I’ve been postponing this article for some time, but I find it important, so let’s start. Today, we will talk about intensity – if our workouts are intensive enough, in order to back up our goals.
Before we understand if we train with high intensity, we need to know what intensity means. Here comes the main problem – most people and mainly women have a really wrong assumption about what is intensity. Training with intensity doesn’t mean a workout that makes you sweat. Sweating is just a natural response when the body’s temperature raises and it is its way to cool down. When you are staying in a hot place and you sweat… intensively, it is not because you are making an effort, but because your body is cooling.
As a whole, intensity has different aspects or at least it is good to look on it that way, when we are talking about the average trainee. I make a couple differences.
1.Intensity – the only definition
When it comes to a proper definition of intensity, the level of intensity is nothing else but the percentage of the load you are using, compared to your maximum. I don’t want it to sound confusing, so let’s use an example. Let’s say that the max you can lift for 1 rep, in a squat is 80kg. This is your 100%. If you decide to complete 5 reps with 68kg, then this is gonna be 85% of your 1RM. (68kg. divided by 80kg). Even though in the first case you are performing 1 rep and in the other case you are performing 5 – i.e. the set is longer, from the perspective of intensity the one rep set is higher in intensity than the 5 reps.
Especially women, rarely consider this fact and they think that a workout like aerobics which is one hour long is higher in intensity, than a weight training session that lasts 45 minutes. In reality, the length of the workout, doesn’t define its intensity. Even the opposite! In order to train with high intensity, usually you need to have shorter workouts, because how long could you train at 85% of your max effort, compared to 45% of your effort?
Let us take a simple example and compare a workout with sprints and a workout where we run for 5-7km. If you really sprint, the workout won’t be long or at least the actual part of sprinting. If you run with moderate pace, then you can train for longer periods, but the intensity will be lower.
2.The first definition of intensity doesn’t work well for the average trainee – why?
The first definition of intensity doesn’t work well, because, most trainees are not familiar with the percentages of their max, because in the first place they do not train with maxes. In order to test your maxes, you need to be confident in your technique, which is impossible for a beginner or an inter-mediate trainee.
The broader definition of intensity
In this case, I allow myself to have a broader definition of intensity. Intensity, can be looked from a perspective of neurological, muscular and metabolic intensity.
For example, workouts where we work with heavier weights, where we use less reps, could be considered as neurologically intensive. Workouts with heavier weights, in the rep range of 1-5 are extremely challenging for the nervous system.
Exactly, because the nervous system is the one that allows you or stops you from progressing. Last year, I had a period, where I was back to lifting a lot heavier. I was doing hip thrusters, every other day and I was using 130-140kg., which is quite a bit for a woman who is 186cm. tall (6’1’’). Back then, I didn’t even break a sweat and I didn’t even feel a burn in my muscles, yet every workout made me feel stronger and then I felt pretty tired throughout the day – exactly because this type of training was challenging for my nervous system (which I do not claim to be a bad thing, because this is the way to progress).
With workouts, that include sets of 6-10 reps, the muscular intensity becomes higher and with reps from 15 and above, the metabolic intensity takes charge. Sure, in all cases, the nervous system, the muscular system and metabolism have their share, but with the different rep ranges, a different system is dominating.
3.The delusion that we train with high intensity and the consequences of this
In order to be able to feel all these things, a person needs to have some practice in the gym. Yet, you do not need to be a specialist, in order to feel the way your body reacts and changes with different types of workouts.
What I observe, especially with women is that they do not train with enough intensity, yet they eat as if they had a really intensive workout – then, they get disappointed that even though they make the effort, they do not have the results.
I am a fan of eating nutritious food and in high enough quantities, yet if you think that just because you are sweating during a workout or just because you spend 40 minutes running with moderate pace or walking on the treadmill, you get to eat bigger portions and you need a lot of carbs, because “you earned it”, then you are just fooling yourself. And I am not saying it out of judgement, because I’ve done all these things in the past.
I wish, that most people could realize that if they really train with high intensity, they could actually train less, eat more and get better results. When the workouts challenges the nervous system, your muscles and metabolism, this transfers to a lot more energy spend and into metabolic changes that have to do with the type of hormones that are being released. Certain hormones release if we walk for 45 minutes on the treadmill, and different hormones release if we had a workout that includes squats, push-ups and hip thrusters.
The workouts that lead to the changes we aim for, are those that lead to certain changes in the body for a longer period after the end of the training session. A workout with weights, leads to the need to recover the muscles, which continues at least in the next 48 hours, depending on the weight you use, compared to your max. And here, it is really important to add, that we need to be honest with ourselves, and define what training with weights means. A weight training, is not a workout where you do some kind of a pushing movement with 2-3 kg. Nothing wrong with lighter dumbbells – they have their own use, but ladies… even our purses are heavier than that! Do we really fool ourselves that 2-3 kg, can lead to some kind of resistance, which is enough to cause the changes we want to see on our bodies?
4.How intensity is connected to the type of exercises we do
It is important to note that intensity depends on the type of exercise. For example, if you are using basic and standard exercises like squats, deadlifts, military press, and then the higher intensity will be achieved with heavier weights and a weight that is closer to your max.
If we are talking about exercises like jumping squats, jumping lunges and other dynamic exercises, then even using a lighter weight, will lead to higher intensity. Here is the key for the average trainee, who could combine basic compound movements (within a rep range of 8-12), with dynamic exercises with lighter weight and still achieve great results, without having to risk with the lower rep range and heavier weights.
My observations show that most people manage to train with higher intensity from a muscular and metabolic perspective, when they do some kind of intervals or when they are supposed to finish a certain volume of work for a limited amount of time (and I do not mean Crossfit – nothing wrong with it either). Even though, this type of workouts doesn’t cover the definition of intensity as a higher percentage of 1RM, it still transfers in a descent progress.
5.Intensity of the focus and concentration
There is another definition of intensity, which I consider to be important. I am a fan of conscious training. I am the type of person, who doesn’t listen to music while I work out and I always look mad, not because I actually am, but because I am really focused and self-absorbed and I track every movement and feeling on my body. From this perspective, we could define an intensity of the focus and concentration. For example, if you train with lighter weights, but you perform the exercise slowly and consciously, using a different TUT (time under tension) – let’s say 5 seconds to perform the negative and 5 seconds to perform the positive part of the movement, then the perception of intensity increases. And yes, you do not cover the definition of intensity (as a higher % of 1RM), yet the feeling is similar and the results are also great.
6.Two examples for high intensity workouts for the average trainee
Deadlift 4 sets of 10-12 reps (choose a weight that allows you to keep your good technique, yet the last rep is your limit)
Negative push-ups 3 sets of 6-7 reps (if you are intermediate you can use a weight on your back)
Barbell row 4 sets of 10-12 reps
Russian twist 3×15 (each side)
20 jumping lunges + 15 tuck jumps + 10 burpees – repeat three times without rest or with minimal rest
Front squats 4 sets of 10-12 reps (choose the weight as recommended for the Deadlift) + 10 jumping squats immediately after each set
Renegade row 3 sets of 10 reps (10 reps each arm)
Military press 3 sets of 10-12 reps (if you are still a beginner, use dumbbells instead of a barbell)
Paloff press 3 sets of 12 reps (12 each side)
4 rounds without rest or with minimal rest:
20 plank to push-up