Intensity is key – Exercise for busy people

John completed his 12 reps on the chest press and was about to rest and move on to the next exercise before I stopped him.

“How was your set on that exercise, John? John: Yes, good.

Could you have done any more reps? John: Yes I probably could have.

Me: So why did you stop?

John: Because I had done the 12 reps.

Any time I observe people training in the gym one of the main things I see lacking from their workout is intensity.

Most people in the gym wander around aimlessly performing x number of reps and x number of sets.

But how do you know if you have stimulated a positive change in your body?

If you are counting to 10 or 12 and then stopping when you reach your number then you most likely have not done much to stimulate a positive metabolic response.

This is because during an exercise the body uses a certain amount of muscle fibres to lift the resistance. If you stop before you have activated as many muscle fibres as possible then the body hasn’t received much stress and doesn’t need to change.

What’s needed is 100% effort to a point of completion or muscular failure. This may take 12 reps or 20 reps.

In practice this takes some motivation and is as much a mental effort as it is physical. The point when the muscle starts to get a little sore is when most people stop, but this is the most productive part of the movement! This is when you push or pull to completion to make sure you have used 100% of your strength.

Here comes the science part: Imagine the leg press exercise. Choose a weight that is appropriate and you begin to do as many good repetitions as possible. The resistance stays the same, but each succeeding repetition becomes harder and harder until it is impossible to move. You have reached fatigue.

Let’s look at this process. When you are under load the lower body muscles are working to try to continue the exercise, which takes a certain amount of muscle fibers. As it continues, the fibers that started the movement begin to fatigue and so more are now needed. This is called successive motor unit recruitment or the gradation response. Luckily there are more so the body continues to recruit new motor units until it is firing on all cylinders so to speak. This is when the movement begins to stop. Now you feel like stopping, but this is where you should continue to push/pull to make sure it is done. You have now performed an inroad of your available strength. The body perceives this as stress, and regular stress if you train frequently, and a need to change in order to cope with it next time.

Supercompensation is the improvement in lean muscle tissue and strength gain as a result of the regular stress.

When I coach my clients they always tell me they would never push themselves this hard normally. This type of intensity normally takes a couple of workouts to build up to and unless you can really motivate yourself it’s very easy to stop short on an exercise.

Yes this isn’t easy but exercise isn’t meant to be a nice comfortable experience! If it is then it most likely won’t do much to change your body composition.

The benefit of training with 100% intensity on each set and rep is that it needs to be for a short period of time. This is the essence of High Intensity Training. Training harder but briefer and infrequently. Exercise sessions are maximum half an hour.  I go into more detail on this in this post.

So the next time you train, try to complete as many reps as you can before you decide to terminate the set.

  • A good range to shoot for is 8-12.
  • Perform slow, controlled movements and no jerking of the resistance or using momentum to lift the weight. (Yes I’m talking to you arching your back on the barbell curls!)
  • Lift a weight that you can control, Leave your ego at the doorstep!

As a wise man named Arthur Jones once said: “You can exercise alot or you can train hard but you cannot do both.”

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