The debate surrounding strength training often centers on whether maximal gains are achieved through low or high volume training. This ongoing debate can seem endless, but in reality, there’s no clear winner as both low and high volume approaches have their merits, depending on the individual’s context.
Program design in strength training is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Therefore, it’s essential to recognize that there’s no universal answer to this debate. The effectiveness of each approach depends on various context-specific factors, and there’s even research supporting both sides of the argument. Consequently, the strength training community is divided into camps, each advocating for either low or high volume training.
In this discussion, it’s crucial to understand the definitions of volume and intensity in the context of strength training. Intensity, according to evidence-based strength training, refers to the load or weight used in training. High-intensity programs involve lifting heavier weights with fewer reps, akin to classic programs like Wendler 5/3/1. Conversely, volume, in the context of hypertrophy, refers to the total number of sets performed per muscle group each week.
Research in the field primarily suggests that higher volumes are more favorable for muscle growth. However, there are also studies showing benefits to lower volumes, with the argument that higher volumes can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which might limit muscle growth. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that can cause muscle loss under certain conditions. Nonetheless, this argument doesn’t always hold, as elevated cortisol levels due to intense training can also lead to increased testosterone, promoting muscle growth.
Seasoned strength coaches add further nuances to the debate. While some powerlifters advocate for low volume, heavy lifting, emphasizing compound exercises for their multi-muscle group activation and increased total tension, this approach may not be suitable for everyone. It might not provide enough volume for each muscle group, particularly for beginners. Additionally, less experienced lifters may not have the strength to create the same level of total tension as advanced lifters.
In practice, the ideal volume and intensity depend on the lifter’s experience level. Beginners typically start with lower volume to build skill and neuromuscular capacity. Intermediate lifters can handle more volume, whereas advanced lifters, despite their ability to generate more mechanical tension, may benefit from lower volume due to greater neuromuscular and joint stress. Staying within the range of 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week is generally advisable.
Ultimately, the optimal training approach varies based on individual goals, demands, and preferences. Tailoring training to personal needs and monitoring how one’s body responds is key to determining what works best for them.