Intensity Is Everything: Part 1 - Building New Muscle With Intensity Techniques

Increase Intensity
Bodybuilder and contest coach Cliff Wilson explores the concepts of training load and volume, helping you to optimize your training and maximize results.

How varying intensity techniques can lead to new muscle.

Workout Intensity

All my life I have always wanted a cool nickname. In high school I even went so far as to try to give myself the nickname C-Dub. This was definitely not a proud moment for me. But recently, after speaking with a friend at my gym I was informed that the majority of the people at my gym already had a nickname for me.

Initially I was excited, but that changed when I found out what my nickname was. My great new nickname is now “That Crazy Guy”. As in, “Be careful not step in front of That Crazy Guy while he’s doing walking lunges.” Apparently, some people at my gym feel that I am crazy because of the level of intensity that I train with. This is not exactly the awesome nickname I had in mind, but I’ll take it.

I don’t expect the average gym goer to understand the need for ever increasing intensity, but too many bodybuilders and figure competitors fail to understand this as well. It doesn’t matter what level of training you are at. If you always do 4 sets of 10 reps on the squat with the same weight every leg day and make no effort to increase the intensity of your workout, your body will make no effort to change the amount of muscle you have.

Just because you get a pump from a workout does not mean you stimulated muscle growth. This is especially important for seasoned lifters. After someone has been training consistently for years it takes extreme measure to make significant improvements.

When it comes to training the word intensity has many different meanings. When putting together a training, program intensity in all forms need to be raised and lowered to make gains without overtraining. Knowing the reactions that the body has to varying levels of intensity will allow you to use many different methods to increase muscle growth.

Load

Load during a set can be expressed as percent of your 1RM (1 Rep Maximum). Lifting weights using both light and heavy loads will induce hypertrophy, which is the primary mechanism of increasing muscle size (1). One very common debate among lifters is whether it is better to lift with lighter loads or heavier loads.

Lifting weights that are approximately 85% 1RM to muscular failure or near muscular failure have been shown to stimulate hypertrophy best (1). Even though the greatest gains in muscle growth are seen with moderate loads, heavy and lighter loads must be used to maximize full potential. This is due to the fact that there are two different types of hypertrophy that occur with resistance training (2).

The first is called myofibrillar hypertrophy. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is an increase in the number and size of the actin and myosin filaments within muscle tissue (2). This type of hypertrophy is accompanied by strength gains since it involves an increase in the contractile tissue (2). Although you cannot completely isolate one type of hypertrophy over another, myofibrillar hypertrophy primarily occurs when lifting with heavy loads for low reps (2).

Those new to lifting should note that they will notice huge increases in strength with little increases in hypertrophy no matter what rep ranges or loads are used. These strength gains are primarily due to neural adaptations, as previously untrained individuals may have difficulty activating their motor units (1).

Workout Intensity

The second type of hypertrophy is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an increase of the sarcoplasm and other non-contractile proteins within muscle cells and is primarily induced by lifting light loads for higher reps (2). This type of growth, although not accompanied by any strength gains, is the primary reason why bodybuilders tend to be more muscular than strength and power athletes.

To continue making muscular gains over long periods of time progressive overload must be applied. To put it simply, if you want to keep growing you have to lift heavier weight. This holds true no matter what rep ranges and loads are used. Increasing your max weight for both high rep and low rep sets should be the ultimate goal for any training program as this is the best way to assure continued growth.

One of the reasons moderate rep ranges produce the greatest gains in muscle tissue may be because the moderate loads allow for the use of heavy weights with more time under tension. This combination seems to strike a balance between inducing large amounts of both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

Too many bodybuilders are still under the misconception that heavy weights for low reps should be lifted to build muscle and light weights for high reps should be lifted to burn fat. Too often I meet new clients that have been working under this assumption for years. Lifting only light weights during a contest diet is a great way to lose muscle and a lot of potential muscle growth is missed out on by never lifting lighter weights in the offseason. A solid weight training program should include heavy, moderate, and light loads to maximize total muscle hypertrophy.

