site often. Another excellent source is T-mag.com (T-nation). They have several excellent programs you can pull up in their archives. Use the search engine and check out Pendulum bodybuilding by Christian Thibaudeau, HST by Brian Haycock, Dante and his Dogg Crapp program, FST-7 and the EDT series. As for books and authors I found Fred Hatfield’s books to be excellent. I also have the full Charles Poloquin and Ian King series. Both are highly respected authorities and use valid scientific points to back their theories. Other good sources of training information are bodybuilding.com, bodybuildingworld.com, and muscleandstrength.com.


To begin making gains you need to understand what your objectives are and use some rationale in your training. Plan your programs using your own body’s needs and punch in your specific variables. Explore other training systems and keep what works. Never blindly follow the latest superstar arm workout!


Learn more about Sean “Sully” Sullivan at