Are Your High Intensity Workouts Really Intense?

You’ve chosen to do high intensity resistance training, perhaps because of the time efficiency, or it suits your temperament, or maybe your bum knee simply won’t tolerate repetitive movement. And it’s challenging, no doubt. But that’s the trade off, after all. Increase the intensity of training, and the frequency and duration must decline. And to make sure you get all you can out of your 20 minutes once or twice a week, it really pays to go for the brass ring of intensity.

So are you really achieving your highest tolerable intensity level when you train? Or are you making a few common missteps that undermine your efforts?

Let’s review.

Val salva. That guttural noise you hear a lot in gyms that comes from closing off the back of your throat and creating a pressure is val salva. You do it because your muscles need oxygen, and rather than breathing, it’s more efficient to just slam it through your body by creating a sudden explosive pressure. Sure, it can help you achieve that last rep, but there’s a price that you pay by unnecessarily spiking your blood pressure and almost always concomitantly explosively throwing the weight (see below).

You’ve lost site of the fact that the goal is not moving a bar, a weight or movement arm. If it were, I’d build a machine to continuously move those objects for me, even while I napped or took out the garbage. Those apparatus merely provide resistance to muscle in an effort to exhaust it so that it will recover bigger/stronger/faster. Whether movement is still possible in an exercise, or you end up with several seconds of an isometric contraction in a continued attempt to get it moving again, it’s the internal mechanisms rather than external that count. You don’t get a prize for half-assing one last meaningless rep.

Out of control moments. You know what I’m talking about: bouncing at the bottom, popping joints into a locked position, bursts of acceleration. All of those things unload weight from the targeted muscle(s) and divert it to other places (adjacent muscles, joints, bones). That’s why you’re so compelled to do it. It provides a reprieve to exhausting muscle.

If your muscle tissue is experiencing a reprieve, it has u-turned from intensity. Lessening intensity at a critical time precludes you from inroading muscle the way you wanted or expected to. Less inroading = lower strength gains = 😦

Fidgeting in the seat. Constantly changing your grip changing the way you’re seated, and even things like little pauses or slight changes in joint articulation, all are tools that your body (which is a secret ninja of geometry and mechanics) uses to shift the focus of the exercise away from the targeted muscles. And it only takes a split second to be successful at it. Fidgeting = unloading.

Screaming/Histrionics. I hate gyms. 99% of them are just places where drama queens (and I’m talking mostly to the guys on this one) can express their manliness because, you know, look at all they’re enduring. Shut up and settle down. All of those antics are just diversions. Intensity takes focus. I tell my clients to do whatever it takes to move smoothly and “make me think it’s easy.” Sounds stupid, focuses the mind, works great.

“I can only do one more.” What are you, a gypsy with a crystal ball? How do you know what you can or can’t do until you try? Don’t you dare set limits to that amazing, astonishing piece of art, architecture and engineering we know as the human body. I charge my clients a quarter if they use the curse word “can’t” while they train. If you “can’t,” your mind has reached its tolerance and is predicting doom. Your body possesses no crystal ball and telegraphs no such warnings.

Actually I’m okay with mental failure. Resistance training to failure is refers “momentary muscular failure,” but I am not sure what that means physically. There is an uncomfortable frequency of stories of women lifting automobiles off of people. What’s up with that? What does that say about our perceptions of physical muscular failure? I mean really, you can’t do another leg extension? That car story demonstrates the effects of a good ole adrenalin pump, but does adrenalin make muscle stronger or just make you less inhibited about using the ENORMOUS amount of strength that is actually available to you? If the latter, then what part of you is failing on those squats, mind or body? If your mind can tolerate more, surely so can your body. So achieving a higher tolerance for intensity is the engine that keeps growth a-coming.

Training to your highest tolerable intensity is a mindfulness thing. Effective training requires focusing on each moment of each exercise. Skyler Tanner of Efficient Exercise has his clients sit and get their focus on before beginning their training sessions. And if you re-read the above review, you’ll see that mindlessness is the golden thread through the entire list, and minfulness is the antidote to it all.

To quickly sum up: be mindful, be intense, and be strong.

Now get away from me, I have work to do.


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