Weight Selection and Training Intensity

What is “intensity”? Hint: it doesn’t mean going all-out until your muscles meltdown. It does, however, involve working hard, concentrating on your efforts and trusting in your ability to progress.

You’ve probably heard someone use the term “intense”, maybe you’ve use it yourself. It’s probably one of the most misused and misunderstood terms that gets thrown around a lot in the gym. Most people just don’t know what training intensity really means, or how to apply it to their training.

Have you ever heard someone say something like…? “I was training for two hours, what an intense workout” or “I just finished up doing 30 reps on biceps, it was so intense”.

People often mistake workout duration and volume with intensity. But a long workout doesn’t make an intense workout, and a lot of volume (lots of sets and reps) doesn’t make an intense workout, either.

So What Does “Intensity” Really Mean?

According to the dictionary, the definition of intensity is – “Exceptionally great concentration, power, or force.” And this is an accurate definition relating to training.

Intensity is measured by how much power and force generated with each rep. For example, if you’re lifting a very heavy weight then you’re using a lot of power and force, therefore this is very intense.

On the other hand, if you’re lifting a very light weight then you’re not generating a lot of power or force, therefore this is not intense.

  • High reps with light weight = Low Intensity
  • Low reps with heavy weight = High Intensity

Doing 30 light reps of biceps curls to failure is not intense. Sure, it’s long and tiring, but it’s not intense.

At the other end of the scale, doing 2 very heavy reps of bicep curls to failure is intense. In this example these 2 heavy reps are very difficult and require a lot of effort and force no move the weight.

You see, your level of intensity is measured by the external load lifted, i.e. weight.

Now, the problem I see when it comes to intensity is that people use either too much, or too little. Too much weight causes too much tension and is not optimal for the goal of muscle growth.

And of course too light of a weight does not produce enough tension.

I’ve seen guys do 10 reps of biceps curls then put the weight down on the floor like it was nothing. They’re not using optimal intensity because they’ve selected the wrong weight. It’s just too light.

If your training program calls for you to perform 10 reps, simply lifting any weight and counting off 10 reps is not going to cut it. There’s no half-arsing your sets. In this case you must select a weight that causes you to reach failure around the 10th rep.

Muscles don’t respond to numbers, they respond to tension. They can’t count, so it’s not the number of reps that’s stimulating growth, it’s the tension caused by the weight you select. The degree, the duration and the frequency of tension impacts the adaptive growth response.

Yeah, I know what some of you are thinking right now… duh, don’t lift too much or too little weight. But every time I’m in the gym it amazes me how many guys are screwing this up and suffering with crap results from their training program.

Optimal Training Intensity

If you’re following a hypertrophy training program that calls for 10 reps on a given exercise then you must reach failure around the 10th rep. That would put you in the optimal intensity range to maximize muscle growth.

Your intensity is determined by the weight you select and effort apply to moving that weight.

There’s a line between not making enough of an effort and working too hard. Good training intensity balances on this line, and the reward is better gains. As one’s training progresses and strength and stamina increase, the temptation to push through sets of heavy lifting until muscle failure is reached increases.

The trouble with lifting to complete failure is that training volume – the number of sets or repetitions for any given muscle group – may end up needing seriously reduced. Lifting too heavy, too many times, can wreak havoc on the CNS (central nervous system), which need more time to recover from major exertion than the muscles themselves.

A flat-lined CNS means the power and drive to lift simply won’t be there, no matter how much you wish it were.

A Word About Training To Failure

When people talk about training to failure, it means the point in a set where you’re not able to complete another rep with good from. When you’re not able to control the weight on the way down, form becomes sloppy and the repetition slows to a snail pace then you’ve went a rep too far.

Take note of your form when lifting. Are you bouncing the weight up and down in a jerky motion, or using good form, lifting smoothly with a full range of motion, keeping the rest of your body still and not locking any joints?

Are you working with steady, long-lasting power that sees you through from the first repetition to the last?

Are you focusing on the muscle contracting as you move the weight? Or are you simply hyping yourself up to plow through another rep with little regard to metering out your expenditures in a sustainable manner?

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