What Matters More: Volume or Intensity?

When it comes to working out, does it matter how MUCH you work, or how HARD you work?

These days, it seems like the general consensus among most gym-goers and trainers out there is that working hard in the gym counts for much more than how much you work or how much time you spend doing those things.

What should you do when you’re crunched for time? Easy. Something short and intense that gets your heart rate up, and gets you gassed. When it comes to meeting general fitness goals in the gym–lose weight, gain a little muscle, maintain good health–the intensity of your workouts matters far more than the volume of your workouts.

They do have a point. I mean, walking on a treadmill for 2 hours does little for anyone who chooses to do that sort of thing. In that instance, I’d much rather work hard for 20 minutes and do a circuit of 4 moderately difficult exercises, with little rest in between, and call it a day.

Undoubtedly, this is why “high-intensity” training is so pervasive in the health & fitness industry. People are hooked on the feeling of a good workout, and “high-intensity” does that for us in a relatively short amount of time. Get in, work out hard for 30 minutes, and get out. And it does work somewhat–people who get there butt kicked sometimes end up losing weight and getting a little stronger and fitter.

So what matters more? It seems like intensity matter more than volume, but the answer is actually far more nuanced than that.

Let’s define intensity as how hard you work. Your intensity represent your exertion level on exercises, the amount of weight you use, or even the percentage of your one rep-max (% 1RM) for more advanced gym goers. The higher these numbers are, the higher your training intensity is.

Let’s also define volume as how much you work. This is usually indicates in more advanced fitness circles as the product of weight x total number of reps. For example, lifting 225 lbs for 3 sets of 4 would result in a total volume of 2700 lbs (225 lbs x 12 reps total). In today’s discussion, we can keep things simple, and simply represent volume as the number of exercise reps you do during a workout.

The True Answer

For most of us, the true answer to what matters more may surprise you. It’s not intensity that matters more; it’s actually volume.

The reason why volume matter more than intensity is because most people haven’t built up enough strength and fitness to truly exercise at a high intensity anyway. This goes for both perceived exertion and % 1RM. In other words, going hard and fast in a fitness class, or even squatting at 90% of your 1 rep-max for doubles. Even though a beginner trainee can keep up with that “high-intensity” fitness class, both of these scenarios are intense exercise activities that many of us have no business doing.

Basically, you must earn the right to lift hard and work out with intensity. For any lifter, it takes some time under the bar for percentage-based training that relies on 1RM numbers to becomes a truly viable training option. Intensity, which usually means heavy weight/low reps, simply doesn’t apply to workouts unless the weights are actually heavy enough.

In fact, the same rules should apply to high-intensity interval training, metabolic conditioning, or any type of training that leaves us gassed and panting for air. This is how most people work out regardless of their training experience, because it’s become accepted that how hard you work matters much more than how much you work.

The Problem

Unfortunately, this is also how many people end up getting hurt in the gym. They aren’t adequately prepared to work out this way because they aren’t strong enough and haven’t nailed down proper exercise technique.

In these cases, volume matters much more than intensity, and repetition is the key to success. I’d much rather have a trainee do 4 sets of 10 reps with pristine form and lighter weight than 3 sets of 5 reps with sloppy form and heavy weight just for the sake of intensity.

For beginners in the gym, part of the learning curve is building the body awareness to execute proper exercise technique time after time. Beginners get this through repetition; not by lifting heavy weights they can barely support. 4 sets of 10 reps builds this body awareness better than 3 sets of 5 reps.

Think of of it this way. Reps are like hours spent studying for a final exam, while intensity can be seen as the level of focus during studying. Generally speaking, the more hours you spend studying, the better you’ll do on your final exam. You can study with intense focus for a shorter time, but you’re likely to do better if you spent more time studying anyway,

This is not to say that intensity doesn’t matter at all. You can spend a lot of time with your face inside a book without actually doing any studying, but you’ll get nothing out of that. Your focus on the task at hand has to be above a certain threshold to qualify as actually studying.

The same is true for your workouts. Your workout intensity has to be above a certain threshold in order for you to reap the benefits of repetition. Just be sure to execute all your reps with pristine technique. When those reps start becoming too easy, then you can think about using more weight, or dropping down the number of reps in your rep schemes.

The next time you go to the gym, just keep in mind that how much you work probably matters more than you think.

by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach and Metabolic Lab Manager at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.