Training For Gains: High Intensity, Low Volume Strength Gains Stick. Low Intensity, High Volume Gains Don't, But They Come With Significant Improvements in Body Comp

It's one thing to make strength and mass gains, it's a whole different story to make them last - if possible, for the rest of your life! Study suggests: Training intense, may help.
Thank God for the Internet. Otherwise we would hardly be able to get our hands on papers that are written by Iranian scientists and published in the Turkish Journal of Sport and Exercise; and that, my dear (mostly) American friends, would be a real pity!

"Effect of acute detraining following two types of resistance training on strength performance and body composition in trained athletes" - that's the title of a paper that was published late last year but popped up in the major databases, only recently. In spite of the delay, the results Vahid Tadibi and his colleagues from the Razi University, the  University of Kordestan and the Islamic Azad University present in this 5-pages paper are unquestionably well worth being covered.
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In view of the limited evidence available for the effect of detraining on strength training with different intensity and volume, Tadibi et al. set out to
"determine the influences of short term detraining after two kinds of resistance training on strength performance and body composition in trained athletes."  (Tadibi. 2013)
To this ends, the Iranian researchers recruited 30 healthy men students recruited from
Razi University of Kermanshah. The subjects were divided into two experimental groups as follows:
  • group (I) who performed resistance training with low intensity and high volume (GRI: n=15), weight 73.7±10.3 kg, height 174.5±7.5 m and age 24.7±1.4 years old and 
  • group (II) who performed low volume and high intensity (GRII: n=25), weight 63.2±6.2, height 175.8±5.5 and age 25.4±1 (years old). 
The participants attended physical education classes for six weeks/three times a week, with duration of 45-60 min each session. Each training session involved three phases in both groups and lasted 50–60minutes:
  • warm up, specific or related training and cool down. 
Warm up and cool down phases were similar in both groups included 7 min running with intensity sufficient to raise breath rate, 3 min stretching training.
Learn more about the effects of circuit training: When you build a circuit training routine, don't forget: There are lot's of metabolically demanding kettle- bell exercises to spice things up. There are probably a dozen of reasons why people train. Many of them are really good: Wanting to stay healthy, to live longer, or to excel in your sports. Of others, however, I am not so sure whether they are actually worth pursuing, or do you think" - suggested read: "Circuit vs. Classic Strength Training, Which System is More Metabolically Demanding? What are the Energetic Costs and Where Does the Energy Come From, Fat or Glucose?" | read more.
The actual intervention, i.e. the specific training part consisted of fast-paced circuit training workouts with 60 to 90 seconds rest between the following exercises:
  • Figure 1: Graphical overview of the two training regimen
    bench press, 
  • squat, 
  • biceps curls, 
  • triceps extensions, 
  • shoulder press
What? No, I have no idea, if they forgot to list the back exercises, or if the subjects actually didn't do any. What I do know, though is that the
"[s]ubjects performed 12– 15 maximal repetitions/set (55–60% 1RM) in group I, low intensity and high volume (LIHV protocol), and 5 maximal repetitions/set (85–90% 1RM) in the group II, low volume and high intensity (HILV protocol)" (Tadibi. 2013)
In order to establish optimal progression the "1RM was retested in the end of every week so that resistance could be adjusted properly" (Tadibi. 2013).


Apropos progress, you will probably remember that the actual intention of the researchers was not to compare the muscle and strength gains during the six-week training program, but their persistence. Accordingly, the all-important question was what would happen, when the subjects resumed their normal active, but not necessarily resistance trained lifestyle after a 2-week lay-off of any type of systematic (training stoppage).
Figure 1: Relative changes in max strength (left) and body comp (right) from pre- to post-detraining (Tadibi. 2013)
Well, you can see the results of this type of realistic 6-weeks on 2-weeks of regimen in Figure 1 - a result based on which you should be able to confirm the following conclusions:
  • Contrary to what common wisdom would predict, the low intensity, high volume (LIHV) and the high intensity, low volume (HILV) regimen produce statistically identical strength gains over the course of the six-weeks training phased (not shown in Figure 1)
  • The gains on the high intensity, low volume (HILV) regimen were - albeit not significantly - but visibly more persistent than those that were brought about by the high volume low intensity regimen.
  • The high volume training turned out to have significant fat burning effects of the initially significant relative reduction in body fat % of 18% (from  12.15% to 9.73 in LIHV vs.   11.91% to 10.59% in the HILV group), there were yet only 7% left after 2 weeks of detraining (the BF% went back up from 9.73±3.12% to 11.27±3.37%).
As the researchers point out, this result may look different, if the study population was older or sick. In less-conditioned individuals (Hakkinen. 1994), which is - in my humble opinion - a very important hint for both, the young and old SuppVersity readers, as it confirms (once again), that the optimal training routine is a very individual thing and cannot be cookie cut based on a single study.
In the end the study at hand confirms the usefulness of periodization! At first it may seem as if the lasting effects of the high intensity, low volume training would suggest that this is the way to train. We must not forget, though that both "regular hypertrophy" as in protein synthesis and the architectual changes the muscle undergoes are two sided of the same coin. The goal should thus always be to have both come into their own.
Don't forget, you can learn more about periodization, here at the SuppVersity.
Let's go beyond the results and get to the underlying mechanisms and practical implications: In the absence of corresponding data, it's obviously difficult to tell, whether the following hypothesis is accurate. Based on the research I have done for the Intermittent Thoughts on Building Muscle (read the article series), I would yet speculate that the persistence of the gains in the high intensity, low volume group reflects a difference in structural (muscle + nerves) vs. non-structural adaptations.

The latter has been observed previously with increased satellite cell recruitement, IFG-1 + MGF activity and corresponding changes in the structural architecture of the muscle (improved firing of motor units, incorporation of new satellite cells...) in response to high or even super-maximal intensity training & eccentrics and would speak in favor of "structural gains" vs. the mere "ballooning up" in response to the protein synthetic response of high volume strength training.

On the other hand, we all want the muscle to show, right? And if you look at the reduction in BF% after the 2 weeks of detraining it's hard to argue in favor of high intensity training, when it comes to fat loss.
  • H√§kkinen, K. "Neuromuscular adaptation during strength training, aging, detraining, and immobilization." Critical Reviews in Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine 6 (1994): 161-161.
  • Tadibi, Vahid, et al. "Effect of acute detraining following two types of resistance training on strength performance and body composition in trained athletes." (2013).
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