The reality of intensity seems to be vastly misunderstood by many people in the fitness and also strength and conditioning world.
What is even more misunderstood is the meaning of high intensity and what it feels like, the effect it has on the human body and how it is created. As in, the things people need to do before they can truly create intensity.
High Intensity has become a sexy byword for fun in training in the fitness industry and I often see it misused by strength and conditioning coaches.
It has been propagated as the messiah, the answer to all our ills and the antidote to long slow endurance work that apparently left so many people broken.
It has become the quick way of getting fit for people who have not earned the right to go hard or recover from going hard. It has become the golden ticket for those looking to lose body fat quickly, get to the top of their sport or run away from the pain of daily life.
This is not a bash on high intensity though.
It is my opinion that high intensity training has a real and valued place in the training of an athlete who is aiming to compete in a sport.
However, that does not mean that high intensity training is a valid tool in the training box for all people, and all goals.
It also does not mean that anyone can actually even do it or create it – many, many people can’t.
What is high intensity in the first place? How can we measure it?
That becomes tricky without a lab, but to me high intensity is a power output that cannot be sustained repeatably for the time domain prescribed.
In reference to moving a load, it could be described as a high external load in relation to the weight of the person creating the movement. Or just a really high load in relation to the maximum load one individual is capable of lifting (assuming they are experienced and have followed solid strength progressions).
There is also the objective value of the power created. There is no healthy grown adult in the world for whom a thirty five kilogram back squat is high intensity.
That does not mean that a thirty five kilogram back squat does not feel hard for some, and it is not a slur or degradation on someone who can squat a maximum of thirty five kilograms on their back.
No. Look at what I said. It is just not ‘high intensity’.
If you squat thirty five kilograms and you are an adult, you are still a beginner in resistance training. Therefore, you are unable to create a truly highly intensive stimulus.
Well, an intense stimulus is created by many physiological factors. Essentially, the brain innervates motor units of skeletal musculature which creates the movement of an external load.
Every repetition we do in the gym, teaches the body how to create these types of contractions. Every time you lift a weight or add load to what you could do the week before as a beginner, you get a little bit stronger. There is a common misconception that this is because you are getting more muscular and therefore stronger.
To an extent this will be true but much of the ability to lift heavier loads is granted by the nervous system. Our brain and the vast network of nerves and motor units that actually control our musculature.
Until this ‘ability’ to use all of the strength available to you has been developed consistently for years and years, you are unlikely to be able to truly express intensity in the gym.
If you are struggling with this concept because actually strength training feels hard to you, then think of it this way. Hard, does not mean intense. It just means hard.
So remember when you first picked up a barbell or dumbbell? Remember how even though it was actually fairly light, you seemed to really struggle lifting it? It wobbled and you felt like you could drop it at any time didn’t you?
That was because your motor control, as a beginner was under developed. So next week you went back and did it again, with a bit more control. If your coach was smart, he probably made you do similar stuff for quite a while, and you noticed that your progress week to week, or even day to day was amazing to behold!
This was your nervous system adapting. Learning to fire and demand movement from certain muscles, in a certain range of motion at just the right time to allow that dumbbell to travel from shoulder to overhead, in a smooth movement.
Over years of strength training consistently, this ability becomes much more refined. Slowly you start to add muscle and your nervous system becomes more capable of expressing higher and higher levels of force.
This is best shown by people who do no or little resistance training trying to go as hard as they can for sixty seconds on a bike in the gym. Ever watched it? They just don’t seem to be able to move their legs that quick, and there just doesn’t seem to be much force going through the pedals.
Now watch an experienced, strong person do it. It feels like the bike is going to bloody take off!!
That is the difference between high intensity, and not.
So. Why is this important?
Well, firstly it just really shows a coaches lack of understanding when they prescribe high intensity work to beginners. It is as close to a waste of time as you can get for them. Ask these coaches why?
Secondly, if you are someone who can create that intensity, for it to remain truly intense, you will need to have a lot more rest than work. For ten seconds of work, probably around two minutes of rest. If you do a few sets and feel you aren’t doing anything, you aren’t creating intensity. You either need to go harder or are not capable. Any less rest than this and you are just going to get slower and slower. No amount of ‘giving it everything’ or ‘leaving it on the floor’ will help you.
Thirdly, if you can create that intensity, why are you doing it? Anyone who has done any of this type of training will understand that it is a truly disgusting experience and will leave you in a mess. Not like, lie on the floor for a few minutes and go high five. More like, feel nauseous for a solid five hours afterwards. I have seen men reduced to just lying on the floor barely talking or moving for at least an hour. This stimulus, creates a HUGE stress response in the body.
If you are competing as an athlete, then maybe you need it. However it must be used sparingly at certain points in the season. If you are not an athlete, and just want to measure yourself against others…well I just would recognise that done too often, it will absolutely take away from progress elsewhere in the gym.
Fourthly, if you can’t create this high intensity stimulus. Or are new to training, then spend three to four years doing solid strength progressions, moderate and/or easy aerobic work. This will provide a great foundation for intensity – if it is needed.
Fifthly. If anyone tells you that you need to train at high intensity to prepare for ‘that moment’ where you have to run for your life, fight for it or lift a burning car off your child – ignore them. They have been bought into a lie, propagated by an industry obsessed with quick fixes and comparing us to cave men. I guarantee that if you focus on simple strength training progressions and moderate aerobic work you will do very very well in any life or death situations.
Sixthly…I promise this is nearly done! Sixthly, those studies you saw on ‘high intensity interval training’ and those workouts on the spin bike advertised as ‘HIIT’ are almost all not high intensity. They are just aerobic intervals that are poorly coached.
‘Come on give me everything on this set Janet’
‘We go max effort all the way’
‘No pain no gain team’
Look at your scores as you do a workout like this. I guarantee you are getting worse each interval or round aren’t you? Unless you are smart and just cruise it whilst pulling ‘effort faces’.
Why does this matter?
Well, this sort of training is the worst of all. Its a crappy zone of nothing-ness. It fucks people up and overloads them with stress in an already pretty stressful world. However, it is not high intensity. It’s just hard, for the sake of hard.
Now, before you all start throwing 6-8 week studies at me showing that HIIT burns more fat on average blah blah blah. Let me say this.
Anyone, will get an adaptation out of a new stressor. Anyone. Even the most stressed, poorly fed, over worked human will. So no wonder all these short term studies show crazy results. I have no doubt that High Intensity gets short term results – it is something I use in short periods with athletes before competition all the time!
Think long term though. Can it be used all the time?
Just tell me what the results of these studies were two years down the line? Were people broken and messed up, going round in circles chasing cortisol? I expect so.
No-one is educating normal people about this. You can not get away with hammering yourself on a high intensity model long term and see progress.
Many are put into high intensity work, without actually being able to create the dose response, or recover from it.
This article is written with an understanding of physiology and stress response in humans, it is written with an understanding of programming principles and of both sides of the coin – I bought into the intensity model – it is also written with a hindsight provided from five years of coaching everyone from athletes to stressed out commuters. Thirty-ish hours of coaching a week for five years. Alongside designing programmes for many different types of people.
I have seen what real intensity is. I have seen what attempting to give intensity to normal folks does. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly.
In summary, I believe high intensity training is something not everyone can, nor should, participate in.
If you are an athlete and that is your priority, use it wisely and sparingly depending on your sport.
If you are health or body composition oriented, or have a full time job/family/social life to support I would argue there are very few circumstances where it is appropriate for you.
Call me a kill joy or call me wise. I don’t care. Just look after yourselves and if you are a coach – look after your people and don’t break them.