Posted by Ian Kay on October 7, 2010
Intensity doesn't necessarily have to look like this.
I wrote last time about the importance of Consistency for fitness goals. Here I’m going to expand on that to include another element: Intensity. Showing up regularly and getting the work done is only as valuable as you make it. In other words, if you are consistently lifting a weight that is no longer challenging, then you are spinning your wheels. If you are consistently running on the treadmill at the same speed for the same length of time every workout, you are trotting down the road of diminishing returns.
The word intensity can feel intimidating. We think of huge, sweaty guys, straining to move gigantic weights, or lean athletes blasting away at thirty miles per hour on a bike. But intensity in the gym is a completely relative term, as far as weights, speed and types of exercises. What I want you to think of when considering intensity in your workouts is this: You are working at a pace or with a weight that forces you to give your total concentration; your mental focus is centered on doing better – even just a little bit better – than the last time. It is something you have either never done or been able to do before. Necessarily, this will pull you slightly out of your comfort zone. Not to the point of pain or dizziness, but rather there will be a moment or two where your mind tells you, “This is getting difficult, let’s stop!” and instead of listening, you will continue. This is the stimulus that your body needs to change.
So you can see that the weights you use are not indicative of intensity. If a 15 lbs. dumbbell is heavy for you, then you can achieve a good level of intensity. If ten body-weight squats gets you breathing hard, then fifteen squats might feel intense. But remember, if a set of fifteen reps with a 15lbs dumbbell doesn’t challenge you, then doing only that set falls short of any kind of intensity. You can think outside of the box: If doing a couple of sets with 15 lbs is easy, you might achieve intensity by doing, say, eight sets, and with very little rest. It gives your body a new challenge, and therefore a signal that a (positive) physical adaptation is needed.
Of course, I don’t recommend working past the point of safety. Good form when executing an exercise is paramount. Joint pain is a signal to stop what you are doing. Getting dizzy to the point of nearly passing out is not a worthy goal (though it can happen once in a great while when you push yourself – you just don’t want to aim for that result!). Men are usually more guilty than women when it comes to this, especially with heavy weights. On any given night, you’ll be able to see a handful of guys at the gym craning their necks and wrenching their backs into unhealthy postures in order to move a weight from point A to point B. Just like doing less than you can handle has diminishing returns, so does doing more than you can handle with good form. An inflamed rotator cuff and a slipped disc in the spine do not lend to continuous progress.
So each workout, ask yourself these things: Can I do more than I’ve been doing? Can I add a little weight to this lift? What if I went just a bit faster? Right now your body can handle a certain amount of work. If you want your body to change, than that amount of work must change first.
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