10 Reasons Why Volume is KING for Size and Strength

Among all of the useless discussions that populate the internet lifting space, there is none more brain rotting than the ‘debate’ between HIT cult zealots and… well…. everyone else.

For those not in the know, the cult of High Intensity took two bodybuilding figures out of thousands and decided to hold them up on a pedastal as if their career represents the pinnacle of strength training. I am of course talking about Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates. Mike was a pro bodybuilder and an extremely well spoken ambassador of the sport. Yates was one of the greatest who brought in a paradigm shifting physique and both trained with some iteration of ‘High Intensity’.

The root of the ideology that gives birth to all of the variations is the belief that a muscle taken to failure has experienced sufficient enough a stress to grow, so every set beyond that is pointless. Doing a thoroughly challenging, all out set for each muscle group is enough, and that allows you to have shorter, more efficient workouts and train each muscle group more frequently throughout the week.

Like any religion, a small bit of truth was taken and used to justify the existence of 9 thousand different denominations. On the list of things that HIT fanatics don’t agree on is how much work is too much (Mike argued that Yates was still doing ‘too much work’, as if the point of training is to do the absolute bare fucking minimum), what constitutes failure (is it not being able to complete a rep or complete, scorched earth exhaustion within the muscle on a chemical level?) and what techniques should be used to reach this level (vicious debate over fatigue techniques like drop sets, tempo, load, etc.). 

The current representatives of the Heaven’s Gate Cult of lifting cite Mentzer and Yates routinely as being the shining examples of what the training modality should be, yet they promote training that is substantially different from the strategies that he leaned on. One such guru adamantly argues against the forced reps and drop sets that Mentzer used to reach full exhaustion, calling it unnecessary nonsense. This individual promotes super light weight, super slow tempo lifts that last well over a minute (who wants any pesky strength adaptations to go with their hypertrophy?) and claims that reaching that point of failure is good enough.

Now, High Intensity as an approach has validity, but the movement shows that it has scraped the bottom of the barrel when droves of run-of-the-mill gym goers hop online and proclaim that, in the name of the KING, HIT is the ONLY way to train!

So this is my call to sanity, using methods used for size and strength by LITERALLY EVERY PROFESSIONAL SPORT AND STRENGTH PROGRAM. I don’t mean that a small majority, like 53.4% of football players, bodybuilders and Olympicans utilize volume, “so THERE!”. I mean, like, 95%+ of the best performers in the world utilize volume to grow mass; in some cases it really is 100%.

Here are the 10 reasons why volume is still the granddaddy of all training variables.

1. Volume Increases Skill, Which Makes You Stronger, Which Increases Training Stress, Which Means More GAINS

Skill is a weird word. We generally think of it as ‘proficiency’, like having a certain knowledge of how to do something along with the rare physical ability to do it. Thinks like surgery, gymnastics, debates all require a great deal of skill. But strength is kind of a skill. The same neurological changes that make a gymnast coordinated are the ones that make someone more efficient in a squat or allow them to recruit a greater number of muscle fibers in a weighted dip.

Because of that, strength work can be dismissively, almost insultingly, referred to with a snotty tone; like “oh, you’re getting better at the movement? that’s just skill work, REAL training hits the MUSCLE’.

Regardless, these neurological changes happen best when compound movements are practiced through multiple sets. The effect is large and it happens quickly. For many lifters, these early strength adaptations can be the thing that leads to really rapid muscle growth. By being stronger, more weight can be used for typical hypertrophy work which, in turn, creates a much bigger growth stress. 

That’s not to say you can’t get strong on a HIT approach, but it is to say that for some it might be the long way around.

2. More Work = More Mass

This is regularly witnessed in traditional periodization programs, where lifters who are peaked from their most recent meet are actually deconditioned to high training volumes. When they restart a cycle with high training volume (more sets, more reps, lighter weight, short of failure), a craaaaazy thing happens: they build muscle.

So if a powerlifter or olympic lifter who is concerned solely with skill acquisition can build muscle just by doing more SKILL work…. what does that mean for a bodybuilder using more specific movements in hypertrophic rep ranges???

