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

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