Training forces you to evolve as a lifter. What works best for you should evolve as well. Here’s why.
One of the big debates in strength training is whether or not maximal gains are made with low or high volume. It’s an insanely common debate. It’s also an insanely pointless debate! Neither one is better or worse, generally speaking.
See, program design isn’t one-size-fits-all. So, nobody can really win this battle. The argument leads to a million different context-specific scenarios where either one can be better than the other. There’s even research to support each one being better than the other. That’s why we have camps on both sides, filled with lifters, coaches, and even researchers.
However, by the end of this article, you’ll understand everything you need to know about volume and intensity so you can ignore those who don’t know what they’re talking about and actually train with the proper doses needed for optimal gains.
If you’re like most lifters, you probably thought (or still think) that intensity means how hard you’re going. But we’re referring to how the literature defines it.
Intensity, defined by the evidence-based strength training community, refers to the load you use. So, a high-intensity program is one that uses higher loads with lower reps. This is your classic Wendler 5/3/1 type of program.
Volume, defined by the same evidence-based crowd, refers to the total amount of work you’re doing. This can be a bit more confusing because there are two different ways to look at it. Here, we’ll only focus on one (which is more commonly used when referring to maximizing hypertrophy).
Originally, volume meant your total tonnage, and it’s often still used this way in powerlifting circles. Here’s a simple math equation to break it down:
Load x Reps x Sets = Total Volume
The newer and more common definition for volume, which we’ll focus on here, is by your total sets. Specifically, when counting volume this way, we’re talking about the total amount of weekly sets performed per muscle group:
Total Sets Per Muscle, Per Week
The truth is that most research points to higher amounts of volume being more favorable for muscle growth. This has been such a hot topic over the last several years that there’s an outstanding amount of research pointing in the direction of higher volumes being better for growth.
We have a couple studies showing better muscle growth with lower volumes, too, and the common explanation there is that with higher volumes being performed, cortisol (the catabolic stress hormone) is elevated more often. That could potentially limit the amount of growth seen.
This is a sound argument because cortisol is a catabolic (breakdown) hormone that causes muscle loss in some scenarios. Also, cortisol can be the catalyst to other downstream negative effects, hormonally speaking – chronically elevated cortisol causing T3-T4 (thyroid) conversion, causing issues with your metabolism, or even causing lower testosterone levels.
However, that on-paper-theory doesn’t always hold its weight.
For example, there’s research showing a correlation between elevated cortisol levels and higher testosterone levels in men. Why is that? It’s simple: training hard elevates cortisol! That’s a sympathetic nervous system response that kicks you into a higher state of performance, causing you to lift heavier and with more reps. That, you guessed it, builds more muscle and later on produces even more testosterone.
So we can’t rely on anything short-lived here, and unless you’re in a state of chronically elevated cortisol, you won’t be seeing any negative effects from cortisol coming up every once in a while.
Now, back to the research on high-volume training…
Countless studies prove that higher-volume training programs build more muscle than lower-volume training programs. We even have some newer research showing specific percentage increases boosting hypertrophy. (One cool study increased a lifter’s current volume to see how many more sets were needed to build more muscle.)
What about the old meatheads in those grimy gyms that have been lifting for decades and getting themselves and their clients absolutely jacked? These are your classic powerlifting guys who love lifting heavy, using chains, smelling salts, and lifting in gyms with rats in the corners.
And before you assume I’m a lab coat guy who just does curls at the local Planet Fitness, I spent the first decade of my career in one of those gyms. In fact, I now own a private gym with weight releasers, platforms, chains, and every specialty bar you can think of. But what I’m not is a dogmatic coach who believes that what works best for me will work best for you – and that’s exactly why you can’t always listen to the old guys.
See, they believe low volume works well because they love to lift heavy weights with compound lifts. Their argument is that compound lifts hit more muscle groups, which is true, and that lifting heavier creates a higher amount of total tension, which is also true. There are problems here, though.
First, by hitting more muscle groups with one lift, you’re also isolating less and providing less volume to each muscle. It’s also extremely taxing, neurologically, which doesn’t always allow you to make that volume up.
