In recent years we have seen the emergence of high-intensity training within the general population. Certain methods like Tabata, H.I.T. training, metabolic conditioning as well as companies such as CrossFit, Metafit and Orange Theory have done well to popularized the notion of “go hard or go home.” Not to mention that it makes for stylistic, attention grabbing videos on social media or YouTube.
The intensity is sometimes measured using heart rate levels and sometimes the rate of perceived exertion (R.P.E.) And sometimes it’ just a feeling of being wiped out.
Increasing the heart rate for a prolonged period of time can certainly lead to improved anaerobic threshold, stroke volume and VO2 max. Working out like this can also help to build your mental strength and work capacity. Seeing as it is physically tough to complete these workouts, there is a ultimate sense of reward for pushing yourself through and getting to the finish line. There’s no doubt that it is character building and many a sweaty high five have been shared after a gruelling session.
Another enticing feature of this for people is the E.P.O.C. (excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption) effect, A.K.A. the afterburn. Often touted to burn calories for longer or burn calories in your sleep. This, for obvious reasons, is enticing to many. Studies on this type of training, particularly for weight loss, have shown quick results over short periods of time. So, of course, that is another benefit that attracts people to this style of training.
It seems like an obvious way to go; more work = more results right? Not quite.
As with anything in life, where there are benefits there's also drawbacks. One of the major problems with constant high intensity training is that there's never much time to actually learn correct form or to focus on alignment and proper technique. It’s hard to focus on your coordination and positioning when you are pushing it to the max so the chance of injury goes up in these situations.It also makes for a longer recovery time so depending on what style of training you're doing, this could actually set you back.
Another factor that doesn't show up in most studies is the sustainability of this type of training. It has been shown to produce significant results anywhere from the four to six week mark but as we know, real results are manifested over months and years.
Joel Jamieson, a strength and conditioning coach who owns 8 weeks out and is a top trainer to MMA athletes uses this type of mentality. In fact he has even built a product to enable people to train and recover optimally. You can take a look here.
I am not affiliated with these guys in any way, I just know that a lot of time, effort and research went into this product.
Nuts And Bolts
Luckily, it doesn't have to be one or the other. It doesn't have to be solely low or high intensity. You can mix it up and use undulating intensity but you need to be smart about it.
Some ideas are: Separating weight lifting from your cardio and keeping cardio routines simple. For example, Tabata might work well with cycling or skipping but not so much for heavy deadlifts and squats.
You can also use percentages and/or deload weeks where you may be doing the same exercise for the same amount of sets and reps but using less weight or less intensity. This will allow you to have the same feeling of working hard with less toll on nervous system and the body.
You could vary your training between low medium and high intensity days which will allow for recovery but it will keep the frequency of your training intact. Very useful if your training includes a lot of skill work. For instance; boxing or olympic lifting.
Another option is to program in specific recovery or technical sessions. During these sessions you could work more on the details of technique, timing and even mobility. This will allow for recharging, refocusing and can help with motivation. This can also help mitigate the risks of injury.
One system that I have found to be very beneficial, especially for strength development, is daily testing. This is where you would, literally, test yourself everyday and see how you're feeling on that particular day. This works by lifting the same working weight you used on the last day for the prescribed amount of reps (after a thorough warm-up) and observing how you perform (usually using the RPE scale).
Some days you might feel strong and want to add weight and some days you might not be feeling too hot so you take some weight off. A quick example of this is if, on your previous session, you were squatting two hundred pounds for five reps and five sets. You would come in on the next session and test that weight again for five reps, one set. You rate the difficulty out of ten. If you score a ten or nine then you might want to reduce the weight for your next sets. (usually five or ten pounds is enough but you can use what is necessary).
However if you're feeling like you have more energy and you're feeling stronger on that day and your RPE score is seven or eight you can add weight. This way you're always getting the most out of each day without overtraining. This eliminates guesswork or preconceived programming, and instead allows for the correct dosage at the correct time.
In The Zone
It may be hard to see the logic of this type of training, especially if you come from a sporting background and going hard is the norm. But the industry is changing and the proof is out there in many forms. Many athletes and coaches will use zones, either numbered or coloured, to determine the intensity of a given session. This, again, is all about getting the best results from the training and not just blindly programming and hoping for the best.
The Last Word
To summarize; you need to use intelligent deliberation not just one-size-fits-all training. Fitness should be thought of as long-term, not short-term. Progress can be measured in many different ways but ultimately, what you’re doing needs to be sustainable so that progress can continue.
But don't be fooled. This is not an excuse to be lazy or to do less work hoping for more results. It's simply the law of diminishing returns.
*The purpose of this article is to open dialogue and offer guidance. It is not a substitute for services with a coach or certified professional.