Forget CrossFit vs bodybuilding as an argument that is always raging on in many gyms, today we’re talking volume vs intensity.
For decades there have been two firm sides that bodybuilders and weightlifters camp out in. There are those who love nothing better than to arrive at the gym, make a few meals, and begin on the epic journey that is the volume style workout. Then there are the types that get in, smash out five sets of the heaviest weight they can manage with a quadruple drop-set and 45 rest pauses, then leave before they’ve even finished their pre-workout drink.
The question is: Is volume or intensity better for building muscle?
When we talk about volume with regards to a training application, we are referring to the total number of sets and reps you complete per workout or per week. We know that to build muscle you must subject it to a certain degree of repetition to expose them to a training load that will stress the muscle enough to elicit a hypertrophic response. Each rep and set put a load through the muscle that can stimulate stress hormones, glycogen depletion, metabolites and physical damage that all lead to a growth response. Therefore, logic dictates that the more you do, the bigger you will get (as long as the loads are progressively heavier). Well not quite. It’s true to a certain degree but like most rules, there are exceptions, too much of a good thing... The issue is you still must recover from the constant onslaught of pounding the iron. Without recovery, you’ll never grow. So the volume is great as long as it’s not too much. If this wasn’t the case all long distance runners would be massive would they?...
On the flip side to volume is intensity. If a volume based workout is 12-16 sets on your favourite body part, an intensity-based workout would be condensed down to 3-6 sets. The trick is to cram all the effects of 15 sets into a third of that by taking the sets to a more extreme point of failure. The idea is that you instead of stopping at standard concentric or volitional failure, you try to go way beyond and annihilate the muscle with drop sets, rest pauses or negatives at the end of each set. You may even reduce your rest periods between sets so your muscles have had less time to recover. The benefit with an intensity workout is that essentially you can be done in far less time and technically achieve the same growth response result.
If you can imagine you’ve just put new tyres on your car. Driving the car wears the tires down. You could drive to Scotland and back and wear them out, or you could wheel spin the car on the spot. Both methods will wear the tires down the same, but the time taken and effort used to achieve this is vastly different. The downsides that arise are that obviously, the volume workout takes longer, you may not have the time in your day to train this long. With the intensity workouts they definitely save you time, but by being quick can you ensure you’ve trained sufficiently? Also the more intense you train the closer to the edge you get, this makes injury a more likely and frequent occurrence. Training for two hours or more does have a hormonal downside, in that your cortisol levels can spike and can become detrimental to the anabolic environment we are trying to promote.
I have trained with both intensity and volume over the years and I have experienced the benefits from both. At the time of my period with intensity training, it was done as more of a necessity as I simply didn’t have the time to do long workouts. I did train volume for many years and found them extremely sociable but was often tired afterwards and did need to eat way more food to cope with the demand. I have had nasty injuries training intensely and I have had chronic persistent injuries from training with multiple sets. So far we’re firmly stuck on the fence.
As I grow older and with work commitments becoming less demanding I have more time in my day so I do prefer a volume style workout. This is because I can control and limit the amount of joint stress I incur each workout. For me longevity is important. That being said, sometimes I’m just too busy or too tired to get a two-hour long session in, so I can condense it by increasing my intensity. I have found that I actually stay on the fence with this argument yet I dip into each side as it suits me. I do generally lean towards the volume camp the majority of the time but I do also split my bi-weekly body-part sessions into a more intense session once a week and I engage a more voluminous session the next. Periodically I enjoy adding drop sets or doing some GVT and feeling that extra pump at the end of the session. It’s satisfying and makes me feel like I have worked hard.
Key take home points
Your lifestyle will probably dictate your approach. If you have the time and enjoy lifting then train with volume. If you’re stuck in the rat race, train with intensity. If you’re looking for the most out of your body I’d suggest you combine the two. However, you must remember that volume and intensity still run alongside your ability to recover. If you increase one you should decrease the other. You cannot train for many weeks with high intensity and high volume and expect to be able to recover adequately to show progression. The only way this is possible is if you are using PEDs as essentially these are what speed up recovery, but even they have their limits.
Look after your body, train hard but smart. Put effort into your recovery and nutrition as without a solid diet and supplements plan behind you, the likelihood is that your training will be in vain.
Article written by GoNutrition Ambassador Alistair Stewart
Owner - Fat Al's gym
WNBF Pro Bodybuilder
UKDFBA British Champion