Volume vs Intensity - A never-ending debate


If this was an actual boxing match...

High intensity looks aggressive, ready to fight, but many would wonder if he's a little too punch-drunk to put up a good fight. Mike Mentzer and Arthur Jones are in his corner, each carrying a spit bucket.

High volume looks more relaxed, perhaps even too much. There are few cuts on his face. In his corner, you might find any number of '70s and '80s bodybuilders, such Arnold or Serge Nubret.

High intensity's robe carries the words "One set to value" on the back, while high volume's reads "More is better." This is the fight that had to happen, when the new kid on the block wants to knock off the old pro.

A bit overly dramatic? Perhaps. But in the scenario above, we really do have two ends of the spectrum. And, yes, there's been heated debate between the two opposing philosophies.

Will a winner ever be declared? Doubtfully. So where does that leave you? You're going to have to make up your own mind, and the following will help you do just that.

When we talk volume and intensity in strength training, the interpretation usually goes as follows: "volume" refers to how many reps and sets are performed, and "intensity" indicates how much weight is lifted, relative to percentage of your maximum capability, and how close you get to failure. 

The universal sporting community perceives the relationship between volume and intensity as being inverse, i.e. the more reps that you do, the lower the weight that you can lift, and vice versa.

Is there a universally accepted definition of what high-volume and high-intensity training constitute? Not that I've seen. So, for the purposes of our discussion, I'm going to apply the following parameters, based on total sets per workout:

Ultra-high volume: 30-plus sets

High volume: 25-30 sets

Medium volume: 12-20 sets

Low volume: 3-10 sets

We've been led to believe that, historically, bodybuilders typically used long workouts that sometimes equated to 40-plus sets, a workout that lasted over two hours. Irrespective of the accuracy of this perception, we're sure that this was the image presented by mainstream bodybuilding of the '70s and '80s. Were the articles accurate reflections of the bodybuilders' methods? Probably not — but they sure as hell made good entertaining reading!

Whatever was the truth, the reading public came to believe that if you want to bodybuild you need a high-volume workout. Did these ultra-high volumes work? I doubt it (well, at least not for long).

This led the slow-learning public to come to their next conclusion: if you want to be a bodybuilder, you need a high-volume workout, and you must also take drugs! So, with this little icing on the cake, the workouts had a greater chance of working. Were these high-volume workouts optimal, even for the drug user? I doubt it.

It was only natural that some began to question the tradition of high-volume training. Industry icons, such as Arthur Jones, were among those to pioneer the popularization of an opposite alternative:

Lower-volume, higher-intensity training

If you accept that lower volume allows you to lift heavier — and it's not a hard thing to do — the only question remains, how low (in volume) should we go?

The high-intensity movement ultimately took it to the extreme, promoting only one set (to failure) for each exercise. Their rationale was that the greatest levels of intensity will be achieved if only one work set per exercise is performed. But will it? Most likely not. Metabolic stress (volume) plays a fair role in growth too.

To achieve maximal effort, the body's nervous system often requires more than this to "trick" it into firing at its optimal level. For sure, doing one set — and one set only — allows you to be "fresh" as far as how much muscle energy (ATP) is available for that set. Neurally, I think that high-intensity training misses the boat. Metabolically, though, somehow I have to agree with them in this regard.

The underlying aim of the high-intensity "movement" was to lower the volume, allowing intensity to be raised. The theory is nice, but some forget that volume isn't just sets per exercise, it's also total sets per workout. So, if you do only one work set per exercise, but perform 20 or more different exercises, you may have paradoxically negated the low-volume advantage!

The most common criticism of "one set to failure" training is the absence of an adequate stimulus (enough work sets) to adequately deplete the total pool of muscle motor units and, therefore, muscle fibers. Again, a fair theory. It holds water. 

The main question comes down to who might benefit from "one set to failure" methods of training. Anyone who's come off a higher-volume program will, most likely, get an immediate benefit — if for no other reason than because the "new" method won't overtrain them to the same extent and finally allow enough time to recover!

Anyone who's recovery-impaired or time-challenged may also benefit from using this method. If, for whatever reason, you aren't recovering well from training, reducing volume is one of my first recommendation. And, for those with limited time (e.g. only 20 minutes) during the day to squeeze in training, you might also benefit from using the "one set to failure" method.

For those people who may benefit from low-volume training, does this mean that they should only use this method? No!

There's no type of training that will be optimal if variety is inadequate! And variety means more than just which exercise that you perform. I strongly recommend that you also vary your volume and intensity in order to avoid adaptation.

If I was to be the "judge" in the high volume versus high intensity "debate," I'd declare them both winners — a draw. I believe that there's merit to both. It's more a matter of knowing which one suits you, when to use either one, and so on. Don't lose the possibility of benefiting from either method by joining a blind dogma!

If I had to choose between volume and intensity — you know, "if you could only choose one training variable," I'd go with intensity. I believe that intensity is more important to neural-based training (such as strength training) than volume. But this doesn't mean that I'm going to throw out volume. It plays a role, too. And a significant One!

If you're not limited to one training variable, you don't need to choose between one or the other — this isn't a presidential election. You can enjoy the benefits that both have to offer.

Therefore, the judges have ruled this fight to be a draw!