1. (of a condition, quality, feeling, etc.) Existing in a high degree; forceful or extreme: "this job demands intense concentration".
2. (of an action) Highly concentrated: "intense competition".
Everyone in the fitness industry talks about intensity. Supplement companies are developing ways to develop, manufacture, and sell it. Intensity seems to be the holy grail of achievement regardless of your fitness goals. But what is intensity? You can see the Dictionary.com definition above, “existing in a high degree; forceful or extreme.” That sounds good, but what does that mean in terms of reaching our goals? Everyone who has developed their own exercise protocol will try to persuade you into believing that their method is the best. We know that many programs work, but not everyone gets results. Many strength training authors will quantify intensity as a percentage of the trainer’s one-repetition max. Others will say that high intensity training is performing an exercise until muscular failure. Often times we see in magazines photos that try to visually encapsulate the training intensity of a professional bodybuilder or athlete, sometimes to an extent that is impractical to duplicate. Here’s my take on intensity: when you set out to reach your goals you must apply intensity. We can spend all day trying to visualize it, quantify it, and define it; but it will be useless to us we do not apply it! I’m not creating a new exercise program, but I will spur you to question what you are currently doing. Applying intensity to reach your goals revolves around three qualities: hard work, focus, and belief.
Work is the first quality that is needed to apply intensity. I mentioned earlier that many programs work, but not everyone gets results. Most often it is because that trainer is not working hard enough to elicit results. Fitness enthusiasts are often like members of Congress when it comes to the debate regarding High-Intensity Training and High-Volume Training. They compare the results of Mike Mentzer and Arnold Schwarzenegger when it comes to the effectiveness of either program.
Both men possessed phenomenal physiques even by today’s standards but subscribed to vastly different methods of training. While I was not around to study the other elements of their lifestyle, it’s reasonable to say that all other things being equal, the biggest difference between these two was their training. That said, what led to their similar results was the effort with which they executed their plan. They both worked extremely hard. Although Mentzer’s techniques were unique and he pushed all of his sets to failure, you cannot deny that Schwarzenegger was “intense” in his training. What they had in common more than anything else was their work ethic.
Should you train to failure? That topic is another article entirely! If you are to take your working sets to true muscular failure, you will have to significantly reduce your training volume to avoid draining the Central Nervous System (CNS). The muscles may be able to recover, but your CNS will not have the drive to complete successive workouts at the same intensity. My personal preference is to avoid taking compound movements to failure (in favor of periodization) and isolation movements to failure and beyond since those movements will not cause significant drain on the CNS. An example of this would be using a non-linear periodization protocol for your squats and deadlifts and going to all-out failure on your curls and dumbbell side laterals. This approach may be the most effective way to reap the rewards of both worlds.
Focus is inherently tied together with hard work. Without focus, there is no aim to your hard work. Goal-setting defines your focus. If your goal is to be a bodybuilder and increase your muscle mass then you must be focused on using optimal form for each exercise, a full range-of-motion, the feeling in your muscles (the “burn” or “pump”), and setting a goal that is cosmetic in nature. If your goal is to increase your strength then your focus is on increasing the amount of weight lifted over a period of time and setting a goal that is quantifiable. If your goal is to become a better athlete then your focus is on developing functional strength that will carry over to your chosen activity and improving your skills in that activity. While many people that train would like all three of these traits, it’s probably best to focus on one at a time. You must have focus in order to apply the proper level of intensity needed to reach your goals.
Focus is also what makes intensity effective. Often we see a display of what we perceive as intensity when we observe a lifter psyching him or herself up for a big lift. They are wearing headphones, jumping up and down, shouting, smacking themselves (or having someone smack them)! All of this expended energy is done in preparation for that heavy set or lift. While I’m not stating that these techniques are useless (as there are some very big and strong lifters that do this), it is certainly not for everybody. The lifters that are more animated prior to their heavy set or lift are able to channel that focus into their performance rather than allowing it to dissipate. Not everyone is able to do this, and some ought to do it!
Find the best method for channeling your energy into your performance. Once you develop a ritual for channeling your energy, do it consistently and you will get consistent performance! As an example, my current pre-performance ritual consists of this (it’s a bit long-winded): I take my pre-workout supplement 15-20 minutes prior to training (currently I’m using ½ scoop of MusclePharm® Assault), I’ll go into the gym locker room to change, I usually hit a couple of poses while I’m cold, and as of late I’ll take a 5-10 minute walk on the treadmill to “get my blood moving” so to speak and warm-up my entire body. While I’m on the treadmill, I’ll use my smartphone to look up a motivational/inspirational video on YouTube. Usually I do employ the use of headphones when I train alone either using my iPod or stream music from my phone. This is quite a complex ritual, so if I am pressed for time I may not do all these things and do my best not to become dependent on this ritual. Discover what works best for you, but also be flexible!
In order to apply the maximum level of intensity you need to achieve the results you desire you must believe in yourself and believe in the training method you choose to employ. What is the point of focused, hard work if you do not believe in your ability to execute your plan or even the plan itself? Proverbs 23:7 states that, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” While the context of this verse was to beware of those who are overly generous, it led James Allen to write the book “As a Man Thinketh.” In his book, Allen discusses how our thoughts determine the course of our lives. This is my first article that I’m writing and if I did not believe that it would be worth reading, I would not have typed this far! In addition to the workout rituals I mentioned above, I make it a point to not look closely at what anyone else in the gym is doing, as I have a tendency to compare myself with others. I have to focus entirely on myself to get the most from my training. If I spend too much time looking at what someone else is doing and I notice that they are reaping results, then my belief begins to diminish along with my focus. I also have to make it a point to not stress or dwell on things that I cannot control. You must believe in your ability to execute your plan with maximum intensity and that doing so will enable you to achieve your goals.
What about your plan? Is it the right plan? What if my plan doesn’t work? How soon should I switch to a different program? Novice and intermediate trainers often ask themselves these questions when they embark on a new training program. They often do this because they want the greatest results in the shortest amount of time (who doesn’t?); when they really just need a dose of realism. As stated before, many programs work, and I have tried many popular programs, but you must execute the program with the proper intensity, which requires a certain level of belief. Think about it, if you don’t believe that your program is effective are you going to put forth your best efforts? It’s doubtful that you would. Remember that the results you get are intimately connected with the effort you put forth, regardless of the protocol; and that it takes time to see results. Can you lose 100 lbs. in 3 months (aside from being a contestant on the Biggest Loser®)? Can you gain 50 lbs. of muscle this year? While this is not absolutely impossible, it is certainly improbable for most individuals and definitely not realistic. We must set a realistic long-term goal, with short-term goals leading up to the long-term goal. Don’t worry about if you get the number of sets and reps perfect, just get in there and get to work!
There you have it! You can look at applying the proper intensity to your workouts as a three-legged stool. There must be all three present in order for it to be effective. One or two of these elements without the third will result in you banging your head against a wall. Apply these elements to your workout and ignite progress in your training once again!
Written by Jon Habeshy, BS, PTA