All About Intensity
Training intensity gets more press than training volume, but most of the time it just scratches the surface of the discussion. If you do more than the minimum amount of reading on the topic of training, you no doubt know that “Intensity” does not refer to the amount of emotional excitement you feel during your training, but rather the weight on the bar. You also probably know that intensity is often referred to as a percentage of your 1 rep max. But that’s about all the knowledge most guys have on the subject.
It’s true that Intensity is not the level of emotional excitement, but instead it refers to the weight on the bar. To be specific, absolute intensity refers to the absolute amount of weight on the bar, most often measured in pounds or kilograms. When people start talking about percentages, they are talking about relative intensity. This is most often a description of intensity relative to your 1 rep max.
At first the percentages might seem unnecessarily complicated, but they are actually very useful. They allow us to talk about training with one another and easily understand the loading parameters that are being discussed without asking a lot of background questions. The percentages themselves might seem a bit awkward at first, but that goes away with familiarity.
Intensity – the most important parameter?
I’ve said many times before that for most strength sports, Intensity is the parameter that determines the majority of your training effect. If your goal is to develop your absolute strength then that will necessitate certain levels of intensity. If your goal is to develop hypertrophy, it would not make sense to train with very light weights. The weight on the bar – or more accurately the effort required to move it – will determine the vast majority of your training effect. Volume will determine the magnitude of that effect.
So if you’re training with a purpose in mind – any purpose – and you don’t pay attention to your intensity, then there is a good chance that you will not achieve the effect that you’re after. What’s more is the better you understand the training effect that each intensity can produce, the more surgical you can be in your own training. And precise training is effective training.
Describing Training Intensities
As was mentioned earlier, training intensity is often described as a percentage of your 1 rep max for a particular lift. But there are some issues with this method. The body doesn’t know or care how much weight is on the bar. The adaptations that you get from your training are a result of things like tension and duration. To put it in more common terms, the body is responding to things like the force of the muscle’s contraction, how long the contraction lasts, and how many contractions there were. A percentage isn’t always a precise way to describe this because different lifters will perform differently. If two lifters perform 3 reps with 85%, one may find the task to be a moderate effort while the other may find it to be impossible. The ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch fibers, training history and other physiological issues affect this. Then there is the problem of having accurate maxes to work with. Such accurate data isn’t always available, especially for assistance lifts.
This is why I generally prefer to describe intensities in terms of reps-per-set and the RPE (rate of perceived exertion). This allows greater individualization of training. The RPE scale I use can be described in the following chart:
@10: Maximal Effort. No reps left in the tank.
@9: Heavy Effort. Could have done one more rep.
@8: Could have done two or three more reps.
@7: Bar speed is “snappy” if maximal force is applied
@6: Bar speed is “snappy” with moderate effort
So by being familiar with the chart, which has a ton of other benefits as well, we can more accurately describe the intensity of a lift. Not only that, but RPE charts have the added benefit of being auto-regulatory in nature. That means that they help us to auto-regulate our training on each given day. Here’s an example. For most of you, doing 85% for 3 reps will result in a @9 RPE. That means when you put the bar down, you think, “yeah, I could have done one more.” But if you are having a bad day, your 85% load doesn’t change. It will require the same work as it would if you were having a good day. At a minimum, you will no longer get the same training effects in terms of tension and duration. What’s worse is that you could end up injured. A better approach is to work using the RPE’s so that on a bad day, the weight on the bar is reduced since it will take less weight to reach x3 @9. On a good day it will take more weight to reach x3 @9. That’s how RPE’s are auto-regulatory in nature, but let’s get back to intensity.
Describing intensity in terms of reps and RPE gets us closer to consistently approximating the tension and duration that your muscles respond to. This allows us to get a precise training effect more consistently than we do by other methods. So now that you understand the importance of using a more precise method of describing intensity, let’s talk about just a few potential training effects and how to achieve them.
Training for improved neural efficiency is most often mistaken as training to improve maximal strength. But if done properly, a wide range of intensities can be used to improve maximal strength, not just low reps. What we get with this style of training is an improvement in the Central Nervous System’s ability to activate motor units. This is Inter-muscular coordination, Intra-muscular coordination, rate coding, etc. And to achieve these effects in terms of preparation for a 1RM, you will want to train at high intensities. This means that you will most often train between 1 and 3 reps and use RPE’s from 9 to 10. Using something such as x1 @8 would also fit into the Neural Efficiency category, but not as well as some others. The same goes for x4 @10, but this too is really on the border of some other objectives.
