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Volume Or High Intensity: Which is Best?

Volume Vs. High Intensity: Which Style Of Training Is Best For Growth?

Average: 3.6 (17 votes)
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High volume, high intensity, heavy weight and time under tension. Dustin Elliott explains which is best for muscle growth, and which can lead to overtraining.

One of the hottest arguments in bodybuilding today is the ideal training method to accelerate muscle growth. The argument seems to be neverending, and no matter how much research is released in regards to training and muscle growth, it appears there will never be a definite answer because of all the different factors involved. At first it was the heavier you lift, the more size you will gain…what followed was research revealing the hormonal response to high intensity, volume exercises with short rest periods; it has long since been believed that this hormonal response during exercise was responsible for muscle growth.

What exercise physiologists soon discovered however was that this acute hormonal response was simply a stress response similar to the testosterone release that accompanies a high dose of caffeine (1). This leads to fat being released into the blood stream for use as fuel (this concept of stress, adrenaline etc. releasing fat is great for exercise, however for sedentary individuals who do not exercise on a regular basis these elevated triglyceride levels can lead to atherosclerosis and poor blood vessel health.)

Today’s current leading theories for muscle growth point to ‘Time Under Tension’ as a means for growth. While time under tension training is widely considered to be the most effective because of the research supporting it (as noted in the ‘You are What You Lift’ article) the actual overall training method used to reach hypertrophy is still being argued. There are many who believe in high intensity techniques: low volume, high load training; as a means to illicit muscle growth.

While many others who come from a powerlifting background believe in sacrificing weight to incorporate high volume training. Some of the most well known advocates on both sides are genetically superior professional bodybuilders and their physiques/progress alone is not enough evidence to settle the score. To do so, we must take a look at the advantages of both styles of training and draw the proper conclusions from the research as to what actually leads to growth.

High volume, low intensity training is the most traditional and widely accepted form of training among most weight lifting regulars. The idea is to incorporate multiple sets to repeatedly target a specific muscle group in an attempt to breakdown muscle tissue and increase tension time as a means to illicit growth. Some of the most profound evidence for using volume points to its ability to increase markers of protein synthesis post-exercise which is a very important indicator for muscle growth (2).

However, despite the research pointing to this style of training supposedly promoting growth there are a few things that have to be put into a different light to understand the limitations of sticking to one style of training. The first, is the research that shows it’s correlation with protein synthesis, there were no glaring issues with the study itself, only with what most people take from the study as proof of high volume being the correct training style…here is the definition of protein synthesis from Biology-Online.org : “The creation of proteins by cells that uses DNA, RNA and various enzymes” Her is another definition from Dictionary.Reference.com: “the process by which amino acids are linearly arranged into proteins through the involvement of ribosomal RNA, transfer RNA, messenger RNA, and various enzymes.” (I’m using independent definitions and not my own so that you know I didn’t word it to support my argument).

What you’ll notice from both definitions is that protein synthesis is the process by which the body repairs damaged muscle tissue from exercise, and while it is involved in muscle growth, IT IS NOT A CUT AND DRY INDICATOR THAT YOU ARE BUILDING MUSCLE. Now this is not to knock volume training, but it is a sign that the most supportive research of this style of training isn’t conclusive enough to end the argument. Another key factor to be weary of is this; if you can only grow when tissue repair exceeds tissue damage (Exercise Science 101) then when is constantly causing muscle damage from high volume training going to limit you?

Volume vs. Intensity

If you're on drugs it’s okay, you can train everyday and not have a problem…but when you're natural you don’t need to be in the realm of overtraining, to be training more than your body can recover from, limiting growth. What this means is that you can be training too often for too long and limiting growth without even suffering from symptoms of overtraining. Again, this is not to knock high volume training, but this is supposed to make you think twice about using high volume training year round.

Now on to high intensity training. Some of the key principles supporting high intensity training are based upon the fact that you can induce muscle damage and failure in fewer sets than you think and you can only grow when you are recovering. One of the key principles for this training style is to make every second in the gym count so that you can spend more time growing. While this is a novel idea, some of its biggest critics argue whether or not you are able to maximize tension time with so few sets and with fatigue increasing the perceived load of the weight you’re lifting.

