Volume And Intensity

A debate that constantly goes on in the weightlifting world is: what really is the best method of resistance training for long-term development in size and strength: high-volume or high-intensity? Some say it’s high-volume, some say it’s high-intensity and others, head for a middle ground and say it’s medium volume and intensity. 

However, I hear very few people support the need for both in a training program. At the moment, there seems to be a lot of different opinions on what the most effective form of resistance training is. So which method of training is really the best? At this point in time, no one really knows the answer! People have had success with lot’s of different combinations! But, as always, what does the science tell us?

The Science Of High-Volume And High-Intensity

So when diving into the scientific literature, what conclusions can we come to with regards to high-volume and high-intensity resistance training on size and strength development? Well, let’s take a look at a few interesting studies that have emerged over the last few years. 

•Study 1•

In 2015, Mangine et al conducted an 8-week resistance training study to investigate the effects of high-volume (HV) and high-intensity (HI) on a range of resistance training outcomes in resistance trained men. These were muscle thickness and cross-sectional areas (measures of muscular hypertrophy) of the vastus laterals (VL), rectus femoris (RF), pectoralis major (PM) and triceps brachii muscles using ultrasound images and, 1RM in the bench and back squat (measures of maximum strength). HV resistance training consisted of having participants perform 4 sets of 10-12 repetitions, at an intensity of 70% 1RM with 1 minute rest intervals. The HI resistance training consisted of participants performing 4 sets of 3-5 repetitions, at an intensity of 90% 1RM, with rest intervals of 3 minutes. 

Results?

At the end of the 8-week resistance training period, researchers found that both HV and HI resistance training provided improvements in both the 1RM for squat and bench press. However, those that underwent the HI resistance training, exhibited greater improvements in their 1RM bench press strength.Furthermore, there were no significant differences in 1RM improvements in the squat between those that underwent HV and HI resistance training. 

Moreover, resistance trained individuals who underwent HI resistance training exhibited greater muscle thickness and cross sectional areas of the triceps brachii muscles in comparison to those following the HV resistance training program. Increases in leg mass were observed in trained individuals with BOTH HV and HI training, but there were no significant differences between the results. 

Conclusions?

In resistance trained individuals both HV and HI resistance training programs can elicit increases in hypertrophy in trained individuals. However, HI is more conducive to producing maximum increases in strength.

Furthermore, because HI produced in some cases better hypertrophic responses in comparison to those following the HV protocol, HI might be more effective at eliciting a hypertrophic response in resistance trained individuals.

In the short-term then, HI training might provide a more of an advantage over HV training in maximising size and strength gains (at least in the upper body) in a short-term training cycle. 

Something worth mentioning!

The researchers highlighted that 8-weeks was probably not long enough to see hypertrophic changes in the lower extremities. Previous investigations have suggested that lower extremity muscle groups are generally more resistant to exercise-induced muscle damage and are slower to respond to training. Therefore, it’s likely that a longer study would be needed to really see if HV or HI is more advantageous to producing lower extremity hypertrophy in trained individuals. 

•Study 2•

In 2015, Schoenfeld et al, published a study which looked at muscular adaptions in 18 resistance trained young men in response to 8 weeks of either low-load (LL) or high-load (HL) resistance training. In both the HL and LL resistance training programs, 3 sets of 7 exercises were performed, with 25-35 sets performed per set, per exercise for the LL resistance training program, and 8-12 repetitions performed per set, per exercise for the HL resistance training program. 

Results?

After 8 weeks of either LL or HL resistance training, it was found that both manners of training produced significant increases in the muscle thickness of the elbow flexors, elbow extensors and, the quadriceps femoris. Moreover, there were no significant differences in muscle thickness between the LL and HL groups.

Both groups demonstrated increases in maximal strength. However, there were greater increases in 1RM for back squat and bench press strength for the HL group over the LL group.

Conclusions?

In resistance trained individuals, both the HL and LL resistance training protocols can lead to significant increases in muscular hypertrophy. However, HL resistance training protocols produce the highest increases in maximal strength adaptations.

If goals are hypertrophy-related, then programs containing LL training could be used as a viable method and combined with HL periods as a means of promoting maximum muscular hypertrophy. If the goal is maximal-strength development, then HL resistance training protocols should be employed. 

•Study 3•

In 2016 Giessing et al investigated the impact of high-volume (HV) and high-intensity (HI) training in sport active university students on muscular performance and body composition. Each participant performed 2 HV or HI resistance training sessions per week for 10 weeks. After the 10 weeks of resistance training, muscular performance (in terms of muscle flexion) was measured using chest, heel raise, rear deltoid, elbow flexion, seated row, knee flexion and knee extension machines.

Results?

 ⇒After 10 weeks of resistance training, participants who underwent HI or HV exhibited significant improvements in muscular performance in everything except the chest push ups.

Participants in the HI group performed significantly better over the HV group in terms of increased muscular performance, in the heel raise, elbow flexion and knee flexion.

It was found that both HV and HI resistance training, led to significant changes in the body composition of the participants, with HI producing a slightly more favourable increase in whole body muscle mass over HV resistance training.

Conclusions?

Both HI and HV resistance-training programs can produce significant improvements in muscular performance over a 10-week period (SHORT-TERM).

However, HI resistance training might provide an advantage over HV in terms of producing greater gains in muscular performance. 

So What Are These Three Studies Telling Us? 

Well, all three studies show that both high-volume and high-intensity resistance training programs are beneficial in producing significant increases in both muscle strength and size in resistance trained individuals, over the short-term.

Now, it is generally accepted that for optimal maximal strength development, a high-intensity (high load), low volume training protocol is desirable, while for maximum muscular hypertrophy, a high-volume (low load) training protocol is best suited. However, given the results of the above studies, this actually might not be the case! Yes, in all three studies it was found that high-intensity (heavy load) training led to the greatest increases in maximum strength (1RM). But, hypertrophic responses were significantly increased regardless of whether a high-intensity (high load) or high-volume (low load) resistance training protocol was followed. In some cases, the hypertrophic response might be greater following a high-intensity protocol! (But it’s not known why this might have been the case).  

This is all very interesting stuff! Especially because all these studies were conducted using resistance trained individuals. Most studies up until now have tended to use people with no previous training experience. This is significant because those with no experience tend to be ‘highly sensitive’ to training stimuli. In other words, they respond quickly and grow to anything. Any sort of training stimulus at this point is like a massive SHOCK to the body, driving quick size and strength development. Resistance trained individuals have it much harder. As they progress, it becomes much more difficult to stimulate the body to grow, therefore more fine-tuning and manipulation of training variables is needed to keep the body developing it’s size and strength capacity.

Most of the initial gains in those with no previous training experience are said to arise mainly from neuromuscular adaptations (the ability to coordinate and activate muscle activity), and it’s not until later on when you becomes more experienced, when muscular hypertrophy becomes more relevant to drive further progress. Given the results of the above studies, a wide range of loading ranges (both high and low load) could play a potentially beneficial role In hypertrophy-orientated training cycles in more advanced lifters. 

My Recommendation?

As you become more advanced, hypertrophy is going to play an increasingly important role in guiding further progress. This makes it incredibly important to plan your training cycles in order to maximise muscular hypertrophy. Although current thinking says that high-volume (lower loading) resistance training protocols are best suited for this job, it seems that a range of loading protocols might provide a more optimal route.

In line with this, I think it’s therefore beneficial in the longer to be planning your training cycles using a a range of different loading protocols in order to optimise the hypertrophic responses in the advanced stages of your lifting journey. 


Any questions, ask away!