Like it or not, the moment you step into a gym you inadvertently join a long-running locker-room debate about whether intensity or volume produces superior muscle gains.

It seems everyone has their opinion, despite sporting and bodybuilding champions having been built using both approaches. However, a keen eye will notice the differences between the results that the two approaches produce. To get to the bottom of it all let’s start at the beginning. Your goal is to build more muscle. Exactly how do you accomplish this? Here’s your guide to choosing the right trail.


The volume approach

What is it?

As the name suggests, the idea is to bombard your muscles with such a colossal quantity of sets and reps that it has no choice but to adapt and grow. A huge believer in this approach was Arnold Schwarzenegger who would happily train for several hours a day. The premise is simple: you pummel your muscles with a behemoth workload, which thrashes them out so that when they recover they grow.

“For bodybuilding and fitness you want a round and separated look, and the way to do this is to use high-volume training which pushes lots of blood into the muscle fascia which stretches it,” says Chittick. This approach isn’t limited to compound multi-jointed movements such as the squat and bench press – you need to mix it up.

“It is very important to do isolation exercise (concentration curls, leg extensions, etc.) where you’d concentrate on using a good range of motion and have full control of the weight through the positive (raising) and negative (lowering) portion of every rep, as this is how you will achieve big muscle. When doing volume-style training techniques be sure to train heavy three times a month to retain and build on your strength, but always warm up with high volume sets then go on to the heavy stuff while maintaining good control and form.”

This way you’re less likely to get injured and can still enjoy oversized-looking muscles.

The drawbacks

1. There is an obvious risk of overtraining and burnout, which can bring your muscle-building ambitions to a screeching halt. Research in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that you’re overtrained if you’re depressed, irritable, feel weak or tired, or can’t sleep. Take a breather when your body is dropping you these hints.

2. Another problem is psychologically prepping yourself for the multiple sets to come and not to go all-out in the initial sets when you’re at your strongest. This can leave you working with smaller weights than you need to trigger growth.


The intensity approach

What is it?

The opposite of lounging about in the gym all day is to, of course, relax at home all day and get in and out the gym as quickly as possible.

This less-is-more approach’s biggest backer is Dorian Yates, the winner of six Mr Olympia titles. The intensity techniques suggest that muscles need to be pushed beyond their comfort zone with brief workouts and extremely heavy weights, lifted with perfect form. Often you’ll have more rest (one to two days) between each workout than the volume approach because most intensity techniques stress the importance of rest and recovery. Cue: couch time.

The drawbacks

1. If you’re tempted to stray away from perfect exercise form you run a serious risk of getting injured because the exercises require all-out effort.

“People who lift very heavy, often lift with bad form, putting a lot of stress on the joints and in many cases are not hitting the targeted muscle,” explains Chittick. Going for maximum lifts all the time with even a little bit of cheating can leave you licking your wounds sooner than you’d like. This can make this approach tough for novice lifters and those with nagging injuries.

2. Looking flat rather than full. “When heavy training is done properly you do get mass but you can only do this for so long because you tend to push the fascia and the fibres against the bone therefore having a flat look,” says Chittick. “So make sure your fibres and your body are intact for heavy lifting; do this by consuming plenty of good minerals, enjoying plenty of massages and undergoing regular chiropractic sessions to make sure you’re not training with bad alignment or cross fibres. Injuries really slow down any good progression.”


The hybrid approach

What is it?

You’ll use a mix of volume and intensity approaches in the same technique. Often you’ll use a volume approach for one to three weeks then do intensity-based workouts for one to three weeks, then revert back to the volume style again. They usually last more than six weeks but can cough up some huge gains in both size and strength without a big risk of injury.

The drawbacks

1. That pesky personal life of yours can get in the way of fulfilling these longer-winded techniques and skipping a week can be tough to catch up on. They can also be complicated and some of them require you to become a muscle nerd by jotting down the weights you push while you rest between sets.

2. Knowing when to change and when to take a week off can get confusing and you risk overtraining if you stick to a system that continues to deliver results.


Making your pick

Well, there’s no doubt you can already sniff out the solution – alternate between these three approaches.

“When you pit the intensity of heavy lifting against high-volume training they are both correct; it’s the way you utilise them that’s important. You just have to know when to switch them up by listening to your body,” explains Chittick. Try a volume workout for one to two months, then, when your gains ease off, move onto an intensity or hybrid-style technique. The trick is to keep your muscles guessing so you continue to force change and growth.

Einstein said it best in his famous quote: the measure of intelligence is the ability to change.