When dieting for a contest this still holds true and will help you retain or even gain muscle while dieting. Weight training should build and preserve muscle tissue while on a contest diet. Let diet and cardio take care of the fat loss. Most importantly when discussing load and intensity is carrying each set to a point that is, at the very least, close to muscular failure. A light load that is only lifted for only a few reps will do no good. If your workout isn’t challenging then that is not training intensely.

Workout IntensityVolume

Volume during training refers to the total amount of work performed within a given workout. Most often though, the term volume is used to describe the number of sets performed during training. Training volume has been a very sensitive subject to many in the bodybuilding community for years.

Many high intensity training advocates, such as Arthur Jones and Mike Mentzer, claim only 1-4 sets to failure per body part are needed to stimulate maximum muscle growth. While others, such as Arnold Swarzenegger, claim that maximum growth will occur by doing 20-25 sets per body part. With such opposite views on training volume, it can be difficult to know how much volume is appropriate.

Although both high and low volume training programs have been proven to be effective, if maximizing muscle growth is the primary goal, then high intensity, high volume training programs must be used. Although it has not been fully proven, research on humans provides indirect evidence for hyperplasia after intense, high volume strength training (3). Hyperplasia is another form of muscle growth that differs from hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is an increase in the size of existing muscle cells, whereas hyperplasia is an increase in the actual number of muscle cells.

The endocrine system, which is responsible for hormone release within the body, is also sensitive to training volume. Varying the amount of work from workout to workout may be used to manipulate the endocrine system and create an optimal hormonal environment. Serum testosterone levels can be increased and adrenal hormones can be optimized by using high volumes with multiple sets of multiple exercises (4).

Although high volume training can be very effective it does come with the risk of overtraining. Adding extra volume to training sessions can cause an increase in anabolic hormones but if too many sets are added too often then it can have the opposite effect. Volume related overtraining will eventually lead to a decrease in lutenizing hormone and free testosterone (5).

Cortisol also becomes an issue with volume-related overtraining. Small cortisol increases during training can lead to growth hormone release and can signal to the body that repairs need to be made, but if high volume training is continued for long periods of time and not cycled it can cause cortisol levels to rise too high and stay there, leading to chronic catabolic responses to cortisol.

Besides the risk of overtraining there is another down side to high volume training. Resistance training in general has been shown to upregulate androgen receptors for 48-72 hours after the workout (5). Unfortunately, high volume workouts will initially downregulate androgen receptors prior the upregulation.

This initial downregulation can be avoided by having a protein/carb mixture pre and post-training. If you have read my past articles you already know the benefits of having a protein/carb mixture before and after training. This just adds another good reason to include these shakes in your nutrition plan.

When discussing the subject of training volume its best to keep an open mind. Too many people get locked into thinking that they must not ever go above or below a certain number of sets. Keep in mind that increasing the volume of your workouts is one of the easiest ways to overtrain, but adding volume is a great way to stimulate growth. Periods of high volume should used to maximize growth, but periods of low volume must be incorporated to ensure that your body can keep up with the demands you are placing on it.

Conclusion

When setting the intensity level for an effective training program, the volume and load used are the first two things that must be addressed. Incorporating varying levels of both the amount of weight used and the number of sets performed can be difficult, but doing so will allow you to prevent overtraining and maximize your genetic potential. These variations can also fluctuate from one body part to the next depending on your individual weak points.

Once you establish the load and volume of your training, there are still two more points that I will address in part II. For now, just make sure the next time you walk into the gym make it a point to scare someone with your intensity. If you do this regularly you can call the promoter of your next show and tell him to go ahead and engrave “That Crazy Guy” on your first place trophy.

Read Part 2: Intensity Is Everything: Rest Periods And Failure »

References:

  1. Chandler, T. J., Brown, L. E., Conditioning for Strength and Human Performance, 2007, 52-53p.
  2. Zatsiorsky, V. M., Kraemer, W. J., Science and Practice of Strength Training, 2006, 50p.
  3. Abernethy, B., The Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement, 2005, 151-152p.
  4. Baechle, T. R., Earle, R. W., Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 2008, 63p.
  5. Baechle, T. R., Earle, R. W., Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 2008, 114-116p.