Intensity is defined as the quality of being strong or having a strong effect. If you want anything in life, you have to have the root of the word, and that is intent. Intent is defined as the ability to give all of your attention to something. If you want what you desire you must give strong attention to what it is that will bring you to that point.
When you discuss training there is nothing, and I mean nothing, as important as intensity. Training intensity is where the magic happens; you must stimulate the muscle beyond any reasonable cognition of what the average person believes to be intensity.
Look at the way all the Mr. Olympia’s train (pretend Phil Heath does not exist) and you will see some of the hardest working and intense individuals in the world. Watch old videos of Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman to see how a workout should be approached. Now, some will say the way they trained is the reason why their careers were not prolonged and could be considered as being cut short. I am not here to argue against that notion, however, take away the 800 pound squat and just look at the intensity within the workout. If you have a hard time envisioning in your mind what training intensity is, just watch an old Dorian video.
Training intensity is not a quantifiable measure, which lends itself to the absence of the aforementioned in most training sessions. Someone can complete 5 sets of 10 reps and get nothing out of it. However, another person can complete that same number of sets and reps and get something entirely different out of the workout. It’s all about the intensity of the workout being performed.
Intensity could be the difference between 200 calories and 800 calories being burned within a workout. It could also be the difference between 2 pounds and 5 pounds of lean muscle gained over a period of time. A body composition change relies heavily on your ability to manufacture intensity within a training session.
From a scientific standpoint, intensity is a quantifiable measure, as it is the energy output. In the real world (read: gym) this is not the case. So, we know what intensity is and the importance of it, but how do we reach maximum intensity? Especially for those who have been at this for a while, how do we generate intensity without hurting ourselves or burning out? Since this is not a quantifiable measure or number, we have to attack this from a few different angles. Let’s look at some different ways to create the most amount of intensity within a given workout. These do not all need to be implemented within a single workout, but can be mixed and matched.
Such a simple concept, yet one that is slightly more complex than the two words imply. We know that heavy weights are the key to growth, but we must look deeper than that to reap the full benefits of those weights. Heavy weights mean nothing if you pump out 5 reps and leave another 5 in the tank. Growth occurs when those heavy weights lead to muscular failure.
Pump workouts and volume is great, but push yourself and pick up some heavy weight. Use progressive overload techniques to track the weights. Make sure that you are progressing in each workout to ensure you are receiving the proper stimulus to grow. This is a great way to generate extra intensity, as you know in your mind that you must progress your lifts. Reach complete muscular failure within these sets and create the proper intensity needed to progress. If you are having a hard time figuring out what this means, look up Jordan Peters.
Forget Feeder Sets
You go into the gym and set yourself up on the bench press. You throw a plate on a do a couple warm up sets. You then put on a little more weight and begin the actual workout, gradually increasing the weight with each set until you reach your heaviest set. By the time you get to that top set you are pretty fatigued and only manage to get a few reps.
Now what if we forgot the idea of feeder sets and lifted the heaviest load when we are a little fresher? The heaviest load with the most amount of reps should elicit the most amount of muscular hypertrophy. Why not forget those feeder sets and generate the most amount of power for that top set.
This is dangerous to say, as this is a great way to get injured. So how do we get to that point without hurting ourselves? For one, a proper warmup and active stretching are going to be very important. While feeder sets are not going to be performed, it’s still crucial to warmup and pyramid the weight up until we reach that top set.
We will do this by performing feel sets, instead of feeder sets. Say 315 is the top weight we are going to perform on the bench press. Start by warming up with 135 for a set or two. Instead of pumping out a bunch of reps, complete one to two reps with flawless form. Then move on to 185 and do one set of one rep with perfect form. Continue doing this by increasing to 225, then 275; until you get to the top weight of 315. Still do one warmup with 315 but only complete one rep to prepare your central nervous system for the intense set and heavy weight that is to come. Now when you do the set with 315 you are fresh and ready to push yourself with intensity to complete muscle failure. With a training style like this you are more than likely only going to be able to knock out one set with the heaviest weight. After that one heavy set, back the weight down slightly and try to hit as many reps as the set before.
It’s one thing to say, “reach complete muscle failure,” but it’s another thing to actually apply that concept. It’s hard to reach failure, especially if training by yourself. Using advanced training techniques such as drop sets will help get to this point.
It’s important to wait until the last set of an exercise to complete a drop set. I would suggest that you do drop sets on isolation exercises or machines, as to avoid the risk of injury unless training with a partner. Reach muscle failure with a certain weight and then drop that weight by 20 to 30 percent and perform that weight until failure. You can also do more than one drop in a set to push that set even further and push the target muscle to absolute failure.
The increased time under tension does a few different things. For one it elicits more metabolic stress which enhances anabolism; and two it pushes the muscle past actual failure. Longer time under tension has been linked to greater output of growth hormone release in the body.
Going off the same idea as drop sets, supersets place a large emphasis on time under tension. The obvious difference here is that the time under tension is elongated by hitting the muscle from a different angle. Energy expenditure will be heightened during a superset, as well as metabolic stress and lactate accumulation.
While many suggest that supersets should be performed in an agonistic/antagonistic (biceps then triceps) type scheme, for the purpose of generating intensity these can be performed on the same muscle group. This can be very taxing on the central nervous system and should not be performed throughout an entire workout. However, completing a compound exercise and then moving on to an isolation exercise could prove to be very beneficial. Some studies have shown that increased time under tension and pace of workouts can actually improve aggression.
This one may seem silly, but it could potentially be the most beneficial to increasing intensity in the gym. Watch any pre game for a sporting event and you will see athletes preparing for the big game in a way that hypes them up and gets them focused. They get shots up, stretch, listen to music, visualize what’s about to occur, and game plan. So, if this is our arena and we are about to play a big “game” why are we not preparing the same way?
Get into the right mind set before stepping foot in the gym. Watch some training videos of your favorite bodybuilder, put on a podcast, or listen to some music to hype you up. Take down some pre workout like Redcon1 Total War and get yourself ready to bring it. Mentally prepare yourself for an intense workout.
As intensity increases, so should recovery time outside the gym. If you have been going through the motions for a period of time and start to become more intentional with training, your body will start to feel it. Make sure you are getting adequate rest outside the gym to ensure the muscles are being recovered optimally. I would suggest that if you are going to implement the aforementioned advanced training techniques, you do not incorporate them all at once.
As much as we all hate clichés: “if you want something you have never had, you must do something you have never done.” If you are tired of seeing the same old results and plateaus, change something. Training intensity breeds muscle mass and density. At the end of the day intensity is on you, and if you want it bad enough you will find your own intensity.