by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D.
In every gym you’ve worked out at, you’ve seen the ugly grimaces of bodybuilders engaged in maximum effort under heavy iron. Too bad you couldn’t look into the minds of these bodybuilders, for if you could, you would then be able to determine whether they were truly involved in high intensity training. It is the mind, the controlling entity of the organism, which determines the degree of effort expended. It is not the level of ugliness to which one can contort one’s face.
Webster defines intensity as having or showing the characteristic of strength, force, straining, or (relative to a bodybuilder’s focal point) other aspects of his or her effort to a maximum degree. The words intense and intent both have the same Latin root, intendere “to stretch out.” If one is intent on doing something, he does so, by definition, with strained or eager attention-with concentration! That intensity of effort is largely a function of the mind is not this writer’s opinion. It is true by definition as well as by practical usage of the word!
WHAT DOES “INTENSITY” MEAN?
“Intensity” is increased by:
- amplification of mental effort — getting “psyched”
- approaching your training with a burning passion, as though it were your LIFE
- adding reps
- adding weight
- decreasing rest between reps
- decreasing rest between sets
- increasing the number of exercises per bodypart
- increasing the total number of exercises or bodyparts trained at one session
- increasing the number of training sessions per day
- increasing the speed of movement
- increasing the amount of work done at the anaerobic threshold (maximum pain tolerance)
- increasing the amount of eccentric work your muscles are required to perform.
NOT EVERYONE CAN TRAIN WITH INTENSITY
In the early years of your training, do you remember approaching a weight with determination? Your jaw was set, your mind narrowed to a laser-like focus, the adrenaline poured into your blood, and your training partners’ screams reverberated in your subconscious. You were READY! Your mind and body were both saying, “GO!”
All the essential ingredients for intensity were there. You wedged your body under the iron, and with a Herculean effort, you lifted the weight from the racks. You stepped back and got set. Down you went. And there you stayed!
What happened? Chances are it was that little bitty devil that resides in all of us saying, “No! Don’t hurt me!”
The link between the mind and body is a strong one, and doubt (that little bitty devil) is stronger still. Until you master, or eliminate entirely, such disruptive anomalies of the mind, your training efforts will always be something less than maximal. Achieving this mastery over mind and body is possible only upon enhancing the intercommunication processes between the two.
THE MIND-BODY LINK
Try to picture your brain and your biceps interconnected by nerves, much the same as a printed circuit might look. Within the brain are your memories and impressions of the way your body responded to that missed 150-pound set of curls you attempted last week. It was the first time you have tried such a heavy weight, and it felt heavy. Deep within your soul you knew that you wouldn’t make it, and now that you’ve actually failed this same doubt response has been fortified.
In the biceps, at the very end where the tendon begins, you have tiny sensory mechanisms that are designed to send messages of stress to the brain. If the motor memory of past failures is equaled or exceeded by the strength of the sensory message coming from the working biceps, you will again fail. Your job, if progress is to be made, is to alter both the brain’s response as well as the level at which the inhibitory response is initiated at the biceps muscle’s tendon.
This sensory mechanism is called the Golgi tendon organ. It’s excitation threshold (the point at which the weight is too great and an inhibitory message is sent) can be pushed back with proper training. So, too, can the motor memory stored in the brain be modified to ensure success.
SUCCESS BEGETS SUCCESS
If you have never experienced failure under heavy iron, then the chances of doubt creeping in will be remote. In that case, pardner, you’re the quintessential pencilneck. (Not to worry. Pencilnecks needn’t remain in that condition forever. All ya gotta do is put yourself at risk of failure under heavy iron multiple times over years, and learn by the seat of your pants not to fail while doing so.)
And, if you have trained for years with heavy weights without exceeding your capabilities but pushing them to the maximum, your Golgi tendon organs will not be stimulated to forward inhibitory messages to the brain. Still a pencilneck. It sounds like a Catch-22 situation, but nonetheless it’s true. Success will indeed beget success, and failure will beget failure.
When you have learned the very important lesson of avoiding failure while training, you will have attained the ability to train with intensity. Until that time, your efforts will be something less than maximal, and they will be something less than maximally beneficial. The real secret, fellow iron freaks, is to taste the burning pain of failure — in your heart and mind — and conquer it!
