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What Does the Theory of High Intensity Training Mean in Practice?

A Point of Confusion

This article asks what appears to be a simple question and its title appears to answer that question....

High intensity training theory means that in practice you train with high intensity.

I suggest that the answer is not that simple and in practice there has been both confusion and misapplication of the theory.

The major area of confusion and misapplication has been the equation of intensity with force (mass x acceleration) or more specifically, with resistance used in various free weight and machine movements.

In essence, this has made high intensity resistance training a sub-field of weightlifting or powerlifting when, in fact, it is different.

It's led us down a path not without virtue but one that could have been different and probably could be more productive.

For example, many people are urged to focus on lifting a great deal of resistance in the bench press, squat, and deadlift as a way to achieve maximum development.

However, while the amount of weight that can be lifted in good form in the bench press, squat, and deadlift is a reasonable mark of strength, these movements also are simply indicants of leverage and neuromuscular efficiency that are genetically determined. Some people are good at these movements and some people aren't. Everyone can improve somewhat but few people will get very good at these lifts.

And, there's a lot of agreement that using big weights and low reps in these movements is a good way to incur a serious injury.

Obviously, men and women focus on these and similar movements because they provide a yardstick of strength and they have been told that basically they are the pillars of higher intensity training. But, these movements, particularly the way they are usually performed, may have little to do with real high intensity training.

The same basic approach has often been transferred to machine based resistance training. The focus is just on using a lot of resistance with a machine.

Poor Examples of High Intensity Training

In his training tapes, Dorian Yates uses a great deal of weight on a Nautilus plate loaded pullover machine with about a 1,2 rep cadence and heaving the resistance. This is supposed to be a true exemplar of high intensity training because of the amount of resistance, struggling, and screaming.

However, this style is not the best way to target the upper back and therefore is not a very good exemplar of high intensity training.

Rather, the machine pullover has probably the largest range of motion of any resistance training exercise, and accordingly, something in the order of a 10,5 or perhaps even a 12,6 cadence seems warranted. With this cadence and a great deal of control, much less resistance will be used but the set can be a good example of a high intensity stimulus.

I have a great deal of respect for Dorian Yates and these comments should be not construed in a negative way. I can only assume he would have been even greater employing a safer and even higher intensity approach.

A far more horrifying example of inappropriate high intensity training sadly and ironically is found on an early Nautilus training tape where Arthur Jones is training a top bodybuilder of that day.

A lot of force is involved and a lot of resistance is used on every machine but here the movement arms are thrown and sometimes the weight stack is bounced to get even more momentum going.

By way of contrast, Dorian Yates's training looked relatively slow and controlled.

Watching this tape made me realize that perhaps the person given the most credit for high intensity training theory - and to whom we all owe a great deal - didn't really fully appreciate the essence of his own theory!

Mechanism for Adaptation

High intensity training theory posits that the mechanism causing an adaptation in the musculoskeletal system is a marginal overload provided within a high intensity stimulus.

It appears that as long as there is some marginal overload and intensity is high (not specifically defined) and that the duration of a set is somewhere between 30 to 90 seconds or even 120 seconds, then the initial requirements for producing adaptation have been met.

Notice, however, there is no specific delineation of force or resistance. We're not positing that resistance must be a certain amount to produce an adaptation.

Rather, it seems what we should be doing is figuring out how to train in the safest way possible with very high intensity but relatively low force. Perhaps, there is some ideal force and resistance by time under load relationship.

The recent data (see Master Trainer, August 2000), however, showing no differences in outcomes using quite varied repetition ranges suggests that there really may not be one ideal relationship as long as intensity is high and there is some small overload.

These same data also suggest that there is no one magical time under load that is suitable for each person for each movement. Rather, virtually everyone can improve within widely varying repetition ranges and time under load.

These are simple but profound findings that can guide your training.

Special Percents of Your One Rep Max (1 RM)?

As Carpinelli noted a number of years ago1,2, it doesn't appear to matter what percent of a 1 RM you choose for your resistance in any exercise as long as you are training at high intensity and provide some marginal overload.

There will apparently be no differences in strength or muscle mass outcomes if you choose to do, for example, six slow repetitions with 60% to 70% of your 1 RM or four slow repetitions with 85%.

However, as a person gets stronger, it may be that using a very high percent of 1 RM creates skeletal and safety problems. Unlike everything we've been told all these many years, the choice is then obvious. Use a lower percent of your 1 RM and train more slowly and safely. The results will be about the same as when more force is used and may be better, in fact, if you avoid injuries.