Second, you might not be strong enough to create enough total tension… yet! If you’re still only benching 185 pounds for 8 and the guy giving you this advice is benching 315 pounds for 8, well, do the math. His total tonnage is far greater than yours. That makes his total volume, and therefore his muscle mass, greater than yours as well.
Some more arguments here, though, hold their weight: the aspects of strength being easier to track progressive overload with, motor-unit recruitment being greater with heavier loads, and, last but not least, heavier loads stimulate more fast-twitch fibers.
All of this is true, too, although we know that fast-twitch fibers are also stimulated by reaching a high level of fatigue or proximity to failure. So it’s not the load that stimulates the fibers; it’s that it’s easier to stimulate them with heavier loads due to reaching failure sooner within a set, compared to lighter loads with higher reps.
Now we know why the two camps each claim that they have the best path to maximizing muscle growth. And this is where I nail you with the truth of the matter: the amount of volume you need, and intensity you should be training with, is primarily based on your experience level in the gym. Check out this graph:
On the left y-axis (vertical), we have volume. On the x-axis (horizontal), we have experience level. The red inverted-u curve represents volume needs as you gain more lifting experience.
First, we all know the saying, “Anything works when you’re a newbie.” That’s true. It’s why you should always start with less volume, because you’ll experience more muscle damage, and with less volume, you can prioritize getting stronger and more skilled at lifting. Your skill acquisition and neuromuscular capabilities are pretty crappy at this point, and you need to spend time there. So you start on the lower end of the evidence-based volume range, which is 10 sets per muscle per week.
Next we have the intermediate lifters who can now handle a lot of volume. These people are the primary participants in the research studies mentioned above and get a lot of growth from pushing the volume ceiling as high as possible while still recovering. Based on the evidence-based recommendations for muscle growth, this will be at about 20 sets per muscle per week.
And finally, we have the advanced and seasoned lifter who has spent years and years in the gym. This person has a great skill level with lifting and can fire muscles maximally. Their nervous system is primed for heavy lifting, and they likely have taken a beating over the years from lifting so much. They should start to taper their volume back down to 10 sets, like the newbie.
Now, as hard as that is for some to believe, it’s the damn truth. The truly advanced lifter creates more mechanical tension in every rep, which means he or she gets more out of each rep! But also, it makes every rep more fatiguing because they can produce more force, and their level of strength – being so much greater than a newbie – causes far more neurological fatigue and stress on their joints.
But that’s not all. These advanced lifters have gotten far closer to their own genetic ceiling than the newbie or intermediate lifter. This means they not only need less volume (via sets) to produce as much total volume (via tonnage) as the younger lifters, but they also have less reward to gain from the risk.
Here’s what you need to take away to get the most out of your program:
The amount of volume you need is more tied to your experience level in the gym than anything else.
So, if you’re in year one or two of lifting, don’t listen to the guy who’s in year 10 unless he’s telling you what he did back when he was at the same stage as you.
As you spend more time in the gym, you can reach higher amounts of volume and get a lot of muscle growth out of it. Research supports this by using participants who are experienced lifters rather than newbies, but very rarely do they have seasoned strength coaches or bodybuilders as study participants.
Once you get so strong and proficient at lifting weights that your higher volume sessions begin to really tax your body and entire system, it’s time to pump down the volume. This usually happens beyond year 5, but often more so around year 10.
Over your lifting career, it’s best to stay within the range of 10 to 20 sets per muscle per week. If you’re already decades into it, you may be able to look back and notice that you, too, went from around 10 to 20 to 10 sets per muscle per week. You did it naturally without thinking about it.
Finally, there are outliers here as well. A pro-bodybuilder may still use high volume with lighter loads when he’s in year 20 of his career. But this is because his sport requires far more isolation exercises, and it’s just plain stupid to do curls for sets of 3-5. Likewise, a competitive powerlifter is on the opposite spectrum because he also follows the principles of specificity.
So, at the end of the day, be aware of what your training is like, how extreme your goal is, what the demands are, and how you feel when doing either route. That way, you can figure out what works best for you.