Learning to Grind
Learning to grind is a big topic. Some may even wonder why it’s important. There are very good reasons for learning to grind out a heavy weight, but unfortunately they are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, if you are unable to grind out a PR, you would have gotten that PR if you COULD grind it out. So getting better at what you suck at is usually a priority.
To get better at grinding out a weight, you basically need to practice. That means increase the reps and RPE’s slightly. Reps will tend to be 3 to 6 reps, most often concentrating on sets of 5 and 6. RPE’s will be in the @9 to @10 range, almost always being @10.
Learning to Be More Explosive
Like learning to grind, learning to be more explosive is a big topic all by itself. If you are very good at grinding out a maximum weight, then it may be time to introduce some explosiveness into your training. This will help your overall force production and can help spark new gains in your maximal strength.
Developing explosiveness is pretty much the opposite of learning to grind. For this, you will want to reduce the reps and RPE’s. You’ll find that doing 1 to 3 reps is again most effective, but you will want to keep RPE’s in the @7 and @8 area. This will allow you to do more sets to achieve the required volume levels, resulting in more “first reps”. Since your first rep is your most explosive rep, this will teach your body to be more explosive.
“Hypertrophy” itself can be developed using almost any rep range, but that’s not very helpful to us as lifters. I’ve found it to be more effective to break hypertrophy into specific parts. Addressing it this way seems to narrow down our possible choices and allows us again to be more precise in our selection.
Myofibrils are the contractile elements of the muscle fiber. That is they do the actual contracting for the muscle. By growing the myofibrils larger, you will have more contractile proteins available. More contractile proteins (used by a well tuned nervous system) should result in greater strength. Or if you’re not into strength, it will result in the denser look that is coveted by bodybuilders.
Hypertrophy of the myofibrils is best achieved by lower reps by bodybuilding standards, but not “powerlifting low reps.” We’re talking 4 to 8 reps with most of your time concentrated in the 5 to 6 range. This allows adequate time under tension to stress the myofibrils into adaptation. As for your RPE’s, you’ll want to keep those in the @8 to @10 range. Using @8 is acceptable for the lower end of your rep range while using @10 is better if you’ll be on the higher end of the rep range. Of course, if you’re in doubt you could always use @9.
There are tons of other training effects we can work on. Going through each one individually is not practical in this format. But before closing, I want to talk about how you can incorporate some of these ideas into your actual training. Clearly there are big implications for this kind of thinking when you are planning a training cycle, but chances are the majority of you are in the middle of whatever training plan you have. So what does this mean to you?
Well to start, I recommend just logging RPE with your training. It will better communicate to others how hard a particular set was. It works much better than saying “heavy” or “easy”. RPE is much more relatable. As you continue to learn what RPE’s your program is trying to produce, rely on them more and more. An example will probably work well here – if your program requires you to do 3 reps with 85% and you know that this usually produces an @9 set, then just work up to 3 reps @9 and let the weight fall where it will, either above 85% if you’re having a good day or below 85% if you’re having a bad day.
Eventually you will be able to structure your program around reps and RPE’s. This is something you should take your time with as it will probably happen organically. Watch your RPE’s long enough and you’ll see the patterns show up. Then you can start to manage them and be more specific with the training effects you are pursuing. This will lead you to better gains in the future.
So one more time… here’s what you need to do with this information:
Cautions and Caveats
But hopefully this article can give you some insights on how to use rep and RPE pairings to more efficiently program your training based on these few common training objectives.
Intensity is a sliding scale. We like to compartmentalize things since it helps us understand it more easily. But you must understand that the training effects described above are not isolated. Training for one objective will have a certain amount of bleed over to other objectives.
Use this information to help you program your own training with greater precision. But don’t forget to consider volumes as well. There are plenty of resources available to help you plan appropriate training volumes. You can use Preliphin’s chart or a host of other tools. Don’t forget that you can also use the RTS methods for volume management found on the Reactive Training Systems website.
One way or another, greater precision in your training will result in you getting the training effect that you’re after. It will allow you to plan with more accuracy and it will help you get those results by listening to your body even if you’re having an “off” day. The benefits of proper training intensity are many and it’s easy enough that anyone can do it.
About the Author
Mike Tuchscherer is the owner and head coach at RTS. He has been powerlifting since 2001 and since has traveled all over the world for competitions. In 2009, he was the first man from USA powerlifting to win a gold medal at the World Games – the highest possible achievement in powerlifting. He has coached over a dozen competitors at the world championships, a score of national champions, and multiple world record holders.