Intensity is one of the most important aspects of working out. Achieving aesthetic results in the gym calls for high intensity levels.
This is the first in a series of articles that will go into detailed discussion on the 7 workout principles that I wrote about here.
GYM PRINCIPLE NO 1: INTENSITY
7 workout principles that ensures results. No 1: intensity
A rewarding endeavor
I have listed what I consider to be seven important principles to comply with at the gym. You can find this list here, in this article. If you can adopt and make use of these seven principles they will equip you for pursuing the Pen and barbell physique, namely a physique that is muscularly defined, statuesque in its appearance, holding a low body fat percentage (the whole year around, not just for a special event) and eye-catching vascularity while at the same time being strong and able - in short: an aesthetically impressive physique.
Following these principles, using them as guidelines and sources of inspiration at the gym, requires practice and commitment. It takes time to blend them into the natural and automatized attitude that you are aiming for. It is not made in a day or two. It demands a strong will and lots of stamina. The rewarding results, though, will certainly be worth the effort.
I will – in a series of articles which will be published throughout the summer of 2015 - give the Pen and Barbell-readers concrete examples and multifaceted illustrations of how to turn these seven principles into practice. I will dedicate an article to each of them. In this article – the first in the series – I will focus on principle No 1, intensity.
The pecs is an example of a muscle group where lifting heavy and bulking up will not suffice if you are looking to achieve a qualitative and sculptured look. It will require a high and sustained level of intensity to bring details into these muscles.
How to achieve and maintain workout intensity
Shying away from all modesty I will here loudly proclaim that I proud myself with having always maintained a high level of intensity in my training. Different people have different strengths – this applies to training and working out just as it applies to other areas in life – and for me this is a strength proven over a long period of time: I always train at a high level of intensity.
This is how I make sure my workout sessions hold the required intensity levels:
1. Progressive overload.
Making sure to regularly increase the total workload is an important factor when talking about what one can do to ensure that the intensity levels are high. Lift heavier. Lift more. Do more sets. This is actually the most basic of all ways to push the intensity further. It does, however, have its obvious limitations, in that you will reach plateaus that hinder you to increase the weight you are lifting every time you go to the gym. You will get used to the heavy work load, which means that it will put less and less stress on your nervous system and your body as a whole. It is, of course, a good thing, that you will find yourself able to handle more and more work with less and less effort. It means that you are making progress and getting stronger. As far as intensity goes, though, it means that you will have to find other ways of challenging yourself. Relying solely on progressive overload – in the meaning of successively lifting heavier weights – is not enough. If you are to, so to speak, keep raising the bar, then you will have to employ the other techniques described in this article.
I have myself periods where I put more emphasis on increasing the weights – and periods where I let it play a less significant role in relation to the other intensity-urging factors that are listed below.
2. Short resting intervals in between sets.
I often keep the resting under a minute – often way under, landing at 20-40 seconds. At times I make a conscious effort to push myself even harder, keeping the resting interval in between sets at 10-20 seconds. Some people will tell you that this isn´t the ideal rest interval for muscle-building, claiming that you should rest significantly longer. They support these opinions by talk of “muscle fiber recruiting”, “strength gains” and etcetera. I consider their point of views debatable – but, more importantly, I consider them off point. Remember: I am here writing about achieving a muscularly defined physique, statuesque in its appearance and hard all year around – not a physique that is bulked up to its maximum in terms of size and weight. The Pen and barbell ideal is a body that is strong and possesses stamina – a body that will allow you to lift impressively heavy weights and work hard for hours on end if the need be. Keeping the rest intervals in between sets at 10-90 seconds will ensure high intensity, which in turn will ensure that you are, so to speak, firing at all cylinders. In short: you are making sure that you are training hard, pushing yourself and – consequently – developing.
