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It seems to be generally agreed upon that high intensity (i.e. heavy weights) for fewer reps, tends to make you stronger, while high volume (i.e. less weight) for more reps, tends to make you bigger by hypertrophy.

But then, there are those who for the first part of an exercise (let's use bench press as an example), lift heavy weights, with a rep-range of 3-5, for a few sets, and then drop some weight and do a few sets of 8-12 reps on a lower weight.

Is there a clear benefit to mixing high intensity and high volume in this way? Do you get the best of both worlds? Or does the hypertrophy work cancel out whatever strength gains you would have made from the first sets of heavy weights?

If you get both types of benefit, why isn't this the only way of doing it?

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I've seen it stated before that strength training is primarily training your brain to more effectively control your muscles. If this is true, it stands to reason that doing high rep sets after your low rep sets shouldn't be a problem. (How could doing more sets undo/negate neuronal adaptations?) If anything, it may be useful to get that extra practice on form. (But you're already getting that with your warmup, right?)

But I think the ordering is important. You want to be fresh for the high intensity because it's the intensity that causes the adaptations and your capacity for intensity will be diminished if you're already fatigued.

The trade off comes in training frequency. It takes longer to recover from high volume so you can't train as often. That's why high volume programs are usually split programs, with one workout per week per muscle group, whereas strength programs are simple and high frequency, with two or three workouts per week per muscle group.

As a side note, you should look into Greyskull. It's primarily a strength program, but it incorporates an AMRAP set at the end of every exercise. This means that, when you reset, you'll be getting a lot of volume on that last set.

  • +1 for mentioning Greyskull (the rest was not bad either). It's pretty awesome at self-balancing through resets, which actually makes those a good thing for once. – LarissaGodzilla Apr 16 '15 at 12:37
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I believe you are referring to mixing strength and hypertrophy in the same set-rep scheme. There have been a number of small research studies published in the past decade testing this concept. Small studies, but with results significant enough to get attention.

This is where all but the last set are strength sets (e.g. High Intensity and Low Volume) and the Last Set is a Hypertrophy Set (e.g. Low Intensity High Volume).

As long as your workout objective is not strictly strength, then there is no harm in trying this workout methodology. If you choose to give it a whirl, be sure to not violate the other guidelines of a workout that are generally agreed upon.


I would like to attempt to clear something for you.

Every workout consists of a combination of intensity and volume. This is at the root of the most agreed upon schema in weightlifting and strength training. At the same time it is one of the miscomprehended and misused.

Variations of Intensity and Volume is the heart of Classical Periodization.


Definitions

International Weightlifting Federation's definition of intensity:

Intensity of load is the average weight of the resistance.


From page 393 of National Strength and Conditioning Association's, recommend resource to prepare for their CSCS exam, "Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning" 3rd Edition.

Various repetition and set schemes affect the true intensity value for resistance exercise and indicate the quality of work performed. Instead of using time to calculate mechanical or metabolic power or intensity, it is more practical to use a value that is proportional to time to time namely, rep-volume. The more repetitions performed, the longer the training session. Dividing load volume by rep-volume results in the average weight lifted per repetition per workout session. This is a good approximation for mechanical and metabolic power output which are true intensity or quality of work parameters.

The above definition was written by John Garhammer, PhD., CSCS.

From American College of Sports Medicine's "Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults"

Training volume is a summation of the total number of repetitions performed during a training session multiplied by the resistance used and is reflective of the duration of which muscles are being stressed.

Classical periodization.The classic (linear) model of periodization is characterized by high initial training volume and low intensity, and as training progresses, volume decreases and intensity gradually increases.

It has been shown that systematic variation of volume and intensity is most effective for long-term progression. Variation may take place in many forms and manifests by manipulation of any one or a combination of the acute program variables. However, the two most commonly studied variables have been volume and intensity.


Volume is Sum of reps times weight lifted.
Intensity is Average of reps and weight lifted.


Examples of Intensity and Volume Set Rep Schemes:

High Intensity and High Volume

2 sets  12-14 reps novice
3 sets  8-12 reps intermediate
4 sets  8-10 reps advanced

High Intensity and Low Volume

3 sets 2-3 reps novice
4 sets 1-3 reps intermediate
5 sets 1-3 reps advanced

Low Intensity and High Volume

2 sets 12-16 reps novice
3 sets 12-16 reps intermediate
3 sets 12-16 reps advanced

