One of the biggest controversies in bodybuilding today has to do with which training method is best for building muscle mass: We have those who argue that high-volume training produces the greatest results and those who argue that high-volume training intensity does the same work in less time. This controversy seems to have no end, and as far as we can see, no matter how much research comes to light about muscle growth, we are never going to get a clear answer. But let’s see what these two doctrines of training stand for.
The two doctrines
In the beginning, we had the dogma: the more you lift, the bigger you’ll get, with research confirming the body’s hormonal response to high-intensity exercise with short rest periods. So we’ve since linked this hormonal response during exercise to being responsible for muscle growth.
However, what the ergo physiologists soon discovered, was that this particular acute hormonal response was simply a muscle stress response, similar to the release of testosterone that accompanies a heavy dose of caffeine!
This leads to fat being released into the bloodstream for use as fuel (this concept of stress, adrenaline, etc. releasing fat is fine for weight training, however, for people who don’t exercise on a regular basis and spend a lot of of the day in a chair, these elevated triglyceride levels can lead to atherosclerosis and blood vessel damage).
What today’s research points to when it comes to muscle growth have more to do with the “time under pressure” we mentioned earlier. Although time under pressure is now proven to be the most effective method, the actual overall training approach to achieving hypertrophy still has many contradictory propositions.
There are many who believe in high-intensity techniques: high load that is, as a means of faster muscle growth. While many others believe that it is ideal to sacrifice some load for the sake of more sets, i.e. a greater total training volume.
Therefore, we should take a look at the principles of both forms of training and draw appropriate conclusions from the research as to what actually leads to faster muscle growth.
High volume training
High Volume Training Basics
- Long training time (over 60 minutes)
- Multiple exercises per muscle group (over 6)
- Lots of sets (usually 18-30 sets per muscle group)
- Moderate reps (6-10)
- Moderate weights (around 60% 1RM)
- Ideal for split programs
High-volume training is the oldest and most widely accepted form of training in the bodybuilding world. It’s the method that Arnold perfected by doing up to 90 sets per session, although the modern approach to this style of training has nothing to do with the old…
The idea is simple: Many repeated sets target a specific muscle group, thereby cumulatively increasing the time under stress that muscle group is under during training. Several studies support the ability of this method to increase protein synthesis indices after exercise which is a very important indicator for muscle growth.
However, there are a few things that need to be put in a different perspective in order to fully understand the limitations of sticking to just one type of training. The first is that the research showing a correlation of protein synthesis with high-volume training doesn’t prove that muscle is actually built because it doesn’t take into account the percentage of muscle tissue that is damaged versus what can actually be repaired naturally.
If you’re on the drug, then fine, you can train every day with no issues… but if you’re in the majority of athletes who try natural ways to build muscle mass, constant training with so many sets will soon set you on your way of overtraining, leading you, in time, too low-quality results. What we mean: With the above statement we are not condemning high volume training, nor are we trashing it. It is efficient as long as… it works. That is, not all the time, but intermittently.
High intensity training
High Intensity Training Basics
- Compressed training time (under 45 minutes)
- One or two exercises per muscle group
- Few sets per exercise (usually 2)
- Too many pounds (over 80% 1RM)
- Repeats until complete exhaustion
- Ideal for full body programs
The founder of this method is considered to be Arthur Jones, father of Nautilus, observing a 200kg gorilla performing a pull-up with one hand! What surprised him was that gorilla hardly ever do any physical activity, yet when they do… they do it 100%!
Some of the basic principles behind high-intensity training have to do with taking full advantage of the available training time, and “burning” as much muscle tissue as possible to induce hypertrophy.
Some of the biggest critics of this method are unconvinced as to whether the time under pressure with so few sets is actually sufficient to maximize muscle hypertrophy, and that the time between sets with this method is clearly shorter than the previous one. And clearly one cannot perform the same training with the same intensity the very next day without cramping!
What the previous sentence means is that while high-volume training has a reputation for overtraining and straining the musculoskeletal system, high-intensity training has a reputation for overloading the Central Nervous System.
Despite all the concerns, however, high-intensity training still takes its toll… weight. And one can easily progress in terms of load with this method, without having to hit each time e.g. 30 chest sets in 90 minutes! The bottom line is one: Lift big – Get big (as long as one doesn’t derail their CNS…).
So which method is best? High Volume Training or High Intensity Training?
No one spoke better! There is no. But there is the “best”. And even better, the “ideal for me”. If you have plenty of time and the mood for long workouts that will focus on one muscle group at a time, take the high volume method. If you don’t have that much time or many days at your disposal, then with the second method you will get the same results in both strength and muscle mass.
But the combination of both with continuous periodicity (increase in weight and/or repetitions), avoiding extremes that lead to overfatigue, is even better if you have the ability, not only to alternate but also to avoid training stagnation and continuous progress in muscularity.