Intense vascularity comes only from intense workout
If you train at such an intensity level as the one I am advocating you will be breathing heavily throughout your workout session. At times you will be out of breath and forced to prolong the resting. You will be pushing the weight lifting part of your workout to a point where you are burning a lot of calories and stimulating your cardiovascular shape and conditioning as well as forcing your muscles to grow. I speak from my own experience. I had ten years during which I performed no cardio whatsoever – still keeping my body fat low all year around, while gaining muscle and never losing sight of either my vascularity or my muscle definition. This was possible due to the high levels of intensity that I achieved during each and every workout session. You don’t have to spend hours on end at the treadmill in order for you to either burn fat or get in a good all round-shape (which, in my opinion, includes low heart rate and good stamina) – and, on the other end of the spectra, you shouldn´t let the all too common lift-heavy-at-low-reps-and-rest-for-3 to 5-minutes-evasions keep you from training hard and with true intensity.
3. Supersets and duo-sets.
A good way of being able to lift heavy in spite of short resting intervals is to perform supersets, meaning that you perform two different exercises after each other, without resting in between. This way you get the better of two worlds: you are keeping the tempo and the intensity high while still being able to lift relatively heavy weights in each and every exercise. Personally I consider it a superset when the two exercises that are being performed are targeted at different muscles (for example the biceps and the triceps). If they target the same muscle it becomes a whole other deal. This is a shocking technique in its own rights, with its own benefits (mainly the effective and immediate overloading of one selected muscle), that I call duo-setting. An example of a duo set would be chins followed by bent over barbell rows, or bench presses followed by dumbbell flys. Sometimes supersets are criticized for being performance-lowering, the argument being that the absence of proper resting will force you to handle lighter weights, which in turn, the argument goes, will hinder your gains and your development. The logic in these arguments looks solid at first glance – but then it all really comes down to how you define strength and, furthermore, what kind of strength you yourself are aiming for; are you aiming for an increased 1 rep-maximum in a certain exercise, like the bench press or the deadlift, or are you aiming for the kind of strength that allows you to work hard for hours on end, lifting heavy without having to rest and enduring lactic acid over a prolonged period of time? If the latter is more your cup of tea (it is certainly mine), then super-setting, duo-setting and other intensity-driving techniques is a good way of going about pursuing those goals.
Personally I am very fond of super-setting. I do it almost every session at the gym. I find it particularly useful when training arms. I also do drop-sets - not as often and not as much as I superset, but enough to make it worth mentioning here as one of the ways that I keep the intensity levels high.
In order for you to build quality into your body you need to train it hard and with intensity. Veins, cuts and striations comes from hard and sustained training.
Doing circuits follows the same principle as the super-setting: you perform more in less time and you keep the intensity levels high, which guarantees more visibly impressive results than just lifting heavy for a few reps and then rest for several minutes before going at it again.
I followed this concept for years without ever thinking of it as “circuits”. I did it as a natural consequence of my will to keep the intensity levels high during my workouts. For me, 20 sets in 60 minutes have never been enough, I’d even hesitate to call that a real workout (at least I wouldn´t call it a satisfying one – not if you are aiming at achieving the Pen and barbell physique). I usually aim for 30-50 sets in 60 minutes.
Instead of just waiting around I like to go from one exercise to another, making sure to really push myself and not just concentrate on exhausting a certain muscle group but also putting the lungs to work and forcing the sweat to flow. When my face is all red, my skin feels like it is heated up and my pulse is felt in my templates – then I know that I have been able to ensure the appropriate levels of intensity.
5. Presence, engagement and commitment.
Anyone who knows me or have seen me training can bear witness to how non-communicative I am at the gym. I do not apologize for this. On the contrary; I claim it to be one of my greatest assets during my workouts, this ability of mine to shut everything else out. This is a very important aspect of intensity, most probably the most important.
If you have been working out for some time you will no doubt have experienced the fact that what appears – at the surface of things – to be two similar workout sessions can lead to very different results. The exact same number of exercises, sets and reps, with the exact same weights, will one time result in sore muscles and a distinct feeling of progress the day after – and another time it will leave you untouched and in doubt of the workout’s whole set up. When this happens there is a strong possibility that what separated the two different sessions, causing the different experiences, was your own mindset more than anything else. The never-ending discourse on sets and reps in all its glory, your presence, engagement and commitment will more often than not be what distinguishes the great workouts from the mediocre ones. There is such a thing as quality of performance – and if you have any kind of advanced goals you need to ensure high quality more often than not if you are to achieve what you want.