What the latter part of the last sentence means is that while high volume training is notorious for leading to overtraining of the musculoskeletal system, high intensity training with heavy loads is notorious for leading to central nervous system overtraining (3). If you’re involved in a high intensity routine, just because your muscles are failing to lift a load, does not mean that that is the result of muscle damage.

It is entirely possible to go to failure on lifts during a training routine, without inducing the tension time necessary for growth. Despite these concerns for high intensity training, the fact remains the same that the best way to induce progress is to increase the amount of weight you are using to induce muscular tension, and the only way to do so is to incorporate heavier lifting during some point of your routine to promote progression. High intensity training certainly has the heavier weight aspect incorporated.

So the question is which training style is best? As far as what method incorporates aspects of both styles, Arthur Jones, the founder of Nautilus back in the 1970’s, still stakes a claim to being one of the geniuses of strength and conditioning as his form of high intensity training focused on relatively low volume cadence lifting that brought muscles to failure without over stimulating the central nervous system or overdoing things with total volume.

This training style has never been proven by research to be best for athletes and bodybuilders as a year round program because of a lack of periodization (progressive cycles of training and overload to promote progression in training) principles which are basic to strength and conditioning today. The best possible end result is to use periodization techniques, as discussed in my article for cycling training programs.

Use the research proven method of low load, high volume training as your base and intermix it with high load, low volume training to support active rest for your muscles and increase your strength to allow for progression.

Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.

  1. Beaven CM, Hopkins WG, Hansen KT, Wood MR, Cronin JB, Lowe TE. Dose effect of caffeine on testosterone and cortisol responses to resistance exercise. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2008 Apr;18(2):131-41.
  2. Burd NA. low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS One, 2010 Aug 9;5(8): e 12033
  3. Lehman, Manfred et.al. Overload, Performance Incompetence, and Regeneration in Sport. 1999, 187-202, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-585-34048-7_15

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  • About The Author
    Dustin Elliott has a Bachelors in Exercise Physiology, and is a member of the Betancourt Nutrition team.
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Comments (17)

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Steve T
Posted Wed, 12/15/2010 - 03:38

Dustin -

You really need a summary paragraph at the end revisiting what you covered and clarifying your conclusions.

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dusitn elliott ...
Posted Thu, 12/16/2010 - 14:12

ok, how about a makeshift summary-

Basically there isn't enough research available to prove that high volume training independent of the high intensity is enough illicit optimal muscle growth. Also, despite the necessity of high intensity exercise in a training regimin, their is less research to support it for muscle growth, than there is for volume training. The ideal situation would be to supplement volume training with periods of high intensity lifting.

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Eric
Posted Mon, 04/07/2014 - 19:25

So basically what everyone who lifts on a regular basis does anyways... Thanks for a reminder of how much bs is on the internet about this stuff but still.. any discerning reading knows this..

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Faust
Posted Sun, 01/02/2011 - 23:39

so are you basicaly stating the best idea would be to do both? example, 1-2 months of volume and then switch off high intensity??

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Alex
Posted Sun, 02/20/2011 - 17:20

I read an article "Interview With Ripped Robbie Sardinia, Mr. California" where robbie sardina said that he trained using a split of doing hypertrophy one week and power lifting the next to maximase growth, what do you think of this kind of routine?

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Davie Caldwell
Posted Fri, 06/24/2011 - 02:16

I agree with the article and adopt a split regime. Mon,wed, friday I do high intensity tabata training while tues,thursday,sat I go for high volume low intensity weight lifting. This keeps my body guessing and I believe it gives me the best of both worlds. Everyone is different though

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Reece
Posted Mon, 04/30/2012 - 01:30

I might be wrong but.... Didn't Mike focus on volume and arnie on intensity?

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Raymond
Posted Wed, 08/15/2012 - 08:44

Mike Mentzer focused on H.I.T.,this was after he met Arthur Jones who developed it. Mike took his training methods and adapted them to his own style .... for reference taks a look at The Colorado Experiment which was done in 1973 if my memories are correct .....

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Rey
Posted Tue, 08/21/2012 - 01:40

wrong, the article has it right.

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Apollo Nutraceutical
Posted Wed, 02/13/2013 - 19:44

Just have a look at Arnold physique and look at Mikes, and there you have the answer. For all this talk of Mikes HIT work, he placed 4th place at the 1980's Olympia. So even if Arnold's win was "rigged" as he claims 2 other people placed before him either way.

