High intensity training (HIT) has received a lot of negative reviews over the years. It’s confounding because one of the cornerstones of any viable training program is overloading the body’s systems (muscular, cardiovascular) to coax it to a higher level. To create that overload, a trainee must go above and beyond their existing level by training with effort.
Come on, admit it. You’ve been there and so have I. When was the last time you trained half-assed and obtained solid results? Unless freakish genetics are involved, it didn’t happen. The average person needs to bust their ass to become stronger, grow muscle, and lose fat. Intensity of training effort must be part of the equation, and the greater it is, the greater your chance of getting results (all other factors being equal).
The Many Faces of High Intensity
Mention HIT to an old-timer, and the name Arthur Jones usually pops up. Jones was the founder of Nautilus Sports Medical Industries, and one of the earliest advocates of brief and demanding training to become stronger and grow muscle. If you know nothing about the man, I recommend you at least read his Bulletin #1.
In the strength training world, many still believe in Jones’s “one set to momentary muscular fatigue for 8-12 repetitions.” That is one example of HIT, and it works, but there are many other ways to implement demanding, brief training. All-out effort with any device (a barbell, dumbbells, or a machine) performed safely and with a reasonable amount of training volume (one to four sets) and performed in a reasonable amount of time (no more than one hour) can be considered HIT.
Then there is the crowd that considers intensity as relative to one’s 1RM. An example would be 85-100% of the 1RM being high intensity, 70-84% being moderate intensity, and 55-69% percent being low intensity. But here lies the problem: how many repetitions are these loads lifted?
If you gave me the option of either walking or crawling out of the gym after leg pressing either 95% or 65% of my 1RM for a maximum number of repetitions to the point of momentary muscular fatigue, the latter option would most likely create the crawling situation. The 65% load would create more time under tension and work a larger overall proportion of muscle fibers, ultimately creating a greater demand on the muscle structures. So using a very heavy resistance (95%) may or may not be high intensity in nature, depending on the number of reps performed. The same can be said for a lighter resistance (65%). If performed for an all-out, maximum rep effort, it would be high intensity regardless of what percentage of a 1RM it is.
While I’m on the topic, I need to mention high intensity interval training (HIIT) as well. It also has become popular in recent years, especially for those seeking a time-efficient means of developing cardiovascular endurance, or a more effective option to burn additional calories than traditional steady-state cardio. Like HIT in the weight room, HIIT can be performed via demanding interval runs over ground, or on an exercise device, or with boot camp style workouts. There are many effective methods for placing a huge demand on the body’s cardiovascular system.
Intensity Trumps Mindless Volume
What do you think the number one priority should be in any sensible training program?
- More exercises or drills in a single session
- More sets, reps, or repeats of the aforementioned exercises and drills
- More training sessions per week
- More weeks in the training plan
Training plans must be logically structured in terms of exercises, session volume, the number of sessions per week, and the length of the overall training period. But number one on the list should be selecting variables that will create changes in the body. To accomplish that, intensity of effort is the starting point.
Without a high level of training intensity, little can be gleaned from any amount of training. Quality supersedes quantity; more is not necessarily better. If that was not the case, rather than perform eight exercises for two sets each, we could just double it to 16 exercises and 32 total sets, and make twice the progress. What they heck, quadruple the volume and perform 64 sets! More is better, right? You get the idea.
Your entire training plan should be structured around the high level of effort required to create changes in your body. If you work at a high level, you will not be able to do so in high volume.
Why You Need More Intensity
Rather than performing an arbitrary number of low-effort exercises and drills in the hopes that somewhere in that endeavor the “switch will be flipped on,” focus on fewer, high-effort bouts.
If for no other reason, you should up the intensity because it’s more time efficient. You have a full-time job, a family, academic commitments, errands to run, time required for grocery shopping, eating, sleeping, personal care, or whatever. Spend a quality 45 minutes at the gym, or half-ass it for 90 minutes? Do the math.
HIT can make your training more easily measurable and documentable. The more volume you do (the number of exercises, drills, sets, reps, runs, training days, etc.), the more difficult it will be to track progress and account for exactly at what point proper overload occurred. At that point, should you not cut it off? When the stimulus for overload has been reached (i.e., three sets or eight runs), why continue to do more (i.e., three additional sets or five more runs)?
HIT is also the most effective way to strike at the foundation of any successful training plan: overload creates adaptation, which creates progression. Over the long haul, it actually helps you to better recover from training sessions and creates less wear and tear on your body. Compare these two 10-week programs:
High Volume Program:
- Strength: 10 exercises x 5 sets each x 4 days per week
- Cardio: 14 x 200m interval runs on day one, 25 x 75m shuttle drills on day two
- Agility: 6 drills x 8 rounds each, two days per week
Over the 10 weeks, your body would have to deal with this:
- 2,000 strength training reps
- 140 interval runs
- 250 shuttle drills
- 960 agility drill reps
Low Volume Program:
- Strength: 8 exercises x 3 sets each x 2 days per week
- Cardio: 8 x 200m interval runs day one, 12 x 75m shuttle drills on day two
- Agility: 5 drills x 8 rounds each, one day per week
Over the 10 weeks, your body would only have to deal with this:
- 480 strength training reps
- 80 interval runs
- 120 shuttle drills
- 400 agility drill reps
Can you not gain results with 480 strength sets, 80 intervals, 120 shuttles, and 400 agility reps over a 10-week period? Of course you can, as you’ll better be able to factor in valuable recovery time to reap the benefits of your hard, switch-flipping efforts.
It Works If You Work
The only risk of engaging in abbreviated training is that if you don’t commit to work hard, you’ll accrue subpar results. In the moment, training for shorter sessions at higher intensity is more physically demanding. Learn to enjoy the temporary spike in physical discomfort, knowing you’re doing it properly and not mindlessly churning out set after set or run after run.
There are so many ways you can incorporate HIT (and HIIT) in a training program. Think quality over quantity, scale it back, focus on brief but demanding exercise bouts that are more easily documented to track your progress. You’ll be able to focus more on quality efforts, have more recovery time, realize better gains, and be able to spend time on other important tasks.
Always remember the greater your intensity of training effort, the greater your probability of achieving better physical improvement.