Explaining Training Terms: Volume & Intensity

With so many different training programs to choose from, and so many people holding the "secret" to training, how will we ever know which ones really work?  In order to know what is going to work you have to know how, and why, training changes your body. Terms such as volume, intensity, linear v.s. undulating periodization, GPP, and dynamic days can be incredibly overwhelming to even very experienced athletes and coaches.  It is my firm belief that to get the most out of your training you have to believe in it, and to believe in your training you have to understand it.   This article will  address the terms volume and intensity from the previous list, and how they relate to your life in the gym. 

    There are scientific definitions for volume and intensity, but often these do not help people grasp how these things will affect their performance and development as athletes.  I will help to clarify this connection  by showing you what each term means in relation to your daily, weekly, or yearly programing.  The variations in recovery and their effects on the following training sessions in regard to these topics will also be addressed.. 

    Volume refers to the number of sets and reps you perform on any given day, week, or even year. Intensity does not talk about how “intense” the training session is, or how focused you are.  It refers to how heavy a given set is compared to that movement’s 1RM. For example, squats for 3x3@90% is high intensity, and low volume training.  But if the same movement was done for 3x10@65%, the intensity is much lower but it is a much higher volume training session.  So how does changing either of these affect our body, and our development? There is a lot to think about here such as metabolic fatigue, neurological fatigue, DOMS, hormonal changes, psychological adaptations, and recovery time. All of this plays into how one session will affect the next.  

    Athletes need to play jump rope with their maximal recoverable volume when training in order to get the results they want. However, they often don’t understand how changing volume and intensity will do that for them. This also has to do with meso and macrocycles, but that will be saved for a later article. What I will clarify today is how altering volume and intensity will affect the body and future training. 

    Training with high volume has a lot of positives, including increasing specific or general work capacity, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, changes in body composition, and, if done right, healthier joints. However, typically it will take athletes longer to recover from higher volume training than it will from higher intensity training. This is because of the degradation of the skeletal muscle. Think about how sore you get after 8x10 back squats with limited rest. This is because it can take up to 72 hours before you are fully recovered from this form of training.  Depending on how sore your muscles are will limit how you are able to perform the next day, and in some cases may even stop you from training all together until the pain is tolerable.  If volume is manipulated properly, over a long enough period of time, the positives I discussed  earlier will begin to show.

    The toll that high volume takes on the body is why we wouldn’t have a high level football player do 5x10 within 48 hours of the biggest game of the season.  The time it would take to recover from that volume of work would limit his ability to perform when it matters, which is on the field, not in the weightroom.  Now this is where it gets interesting. Within the body (but outside of the muscle) there are a number of hormonal responses going on in response to this type of training.  Training that produces a lot of lactic acid like high volume squats with low rest, assault bike sprints, or burpees will stimulate the production and release of growth hormone and IGF-1 instead of testosterone or other androgens.  Athletes who are coming off of injury or are early in their off season want these types of hormones because they help with growth and recovery of every tissue (tendons, bones, skin, eye, etc), not just muscle .  

    Higher intensity training has just as many positives for athletes as does high volume.  Athletes training with high intensities (above 85%) will see improvements in peak power, speed, greater number of type II fibers (there are a bunch of subtypes), and greater maximal voluntary muscular contractions. All of these things must be maximized for great athletes.  However, higher intensity training, while less physically fatiguing, can be more taxing on the mental status of an athlete as well as having a slightly higher chance for injury. 

    A young inexperienced athlete, or one who is just returning to the weight room after a long competitive season, would struggle to hop back into high intensity training.  These individuals need to build up their movement patterns to get accustomed to being under heavy weight again. However, those who have proficient enough movement patterns, or are gearing up for a big competition, should absolutely take high intensity attempts. 

    These heavy attempts not only stimulate neurological changes within the body, they also stimulate production of  many androgenic hormones we need to adapt to training.  These include testosterone, androstenedione, and a few others.  For the purpose of training these affect muscular growth and development in response to training.  This happens in both men and women, and is essential to the health of the athlete. 

    Before you start your next program, make sure that the volume and intensity are lined up in a way that matches your goals and current training level.  It is up to you to make sure and no one else. If you have read this article fully I hope you better understand what these terms mean, how they affect you, and how you can manipulate them to your benefit.