What is Intensity, and How Do You Achieve It?

You may have heard someone talk about "intensity." Most people have no clue what this means, and the results of their workouts reflect this. With intensity, your workouts count. Without intensity, you cheat yourself of the benefits you would otherwise have. Advantages of intensity

When you work out with intensity, you have these advantages:

  • Shorter workouts
  • More productive workouts
  • Less overall stress to the body
  • Optimum hormonal environment
  • Reduced chance of injury
  • Faster recovery periods
  • Greater energy levels
  • Better muscular development
  • Less body fat
  • Less time required
A fundamental ingredient

Effective exercise has two fundamental ingredients: intensity and rest. You need the proper intensity to stimulate the correct hormonal response and muscle growth, and you need the proper amount of rest for the muscle growth to occur. The definition of rest here is the number of hours between the last time you worked a muscle and the next time.

After you work a muscle, that muscle requires 72 to 96 hours to be ready for another workout. If you apply this math to a calendar, you can see that doing a full body workout three times a week defeats the purpose of working out.

There's a whole anabolic/catabolic thing going on, and you want to make sure you time your exercise and rest to take advantage of it--rather than letting it work against you. This latter option is the norm, not the exception. For exceptional results, you must do things differently.

Core exercises and recovery time

Note that, for certain types of exercise (deadlifts, squats, and good mornings), there is a very long rest window. These exercises are called core exercises. They work the body core, and they should also form the core of your exercise program.

The optimum frequency for these exercises is about twice a month. The reason for the extended time is the deep muscle tissue damage these exercises do. They are very demanding. They are also the ones that give you the best overall response and the greatest testosterone boost. Here's an example. Two average people are in a contest to see who could have the biggest arms. Person A does curls only. Person B does no curls, but does squats. Person B will have bigger arms than Person A.

 Now, back to intensity....

What it isn't

Many people hear about intensity and assume it means "spending more time at the gym,"  seeing how far you can push yourself before injury, or piling on weight until you are straining and gasping to move it. But these approaches actually lower intensity.

You do not get intensity with:

  • More reps
  • More time
  • More exercises
  • Too much weight

What it is

By definition, intensity is "more effort in less time." A related word is concentration. Intensity comes from focus. The degree of focused effort with a given muscle for a limited time will determine the level of intensity.

Think of walking vs. running. Running is more intense than walking--you perform more exertion in a given time. Taken to another level, sprinting is more intense than jogging.

Most people "jog" their workouts, rather than "running" them, and many even "walk" them. By this, we don't mean actual running or walking. We mean the difference in intensity.

Take a look at a competition sprinter. These people all look great. Tight, strong, lean bodies. The look of power is definitely there. Take a look at marathoners. You don't see this. You see a stringy body that doesn't look so great. No offense to marathoners, but that's the reality--look for yourself.

Here's an experiment. I don't normally recommend drinking juices, because of the glycemic effect, but this effect is largely absent first thing in the morning or after intense exercise (because the cells are depleted). So, let's keep the glycemic aspect out of it for the purpose of this experiment.

Now, get two glasses. Fill one with juice. To the other, add just a drop of juice and then fill it up with water. Which one tastes better? Which one is more nutritious? Keep this in mind when you are tempted to water down your workouts rather than making them intense.

Why Intensity Works

The body adapts. Requiring a burst of effort from your muscles forces your muscles to change. And the way they change is to get stronger. They can store more ATP and other chemicals they use for those bursts of energy. Your ligaments and other connective tissue also adapt, heading off joint problems as you age.

The hormonal changes are also quite beneficial. Intensity in exercise produces hormonal effects much like those of your youth. Not quite to that degree, but in that direction.

For example, a 40-year old man could see his testosterone jump from 100 ng/dl to 600 ng/dl following an intense chest and triceps workout. Actual numbers will vary considerably, and there may be no jump at all for men on a prostatic care program. The amount of testosterone increase will depend on many factors, but it will never exceed what's safe for your body because there is no external driver.

