Volume vs. Intensity – Which to Train For Strength Gains
I remember the first time I ever stepped foot in a weight room. I was 12 years old; the plates were old plastic POS’ filled with sand. The bars were rusty. We had a bench, a squat rack (which was never used) and some random sized dumbbells scattered around the floor. The “weight room” was actually just an alley of our high school basement.
We didn’t follow a program of any kind. We simply went in, threw some weight on the bar and tried to see if we could lift it off our chest. Again, we were 12 years old – hitting 115 was a BIG deal.
My brief story is perfectly fitting for a 12-year-old boy hitting the weight room for the first time. The problem however is that all too often adults lift the exact same way!
In regards to gaining strength there are two qualities that the lifter needs to be cognizant of: intensity and volume. Which one should you chase for strength gains to avoid training like a 12-year-old boy in a high school basement?
Intensity vs. Volume
Training for intensity typically would mean the following:
- Low reps (1-5)
- Relatively low volume (10-15)
- High loads relative to ones max (80-90%+)
When training at such high intensities it begs the question, is it worth it? Shoot I mean this is how I trained for the roughly ¾ of my training career to date. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it.
- Consider your risk of injury with the loads you’re using.
- How frequently are you training?
- How sustainable is your training?
On the flip side, let’s look at volume.
More of a traditional volume approach might have you tackle
- Higher reps (6-8)
- The total volume would likely eclipse 25-30 reps
- The load would be FAR lighter
The two sound like polar opposites, but in fact that’s far from the case. So again, what do you chase and why?
What Do The BIG Guys Do?
Let’s use the squat as an example and say you have a max squat of 350. You’re going to perform 5 sets of 3 reps.
Clearly this is intensity focused, right? 3 reps is a low rep, which would then call for a relatively high load.
Set 1 you load 135
Set 2 you load 185
Set 3 you load 225
Set 4 you load 275
And set 5 you feel good so test yourself at 320
Intensity would best be described as the load relative to one’s max – in this case intensity was pretty high – a little over 90% to be exact.
But exactly how much work really took place there? What was the quality of your reps as the weight increased, and is this approach sustainable for you long term?
- Your total volume for the day was 15 reps
- 9 of those 15 reps were at a percentage of just 65% and lower of your max – not much volume if you’re using lower loads
- The remaining 6 reps were done at a 78% – not a bad percentage to train, but I’d argue the volume for that percentage is still pretty low
A look at the prelipin chart would tell you just that.
“But what about the guys lifting 500, 600, 700 pounds? You can’t tell me they’re not training for intensity.”
And that is where your eyes don’t tell the whole story.
You might be surprised to find out that for those guys, 500 pounds is merely 60% of their 1RM!
It’s all relative….
Why You Should Focus On Volume Before Intensity
If you’re new to strength training you need to own the basic global patterns and movements before going after intensity. Just simply put. You have no right testing a 1RM in anything if you haven’t first mastered or at least gained significant appreciation for the lift itself.
That’s not the way most people think though.
More often than not people are quick to chase numbers and forgo mastery for the sake of looking strong in front of their bros or a chick they’re trying to impress.
Like peacocks us men want to flaunt our big bench press numbers to impress the ladies (let’s be honest, they really don’t even care, do they?). I can tell you from experience I’ve worked with a lot of men who had this “train for your max” mentality, a torn rotator cuff or partially frozen shoulder 20 years later and they can’t even raise their arm over their head. Not to mention they may not bench press again in their life.
Volume is more sustainable – at a maintainable training percentage.
But what’s a manageable training percentage?
Reading Easy Strength was eye opening for me. Training with kettlebells has reinforced this knowledge and appreciation for volume training.
The best way to describe this approach is using the example of trying to improve your 1RM – because who doesn’t want to move more weight!?
Traditional training mentality would have you working with a relatively low volume with higher intensities – after all if you want to lift heavier weight than ever before you’ll need to lift heavy period, right?
Rather than consistently train to see exactly how strong you are everyday (lets’ face it, that’s what you do when you max out every session) – make it a goal to raise your 70-80% of your 1RM.
- Training in this range is sustainable
- Builds muscle
- Saves CNS system
- Allows for prolonged periods of training with relative easy
Let’s use the deadlift as an example. Say you have a 400lb. deadlift. You want to get that to 425.
70% of 400 would put you at pulling 280. That’s not bad at all, in fact that sounds too light!
We like to lift at intensities close to what we’re aiming for; it’s as if it validates our training program. It also drains your CNS system, increases your risk of over training, and raises the likelihood that you won’t actually complete the program you’re following – for most of the general population.
Let’s assume you’re going to train at the magic 70%-80% range. At loads that you can handle a volume of upwards of 20 reps. Think back to our squat example when you only managed 6 with 78%.
280 is a more than manageable pull for someone with a 400lb deadlift. 20 Reps will be work, but will you get stronger?
Consider this; 297.50 is exactly 70% of 425 – the goal your targeting for your new 1RM. If you can make 300 (for simplicity-sake) feel like 280, I’d argue you just achieved your new 1RM, you just haven’t tested it yet.
This is hard to abide by. Lucky for me I have a solid team of like-minded individuals around me that constantly asks me “why?” in a training program/session.
- Why go heavier?
- Why do more?
- Heavier is just heavier
- And more is just more
When you start to change your mentality, you will make HUGE gains in your training program.
How to Program For Volume
Without making things too complicated let’s stick to our 70%-80% range and target a volume of 20-25 reps per session.
There are a number of different ways you can reach those numbers.
5×5 is good so is 5×4 – but I’ve come to find those schemes boring.
It’s likely my work with StrongFirst that’s doing it but I like ladders and waves far more these days and I don’t see myself going back anytime soon.
5×4 = 20
(2-3-5)x2 = 20
They both get you to 20 all the same, while the latter is more engaging and allows for more variability – something StrongFirst ingrains in all of their programs.
Am I saying to never train at high percentages? Absolutely not. In fact, one of my favorite powerlifting programs had me training at 90% almost every day – Louie Simmons’ Westside Barbell pogram.
To this day it was one of my most favorite programs and I was as strong as ever…
- I also had no energy after my lifting sessions
- And little enthusiasm for life after my session
- Which included work and time with my wife
On the flip side, volume training might not be as “sexy” but it’s certainly more sustainable. Training for intensity is great, but you have to ask yourself:
- Are you a competitive powerlifter?
- Is this all you’re focusing on?
If you are and it is, have at it!
If you’re not and it isn’t, I’d strongly encourage you consider chasing volume for your strength gains – it might be all you ever need.