Intensity Is Everything: Part 1 - Building New Muscle With Intensity Techniques

Cliff Wilson
Written By: Cliff Wilson
August 19th, 2011
Updated: June 13th, 2020
106.5K Reads
Increase Intensity
Bodybuilder and contest coach Cliff Wilson explores the concepts of training load and volume, helping you to optimize your training and maximize results.

How varying intensity techniques can lead to new muscle.

Workout Intensity

All my life I have always wanted a cool nickname. In high school I even went so far as to try to give myself the nickname C-Dub. This was definitely not a proud moment for me. But recently, after speaking with a friend at my gym I was informed that the majority of the people at my gym already had a nickname for me.

Initially I was excited, but that changed when I found out what my nickname was. My great new nickname is now “That Crazy Guy”. As in, “Be careful not step in front of That Crazy Guy while he’s doing walking lunges.” Apparently, some people at my gym feel that I am crazy because of the level of intensity that I train with. This is not exactly the awesome nickname I had in mind, but I’ll take it.

I don’t expect the average gym goer to understand the need for ever increasing intensity, but too many bodybuilders and figure competitors fail to understand this as well. It doesn’t matter what level of training you are at. If you always do 4 sets of 10 reps on the squat with the same weight every leg day and make no effort to increase the intensity of your workout, your body will make no effort to change the amount of muscle you have.

Just because you get a pump from a workout does not mean you stimulated muscle growth. This is especially important for seasoned lifters. After someone has been training consistently for years it takes extreme measure to make significant improvements.

When it comes to training the word intensity has many different meanings. When putting together a training, program intensity in all forms need to be raised and lowered to make gains without overtraining. Knowing the reactions that the body has to varying levels of intensity will allow you to use many different methods to increase muscle growth.


Load during a set can be expressed as percent of your 1RM (1 Rep Maximum). Lifting weights using both light and heavy loads will induce hypertrophy, which is the primary mechanism of increasing muscle size (1). One very common debate among lifters is whether it is better to lift with lighter loads or heavier loads.

Lifting weights that are approximately 85% 1RM to muscular failure or near muscular failure have been shown to stimulate hypertrophy best (1). Even though the greatest gains in muscle growth are seen with moderate loads, heavy and lighter loads must be used to maximize full potential. This is due to the fact that there are two different types of hypertrophy that occur with resistance training (2).

The first is called myofibrillar hypertrophy. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is an increase in the number and size of the actin and myosin filaments within muscle tissue (2). This type of hypertrophy is accompanied by strength gains since it involves an increase in the contractile tissue (2). Although you cannot completely isolate one type of hypertrophy over another, myofibrillar hypertrophy primarily occurs when lifting with heavy loads for low reps (2).

Those new to lifting should note that they will notice huge increases in strength with little increases in hypertrophy no matter what rep ranges or loads are used. These strength gains are primarily due to neural adaptations, as previously untrained individuals may have difficulty activating their motor units (1).

Workout Intensity

The second type of hypertrophy is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an increase of the sarcoplasm and other non-contractile proteins within muscle cells and is primarily induced by lifting light loads for higher reps (2). This type of growth, although not accompanied by any strength gains, is the primary reason why bodybuilders tend to be more muscular than strength and power athletes.

To continue making muscular gains over long periods of time progressive overload must be applied. To put it simply, if you want to keep growing you have to lift heavier weight. This holds true no matter what rep ranges and loads are used. Increasing your max weight for both high rep and low rep sets should be the ultimate goal for any training program as this is the best way to assure continued growth.

One of the reasons moderate rep ranges produce the greatest gains in muscle tissue may be because the moderate loads allow for the use of heavy weights with more time under tension. This combination seems to strike a balance between inducing large amounts of both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

Too many bodybuilders are still under the misconception that heavy weights for low reps should be lifted to build muscle and light weights for high reps should be lifted to burn fat. Too often I meet new clients that have been working under this assumption for years. Lifting only light weights during a contest diet is a great way to lose muscle and a lot of potential muscle growth is missed out on by never lifting lighter weights in the offseason. A solid weight training program should include heavy, moderate, and light loads to maximize total muscle hypertrophy.

