Q: What exactly is meant by high intensity? I keep reading in all the bodybuilding magazines how important it is to train with high intensity, but no one ever really explains what it is. Does it mean training with superheavy weights or training to failure?
A: There are several ways to increase the intensity of a workout. The method that you choose depends on your objectives.
Basically, you can increase the intensity of a workout by adjusting one of the following variables:
1) Increasing the resistance.
2) Increasing the volume.
3) Decreasing the time of the workout.
4) Extending a set beyond failure.
Most bodybuilders attempting to train harder choose the first option. In other words, they train heavier in order to train more intensely. Bodybuilding is all about progressive resistance, so increasing the resistance on the exercises you use will lead to bigger and stronger muscles. That will happen as long as you use good form when you perform each exercise and you do the proper number of reps on each set. If you’re training to get big, the five-to-10 range seems to work best for most bodybuilders.
By training heavier at each workout, you subject the muscles to more stress, thus increasing the intensity. That doesn’t mean you have to scream at the top of your lungs at the conclusion of each high-intensity set. As long as you’re training heavier than you have previously, the intensity of the workout will be greater than it was before. If increasing the size and strength of your muscles is your primary training objective, then keep pushing the intensity by using heavier poundages.
Another method of increasing the intensity of a workout is to add more sets (volume), although most proponents of the high-intensity bodybuilding method will vehemently disagree with that approach. The common viewpoint about training with more intensity is to drop the volume and increase the intensity by using heavier weights or by training to failure; however, as I explained in the May ’01 Naturally Huge column, ‘Pump Up the Volume,’ increasing the total workload of a training session will result in greater intensity. For example, if a bodybuilder is squatting with 225×12, 315×10, 365×8, 365×8 in each leg workout, his total training workload would be 11,690 pounds. If he decided to add another set of 365 pounds for eight reps, his total workload would increase to 14,610 pounds. Even though the bodybuilder isn’t training any heavier or harder, the total workload still increases by 2,920 pounds, thus increasing the intensity.
Of course, adding more and more sets to a workout will eventually lead to overtraining. The body only has a finite amount of energy before the training session becomes self-defeating.
If you want to get bigger and stronger, you should increase the intensity of your workout by training heavier. If you’re simply interested in adding more size, try increasing the intensity of your workout by adding more volume. Still don’t believe me? For your next leg workout, decrease the weight you normally use for squats by 30 percent but do 10 sets with that weight. Tell me how sore your legs are when you hop out of bed the next day. A third method of increasing the intensity of a workout is to do the workout in less time than you normally would. Moving faster through a training session requires you to take less rest between sets, which will naturally increase the intensity. If you normally take two minutes of rest between sets, try taking just one minute and then notice how much more difficult the workout becomes.
Bodybuilders preparing for a contest often use that method. By making a workout more aerobic, they hope to burn more fat and thereby harden up their physiques. Also, many dieting bodybuilders aren’t as strong as they normally would be. By training faster, they can still train hard even though they cannot train as heavy as they would in the off-season.
One way to do the same workout in less time is to incorporate supersets. A superset is when you perform two exercises one right after another, without the customary rest between exercises. You can superset two exercises for the same bodypart, such as leg extensions and leg presses, or two exercises for opposing bodyparts, such as chest and back. Either type of superset will definitely increase the intensity of any training session.
Working faster is obviously not a training intensity method that you’d want to use to get stronger. Since the rest periods are shorter, the glycolytic pathway doesn’t have enough time to recover between sets, which limits the amount of power your muscles will be able to generate for the next set. Training faster may help contribute to increases in muscle size, however, if you’ve been training heavy and slow for a long time. Supersetting, for example, increases the pump and provides a shock to muscles that are accustomed to long rest periods between heavy sets. Supersetting opposing muscle groups, such as biceps and triceps or chest and back, could actually help to boost strength, since the contrasting pumped-up muscle group provides a cushion for the other bodypart. I first tried supersetting my chest and back workouts after one year of training, and I noticed immediate growth in my upper body. In addition to the size gains, I really looked forward to that awesome pump each week.
The final method of increasing training intensity is to extend a set beyond the normal limits of failure. Using forced reps, partial reps, negatives, drop sets and the rest/pause technique allows you to continue working a muscle after normal failure takes place. A description of each technique follows:
Forced reps. By using a training partner (or your own free hand on some dumbbell exercises), you get the extra assistance that can add two to three more reps after you’ve reached muscular failure.
Partial reps. If you don’t have a training partner, you can still extend a set beyond normal failure by doing half reps and quarter reps until the muscle can’t move another inch.
Negatives. Since a muscle is always stronger in the eccentric, or negative, phase of a repetition, you can continue a set after normal concentric, or positive, failure by having a partner or partners lift the weight through the positive phase of the movement so you can resist the weight through the negative portion. You can also do negatives without first doing the concentric part of the exercise.
Drop sets. This technique is similar to forced reps but you do it without the help of a partner. After you hit failure during a set, immediately reduce the weight so you can continue. You can do several drop sets before total failure takes place.
Rest/pause. The rest/pause technique involves using a very heavy poundage for a single repetition and then pausing’either by racking the weight or putting the weight down’for several seconds before doing another single repetition. You do five or six single repetitions. Many of these techniques are excellent for developing more strength and size; however, you should use them with caution, since they can result in overtraining. Many bodybuilders believe in training to normal failure and then stopping. Too much intensity could make massive inroads into the body’s ability to recuperate and lead to overtraining. As Lee Haney often said, ‘Stimulate, don’t annihilate.’
Editor’s note: John Hansen is the ’98 Mr. Natural Olympia and a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Visit his Web site at www.natural olympia.com. You can send correspondence to P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561, or call toll-free 1-800-900-UNIV (8648). IM