Intensity versus Volume in Resistance Training

intensity versus volumeYou often hear the words volume and intensity when it comes to strength training.

  • Volume is the number of sets and reps.
  • Intensity is the level of resistance (weight)

Intensity is often expressed as a percentage of your 1 rep max (1RM). If your max bench was 300 pounds then 300 represents 100% of your 1RM. Routines are developed around intensity percentages like 90, 80, 70, etc., with rep recommendations made for each intensity level. In this case, 80% intensity would be working in bench press with a weight of 240 pounds.

The lower the intensity, the greater number of reps that are able to be performed. A higher intensity means fewer reps.

So which is better?

Lower-Volume, Higher-Intensity Training

So higher intensity means heavier weight which means few reps which translates as lower volume. That leaves us with the question: how low in volume should we go?

The high-intensity movement of the late 70s and 80s, pioneered by icons like Mike Metzer, took intensity to the extreme, promoting the idea of only one set done to complete failure (often with forced reps) for each exercise. The idea was that the greatest level of intensity would be achieved if only one all-out work set per exercise was performed. But real-life application proved this wasn’t always the case.

To achieve maximum effort, the nervous system often requires more than just the one set. While doing one set allows you to be “fresh” when it comes to how much muscle energy (ATP) is available for that set, there’s more to gains that just the muscle energy aspect. There’s also the neurological aspect.

The aim of high-intensity training principles was to lower volume, allowing intensity to be raised. Remember though, volume isn’t just sets per exercise, it’s also total sets per workout. If you’re do one work set per exercise, but are doing 20 or more different exercises, you may not be realizing the low-volume advantage.

Ultimately, experts proved that “one set to failure” training doesn’t provide the level of stimulus necessary to deplete the total pool of available muscle fibers.

Consider: You’re working with a weight that’s 90% of your max. Once you deplete 10% of your muscles contraction strength, you will not longer be able to move the weight. This means the set ends, but you still have 90% contraction strength left in the muscle!

The solution is combining high intensity exercises with high volume through your training cycle.

Combining Intensity and Volume

The first table shows linear periodization where the number of sets reduces in a linear fashion, allowing intensity increase. It’s an effective method for combine high intensity with high volume. As sets and reps decrease, increase your intensity (resistance).

Linear Periodization of Volume
Total Sets Reps Per Set
Weeks 1-3 20-25 12-15
Weeks 4-6 15-20 10-12
Weeks 7-9 10-15 6-8
Weeks 10-12 5-10 4-6


The next table uses a variation of alternating. It’s optimal for lifters more interested in size than strength. Its main principle is to keep the body continually adapting.

Alternating Periodization of Volume
Total Sets Reps per Set
Weeks 1-3 20-25 12-15
Weeks 4-6 10-15 6-8
Weeks 7-9 15-20 10-12
Weeks 10-12 5-10 4-6

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