• What the Literature Says About High Intensity Training


    The term strength training refers to a comprehensive program of exercise designed to improve the ability to produce muscular force and increase resistance to injury. Any system of such training which produces an objectively measurable increase in muscular strength can be considered productive. Beyond productivity, there are two additional factors which have been thoroughly investigated in the literature; these factors are safety and efficiency. Assuming two programs were equally productive in terms of increasing strength, logic dictates the program which was safer and more time efficient would be the superior selection. In this article, what the literature says about productivity, efficiency and safety in strength training programs will be reviewed.


    Strength training has been shown to be an effective way of producing increases in muscular strength and size and decreasing body fat (Carpinelli and Otto 1998; Fleck and Kraemer 1997). Fleck and Kraemer (1997) reported that increases in lean body mass with concurrent decreases in body fat were shown in studies ranging from 6 to 24 weeks in duration (p. 155-156). These studies represented a wide variety of training protocols. Fleck and Kraemer concluded that “Because of the variation in the numbers of sets, repetitions, exercises and relatively small body composition changes, it is impossible to reach concrete conclusions concerning which program is optimal for decreasing percent fat and increasing lean body mass” (p. 154). Zatsiorsky (1995) also reported that a variety of methods are effective for increasing muscular strength.

    It is universally accepted among experts in the field that a high degree of intensity of effort during strength training is required to generate increases in muscular strength (Durell 1999). Successful weight training programs are characterized by the inclusion of maximal voluntary muscular contractions at some point in the program (Fleck and Kraemer 1988). Utilizing a high level of intensity will overload a high percentage of muscle fibers; such an overload is paramount to increasing muscular strength (Kelso 1999). Carpinelli (1999) adds that recruitment of muscle fibers is primarily dependent on the intensity of exercise, not how much exercise is performed. This raises the question of how much – or more accurately, how little – exercise is required to produce results from a strength training program.


    Many studies presented in the literature compared the performance of different amounts of sets of strength training exercises to determine the effectiveness of each method. A frequently cited study by Berger (1962) compared one set, two set, and three set programs using the bench press exercise with various repetition schemes. Berger concluded that three sets of six repetitions produced the best strength gains. However, subsequent studies failed to replicate these results, including a follow-up study by Berger himself (1963).

    A comprehensive review by Carpinelli and Otto (1998) examined all the studies (a total of 35) which have been published, including abstracts, that reported the results of training with single or multiple sets. They concluded:

    The opinion that multiple-set protocols are better than a single set of an exercise is not supported by the consensus of scientific evidence; 33 out of 35 of the comparative reports included in this review show no significant difference in strength increase between individuals performing single-set and those performing multiple-set (up to 15 sets) exercise protocols. (p. 82)

    Carpinelli and Otto further conclude “There is no evidence to suggest that the response to single or multiple sets in trained athletes would differ from that in untrained individuals” (p. 82).

    Other researchers have reached similar conclusions regarding the efficiency and practicality of low-volume training protocols. Starkey et al. (1994) compared strength and muscle thickness changes over 14 weeks of training using 1 set or 3 set programs. Both groups increased strength and muscle thickness with no significance between groups. The authors concluded that a 1 set training protocol was as effective as three sets and “represents a more efficient use of training time” (p. S116). Terbizan and Bartels (1984) compared the effects of 1 set versus 3 sets and high repetitions (10-15) versus low repetitions (6-9). All groups significantly increased strength with no difference between different protocols. The authors stated:

    This information may be of interest to coaches determining strength training programs for their athletes, in that the same gains in strength may be accomplished in less time using 1 set vs. 3 set training and by lifting significantly less weight. (p. 267)

    Assuming a strength training program has been instituted which produces increases in strength and is time-efficient, safety becomes the primary consideration.


    Strength training, like any physically demanding activity, contains an element of risk of injury. The literature confirms that safety during strength training can be improved by manipulating certain variables such as exercise performance, exercise selection, equipment selection and proper supervision.

    One controversial safety issue presented in the literature was the use of Olympic lifts and/or ballistic exercises in athletic strength training programs. Research by Kulund, Dewey, Brubaker, and Roberts (1978) studied the training methods and techniques of two Olympic style weightlifters and interviewed 80 competitive Olympic style weightlifters about overuse problems and injuries. The 80 lifters reported 111 injuries related to weightlifting. The shoulder and knee were the most common areas injured (p. 112). The most common duration of impairment was 2 weeks and 2 months (p.113). One of the two lifters studied fractured a rib in competition during the clean and jerk lift (p. 114). The authors concluded that most Olympic weightlifting injuries are caused by inflexibility and improper technique (p. 111).

