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High Intensity Training: Fatally Flawed or Correctable?

This is quite a title for the lead article in a newsletter that has had so much material over the years praising high intensity training.

But, if you've been following the drift of some recent pieces in Master Trainer about both resistance training and cardiovascular training, you know I've been doing some questioning and soul searching about the entire issue of intensity.

Quite simply, how much intensity is enough and when does too much intensity become counterproductive?

By way of a preface, I think many of us were drawn into high intensity training for many reasons - some good and some not so good.

Good Reasons 'Not So Good' Reasons
  • High Intensity training seems to make sense.
  • It does produce some results.
  • It doesn't take much time to train.
  • Unrealistic expectations that HIT will create a physical transformation we haven't been able to achieve with some other training methodology.
  • A belief that the more intensely you can train, the better results you will see.
Some people, as we know in the light of day, are very responsive to training and can do almost anything. Some people are not at all responsive to training and no amount or particular style of training will change that. Of course, as with any genetically based set of characteristics, the vast majority of people fall in the middle. It makes sense to try to find optimal ways to train because we have a lot potential for improvement. It's a mistake though to believe that once an optimal approach is found that one then takes on the appearance and strength and fitness of the genetically gifted.

For example, if we were interested in bike racing, we may try to find a new way to increase both speed and endurance on the bike. But, I doubt if any of us believe that whatever methodology we found we could ever duplicate what Lance Armstrong does. Armstrong may have the highest aerobic capacity ever recorded and he can ride at 85% to 90% of his maximum capacity for many hours, even most of a day.

So, the bottom-line is that for many of us, our expectations may have been way out of line. We may be disappointed with our outcomes - which actually may be quite good - because we unrealistically expected too much.

To provide one example, let's look at the matter of gaining muscle mass. People training for many years can often, should they want to, gain 20 lbs, but that's not going to be 20 lbs of muscle. It will be mostly fat. Indeed, for a very advanced person who makes a major push in training for four to six months, the loss of some body fat and a gain of several pounds of muscle mass beyond a level achieved in the last four to five years is a terrific accomplishment.

If you can produce such a reasonable transformation, don't be disappointed. Be proud of what you've been able to do because, in fact, it is an excellent outcome.

Expectations have to be grounded in reality. Frustration and disappointment are often rooted in purely fantasy-based expectations.

Couple some unrealistic expectations with some unsubstantiated beliefs about training intensity, and then you have the makings of some major problems.

Many of us reasoned (in the absence of any real data) that if some high intensity was good, then even going further up the intensity ladder had to be better. Besides never questioning if this was actually true in fact and not just in theory, many of us never wondered if just like too much of anything, too much intensity could lead to poorer results than some more reasonable level of intensity.

Again, take Lance Armstrong, a person at the absolute extreme end of the genetic continuum even for his sport. Armstrong does not attempt to train at 100% day in and day out despite an ability to recover from training and racing that is legendary. If this guy is not going to the brink in every training session, what am I doing trying to go over the brink in every session?

I submit as a working hypothesis that there is some range of optimal intensity in training that allows for adequate stimulation but also for enough volume and frequency of training to promote hypertrophy (increases in muscle mass) and other favorable health related changes including a decrease in body fat.

It may be (see Master Trainer, June 2001) as others have suggested that very limited volume and frequency is required for strength increases - just some overload - but that more volume and frequency may be a better stimulus for hypertrophy. Notice that I am not saying that the stimuli for strength increases and hypertrophy are completely different. The stimuli may be overlapping but there also may be other stimuli and other mechanisms involved for strength increases compared to hypertrophy.

For example, absolute strength increases in the squat may only require one maximum set per week. But, hypertrophy may be better stimulated by the incorporation of more than one exercise for quads in a routine with a frequency of twice per week. In order to train twice per week to optimize hypertrophy, it may be necessary to moderate intensity.

That is, when intensity is too high while strength gains may be apparent, frequency and volume have to be decreased to the extent that the resulting training may not optimize hypertrophy especially for the individuals who are training naturally and are not chemically enhanced.

One may also add that extremely high intensity may truly erode effective training, as a person gets older through hormonal and other changes that increase required recovery time. As discussed in Master Trainer, if I find in my mid 50's that it takes a lot longer to recover from an injury, why do I think I can bombard myself with a series of super high intensity stimuli and actually recover within any reasonable time?

However, at any age, it may be that a training protocol that is so high in intensity that a person is reduced to doing 4 to 8 exercises for one set each once every 7 to 10 days may increase strength but simply not be very effective for other valued facets of training.