Why are you doing this? Why are you at the gym? What do you want to achieve? However familiar you might be with the answers to these questions you will still want to remind yourself from time to time of the concrete reasons to why you are dedicating yourself to gym training. In fact, a prompt and vivid self-reminder of your goals, while entering the gym and changing clothes, is a great way to force both mind and body into the kind of fighting state that allows you to reach the highest levels of intensity during the ensuing workout session.
You are not here to just get the numbers down. You are not here to fill another page of your workout diary. You are not here to socialize. You are not here to go through the motions while listening to your favorite music. If you intend to in fact make a reality of your goals then you need to look at them from time to time – and then go after them with full and renewed force.
My own goals can be summed up in what I like to call the Pen and Barbell ideal. This ideal could be described as follows:
A visibly impressive physique with emphasis on quality and aesthetics.
A statuesque and strong appearance .
A body that allows for hard and sustained work.
An ability to lift heavy many times with only short intervals of resting in between.
A good shape all year round, without periods of excessive cutting or bulking.
Quality doesn't happen by chance. Detailed goals lead to detailed results.
These six criteria offer an overview of my own personal goals and what I mean when I speak of the Pen and barbell ideal. If I was to zoom in on details – such as goals for different muscle groups, etcetera – I could, among other things, mention my emphasis on visibly present serratus muscles, a good biceps peak (rather than just a generally big biceps), a “striped” triceps and a good V-shape – just to give a few examples of what I myself aim for and thus, hopefully, create a more vivid picture of how I apply the principle of intensity and the method of goal-awareness to my own workouts.
As I have already stated elsewhere I consider change, alongside intensity, to be one of the seven basic principles one should comply with and strive after at the gym. I have also already stated, in the earlier article that summed up the seven important principles, that the ambitious gym-goer should aim to blend the mentioned seven principles into one seamless attitude; an approach to - or, if you will, a philosophy of - working out. This having been repeated it shouldn´t surprise anyone that I feel myself compelled to list change – a basic principle in its own right – also as an important aspect of intensity.
Change comes in many shapes and forms. In this context it could mean a new exercise, a new workout design (pairing the muscle groups in a new way, for example), a new approach to rep-numbers, experimenting with performance tempo, etcetera – there are many different ways to ensure variety and change in your routine – and it is one of the best ways to really push the energy levels and the intensity levels.
Here follows a few examples of changes that I have introduced in my own workout routine. Note that I have made all of these changes in just the last eight weeks, which make the list in question very suitable for illustrating my own emphasizing of change as an important tool.
I have tried two exercises (the Zottman biceps curl & a certain back machine at my gym) that I have never employed before.
I have had two workout sessions intermixed with my usual routine that consisted of body weight exercises only.
I have changed my pairings of muscle groups.
I have performed new kinds of supersets. (The inclined barbell bench press & lats pulldowns, plus the inclined dumbbells bench press & chin-ups – both combinations that was earlier untried by me.)
I threw an outdoor sprint and abs session into the mix.
Intensity is one of the most important aspects of working out. Good intensity ensures good results, while lack of intensity makes any significant progress improbable. To push your intensity levels there are a number of things you can do, for example:
1. Make sure you put yourself under pressure through progressive overload.
2. Try from time to time to shorten your rest intervals in between sets.
3. Perform supersets, duo-sets and drop-sets during your workouts.
4. Push yourself through the use of circuit training.
5. Check your mindset and make sure you have the presence, engagement and commitment that is required for you to achieve the highest and most rewarding levels of intensity.
6. Renew your motivation by taking a new fresh look at your goals – and by reminding yourself of those goals next time you enter the gym.
7. Never let your workout routine rust from sameness and monotony.
You must never allow your workout routine to stale. Keeping intensity levels high will ensure continuing improvements.
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