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Intelligent Intensity

By Tucker Loken-Dahle

PQ: “Volume and intensity work inversely of each other. When you use a lot of one, you won’t have much room for the other.”

If you’re anything like me, when one program gets close to the end, you start scheming on the next one. You’re thinking of which muscle groups to hit on what days, what order to put the exercises in, and how to best work on your weak points to build the physique you want. Your legs are lagging, so you want to work them twice per week. Your arms are really good, so you put them after something else you need to work on. Something often overlooked when putting together your next program is how to factor in just how much your body can take based on how much volume and how much intensity you want to put into each workout. These are two key factors that will often make or break your progress. I’ve seen a lot of people doing way too much volume too intensely and being severely overtrained, as well as people thinking they can just pop in, do a low-volume/high-intensity routine and go home. The only problem is that they missed the memo about intensity and didn’t even break a sweat.

Volume and intensity work inversely of each other. When you use a lot of one, you won’t have much room for the other. In terms of a visual, think of it like buckets and a limited amount of resources that can be put into them. Let’s say you’ve got 100 points of CNS energy to put into your training. Other factors like stress and lack of sleep aside, you’ve got two buckets, one labeled intensity and one labeled volume. The more energy points you put into volume, the less you’ll have for intensity, and vice versa. If you want to do lots of different exercises and many sets of each to hit the muscle from a dozen different angles, you won’t have much left to actually push those sets to a maximal intensity. If you want to focus on how hard you can go and want to take everything to failure, you’ll only have a couple good sets and exercises that induce growth, and the others are just the warm-up or cooldown. So how do you make the choice for yourself, and how do you apply this?

When we think intensity, Dorian Yates and Mike Mentzer come to mind immediately—two guys who punished themselves with torturous workouts for years on end. Their pain tolerance was sky high. They knew, however, that if you want to do biceps curls until you feel like muscle will pull off the bone, you’re not going to be able to do four sets of barbell curls, followed by dumbbell hammer curls, followed by machine curls. They would generally do a variety of exercises, but the sets leading up to their maximum-intensity sets were only warm-ups to make sure the muscle was primed and ready so that they could be effective and avoid injury. They finished up with one super intense max effort set per exercise and moved on. This made their workouts quick and effective, and built some legendary physiques.

On the other hand, when we think of who represents volume, Arnold has been known for his twice-a-day, six-days-per-week workout plan. If you watch Pumping Iron, you’ll see a few good clips of high intensity, but you’ll also see he and the other bodybuilders shelling out plenty of reps, focusing on the feel, pumping the muscle, and hitting it from many different angles.

All of these men are outliers. Dorian Yates could withstand a level of intensity, along with a decent amount of volume that most could not. Arnold could be in the gym for hours pumping away, and taking some of his sets incredibly hard, too, and still come back for more later that day. Just like a bell curve, though, there are very few people on the outside edges, and more than 90 percent of us fall into the normal range. We have to be very careful in our training, because we have the constitution of regular folk, and that doesn’t bode well for high intensity and high volume put together.

When you’re organizing your workout, it’s important to realize that both styles have their own benefits. When someone emphasizes volume, the pressure of going to all-out failure isn’t there, so instead of just focusing on squeezing out one more rep, you can focus on how the weight feels and the mind-muscle connection, which is arguably the most important thing in bodybuilding. Along with that, you’ve got more wiggle room to do more sets if you’re feeling good that day and avoid overtraining, as well as avoiding injury, because you’re not going all out as often and exposing yourself to heavy weight under fatigue.


When you emphasize intensity, the workouts are quick and highly stimulating. Just like some people need to back off the weight and take the sets a little easier so that they can actually feel the muscle working, some people just need a kick in the pants to actually push it and fully stimulate the muscle in order to get the following response of size and strength. Aside from your warm-up routine and any cardio, you can be in and out of the gym in under an hour almost every time, leaving more time for recovery.

The best way to apply these principles is to go back to a routine that worked for you in the past and start making adjustments in your volume or intensity. If your goal is more volume, put in another one to two exercises and make sure to go to failure only sparingly during the workout. This will change the workout so that you can really focus on feeling the lagging muscle group, and make sure you emphasize it and make it grow, rather than letting surrounding muscles take over.

If you want to increase your intensity, take out one to two exercises and put all of your energy into the ones you still have. Some people will work biceps from every angle with many exercises, but just hammering them on a basic barbell curl and dumbbell curl may be plenty to make them grow. Since the amount of sets are decreased, you’ll only have a handful of chances to fully stimulate the muscle, so you’ll need to push yourself in order to get the most out of the workout.

In the end, make sure you’re having fun with your routine and keeping it new for your body. The changes will work as long as they are something new, so looking at intensity and volume as another tool in your box can add an extra layer to your training and progress, and deepen your understanding of your body. There’s no absolute right way to go about it. The best way to find out what works for you is through trial, error, and time under the bar. IM


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