When you increase the intensity of your workout, there’s a price that must be paid. That price, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, is DISCIPLINE in finding ways of improving your recuperative ability. You do this by:
- pre-workout meal of low glycemic index foods
- pre-workout use of appropriate supplements
- during-workout use of appropriate supplements
- post-exercise cooldown (stretching, calisthenics)
- post-cooldown whirlpool of affected muscles
- post-whirlpool massage of affected muscles
- post-massage visualization training, autogenic training, TM or self-hypnosis
- scheduling 5-6 meals daily
- ensuring that each meal follows the 1-2-3 rule
- taking at least one 20-30 minute nap per day
- working closely with a sportsmedicine and or a sports sciences expert.
Sometimes, both your nervous system and your muscles need rest, just like your mind does. And, perhaps the most important reason for this is that if you continue to apply maximum intensity to your muscles, the level of adaptation they can accommodate will fail.
TRAINING SITUATIONS THAT REQUIRE INTENSITY
Some methods of training, to be truly effective, require high intensity on your part. Others do not. In fact, the injection of intensity may render some methods counterproductive! This is particularly true in certain sports-oriented training methods where speed is required. Intensifying such rapid movements can easily result in severe injury. While laser focus is needed, all-out effort with maximum muscular strain may not be.
During off-season periods when low-rep training for strength and density is emphasized, intensity becomes of paramount importance. For example, suppose you are doing five or six reps per set. Of course, the first two or three reps will require something less than maximum effort since fatigue has not diminished your capacity as yet. This is not the way to approach your sets! Each and every rep you perform must be done with maximum intensity! Further, maximum intensity should be applied throughout every inch of movement in each rep! Why? The effect that this kind of thorough intensity has on the Golgi tendon organ is such that de-inhibition will, over time, take place. Repeated applications of maximum stress is the only way known to force the Golgi tendon organ to delay sending its inhibitory message to the brain. Such delayed inhibitory response results in increased strength of contraction. In turn, the increased strength yields greater size resulting from greater poundages being used.
During periods in your training cycle when higher reps with a lighter weight are performed, intensity is no less important, although for a different reason. High-rep training produces intolerable lactic acid levels within the muscle; and effort fails from fatigue. Doubt no longer becomes the inhibitory factor, since the weight isn’t heavy enough to jeopardize your safety. Rather, fatigue does, and you must through extreme concentration, “will” the weight up. You must disregard the signals your pain sensors are sending to the brain. Concerted effort of this type will, over time, force a different kind of de-inhibition to occur.
Perhaps it is a greater electrochemical impulse that allows muscle fibers with higher excitation thresholds to respond. Perhaps it is a lowering of the excitation thresholds of these same hard-to-stimulate muscle fibers. It could also be both.
The point is that de-inhibition will indeed occur, and the only way to force it to occur is to coax and “intimidate” your muscles into responding. And you have to ignore the pain to do it. It becomes a matter of mind over muscle. This kind of training must be learned. It is not an innate response, and neither is it easily acquired.
Like your low-rep training, the key to learning how to apply maximum intensity is to use as heavy weights as possible in each and every overload set you do, yet avoid failure like the plague! If your mind says “no,” you’ve succumbed. You’ve failed, go home! Come back to the gym tomorrow with a renewed determination not to fail. Make your mind say, “Yes,” and then obey the command!
When a harmonious and synchronized link between your body and mind is re-established, you will experience gains in muscle size more rapidly than ever before. When you begin to realize the awesome power of the mind in controlling bodily functions, including its adaptability to stress, you will have learned what it takes to become a champion bodybuilder.
One thing that’s often overlooked is that you can’t ALWAYS train hard! You have to balance periods of high intensity training with periods of low intensity training.
- Big muscles take longer to recover than smaller ones
- Fast twitch muscles (your “explosive” muscles) take longer to recover than slow twitch muscle fibers (“endurance” muscles)
- Guys recover faster than girls
- You recover faster from slow movements than from fast movements
- You recover faster from low intensity training than from high intensity training.
- The older you get, the longer it takes to recover