High Volume vs. Maximum Intensity: How to Choose?

There is a maxim in the coaching world; you can train long or you can train hard, but you can’t train both. There are strongman coaches in both camps, and I will attempt to show you the difference and help you pick the right style for your body and schedule. I will begin by clarifying what each style means.

Training for Volume

When an athlete trains for volume, they attempt to do as many sets and reps of an exercise or muscle group as they can in a training session. These sessions generally take a minimum of 90 minutes and can go on for two or three hours. An example of this type of session would be:

As the amount of sets and reps add up, the ability of the body to perform at its peak diminishes. By the end of a workout like this you will exhaust every muscle fiber in your lower body and barely be able to walk out the door. You can crawl out of the gym and declare, “EPIC leg session! Killed them!!!!!” It will take the full 72 hours for recovery and often the athlete will not do another leg session that week.

The principal behind this style of training operates on the notion of breaking down the entire muscle group and letting it build back up over time. Being in the gym for long hours, they get out their frustrations, love the feeling they get, and have all their bases covered when it comes to training a muscle group. Many bodybuilders follow this style of training as it can be effective for muscle building, especially in trainees who have increased recovery ability.

If you only have a few days during the week to train, but a good amount of time to train on those days, you may want to consider a high volume program.

Training for Intensity

Conversely, when an athlete trains for intensity, sessions will be brief and near a max all of the time. An athlete may only do a few work sets in a session but train every day, even multiple times per day. This idea (started by Eastern European coaches) focus on the body adapting to the work in a few hours and becoming wired to do exactly the same thing every day. After a brief warm up, a sample session may look like this:

Session A:

  • Squat 2×1
  • Jerk 2×3
  • Farmers walk 1x75ft.

Session B:

  • Good Morning 3×3
  • RDL 3×2
  • Box Jump 3×2

To understand this program completely, you would see a very similar day two, three, and so on. For a set period of time the athlete works on achieving a PR nearly every day. The athlete should never be exhausted after a session, but instead feel the effects of a few short heavy sets. The recovery time is cut to hours instead of days for this training. Your schedule must allow you to train every day, and multiple times per day is actually preferred.

What is the main difference in the simplest terms?

Recovery and optimizing your down time is at play here. Intensity plays off of the idea that a muscle is either recovering or tearing down. It is rarely ever at stasis. It does just enough to stimulate growth and then stimulation is reapplied as soon as recovery is repeated. Volume is more forgiving in what happens to a muscle. Allowing more recovery time to heal from greater damage, it seeks to do more at once. That is, volume digs a hole with a shovel and intensity digs with a spade.

If you have the time for multiple short sessions per week, it would be wise to go with intensity. The quality of all the reps will be better and you should make more significant long term gains. You also have an advantage of truly getting comfortable with max weights. This decreases the chance of misses.

Volume disciples can’t be in the gym every day. You would be so worn down that you never fully recover.  Often times, a Monday squatter with presses on Wednesday will be working off spongy legs yet, and lose a bit off their power in a press. Many times though, they do not have a choice. Hitting a low volume program just three days a week will not provide enough stimulation to provide consistent progress. Sometimes a mix of the two may work for you. A 12 week program of such can be found here.

Make sure the amount of work you do matches what your body and schedule can work with. Serious athletes often rearrange their work lives to make sure they can hit the gym daily. It comes down to priorities. No matter what style of training you pursue, make sure you use proper technique and work to the best of your ability.

Featured image: Michele Wozniak