The improved hormonal environment tends to increase bone mass in both men and women, plus confer other "fountain of youth" benefits. While not a "cure" for aging, intensity in exercise is one way to slow down the effects of aging. Why does this happen? It's a classic "use it or lose it" situation. If your body has no reason to maintain its vigor, it won't. Intensity in those short bouts of exercise gives it that reason.

Combining intensity with the proper rest (time between sessions of working a muscle) optimizes your body for its leanest composition. Put another way, more muscle and less fat.

Why Low Intensity Fails

Requiring a sustained low-level (or even mid-level) effort conditions your body to conserve energy. That is, your body burns fewer calories at all times. This is exactly why you see so many fat people on treadmills. As a consolation, they are better off than those who don't exercise at all. But if you're going to exercise, why not do it right?

This "protecting" of your fat stores isn't the only downside. Because you haven't tapped your strength reserves through intensity, your muscles don't get stronger. Making things even worse, the hormonal changes from extended workout sessions puts your body in a muscle-eating catabolic state. This is exactly why most people who embark on a fitness program stop seeing results after six months. How long have you been training? What results have you had, lately?

The typical workout

For some reason, the standard workout in gyms across the land is three days a week of total body workouts. This is insane. And, actually, we know the reason--the idea is to keep churning memberships while folks make less use of the facilities. It's economically motivated, not results motivated.

The typical workout has too many exercises per session. So instead of having a productive 30 minutes or so of real training, you end up wasting an hour and a half. Life's too short (and it's even shorter for people who "work out" this way) to waste that kind of time three days a week.

The idea that you should do 3 sets of 12 reps with the same weight defies common sense. If you are working out with the correct level of intensity, you will be a little weaker with each set. That means you will do fewer reps or less weight. If you want results, don't do the typical workout. By results, we mean those benefits listed at the start of this article.

The Correct Methods

To get the correct intensity so that your rest periods produce results, you need to think "burst" rather than "duration." Here are some basics:

  • Never do cardio before lifting. This depletes the energy you need for intensity.
  • Use a "heavy" weight for your first set. For most exercises, four to six reps is ideal. If you can do more than six, you are either cheating on the exercise or you need more weight. Most likely, you are cheating--check that, before adding weight.
  • Try to stay at four to six reps--that is, reduce the weight you are using only enough to allow you to do six reps. If you can do eight reps, then shorten your rest period before doing the next set.
  • Aim for a total of 24 to 30 reps--even if that means doing a large number of sets. Each set will provide a short burst of exercise intensity plus some muscle pumping.

Note that the above is for optimizing the intensity of your workouts. Other training methods do work, but for other purposes. There is more than one right way, but we've "laid it out here" for you. Don't try variations, until you become very attuned to your intensity level. For most people, it takes several months of strict workouts before they can become attuned. So, give it time.

As you do the actual movements, be thinking of contracting that muscle or set of muscles. You want to reach down into your strength reserves and challenge the muscle to overcome the resistance presented to it. Of course, you're not overloading yourself with weight--you have just enough weight that your muscles can respond to this challenge maybe half a dozen times before you rest and then do the next set.

The Correct Workout Plan

Obviously, you can't do a whole body workout with intensity. This is a situation where you have to "choose your battles." So, follow this procedure to plan effective workouts:

  1. Determine how many days per week you will work out. Not all of these need to be at your gym (assuming you go to a gym instead of using your own equipment).
  2. Assign one muscle group to each day.

Many knowledgeable trainers do a variation on this (as do I). Divide your upper body into three zones:

  1. Back and biceps
  2. Chest and triceps
  3. Shoulders (including traps and rear delts).

Do a workout routine for each group, doing only one group per session. Rotate through the sessions. So if Monday is one of your days and you work out upper body four days a week, then you would do "back and biceps" one Monday but when it comes up again you'll be doing "shoulders" on that day. The next Monday would be "chest and triceps," then you're back to "back and biceps." On one or two other days, work your abs and calves.

Be sure you do your core exercise (squats, deadlifts, or good mornings) only once every two weeks.

If you follow this advice and do every workout with intensity, then every workout will help you have a strong, healthy body. Remember, life's too short to be wasting your workouts--and it's even shorter for those who do.