Levels of Intensity
As most board members know I advocate low volume high intensity style training as being the best method to go about gaining strength and size. I get a lot of questions about just how hard one should train and what high intensity methods are most suitable so I figured it was time to discuss just what “high intensity” means. Here are some of the more common ways to do a set:
Regular training, not to failure
This is perhaps the most used (and abused) method in popular use today. It consists of lifting a weight using from 3-25 reps (6-12 being most common) and terminating the set before actual failure occurs. Failure being defined as taking the set to a point where another rep is absolutely impossible to do no matter how hard one tries using good form. Regular not to failure training is what is practiced by almost all people doing volume type training. The simple fact is that there is no way in hell someone can do 9-20 sets a body-part to failure. Ain’t gonna happen. While this type of training is the method that is mostly used by the pro’s and is very much a part of their success, it is also the method that is most responsible for all the “failures” that end up quitting bodybuilding because it simply doesn’t work for them. While doing these many, many sets growth is certainly stimulated, however it is never allowed to happen because doing that much work on a too frequent schedule leaves nothing left of the trainee’s recuperative ability to actually grow on. In effect the body is caught in a vicious cycle of always just trying to “catch up” and never has a chance to devout resources to growing.
There is a way to make this work well. To keep on track and not change the subject, let’s just say it involves doing LOTS less than volume trainers do, and going ALMOST to failure for at least some of the sets
Training to failure
This method is done by taking a weight and lifting until another rep is absolutely impossible to do in good form. If you look around you in gyms you will see many people that on the surface appear to be training to failure, but truth be told, most of them are grimacing and looking the part when they have MANY reps left in them. The bar is usually racked when it starts to hurt too bad. Truly taking a set to absolute positive failure is damn hard work and is all that is needed by most people, most of the time.
Beyond failure training
Here are a few, but definitely not all types of beyond failure training:
1. Forced reps. These are done by having your spotter give you just enough of a spot to get the weight to the contracted position so it can be lowered under control again.
2. Static contractions. While these can be done all by there self prior to reaching failure, a common use is to reach failure and then get a spot, and proceed to hold the bar in the contracted position until it can’t be held anymore and S-L-O-W-L-Y is lowered all the way down.
3. Super-sets. To do a super-set in beyond failure fashion, an isolation movement for the target muscle is done to failure, and then IMMEDIATELY with no rest, a compound movement is preformed. Examples include flyes immediately followed by bench presses. Lateral raises immediately followed by dumbbell or military presses. Leg extensions immediately followed by squats. The idea is to be able to take the muscle past the point at which failure was reached by having other muscles assist.
4. Rest/pause. The prime example here would be 20 rep squats where you take a weight that you can do a max set of 10-12 with, and at the point where another rep would be impossible, instead of racking the bar you rest/breath long enough to get another rep, and another and so-on until all 20 have been completed. Rest/pause can be used with almost any lift. Some lifts can be done while holding the bar, and others it is perfectly acceptable to drop the bar while “resting” long enough to get another couple reps. A great rest/pause format is to hit failure at 8, and the get 2 more, then 2 more, then 2, then 1. This is the beyond failure technique I like most because it’s easy to do because the bar is already loaded with the correct weight. For most lifts they can be done without a partner. They do not encourage extreme lengths of a set. Usually after 2-4 rest-pause you can’t get another rep without waiting an extremely long amount of time so the set is terminated unlike drop sets where it may go on and on and on.
5. Drop/strip sets. These are done by doing a set to failure, then IMMEDIALY stripping some weights or grabbing another lighter bar or set of dumbbells and doing more reps, and then sometimes repeating again. This method is terribly abused and some people do endless strips until they are lifting the bar only. GREAT way to overtrain, not so great a way to grow.
As you can see there are lots of ways to lift a weight to or past failure. What works best? Well no one can argue that a set must be taken to failure to be productive and growth producing. The only problem with this method is since the intensity is so low lots of sets are usually done to stimulate growth and lots of sets = overtraining for the vast majority of trainees. Regular to positive failure training when done with real intensity and not stopped when the set gets tough, but TRULY taken to failure is just the ticket for MOST people. If your sets are truly done to failure, how many should be done? Well I can state unequivocally that one (after warm-ups) is absolutely all you need to turn on the “growth mechanism”. Unfortunately bodybuilders read bodybuilding magazines and read all about how the pro’s train and falsely believe that a bunch of sets are needed…..they are wrong! One or at most two sets taken to positive failure are definitely all one needs to stimulate growth. In some cases one to three prior NOT to failure sets can be done before the to failure set is done, and this can help with size, but again that is another story for another day.
That said, what about all the other “beyond failure” techniques? Are they needed? Will they make you grow better? Will they overtrain you? Like all things bodybuilding related the answer is “it depends”, and ‘sometimes” for some people. If I could pick one that is most productive, rest/pause would get the nod. It allows you to keep the same “heavy” stress on the muscle throughout the set unlike some other techniques like drop sets or super-sets. It’s easy to apply and you can do it in a crowded gym, unlike trying to do for instance, a set of leg extensions followed by a set of squats (try that in a crowded gym where the leg extension machine is half-way across the gym from the squat rack!). And unlike forced reps it YOU lifting the weight, not your spotter. And they also allow you to do as few or as many “after failure” reps as you want.
Now comes the downside of HIT techniques. They WILL overtrain you if you insist on doing a whole bunch of sets of them or too many exercises too frequently. The plus side to this is done correctly they give you the absolute best chance of stimulating growth in as short as time possible with as few lifts as possible allowing you the best chance to recover and supercompensate between sessions. Should you incorporate beyond failure techniques? Yes, sometimes, with some lifts. Unless you are a fairly easy gainer I would not have you doing all your sets beyond failure, and even easy gainers do great just taking their sets to failure. If you are a hardgainer I would strongly suggest only going to positive failure (20 rep squats or deadlifts excepted) on your sets. If you fall somewhere in-between I would suggest doing a few lifts rest-pause or super-set fasion to see how you respond. BEWARE! IF YOU START MAKING GREAT PROGRESS ON A COUPLE OF LIFTS LIKE THIS DON’T AUTOMATICALLY ASSUME DOING ALL LIFTS LIKE THIS WILL ACCELERATE GAINS. IT WILL MORE LIKELY STOP ALL PROGRESS!
All this is written assuming you volume and frequency is relatively low. Doing this type of training on a 4-6 day a week schedule with three exercises per body-part will fail 99% of those attempting it. If your training is not brief and infrequent stick to regular sets stopped short of failure. If you want to try something that REALLY works, cut your volume and frequency and TRAIN HARD!
Hope this clears up a few HIT questions.
I am available for personal traning consultations. Email @ firstname.lastname@example.org for details.