Low Intensity and Low Volume

3 sets 4-5 reps novice
4 sets 4-5 reps intermediate
5 sets 3-5 reps advanced
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    Your definitions of volume and intensity seem to be non-standard. Volume is typically the product of reps, sets, and weight. Intensity is typically percentage of 1RM. I disagree with how it muddies the waters, but some people also use intensity to mean something like what is indicated by RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion). – Dave Liepmann Apr 16 '15 at 1:45
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    @DaveLiepmann Non-Standard? I quoted accredited sources for those definitions. Volume is sum of reps times weight and nothing to do with sets. Intensity being a percentage of 1RM is a common misconception. Yes it would be grammatically correct to relate intensity to how hard you worked out as in "what an intense workout I had today". That has nothing to do with how Intensity is defined as related to workout volume and intensity. Just for you, I added the NSCA definition of intensity. Which is more precise than the IWF definition. When you disagree please show me your accredited sources. – Misunderstood Apr 16 '15 at 3:20
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    I'm still not sure what "the sum of X times Y" means, but I think we agree about volume. In terms of intensity, you're using two different definitions. I think I agree with the IWF one, although it's unclear what we're averaging over. As to my sources, I think your reliance on the self-appointed NSCA is wrong, but I use the definitions from Rippetoe & Kilgore's Practical Programming as well as the (different) definitions in Tom Kurz' Science of Sports Training. – Dave Liepmann Apr 16 '15 at 12:44
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    ...but it seems like our definitions are actually much closer than I initially thought, and I merely...ahem...misunderstood your phrasing. – Dave Liepmann Apr 16 '15 at 13:06
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The right way to combine them is through training cycles. A 12 week strength cycle (texas, mad cow, etc) then maybe a deload week, then something on the volume side like German volume training.

Those all have data in the form of results to support them. When you start mixing and matching based on your own theories you can be assured it won't be as effective as following in the footsteps of professional trainers.

  • That stands to reason, but I was wondering about the (dis)advantages of single-session mixing. – Alec Mar 16 '15 at 16:46
  • Why not mix and match? Popular programs by professional trainers vary a lot wrt periodization scheme. Either most of them are wrong (in which case one should not follow your advice) or they are all correct. In which case it does not matter; periodize any way you want. – Andy Apr 15 at 13:06
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You can't always do both high intensity and high volume for the same reason that you can't always work on getting better at everything: your body can only recover from so much. It's possible to combine the two, but you should be careful.

There are programs that combine intensity and volume in the same session, notably 5/3/1 Boring But Big's programming of 3x5, 3x3, or sets of 5, 3, then 1, followed by plus 5 sets of 10.

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What data are you talking about Eric? Some muscle groups definitely respond better to higher volume or greater time-under-tension if the goal is hypertrophy. Also, appropriate volume will vary between individuals based on personal genetics. For instance, if you are doing a strength and power cycle, you will may be doing 1 to 5 reps on bench. But are you going to use that rep scheme and weight for your rear delts? Of course not, that would be retarded; those muscles will never respond to low reps high weight. You will simply cheat by using the larger muscles and risk injury. Further, you will be just wasting your time. Therefore, all workouts should have some blend of set/ reps schemes for the different muscle groups. I would also suggest that with legs, you should always be striving to push the volume and the weight while always maintaining great form.

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Entire books have been written on the subject of periodization. I have also been curious about this; is there some interference effect between strength and hypertrophy training that dictates how to combine the two? I have not seen described anywhere any physiological effect that governs this. Popular programs use wildy different periodization schemes: As an example the very succesfull program 5/3/1 may have 3x5 Benchpress followed by 5x15 Dumbbell Chest Press. On the other hand daily undulating periodization (DUP) is also popular. So is block periodization (weeks). Scientific studies have come to contradicting conclusions. One concluded that DUP was best, another one that block was best.

My conclusion is therefore: NO; it does not matter. What matters is that you train both rep ranges, in any way you want. Periodization is mostly a sham. There are however some practical considerations one should make. As mentioned it is better for strength to do heavy sets before volume sets (reverse pyramid) as this ensures that one is not tired on the heavy sets. Also volume sets results in more soreness than heavy sets and it therefore takes longer to recover.

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Just in regards to the second paragraph this is typically referred to as a 'Top Set'. Without going too in depth the idea is to lower the overall intensity of the workout, But still getting in the practice/strength response with the heavy weight. This will make recovery better due to the lesser intensity. Another use would be to use the 'Top Set' to do a heavy triple (or whatever) that you potentially couldn't do for multiple sets.

TL;DR 1x3 followed by 2x10 is easier to recover from than a 3x3 (assuming maximal weight)

Also i just wanted to mention the two responses don't 'cancel each other out'. Getting stronger will help with hypertrophy training and having bigger muscles will allow you to be stronger so they work in tandem. I wouldn't say cancel out i would more say it might be less efficient to mix the two all the time if you have a strict strength or hypertrophy goal. This is largely irrelevant for a beginner though as less specificity is required.

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