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Volume Versus Intensity

Volume versus intensity, the big debate among athletic coaches and fitness trainers alike, is an on-going, almost unresolvable argument. You have on one side strength training gurus such as Arthur Jones promoting high intensity, extremely low volume training. Then on the other side you have the volume advocates such as Stu Mittleman, champion ultra-endurance athlete. 

On this site we have covered the benefits of both modalities of training in great depth and provided sound reasoning for our thinking. Now it’s time to compare the two and put them in their rightful place. 


As the 21st century progresses intensity seems to be winning the volume versus intensity debate. This is probably due to two things; training at low intensity for longer durations has been around a while and like all things is going out of fashion, people want something different. The second reason is that life is now more busy. The idea of training for shorter durations and less often is more alluring than spending hours in the gym each week.

I have often said on this site that intensity is the determining factor of all results. It is intensity that decides what result is produced, regardless of the volume of training. This is true, but that can be misleading. It does not necessarily mean that harder is always better in 100% of circumstances. Personal Evolution promotes maximum output in minimal time for a lot of our methods and training programmes, however intensity as a deciding factor on results needs to also be considered when talking about lower levels of output.

Lets put this is context; say a 400 metre runner is training for an upcoming season. The logical thing to do is train hard and fast. I mean of course the athlete will run better times if he/she is running faster in training. Well yes and no. that runner needs to complete a certain amount of volume in his or her training. Each session needs a prescribed number of sets or repetitions of runs in order to fulfil requirements and create a training effect. If early runs are completed at 100% the body is fooled into believing that this is the maximum pace their body is capable of running. Each successive repetition is slower than the first until by the end of the workout the pace may have dropped from 23 seconds per 200 metres to 30 seconds per 200 metres. This leaves nothing in the tank and gradually trains the athlete to run slower maximum paces. 

Under these circumstances intensity needs to be considered and is indeed a determining factor, but not in the same way as many people might think. Intensity needs to be sacrificed early on in the session so that the entire session may be performed at the same pace. This allows for adequate recovery between sets and a gradual build-up in pace. As the training season progresses so does the pace, but never to maximum. If you interpret the focus on intensity to mean that you must always go 100% then you are missing the boat, you are sacrificing progression and not going the distance. Your body will always hit plateaus and have trouble breaking them.

The same concept is used by Eastern Bloc countries in regard to strength training. While many athletes are lifting weights at maximum intensity to the point of failure, these European countries are holding back slightly and never reaching complete exhaustion so as to never allow the body a complete experience of fatigue. This concept is commonly used with methods such as German volume training.

So although intensity is the primary deciding factor, one must intelligently research when to go harder and when to go the distance. 


The volume versus intensity argument is well represented by the volume advocates. This is evident in the fitness and weight loss industry. It is a commonly held belief that low intensity, continuous cardiovascular exercise is the only way to lose weight. The same is true for the world of athletes and their coaches. Many marathon coaches for example seem to think that pumping out more and more distance each week is the best way to increase performances. Then of course the nut-cases at the other extreme advocate complete, ball-busting intensity in every session. There rarely seems to be any intelligence here in regard to balance. Intensity and volume should be structured to meet certain specific purposes and accomplish the task at hand. This requires a grey area mindset, not black and white, all or nothing mentality. 

Although intensity is the primary deciding factor when it comes to producing certain results, volume still plays a role. Holding back early in a session is always done with a purpose and that purpose is almost always volume related. Take muscle growth for example; increasing muscle size requires the adequate stimulation of the largest number of muscle fibres. High intensity training with very low volume will not achieve this. High intensity training that is slightly below the failure threshold will accomplish this result more effectively when there is a corresponding training volume. So the person wanting to gain muscle can still shoot for personal bests during strength workouts, but they must get through a certain amount of volume otherwise the training will not stimulate adequate numbers of muscle fibres. 

This applies to everything. As you may remember, we are great advocates of lower volume training at high intensities, however this is not at the expense of completing the required amount of training for the results that are sought. 


Volume versus intensity should really not be a debate at all. It is not all or nothing when it comes to physical conditioning on any level. Training smart is the intention. It’s not always the one who busts their balls the hardest that gets the greatest results, it’s the athlete that knows when to sacrifice intensity in order to go the distance and the one that knows when to go all out. 

Look at the training conducted by sprint coach Clyde Hart, who trained champions such as Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner. Hart stumbled on a training method that worked purely by accident. Michael Johnson was getting injured far too often so Hart decided to back off the training pace a little so that he at least made it through the season. What he discovered was that Johnson was able to keep progressing despite the slower paces. This is because he could get more done during each session. So he ran 200 metre repetitions at paces as slow as 29 seconds each. This pace increased as the season went on while the volume decreased. The training conducted was never 100% speed work but Johnson kept running faster times because his session did not taper, he always gas in the tank when everyone else was falling short. The same is now evident in Jeremy Wariner, the new 400 metre prodigy (a white guy too!). 

So volume versus intensity? They need not be in an argument to begin with. Volume and intensity each have a purpose and it is up to the individual, the coach and the athletes to gauge theses factors and determine what is most appropriate for the task at hand.

Return to our home page from volume versus intensity.

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