More Weight vs More Reps: A Simple Outline of Volume and Intensity
How you structure your training around reps-performed (volume) and weight-used (intensity) are key to your physique and performance.
Utilising these two variables to your advantage is the essence of good strength training. Today, we’re discussing what they’re for and how you can make use of them for strength, muscle, and even dieting.
Stick with us if you want to learn how to handle and change your own training to avoid plateaus and control your own results.
Volume: What You Need to Know
Volume is a pretty simple measure of how much work you’ve done. We can measure this in reps above 60%, or in actual kg lifted (usually reps*weight). The idea is a simple one and it adds up significantly.
Volume is key for hypertrophy while having a less significant effect on strength all by itself – you won’t get much stronger by doing 100 repetitions with 5kg. But changing from 1 set of 5 reps to 10 sets of 5 reps is a good example of increasing volume training!
The essence of high volume training is placing more mechanical tension and metabolic stress on the muscles themselves. These are the driving force behind adaptation, as we’ve mentioned before, but they also produce muscle and tendon damage as a by-product.
The relationship between volume and muscle growth/gains is easy to understand but hard to achieve: the more volume you do (and recovery from), the more growth you can achieve. This is simply because you’re signalling for greater muscle change.
As we’re about to see, it’s not quite as simple as doing more…
Limitations to volume – recovery change
There are obvious limitations here that are going to be important. Volume is directly related to recovery: the more volume you do, the tougher the recovery process will be. This might mean higher calorie/protein/carb requirements or simply a longer time between training sessions.
The changes here mean that you need to aim for the “goldilocks zone” between ineffective volume and over-training volume. This is tough but it encompasses a fairly wide range to aim for – though this does get narrower as you develop. The specific amount of volume is always specific to you, and dependent on factors like:
- Athletic background
- Genetic components
- And more…
Strength doesn’t respond as well to volume by itself, however. Rather than having a consistent “more volume = more strength” relationship, there’s a certain minimum of intensity required to get stronger consistently over time. Volume at low weights won’t produce strength change.
Clearly, we need to combine the two – and volume is often not the only answer when there are small “sticking points” or “weak links” where a more-targeted approach beats the “wide spread” of non-specific volume.
Intensity: What You Need to Know
Intensity is a measure of the weight you’re using – either as a % of your best single rep in that exercise, or as rate of perceived exertion (RPE) which measures how hard it feels.
This is a necessary condition for strength training. You need to use heavy enough weights to stimulate effective performance with heavier weights. This is why muscle growth and strength don’t scale 1-1.
The intensity of your workouts will help you become more efficient at recruiting muscle fibres rapidly and recruiting as much of the muscle as possible. This is key to strength, power, and a few other key athletic attributes.
It’s also seemingly very effective at maintaining strength when Deloading or dieting down. You can keep your current performance even when you’re dropping volume (usually due to recovery changes).
Limitations of intensity
The problems of high-intensity strength training tend to come from the sheer limitations on how much you can do. They also include a higher risk of injury and increased psychological and neural demand.
In some ways, it’s also fair to say that intensity taxes the tendons and joints while volume can build them up more effectively. There are benefits and different applications to both.
You’ll also find that intensity alone is not sufficient to make maximal strength gains. If you perform the same low-volume, 1-set approach to training forever, you’ll stall very quickly and for a seriously long time.
You need to incorporate volume and intensity as competing but complementary systems. You can only recover from so much, so you need intensity for strength but with enough volume to keep adapting and producing novel adaptations.
In simple terms, intensity isn’t sustainable without volume (and associated muscle gains). So, how do you put it all together?
Finding an overlap between volume and intensity
The simple first step is selecting what matters to you and what you’ll be testing. Because intensity is a perishable skill (you’ll not be good at 1-rep-maxes if you take too much time off), you need to apply most of your intense work to the thing you’ll test.
If you’re a powerlifter, you don’t want to focus solely on high-intensity dumbbell bench before a competition. You want to get specific to the competition-style, paused, barbell bench press.
You can also do volume with this exercise, but it’s going to demand at least some specific training to keep the technique and power high. Meanwhile, other exercises that are “accessories” can stay lower on intensity and higher on volume.
This allows you to focus on building strength without taxing the tendons or pushing you to overtraining. This is also a great way to build a balanced physique and condition tendons for future loading.
Stimulating Reps: Creating Effective Sets
The other key principle you need to work into your training is “volume-at-intensity”.
This is simply getting volume in (e.g. working in the 5x5 range) with an intensity that is never too far from your maximums. Working with 70%+ is essential and working with regular sets at 85% or greater (for reps or singles) ensures that the perishable skill of heavy lifting doesn’t escape you.
Stimulating reps have been a common feature of our articles – weights that require maximal muscle fibre recruitment with heavy weight – and they’re key here too. Your goal is as many stimulating reps as you can recover from.
This means using our top set/drop sets mentioned in previous articles to get the best balance of intensity and volume. It also means getting as close to your maximum recoverable volume as possible – pushing up against the limits of what you can achieve without going too far.
The key is to perform working sets at a high RPE, rather than just aiming for a very high % of your maximum. Finding a mid-range (somewhere between 2-6 reps and 70-90%) is a crucial aspect of effective strength training for most people.
Improving your recovery processes is a great way of achieving this, too. If your recovery processes aren’t sufficient, you’ll never be able to recover from the volume you need, and you’ll either stall or over-train.
Make sure your sleep, food, and out-of-training habits all align to support your fitness goals!
Mastering volume and intensity is key to getting the most from your training. For general strength training it can provide strength gains forever with a little patience – as well as hypertrophy gains that keep you growing and improving.
On the other hand, if you want to compete in weightlifting, powerlifting, CrossFit, or any other sport with a strength component this is mandatory learning.
A competitor can’t afford to miss out on the differences between the two and their relationship. Ignoring volume and intensity balances is an easy way to sabotage your own hard work – so make sure you’re applying these simple principles in your own training!