‘Bodybuilding intensity’ is an often ambiguously used word for a frequently misunderstood concept in the realm of building muscle. This is partly due to the word ‘intensity’, which seems to have two distinct meanings. One way it’s used is in describing “intensity of effort”, as in:
“That workout was intense; I really went all out to get those last couple of reps.”
Another way ‘bodybuilding intensity’ is used is as words to describe a particular training method. In this context, it typically means the use of workout poundage that is close to a bodybuilder’s one-rep maximum. So in other words, it’s come to mean “heavy training.” Strangely, this is often thought of as mutually exclusive to ‘volume training.’ In typical bodybuilding parlance, you’ll hear the “high intensity training vs. volume training” debate. It’s not unusual to find online message boards in which bodybuilders have questioned whether to use ‘high intensity’ or ‘high volume’ in their approach to building more muscle.
The ambiguity of ‘bodybuilding intensity’ is obviously present in both uses of the words. “Intensity of effort” is only subjectively measurable within each and every one of us. It’s also sort of in the eye-of-the-beholder when observed in someone else. Each of us can only possess our personal experience of what exhaustion feels like – of what maximum effort is – and of what it means to push beyond our past perceived limits. And we only know it intuitively when we witness these experiences in other people.
Some fuzziness also abounds in the ‘training method’ use of “intensity”: How can ‘high intensity’ be mutually exclusive with volume when some volume is measurable in any workout? If volume weren’t always needed and present, a workout would consist of walking into the gym – doing a one-rep max lift – and walking out. Even if it were possible to make progress doing something this absurd, how did it ever get the words “high intensity” attached to it? No more “intensity of effort” was required than would be of the last repetition in a series of sets that resulted in more volume. Maybe “high intensity training” would be more aptly named “high density training” since the volume is more densely compacted in a time frame.
Ha-ha… just an idea.
‘Bodybuilding Intensity’: How much “intensity of effort?”
In discussing ‘bodybuilding intensity’, I want you to picture a scenario that regularly occurs in the gym where I train.
There’s a “personal trainer” who trains his clients there – one among many. He appears reasonably strong and somewhat muscular, but not exceptionally so. Let’s put it this way: He displays no physique pictures that I’m aware of, and the reason is obvious: if he did, it’d be clear that he doesn’t have a well-developed or reasonably balanced musculature.
But he does have at least one very loyal client. This guy is under his tutelage at least four days a week. I’d guess the client is in his early sixties, though he could be a bit below or a little over that; hard to tell. What’s plain to see is the client’s displayed “intensity of effort”; every single set is reminiscent of a woman in labor – contorted facial expressions accompanied by loud groans and occasional outright screams conveying an obvious reaction to pain from the lactic acid overload being applied to his working muscles. Every set is heavy and appears to be of maximum effort.
His trainer with the ‘ho-hum build’ appears to take smug pride in this scene. I can only guess it’s because he deems it a worthy advertisement of the high demands he’d put on the bodies of potential clients who are witnessing it. His apparent smugness could NOT be due to his client’s physique; the guy was skinny when he’d started and appears to have not gained a pound of muscle in the countless months I’ve seen the two together. With that kind of “bodybuilding intensity”, I’m not surprised.
Just a day prior to this writing, I spoke with the client for the first time. We ran into each other as we were washing our hands in the restroom:
“How’s your training going?” He asked considerately.
I turned, a bit surprised: “Fantastic… this workout’s been great”, I responded without the least bit of pretention. The shoulder workout I was in the middle of was proving beyond my expectations. “How’s yours going?”
“Oh… great… John’s my trainer ya-know… he’s one of the best around. He’s really good.”
“Oh? What makes him good?” I asked. This was not an attempt at antagonism on my part; just a sincere elicitation of beliefs.
“Oh… he really pushes me. He makes me add weight all the time”, he answered with enthusiasm. “I used to train under female trainers… they didn’t push me as hard.”
“Uh-huh… so you just kind of go balls-out on every set of every workout… how’s that working out for you?” I was mostly curious about what his answer would be; I could see how little it was “working.”
“Well… good… I’m not where I want to be; I want to look like you”, he answered flatteringly as he nodded toward my upper arm.
What do you think I was thinking at that point? Of course, I wanted to tell him that if he wants to have results like mine, he should fire the dufus he has for a trainer and give me a shot at it. But I don’t believe in stealing clients from other trainers, so I held my tongue and thanked him for the compliment.
We parted ways as he mumbled something about how older age prevents a person from making good muscle building progress. That’s a limiting belief; it’s idiotic training routines that prevent people of any age from making muscle building gains. And what’s idiotic? “Bodybuilding intensity”, aka workout intensity, of the kind which his trainer is having him practice.
Allow me to be as frank as I can: If you’re a natural bodybuilder – or even one who takes steroids but is “off-cycle” – you will NOT make long-term muscle building gains with the kind of training just described. This is especially the case if you work each muscle once-a-week or more. This is ‘bodybuilding intensity’ at the insanity level.
Training to failure and the use of forced reps are inadvertent prescriptions for muscle building plateaus. Your sets should be intense enough that you almost reach contractile failure, but you don’t actually reach it. In the book HardBody Success, I share the method describing exactly what to shoot for in every workout.
‘Bodybuilding Intensity’: Another way to describe “heavy training?”
High intensity training is often defined as muscle building workouts in which poundage relatively close to a trainee’s one-rep maximum lifts are used. So if a bodybuilder can bench press 200 pounds maximum for one rep, a workout weight well above fifty percent of that might be considered “heavy training” and thus, “high intensity.” As mentioned previously, I’m not sure how ‘intensity’ came to be the word for relatively high workout weights and a sort of antonym of ‘volume.’ A bodybuilder could certainly take 50% (or even less) of his max one-rep lifts and create intense workouts if he or she wanted to.
In many discussions of sets, reps, workout weights, and bodybuilding intensity, some bodybuilders lose sight of the primary objective of weight training for muscle – that is, to turn heavy weights into lighter ones. If you can do shoulder presses with 125 pounds right now, you’ll need to be doing them with 150 pounds in the future if you want your shoulders to be bigger. The focus should be on how to best get from point A to point B. What kind of working weights, sets, rep schemes, rest-between-sets, and workout schedules will most assuredly take you there?
Experience has taught me that the “intensity of effort” needs to be high (but not too high) – the poundage needs to be in the medium/high range – and the volume needs to be monitored for steady increases. When all these are optimized, it can create ‘bodybuilding intensity’ at a nearly perfect level.