Listen to me now so I never have to repeat this. If you take a lifter who is used to a certain amount of volume and you double that volume up….. they will get fucking bigger. It’s not a question and I’m not asking for your opinion on it. This is one of the most verifiable things in all of training; it’s verified in anecdote, it’s verified in the literature. When volume gets really high, lifters will grow, and they don’t have to shit their pants on a crazy ass forced rep, drop set cluster fuck in order to do it.

3. It Can Be Done…. with HIT!

This is the funny thing about volume; it allows for multiple approaches to be integrated where the HIT approach only allows for its own rigid set of rules. You can absolutely do balls-to-the-wall fatigue work for your first set, rest, and then do that 25 more times over 7 different exercises. In fact… that is what many bodybuilders do.

I have to look at those pushing the minimal amount of work as somehow specially optimal or required as just trying to reinforce their own belief system. Training to failure is not exclusive to HIT and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence in practice that those who limit their work to 1 or 2 sets are better for it (careful letting anyone know you did that second set, you wouldn’t want to accidentally do too much work and get kicked out of the club!). 

HIT bullshit…. but for volume.

Doing very few sets in this way is viable, but it’s not supreme. How you respond to any dose of training is going to depend on your genetic predisposition along with what you are most adapted to (remember, this thing called diminished returns???). So when you get used to the same type of trianing…. it’s nice to have an approach that allows you to make a change and reap the benefits of a novel stimulus.

4. More Reliable Progression

Since we established that workouts with sufficiently high volume don’t need to go to failure to show results, it is now possible to have ‘punch the clock’ workouts. Feel like shit because your newborn kept you up last night? Get in your 3-4 sets on your 5-6 movements and call it a day. Work stress on your mind, making it hard to psyche up for a lift? Just make the minimum jump in stress that you can that day and call it good.

In this model, you can progress your trianing numerically; progress doesn’t have to be driven solely by soul crushing efforts. Not only does that give elite lifters more tools to work with, but it makes it a more reliable system for the average joe.

5. Increases Work Capacity

Doing one hard effort and calling it good can absolutely give a hit to your metabolism and spur some strength and endurance where there wasn’t any before. But real capacity comes from repeated bouts, where you build up a sucky amount of fatigue, rest and go again. It is a really nice bonus from hard volume-based workouts that general capacity skyrockets and that is especially important for athletes who might have to transition into a more strength-specific block.

There is a current hopeful heir to the HIT dynasty, a guy that wants to be the next Andrew Tate but is closer to a Sneako. This individual routinely suggests that even strength athletes should do his (19 second temp reps with 30% of your max) bullshit and transition to strength specific work when they are ‘in-season’. Even if this hypothetical lifter grew a bit of mass doing this, they are going to go into their regular ass event work and absolutely shit the bed from lack of capacity. If a powerlifter spent 3 months putting on mass in this manner, the thought of doing repeating triples above 80% with any amount of effort or, god forbid, back off volume or amraps, would be out of the question. 

Take someone instead who trained like a normal human being, and they have a greater tolerance to volume, more capacity and more preservation of skill in those particular movements.

6. Increases Caloric Expenditure

The great thing about doing more work…. it requires more energy. For any of you who are interested in keeping the waistline down (I don’t know why, you are all such beautiful flakes of snow) the number one concern is staying in a caloric deficit. The choice is to move more or eat less and eating less is a worse option for someone wanting to slaughter a workout and have some energy left in the tank to spin some new muscle fibers.

Working from home really throws a wrench in this. I spent way too much money on a Fitbit Charge 5 to show me in no uncertain terms how little I move around all day. The hopw was that I see the alerts and feel compelled to sneak in extra trips down the stairs or actually venture out in the neighborhood to avoid vitamin D deficiency and social retardation.

Committing to a workout that features 25 sets or more with difficult movements for reasonably high reps will substantially increase the number of calories you spend in a day and that’s a powerful tool for professional desk jockeys who don’t want to do an hour of mindless walking every day to meet their goal for the day.

7. It Doesn’t Have to Take 3 Hours

Most guys who claim 2.5 hour workouts are just spending 150 minutes at the gym because they don’t have friends anywhere else. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with jaw-jacking at the gym; it’s just as important a place of social engagement as any. But don’t let the chronic gym rats skew your idea of what a high volume workout really entails.

I’ve had the privilege of training with competitive bodybuilders over the years and the thing that stood out is that the pace is always blistering. Most don’t go past 90 minutes because they simply couldn’t sustain the pace for that long.

