I’ve done a lot of dieting and eating writing in the past couple of weeks and didn’t got the chance to actually sit down and write something about what I love most – training. I’ve seen the debate “high volume training versus high intensity” training pop up quite a lot and decided dedicate some time to this topic.
There are some respectable people in the fitness industry, with great physiques such as Chris Jones (he is mostly on YouTube) that stand behind the high volume type of training and there some (such as Mike Matthews) that are advocates of high intensity type of training, so which one should you do? Keep on reading and let’s find out.
Should you train high volume or high intensity? Figure it out for yourself by reading on.
First and foremost let’s see what training volume and training intensity is.
What is training volume?
Training volume refers to number of sets, repetitions and weight lifted. There are two ways in which you can express or calculate training volume:
- Total number of reps
- Total weight moved.
If you are doing 4 chest exercises, 4 sets each and 8 reps each set, the training volume will be 4x4x8 which means 128 reps. This is the most common way of expressing training volume – number of reps per week per muscle group.
Training volume can also be expressed through the amount of weight “moved” during your workouts. Let’s go back to the example above and add the weight to the equation.
If you are doing 4 sets of incline bench press, 8 reps each with 225 pounds, the training volume will be 4x8x225 which means 7,200 pounds.
That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Training volume is either the number of reps you do per muscle group, either the weight you are moving.
Bottom line, a high volume training routine means high reps, high sets, light/medium weights.
What is training intensity?
Training intensity refers to how heavy the weights are, relative to your 1 rep max (1RPM). So if your 1RPM on a certain exercise is 100 lbs. and you are working out with 85 lbs. it means that you are training with an intensity of 85% of 1RPM.
Bottom line, high intensity training means low reps, heavy weights.
Don’t confuse high volume training with high intensity training
Many people get the two mixed up. High intensity training has nothing to do on how intense the actual workout feels on your body. If you are doing high repetition super sets or drop sets, that will feel very intense on your body, but that is not training with high intensity. It’s training with high volume.
Training with high volume may feel intense on your body, but it does not mean you are doing high intensity training. Don’t confuse the two terms.
As you can imagine already you can’t train high volume and high intensity. You can do one or the other. Intensity will affect the amount of volume you can do and how frequent you can train (because you will need longer recovery periods after a high intensity workout).
How much intensity is high intensity?
High intensity is using a weight that does not allow you to do more than 6-7 reps per set. This pretty much translates to using a weight which is 85-90% of your 1PRM. Simple! At least that is what I consider to be intensive for me. And it looks like I’m close to other more trust worthy sources are saying. Here is a quote from The American College of Sports Medicine’s:
“…..it is recommended that individuals use a wider loading range from 1 to 12 RM in a periodized fashion with eventual emphasis on heavy loading (1-6 RM) using 3- to 5-min rest periods between sets…”
End of quote.
So, you could say that as a general rule, as long as you stay within the 6-7 rep max range (going to failure or 1 rep short of failure) you are in the high intensity training zone. The thing that I find interesting here is that studies show that working in very little rep ranges such as 1-3 reps, which are considered beneficial for strength training, are also beneficial from a muscle growth point of view.
How much volume is high volume?
If thing are quite clear when we are referring to high intensity training, when it comes to high volume things get a little bit fuzzy, leaving room for interpretation, because you can go really high volume depending on the weights you are using.
For me, a high volume workout is when I do at least 10 reps (2-3 reps short of failure) per set and manage to get in at least 20 sets per muscle group per week. This means about 200 reps per muscle group per week. This can be done using working load of about 65-70% of 1RPM or even lower if you want to train for endurance. But this is just my own and personal opinion. 200 reps per seem like an outrageous training volume and I agree. I am doing this as a replacement for cardio in fact.
The American College of Sports Medicine’s considers 8-12RM for 1-3 sets per body part, with a training frequency of 2-3 times per week an optimal high volume training for beginners. If you do the math this means an average of about 120-140 reps per workout if you do a full body workout routine, including: chest, back, biceps, triceps, shoulders, legs.
