Programming for strength 2: Intensity.

When we talk about training intensity this can often mean different things to different people. To some it means the effort they exert, to others it’s related to the psychological readiness and focus they bring to a training session. But for the most part, when people refer to intensity the definition is actually quite far off the mark when we consider the scientific definition used within strength and conditioning research.

The bench marks for intensity in endurance sports often refers to a percentage of VO2 max, or maximum oxygen uptake, as this is an indicator of aerobic effort and is related to performance. In resistance training when we refer to intensity we are talking about the percentage of our 1 repetition max and this is how many strength training programs are structured. They start by working at percentage of a previously determined 1 repetition max (1RM) and build increasing volume at each percentage. Gradually we progress the percentage until an adaptation is forced and then hopefully on a testing week or competition, we beat our previous 1RM and have a new bench mark for our maximal lifts to start the next training block.

For powerlifting, fundamentally we need to be focussing our intensity at 80+% of 1RM and then increasing this over time. This makes sense when we consider the goal of strength training is to get stronger. This is the concept of specificity which is fundamental to any sport… If you want to get good at something, do that very thing! It is ok to add in supplementary training for any sport to improve strength, speed, technique etc., but fundamental to improving performance is actually doing your sport of choice under the appropriate conditions. For strength sports such as powerlifting this obviously means that most of our training should take place at high intensity. This is important to condition the body to handling heavier loads and using proper technique at these intensities. However, it is ill advised to just train to break our 1RM each week for a number of different reasons:

Firstly, training at high intensity increases injury risk, especially as we close in on heavier weights. Most of us have a weak link in our body as we perform heavier weights which cause us to fail a lift; if we get lucky we just fail the lift, but if we put too much pressure on this weak link then we are at risk of serious injury. Sometimes we might get away with this but unfortunately it will eventually catch up with us. Training at lighter (but still higher intensities) will allow tighter technique but still be on a threshold where any weak points in the chain can be identified and supplementary training can be employed to strengthen that specific area. Although we talk about specificity, many programs do include many variations on a movement targeting different portions of a lift to bring up weaker areas. One way to do this is to develop muscle in those regions where we break down and the best way to do that is training at bodybuilding intensities (60-85% 1RM). So bodybuilding can have a very distinct role in strength sports if we use the right tools that it gives us.

Secondly, this also allows for us to build volume. The chances of progressing a 1RM each week without a stimulus to force an adaptation is highly unlikely. If we want to get stronger we have to progress, and one way we can do this is by progressing volume. For example, if our 1RM bench was 100kg and that’s all we tried to break each week then our volume each week might only increase slightly before plateauing. Let’s consider 1 rep at 100kg is 100kg of volume for that set; but if we did 90% for 3 repetitions, that’s 3x90kg or 270kg of volume. You can see this is a much greater stimulus to cause adaptation. Obviously there needs to be a trade-off between volume and intensity, and this is why powerlifters and bodybuilders each have their different ‘sweet spots’ specific to their goals; Although you can see that there is obviously a cross-over as top level bodybuilders are still very strong, and elite powerlifters/weightlifters can still carry a ton of muscle. It is the nuances of specificity of training, technique development and genetics that will account for most of the differences in look and performance.

Lower intensity ‘explosive’ work is also commonly employed to develop technique and work on the body’s capacity to accelerate a load. The quicker we can accelerate the load, the more force we can produce and the easier we can lift it, and training our muscle fibres and nervous system in this manner can have some benefit. But it is fundamentally important to remember that training should mostly be focused at an intensity that is specific to reaching our goals.

The intensity at which we train will therefore affect the maximal number of repetitions we can perform and this is a good indicator of strength progression at sub-maximal loads. For example, if your 5RM was 85% of your tested 1RM at the start of the program but now your 5RM is at 90% of 1RM, or you can now do 8RM at 85%, you know you are getting stronger without the need for testing 1RM too frequently, and set a new 1RM without having to over extend yourself to beat your previous mark. Too big a jump in 1RM setting is without doubt one of the biggest risk factors for injury; be sensible in the increases you use in testing no matter how good you feel. You don’t want to undo months of hard work by doing something silly and unavoidable and having to go back to square one! Consistency is the key to constant progression and as much as that means training hard, you have to also know when to be smart and rein things in… Reset and go again!

One of the most important effects of training intensity is the effect it is has on recovery, particularly in-between sets. The heavier the load, the more stress we place onto our immediate energy systems; Although this may not lead to fatigue as many people classically see it, such as being massively out of breath, sweating and in borderline pain. The rapid and full activation of muscles required at these intensities places huge demand not only on a vast number of muscles in the body but also the system that activates them, our nervous system. It is for this reason that despite strength sports having less overall energy requirements in terms of calorie expenditure than other higher volume resistance or endurance training, rest intervals between sets will likely be several minutes in order to successfully hit all your lifts at these intensities. As a final thought, the time for recovery between sets will not only be governed by the training intensity but will also differ between people for a number of different reasons; These include how rested they are, the phase of training, lifestyle factors and their nutrition and recovery protocols.

For strength training it is advisable that you take as much time as you need to be fully recovered between each set. Team TTC.