If your main goal is muscle growth, then you are most likely to face the debate on whether volume or intensity is more effective for hypertrophy. In strength training specifically, "volume" indicates the number of reps and sets, while "intensity" refers to how much weight you're lifting. Because of this, the relationship between volume and intensity is "inverse", meaning that the more repetitions you perform, the lighter the weight you lift is, and vice-versa.
To help answer our question: "Is volume or intensity better for muscle growth?", we need to first understand "volume" and "intensity". You need to take volume and intensity into account when your plan your strength training program. These are aspects of your strength training that you can control in order to have a positive impact on your results.
- Intensity: It is generally proportional to a percentage of your one rep max. However, this doesn't mean that "intense" must always be "hard". The higher the intensity of your training, the lower the number of repetitions will be.
- Frequency: This is usually measured in "times per week". Performing a lift 3 times per week is considered high frequency, for example.
- Sets: This refers to the number of sets you are going to perform for one exercise.
- Reps: This refers to the number of repetitions you will perform in one set. Usually, anything above 8-10 repetitions in one set is considered "high reps".
- Weight: This refers to the poundage of the weight you are lifting.
- Volume: Everything above is part of your training volume. It is a very important aspect of your athletic program and you should increase your volume over time, in order to promote muscle growth, but take it slow to avoid injury and over-training. Volume is three dimensional, so it is calculated by Sets x Reps x Weight. Let's say your workout consisted of a bench press at 1 x 5 x 275 and 2 x 3 x 315 (according to the sets x reps x weight formula). Then the total volume of this workout would be (1 x 5 x 275) + (2 x 3 x 315) = 3,265 lbs.
HIGH VOLUME VS. LOW VOLUME
Metabolic stress and mechanical tension are two of the most important aspects that lead to hypertrophy. To induce more tension, you must add more weight and lift heavier loads. This means that the volume is lower because of the reduced number of reps you can do, which also reduced the metabolic stress. When you take weight off your bar, you enable yourself to lift more weight, thus increasing your metabolic stress, however, your muscle tension decreases.
- Mechanical Tension: When you feel like your muscle is about to rip off your bone during a heavy lift, you are experiencing mechanical tension. However, tension alone is not enough for muscle growth - a full range of motion is necessary. When you place tension on your muscle through a full range of motion, you activate both active tension (flexing through isometric contraction) and passive elastic tension (passive stretching without contracting), which is necessary for hypertrophy.
- Metabolic Stress: When you feel the pump and the burning sensation during a targeted lift, you experience metabolic stress. This is caused by persistent muscle contraction that occludes the veins and prevents blood from flowing. This further affects other aspects caused by the trapping of blood, such as muscle cell swelling and lack of oxygen supply in the muscles. These factors play a vital role in building muscle mass and it is also a reason why BFR Training (blood flow restriction training) can be quite effective for hypertrophy.
So, knowing all this, we can deduce how that intensity is strongly connected to high volume and metabolic stress, while volume actually refers to low volume and it is strongly connected to mechanical tension. Can we answer the big question yet? Well, obviously both methods work for muscle growth because we can look at different weightlifters with huge muscles and find out that they each prefer one of these methods. The right method for you has a lot to do with how your muscles respond, so you need to experiment. However, it's important to switch from high volume to low volume when you hit a plateau or see signs of over-training.
The best way to ensure maximum muscle growth is to use both training methods. Alternate between high and low volume workouts and make slight changes in your training routine every few weeks to stimulate your muscles. You don't have to make major routine changes, simply change the volume of your workouts before you actually experience signs of overuse or hit a plateau, because this will prevent it from happening to you and reduced the risk for over-training and overuse significantly. You can alternate your workouts following the example below:
- Weeks 1-3: High Volume
- Weeks 4-6: Low Volume
- Weeks 7-9: High Volume
- Weeks 10-12: Low Volume
Remember that your muscles need both mechanical tension and metabolic strength in order for you to make maximum gains. The secret to hypertrophy is knowing when to alternate between the two. You can start your workouts heavy to induce tension and then switch to lighter movements to induce metabolic stress. Focus on becoming stronger, not just bigger. Alternating your workouts will develop your endurance and resistance as well, in order to help you build more strength and generate more power.
This will transfer into your daily activities as well, enabling you to handle them better. Perhaps the best part about alternating your workouts is that it prevents you from experiencing overuse or hitting a plateau, so you’ll be constantly motivated by the rewarding gains you’ll make. More importantly, constantly planning your workouts and how to alternate them will keep you mentally engaged and focused. This article focused on the debate on high versus low volume, but if you want to learn how to plan your training volume, you must read our HOW TO PLAN YOUR WEIGHT TRAINING VOLUME | SETS & REPS article.