In the previous article on High Intensity Training, we discussed what it is and how it works, based on the General Adaption Syndrome. We also looked at the effects of over-training and how to avoid it. In this article, we’ll take a look at the more practical details of training with this methodology, including split routines, exercises, warm-ups, progressive overload, intensity techniques as well as mindset.
When people start out training they are more than likely doing a full body workout and this works well in the beginning training 3 days a week. As you get stronger, it becomes more difficult to complete a full body routine as it requires more energy. Therefore, it makes sense to split the training so that you are training legs and arms on the first training days and then chest, back and shoulders on the next training day. With 3 training sessions a week, this equates to training each muscle group every 4 or 5 days. This works well for a while until you get stronger and need more recovery time. You see, your ability to recover from intense workouts does not increase at the same rate as your strength gains. We’ll talk a bit more about recovery later in this article. As you progress, it makes sense to do a 3 way split so that you are training each muscle group once a week. For example, chest and arms training on Monday, leg training on Wednesday and back and shoulders training on Friday. You could split this training even more and do 4 workouts a week if this works better for you and helps you perform a shorter and more intense session.
There is a lot of debate on which are the most effective exercises for muscle growth. Some say that squats are the number one mass builder for legs, deadlifts for the back and bench press for the chest. These exercises will certainly stimulate a lot of muscle but they don’t work for everyone. It depends on the bio-mechanics of your body. Everyone is a little different in this respect in that some have longer legs and longer arms whereas others have shorter legs and shorter arms which affect their leverages.
This affects your leverage. Some people may find that squatting puts a lot of stress on their lower back as they are bending over more in the movement to maintain balance. In the bench press, a person with a deep rib cage and shorter arms will have a shorter range of motion whereas a person with longer arms and a shallower rib cage has a lot further to go with the bar and may find the bench press puts a lot of stress on their shoulder joints. You have to experiment with these exercises and make your own judgement as to whether they work for you. If not, then do something else. There is no point slogging away at an exercises that place unnecessary stress on your joints, increase the risk of injury and don’t stimulate the target muscle as much as another exercise.
Some practitioners of high intensity training advocate the use of only one exercise per muscle group. For me personally, I like to hit each muscle group from a number of angles. Yes, there is some debate as to whether this makes any difference to stimulating the muscle fibres. The theory being that muscle fibres in a particular group will fire all together to contract the muscle or they won’t. There is no halfway house. That may be true scientifically, however, I do enjoy training the muscle from various angles and the mind-muscle connection I have in leg press is different to that of hack squat or leg extensions – I get a different feel in the muscle. In addition, some muscle groups need to be worked according to their function. For example, the latimus dorsi works to pull the scapula down and back. Pulldowns are an effective exercise to pull the scapula down but barbell rows are certainly more effective in pulling the scapula back and stimulating the lats and rhomboids. The bottom line is that I use a maximum of three exercise for the larger muscle groups to train various function of the muscle group, to get a different mind-muscle connection with each exercise and to keep it interesting. I want to enjoy this stuff too?
The initial warm up is usually riding the stationary bike for 10 minutes and stretching. I’m not a big fan of excessive stretching pre-workout preferring instead to do some light movements to pump more blood into the muscles I’ll be working and to wake up the neural pathways. Traditionally, the warm-up sets themselves are build up sets, gradually adding weight to the bar until you reach your top weight or the weight of your working sets for the session.
This is important for powerlifters who will be going down to 1 or 2 reps at certain stages of their training cycle. However, for building muscle or hypertrophy with high intensity training, we don’t want to be wasting energy on too many warm up sets. There is a balance to doing just enough to ensure we are ready for an all-out effort and doing too much, wasting energy. On the first exercise of the day, I find that I need 3 warm up sets with gradually heavier weights. I’ll start at about 50% of the weight I’ll be using that day, then go to 65%, and then about 80%. This seems to work best for me and allows me to warms up the muscles thoroughly and gets my neural pathways fired up and ready for action. Many years ago, I used to only do two warmup sets at 50% and 70% before going to my top weight but I found that it was too much of a jump and I’d experience ‘weight shock’. By putting in an extra set, I was able to avoid this as long as my reps were in the 6 – 10 range. You’ll have to experiment to find which weight progression works for you in getting to your top weight for the day without wasting energy. On my second exercise for a particular muscle group, I don’t need to warm up as much but I do like to get into the movement before going to my top set. It generally only takes 2 sets at about 65 and 80% and I’m ready. If I’m doing a third exercise for a muscle group, which might be an isolation exercise, I only need one set at 75-80% to be ready.
This is where the magic happens. If a workout isn’t progressive in some way, then we haven’t sent the signal for adaption. Only when you ask the body to do something it hasn’t done before, will it adapt to that stress. Yes, training is a stressor to the body and our nervous system can’t tell the difference from the different types of stressors out there. That is why we need to be careful about how much stress we expose ourselves to.
If we’ve got a lot of stress going on in our daily life and then we put a whole lot more on it with intense training, then it is easy to see how we can overtraining as discussed in the part one of this article. So progressive overload is the name of the game for strength and muscle gains. If you could do 300lbs for 5 reps on the bench press last week, then this week, you need to be aiming for ether 300lbs for 6 reps, or 305lbs for 5 reps so that we have some progression. It’s as simple as that. However, easier said than done as evidenced by the masses of people training with the same weights and repetitions as they were the year before. There is nothing wrong with that type of training as it will keep you in shape and toned up, if that is your objective, however, if your goal is to build muscle, then you need to be progressive, period.
