What is the optimal training intensity to maximize your results? This is an incredibly important question, yet it is often overlooked. You see, if you don’t train hard enough, your training stimulus will be below your threshold. Training below your threshold will not give your body a reason to progress through a positive training adaptation. At best, this will result in the mere maintenance of your strength, fitness and physique.
On the other hand, training too hard will fry your central nervous system, dump excessive cortisol in your body (cortisol is a catabolic hormone that breaks down muscle), and perhaps worst of all, permanently damage your joints.
Clearly, training at either extreme is not going to deliver the results you are looking for. The key is training hard enough to get adequate muscular and nervous system stimulation without creating any of the negative effects mentioned above. Training in this “sweet spot” is the best way to maximize your results.
How do we find that sweet spot? It’s actually not too hard, once you have an understanding what “intensity” is. What exactly is intensity? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Sports scientists say that intensity is simply a percentage of your 1-rep max (RM) on a particular exercise. In other words, higher intensity involves a higher percentage of your 1 RM, while lower intensity involves a lower percentage of your 1 RM.
Using this definition, let’s suppose you have a 1-rep max of 315 pounds in the squat. In this case, a set performed with 295 pounds would be said to be more intense then a set performed with 275 pounds, regardless of how close the set came to failure, how many reps were performed, or how much effort was applied throughout the actual set.
There is another camp, however, known to me and my colleagues as the “gym rats”, that looks at intensity very differently. The gym rats say that intensity is defined and measured by the amount of effort put forth during the set. In other words, how close to failure were you at the end of your set? Using this definition, a squat with 275 pounds may be more intense then the set of 295 pounds if more effort was applied during that set.
I actually think that both of these groups have valid definitions for intensity, and that these differences must simply be clarified. So let’s give them different names. For the purposes of this post, the “scientific” definition of intensity (percentage or 1 RM) will be called “external intensity”. We will refer to the “gym rat” definition of intensity (effort was put forth during that set) as “internal intensity”.
External Intensity- As defined up above, external intensity has to do with the percentage of your 1 RM. Just to clarify, a higher percentage equates to higher intensity.
The closer you get to your 1 RM, the more the nervous system is involved and taxed. When the nervous system is thoroughly strained, it takes a long time to adequately recuperate. If sufficient recovery is not permitted, the nervous system becomes burned out. Once this happens, your ability to make progress is severely compromised and no positive training effect will take place.
The good news is that this is avoidable. The best way to dodge this progress-killing bullet is to only train above 95% or your 1 RM once every 3-4 programs (assuming your programs last approximately one month each). Simple fix! Now let’s move on to an even more common result-hindering culprit…
Internal Intensity- To recap, this type of intensity refers to the amount of effort put forth during a set. In other words, internal intensity measures how close a particular set takes you to the point of muscular failure. Many people believe that in order to achieve a training adaptation, you must push each set to the max.
In other words, the idea is that you should always reach a degree of exhaustion that would prevent you from doing another repetition, even if maximal effort is applied. There is a tremendous amount of confusion out there about this particular issue.
The million-dollar question is this: “Is it necessary to always train with this level of intensity in order to get great results?” The answer, which would certainly shock a fair number of misinformed trainees out there, is absolutely not! In fact, I have a long list of friends and clients who have become incredibly strong and fit without ever pushing a set to their absolute max.
In fact, pushing sets to the point of momentary failure too frequently is one of the most common reasons people fail in achieving their goals. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not recommending that people do not train hard. Instead, I’m suggesting that only occasionally and judiciously should you push yourself to your absolute max on a set. Here’s how to do it and get the results you want…
An effective approach is to “cycle internal intensity”. In this approach, you would use a “3-4 steps up, followed by 1 step down” protocol. This allows for periodic recovery and regeneration, and thus, continued improvements. This method requires your training intensity to increase for several weeks, followed by an unloading phase, where the intensity (and sometimes the training volume as well) is reduced. Here’s an example of cycling your internal intensity on a four week program:
Week 1- Leave 2-3 reps in the tank
Week 2- Leave 1-2 reps in the tank
Week 3- Leave 1 rep in the tank
Week 4- Go for a new max!
Following these parameters will allow you to stay hungry at the gym, avoid unnecessary injuries and make continual progress. Use this method and reach new levels of strength in a realistic and sustainable manner. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did!
Dedicated to your success,
p.s. Feel free to ask any questions you may have on training intensity in the comment section below. Also I’d love to hear about your opinion/experiences with training intensity so please share them with us.