When dieting for a contest this still holds true and will help you retain or even gain muscle while dieting. Weight training should build and preserve muscle tissue while on a contest diet. Let diet and cardio take care of the fat loss. Most importantly when discussing load and intensity is carrying each set to a point that is, at the very least, close to muscular failure. A light load that is only lifted for only a few reps will do no good. If your workout isn’t challenging then that is not training intensely.

Workout IntensityVolume

Volume during training refers to the total amount of work performed within a given workout. Most often though, the term volume is used to describe the number of sets performed during training. Training volume has been a very sensitive subject to many in the bodybuilding community for years.

Many high intensity training advocates, such as Arthur Jones and Mike Mentzer, claim only 1-4 sets to failure per body part are needed to stimulate maximum muscle growth. While others, such as Arnold Swarzenegger, claim that maximum growth will occur by doing 20-25 sets per body part. With such opposite views on training volume, it can be difficult to know how much volume is appropriate.

Although both high and low volume training programs have been proven to be effective, if maximizing muscle growth is the primary goal, then high intensity, high volume training programs must be used. Although it has not been fully proven, research on humans provides indirect evidence for hyperplasia after intense, high volume strength training (3). Hyperplasia is another form of muscle growth that differs from hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is an increase in the size of existing muscle cells, whereas hyperplasia is an increase in the actual number of muscle cells.

The endocrine system, which is responsible for hormone release within the body, is also sensitive to training volume. Varying the amount of work from workout to workout may be used to manipulate the endocrine system and create an optimal hormonal environment. Serum testosterone levels can be increased and adrenal hormones can be optimized by using high volumes with multiple sets of multiple exercises (4).

Although high volume training can be very effective it does come with the risk of overtraining. Adding extra volume to training sessions can cause an increase in anabolic hormones but if too many sets are added too often then it can have the opposite effect. Volume related overtraining will eventually lead to a decrease in lutenizing hormone and free testosterone (5).

Cortisol also becomes an issue with volume-related overtraining. Small cortisol increases during training can lead to growth hormone release and can signal to the body that repairs need to be made, but if high volume training is continued for long periods of time and not cycled it can cause cortisol levels to rise too high and stay there, leading to chronic catabolic responses to cortisol.

Besides the risk of overtraining there is another down side to high volume training. Resistance training in general has been shown to upregulate androgen receptors for 48-72 hours after the workout (5). Unfortunately, high volume workouts will initially downregulate androgen receptors prior the upregulation.

This initial downregulation can be avoided by having a protein/carb mixture pre and post-training. If you have read my past articles you already know the benefits of having a protein/carb mixture before and after training. This just adds another good reason to include these shakes in your nutrition plan.

When discussing the subject of training volume its best to keep an open mind. Too many people get locked into thinking that they must not ever go above or below a certain number of sets. Keep in mind that increasing the volume of your workouts is one of the easiest ways to overtrain, but adding volume is a great way to stimulate growth. Periods of high volume should used to maximize growth, but periods of low volume must be incorporated to ensure that your body can keep up with the demands you are placing on it.


When setting the intensity level for an effective training program, the volume and load used are the first two things that must be addressed. Incorporating varying levels of both the amount of weight used and the number of sets performed can be difficult, but doing so will allow you to prevent overtraining and maximize your genetic potential. These variations can also fluctuate from one body part to the next depending on your individual weak points.

Once you establish the load and volume of your training, there are still two more points that I will address in part II. For now, just make sure the next time you walk into the gym make it a point to scare someone with your intensity. If you do this regularly you can call the promoter of your next show and tell him to go ahead and engrave “That Crazy Guy” on your first place trophy.

Read Part 2: Intensity Is Everything: Rest Periods And Failure »


  1. Chandler, T. J., Brown, L. E., Conditioning for Strength and Human Performance, 2007, 52-53p.
  2. Zatsiorsky, V. M., Kraemer, W. J., Science and Practice of Strength Training, 2006, 50p.
  3. Abernethy, B., The Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement, 2005, 151-152p.
  4. Baechle, T. R., Earle, R. W., Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 2008, 63p.
  5. Baechle, T. R., Earle, R. W., Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 2008, 114-116p.
Posted on: Thu, 02/26/2015 - 09:23

This guy on top of article looks like Serbian BB Filip Jovanovic?

