Perhaps you are new to the game of lifting heavy shit. You’ve seen some programs which culminate in one all-out set, and other which call for multiple sets with sub-maximal weights. Why are people using two seemingly different methods to add strength and size? This article will help explain the differences of using intensity and volume in a training program, and allow you to get a better understanding of how each can be used properly to gain said size and strength.
When most people think of intensity they think of the literal definition of it: the quality or state of being intense. So the way most people construe intensity when it comes to a training program is how hard a set is to come to completion. For instance, if Powerlifter Joe does a set of squats up to 20 reps and literally shits himself on the 20th rep, that would probably be considered intense by most, no?
The intensity that I will be referring to from hear on out is a different kind of intensity. I’m talking about intensity in terms of a % of your 1RM (one rep-max). So if you Joe was using 90% of his 1RM, it would be more intense than if he used 80% of his 1RM, got it?
Many successful programs have taken advantage of this method for many, many years. The programs that you might be most familiar with would be Westside and 5/3/1. Although these programs are actually very different, they both use intensity at their core. They both require you to max out on set using a high percentage (<85%) of your 1RM.
The way most people progress on a program will be based on either increasing your reps with a heavy weight, or increasing reps from week-to-week, month-to-month, or even year-to-year. For instance, on 5/3/1, you cycle through using various percentages of your 1RM for one month. After that cycle you increase your 1RM on the lifts and you lift more weight during your next training cycle. The system works, and it works very, very well.
No, I am not talking about how loud the music is in your gym. I’m talking about the total amount of weight lifted for a given exercise on a given training day. For instance, if I went to the gym, and squatted 200 pounds for 10 sets of 3, my volume would be weight * total reps, which would be 200 * 30 = 6000lbs. If next week you lift 6200lbs you know you have progressed. If in a year you are lifting 10000 pounds in a squat session you know you are really destroying shit.
Please don’t be put off by these numbers. I use them merely to represent how volume works. I’ve been using volume for a lot of my lift lately, and I never track my total volume. I prefer using an easy, linear form of increasing volume, such as the Hepburn Routines.
A set and rep scheme while using volume might look like 10 sets of 1 with a weight you know you can lift for 3 reps. You’d do your warm-up sets, then get to lifting a bunch of singles until you complete all ten of them.
An Example Of Each
Here is a intensity session:
Barbell Squats: 135×5, 225×3, 315×1, 365×1, 405×5. This is assuming that 405 is ~90% of their 1RM. The trainee did as many reps as possible with 90% of their 1RM. The sets before 405, are just some arbitrary warm-up sets.
A volume session:
Barbell Squats: 225×3, 315×3, 365×1, 405×1,1,1,1,1, 365×2,2. The trainee in this example goes somewhat by feel. 405 feels nice, and they get in “practice” with that weight. Maybe he feels strong on his next squat session, so he decides to do singles with 415. The time after that, his warm-up weights feel slow and grindy, so he just sticks with some doubles at 365.
So as you can see, there are differences. Training with volume equals more total sets. Intensity usually means that you work up to a top set, give it your all (may or may not be to failure) then move on to the next exercise. Keep in mind that with smart programming, you can still get through a volume session in a quick time by using lower rest periods.
Pros and Cons Of Intensity vs. Volume Heavy Programs
- Quicker to complete unless you take long rest periods.
- Less sets means less chance for injury.
- Allows you to put all your focus in one set rather than spreading it over multiple sets.
- Allows more work for weak points/body parts.
- Gives you the opportunity to use a wider variety of exercises.
- Doesn’t give very much allowance for practicing form with a heavy weight.
- Requires longer recovery periods between training the same lift/body part (for you bodybuilders).
- Allows for more practice with heavier weights. This builds new neural pathways, allowing you to become more proficient at a given movement.
- Allows you to train a given lift more frequently.
- Builds up your work capacity.
- Less exercises are used when your are using high volume.
- Can increase chances of injury as you have more opportunities to injure yourself when you train more.
- More time consuming.
- Drains more calories (which may or may not be beneficial depending on your goals).
- Can be more difficult to plan your programming to peak for an event.
- May lead to staleness faster than using a more intensity based program.
I personally have used both intensity and volume on myself and my clients to get great results. I’ve been using mainly volume the past 8 months or so to build up my lifts for powerlifting. I really like high volume when teaching people how to do basic movements like squats. Practicing squats make better squats. I do occasionally perform a top set on deadlifts every now and then so I guess you could say I mix the two, although I am heavily weighted towards volume.
From a purely anecdotal point of view, I have noticed pretty much no difference in terms of mass gain while using both methods. When I first started training, I would notice many very strong and big dudes suggesting things like 5×10 with ‘straight weight.’ This means to that you use the same weight across all sets (a more volume intensive set). I didn’t like this because I felt that I couldn’t lift a heavy enough weight over 5 sets to elicit hypertrophy. I finally just gave it a shot, and it works like a charm. So feel free to use both methods for gaining mass.
Hopefully you will be able to figure out what would work better for your goals and lifestyle and implement one or even a mix of these two styles of training. Let me know which you prefer, or what has worked better for you. Also, feel free to troll 😉