High Intensity Training (HIT) vs. High Volume Training (HVT)
UPDATE: This article was originally published on Oct 8, 2012. We update it and republished it on May 15, 2015 as part of our series “The A.P.E.X. Way”.
The debate over HIT vs. HVT has been a controversial topic in the training community since the late 1970’s. This article will cover both training styles in depth, and will include strengths, weaknesses, and practical applications. This article is intended to present an unbiased analysis of both training styles. While HIT and HVT have been loosely associated with various training domains, this article will primarily focus on strength training for the purpose of increasing muscular size and strength utilizing machines, free weights, and body weight exercises.
TRAINING STYLE CHARACTERISTICS
HIGH INTENSITY TRAINING: High Intensity Training (HIT) involves brief, infrequent, and intense bouts of strength training. HIT is designed around the principle that the body will only improve when it is challenged beyond its capabilities; therefore, exercises are taken to momentary muscle failure (MMF). MMF can be defined as performing an exercise until no more quality repetitions can be safely performed with perfect form without reducing the weight or taking a break. MMF can occur on the first set of an exercise; therefore, workouts are brief and do not necessitate multiple sets to accomplish the goal. Due to the intensity of taking the entire body to a point of MMF, the recommended recovery time from such training is usually 2 or 3 days. There is generally a target rep range (i.e. 8 – 12 reps) for failure to occur during HIT workouts. Once the athlete reaches the upper end of that window, weight is increased for the next workout.
HIGH VOLUME TRAINING: High Volume Training (HVT) involves longer, more all-encompassing strength bouts with multiple sets and multiple exercises for the same muscle group. Due to the increase in both sets and exercises for the same muscle group, HVT programs are usually broken down by muscle group over the course of the week. Intensity is generally based off of the One Rep Max (1RM) for a given exercise, and a percentage of that weight is used to prescribe the appropriate weight for each set of the exercise, as well as a periodization plan. Workouts are more frequent because a different muscle group is generally targeted each day, allowing for active recovery of previously trained muscle groups.
SIMILARITIES & DIFFERENCES
SIMILARITIES: Both HIT and HVT are proven ways to gain size, strength and power. Both training styles have been used by bodybuilders, athletes, and fitness enthusiasts and have yielded desired results. Both take into consideration proper form, biomechanics, weight, repetitions, and time under tension. Both utilize a wide variety of training modalities, including machines, free-weights, medicine balls, kettlebells, suspension training, and core stability.
DIFFERENCES: HIT is based on brief, intense bouts of exercise while HVT involves frequent bouts with multiple sets and exercises for each muscle. HIT movements are generally taken to MMF, while HVT may only take the last set of an exercise to failure, or not go to failure at all. HIT may only do one set to failure for a muscle, while HVT will do between 3-6 sets of an exercise, and multiple exercises for the same muscle group.
TOP 5 PROS & CONS OF HIGH INTENSITY TRAINING (HIT)
- INFREQUENT / BRIEF: The ability to make gains in strength, size and power in only 2 full-body workouts a week can be a huge benefit. If strength gains can be achieved in less time, than more time can be allocated for other activities or rest. Infrequent workouts also help keep training fresh, preventing burnout. This additional recovery time combined with the intensity typically results in strength gains every workout. HIT workouts are brief, often being completed in under 45 min. A single set per muscle group, or even a single set of 2 or 3 different exercises per muscle group is a rapid and efficient way to train the entire body. If multiple sets are performed for the same body part, they are generally different exercises that target a different aspect of the muscle (i.e. flat bench, incline dumbbell press, cable fly).
- RAPID STRENGTH GAINS: When the body is asked to perform at a maximal level, it does not know why it is asked to do it; it just knows that it must. The body does not know that it is being systematically taken to total body MMF twice a week for a training goal. For all it knows, twice a week it is being attacked by bears in a collapsing cave where survival depends on maximal efforts in all muscle groups! This urgency, as well as adequate rest between bouts of training, allows for stronger performance every workout. If you squat 225 lbs. for 10 reps with perfect form on Monday, Thursday you will be able to squat 225 lbs. for 11 or 12 reps with perfect form, period.
- REDUCED VOLUME TO INJURY-PRONE AREAS: The major injuries for athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts are generally found in the low back, shoulders, or knees. Having a brief, infrequent program means that these key areas are exposed to less overall wear and tear. For example, the shoulders are involved in chest, back, and even leg workouts if deadlifts are involved. Programs that split the body into different parts on back-to-back days still hit the shoulders every day, not allowing proper recovery to the rotator cuff, which can lead to injury. Brief, infrequent workouts allow for recovery in the injury-prone areas.
