Fitness & Performance Training: Intensity & Volume—A Variable Relationship

By Leo Shveyd, Co-Owner of Advanced Wellness

When it comes to athletic performance training, there are many variables that can be “tweaked” to elicit a positive response that leads to improvement. Intensity and volume are two vital variables that performance coaches are constantly manipulating, with the intent of getting a particular result for their athletic clients.


Intensity is measured using either a percentage of your “one rep” maximum effort (e.g. if your max bench press is 200 pounds, 85% of that is 170 pounds) or as a function of your “perceived” effort measured on a scale of 1 to 10 (where maximum effort is 10 and 85% of that is an 8.5).


The partner to intensity is volume, or the number of efforts (i.e. lifts, reps, etc.) in a given training session.

The relationship of intensity and volume are two important factors that impact the effectiveness of a training session and which are then combined with more of the same to produce a desired result over blocks of time.  These two elements need to be set and evaluated over time; daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and on a yearly basis.

With athletes, there are four possible ways to “miss the mark” in your performance training session(s):

1.      Too high intensity & too low volume 2.       Too low intensity & too high volume
3.      Too low intensity & too low volume 4.       Too high intensity & too high volume


Assuming a training session is high on intensity (with the goal being gaining strength), but too low on volume (not enough repetitions), a training session may be ineffective for eliciting maximal strength gains.


A session with low intensity and high volume, may help with endurance, but will not produce the desired strength-based gains.


A low intensity and low volume session, may help with recovery, but will have very little direct effect to making you stronger.


Finally, a high intensity and high-volume strength session may be effective in the short-run, but there may be a cost: over-training, making it harder to recover and increasing the risk of injury.

In short, you need both intensity and volume, at the right dosages (remember the Goldilocks rule:  “just right”), otherwise you risk the chance that you are either missing your desired training goals, or training below or above your threshold.

At Advanced Wellness, we recommend these simple but important guidelines for athletes engaged in performance training:
  • Greater intensity should be coupled with less volume and vice versa (at the appropriate dosages) for the majority of training sessions
  • Guidelines for strength-based intensity are 75-90% (either of 1 rep max or perceived exertion)
  • Volume: 9-15 total repetitions would be considered the low end of the spectrum, with maximum repetition hovering in the 50s for strength-based training
  • Low volume and low intensity sessions should be used to aid in recovery
  • High intensity and high-volume sessions and periods (also known as an accumulation phase) should be saved for the off-season or when the demands on the body are light.

Because time is always a constraint for athletes, the job of a performance coach is to apply these principles with the minimum effective dosage (e.g. the shortest route to results). In addition, each athlete is different, therefore these principles must be aligned with an athlete’s age (both chronological & biological) and level of training experience (beginner, intermediate, advanced trainee).  As with everything in the field of sports performance, these judgements are part science and part art.  At Advanced Wellness, we use science and experience as guiding principles, but application to the individual athlete is where “art” comes in to play.

Finally, bodies typically prefer familiarity because this provides less stress. Too much stress is poison for our bodies, especially endured over long periods of time.  But it is also true that familiarity is the antithesis of growth and improvement.  It is therefore our job as performance coaches to balance training variables like intensity and volume to provide the body with the appropriate amount of stress while also allowing it to recover then repeating this sequence in the right intervals in order to make our athletes – BETTER!

In closing, I credit some of what I have learned about performance training from the Strong First Plan Strong course and other Soviet-based methodologies, so I would like to recognize their contribution.  Also, having been born in the Soviet Union, I appreciate how the Soviet coaches and scientist didn’t have the same training resources as those available in the west.  As such, they were forced to develop simple, effective training methodologies that allowed them to compete—a great example of “necessity being the mother or ingenuity”. – Leo Shveyd