Posted on: Tue, 06/17/2014 - 01:03

I do 3 full body workouts a week. One week is 4 sets of 12 and then the next week is 5 sets of 5 with heavier weight. And then i repeat my cycle. Is that good

Posted on: Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:56

I do 3 full body workouts a week. One week is 4 sets of 12 and then the next week is 5 sets of 5 with heavier weight. And then i repeat my cycle. Is that good

Posted on: Thu, 05/02/2013 - 09:08

What if im doing full body workouts 3 times a week with supersets 1 week then pyramids the next week ?

Posted on: Fri, 04/26/2013 - 20:30

Great article. I advocate high intensity training as well. At the same time, not everyone can train like Branch Warren lol

Posted on: Fri, 06/08/2012 - 12:01

Hello CLiff, I do some of modeling, im 5'9" 176lbs. with a body fat of about 10% to 12%. My preparation for a shoot is lowering my carbs and eating about 2 grams of protein per pound, I can get to a 7%-8% in about a month, how can I keep this body fat levels and the same muscle mass for months, my problem is that i have constant photo shoots about 3 a month and usually in between shoots my abs tend to look blurry.

Craig Yarnall
Posted on: Mon, 09/12/2011 - 00:59

Heavy workouts-POWER
3 warm ups of about 15,10,6
working sets for 4 sets of 5 and a set of 2
then some sort of back off sets for reps (ie. 20 reps, DC rest pauses, couple of lighter sets)
real simple with the tough compound exercises and low reps and volume!

Main muscle group (Chest, Legs, Back & Shoulders)
-1 warm up set of the main exercise
-Then 3 sets of 8 reps for 4-6 sec negatives and these are supersetted with an isolation exercise for 3 sets of 15-20 reps (on legs this is for the hamstrings and quads so 2 exercises)
-The 4 sets of another exercise for 5-7 sec slow positives and at the end of each set do X reps
-Finally finish off the big body part with a double drop for 2 exercises done back to back with 4 drops 5 sets total for each exercise for 8 reps on each set for 40 reps on each movement(sometimes for legs I do a triple drop-leg presses to leg curls to eg extensions)
Accessory or smaller groups (Tris, bis, traps)
-no warm ups now as the bigger group should have done that
-2 sets of 8 for 4-6 sec negatives and superset that with 2 sets of 15 with another exercise
-finally 2 more sets for the same exercise for 5-7 sec slow positives for 2 sets and after the 2nd set do a drop set for 4 drops 5 sets total for 8 reps each set for 40 reps to finish off the smaller groups and done with the light workout.

-2 warm up for the muscle group and then
-Main exercise for this day for that muscle group and each group has their own day, if it’s the bigger groups make sure to use a compound one.
-1st exercise-Hypertrophy move for 4 sets of 6-10 reps
-Now after that comes the density and volume training and it goes like this:
-1st time around will be either trisets or giant sets for either 3-4 times through the circuit for 15 reps on each exercise
-Last exercise will be an FST-7 for that body part-7 sets of 10 with 30 sec breathers in between each set.
2nd time around I change the trisets to what I call 4X stuff for all the exercises and this is doing an exercise for that body part that you can get 15 reps and doing it for 10 reps, but only 30 sec breathers in between each set and on the last one all out and if more than 10 reps up the weight next time. Now for the body parts, this 4X stuff is done like this (leg days(hamstring day and quads day), chest days, back days all get 5 exercises for this style, the shoulders gets 4 exercises and the bis and tris get only 3 exercises for this style at the end.

Cliff Wilson
Posted on: Mon, 09/12/2011 - 12:09

Wow Craig, Thanks for sharing. This is pretty funny. I do something very similar sometimes. I based my version of this workout plan of Fred Hatfield's varied intensity program. I don't follow his program exactly but the premise is similar.