- MENTAL TOUGHNESS: Especially for athletes, mental toughness is something to be desired. When the entire body is rapidly broken down and taken to MMF in less than an hour, it takes a tremendous amount of mental toughness to survive. That much fatigue and lactic acid build up in the entire body can cause even the toughest athletes to whimper. Regularly training with a high intensity program can help athletes learn to remain calm when their body is being pushed to the limit. This high level of mental toughness is good for bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts as well, allowing a psychological adaptations to occur in response to training. The more mental tenacity you have the more poised you will be during intense training. This allows for more high quality work to be accomplished, yielding more gains.
- ADVANCED OVERLOAD TECHNIQUES (AOT’s): Because the goal of HIT is to take the body to MMF, techniques have been established to take the body even further than simply performing an exercise until no more quality repetitions can be performed. AOT’s can be broken down into 2 primary groups, structural and technical. Structural AOT’s involve structuring the workout to create an overload. For example, performing a set of cable fly’s to MMF, immediately followed by a set of dumbbell presses to MMF will overload the chest to a new level of MMF that cannot be achieved by either exercise alone. Technical AOT’s change or alter the exercise to address issues in the strength curve, or to pinpoint a certain area of the muscle. For example, performing a ¼ rep at the middle squeeze of a chest fly can pinpoint the middle chest and add work performed when the chest is most fully contracted. Structural and Technical AOT’s can be stacked for an even greater depth of MMF. For example, perform cable fly’s with a ¼ rep to MMF, immediately followed by dumbbell presses with a ¼ rep to MMF. Read more on ADVANCED OVERLOAD TECHNIQUES.
- PSYCHOLOGICAL BURNOUT: High Intensity Training is intense. While this intense level of training and the rapid gains made can be exciting and challenging, it can also take a toll on the athlete psychologically. Initially, the athlete, bodybuilder, or fitness enthusiast looks forward to the challenging and difficult program, but after months and months of training with extremely high intensity levels, HIT programs can begin to cause a negative psychological response, such as fear, anger, or bitterness towards training.
- EFFICACY FOR HYPERTROPHY: Muscular hypertrophy involves a cross-sectional increase in muscle diameter. Strength training does not build new muscle fibers. Strength training increases the size of the muscle fibers you already have. HIT can absolutely increase muscle size, but it does a better job of increasing the mitochondrial density. Muscles contain cells called mitochondria that are responsible for generating energy and power in the muscle. There is some controversy over whether the body can create more mitochondria in the muscle, or if the existing mitochondria simple increase in their capacity for work. Regardless, HIT elicits a positive adaptation to mitochondrial output. All of this is to say that with high intensity training, you will get bigger muscles, but maybe not as big as HVT, which is debateable.
- EXERTION HEADACHES: Training at a maximal level can put the body in a vulnerable position where the accumulation of variables can create the perfect storm causing an exertion headache. An exertion headache is the result of a forced dilation of the blood vessels in the head, putting pressure on the meninges covering the brain, causing an explosive headache followed by months of a foggy sensation. Dehydration, poor breathing, neck position, heavy loads, and peaking heart rate are all risk factors for causing an exertion headache. HIT walks a line where all these risk factors may become present if you do not intentionally avoid them. An exertion headache can be a major setback, causing months of lost training time to allow for full recovery. Read more on EXERTION HEADACHES.
- MUSCLE MEMORY FOR NOVICES: When performing HIT, very low volumes are required to attain desired MMF. While one set of squats taken to MMF is enough for HIT purposes, it may not be enough for a novice lifter to learn proper form and technique. Especially with free-weight movements, it is paramount to practice perfect form and technique to maximize gains and prevent injury. Developing the muscle memory to perform movements with proper form and technique requires practice, possibly more practice than HIT allows for.
- BEST MODALITY IS MACHINES: Large, compound free weight movements put more stress on the body and cause more motor units to be recruited which can lead to significant gains in both strength and hypertrophy. Unfortunately HIT workouts rely on precise failure of particular muscles, and large, compound free weight movements are not the best choice for the most part. For example, deadlifts stimulate the most muscles of any exercise, recruit the most motor units, and can be done with the most amount of weight that is physically possible. Deadlifts are classified as a leg/back exercise, but anyone that has done heavy deadlifts to MMF or close to it will agree that what fails on Deadlifts is grip strength and core stability, not the quads. Wrist straps and belts can help, but they only delay the inevitable. If the quads are the target muscle group to reach MMF, then a more precise and isolated choice would be a leg press. Nothing against the leg press, but it can’t compete with Deadlifts when it comes to strength and hypertrophy. It is better at isolating the quads though, and has its niche in HIT programs.
