Intensity vs Volume Explained

The Relationship of Intensity and Volume

In this video we discuss how to find just the right relationship between intensity and volume to help you make long term gains in the weight room.

In the Programming 101 video, we defined programming for strength training and the variables used to manipulate a program design. Today we’re going to discuss two of the variables in more detail: intensity and volume.

Intensity simply means “how heavy?” typically organized as the “magnitude” of weight on the bar (in pounds or kilos) or as a percentage of your one repetition maximum. If your absolute best squat for one repetition is 500 lbs, for example, then 375 is 75% of your 1RM. An intensity of 80% of your 1RM is greater than an intensity of 50% of 1RM.

Volume simply means “how much” or the total number of work reps performed over a given period of time. Three sets of five reps, for example, is a volume of 15 reps. Typically volume is managed for a workout and over the course of a week; an arbitrary yet useful way to organize a program since our lives are typically structured around weekly schedules.

Intensity and volume are interdependent: as intensity increases the volume that a lifter can complete must reduce. A lifter cannot, by definition, perform their one repetition personal record for multiple sets or reps. Conversely, as intensity is reduced, volume must increase to provide sufficient stress to the lifter. When peaking performance for a competition, for example, volume will typically be reduced near the meet so that intensity can be maximized for performance.

How to Program Intensity vs Volume

Programs manage stress applied over time by manipulating intensity and volume to achieve a desired effect on the lifter. Different numbers of reps at a given intensity will produce a different type of adaptation. At different points in your lifting career you will need to adjust either volume or intensity or both in order to appropriately apply stress and facilitate a new level of adaptation.

We define strength as the ability to produce force against an external object. This is measured by the weight on the bar. Since our goal is to increase strength, our primary objective is to increase the weight on the bar as efficiently as possible. Our novice and intermediate programs initially use primarily intensity, or weight on the bar, to increase stress. Eventually intensity alone won’t be sufficient to drive an adaptation and more volume will be needed. But, since force production is the primary goal, the weight on the bar will always be heavy. What “heavy” is will depend on you the individual and the volume you are performing a given lift. Ultimately your program must be designed to require your body to lift increasingly more weight over time.

As you progress through levels of advancement as a lifter, you will need to control volume and intensity to manage the degree of stress applied in a given period of time. As a novice, simple linear progression of intensity – adding weight to the bar each session – produces rapid progress. For more advanced trainees, more complex programming with varying cycles of volume and intensity is necessary. Programming intensity and volume is a balancing act of managing stress and recovery for the individual lifter to consistently drive progress over long periods of time.

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