There can always be a number of ways to achieve a result. As the expression goes, many roads lead to Rome. But the more specific we can be with our goal the more specific we can be with the prescription.With resistance training the question can often be one of should I do lighter weights and more reps or heavier weights and fewer reps? And typically the average person will be led to believe that lifting heavy weights makes you big and bulky and so they select lighter weights in order to tone and not get big.
But this isn’t the best approach. If we think about the group that trains to put on the most size i.e. bodybuilders, they will typically train with higher volume (i.e. reps x sets) to stimulate a hypertrophy (i.e. growth) response.
Additionally, the people that train most intensely e.g. sprinters, will have some of the leanest physiques out there.
So there appears to be some confusion as to what we should do to get leaner and or stronger.
A study by Mangine et al. 2015 looked at the effect of volume and intensity when it comes to developing size or strength. The study included 29 resistance-trained men and ran for 8 weeks.
The participants were divided into two groups. One group followed a high intensity protocol by performing exercises in the 3-5 rep range or approximately 90% of their 1 rep max (RM). Three minutes of rest was allowed between sets.
The other group followed a high volume protocol with exercises performed in the 10-12 rep range or approximately 70% of their 1 RM. One minute of rest was allowed between sets.
Here’s what they found.
The high intensity group made larger gains with respect to both size and strength. Arm size for the intensity group increased 5.2 ± 2.9% vs. 2.2 ± 5.6% for the high volume group. 1 RM bench press for the high intensity group increased 14.8 ± 9.7% vs. 6.9 ± 9.0% for the high volume group.
So with this study high intensity out-performed high volume in terms of increases in size and strength.
But there are a few things to take note of including:
- The results were specific to the upper body. The authors acknowledge the lower body may be more resistant to the gains measured. So a similar study looking at lower body outcomes may yield different results.
- The study was 8 weeks. Most people will strength train for more than 8 weeks. What happens in weeks 9+? Do we observe the same results? Does high volume catch up to the high intensity in terms of size and strength?
- The study involved men only. Knowing the endocrine i.e. hormonal, differences between men and women, would there be different results when looking at hypertrophy and strength for women?
- The study involved experienced lifters. With those new to lifting the initial gains can be as a result of neurological adaptations. Would this mask the adaptations associated typically associated with experienced lifters? Or would it amplify the result?
With my own training I have made the switch to higher intensity and lower volume. What I have found is that I’m maintaining, if not gaining, strength better. With fewer total reps and sets I’ve found I have fewer aches and pains in the days after a heavy lift. And since I’ve found new gains in lifts where I thought PBs were in the rear-view mirror this has re-ignited my passion to train.
Take my own results with a grain of salt. We’re talking about a sample size of n=1 so it’s hard to say for sure that anyone reading this would experience the same outcome. There would be no harm in testing it out and see what it does for you though. Overall though it seems like high intensity trumps volume when it comes to increased size and strength.
Magine GT et al. 2015. The Effect of Training Volume and Intensity on Improvements in Muscular Strength and Size in Resistance-Trained Men. Physiol. Rep. 3(8): e12472.