TOP 5 PROS & CONS OF HIGH VOLUME TRAINING (HVT)
- TIME-TESTED RESULTS: HVT has been implemented for a longer period of time; therefore, there are more studies showing it works. For years strength coaches and athletes have looked to bodybuilders and Olympic lifters as the “experts” on how to get bigger and stronger because of their deep, historic roots as the biggest and strongest. Olympic lifters gravitate to multiple sets of the same exercises to perfect technique and inch their way to new records. Bodybuilders gravitate to HVT for the “pump,” and for the gradual growth in muscle fiber diameter. Both have proven that multiple sets of multiple exercises can get that job done, and there are studies after studies to prove it.
- VARIETY OF EQUIPMENT / GOALS: HVT can be used for any exercise, anywhere, with any training modality. Depending on the goal, multiple sets of either high reps or low reps can be implemented (high-reps/low-weight is traditionally viewed to help improve local muscular endurance, while low-reps/high-weight can improve local muscular strength). Add to that the use of kettlebells, dumbbells, olympic bars, suspension trainers, resistance bands, wobble boards, sandbags, battleropes, and machines and you can see that the variety is endless.
- NULLIFY WEAK-LINKS: The weakest, smallest muscle is the weakest link in a movement. Sticking with deadlifts as an example, we already mentioned that legs/back are the primary mover, the agonist, it is actually the forearms that fatigue first, because they are the weakest link. With more volume, these weaker areas will still fail first, but at least the target muscle group will still be exposed to additional work, thus nullifying the weak-links.
- MUSCLE MEMORY: The best way to get good at something is to do that specific “something” a lot, and then some more. This allows for the neuromuscular synaptic junctions to become more efficient. Whether you can create more neuromuscular junctions is up for debate; however, there is no debate that existing neuromuscular junctions learn from repetitive movement and become faster, smoother, and more energy efficient with more volume and repetition.
- FAILURE NOT REQUIRED: HVT is designed to be a compounding math equation where the final number is what matters most for total volume. In order to be able to perform 3+ sets of a single exercise, MMF is not generally recommended. Taking a muscle to MMF will require additional rest, a reduction in weight, or a loss of total volume potential.
- TIME COMMITMENT: Studies have shown that for continual progress while avoiding overtraining, it is recommended that the entire body be strength trained twice a week. With HVT, your options include a marathon strength workout twice a week of 2+ hours, or splitting the body into different muscle groups to be targeted on different days. Common “splits,” include upper/lower, push/pull, and front/back, to be performed on 4 separate days (i.e. M/Th Push, Tu/F Pull). The next option for advanced lifters that require more volume for continued adaptation would be a 6-day split, chest/tri, back/bi, legs. No matter how you split it, it takes a long time.
- OVERUSE INJURIES: Unless you choose a HVT 2-day full-body split, you will be using a few key areas 4-6 times a week, including shoulders and low back. For example, on a push/pull program, an athlete may perform 20 sets for chest that also incorporate the shoulder, and then on the pull day hit another 20 sets for back that use the shoulder. In a 2-day span, the shoulder has suffered through 40 sets of work with no rest. This can lead to overuse and overtraining in the rotator cuff, ultimately halting progress for rehabilitation.
- SLOW PROGRESS: According to the NSCA, “after successfully performing 3 sets of 10 reps with the same weight 2 sessions in a row, it is recommended to add 5-10 lbs.” We all want to see progress, and when the recommendation is an additional 5 lbs after a month of work, it can be discouraging, monotonous, and boring.
- LATE WORKOUT ATP DROP OFF: After 2 hours of lifting, it is easy to mentally check out. Weight lifting is an explosive, ATP hog, so creatine levels may be depleted late workout. Nutrient timing is delayed for the post-workout meal, and overall effort can be reduced late in a workout.
- COMPLEXITY OF PROGRESSION: To accommodate for the “SLOW PROGRESS” con listed at #3, coaches and trainers have come up with complex pyramid charts and graphs to prescribe correct weights. Unless you have formal training, they can be very confusing. As someone with experience, I find them to not be entirely accurate, especially with high school athletes with growing bodies. Regardless of age, they are a tool, not a rule. It can take 3 or 4 workouts just to get your weight where it needs to be to allow for the recommended weight/rep combination to be successfully completed.
HIT and HVT both have strengths and weaknesses that can be avoided by cross-training with both styles. All of the Con’s for both training styles are the result of training the same way for too long. Switching between styles, or using a hybrid year round, will allow for getting all the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference, since both can get the job done.
Nick Ryan, CSCS
If you have any additional insights, comments, or questions, feel free to post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org