Intensity - the great dictator

If you have read any of my articles, either on this website or in the newsletter, you will by now for sure understand that close to everything in regards to training is dependent on the system that you use. Today I will talk about intensity.

Generally speaking, there are 3+1 main factors dictating the training system. The three are: intensity, volume and frequency. The fourth is density. The reason I’ve separated it is the topic of a future article so we will leave it for now.

Again generally speaking, you can only push at the most two out of the three. Training every day with maximal intensity and 50-60 sets is a recipe for disaster. Something has got to give. Even if it did work, you would have nowhere to go when you plateaued aside from doing less.

The greatest stimulant for strength and growth is intensity, whether that be through a one repetition maximal attempt or one set of several repetitions to absolute failure. This is not my opinion, it’s the law of nature. Argue with it if you want, it will not change because it contradicts opinions or the agenda of fitness media. Therefore it stands to reason that the great dictator is intensity.

To be clear, I’m talking about growth mechanisms and strength. Skill practice is very different and abides by different laws which is why sub-maximal training still has a place in most programs.

What is intensity?

In the strength community intensity is generally considered a percentage of a one repetition maximum. Above 90% could be considered high intensity, 70-89% medium intensity, and below 70% would be low intensity.

Ivan Abadjiev, the creator of the Bulgarian system, is notorious for prescribing sessions with very high intensity (very often maximal weights) and very high frequency (multiple times daily). What you might not know is that originally he experimented with high volume along with that! It didn’t work and he realized that it was intensity and not volume that pushed results. He was right. Furthermore, in Abadjiev’s system the 1RM was king and not the higher repetition maxes. You could argue that it could possibly have been a mistake but in the world he resided, the Olympic weightlifting world, he was likely right since the snatch and clean & jerk don’t really lend themselves to multiple repetitions to failure the same way the slow lifts do. So unless you’re an Olympic weightlifter you will need to understand the other side of the intensity coin – effort.

When considering intensity as a measurement of effort and not of a one repetition maximum, maximal intensity means taking a set to absolute failure regardless of how many reps it is. This is known as the repetition effort method. To failure means exactly that, you literally can’t finish a repetition. If it’s any less than that it’s known as the sub-maximal effort method and the set was not 100% intensity in terms of effort. You might have seen the term repetition effort method being thrown around on websites or books. It’s clear that many of these authors don’t understand the meaning of it since they do multiple sets with the same weight and same amount of reps – fatigue will not allow you to do that if you truly go to failure, at least not without very long rest periods. When using this method I prefer to prescribe only 1-2 sets in the same exercise and the same weight. If the first set is maximal intensity in terms of effort you’re unlikely to get the same amount of repetitions the next set and certainly not for a third set.

So should you consider intensity as a measurement of effort or as a percentage of a one repetition maximum? It’s your choice as either are valid!

Balancing the other factors

Because intensity is the great dictator we need to lower either frequency or volume or both since we can’t have it all. The Bulgarian system is an example of a system utilizing high intensity and high frequency. HIT (not to be confused with HIIT) spearheaded by Arthur Jones, Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates is an example of a system that has lowered volume significantly and sometimes also frequency in order to keep intensity high (even if it’s through multiple repetitions rather than a percentage of a one repetition maximum). The original Westside Barbell Club in Culver City (as opposed to Louie’s current club) is another example of low frequency and high intensity for you more maximal strength oriented folks.

How would you use high intensity along with high volume? I can’t think of a successful known system that does which should be telling. But if you decide to try then be prepared to be in a lot of pain.

If one want to always use high intensity and actually want to recover then you should not train two days in a row unless you specifically want to overreach. Recovery from extreme workouts take at least 72 hours. This has been shown in practice over and over. For some it might be longer. The exceptions are beginners and for those using a split routine. Note that beginners need less rest and can handle more work than non-beginners, the opposite of what most people think. Beginners simply can’t exhaust themselves as much as more advanced lifters. The Bulgarian system is governed by different laws so it’s outside of this discussion but for most people using the system the intensity will vary more than you think.

What is high, medium and low in terms of intensity and volume? Again I remind you of the heavy/medium/light concept. It’s the most basic way to determine it although you can get fancier if you want. For frequency I consider once a week or less as low frequency, 2-3 times per week medium, and anything more than that high frequency.

So should you always train with high intensity? Not necessarily. The most obvious time to not do so is if more recovery is needed but that can actually be debated because you could simply include more recovery days instead of changing intensity. The time when it absolutely must come down is during skill practice. This is a hugely important concept not only in all sports but also in all lifting endeavours. I will tackle that topic in another article because it’s literally half of training for most people.

Intensity is the great dictator – at least if you care about growth mechanisms and muscular strength. If you believe you can handle high volume or high frequency along with that then good for you. But before you answer yes and run giddy to the gym on a daily basis or spend 4 hours there, ask yourself if you actually need to. Find the least stimulating stress for the most effective dose, or put another way – train optimally, not maximally.

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