Spend some time on a popular bodybuilding forum and you will be sure to find some threads debating the merits of low volume training vs high volume work (even if half the guys in the discussion don’t even lift). It’s easy to understand why so much time is spent discussing it – everyone wants to grow as fast as possible.
So is high intensity, low volume training the best way to go? Or should you stick to the traditional 3-5 sets of 12 reps?
Low volume training is all the rage thanks to guys like Arnold who popularized the idea. It makes sense – the guy is a bodybuilding icon and had one of the best physiques in the history of the sport.
There are, however, professional bodybuilders who have had success training a different way – high intensity training. This mean training at lower volumes and taking your muscle to failure. Generally these workouts are shorter but that doesn’t mean you will be any less tired after performing them.
So is high intensity training what you’ve been looking for all these years? Will you finally lose that skinny-fat body and join the ranks of those who actually look like they lift? Read on to find out!
Low Volume Training Vs High Volume For Muscle Growth
The History of High Intensity Training
If only this had been the focus of your high school history classes – you might actually have paid attention! Go back far into the history of bodybuilding and traditionally it has always been about medium to high volume.
That is, until a broski by the name of Arthur Jones showed up and changed things forever. He aimed to tell people – bodybuilders, scientists, trainers – that everything they had been taught up to that point was wrong.
Unlike most internet bodybuilding forum members who don’t even lift, Arthur Jones has some impressive gains to back up what he was saying. In fact, in one experiment he was even able to gain 45lbs of muscle in a month!
Eventually he partnered up with a Doctor by the name of Ellington Darden who was able to find scientific support for what Arthur was preaching, even writing several books on the topic of High Intensity Training. These books were heavily influential in the careers of several bodybuilders including Mike and Ray Mentzer along with multi-Olympia winner Dorian Yates.
Dorian, who won six straight Olympia titles, was famous for implementing a high intensity, low volume approach.
Watch any of his training videos and you will see he does high weight for low reps with extreme intensity. He also would do partial reps and negative reps when that was all his body could handle. Although he also did multiple exercises per muscle group and warm-up sets, much of his training fell under the High Intensity Training philosophy.
The High Intensity Training Mindset
So what exactly does it mean to train with high intensity? Well for starters, they limit the total amount of sets/reps they do in the gym. In fact, they think most people spend way too much time in the gym which often leads to overtraining – something that absolutely kills results.
Having said that, just because you are in the gym for a short period of time doesn’t mean you should train any less hard. High-Intensity training is just that – intense, so you need to work hard to get results. You will also want to make sure you are progressively overloading the weight – meaning over time the weight you are lifting is going up.
To sum it up nicely: focus on full-body routines three times per week performing 10 exercises for 1 set each for 8-12 reps, taking the muscle to complete failure.
Is There Scientific Support for HIT?
Thanks to scientific research we know that there are three keys to muscle growth and that they are mechanical tension, muscular damage and metabolic stress. While higher-volume training is a good way to achieve metabolic stress you can achieve a similar result by taking the muscle to failure in the first set.
High Intensity Training can definitely achieve all of these goals, however there is a caveat – it depends on how your body responds. You see, for some people the only way to achieve metabolic stress is to work each muscle group for 5 sets of 12 reps. Others can achieve the same result or better after 1 set.
As a result, it is impossible to say which training style is best since everyone responds to them differently.
How to Succeed on HIT
To begin with you need to make sure that your body is ready for this level intensity. So you have to make sure that your t-levels are at their optimal level. You can read all about how testosterone works here.
First and foremost you need to focus on results. While all of this might sound great you need to make sure it works for you. Dorian Yates had great results on HIT but modified it to fit what worked for him.
Having said that, there are plenty of successful bodybuilders and Olympia winners who training using other methods. Not to mention there are bodybuilders who go as far as to say this type of training is dangerous – after all, Dorian’s career ended as a result of a bicep injury sustained while performing high-intensity rows.
Therefore, do not get stubborn and stick to any particular plan no matter what. Be flexible and listen to advice from all successful bodybuilders. Try out some of the stuff they recommend and keep what works for you. As long as you are making progress then you are on the right path.
If you are going down the HIT road keep in mind you need to do at least a small amount of volume. If you only perform 1 set of 1 rep for each exercise you will not achieve the metabolic stress necessary to grow. Depending on the exercise make sure you perform at least 6 reps, preferably in the 8-12 range.
This is where it gets tricky because the perfect amount of volume varies from person to person. Just as some people respond well to high-volume training and others moderate, those who respond to low volume have different ways of structuring it. For example, 6 full complete reps or 12 reps with the last few being partials or even negatives.
Try it all, see what works and go from there. Now to make things even more confusing for you – the ideal volume can change over time. You might have great results with HIT for a while and notice your progress start to taper off after awhile. The cause for the slowdown could be a number of reasons but one possibility is that your body needs more volume.
Just as some people benefit from switching from high to low volume to give their bodies some recovery time, others benefit from switching things up to put more stress on their muscles.
Given that we have spent a lot of time discussing volume it’s worth mentioning that you don’t have to stick to an extreme. Some people seem to think they have to choose between 3 full-body workouts of 3 minutes per week or 6 individual 2 hour workouts each focusing on a different muscle.
This sort of extremism only works for the Tea Party – you need to find a good balance for yourself. Most people will get the best results somewhere in the middle, so figure out where that is for you and stick with it.
The theme of this article as you can see by now, is that no single method works for everyone. Even people who do high intensity training at low volumes mix it up a bit once they find out what suits them best. The worst thing you can do is assume a particular training style will work for you just because it worked for someone else.
Remember there are tons of professional bodybuilders who won contests using entirely different training styles. If you happen to find someone who has a body that responds exactly like yours does (unlikely) then yes you can model your training exactly like theirs.
This conclusion probably won’t please everyone. After all, we are all looking for the secret, best training method. Who wants to spend months trying out different training volumes and exercises just to figure out what works? Sounds like a lot of effort.
So the debate on low volume training vs high volume comes all down to the individual and what his body responds to the best.
Unfortunately it’s the only way to make it at this game, so if you aren’t willing to do it then you can just go take a seat right over there ——–>