With regards to fitness and weight training, what exactly does the term “high intensity” mean and how can it help to build muscle and strength.
I believe the term refers to how hard or difficult your body has to work in order to perform each repetition and set.
Now, I’m not going to say how heavy a weight you have to lift because, I think, lifting heavy weight is only one way to increase the intensity of an exercise.
However, for the purpose of this article, we are going to focus on the amount of weight used because we are going to look into the high intensity method as it stands today.
High intensity training has been around for over 30 years and has become a very popular training method amongst body builders, athletes, and weekend warriors. I’m sure most of you reading now, have heard of “high intensity training” (or H.I.T for short) and you may have an idea of what it is, but not quite sure what it actually does.
Back in the seventies, Arthur Jones, popularized the high intensity training method, well, he pretty much invented the method. If you’re not familiar with Arthur Jones, he was the inventor of the popular Nautilus fitness equipment. At the time, Mr. Jones’ high intensity method was thought to be years ahead of any other training method, and with good reason.
Mr. Jones believed that in order to truly reach your physical potential, one had to approach resistance training in a certain manner. Mr Jones, believed that exercise intensity was the key to optimal growth and one that could unlock a person’s true physical potential. By incorporating certain elements into a weight training program, one could attain a superior strength level.
That is, all exercise should be include these elements;1) very brief exercise; 2) infrequent exercise; and 3) very intense exercise. I believe these elements were the basis for his methods. In order for an exercise to be intense, according to the high intensity method, an all out effort must be exerted in which the exercise is to be brought to muscular failure.
In order for the exercise to be brief, it must be done with one set. That’s it. One set for chest, one set for biceps, one set for triceps, one set for shoulders, one set for back, one set for quadriceps, one set for hamstrings, and one set for calves. Ideally, the entire body is to be trained for a true high intensity training program.
Before I go on, allow me to state that each exercise has one true “working set”. That is, each exercise might have 2 or 3 total sets, but the only one that counts is the intensity set, which is brought to muscular failure. Think of the 2 prior sets as warm up sets. When someone says that high intensity training only involves one set, in reality, there are probably another two sets of warm ups prior. To use one set, with maximum poundages, with no warm up, and to go to failure is not only stupid, but very dangerous and Arthur Jones was anything but stupid. His method is one “working set” not counting warm up sets.
Under the H.I.T program, the entire routine should be no longer than one hour and usually, the larger muscle groups are trained first. For example, a high intensity training routine might start with quadriceps, than back, than chest, followed by shoulders, followed by hamstrings, than biceps, triceps, and lastly calves.
High intensity training is not a high volume approach to weight training. That is, the method uses only one working set, as opposed to the traditional approach to strength training which may use 2 or more working sets per body part. However, the difference is the intensity factor. Going to muscular failure for one all out set is more than enough to stimulate growth. Anymore than that and you greatly increase your chances for overtraining. Mr. Jones knew this and really advocated:
• One hour training sessions – No more than one hour weight training sessions;
• Rest times in between exercises – There is no rest in between exercises – Added intensity;
• Flawless form. A trainer must use perfect form – No cheating;
• Infrequent weight training sessions – two weight training sessions per week.
The basic premise of high intensity training is to hit your muscles extremely hard in order to stimulate growth, and allow optimal rest times for recovery using anywhere from 85% to 100% of your maximum weight use. In order to get the most from this type of training, Mr. Jones really concentrated on the negative portion of the exercise.
I really believe the magic in the high intensity training method is that fact that you force your whole body, in one session, to work incredibly hard using compound movements. It’s no secret that your body will naturally produce more testosterone and growth hormone under extreme, physical conditions. However, your body will only produce these hormones up to a point, usually up until the one hour marker.
Anything after one hour will be counter productive, since the body will produce more cortisol than growth hormone. Cortisol is the catabolic hormone that is released within the body to combat physical stress. It basically shuts things down. So, you have one hour to make the most of your bodies natural production of testosterone and growth hormone. Of course, we all know, the more of these hormones you have in your body, the more growth you can expect.
Research has shown that compound exercise performed at high intensity helps to release more of these hormones into your body. When I think about it, Mr. Jones’ high intensity training is actually more of a hormone-focussed training program.
You see, exercise intensity is the most important key when it comes to activating and promoting growth hormone response in your body. The higher the intensity of your weight training workouts, the higher the response from your bodies production of growth hormone. Mr. Jones knew this, and structured his program to be fast and furious, keeping the total weight training time no greater than one hour long.