    The lumbar (lower) spine is another area which is highly susceptible to weight lifting injuries. Alexander (1985) pointed out:

    This part of the body is susceptible to injury due to the large forces which must be supported, which include the body weight and any external weights, as well as the forces due to very high accelerations of the body parts. Since the lumbar spine is the only connecting column between the upper and lower parts of the body, all theforces must be transmitted via these structures. (p. 1)

    Types of injuries reported to the lumbar spine included strains and sprains, disc injuries and spinal fractures(Alexander 1985). The most severe lumbar fracture injury reported was presented in a case report by Browne, Yost, and McCarron (1990). The authors described a lumbar ring apophyseal fracture which was incurred by a 16 year-old male after performing a ballistic exercise in physical education class. Only 11 cases of this particular injury had previously been reported. This 16 year-old male required 2 major back surgeries as a result of this injury. The authors concluded “Strict control of the amount of weight and types of exercises is essential” (p.535).

    Other types of spinal fractures prevalent in those who perform Olympic lifts are spondylolysis, a defect of the pars interarticularis of one side of the vertebrae; and spondylolisthesis, a bilateral defect of the pars interarticularis often accompanied by a forward displacement of the vertebral body (Alexander 1985). Studies show the incidence of spondylolysis in Olympic lifters is much higher than in the general population (Jesse 1977). While referring to an article by Allman (1976), Jesse (1977) commented on the dangers of Olympic lifts and why they are included in athletic strength training programs:

    Commenting on weight training programs, he claims that almost all injuries caused by exercise are the direct results of the sudden movement. Sudden lifts increase skill far more than strength, and the present confusion is probably because many strength coaches are former weight lifters themselves, he maintains. They pass on a style of training necessary for weight lifting, but neither necessary nor desirable in any other sport. (p. 65)

    Other factors contributing to strength training injuries include lack of proper supervision and improper technique, which can cause both acute and chronic injuries (Reeves, Laskowski, and Smith 1998a, 1998b). Substituting machines for free weights, when feasible, can also be beneficial by increasing the stress on the target muscles, decreasing stress on the joints and increasing user confidence and safety (Friday 1999; Hay, Andrews, Vaughan, and Ueya 1983).


    After reviewing the literature, some general conclusions can be drawn about strength training. First, it appears no one method of training has a monopoly on producing strength gains. In addition, most studies show single set protocols to be just as effective as multiple set protocols, with little or no significant difference between programs utilizing one to three sets per exercise. Decreased training volume can be beneficial to college student athletes as this would leave more time available for sport practice and academic activities. Also, the use of Olympic lifts and/or ballistic exercises was shown to have a high potential for injury and questionable benefit to athletes as compared to safer alternatives.

    The rational trainee will be compelled to design the most productive, safest and most efficient training program possible. Relinquishing tradition and personal bias and avoiding commercially motivated sources in favor of the scientific data found in the literature will assure such program design occurs.


    Alexander, M. J. L. (1985). Biomechanical aspects of lumbar spine injuries in athletes: A review. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Sciences, 10 (1), 1-20.

    Allman, F. L., Jr. (1976). Prevention of sports injuries. Athletic Journal, 56, 74.

    Berger, R. A. (1962). Effect of varied weight training programs on strength. Research Quarterly, 33 (2), 168-181.

    Berger, R. A. (1963). Comparative effects of three weight training programs. Research Quarterly, 34 (3), 396-398.

    Browne, T. D., MD, Yost, R. P., MD, & McCarron, R. F., MD (1990). Lumbar ring apophyseal fracture in an adolescent weight lifter. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 18 (5), 533-535.

    Brzycki, M. (1995). A practical approach to strength training. Indianapolis, IN: Masters Press.

    Carpinelli, R. N. (1999). The multiple set myth. In M. Brzycki (Ed.), Maximize your training: Insights from leading strength and fitness professionals (pp. 81-95). Chicago: Masters Press.

    Carpinelli, R. N., & Otto, R. M. (1998). Strength training: Single versus multiple sets. Sports Medicine, 26 (2), 73-84.

    Durell, D. (1999). Effective strength training- understanding the intensity-duration relationship. Hard Training Newsletter, 6, 2-3.

    Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. J. (1988). Resistance training: Basic principles (part 1 of 4). Physician and Sports Medicine, 16 (3), 160-171.

    Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. J. (1997). Designing resistance training programs (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

    Friday, J. (1999). Avoiding injuries to the low back. In M. Brzycki (Ed.), Maximize your training: Insights from leading strength and fitness professionals (pp. 231-244). Chicago: Masters Press.

    Hay, J. G., Andrews, J. G., Vaughan, C. L., & Ueya, K (1983). Load, speed and equipment effects in strength training exercises. In H. Matsui & K. Kobayashi (Eds.), Biomechanics VIII-B (pp. 939-950). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

    Jesse, J. P. (1977). Olympic lifting movements endanger adolescents. Physician and Sports Medicine, 5 (9), 61-67.

    Kelso, T. (1999). The basics of muscle contraction: Implications for strength training. In M. Brzycki (Ed.), Maximize your training: Insights from leading strength and fitness professionals (pp. 35-80). Chicago: Masters Press.

    Komarek, A. R. (1996). Use of scientific data among high school strength and conditioning coaches. High Intensity Training Newsletter, 6 (1), 12-17.

    Kulund, D. H., Dewey, J. B., Brubaker, C. E., & Roberts, J. (1978). Olympic weight-lifting injuries. Physician and Sports Medicine, 6 (11), 111-119.

    Mannie, K. (1996). Ballistic weight training dangerous and unnecessary. Hard Training Newsletter, 1, 10-12.

    Reeves, R. K., MD, Laskowski, E. R., MD, & Smith, J., MD (1998a). Weight training injuries, part one: Diagnosing and managing acute conditions. Physician and Sports Medicine, 26 (2), 67-83, 96.

    Reeves, R. K., MD, Laskowski, E. R., MD, & Smith, J., MD (1998b). Weight training injuries part two: Diagnosing and managing chronic conditions. Physician and Sports Medicine, 26 (3), 54-63, 73.

    Starkey, D. B., Welsch, M. A., Pollock, M. L., Graves, J. E., Brechue, W. F., & Ishida, Y. (1994). Equivalent improvement in strength following high intensity, low and high volume training. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, 26 (5), S116.

    Terbizan, D., & Bartels, R. L. (1984). The effect of set-repetition combinations on strength gains in females age 18-35. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, 17, 267.

    Zatsiorsky, V. M. (1995). Science and practice of strength training. Champaign, IL: Masters Press.


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    1. Dave,

      Another Great post!!! It is information like this that needs to get in the hands of the mainstream population so we can stop the INSANITY that is running rampid in the fitness industry.

      Thanks Again,


    2. Thanks for this – very helpful. One question (and, maybe I missed it in the post): what is the current best recommendation on training frequency?

    3. Will–I didn’t look into frequency during my research–for a good discussion on that, check out John Little’s interview in the “High Intensity Interviews” Category.

    4. Will-I’m not sure your question can be answered definitively, as an individuals recovery capacity strongly comes into play here (age, health and genetics are factors). I would say no more than three times per week for sure. Two is probably better. Many people, including Dr. McGuff at Body by Science, strongly advocate once per week and many people swear by this. I’d also like to hear Dave’s comments on this.

    5. I agree with Thomas that it is a very individual thing, mediated by many slow-changing factors, such as age, and short-term fluctuating factors, such as nutritional status, overall stress, etc. The bottom line is to record and monitor your results–if you have yout intensity, duration and frequency properly regulated, you should be making regular progress.

    6. Thanks guys – what you say makes a lot of sense. I’ll check out the John Little interview. I’ve also just started reading Dr. McGuff’s blog. I’m 53. I’ve trained for most of my adult life but had always been more of a high volume person – then, of course, I started ‘breaking down’. Dr. McGuff’s work has been very interesting to me. However, his general recommendation of once-per-week is still a little difficult for me to wrap my head around. Thanks again,


    7. Nice article, but there was no comment made as to whether one should use whole body routines or split/consolidated training as Mentzer did. I’m sure they both have their uses at times, but I’d like to hear more discussion on why and when to use each method.

    8. @PTB:

      Dangit, I forget the exact name of the article that I read, but it has been studuied and shown that split routines and training whole body routines do not produce significant differences in gains. Thus you could do whatever pleases you.

      BUT…there is one more thing you should know. If you work out for more than 45 minutes, your cortisol level shoots up and that will literally eat your muscle away. Therefore if, for example, working muscle group A and B together would take more than 45 minutes, do one group on one day and the other the next. This way you will avoid cortisol limiting your gains.

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