One of the most contentious arguments among bodybuilders is how best to build the body.
The reason there’s so much disagreement on how best to build body is because of the number of variables that go into it:
Is it better to eat on an empty stomach or a full one? Which foods should one eat before and/or after exercise? Keto or vegan? Is morning exercise or evening exercise better for muscle growth? Ice or no ice for recovery? Etc. etc.
However, with all these variables aside, one of the first key barriers to overcome in determining an optimal bodybuilding strategy involves deciding the importance of volume vs. intensity for hypertrophy.
Is it better to increase your rep and set count (volume) per workout?
Or is it better to focus on how much weight you’re lifting (intensity)?
Ideally, for an incredible workout, one would think that the most effective way to exercise is to simultaneously increase both volume and intensity. But, like many things in life, you can’t have both, and, due to their inverse relationship to one another, you have to choose one: volume or intensity.
So, which should you choose, if your goal is to maximize muscle growth? Let’s continue reading to find out, starting with the basics:
Understanding Volume and Intensity in Weight-Training
Weight-lifting is simple: you pick up large objects and you put them down—and you repeat this action until you’re completely exhausted and/or the gym closes.
Then you wake up the next day and do it all over.
Except, of course, there’s more to it than simply picking up and setting down large objects. There are several factors to take into consideration, most notably volume and intensity. In the simplest terms, the difference between volume and intensity are as follows:
- Volume – refers to how many reps or sets are performed
- Intensity – refers to how much weight is lifted, often expressed as a percentage relative to one’s one-rep max (1-RM), or the pace at which you exercise (e.g., as with aerobic exercise, such as running or swimming)
While there is no universal standard as to what constitutes “high volume” (is it 10 reps? 50 reps? 100 reps??) or “low volume,” the relationship between volume and intensity is universally viewed as inverse. Meaning that the higher the volume, the lower the intensity—and vice versa: the higher the intensity, the lower the volume.1
This makes intuitive sense: you can do more reps with a lower amount of weight, but as soon as you add more weight (e.g., throw a few more plates on bench press), the more difficult it is to perform a high-volume (high repetition) workout.
Likewise, increasing the pace of one’s running speed (intensity) decreases the total time of one’s run (volume). Both volume and intensity are valuable measures of athleticism, with the former roughly gauging one’s stamina and endurance and the latter offering a glimpse of sheer strength.
For athletes and exercisers, one may take precedence over the other, depending on one’s fitness goals.
What Other Training Measures Are There?
So we've covered how much (intensity), and how often (volume)... but there's a third factor worth taking into consideration: how fast (velocity)?
If you give me a week to crank out 200 push-ups, I’ll give you 200 push-ups easy. But if you give me only a couple of minutes, then I won’t do even one push-up because that’s ridiculous, and screw you for even suggesting it.
And this isn’t necessarily because pulling off 200 push-ups is an impossible task. With a reasonable amount of time, it’s certainly possible to whip out such a high rep count. But when you take into account velocity, or the speed it takes to do a push-up, things get a little more complicated.
In the case of “intensity” being a measure of one’s exercise pace, such as with running, velocity plays an integral role in intensity. Having said that, even for anaerobic exercise, such as powerlifting, velocity-based training (VBT), which involves measuring an exerciser’s lifting speed, may also help trainers gauge the effectiveness of one’s workout.2
How Volume and Intensity Benefit Your Fitness Goals
Just because volume and intensity work in opposition doesn’t mean that either is strictly superior to the other. There are valid reasons to commit to high-volume exercise just as there’s validity to performing high-intensity exercise.
Plus, there are ways to combine the two for a more complete, fulfilling workout regimen. Roughly speaking, if you want to improve your stamina and endurance, you go high-volume.
With muscular strength and size in mind, however, some research suggests that high-intensity training is better:
- In a clinical comparison of the effects of high-volume (VOL) versus high-intensity (INT) resistance training on muscle size and strength in resistance-trained men, INT demonstrated greater improvements in lean arm mass and 1-RM in back squat and bench press, whereas VOL showed greater cortisol (stress hormone) control.
- The researcher’s conclusion: “It appears that high-intensity resistance training stimulates greater improvements in some measures of strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men during a short-term training period.”3
Other research on a combination of high-volume and high-intensity exercise, such as with high-intensity interval training (HIIT), shows surprising results on muscular strength and hypertrophy:
- In a study on the effect of concurrent high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and resistance training (RT) on strength and hypertrophy, the combo of HIIT and RT showed to be just as effective as RT alone at boost upper-body strength and hypertrophy, yet HIIT + RT was less effect than mere RT at boosting lower-body strength.
