High Intensity Low Volume & Low Intensity High Volume Strength Training. When & How to Use Both for Great Results
I really like high intensity low volume training when you push every set brutally hard but you only do a few sets (sometimes only one) for each exercise.
I also like lower intensity and higher volume training when you keep several reps “in the tank” and perform many more sets for each exercise.
Both types have their pros and cons, and each can be incorporated into a training program to achieve your performance and physique goals, albeit not simultaneously. In fact, I use both methods in the (S)hero Workout Program and believe that’s one of the reasons it’s so effective.
You must know that you can’t incorporate both at the same time without risking injury and quick burn-out. Let’s quickly discuss what High Intensity Low Volume and Low Intensity High Volume training is along with the pros and cons of each method.
High Intensity Low Volume Training
What It Is
“High intensity low volume training” has various definitions. For some it may mean doing a single rest/pause set on many exercises. To another it could mean a single all out set to failure a la the Mike Mentzer and Author Jones method of high intensity training (HIT). And still to others it could mean doing Reverse Pyramid Training or just two all out sets per exercise.
Either way, it usually means keeping the total volume per muscle group very low and pushing sets to, or extremely close to, muscle failure.
For example, let’s say you’re going to do a rest/pause set of chin-ups. You’ll perform a set to failure (I define failure as stopping the set when another rep with perfect form isn’t possible), rest about 30 seconds, do another set to failure, rest 30 seconds, and do a third and final set to failure. That’s the only set you do for that exercise with this method of high intensity low volume training.
You could also do one all out set to failure (as defined above), take some weight off the bar and do the same thing for a second set.
- -Great when you want to spend minimum time in the gym. If you’re only doing one to three sets, your workouts won’t take long.
- -Builds mental and physical toughness. If you’ve ever used high intensity training, you know what I mean. Oftentimes, as in the case of a 20 rep set of squats, your mind is begging you to quit even though you still have strength left to squeeze out a few more reps. This is a great way to test your mental strength and to challenge yourself.
- -Oftentimes people make a lot of progress with periods of high intensity training because they’re not in a constant state of over-reaching as compared to a high frequency, high volume workout program.
- -Not something most people can do for an extended period of time. Note that I’m saying “most people” and not everyone. Many individuals burn out both mentally and physically if they use high intensity training for months at a time. Some people even get nagging injuries from going full bore all the time.
- -Gets tough to mentally psych yourself up for training sessions. If you’re doing high intensity training correctly, you have to get in a zone when you workout. You have to practically psych yourself up for every single set because you have to push hard if you want to reap the rewards of training with minimum volume.
- -If I train with super high intensity for too long, I get sick much easier. Anytime I do periods of high intensity training for six weeks or longer, I usually come down with a cold. I’m not saying everyone experiences this, but I believe my immune system takes a pounding with extended periods of training all out; just a personal observation.
Low Intensity High Volume Training
What It Is
This is the category most people fall into with their typical training. Again, the definition of “low intensity high volume training” depends on who you ask. For some it means the typical bodybuilding split that consists of multiple exercises for several sets for each body part. To others it could mean total body workouts but using numerous sets for each exercise and performing anywhere from 50-100 reps per exercise/body part.
In the end, it means using several sets and avoiding failure. For example, if someone is doing 5×10 on dumbbell bench presses, they won’t typically get close to failure on any set. They may be using a weight that allows them to perform 15 reps, but they do sets of 10.
Again, the definition of low intensity high volume training is relative to who you ask, but hopefully you get the idea.
- -You don’t need to mentally psych yourself up for lifts. After a tough period of high intensity training, scaling things back a bit is a welcome change of pace. It’s nice to approach a set of squats knowing you don’t have to push the set until you’re on the verge of collapse.
- -Can train with a higher frequency. For people who love working out, this is where higher volume training is a benefit. You simply can’t train on a near daily basis with very high intensity training.
- -Less CNS fatigue and more joint friendly. If you’re not pushing yourself to the brink of insanity as is practically necessary with high intensity training, your CNS won’t take as big of a beating. This means you’ll likely recover quicker (as long as total training volume isn’t too crazy). It’s also nice for providing your joints with a break.
- -For some people, like myself, it’s difficult to hold yourself back when you know you can do more reps or use more weight. For years I felt as if I was cheating if I stopped a set knowing I had a couple more reps left in me. That’s not really a con to high volume training, but some restraint is necessary to do it properly.
- -It could mean longer workouts. If you’re using a much high training volume, that could mean more time in the gym.
- -Staying focused can be a challenge. If you’re going the same exercise over and over for several sets, you may find yourself getting bored and struggling to focus on the task at hand.
How to Use Both for Great Results
I like to incorporate phases of both High Intensity and Low Intensity training to get the best of both methods when the goal is getting stronger or building some extra muscle (and for those who love a challenge). That’s the theme of the (S)hero Workout Program. (S)hero is a four phase workout program that alternates phases of High and Low Intensity Training. The results have been increases in strength, fat loss, and definitely and improvement of mental toughness.
Here’s what Jill reported after she completed the first three phases of (S)hero.
“OK, drumroll, please!
Squat – went from 115 to 175#
Military press – went from 45 to 70#
Bent over barbell row – 75 to 90#
Deadlift – 145 to 175# (no straps!)”
And here’s what Kristyn reported after completing the first three phases of (S)hero.
“Front squat – started at 95×9 and now up to 125×6
Military press – started at 55×9 and now up to 75×7
Bent over row – started at 85×9 and now up to 120×6
Reverse lunge – started at 30lb dumbbells and now up to 50
Push-up – started at 10 and now up to 35
Barbell hip thrust – started at 205 and now up to 310
Deadlift – started at 165×9 and now up to 195×5
Bench press – started at 95×9 and now up to 120×5
Neutral grip pull-up – started at bodyweight + 2.5 pounds for 8 reps, now up to bodyweight + 15lbs x 5 reps
Suspended inverted row – started at bodyweight x 10, now up to bodyweight + 20 pounds x 10″
After 12 weeks of following (S)hero, these ladies have achieved some incredible results. And they still have one more phase to complete.