Are you intense ?
To complete my 3 part article that covers the balance between training volume, frequency, and intensity, I shall explain,
1 – What intensity is
2 – How we may need to adjust it
3 – The relationship between all 3 aspects to bring about maximal muscle gains.
Intensity is usually defined as the percentage of 1rm we are lifting at.
A typical hypertrophy percentage range is deemed to be 60-85percent 1rm, as here the loading is sufficient to stimulate high threshold motor units which have the greatest propensity for growth. This range also brings about the greatest levels of hormonal response, through elevated test,(1) gh and igf-1 levels.
However further research has shown us that working across a multitude of rep ranges is likely to illicit the greatest adaptations. So encompassing work in a higher percentage will help increase strength, and working in a lower percentage will increase the metabolic stress we place on a muscle.
From an optimal hypertrophy perspective , placing the largest amount of mechanical tension ( load ) is a sure way to bring about muscle growth, but increasing metabolic stress ,(essentially, getting a better pump) will also pose hypertrophy benefits. (2)
Both of these approaches will lend themselves to greater hypertrophy over a longer period of time vs not incorporating them into our training.
The idea of sticking to just one set rep range to stimulate muscle fibers is also potentially flawed due to the fact that the body will recruit muscle fibers based on the scenario. By this I mean, if we use a lighter load, initially this will only recruit slow twitch muscle fibers. As we get closer to failure, and those slow twitch fibers cannot perform the work alone, our body will recruit more fast twitch fibers to perform the work. This is referred to as Hennemans size principle. Therefore we will still eventually tap into both fibre types by taking a lighter load to absolute failure.
With that idea in mind, that gives us greater flexibility to the rep ranges we train in.
When training at higher frequencies, (which I strongly advocate!) it may be even more advantageous to move away from one strict rep parameter.
For example; when training legs 3 times a week, I feel it would be difficult to recover if the intensity at which we lifted was 85% of our 1rm for all sets in all 3 sessions, it would become apparent quickly that this set up would cause us to over reach and therefore fail to progress, counteracting the purpose of training more frequently.
Therefore in one of the sessions it maybe wise to dedicate work to 15-20 reps, and pick exercises that won’t crush us metabolically, so a deadlift here is usually a bad choice, but a leg press would be a great exercise here to ensure we can adequately recover.
Intensity can be looked at another way, and this is in its literal sense: how intense are you working/ how hard are you working ? So this could be measured via perceived rate of exertion. The RPE scale scores difficulty from a 1-10 level. And this is a good way to illustrate how sets in a typical high volume program may compare to that of a low volume program. If you have ever watched blood and guts , by Dorian Yates, you will know that to really make the most of a low volume program, it needs to be 9-10 on an RPE. Dorian was likely a number 11 so he would of had a new category just for him! But when it is simply one work set to get the job done, and it’s going to be an all time 8-12 rep personal best, beating your log book, you need to attack that set. This is my favored way of training as I feel it’s very easy to quantify. ‘Did I progress my lifts or not?’
However with a typical high volume program where set one may only be 7 out of 10 difficulty , and then set two gets a little harder and by set 3 it finally is hard, I believe that’s much more difficult to really know if you have placed a demand on your body that will force an adaptation.
So to summarize, when using a high-frequency program, I feel we need to use weights across a wide rep range, some sessions lighter, some heavier, to ensure we recover optimally.
In a low volume high-frequency program, I feel every set we do perform needs to taken all the way to failure, or at least very close. There is no room for feeder sets here, bring the intensity, every set, think ‘Dorian intense’!