- The conclusion: “concurrent HIIT and RT does not negatively impact hypertrophy or upper body strength, and that any possible negative effect on lower body strength may be ameliorated by incorporating running based HIIT and longer inter-modal rest periods.”4
For both strength and muscle gains, intensity seems to be the key ingredient, whether as part of a high-volume, high-intensity regimen, such as HIIT, or merely as part of an intensity-focused regimen.
Although there’s great variety as to what constitutes “high volume” for any given exercise — e.g., 15 reps on back squats may constitute “high volume,” yet 15 push-ups without weight would be considered “low volume” to many — it’s generally well understood that high-volume exercise involves any workout that tests one’s stamina performance.
However, it’d be a mistake to say that sheer volume is solely sufficient for improving one’s aerobic capacity or muscular stamina.
After all, if you can do 100 reps of something, odds are that that “something” isn’t all that challenging—and what’s a workout without a challenge? Even in the area of thermogenic fat loss, volume alone (i.e., without intensity) seems to be relatively ineffective.
With that in mind, think of intensity as the required “challenging element” that gives even high-volume training the special umph! needed for a healthy, effective workout. With intensity alone, you may achieve significant muscle and strength gains—but not so with volume without any substantial intensity.
Okay, so Which is Best for Hypertrophy: Volume or Intensity?
Saying that either volume or intensity is “best” for hypertrophy seems a bit simple-minded. Odds are that there’s a comprising “sweet spot” in the middle of high-volume and high-intensity that’s best for anabolic muscle and strength gains… and, yet, having said that, that sweet spot seems to err more so on the side of high intensity than high volume.
Traditionally, high-volume + low-intensity training has been the most widely accepted form of training among most regular weight-lifters and bodybuilders. Backed by some research favoring high-volume exercise, it was intuitively believed that increasing volume to repeatedly target certain muscle groups was best to encourage muscle breakdown to elicit muscle growth.
- Rat research has observed an almost linear relationship between resistance-exercise (RE) volume and muscle protein synthesis, yet the “increase in muscle protein synthesis began to plateau after approximately five sets of RE.”5
While it’s true that repeatedly targeting a muscle group works to build muscle mass in that area, the effectiveness of one’s repetitions is largely determined by those reps’ intensity.
Which is why, more and more, many powerlifters, bodybuilders, and general weight-lifters are turning to high-intensity, low-volume workout regimens to more efficiently increase their muscle mass—as well as boost their fat burning results, given the importance of lean muscle mass to encouraging an enhanced fat loss metabolism.
So, if you’re short on time and you only have 30 minutes to get in a hard, anabolic workout during your lunch break, it’s best to ramp up the intensity (i.e., the amount of weight you lift, the pace of your lifts) of your workout rather than to simply “rep out” the full 30 minutes with low-intensity repetitions over and over.
For hypertrophy, high-intensity, low-volume exercise is better than low-intensity, high-volume.
While no one is necessarily working out with a gun to their head, with the gunman screaming, “You have to choose between a high-volume vs. high-intensity workout!!”, time is a factor here. And, in a sense, time is holding a gun to our heads, as our time is limited, requiring us to make the most of it—in the gym and out of the gym.
With that in mind, no one wants to waste any time in the gym, especially if they’re putting in a lot of effort to make the most of their time. This is why opting for a high-intensity workout regimen is best for your making the most of your gym time if your goal is to maximize your anabolic muscle and strength growth potential.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that volume should go completely out the window. If you can do more, do more. And if you can’t do more, then your goal should be to workout harder enough so that you can do more. But that, of course, requires greater intensity.
Which you won’t achieve by sitting on your ass reading this article! So, get to the gym and get to it, bucko!
- Krzysztofik M et al. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Dec; 16(24): 4897.
- Dorrell HF et al. Comparison of Velocity-Based and Traditional Percentage-Based Loading Methods on Maximal Strength and Power Adaptations. J Strength Cond Res. 2020 Jan; 34(1): 46-53.
- Mangine GT et al. The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men. Physiol Rep. 2015 Aug; 3(8): e12472.
- Sabag A et al. The compatibility of concurrent high intensity interval training and resistance training for muscular strength and hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2018 Nov; 36(21): 2472-2483.
- Ogasawara R et al. Relationship between exercise volume and muscle protein synthesis in a rat model of resistance exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2017 Oct 1; 123(4): 710-716.