Intensity… It’s a sexy word in the fitness world. It makes us feel like we’re really doing some work and when we push the intensity factor, we get a sense of “results coming” after we’re done with the session.
But are we actually going to see the results simply from pushing our intensity? Is it even that important? Or are you grueling in the gym for no reason at all?
Let’s dig into it a bit…
When it comes to Webster, it means:
- The quality or state of being intense. Especially, the extreme degree of strength, force, energy, or feeling.
- The magnitude of a quantity – as force or energy – per unit (as of area, charge, mass, or time).
In other words, it just means the energy and expenditure used to perform a task. So whether that’s heavy weights lifted in low reps, moderate to light weights lifted in high reps, sprinting, rowing, or any other modality used to perform the movement – it’s just how hard you’re working.
But in the coaching world, we defined it slightly otherwise.
See when it comes to programming, there is 3 main components to building muscle and strength. These 3 things are Intensity, Volume and Frequency, and in this case they mean:
Intensity – The load used during the lift. So this would be considered heavy low rep training.
Volume – The total poundage used in the entire training session or week. This would be the reps, sets and weights used multiplied together to get the total volume – many just multiply sets and reps to get there total volume as it’s easier to auto-regulate intensity, making it one less thing to track and stress about.
Frequency – How many times per week a muscle group or movement is train. This is simply the metric used to track how many training sessions per week you’re performing, specifically how many times per week you’re training “Chest” or “Bench Press” for example.
See when you ask a well versed coach what intensity means or about the intensity of the training they’re programming, they’re likely going to think and talk about how much of the program is dedicated to low rep, heavy weight, training.
Ask any other gym rat or typical average Joe about intensity, they’re instantly imagining a bootcamp or crazy crossfit wod that has them throwing up afterwards.
But as you can see by the definitions, neither is wrong nor right.
So how is intensity relative to your fat loss, strength or muscle building goals?
That’s what we will be covering today, goal by goal.
See in today’s training world it seems that the average Joe’s definition of intensity, is thrown up on a pedestal and it’s causing a few things… It’s causing people to fear fitness, others to become over worked and under recovered, and it’s causing some to see very minimal results because they actually don’t practice enough proper intensity.
So let’s get onto the important stuff, let’s dig into both definitions of intensity (amount of effort and the load/weight used during the movement) and determine what’s important, what’s not worth stressing about and what you should be focusing on.
CARDIO (INTENSITY OF EFFORT).
Intensity does not equal fat loss.
You do not need to go over board in every single session to see serious fat loss results, in fact I suggest to majority of my clients the opposite – work your ass off in some sessions, take a more moderate approach in some, and put more focus into your recovery as well.
That being said there is still something to be said about grit in the gym. I see plenty of people in the gym who just simply do not work hard enough. They don’t truly put their entire effort into it and they rarely tap into the zone past comfort.
So what’s the balance? How often can you push the intensity? And how often is too much?
The truth of this is; there is no exact answer.
Because everyone’s recovery abilities are different due to training experience, stress levels, current muscle mass, nutrition and many other external lifestyle factors. The absolute best way to approach this is to listen to your body, while still pushing past your comfort zone.
When it comes to burning and losing body fat, we NEED to build muscle. Period. No matter what your physique goals are, you have to train to build muscle during majority of your training sessions each week. My suggestion, to most, is usually doing these workouts 3-4 days per week, the other days being rest or cardio.
We’ll get to building muscle in the next section; lets discuss cardio and intensity here. In my experience and personal opinion, 1-2 days per week of HIIT style cardio seems to work best. The other 1-2 days of cardio should be LISS style done by hiking, walking, on a bike, or something similar.
Too much HIIT will fry your nervous system, especially if you’re in the gym training to build muscle like you ideally should be. That being said, if you’re lifting 3 days per week then you should be going with 2 days of HIIT cardio and 1 day of LISS. If you’re lifting 4 days per week, you might want to go with 1 day of HIIT and 2 days of LISS.
Again the most important thing is to listen to your body and see what allows you to progress while still recovering fully. If you’ve been training for a long time, your sleep is on point, nutrition is dialed in, and you’re managing stress levels – you can absolutely get away with 4 days of lifting and 2 days of HIIT cardio.
In fact, my experience working with more than hundreds of people has shown that to be the most optimal and it’s exactly what I practice personally.
I’d much rather have someone training hard in the gym 6 days a week, taking 1 complete rest day, and using the rest of their focus on nutrition, sleep and stress. This will produce more muscle, less fat, and optimal recovery – every time.
So to conclude cardio, it’s individual. Manage things to make sure recovery is optimal and push the intensity as much as your body allows, because without optimal recovery you simply will not lose body fat.
This can change as you go as well, for example: During my de-load weeks, every 4-5 weeks, I change cardio to predominantly LISS to manage recovery better and get back to 4 days per week of lifting hard and 2 days of HIIT.
