There are a few ways we can describe training intensity. Precision. Commitment. Resilience. Effort. You may even have your own definition. But what we all know is that it has an important place in the mind of someone partaking in a body transformation.
Why should we look at training intensity for optimal results?
Well, if increased muscle hypertrophy isn’t enough, how about the increases in mental strength & resilience. How about the extra calories you will burn by training with more intensity, pushing further into your set and not wanting to give up at the sight of discomfort. How about the satisfaction that it gives you knowing that you have trained as hard as you can train, and the confidence it gives you in the gym & in your skin.
Whether you are male or female (there are differences by the way and I talk about these briefly at the bottom of this article), by improving training intensity you are improving the results you are able to achieve.
To train hard is good. But to push yourself to your limits is where amazing things happen. To do this you need to understand training intensity, but more importantly you need to apply it.
This doesn’t mean you have to lift the biggest weights in the gym. It doesn’t even mean you have to be fit & healthy. Intensity is a measure taken from inside, not a measure of what’s on the bar. You can see it in people quite clearly because it radiates from them. These people are so focused and so switched on – they want to get the most out of themselves.
It’s all about mindset
So let’s take a look at how we can increase intensity when lifting weights. Whether you have the luxury of a gym or you are trying to get the most from your home workouts, these principles apply. Since intensity is largely regulated by the brain (and the rest of the nervous system) mastering the mental approach to these 3 important stages of your workout is going to improve the quality of your sessions.
Before looking at how these apply to your gym workouts, let’s address that the preparation when training in the gym and when training at home should be very similar. For example, we wouldn’t instantly log off the work computer and then start doing press ups because ‘it’s time to work out.’ Likewise, we shouldn’t try to get off the sofa and instantly start working out. There needs to be more preparation, mentally and physically. I’d suggest going out for a walk or a light run before you intend to workout from home. This gives you time to put yourself in the right headspace and get the body moving, and the release of endorphins prior to your session will probably encourage your training intensity.
One final note on working out from home; intensity of workouts can take a knock when people exercise in their bedrooms & living rooms because of distractions and the comfort normally associated with these places. Try and workout somewhere else that doesn’t make you feel quite as easy.
Before the session
What you do before training can determine how effective that session is. I’m sure you know from experience that going to the gym on high motivation & high energy results in better quality workouts. This physiological state is really priming you for a good workout. Motivation comes & goes during the process of a transformation, but you should always have high energy in the gym.
You need to put yourself in the right headspace before walking through the gym doors and as soon as you lay your eyes on the weights, you see an opportunity to get better. The gym is a place for progress. How much more efficient do you think you would be if you spent 10 minutes before the session mentally preparing yourself, thinking about exactly what you want to get out of this session. That way, when you are in the gym you have no mental baggage, no worries, no concerns or stress, and you are just focussed on making progress.
Before the set
In resistance training for muscle hypertrophy we generally work in a rep range of around 8-15 reps (or anywhere between 6-20, but generally 8-15). That is 8-15 chances to change your body.
The way we look at this set and psychologically prepare for it will directly correlate with the amount of reward it brings us. Each rep is an opportunity, and we want to get something from it. I see a lot of people in gyms looking like they are ticking boxes and hoping for the best. Remember you are not in the gym for the sake of it. You are there for a reason and once you’re in the gym, you may as well make it worth it.
I believe a set truly starts 10 seconds before you lift the first rep. You are already in the zone before you walk in the gym so this 10 seconds isn’t as much of a mental shift, but a time to harness all of your motivations & emotions. Think about how many reps you want to perform, how you’re going to execute them, why you’re doing them. You need to take yourself into that headspace, make a commitment to yourself and then don’t settle for any less during that set.
Why do 3 sets of poor intensity training when you can get better results from doing 3 sets (or less) where you give it everything you’ve got. We want to get the most from the least. Most stimulus from the least sets. Attack your sets with this mentality and it will bring new levels of intensity to your training.
During the set
We always need to remember that not all reps are worth the same. Let’s take a dumbbell chest press for example. You (and your nervous system) know that the last 2 reps of a set of 10 chest presses are not worth the same as the first 2 reps. You know this because they are so much harder. At the start of the set your body has plenty of energy to give, so execution can be perfect but the muscle is far from fatigued. It’s the reps towards the end of this set that count for the most progress. As you work your way through that set with perfect execution, your chest is becoming more and more fatigued. This is the exciting part because you are getting more susceptible to progress. Once the chest becomes fatigued, that’s when you’ve got the perfect opportunity. This is where the progress starts.
One of Mohammad Ali’s famous quotes was about him not counting sit ups until they started hurting.
Therefore when the chest is causing you crippling pain on rep 8 but you know you’ve got 10 reps in you and these next 2 reps are the most valuable reps of the entire set, you’ve got to dig in to reach them. Your chest may not be as primed to get this kind of stimulus again until the following session or week.
You wear your efforts on your physique. If you want great progress, why would you not push for those extra reps? It is true that 10 different people following the exact same programme are likely to see 10 different results. This largely comes down to differences in mindset, focus and the ability to push yourself.
And remember, “crippling pain” is perceived by the brain. The brain will give up before the muscle if you let it. Don’t let it.
Training intensively is a skill
To summarise, the ability to push yourself is a skill. It’s a frame of mind. It can be practised and improved.
You will see better results and enjoy your training more if you have the ability to generate your own intensity. The perfect training programme shouldn’t be complicated. Pair a basic training programme with real intensity and it will bring great results.
If you were to go into your next training session and imagine it’s the last workout you’ll ever do, imagine how hard you’d want to train and the intensity you would get.
Then imagine treating every set this way. As if it would be the last set you would do.
How far ahead could you be in 6 months time?
The difference between males and females*
*apart from the obvious
While there are differences in terms of lean body mass, calorie requirements and the female menstrual cycle, there is another difference between the levels of circulating epinephrine (adrenaline – a major stress hormone involved in our fight or flight response). Males tend to have higher amounts of epinephrine at rest.
Not only does epinephrine help you become more mentally alert, increases heart rate and can effect blood pressure to help you prepare for strenuous activity, it will also encourage mobilisation of stored fat. This is perfect for those with body recomposition goals, since an increased surge of this hormone before a workout will encourage improvements in performance, and breakdown of stored fat.
So, what can we do to raise epinephrine before a workout? Here are a couple of ways:
Drink coffee before you train. Coffee contains caffeine, and if you make it yourself then you control how many calories go in and how much sugar it has. This is one of the advantages over an energy drink.
Include a proper warm up that potentiates your nervous system and really fires you up, not something that just loosens up the joints. You could easily prepare for a good lower body home workout by 1. walking up your stairs 2. Jogging up the stairs 3. Jumping up the stairs 2 steps at a time, until you have reached desired level of “warmness”.