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High volume training vs low volume training for optimal growth

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by Yuan

I recently got a question about whether high volume training or low volume training is better. Neither is better in an absolute sense, it completely depends on context and both should be included into your training. Let’s take a look at the benefits and how you can incorporate them both to maximize your results.

Defining volume and intensity

Volume is the number of reps and sets during your workout. Intensity is the weight that you use in relation to your one rep max, for example, there is a lot more intensity in your 5 rep max than your 10 rep max.

So low volume training would have a lot more intensity than your high volume training. This is not to be confused with Arthur Jone’s high intensity training (HIT) where the reps are slowed down.

If you read around, a lot of online sources will tell you something along the lines of:

1-4 reps per set builds strength mainly
5-8 reps builds both strength and muscle
8-12 reps builds muscle mainly
15+ reps builds endurance

While it seems like a neat way to organize intensity and volume, it is over simplified and does not apply for optimal long term growth. You’ll be missing out on progress if you only stick to one volume for everything. Let’s start with the benefits of low volume and high volume training.

The benefit of low volume training

The first thing you should know about low volume training is that it’s not for beginners. Beginners lack overall control over their bodies. Working up to a 3 rep max is dangerous and useless at this point, their muscles just won’t work effectively under that intensity.

However, high intensity can be good for an intermediate and beyond. The higher intensity will force you to put more emphasis on technique. As an intermediate, you will be able to apply more nuanced technique and technical failures (where and how your technique breaks down) will reveal your weaknesses. Having this knowledge will let you take all your lifts to the next level once everything gets worked out.

The benefit of high volume training

Higher training volume is also great for the intermediate, it builds a wider base for you to grow upon; increasing your lifting capacity and ability to focus under fatigue.

So where does the beginner stand?

In my opinion, the beginner can make the most out of their newbie gains in the middle ground, focussing on the major lifts and working with reps of five. This method has stood the test of time for decades.

How to use high volume and low volume training

Low volume training is great for cutting where the training goal is just to maintain strength. You will need a calorie surplus to make high volume training work. The calorie surplus will depend on your program. A 20 rep squat program will be very calorie demanding while a regular bodybuilding split will not require a big surplus at the intermediate level and beyond.

Another way to use the two styles of training is to cycle them. Start with a higher volume and ramp up the intensity from week to week until you hit a new 2-3 rep max before repeating the cycle with a higher weight. Intermediate to advanced routines all cycle through intensity and volume so that you work with a wider spectrum for optimal growth.

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