From time to time it is good to change things up when it comes to your training. For the longest time, I’ve been doing high-volume training for maximum hypertrophic gains. Occasionally I’ll convince myself that I care about strength too and will do a strength-block for a month or two, but I don’t really care about powerlifting.
My goals are always to look and feel good. Gaining some strength and athleticism is nice, but it’s never the focus, they are just side effects.
When training hypertrophy, there is this idea that you need large amounts of volume in order to grow. In fact, I wrote a post a while back about intelligent workout programming which examines one coach’s beliefs that show exactly that.
There is another type of programming that lives on the exact opposite of this high-volume training called high-intensity.
Intensity vs Volume in workout programming
Above is a chart to explain the traditional thinking around volume and intensity as it relates to workout programming. You only have so much gas in the tank, so you can’t have everything. High intensity and high volume simultaneously isn’t possible, at least not without injury or death as the outcome.
So that is where this idea of training “zones” comes in. At the top of the chart, there is the “power zone” which aligns with a more Olympic-lifting style training. Sets of 1-3 reps at high intensity. Then comes the “strength zone” which aligns with powerlifting or general strength type of 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps. The “hypertrophy zone” you start seeing rep ranges in the 6-12 range with more sets and more exercises per muscle group. Lastly the “tone zone”, or the muscular endurance zone where you do light weights for 20+ reps per set.
This idea is pretty pervasive in the fitness industry, yet there are lots of conflicting thoughts about it. In the article, I previously mentioned, that particular coach believes that regardless of the number of reps, what is more, important is the quality of the working sets. Are you actually coming to just a few reps from failure?
Interestingly, while that particular coach takes a very scientific approach to come up with that theory, it aligns with some bro-science. There is the common bro-science belief that the only reps that matter are those once the burning begins.
Intensity-focused hypertrophy programming
So based on that standard intensity vs volume chart, you would expect that high intensity would be a terrible choice for hypertrophy gains. And yet the world is a curious place, things aren’t always so cut-and-dried.
There is a school of thought, tested and followed by some absolute beasts of men, that you should do just the bare minimum to recruit growth. Anything above that will hinder your body’s ability to recover.
Doing 1 really intense set to beyond failure per exercise. Once your muscle is signaled that it needs to grow, any additional training is pointless. At least that is the theory.
Personally I do often wonder if I am recovering quick enough with my high-volume workout programming.
The new experiment
For this next training block, I’m going to switch to a high-intensity training protocol. Rather than living in the gym for 1-1.5 hours for 5-6 days/week, it’ll be 30-45 mins 3-4 days/week. Rather than tons of sets, it’ll be 1 intense set per exercise.
The current plan is it’ll be an upper/lower split. Per muscle group, I’ll do some light warm-up sets and then do the 1 intense set. That will be followed by a “stretch” set which will feed more blood into the muscle.
There isn’t too much to lose here. Worst case I end up losing some muscle mass and strength if it turns out to not be effective. But that can be regained quickly enough.
But if it turns out to be effective, well, that saves me a lot of time in the gym. I love spending time in the gym, but a few hours saved every week adds up quick.