Sure, we must become intense during our workouts, but we have to learn how to channel our mental energies appropriately. For many bodybuilders, mental intensity is the feeling they wish to attain before a set. For them, being intense assures them that their minds are locked into the task at hand. However, too often people mistakenly equate intensity with trying harder. The problem with trying harder is that this usually takes you out of your most efficient and effective zones of functioning.
Many of us grew up with the notion that when things were not going well, all we had to do was try harder and we could force things to go better. The problem with this logic is that the usual reason why things were not going well in the first place was because we were trying too hard already. And trying even harder simply took us further off course.
The problem with becoming more intense by trying harder is that we try to summon more energy and strength from unrelated outside sources. In bodybuilding, these outside sources are usually other muscle groups that should have no roles in assisting the muscles being worked. For example, if I am trying really hard to churn out a couple more barbell curls, I might try to enlist other muscle groups such as my lower lats or abs to get the bar up. So I swing the bar up, lean backwards, and shrug my shoulders to get the bar up. After a while, the only thing this really accomplishes is that it pits one muscle group against another. Then I am working against myself and setting myself up for injury.
The key to proper use of intensity is not to try harder, but to try smarter.
Think back to some recent situation at work or school where things were not going well. It seemed that everything you tried to overcome the problem just made it worse. If you got angry, frustrated, or tried harder, it simply had the opposite effect of what you wanted.
At some point during this process you might have thrown up your hands and taken a break. Then the solution came to you precisely when you were not trying to find it! By easing off, slowing down, and trying softer, you found the solution. Things seemed to fall into place.
During a maximal bench press attempt, for example, the times when you repeatedly try hard to force the bar up are usually met with failure. If you keep trying harder, it seems that you do not even get close to pressing the bar. Conversely, the times you stay within yourself and effectively channel your energy are met with greater success. Trying softer is more effective than mindlessly trying harder.
Now, I am not saying that bearing down is useless. Bearing down while staying within yourself produces better results than trying too hard and working against yourself. Bearing down while staying within yourself is the essence of intensity.
Igniting Your Training
True intensity means finding energy and strength in you (literally: "in-tension") and channeling it out in a focused manner. I like to use the analogy of a magnifying glass in the sun to convey the correct use of intensity. When most of us were kids we used to start fires with only the aid of a magnifying glass. We discovered that the magnifying glass intensified the existing rays of the sun. As we aligned the lens to the proper angle, the sun's rays became so intense that they ignited a piece of paper.
Our concentration is our magnifying glass of mental intensity. We need to keep our concentration focused on the task at hand so we can ignite our training. Those who use the trying-harder approach to intensity really have no mental magnifying glass. Their approach is to try and find five more suns to start the fire!
In our workouts we need to focus our concentration so that our mental energy is like sand going through the neck of an hourglass. Stay within yourself, coordinate your efforts, and intensely focus on the next rep. This usually means to focus on the specific muscles being worked throughout the full range of motion. Become so tunnel-visioned with tuning in to your muscles that you are aware of nothing else until you are done with the set.
And, it's up to you to find ways to apply these ideas to Powerlifting and/or Weightlifting.
The proper use of intensity is to channel your existing energies in a focused way to the exercise or lift you are performing. Like water going through a hydroelectric damn, focusing our mental energies in a concentrated way actually increases the power of our training. Our workouts become a high-voltage experience! Use caution when bathing or showering afterward.
Next: Optimal Training Zones