I honestly believe this type of training can be very beneficial for gaining muscle mass if it is done correctly. However, I do have my concerns…
I’ve personally tried high intensity training and have had some mixed results with it. I can’t argue with the strength gains, I gained strength and muscle mass. It works. I used this type of training back in the early ‘90s and have adopted the techniques to this day. That is, I train very infrequent and keep my workouts to under one hour. The things that I’ve changed are the intensity factors.
You see, my body naturally has small joints. The problem I had with taking each of my sets to failure, on a weekly basis was that my tendons and joints had a hard time adjusting. I found that my joints were sore all the time, especially the elbows and knees. By the time week 10 came along, my body was in pretty sore shape. I had to adjust my training schedule.
For older weight trainers, whose joints already have some wear and tear, high intensity training may cause some problems. I’m not saying it will be bad for most, older trainers, I’m just saying that this might be a factor with this type of weight training.
My second concern is the intensity factor. Under the high intensity method, the amount of weight used is the determining factor of intensity. From my experience, muscular growth will happen as long as you keep improving from workout to workout – Week after week, month after month.
What do I mean my improving? If you use more weight while keeping the reps and rest times the same than the previous workout – You are improving. If you do more reps with the same amount of weight using the same rest periods than the previous workout – You are improving. If you use the same amount of weight with the same amount of reps but do the workout in less time, than your previous workout – You are improving.
High intensity training methods involve using heavier weights than your previous workout with no rest in between each set, and taking your working set to absolute muscular failure. This may or may not work depending on how you feel on a particular day. I feel this may be limiting in terms of how you measure your intensity levels, which I feel high intensity training does not do very effectively.
I feel that a person can build muscle and strength by using the same amount of weight and repetitions as your previous workout but if the exercise is done in less time, the exercise intensity actually increases, forcing your body to work harder.
However, with that being said, I believe the principles in the high intensity training method do work, and as I’ve said on my website, it all comes down to the individual who’s doing the training.
There is no one weight training program that will work for everyone and each and every person will have different results using the same program. Based on my experience, I had to change the “settings” if you may, with the high intensity training program to suit my body type. I simply couldn’t take my body to failure each and every workout, so, I had to customize the workout in order to get the most from it.
Here’s a sample high intensity training program. Remember, you have to use perfect form for each and every exercise. There should be at two warm up set prior to maximum poundages are used.
If you are new to high intensity training, try resting in between sets for about 40 seconds or so and over time, slowly cut down on the amount of time you rest until you are going from one exercise to the next with no rest. Remember to bring a water bottle with you because your going to need one. Remember, always have a spotter with this routine because your going to be taking these exercises to failure.
1) Leg Extensions – 1 x 20 repetitions using light weight. Set two should be 1 x 20 repetitions. – Weight should be moderate to heavy. This exercise is used to warm up the quadriceps for squats.
2) Squat – Warm up 2 x 20
Work set 1 x 6 – should be close to 85% of your maximum. You should be using a spotter for this set.
3) Dead lift – Warm up 2 x 20 repetitions. Working set 1 x 8 repetitions. You should be using 85% of your maximum for the final set.
4) Barbell Row – Warm up 2 x 15 repetitions using light weight. Working set, 1 x 8 repetitions using your heaviest weight.
5) Flat Bench Press – Warm up sets 2 x 20 repetitions. Working set, 1 x 6 repetitions going to failure.
6) Seated Shoulder Press – Warm up sets 2 x 20 repetitions. Working set, 1 x 8 repetitions. You should be using 80% of your maximum.
7) Barbell Curl – Warm up sets 1 x 20 repetitions. Work sets 2 x 8 repetitions using heavy weight.
8) Close Grip Bench Press – Warm up set 2 x 20 repetitions. Work set 1 x 8 repetitions using heavy weight – near 80% of your maximum.
If you need exercise descriptions and illustrations, please see the following page:
If order for a high intensity training program to be effective, you have to keep improving. In this case, you have to add more weight with each workout (or cut down on the rest time, which you will eventually do).
This way, you keep adding more and more intensity to your workouts.
All the best,
Blake has been weight lifting for about 28 years now. He's 45 years of age and started seriously training when he was 18 years old.
Blake is the founder of Building-Muscle101.com, a successful fitness website that has been around for more than 15 years.