At the end of the day, all cardio works. It’s simply burning calories and stimulating a healthy cardiovascular system. So the key is to just do it and stay consistent.
How you do it is individual, which is why all my clients have slightly varying cardio approaches – just like they do with strength training and nutrition.
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BUILDING MUSCLE (INTENSITY OF EFFORT AND LOAD).
When it comes to building muscle, we actually have to look at both load and effort. See the #1 factor that contributes to maximal muscle growth, is volume.
Volume is defined as all the work done. From reps, to sets, to the load used, and technically even the time under tension during an exercise. It’s the entirety of muscular stimulation. Which is why I love talking hypertrophy, there’s a lot to it.
I put this after cardio because intensity is actually a bit more important here. If you do not push your effort and the load used, you just will not build serious muscle mass. Period.
And again, no matter what your goal is – performance, strength, fat loss, health, longevity of life – you NEED to focus on building muscle. It contributes to every goal.
In my opinion, it’s smarter to focus on intensity of effort rather than load here. This simply means when you finish your last rep, you should probably be breathing pretty hard and getting close to failure.
The best way to go about a set targeted at building muscle is to hit all reps with control, tension in the muscle, proper form, diligent focus, and leave 1-2 reps in the tank at the end. Going to failure every set is stupid, leads to being overly fatigued and injured. Just don’t do that.
If you follow all the principles I just described right there, you likely need to have a decently heavy load for the reps given. Which automatically plugs in the intensity principle of load used and because of that, you don’t need to worry about that as much as the intensity of effort.
Make sense? Good. Hope so.
So here is how we break down how often you should be focusing on this, building muscle and pushing the intensity of effort in your lifting sessions… ALL THE TIME.
When you lift weights, you should be LIFTING WEIGHTS. At the end of the day, unless it’s cardio or your deload week, you should be pushing your effort out of your comfort zone at least a little bit.
That is different than “Hardcore beast mode drop sets to failure all day every day”, so don’t get it twisted “bruh”.
Go hard, keep form, focus on tension, and leave 1 in the tank.
Now the way we separate intensity of effort for building muscle and what we will be talking about next, strength and intensity of load, is with some simple fractions depending on your goals.
No matter what your goal, you need strength and muscle mass.
BUT* if your #1 priority is building muscle, than you should focus 2/3 of your training on that (higher rep, more volume, intensity of effort).
If your #1 priority is building strength, than you should focus 2/3 of your training on that (lower rep, heavier weights, intensity of load).
And if all’s you give a shit about is burning and losing body fat, I would balance that somewhere in the middle because you just really need to consistently train and lock in your nutrition. My suggestion is to pick what you enjoy most – that’ll lead to better adherence.
STRENGTH (INTENSITY OF LOAD).
This is coming last because intensity is more important here than in any other aspect that we’ve discussed in this article.
With cardio, you need a blend and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter enough to stress about it – as long as you do the work.
With hypertrophy (building muscle), again you need a blend but should probably focus a bit more on intensity of effort vs. intensity of load.
With strength, intensity of load is crucial and essentially determines how much strength you’ll actually build. This is exactly why majority of strength and powerlifting programs utilize percentages on all their lifts – because they literally need to hit and meet specific weight targets to progress their maximal strength.
And even if you could give a shit about how much weight you lift, I suggest that you focus some of your training on this.
When we build strength, we perform better. When we perform better, we can train for hypertrophy and fat loss with more intensity of effort because we can use more weight during those sessions. So regardless, strength is a principle towards more results.
So to conclude strength… Intensity of load is the key. Believe it or not, but to lift more weight you have to lift more weight. It’s the simplest of all, honestly.
Doesn’t mean programming for this is easy or simple, but for the most part your focus needs to solely be on lifting at a heavier load – which tells us that intensity of load is the key for strength.
This depends on the individual, but for 90% of us here’s how it should be broken down:
- 1-2 Day’s Per Week Lift at a High Intensity (Heavy, Lower Rep)
- 1-2 Day’s Per Week Lift at a Lower Intensity (Light-Moderate, Higher Rep)
- 1-2 Day’s Per Week Do Cardio at a High Intensity (Hard Effort)
- 1-2 Day’s Per Week Do Cardio at a Low Intensity (Active Recovery, Walk, etc.)
Now things will change depending on your goals, like I mentioned above – 2/3 of your training focused on what you actually want to achieve most. But for the most part this is 100% how I program for almost all of my clients who simply want to have less body fat on their bodies.
You get a blend of every aspect of training and regardless of your goal; you will need to train in each of these “zones” to reach optimal success. If your goals lean one way more than the other, give it a little extra attention.
But never neglect any aspect of intensity, training, or recovery. It’s all necessary for the bigger picture.
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