High Intensity Training or High Density Training: Which Is Best for Muscle Growth?

Updated on September 14, 2017
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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

Serge Nubret used high density training
Serge Nubret used high density training | Source

High Intensity Training Or High Density Training?

If you’ve been training for any length of time you are no doubt familiar with high intensity training, but what about high density training? In this hub I’ll explain the difference between the two, as well as how best to use them and which one will give you the best results for the time and effort you put in.

Before I start however, I must point out that if you are a beginner, or if you’ve been struggling for some time to add any muscle mass, and you are still quite skinny, this is fairly irrelevant. You would be much better advised to simply do a brief full body workout routine three times per week, whilst sticking to the basic principles of muscle gain, as described in this article.

But if you are a bit more advanced, and are looking for a new challenge to take your results to the next level, this may point you in the right direction.

What Is High Intensity Training?

Strictly speaking the definition of intensity is the weight you are using in relation to your one rep max (1RM) weight. However in bodybuilding circles it has come to mean something different, and that is simply the level of perceived effort, or how close to ‘failure’ you push yourself when doing a set.

So a high intensity set is a set where you push yourself to the point where you could not do another rep. Sometimes in this type of training people fail mid-rep, or call upon the help of a spotter to help them complete the last rep. They may even do a couple of extra reps with the help of their training partner (these are called ‘forced reps’) to further increase the level of effort (perceived intensity).

A method that was taught for many years (and popularized by such names as Arthur Jones, Casey Viator and Mike Mentzer) was to do just one set of an exercise to failure (after warm-ups), and this was said to be sufficient to stimulate maximum muscle growth. Nowadays many people do several sets of the same exercise, all to failure. But this is not a good idea, as I will explain later.

What Is High Density Training?

High density training could also be viewed as high intensity training, as it most certainly is. But the approach is very different. Here you use lighter weights and multiple sets, but each set becomes progressively more difficult as you only rest for a short period of time between sets.

For example you would first do a couple of warm-up sets, and then select a weight that you could do 12 repetitions with if you pushed to the limit. But you only do 6. Then you rest 20 seconds and do another 6. Rest a further 20 seconds and do another 6. Now you may have to rest 30 seconds before attempting a further set of 6 reps. Continue in this way until you have done 6 – 8 sets of the exercise. The later sets will be incredibly difficult, but if you can't make the 6 reps just push out as many as you can.

You could then progress with this in any number of ways. You could reduce the rest periods until you can do say 6 sets of 6 all with no more than 20 seconds between sets. Then you would increase the weight a little. Or you could simply increase the weight anyway and attempt to do the same number of total reps that you did last time (without increasing the rest periods). Or you could try to do more total reps in the same time period (say 10 minutes), and when you increase your rep count by 20% you would then add more weight.

What Are The Advantages Of Each?

High intensity training can work well for short periods of time, but it is not an effective long term strategy, as it puts an enormous strain on your central nervous system. So if you overuse this technique your gains could soon stop dead.

This is particularly the case if you are doing multiple sets of the same exercise to failure. Your gains will stop much sooner if you do this. So if you are using high intensity training just do one set to failure and any other sets you do should be stopped short of failure.

If you do high intensity training occasionally however, for a few weeks at a time, it could give you a boost in muscle size, and possibly strength too (depending on the rep range you use).

High density training on the other hand has several advantages. Because you are packing a lot of work into a short amount of time, it is very time efficient. So you can get through a relatively high volume workout very quickly. And since muscles grow in response to doing more work in a set time, this has a very powerful effect on muscle growth.

Apart from this, it is very challenging to the cardiovascular system too, so it will increase fat burning, as well as fitness levels. And because you are using sub-maximal weights it is easier on the joints, so you will be much less prone to injury. And in fact you will be able to continue to train with an injury more easily too (depending on the severity of course – you should not be in pain when you lift).

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So Which Is Best?

Although high intensity training can be a useful tool to use from time to time to ‘shock’ your body into new growth, most people will find they will gain muscle at least as well by doing a few sets of an exercise and stopping a rep or two short of failure on each one. And although training to failure is more useful when using higher reps (10 – 12), this will usually only be effective when a trainee has built a reasonable level of strength, and can use a respectable weight for this number of reps.

High density training on the other hand has been used for decades by some of the world’s top bodybuilders, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Serge Nubret and many others. And it is now starting to become more popular again for the simple reason that it works.

Vince Gironda’s 8 sets of 8 routine was designed to be used in this way, but this is a very advanced program and will be too much for most people. So start with 6 sets of 6 (or as many as you can get on the later sets). Then you might progress to 7 sets of 7, and finally to 8 sets of 8 when you are more accustomed to this type of training and can handle the volume.

So if you are looking for a new way to stimulate more muscle growth and get big and lean at the same time, take a break from high intensity training and try high density training instead.


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    • dwelburn profile image

      David 18 months ago from Chesterfield, UK

      Thanks Stuart. Yes, training is just a tool, and to get the best results you need to use a variety of tools.

      Many people would not give this type of training a try because of the fixation on heavy weights. But if you do try it, as you say, it's extremely challenging (after the first few easy sets). :)

    • Stuart-A profile image

      Stuart A 19 months ago from London, UK

      Interesting read :) High density training seems to be an inspiration behind German Volume Training -- an absolute monster of a pump workout.

      I like the open-minded approach that you have to training, David. A lot of people online seem to treat a method of training as an identity, when really it's a tool to facilitate reaching a goal.

      I think some folks disregard high density/high volume training a little bit quickly at times as a hypertrophy driver, as the first couple of sets feel like a bit of a joke to people who are used to exerting hard on every rep, like on a 5x3 or a 3x5 strength routine.

      I remember trying a scaled down version of Serge Nubret's apparent routine about a decade ago and I thought likewise. I found stopping so far short of failure on the first few sets almost absurd. By the end I felt the only absurd thing I'd done was *complete* the workout -- I was completely trashed! :)

    • dwelburn profile image

      David 2 years ago from Chesterfield, UK

      Good to hear you are benefiting from that Patrizio.

    • Patrizio Racco profile image

      Patrizio Racco 2 years ago

      I use the 7 minutes high intensity workouts, 2-3 cycles. I find it quite useful, more than weights. Thanks!

    • dwelburn profile image

      David 4 years ago from Chesterfield, UK

      Sorry to hear about your elbow pain maalarue. But yes, this style of training will certainly put less strain on the joint. Maybe taking curcumin and glucosamine could help too - depending on what exactly is causing the pain.

    • maalarue profile image

      John Mark 4 years ago from Texas

      Great Hub. I have been struggling for years now with biceps exercises due to elbow joint pain in my left arm. It gets so bad I have to completely stop hitting biceps for several months at a time. Maybe I need to stay away from heavy and give this a try. Thanks.

    • dwelburn profile image

      David 5 years ago from Chesterfield, UK

      Yes; I know what you mean. And I agree. Thanks for commenting.

    • Alphadogg16 profile image

      Kevin W 5 years ago from Texas

      Nice hub, A lot of people associate big muscles with stacking a barbell with as many plates as possible and attempting a couple of reps and its not that simple.