Heavier Weight, Greater Volume, and Going to Failure

This is a follow-up to the previous post The Case For High Intensity Training Seems to be Getting Weaker.

Heavier Weight or More Volume?

Chris shared this article by Lyle McDonald, which was published a day after my blog post, suggests the case for higher volume, may not be well supported.

Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy – Research Review

(this link was removed in April 2020. I found another article that covers his views. If Lyle McDonald ever reads this, the CORRECT thing to do when you move an article is to set up a link redirect.

I thought about this for a while and I don’t think it will change my decision to increase volume. My reasons:

  1. I see the choice between Heavier Weight or More Volume as 2 paths that will both lead to gains. Some will respond better to Heavy and some better to Volume. My intuition tells me that I need Volume now. Not a lot, just more. I’ve very likely been untraining for years as I’ve danced around knee injuries.
  2. Going Heavier, unless you are super careful with exercise selection, form, and recovery times, may lead to an increased risk of injury. Certainly in the compound movements. Being sidelined is the worst path for long-term gains.
  3. I can’t prove this, but I suspect that recovery time is less for Volume workouts than going Heavy. So I could likely do 3 Volume workouts a week or 2 Heavy. If I was still 24, those numbers might be the same. And I’m guessing that I’ll benefit a bit more from the 3 Volume path. For now.

Measurement Problem

Whenever these sorts of topics come up and the articles are discussing sets and reps, I’m always feeling like I don’t belong in the conversation. Or any of us that do slower lifts.

A HIT rep is nothing like the reps that are used in these debates. We use lower weights, slower movements, and we don’t pause at the endpoints either. We purposely make our reps inefficient from a work standpoint to make them more efficient at keeping the load on the muscle. We try to keep under tension throughout the set.

How do you measure that in terms of “high weight” or even volume? Also, there are numerous HIT rep speeds. Some are 3 seconds in each direction. 10 seconds is common. Or even 30-second reps. To my knowledge, there isn’t a “currency converter” type of calculation to help us speak the same language.

This is why I try and develop my own intuition. All the talk of sets and reps doesn’t make sense in my world of slower lifting.

Going to Failure

Carl of Super Human Radio said something about training to failure that I found interesting. He recently turned 60 and said that when he trains to failure his muscles might recovery a day or so before his neural system does.

Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of the body having two different recovery pathways. I suspected age would be a factor, but I wasn’t clear how it would be. So, I am going to piggyback on Carl’s wisdom here. Carl likes volume and not training to failure at this stage in his life. Sounds good to me. It is worth a try.

Also, I’m not giving up training to failure completely. I think the best path here is to time the failure workouts before you know you’ll be taking a break. Maybe just before a trip or a busy holiday schedule.


Add yours

  1. @All – Shortly after I posted, Chris sent me this link:


    The short version is that I’m on the right path to add more volume since hypertrophy is my goal.

  2. MAS – Is time under tension (or perhaps TUT * Weight) a valid comparison between 2 different HIT workouts? It wouldn’t allow comparison to a non-HIT workout but do you think it would allow for comparison between 2 different HIT rep cadences?

  3. @Geoff – I don’t know. To me, it seems there are too many variables to track. But I’m sure a HIT trainer would have a more knowledgeable opinion.

    I go by feel. Each rep might vary in speed. Set 2 or Set 3 might have different reps or TUT.

    In a future world, the machine itself should track everything and send that data to Cloud Server that crunches the numbers to tell me if I did more or less effort. But, since gyms make so much money on having trainers babysit people, I don’t see an incentive for that technology anytime soon.

  4. @ Geoff – TUT is something that makes sense out of sets and reps in terms of their effect. As you are getting at, if I did a set of 10 with 95lbs as fast as possible, that isn’t going to have the same effect as if I lifted it with a 3-second concentric and 6-second eccentric pace. First one is all performance (like West Side dynamic) and the second would be hypertophy-inducing (tension, eccentric damage, and metabolic effect in the muscles). When I first heard of TUT about 20 years ago I thought it would be the thing that made sense of all this, but it didn’t. It is something you have to take into account though as a factor that qualifies the set. It is exactly like saying I ran 3 miles. If I did it in 18 minutes the effects will be much different than if I did it in 60 minutes. Both will have some effect but they are different although the actual work accomplished is identical (as in the resistance training).

    Ref the study McDonald outlined, it is interesting at best but not consequential. The concept of periodization is that many methods have merit and they should be rotated strategically for different effects and different times. Just because for 8 weeks the strength results were the same does absolutely not just mean that HIT will continue to produce these results ad infinitum. This is the initial lure of HIT. But over time the results wane. Just like upon adopting a new specific diet, there are good results obtained immediately and there is a tendency to think you have it all figured out. 2 months later, it isn’t going like the first month and it is time to make some adjustments.

    Anyone who has done any research in a university setting can also quickly discount this. A bunch of young college-aged men who exercise regularly/aren’t untrained means two things to me: jack and sh*t. Most have zero idea what they are doing. Some may be much more advanced than others. I promise you if you saw all 34 people in that study lined up, they wouldn’t all look or perform similarly from the start, so their potential to achieve certain results in 8 weeks is varied. And, again, 8 weeks is one good mesocycle. Do this for two years and I’ll listen. And then when you do it, you better account for sleep, nutrition, and stress too before you explain the exercise intervention as the reason. Much easier in mice than people.

    The neural component of lifting weights has been known for a while (the Russians were controlling for it in the 1960s). I came to be a believer when I started Olympic lifting. These are high skill movements that tax the CNS far far more than a back squat. So while it seems the volume is low in an Oly routine, it is still very challenging for the body as a system. HIT definitely does more neural damage and pushing to and beyond failure in one set does produce great strength gains (for a time) as they outlined in the study. When I went from traditional bodybuilding to HIT and reduced my volume drastically, I got stronger every time I trained for months. Then it just stopped. But reduced neural fatigue would allow increased training frequency and thus volume and thus results. There is a time to fry the CNS though. It’s definitely a technique and has to be accounted for.

    If you listen people who train athletes, they account for neural factors constantly. They do very few all out sprints in one session. They do their cleans and snatches first and with few reps (1-3) and few sets. CrossFit just pisses on this idea, which is one of my major disputes with how they train. 30 snatches for time is physically challenging, sure, but it’s a disaster in terms of a total breakdown in form and it’s a neurological nightmare.

    HRV is a great way to determine recovery as it will be influenced by neural fatigue.

    Great blog, Michael. You hit some topics I am passionate about and got energized in the comments.

  5. @ZAP – Thanks for the comment and sharing your wisdom.

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