Maximum Overload Training

Pair heavy weights with brief workouts to get bigger and stronger.

Get stronger and get bigger. That’s the foundation of most bodybuilding systems. The arguments are fought over questions like: how heavy, how many, how long, how intense, which exercises? For Max-OT the answers are: maximum, four to six, 30–40, failure, basic. Get in the gym, stimulate growth with a heavy and brief assault, and a half-hour or so later you’re out the door. Max-OT has carved out its own unique niche somewhere between power bodybuilding and high intensity. It’s a philosophy of lower reps, lower volume, and short workouts. You don’t hear as much about it as you did a decade ago, but it remains a valuable philosophy. In fact, Max-OT may just be the right system for you to maximize gains.


Maximum Overload Training, better known as Max-OT, was developed by Paul Delia, and it rose to prominence when its two greatest proponents, Skip LaCour and Jeff Willet, won the NPC/IFBB Team Universe in 2002 (LaCour) and 2003 (Willet). The two words most associated with Max-OT are heavy and brief. Working sets for everything but abs consist of only four to six reps. This boosts intensity, as it’s easier to focus on every rep when you do fewer of them. Select a weight with which you’ll hit failure at no more than six reps, and choose mostly exercises that allow you to hoist the heaviest weights. For example, barbell curls are better than concentration curls, because you can move more metal and thus better overload the biceps. 

So all sets are heavy. The other key component of Max-OT is its brevity. Do no more than three sets per exercise, only six to nine sets per body part, and ideally train only one body part per workout and no more than two. This creates workouts that last only 30-40 minutes. Intense training stimulates growth-promoting hormones, but these decrease after about 40 minutes. Brief workouts stay within your “anabolic window.” Furthermore, you have limited stores of strength and intensity, and by keeping your training time short, you’re able to bring your best to each set.


Max-OT is a complete program. Unlike some training styles, you can’t just select what you like and disregard the rest. You’re certainly welcome to do a few sets of four to six reps within a standard bodybuilding program but don’t call those your Max-OT sets. For Max-OT to be effective, every set needs to be heavy and every workout needs to be brief. Another thing to note about Max-OT is that it shares similarities with high-intensity training, but it’s not technically HIT. Max-OT features a little more volume than most HIT workouts, and, though all sets are pushed to failure, they’re not pushed beyond failure. At most, do one forced rep to eke out that last rep. The sort of modified HIT training Mark Dugdale did for years came close to Max-OT. He did a similar quantity of sets, but with slightly higher reps (six to eight most sets), and he frequently journeyed beyond failure.

For Max-OT to be effective you can’t just use the same heavy weights over and over again. You need to hoist heavier and heavier weights. Because your rep range is limited to six, you won’t be getting more reps with the same weight. Instead, you need to use more weight for the same reps. This is another reason compound, basic lifts are preferable to isolation exercises. It’s easier to make 5- to 10-pound strength jumps on the bench press than the pec-deck flye, simply because you’ll use much more weight on the former. (Our sample chest routine includes both exercises, but it emphasizes the former more.) Variety also aids strength gains. You tend to plateau doing the same exercises in the same order over and over again, so switch your exercises at least once every four weeks. 

Studies have shown that eight to 12 reps per set is the sweet spot for maximum growth. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to grow, and it doesn’t mean that some different method isn’t ideal for your body. In our July/ August issue, we discussed 100-rep sets. They work. So do sets of only four to six reps. A favorite bodybuilding maxim is: Everything works, but nothing works forever. Your body can grow accustomed to any style of training, whether your sets consist of five, 10, or 100 reps. The good news is when gains stagnate, you can switch to a completely different system. Try Max-OT for two months. You may discover it’s not for you long term, or you may find that heavy and brief are your keys to stronger and bigger.


  • Perform 4–6 reps per set and 6–9 sets per body part.
  • Push every set to failure but not beyond.
  • Rest 2–3 minutes between sets.
  • Workouts should last no more than 40 minutes, and 30 minutes is optimal.


  • Focus mostly on compound and basic exercises, the kind that allow you to use the heaviest weights.
  • Body parts should be worked once every 5–7 days.
  • Take 1 week off from training every 8–10 weeks.
  • Warm up with fast, light, high-rep sets.


Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets, 4–6 reps

Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets, 4–6 reps

Flat Dumbbell Flye: 2 sets, 4–6 reps

Pec-deck Flye: 1 sets, 4–6 reps


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