Intensity, Frequency, and Volume – The 3 Variables That Guide You To Gains

biceps exercises

When it comes to getting jacked, everything can be boiled down to 3 variables. Kind of like the Pythagorean Theorem of busting through shirt sleeves. These 3 variables guide every program, and whether or not that program works or not.

Gunning for gainz requires intensity, frequency, and volume. And the ability to slip in sick ass puns like I did in the previous sentence. But just throwing shit against the wall and hoping something sticks only works for so long. At some point or another you need to get the variables in working in your favor.

Before we go any further, what are the 3 variables that determine whether or not you need to quit buying schmedium shirts and move up to a large?


Blaring Tool and banging out heavy deads while being pissed off at everyone definitely qualifies as being intense, just not intensity as defined in the training world.

Intensity is defined as how heavy the weight is relative to your one rep max. Say you can bench 1,000lbs, because you’re a fucking behemoth, then 850lbs is 85% of your one rep max. It’s been a little while, but I remember when I first learned that it blew my fucking mind. Every single training article talking about intensity now made a hell of a lot more sense.

It’s kind of hard to lift at 60% intensity when you think intensity is just your attitude.


Volume is normally defined as the total amount of work done. Some people calculate volume different ways, but the most general way to go about it is by multiplying sets x reps x weights.

Say you’re big into German Volume Training, and do a 10 x 10 on squat with 225lbs. You’re out of your mind. You’re also lifting 22,500 total pounds of volume.

What’s becoming apparent about the traditional way we view volume, is that isn’t the best way to calculate volume. Click on over to the link to check out a very smart take on how we should start figuring up training volume for better gains.


Frequency is pretty self-explanatory, and there are no tricky definitions. Frequency is basically how often you perform a certain movement, a workout, just train per week. So if you’re benching 5 times a week, your bench press frequency is pretty fucking high.

How to implement these variables:

Definitions, theories, and principles are all fun. They make us feel smart. Implementing those very principles and getting results is an entirely different ballgame. It takes plenty of time learning, trying new programs, and learning what you really respond best to.

The overarching rule amongst the 3 variables is this: when one increases, after a certain point the other 2 need to decrease. You can’t constantly have more of everything, because after a certain point you won’t be able to recover.

You can absolutely bench, squat, or do whatever else 5x a week. That’s perfectly acceptable. If that’s the case though, your volume and intensity won’t be able to be as high each training session, because the frequency is so high.

How do you find a good blend of the three? I asked Greg Nuckols, of, and coauthor of the books The Art and The Science of Lifting to explain. Greg has held 3 all time world powerlifting records in the 220, and 242lb weight classes. He’s a very strong man whose strength is only outdone by his intelligence.

Here’s what Greg had to say about the relationship between intensity, frequency, and volume:

On the whole, intensity doesn’t seem to impact hypertrophy very much within a certain range. Research shows that you get similar hypertrophy using weights from about 60-85% of your 1rm as long as you’re doing the same number of sets. Volume (defined as total number of hard sets, not sets x reps x weight) is the most important factor – doing as much volume throughout the week as you can recover from. Frequency is mainly important insofar as higher frequency (nothing crazy, but 2-4 times per week, per muscle or movement) allows you to handle higher volumes. Doing 8 working sets for a muscle, three times per week is totally doable, but if you tried to do 24 sets in one day, it would be brutally hard, and your last several sets would probably be low-quality work. It also seems that higher frequencies are more helpful for more experienced lifters, because the elevated anabolic response following lifting is quite a bit shorter for experienced athletes (generally 24 hours or less), meaning they can benefit more from more frequent training than a new lifter who has a more prolonged anabolic response following a training session. 

What does that mean for you?

The ability to train, recover, and then train again is paramount to long term success.

You don’t have to walk into the gym and go hard and heavy every single day. If that’s what you’ve been doing, backing off might actually help you gain more muscle. 60% of your max is enough weight to bring about gains if you’re getting in the proper amount of volume. Lifting lighter weights like that would also allow you to recover quicker, which means your next training session would be higher quality.

Finding the perfect intersection of intensity, frequency, and volume is tough. It takes quite a bit of trial and error, and many other factors play into whether or not you’ll be able to recover from a program.

If you’re not sleeping much, not eating properly, or working 70 hours a week then recovery is going to be hindered. You won’t be able to lift with near as much intensity, volume, or frequency.

If your recovery is taken care of, then training should go smoothly. If training is going smoothly, then the traditional body part split that leaves each body part getting love once per week should be done away with.

Imagine if your main man downstairs only got love once per week, wouldn’t that leave much to be desired? Let’s look at your biceps the same way.

All of this basically means that Monday isn’t the only international chest day anymore. Fuck yes.