Workouts: Intensity vs Volume


You’ve talked about Intensity being the most important training fundamental, yet at the same time you’ve said “a certain amount of volume is necessary for growth”. Then last week you mentioned Mike Mentzer said volume is always a negative. Plus you talk quite a bit about frequency.

Assuming all of this is correct, how the hell do you put a workout together that conforms to all of these variables?


First thing to keep in mind is this: “Absolute” statement are difficult to work with.

So while it’s true I consider Intensity as the most important of the 3 training fundamentals, that doesn’t mean it can’t co-exist with the other two.

So let’s address Intensity first.


It’s clear that some amount of high intensity work is needed to stimulate an adaptive response, or at least the adaptive response we’re looking for (i.e. sprinter vs. marathoner’s physique).

Assuming building muscle is the goal: Low intensity or especially low intensity done for long durations is bad news.

So if your workout is 2-3 hours long, you’ve got a problem to address. Long distance runners train for that long, not strength trainers.

That “Intensity” then needs to be quantified IMO, and there are any number of ways you can do it: As a % of your 1RM, expressed as total tonnage or especially when adding the critical component of time – resulting in a pounds per minute lifted figure (aka training Density).

You up your 1RM, that’s a stimulus to grow. You lift more total tonnage per workout, that’s a stimulus to grow. You do the same amount of work in less time – that’s another growth stimulus.

No stimulus though, no reason to grow.

From this then it’s clear that to accomplish a 1RM you have to perform at least some volume (one rep). At the other end of the spectrum, lifting total tonnages of 20,000+lbs per muscle group is going to take multiple sets and reps. Lots of them, as you get more advanced.

So there is no intensity then, without at least some volume.

And finally, doing this just once obviously isn’t going to cut it. Which brings us to fundamental #3, frequency.


To grow significant amounts of muscle, you must regularly (consistently) trigger muscle growth, without training so frequently that your body won’t be able to recover from these workouts, much less grow larger and stronger to deal with a similar challenge.

So when I train someone, I specify at least 2 measurements of intensity (what I call alpha and beta strength).

The coupling of both methods virtually guarantees muscle growth in most people, an increase in power and of course a corresponding increase in work capacity.

Auto regulation of both volume and frequency is accomplished by setting a time limit within which to work (20 min or less IMO), or when the trainee reaches a point where performance decreases.

Bottom Line

Begin by establishing at least 2 gauges of Intensity, and let performance dictate optimal volume and frequency. You’ll find the latter (how frequently you can train productively) is usually the toughest nut to crack, as it incorporates a large number of moving targets (i.e. Age, Sleep quality, Adherence to diet, Training loads, Anabolics or not, Synthagen, or not) etc.

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Coach Rob Regish

Rob Regish is an internationally recognized name in the field of health and fitness. He's been a weekly contributor to for almost a decade, answering listener questions from around the world.

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