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The Trouble with Intensity

The trouble with intensity is obvious. It's freakin' hard! But that's not the real problem. The real trouble with intensity is that almost everyone excludes it. The right way to train, the best way to train and the smartest way to train, is the most difficult.

Intensity refers to how hard you work out or the difficulty of training. You have to push yourself into and through the zone of pain and discomfort. It all comes down (literally) to how much weight you can lift with all out do-or-die effort. It's what you're worth when your flesh is pressed against iron. It's the magnitude of load employed, or in physics, the rate of actual work performed.

The Three Domains of Intensity

In exercise physiology three domains of intensity have been defined according to distinct metabolic profiles. The moderate intensity domain begins at the onset of exercise and encompasses work rates at or below the lactate threshold. During exercise in the heavy intensity domain, work rates are above the lactate threshold, and in the severe intensity domain, V02 increases to maximal value.

The Best Way to Train

Why is hard training better? Easy. We have to confront our lactate threshold (or Maker) every time we work out. This means we can generate MORE value in a fraction of the time spent by the majority. Because our mental force capacity is virtually unlimited and also increases over time, we can therefore keep driving and pushing ourselves to a higher plateau.

This is the driving principle behind progressive resistance training (PRT).

Does training hard ever get any easier? Wrong question, but here.s the answer. No, but your body does get used to being treated in this manner. It's like marriage, that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. The only way you can make any progress in life is to perform with brilliance and INTENSITY.

Intense exercise is definitely harder on our biological systems. Enter the element of courage. Intense exercise ravages our chemistry and reduces our nitrogen, enzyme, organ and micronutrient pools. Billions of free radicals are generated and muscle fibers, membranes, ligaments and tendons become more susceptible to inflammation and damage as a result. So high intensity should be periodized and this is achieved by incorporating variation into your workout program.

For example, don't train heavy when your sport is in season. Repetitions, sets, specific exercises and frequency of workouts should vary throughout the year. Like the planet itself, everything everywhere is in a constant state of flux and change; evolving constantly to improve survival.

Train with intensity my friend, but change your workout pattern in relation to the methodology you have in mind, which ideally is based on your objectives.

How the Body Adapts to Training

All out effort forces the body to compensate by increasing the dimension of individual muscle fibers and the torque they generate via neurological activation when they are called upon to contract. As form follows function, size follows force. This is how the body adapts to the stress of training, provided it is adequately rested and supplied with the raw materials required for adaptation. Going through the motions doesn't challenge the body, so don't expect something from nothing. That's bad math. We must train and live progressively if we want to create the muscle we desire and/or improve our performance.

How to Increase Relative Intensity

You can increase training intensity (or work load) several ways:

1. Increase the amount of weight (load)
2. Increase the number of sets or repetitions (volume)
3. Decrease the rest time between sets
4. Increase the number of exercises in a given workout

Without hard training, no real growth will be realized... ever. High intensity workouts are extremely taxing, but essential to advanced form and shape. Quality of workmanship is the point. One set of any given exercise performed with excellent technique and pushed to a specific ceiling or to absolute maximum failure is worth ten sets done with less effort and poor form. Finding balance between intensity and volume is paramount to achieving success in the lifting game.

Less = More

Intensity is Relative

Intensity is relative. A weight deemed impossible for one to lift could be perceived as a warm-up for another. The important thing is whether or not you are challenging yourself to go beyond your comfort zoneā€¦not all the time, and never if it means compromising exercise form. But if you never push yourself from one level to the next, you simply can't move forward. The hands of time never stop moving and the forces of nature, which grind each and every one of us to pulp, never rest.

Without the component of intensity, your body will miss out on the benefits of hormonal stimulation, including maximizing the effects of hGH, testosterone and IGF-1. These endogenous hormones normally diminish with age and this decline is associated with physical weakness, reduction in metabolic rate, increased insulin resistance, muscle atrophy and susceptibility to disease and obesity. This is where interval training comes in and the principal of variation (periodization). For example, walking combined with sprinting is preferably to walking only or sprinting only.

Life is celebrated somewhere in the Nexus, but you need to master the principle of intensity to get AND stay there.

Intensity vs. Volume

Intensity vs. volume refers to how hard you train in relation to how long you train. Volume refers to the total amount of training. As you increase volume, intensity of work decreases, and in like manner, training with intensity forces a contraction of time.

To become an exceptionally good skier or hockey player means you've got to practice continuously. Coaches and athletes all understand that thousands of hours must be devoted to improve skill and technique. However, many athletes make the mistake of bringing this mentality into the gym. On the slopes or ice it's wise to train for hours, but in the gym you're not practicing the technique of your sport. You're focus is developing muscle, power, strength and total fitness.

I've learned this difference as a competitive wrestler, lacrosse, football, basketball and hockey player, hammer thrower and natural bodybuilder. Each sport demands a unique form of intensity; each requires knowledge of the principle of training specificity and the law of individual biological response and adaptation.

Intensity is the Key Factor

Intensity is the key factor when it comes to achieving higher standards of strength and size because the concept of "pushing it to the limit" is based on a model of greater stress as opposed to stopping short of maximum fiber recruitment. It's true that volume of work performed does play a role in growth stimulation and recovery, but there is a point of diminishing return. The function of exercise as a whole is to develop total physical fitness and to train the body with a balanced symmetrical approach. Each subset of muscle fiber requires stimulation, so it makes sense to include a variety of sets and reps in your workout routine.

High Volume = Lower Intensity

It's impossible to sprint a mile. Performing such a relatively high volume of exercise means that you have to pace yourself and "hold back" to some degree. If you don't hold back, you won't make it to the finish line.

The question here is how much work is actually required to get the job done and achieve the goal? If some exercise is good, is more necessarily better? It depends on what you want. Compare the body of a sprinter to a miler. Which one do you prefer?

If 2 sets of a weightlifting exercise stimulates growth, will 4 sets work even better? If 4 sets is better, does this mean that 8 sets will be even better still, and if so when does it end? How about 16, 32 or 128 sets? Do you know with absolutely certainty how many sets and reps YOUR body needs for maximum effect? No. Neither do I, but we do have estimates and theories based on research, rational thought and models of success. That's why I personally base pretty much everything on observation, personal experience, calculation, science and functional outcome.

Concentration is Essential

To train with intensity you have to be self-directed, highly motivated and mentally focused. Concentration is essential. Each repetition brings you one step closer to failure, and this is a rare example in life where total failure equates to success. Failure to lift the weight means you've exhausted your existing capacity, recruited a maximum number of muscle fibers and disrupted a greater percentage of microfilaments. Perfect!

Training to absolute failure (or close to it) takes less time but demands more attention, meaning get the hell off your cell phone (unless you can provide evidence of a single NHL hockey player talking on his cell on the ice during a shift). You can't go through the motions when you train hard. You have to pay close attention to proper form and the execution of every rep.

So the real question is do you actually train hard? It looked like you did. You certainly grunted and groaned a lot, but you alone know the truth. Could you have performed another rep? Did you stop when the going got tough? Did you make love to the iron?

Finally, if you have to ask yourself if you're training hard enough, you're NOT!

As always, stay well and live free! Dr.C