The pioneers of High Intensity Training did an enormous amount of good when they managed to get people to focus on the intensity of their workouts.
It really is not controversial whatsoever to claim that increased intensity of lifting is what stimulates muscle growth. There is no camp that says intensity should always stay the same from workout to workout in order to trigger muscle growth. And there certainly isn’t a camp saying intensity should decrease as the weeks of training roll by.
This is a good thing. It’s rare to have virtually total agreement on anything. But it’s very clear that intensity of lifting is critical to stimulating new muscle to grow.
Here what’s astonishing. Of all the sometimes vociferous defenders and advocates of High Intensity Training almost none of them has an exact measurement of this all-important intensity.
I surf the same forums as many of you and here’s what people talk about when they “define” intensity:
– “Percent of momentary effort.” People are told they should shoot for 100% momentary effort. First of all, can you tell the difference between your 94% effort last week and your 88% effort this week? And what if you managed 100% effort but you are getting the flu? Does that 100% effort = 100% effort when you are completely well? No? Then sometimes your 100% effort is sub-maximal and won’t trigger new muscle growth, will it? So your subjective idea of your effort is not a very good unit of measure.
Here’s another way to address this. How much can you deadlift? Now how much can you deadlift if the weight is on top of your best friend inside a burning house? Maybe that’s 100% effort and what you do in the gym is 64% effort. The fact is, you have no idea what 100% of your effort is. Nobody does.
– “Going to failure.” Many people talk about going to failure and how that last rep is the guarantee of new growth stimulation. Really? What about when you’re overtrained, haven’t slept much and are worried about getting fired at work – does going to failure under all that stress still mean your intensity absolutely increased and you are stimulating new muscle growth?
Also, you can go to failure with any weight. Is going to failure with 75 lbs the same as with 175 lbs? How about with 10 lbs vs 200 lbs? Is it always a HIT ‘pass’ because you went to failure? Is any lift to failure always your highest possible intensity?
– “Lift heavy.” The go to failure argument is often augmented with the admonition to always lift heavy.’ Fine. I’m an advocate of using heavy weights too. But is it better to lift 300 lbs 5 times or 320 lbs 3 times? They’re both really heavy to me. So which one is truly High Intensity Training? Which one represents progress and not regression for my workout today?
Remember I can use 100% ‘momentary effort’ and ‘go to failure’ while I ‘lift heavy’ with multiple reps of 300 or 320 lbs – but which one is better? Which one has higher intensity? Will my instinct tell me? Should I just ‘listen to my body?’
– “Fiber recruitment, force requirements, sarcoplasm growth, etc.” Just to cloud this issue further, some people like to bring up elements of muscle stimulation that you don’t have a prayer of measuring from workout to workout. Not many people are going to draw their blood and take tissue biopsies from all their targeted muscle groups after every workout to compare the effects on the fibers and the sarcoplasm that various tactics yield. “Wow, according to this muscle tissue biopsy in my microscope, twisting my wrist at the top of each dumbbell curl stimulated 17% more fast oxidative glycolytic fiber growth in my extensor carpi ulnaris!” Please. Yet people ask us to use these internal metrics to guide our training. Give me a break.
All Of The Above ‘Measurements’ Are Needlessly Subjective And Inferior
Look, measuring the intensity of anything with variable intensity is a quite simple matter. In acoustics the intensity of sound is measured in decibels which represent the pressure of sound on a given area. We can measure pressure and we can measure area. Easily. We get an exact number.
The intensity of light is measured in lumens which represent the power of light radiated into a given area. Again, we get exact numbers that mean something.
We could measure sound with metrics like ‘quiet,’ ‘loud,’ ‘really loud,’ and ‘must cover my ears.’
We could measure light with metrics like ‘dim’ ‘bright,’ ‘really bright,’ and ‘have to squint.’ Maybe 100% of momentary squint would be the brightest any light could be. Does that sound like the pinnacle of science to you?
Does the advice on H.I.T. forums still sound like the best way to measure the intensity of weightlifting when doing High Intensity Training? Percent of effort? Failure? Really heavy?
Measuring The Intensity Of Weightlifting Is Dead Simple
The intensity of your lifting efforts can be measured in total weight lifted in total time. We can measure weight. We can measure time. What do you think has higher intensity, lifting 800 lbs per minute or lifting 1,500 lbs per minute? Is there any room for a mistake there?
If you have the flu and lift 800 lbs/min can you somehow convince yourself that it’s more than 1,500 lbs/min because you tried really, really hard? You made 110% effort? You threw up after your set? Your arms were shaking an hour afterward? You were sore for three days? So does all that make 800 more than 1,500? No. Never. Ever.
Why Don’t The HIT Advocates Ever Measure Intensity With NUMBERS?
Sometimes I tell myself they’ve just never thought it through. They are in the comfortable habit of thinking trying really hard, going to failure, lifting heavy, etc – is all they need. Maybe they’ve just never asked themselves if HIT could be improved or made more exact.
Other times I tell myself they don’t want accuracy because it would put the lie to so much of the crap that gets doled out by these same people. It’s easy to claim curls with dumbbells while sitting on a colorful Swiss ball are higher intensity than a standing barbell curl – if – you never actually measure weight per minute. It’s easy to claim people should train Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the rest of their lives – if – you never actually measure whether their intensity is going up on every exercise during every workout.
Numbers have a way of cutting through the BS. They have a way of proving something is inferior at generating High Intensity and something else is superior.
Some of us welcome objective comparison and some of us do not.
For our part, we measure intensity with units called Power Factor, Power Index and Relative Static Intensity. We measure the Volumetric Intensity of each exercise and the Total Volumetric Intensity of every workout. We use those exact numbers to see whether progress or regression is happening. We adjust training schedules to make certain that recovery has occurred to the exercise numbers go up. We use the numbers to ensure true high intensity and objective progressive overload.
Any honest practitioner of High Intensity Training has nothing to fear from using NUMBERS to measure intensity – and everything to gain.
So let me ask you this, why do you think H.I.T. advocates talk so much about intensity but never use numbers to measure it accurately?