Rather than seeing such a decrease in volume and frequency as a desirable and natural evolution of training, a person using such protocols because they can't do more volume within a session or recover from the extreme intensity of their limited volume routine perhaps is following a faulty methodology.

Could it be that such reduced training frequency and volume actually contributes to deconditioning that then leads to a further inability to train frequently or with much volume?

Importantly, many advocates of high intensity training say that their training is based on science that points toward the efficacy of low volume, infrequent training, with a gradual reduction of volume and frequency over a training career. The actual science presents a different picture.

Many studies suggest that there is no real difference in strength or hypertrophy outcomes from using single compared to multiple sets. There is no evidence, however, that single set protocols are superior.

The studies showing the efficacy of single set protocols, when a protocol has been used that works all major muscle groups, have used a volume and frequency of training that is greater than training with a limited number of movements once per week. The protocols in these studies typically aim to train a person to the point where they slightly progress from the prior workout or where the last correctly performed repetition in a set is completed.

The goal of "metabolically devastating" a person - reaching a state of physical collapse seemingly cherished in some quarters - has decidedly not been part of the scientifically conducted studies and has never been demonstrated to be essential for gaining strength and muscle mass.

If we were really dedicated to following science, we would train following the protocols in these studies. Additionally, there is no evidence that over a training career, people necessarily can tolerate less and less volume and frequency. That's purely a matter of speculation - as is my musing that middle aged to older athletes need significantly more recovery time.

Again, these points suggest that in the absence of any data, many of us have been overdosing on intensity and than rationalizing the predictable results (e.g., inability to recover) by cloaking them in science - but where there is no science to support what we're doing.

Many of us also take pride in training differently not only from most everyone else that resistance trains, but from any other kind of athletic training. I'm not suggesting that we totally abandon our unique approach to training and adopt the long, drawn out sub-maximal training models that are followed by most athletes.

But, yet, doesn't it seem odd that throughout centuries of athletic training there was no one who discovered that one maximum sprint per week, one maximal lift, or one maximal 10-mile run per week was all that was required to improve? Aren't we being presumptuous in believing that no one before us had ever tried very brief, very infrequent, very high intensity training?

If we assume over the years that some athletes did try this approach, why is there seemingly no recorded instance of athletes sticking with such training?

Why is it the case that even athletes who do train in a very high intensity manner such as using intervals in their training regime do not do such intervals at 100% effort all the time? Why do such athletes design interval training workouts in a way that they can gradually adapt to more speed over an extended series of workouts and not breakdown? Are we surprised that they don't go 100% from the start of these workouts or that periodically they do less intensive training?

Are most athletes really wimps at heart?

Or, without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water, is there something we can learn from other long-standing training models or for that matter how strength athletes and bodybuilders have traditionally trained?

I submit this point for consideration. We have essentially adopted and adapted an approach to peak level training that typically athletes including bodybuilders in the past (and present) restricted to at most a few months of the year. The rest of the year was spent in more moderate intensity, generally more frequent and higher volume training. We seem to be involved in the ultimate oxymoron - continuous peak training in order to maintain a peak month after month.

Given this perspective, here are two questions that we need to answer. How are training to maximize strength and training to maximize muscle building the same and different? What degree of intensity (e.g., 85%) is required to optimize each outcome within a training program and what heuristic can we use to keep us training at that optimal level?

That is, we are faced with finding a solution to a problem that Arthur Jones solved in one way. We do not have a convenient measurable way to assess intensity in resistance training and then assess outcomes when using various intensities. Simply working with a given percent of a maximum effort (percent of a 1 RM) isn't the solution since it is still possible at the end of a set of say 8 repetitions to really be working at 100% of intensity or much less.

So, Jones's solution was to always end the set with literally a 100% effort. This is the equivalent of ending every cardiovascular training workout at 100% heart rate. It really doesn't seem to make sense.

Certainly, an experienced person can judge when they can do one or even two more perfect repetitions in a set. And, a number of people have reported good results by simply stopping a rep or two short of failure. We need to look more at this approach that, in fact, seems to more closely resemble other forms of athletic training. Likewise, we need to find good combinations of intensity, frequency, and volume of training that not only enhance strength and muscle mass but also a range of mechanisms associated with health and disease prevention.

Hopefully, you can see that I do not believe that the basic high intensity training model is fatally flawed. It clearly has some problems, but they seem correctable through personal experimentation and systematic research.

Thanks to Arty Conliffe and Ralph Carpinelli for much conversation around the topic of this piece.

An extended version of this article with guides for practical ways to implement the ideas in this article will appear in the hard copy, Master Trainer, June 2001.