What’s More Important for Muscle Growth: Volume or (relative) Intensity?

This blog post is for anyone who has no clue what Volume & Intensity even mean annnnnnd anyone who does know but wants to wreck people in the comments on IG 🙂

Before we start talking about what’s “more important” we have to have define some terms so we’re all on the same page

INTENSITY: Technically, intensity refers to the % of 1RM that’s being lifted.

1RM = the max you could lift for 1 good repetition (1 Rep Max, duh)

However, a more useful term for most non-powerlifting folks is RELATIVE INTENSITY. For the remainder of this blog I’ll be referring to Relative Intensity when I say intensity.

Relative Intensity: How close a set was to failure. How hard was it “relative” to what you *could* have done. A set taken closer to failure is considered more intense.

Failure: The point where you can’t do another good rep. AKA “0RIR

RIR / Reps in Reserve: Another way to describe the proximity to failure is by using the Reps in Reserve scale. Basically, 3RIR would mean you had 3 reps in the tank. 0RIR would therefore represent failure because you had…0 reps in reserve…which means you couldn’t do any more.

Volume: The # of hard sets. Volume can be used to describe the # of hard sets across a given time frame or can more specifically refer to # of hard sets for a given muscle group per week.

Intensity is the “how hard”

Volume is the “how much”

So what’s important for muscle growth? How HARD your workouts are? or How MUCH you do?

The answer is intensity.

Stay with me though…because volume makes a comeback

Only a set that is taken close enough to failure (intense enough) will stimulate muscle growth

So…no matter how much volume (sets) you do, none of it matters if those sets aren’t intense enough

Without getting close enough to failure, there is no muscle growth

Example: Imagine you can squat 200 for 10 reps in a single set. However, you decide you’re only gonna do 2. It won’t matter how many sets of 2 you do, they won’t be stimulating enough to cause growth because you never got anywhere near failure

Doing 2 reps when you could really do 10 doesn’t exactly send a signal to your body “Hey there mf…you better get stronger so if we see this weight again we can crush it”.

Another way to phrase it: It won’t matter how much volume you do if your sets are not intense enough

For that reason, intensity is more important.

So how close do we need to go to failure AKA how intense should our sets be?

According to the research, sets taken within 0-5RIR (within 5 reps of failure) stimulate muscle growth (not equally…but that’s a convo for another day)

So we need to get within 5RIR (within 5 reps from failure) to make sure our sets are intense enough.

annnnd truthfully I’d advise within 3-4RIR just to be safe, using ~2RIR as a good average (sometimes more sometimes less)

Cool. Got it. So since intensity is the main driver of muscle growth…I just…..keep making my sets….more intense?

Good question, self.

Not exactly…

While technically intensity is the main driver of muscle growth because without it no amount of volume will help, once you get your sets beyond the “intense enough” threshold (3-4RIR), you could reasonably argue volume becomes the more important variable.

Once your sets are intense enough, doing MORE sets (more volume) will lead to more growth (to a point)

Example: What grows more muscle?

A) 1 hard set of bicep curls

B) 3 hard sets of bicep curls

Ding ding ding. B.

Once your sets are hard enough, doing MORE sets (volume) will lead to MORE growth (to a point)

Intensity is a pre-requisite. Without it, no amount of volume will cause growth

Volume is the lever we pull once intensity is in check.

Seems pretty straightforward. Why is this so complicated on the interwebs?

Well…we misunderstand what “most important” means

Because without proper intensity volume becomes irrelevant, it’s hard to argue intensity is not the more important factor.

However, once you hit. that requisite threshold of intensity, doing the right amount of volume becomes more important.

The truth is, like most things, what’s more important for the individual will. be contextual to the individual

If you’re training hard but not enough, you’ll benefit from more volume

If you’re training a ton but never approaching failure, you’ll benefit from more intensity

Now go spit some knowledge to them people on IG 🙂