Same institute recommends working out with 70% up to 100% of 1RPM for 3 to 6 sets, 4 to 6 times a week, for more advanced lifters – which would look like a very wide loading range from 1 to 12 reps that you can chose from based on your personal preference or goals.
Some of the most successful workout plans out there include up to 90 reps per muscle group per week, so theoretically anything above that can be considered high volume.
What about training frequency?
As you may suspect, training volume is also influenced by training frequency, right? Well, yes but not so much. Training frequency is just a way for you to arrange the workouts within one week, based on your personal schedule.
You can hit all body parts one time a week or two times a week, but at the end of the week the volume can be the same. And this is what actually matters. Frequency is not the important factor here. Volume and intensity are. There is scientific evidence behind this.
Training frequency alone will not have an impact on the amount of muscle you will build, volume and intensity will.
High volume vs. high intensity when bulking or cutting
It is a good idea to train in various training intensity and volume based on what you are doing at that particular time – cutting or bulking.
As you already know, you will lose weight (cut) or gain weight (bulk) based on the energy balance you create: energy IN versus energy OUT.
A high volume type of training routine will increase your metabolic rate and the energy OUT will increase as well, making it easier for you to be in a caloric deficit, without cutting back on calories too much. This is great for fat loss and makes perfect sense when cutting. Really high volume weight lifting can also be a replacement for doing cardio, if you are not into it.
High volume training means you will be using lighter weights which most likely will not result in extra strength or muscle gains, which, again, is something that you don’t expect to happen when you’re cutting.
A high volume workout plan works great when cutting.
If you are bulking, a smart workout routine to pick is a high intensity one, using really heavy weights, pushing yourself to make strength progress and force muscle adaptation. You will make most of your gains (whenever it’s strength or muscle growth) when you are in a caloric surplus anyway, therefore it make total sense to try to lift heavier when you are bulking.
A high intensity workout plan works great when bulking.
High volume vs. high intensity and training experience
As you may know already, you will make most of you muscle gains in the first couple of years of lifting, after that the progress will become much more difficult.
Both science based studies and anecdotal evidence show that inexperienced lifters to not need a shit load of volume in order to make progress. Strength and muscle gains happen literally every time you hit the gym when you are starting out, so a better approach would be to keep the workouts how volume, high intensity and high frequency.
To an absolute beginner I would recommend doing full body workouts 3 to 4 times a week, doing just a couple of sets per each muscle group.
Things change once you get more advanced, and volume starts to play a bigger role. Unfortunately, there are no studies to support this, but based on anecdotal evidence, people with more than 5-6 years of proper lifting experience seem to benefit more from doing high volume workouts rather than high intensity or from alternating high intensity and high volume training methods.
High volume vs. high intensity depending on goals
I wrote an article not too long ago about muscle hypertrophy and talked a little bit about the two types of muscle fibers – fast twitching and slow twitching and how each of them has its own role.
If you want to train for endurance you should focus on hitting the slow twitching fibers, by training really high volume and if you want to train for strength and size you should target the fast twitching fibers, by training with high intensity.
Nevertheless, training for endurance would require doing very high volume which has nothing to do with bodybuilding actually.
Let’s try to wrap this up and see what are the takeaways of all of the above. First and foremost you should be aware that there are 3 major variables you can tweak when planning your workout:
- Training volume
- Training intensity
- Training frequency
All 3 variables are related to each other and influence the other: increasing the intensity will automatically decrease the volume you will be able to do, and the other way around – doing high volume will lower the intensity.
On top of that you have the training frequency which is just a way of arranging your workouts thought the week.
Remember these things:
- High volume is great for cutting periods and for increasing the energy OUT.
- High intensity is great for increasing strength and size, especially when bulking.
- Frequency does not matter as long as you get in the volume and intensity you are after at the end of the week.
- High intensity is anything above 85% of 1 RPM.
- High volume is anything above 90 reps per muscle group per week.
Lastly but not least please take into consideration that a large part of the information above is based on personal experience of people with more or less training background, and may not work for you. As usual there is not magic formula that fits all.