I will do Heavy, Medium, Light workouts just the same. I run the heavy day much like a power lifter. These days the volume will stay low with long rest periods and staying between the 2-5 rep range. These workouts usually focus around Squats, Deadlifts, and Bench press.

For Medium days I will do high volume sticking between the 7-12 rep range. I will do the first exercise in standard fashion. The next exercises will all be supersets. Rest between sets is usually about 1.5-2.5 minutes.

For light days, I will do fairly high volume but not as high as the medium days. These consist of 25-40 reps per set. I will often superset exercises on these days which can be quite painful. lol. There is a strict no failure rule on these days.

This is just a quick rundown but it is fairly similar.

Craig Yarnall
Posted on: Mon, 09/12/2011 - 00:58

Just want to say I love the variation and variety in my non-cyclic periodization program and it really suits many that don't want to hit it the same way each workout for the week and really allows for rest recovery progressions and finally MUSCLE!

Another way to vary this and make more nonlinear

Let’s take a 4 day split to set this all up and the 4 day split will go like this:
Day 1- Legs/Calves
Day 2- Chest/tris
Day 3- Back/bis
Day 4- Shoulders/traps

I really like the 4 day split as one of the best when not getting the overlap of the muscles for enough rest and recovery.

Now let’s take the Heavy-Light-Medium styles of training and use it here to set this scenario all up:

Heavy weeks-(POWER)- 4 sets of 5 reps along with a set of 2 and some back off lighter sets for the main 4 body parts, no accessory body parts done with this workout.

Light Weeks-(TIME UNDER TENSION)- The weight used here are very light to allow joint and CNS recovery. The styles used here are Negatives sets, supersets, slow positives and drop sets. Extra time where the muscles will be under tension for more than a minute straight.

Medium weeks-(HYPERTROPHY/VOLUME)- 1st exercise will be done as the main one that will be considered the hypertrophy exercise for 4 sets of 6-10 reps. The workout will be then done in a fashion that entails higher reps and volume with little to no rest. I alternate these workouts to finish them off with either trisets/giant sets for 3-4 cycles of 15 reps with FST=7’s to finish the workout one week or I do the 4X method which will entail using a weight that you can do for 15 reps and now try and do that weight for 10 reps with only 30 second breathers in between each set and all out on the last set if more than 10 reps the weight should be increased. With the big three I do 5 exercises, shoulders are 4 exercises and the arms are done for 3 exercises.

Now the layout/scheme for our NON-LINEAR PERIODIZATION
Day 1- Legs(H)
Day 2- Chest/Tris(L)
Day 3- OFF
Day 4- Back only(M)
Day 5- Shoulders only(H)
Day 6- OFF
Day 7- Biceps only(M)
Day 8- Legs(L)
Day 9- Chest only(M)
Day 10- OFF
Day 11- Back(H)
Day 12- Shoulders/Traps(L)
Day 13- OFF
Day 14- Tris only(M)
Day 15- Legs Hammies only(M)
Day 16- OFF
Day 17- Chest only(H)
Day 18- Back/Bis(L)
Day 19- Legs Quads only(M)
Day 20- OFF
Day 21- Shoulders only(M)
Day 22- OFF
Day 23- Starts the cycle over again

Now if you look when I do the medium days I like to give the body parts their own specialization day.
Week 1- Back and bis specialization
Week 2- Chest and tris specialization
Week 3- Legs on two days hams and quads specialization

I think this might actually be the best set up I have not used yet for adequate recovery and let the heavy days have their day without being taxed the rest of the week, but in a different style getting their own stresses!

Posted on: Sat, 09/10/2011 - 08:01

Hi Cliff,

Just finished making my new workout programme to start next week.

I know you said in the articles that the rep ranges etc have to be tried out to find which is best but I just wanted to check that i'm in the correct ranges.

For my high reps im doing most 15,12,10 rep ranges as well as a few matrix sets on some exercises on the last sets. Im only doing 3 sets of each. would you suggest more or is 3 good?

Also for my low rep days im looking at 6,4,2 and failure on a few of the exercises on the last sets. Again im only doing 3 sets. would you suggest doing more or less?

Thanks for all your help!