When we are in the gym for less than an hour, we want to get the most out of that hour. As I see it, I’m there for a reason and that is to beat last week’s number’s by training as intensely as possible. This means training to failure on all of my top sets. Sometimes, I will take a set beyond failure using forced reps, partials, or negatives. However, I don’t use these techniques in every session because I would quickly overtrain and burn out. In addition, some exercises don’t lend themselves to techniques such as negatives because of safety concerns. For example, I would not do negatives on the leg press or on bench press. It’s just too dangerous. The chest press machine does lend itself well to negatives with the aid of a training partner. Bent over barbell rows are an excellent exercise for the back but don’t lend themselves to forced reps or negatives so I will train to failure on these with some partials at the end. Over the years I’ve gravitated to some favourite techniques that I use but I only wheel them out maybe once every three weeks or so. That way, I’m staying the right side of the stress curve for adaption and gains. My main focus is progressive overload which generally means I’ll be training to failure and aiming to beat the numbers from the week before.
Getting into the zone is so important to a good workout and high performance in any sport or endeavour. If you go to the gym and your mind is on other things and you are feeling stressed out, you’re probably not going to put everything into your training. You are distracted. To workout with high intensity, and to put everything into it, you need to be focused. You also need to have some goals for each and every session that are part of a bigger, longer term goal.
There also has to be some very compelling reasons behind these goals. When there aren’t enough compelling reasons for doing something, or the reasons aren’t compelling enough, then the motivation and fizzles out pretty quickly. We see this every year in the gym after the 1st January. It gets real busy in there for a month or so, but then it starts to thin out again as all those New Year resolutions fall by the wayside. When you’ve got some really compelling reasons for achieving a goal, motivation takes care of itself and you are driven towards your goals. Before a workout, and during the workout, I find visualisation helps to boost my performance. Many athletes use visualisation techniques before a competition to get them in to the zone. It works. It primes you for the work that needs to be done. Research shows that visualising physical exercise activates the same parts of the brain as actual physical exercise. This lead researchers to see if visualisation or mental practice improved subsequent physical performance. The results showed that five days of metal practice followed by two hours of physical practice improved performance as well as five days of physical practice did! But we already know this in the sports world and we have been practising it for years. Neuroscience is just providing the scientific evidence that it works.
My Own Experience with HIT
I have trained with HIT for many years and have made excellent gains from this method of training. It makes sense to me so I’ve stuck with it. Sometimes I have trained too intensely for too long and ended up overtraining. Everyone’s capacity for training stress is different and you have to listen to your body to recognise the symptoms so that you can adjust your training accordingly.
After making the mistakes myself, I’m always on the lookout for the signs of overtraining. Just backing off from the all-out intensity every so often can help to avoid overtraining and burnout. I’ve also found that training each body-part once a week is optimum for me. For others, they may be able to train each bodypart every 6 days whereas others might need 10 or more days rest between training a body-part. For me, training 3 days a week is optimum and if I train 4 days a week, then I overtrain and feel pretty lousy. If training is going to make me tired, irritable and generally unwell, then what is the point? I’m not in it for that. Training 3 days a week allows me to take at least a day off in between workouts and on those days, I’ll do some moderate cardio session to help with the recovery process. Just 40 minutes of brisk walking will get the blood pumping around the body and also stimulate the lymphatic system to transport, filter and remove cellular waste products from the system.
After many years of training, I use exercises that suit my bio-mechanics and those that I can get a good mind-muscle connection. I really enjoy good old fashioned barbell squats but I’ve found that for me, they aren’t the best quad builders. They are great for building power as they involve so many muscle groups but for targeting the quads, I’ve found other exercises such as leg press and hack squats more effective. I also enjoy bench press and this has become a mainstay of my chest routine. However, the bench press comes with a high level of risk of injury for some people. For those with a deep rib cage and shorter arms, the range of motion is not as great as someone with a shallower rib cage and longer arms. The bar doesn’t have as far to travel to touch the chest. However, if you have a shallower rib cage and longer arms, you may well be overextending your natural range of motion when doing bench presses. I take this into account when benching and only use a range of motion that makes sense to me. I’m not a competitive powerlifter so I don’t need t bring the bar all the way down. That would take me into the injury zone where the risk of injury is much greater. I only use a range of motion that is natural for my body. I don’t want to overextend into an unnatural position just because other’s can do it. I also used to do a lot of deadlifts from the floor but I’ve found that over the years, I tend to sustain more injuries when I do these. I started doing deadlifts off 4 inch blocks and this meant I could avoid the injury zone. When it comes to exercise choice, you’ve got to do what works for you and what suits your body. If a particular exercise hurts your joints or you just don’t feel the mind muscle connection, choose another one. It’s your body.
I find it useful to keep a training log so that each time I go into the gym, I can refer back to my last workout for that particular muscle group and know what I’ve got to do in that session to stimulate adaption. That might just mean an extra rep on a particular exercise or putting what I call, a couple of biscuits on the bar – just some 1 ¼ kg plates either side. It doesn’t seem like much and you might think that its not worth it, but over time, this really adds up.
It’s also good to look back at your training log to see the progress you making and you should be seeing progress over the longer term. Putting 20lbs on your bench press or squat over 3 months is good progress and tells you that your body is adapting to the stress and you are staying the right side of the exhaustion phase. It’s also motivating to see the numbers going up. To wrap this up, we'll take a look at a training routine. This is one that I am using right now and making good gains with.
Example Training Routine
Quads. Hamstrings. Calves
Chest. Biceps. Triceps.
Back. Delts. Traps.
Sports & fitness nutritionist, researcher and author on a mission to improve the human condition. Focusing on evidence-based and outcome-based nutrition, training, mindset & environment