I remember doing a shoulder workout with a large bodybuilding buddy of mine and that was at a time where I had a 335 strict press. “I’m going to win”, I thought. What? I wasn’t exactly sure. But I was gonna.

I was blown away at the pace he kept. The rest breaks were the time for the other guy to go; it was round robin start to finish. While I started out heavier for the first 1.5 sets of shoulder presses, I quickly had to drop weight while he sustained the whole way through. We did 14 sets, took a break for an intra workout while I hugged the swamp cooler, then did 14 more. All in all, it was 1:15, which was less than my usual bullshit 2 hour long ‘strength specialist’ marathons, where I was lucky to get double digit sets in.

You don’t have to kill yourself in this fashion, but moving quick and using antagonist supersets is a great way to keep volume high without living in the gym. Your non-lifting spouse will thank you.

8. It is ESSENTIAL for Strength

We touched on the skill component earlier, but I have to drive home that volume is a non-optional approach for building elite strength. A certain number of warm up sets are required to feel ‘ready’, a certain number of sets are required to solidify movement patterns and reinforce efficient mechanics. A certain number of sets are required to work variations of the main lift and smaller muscle groups.

Some might try to argue that ‘skill’ is fundamentally different than ‘strength’; like, you can get really strong with a lift by being more efficient, almost tricking yourself into moving more weight, and someone who has a really strong muscle can lift very little by being inefficient. 

In what world is it desirable to have a muscle that can fire with a ton of power but can’t express it in a coordinated effort on an external object?  Strength is a holistic quality; it can only be represented by the complete demonstration of it using all of its constituent parts. The best proxy we have for ‘strength’ that matters in real life is being able to lift a heavy object and you do that by practicing to lift heavy objects.

9. It’s Hard….. Harder than HIT

I keep hearing about how hard HIT is, like the only reason that pros don’t do it is because they don’t like hard work! Seriously, I’ve had 200 average goons tell me that in the comment section.

So let me get this straight; the guy who is living in his car, eating tuna out of the can and making grapefruit fucking videos to support his gear habit so he can be the next great thing….. that guy isn’t cut out for HIT. But the average gerbil-person milling around a 24 hour fitness should ONLY be doing that??

Exhibit A

I contend that really aggressive volume workouts are actually harder than HIT. Remember when I said volume approaches can involve HIT tactics?? Well take the horrifying pain that comes from the worst HIT workout you’ve ever done…. and now do it for a bunch more sets.

Which is harder?

This basically describes what most bodybuilders do, going to failure but for a lot of sets over a lot of exercises. The most famous maniacs (Tom Platz, John Meadows, Broderick Chavez) have found ways to get the most out of things like drop sets and forced reps but also recognized that the volume itself is a tool of torture in its own rightl. Turns  out that taking squats to failure is a lot easier when you’ve done 4 sets of leg extensions with partial forced reps and eccentric overload. I encourage anyone who thinks HIT is especially hard to watch, I dunno, ANY FUCKING VIDEO of Tom Platz doing anything. 

45 Fucking Pounds

Bring on the puke bucket.

10.) Gives More Tools to Fix Sticky Lifts and Stubborn Bodyparts

The thing that makes me most frustrated with the oversimplified arguments of ‘this is better than that’ is that every situation is somewhat different. Consider an attempt to bring up a lagging muscle group. Are all of your muscles going to grow at the exact same rate from the same ‘1-set-to-failure’? Certainly not. After a few years of such training, even with a really well rounded exercise selection, you might find that some muscles just don’t fucking respond.

So how does a HIT advocate account for this? If the calves are stubborn, do you just…. keep going ‘harder than last time’? Or do you maybe, just maybe, do more work on them than the other muscle groups? The fact is I’ve never heard someone with sucky calves get around it with a minimal approach like this; the rule is always to do more than you want to, and then a little bit more.

There’s a similar effect with movements that you may not respond to as well. If your legs and back are running wild but your bench doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything, just adding a few sets is one of the easiest things to do to spur growth. Part of the way in which you respond might be genetic, related to your build or just how much you hate the lift. Part of it might be that the same old bullshit has gotten stale and you need a change. Either way, volume is the dial the turns the smoothest.

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