Doing a higher volume of work always trumps this short but intense workout style - in the long run. HIT was also a big part of Arnold's training style, but it wasn't the ONLY type. You need a good mix of both for the best results.

Arnold always maintained levels of high intensity during his high volume work - but not always to the level of HIT. You cant get good results by using low intensity weight training , that's just called being lazy.

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Brent
Posted Wed, 09/25/2013 - 21:08

The only reason Mike took 4th is because he was cheated out of that contest because he went against the grain. Everyone there was shocked and there were LOTS of booing because people knew Mentzer was cheated out of what was his. If you look at Arnie and Mike, Mike was in MUCH better shape. Arnie decided to compete 3 months from the 1980 Mr. O. He looked like $hit!

The reason he placed forth was because he was outspoken and said protein powder was bs, supps are bs, and the workout routines were BS. They set an example with Mentzer and placed him 4th to let everyone know not to open their mouth about Weider and his lies.

HIT works! Look at Yates! He was way bigger than Arnie. He only worked out 3 days a week for 1 hour or less. If HIT doesn't work how did Yates get to be the best BB of that era and weigh 250+? You can't say steroids because Arnie and Mentzer both had basically the same roids that Yates had.

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Ken B
Posted Sat, 03/09/2013 - 05:27

Too many factors to provide a blanket answer. Diet, training consistency, mental states and stress levels, drug interference (such as prescription that have nothing to do with bodybuilding), steroid use, training history, and most important of all -- genetics -- all play a major role in how much muscle can be added to a person's physique over time. All of these variables also change naturally over time, but these moving details would need to be incorporated into ANY research that is done and even then, once you have an answer, there's no guarantee that you will achieve the same, if any, or better results.

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FM
Posted Sat, 04/27/2013 - 09:05

This article is based on a scientific paper written in 2010 and it was based on research conducted by Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, and other research institutions in Canada and the UK.
This is a REAL scientific paper, based on real scientific experiments (including muscle biopsies!) not some non-sense written by someone who is interested in selling books.
The title of the paper is "Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates
Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men" can be downloaded for free. Just Google the title.

Download the paper and skip to page 7, where we find the following conclusion:
"We report for the first time that low-load high volume resistance exercise (30FAIL) is more effective at increasing muscle protein synthesis than high-load low volume resistance exercise (90FAIL).
Specifically, the 30FAIL protocol induced similar increases in MYO protein synthesis to that induced by the 90FAIL protocol at 4 h post-exercise but this response was sustained at 24 h only in
30FAIL.
it is now apparent that the extent of MYO protein synthesis after resistance exercise is not entirely load
dependent, but appears to be related to exercise volume and, we speculate, to muscle fibre activation and most likely to the extent of type II fibre recruitment.

Sorry kids, but real science states that high volume training to failure is better at protein synthesis than low volume, heavy weight HIT. High Volume training to failure has long lasting effects on the body.
If you want to get ripped and defined, High Volume is the way to go.
If you want to look just big and bloated, go for HIT.

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catalin manea
Posted Wed, 10/02/2013 - 15:42

Low volume and high intensity works best for me. I guess it also depends if you're natty or not

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Gary
Posted Sat, 12/28/2013 - 22:16

Most people don't have the mental discipline or focus to take a set to total failure. Doing sets beyond that seem to be nothing more then a waste of time.

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riz
Posted Wed, 01/29/2014 - 11:24

I do 1 week fullbody 1 week split and change it every week.
I allways do 3 sets per excercise excl. warming up.
Set 1: 1-4 reps.
Set 2: 8-12 reps.
Set 3: 20-30 reps.

And sometimes I do a 200rep dropset.

This gives me strenght, mass, endourange and muscle confusion. It works for me I see gains in all aspects.

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Everett
Posted Tue, 04/08/2014 - 08:58

HIT can be a great training tool for growth, the hardest part is getting people to actually rest and recover to allow for the growth process to occur and that's why people who go from Volume to High Intensity start seeing growth rather quickly. Both training methodologies are of value, I do full body "traditional" splits 3 times per week and always shoot for 1 Day of HIT and 2 Days of Volume. Why leave anything to chance, use both to your advantage!

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