Cliff Wilson
Posted on: Mon, 09/12/2011 - 11:57

Hey Lewis,

I think that those rep ranges look excellent. Very good mix. 3-5 sets of a given exercise is usually pretty good. Just make sure you do not end up doing too many different exercises. I have found that I will get good results doing 6-18 total sets per body part.

You are definitely on the right track though. Keep up the good work.

Posted on: Thu, 09/08/2011 - 03:19

Brilliant! Thanks Cliff you have been an awesome help! Will deff keep reading your articles!

Keep up the good work bud,


Posted on: Mon, 09/05/2011 - 10:16

Hi Cliff,

Great article!

I was wondering when making a programme to do how you just described is it best to:

A) change rep ranges and load amounts week by week? For example do high load, low reps for 1 week then change to low loads, high reps in the week after and continue this for 6 weeks


B) Have a 4-6 week programme of high load low reps and then after the 4-6 weeks change it to a programme with low load, high reps?

Would be a real help if you could get back to me.

Many thanks,


Cliff Wilson
Posted on: Tue, 09/06/2011 - 11:09

Hey Lewis,

That is really good question. I prefer option B. I am not saying you should never do a program as you described in option A but there is a problem with this method. In any program it is important to make progress. If you change things too often then your body will not be given a chance to make improvements in a particular rep range or for a particular exercise.

Another good choice is to train each body part twice per week, once with high reps, and once with low reps. This has worked very well for me in the past and I use this a lot with my clients.

Let me know if you need a little more explanation but I think this should cover you.

Posted on: Tue, 09/06/2011 - 15:39

Thanks Cliff,

That helps a lot! so basically the best workout would be to do each muscle group twice a week once with high reps once with low reps? how would you schedule the workout? for example would you do mon, tue, wed high reps. Then thur fri, sat low reps? or how would you plan it? Sorry to be a pain and keep asking questions but I love trying new things out and this article has really caught my eye!

Many thanks mate,


Cliff Wilson
Posted on: Wed, 09/07/2011 - 10:13

No problem about the questions Lewis. This what I love to do. I like to try and keep training at 4-5 days per week. I am not saying I never train 6 days per week but it is not a common occurrence. Here is two ways you could schedule your week.

Option A

Day 1- Chest, Arms (low rep)
Day 2- Legs, Abs (low rep)
Day 3- Back, Delts (low rep)
Day 4- Off
Day 5- Chest, Arms (high rep)
Day 6- Legs, Abs (high rep)
Day 7- Back, Delts (high rep)
Day 8- Off

Option B

Day 1- Upper Body (low rep)
Day 2- Lower Body (low rep)
Day 3- Off
Day 4- Chest, Triceps, Delts (high rep)
Day 5- Back, Biceps (high rep)
Day 6- Legs, Abs (high rep)
Day 7- Off

Both of these will work really well for training each body part twice per week without causing overtraining. Give it a try, you should make some nice gains off of these.

Posted on: Tue, 08/30/2011 - 20:49

Very informative article. I now know that my current workout is one of the most effective ones I've used since it includes 4 weeks from heavy to light to moderate to intense. Everything needs to rest even the body from working out...

Cliff Wilson
Posted on: Thu, 09/01/2011 - 12:46

Sounds like you've got the right idea.

Craig Yarnall
Posted on: Tue, 08/23/2011 - 21:03

Just let you know I started something from an Ironman mag, kind of picked up from these articles as well and is in the muscle building section. The author of these articles is an advisor to the NSCA and is working on his Phd in you guessed it, muscle hypertrophy!

Brad Schoenfeld is a pretty good guy too!

Posted on: Mon, 08/22/2011 - 02:07

Gud stuff!!!

Craig Yarnall
Posted on: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 19:00

You should also check out my newest non linear periodization as well follows these principles to name a few:

Talk about this over and over again! reps and set and styles change to help with hypertrophy

Cliff Wilson
Posted on: Tue, 08/23/2011 - 02:31

Good threads Craig. Thanks for sharing.

Craig Yarnall
Posted on: Fri, 08/19/2011 - 18:58

I have a thread about this and talked about it a bit to some already. not a bad thread and very good stuff!