Interestingly, through genetically mediated factors, there appears to be a direct and highly consistent relationship over a training career of the reps (time) that a person can do with say 60% of 1 RM and any other percent of 1 RM1. As you get stronger, the relationship remains constant but simply the amount of resistance proportionally increases. So, if at one point 100 lbs x 6 represented 66% of 1 RM (150 lbs), when you are able to do 120 lbs x 6, it's likely that if you were tested your 1 RM would now be 180 lbs.

In my own training through the records I keep, I've found that for most movements a 10% change (plus or minus) in resistance corresponds to one rep at 8,4 or 10,5 (plus or minus). It's a very orderly linear relationship.

So, I don't have to expose myself to a lot of force in squats and deadlifts or any other movement. I can use less resistance in great sets and get the same effect as if I was using a lot of force but risking injury.

You don't have to take 1 RM's to make this switch in your training. Just use a resistance where you safely can train and where the last repetition creates the marginal overload.

As you can see, it doesn't matter what percent of your 1 RM the resistance is so there is no reason to test for 1 RM. It's irrelevant.

This is a simple but truly liberating insight to realize that you do not need to use high force or resistance to train with high intensity.

Is there some minimal percent of 1 RM that is required for an effective stimulus? Most likely the answer is "yes" but the percent may be as low as 40% to 50% or perhaps even less.

Can you use higher resistance and lower reps and less time under load? Yes, but only if your form is impeccable, you experience no skeletal problems, and you have no safety risk.

In the squat, for example, my form is quite good with 360 lbs for 5 reps at an 8,4 cadence and I don't experience any knee or lower back problems. So, although the resistance is high, so far so good. The problem is that I sometimes have a problem getting the bar positioned correctly back within my step back squat rack after the set. I don't drop the bar or anything like that but there's some small injury potential and I am better off doing 325 for 6, or 300 for 7 or even 275 for 8 where I have no problem returning the bar to the right position.

Please consider these points. I've been training all my adult life and never completely understood these points. I almost always just focused on more force and resistance.

Now let's see how these ideas can be coupled with the basic concept behind high intensity training.

Basic Concept

The basic concept is very straightforward.

For every movement, consider how to make it harder in order to maximize the involvement of the muscle groups you are targeting.

Invariably, this application involves speed of movement and range of motion. And, also invariably compared to conventional training, the application will involve less force and less resistance. However, as long as the range of motion is not excessive, then this style of training will inevitably be safer and also quite possibly entail less recovery time because of less trauma to the skeletal system.

However, the style of training is harder than conventional training, both physically and psychologically.

Now couple this basic concept of making each movement harder but safer with the understanding that any rep range and time under load (up to 120 seconds) will be effective.

You can see that it is quite possible to use really minimal force and resistance yet create a very high intensity stimulus.

Since we've all been accustomed to equate intense and hard training with using a lot of force and resistance, perhaps the first thought is that the style of training advocated in this article is easy, certainly not "macho" and just for wimps. The opposite is true. Let me repeat. Training in this style of precision is much harder physically and psychologically then what has been conventionally considered high intensity training.

Be honest in your appraisal. How much physical and mental effort does it really take to rapidly move up and down on the dip bars with a lot of weight tied around you? When all is said and done, it's about, as usually performed, a 20 second or so set with more focus on moving quickly then working the shoulders, chest, and triceps.

In an interesting reversal, we can say that people who train in that usual manner have employed strategies so that they do not have to focus much or really expose themselves to a high intensity stimulus.

This is not just idle armchair speculation, an idea that is solely based in theory and not practice, or intellectualizing by a geek. I've trained with high force and resistance for about 40 years and then with much higher intensity and less force and resistance for the last several.

True higher intensity training is much more demanding.

An example I've used before should at least spark the doubters to do some personal experiments.

At a weight of 145 I did 30 reps in the squat with 300 lbs. moving at a rapid pace. I was 47 years old.

I've done 7, 8,4 reps with 300 lbs in the squat and I'm working toward 8.

The 300 x 30 was child's play compared to 300 x 7 or 8, 8,4 reps. I'm now 55 and weigh about the same.

In the October, 2000, Master Trainer in a more extensive version of this article I'll describe in detail many machine and free weight movements focusing on how to do these movements safely and with very high intensity. The essence of this methodology involves careful attention to form, rep cadence, and time under load.

As I'll also discuss in that article, since there is less trauma inflicted on your skeletal system using this different methodology, it may be the notion that high intensity training means very infrequent training isn't warranted. Perhaps, the need to train infrequently is more a byproduct of too much force and too much resistance and oddly enough, a style of training that doesn't provide the highest level of intensity.

  1. Carpinelli RN. How much can you bench press? H.I.T. 1994; 5: 2 -3.
  2. Carpinelli RN. Tension and intensity: Clarifying comments. Master Trainer.1995; 5: 10 -11.