volume vs intensity in the gym

Volume or Intensity?

In bodybuilding we often hear the terms “volume”and “intensity”, but have you wondered...

Author: James Alexander-Ellis

In bodybuilding we often hear the terms volume vs intensity, but have you wondered what they really mean, and how they relate to your own training? Let’s explore volume vs intensity.



Muscular man doing very intense workout

“Intensity”, contrary to popular usage, refers specifically to the percentage of an athlete’s one rep max. So, a higher intensity lift is a heavier lift, and will target the type 2a and 2b (fast twitch) fibers. Think of these as the parts of the muscle that deliver top end strength and power.


Bodybuilder doing large volume of lifts

“Volume” is a more general term covering the total amount of work done in a workout (think the total number of sets and reps) and usually has an inverse relationship to intensity! Thus, these concepts sit at different ends of a non-linear spectrum.

To achieve more volume, do higher reps, extra sets or generally a longer workout. This would favour stimulating type 1 (slow twitch) fibers that have a better recovery rate and can therefore contract for longer without tiring!

At each end of the spectrum, lies a different type of stimulus. The human body needs to adapt to a certain stimulus in order to change (to get faster, stronger, larger) and when it comes to building muscle (aka hypertrophy) there are broadly two distinctions:

1: Myofibrillar hypertrophy. The increase in size and amount of muscle fibers themselves. Think of this as generally a more long-term type of muscle gain.
2: Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. The increase in fluids around the muscle cell, and greater glycogen storage. Think of this as a shorter-term gain.

To get stronger and bigger, you need both types of this hypertrophy, and different levels of intensity will target each one. Broadly speaking, training with heavier loads (higher “intensity”) especially over many years, develops myofibrils. Training with light to moderate loads, with higher “volume” develops sarcoplasm. To keep it simple, the most crucial area of distinction between these two training modes are…the rep ranges!

The beauty of bodybuilding lies in the understanding and application of how your physique responds to these differences in stimulus. There is much trial and error to be had, but you might get lucky and find the sweet spot!

So, when you are planning your workouts consider the concepts of volume vs intensity first and foremost. Stick to the basics, reap the results!

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