Sunday, September 12, 2021

How Much Intensity is Enough? - Nelson Montana


Psychically obtained photo imaging of the inner essence 
of a 20-year old lifting forum know-it-all. 

Note: Some readers may believe the articles presented here express my views and opinions on training. Uh, nope. The goal I had in mind at the outset of this silly blog deal was to present many different approaches to lifting, much like Peary and Mabel Rader's IronMan magazine did. 

The article . . . 

No one ever built an impressive physique without hard work. Persistence toward handling progressively heavier weights is the only way to grow. You know it, I know it, everyone who has - or wishes he had - a hard muscular body knows it. The question I want to address is HOW MUCH intensity is needed for maximum muscle growth. 

This is such a hard one to call. Unlike the "one size fits all" precept that some well-meaning marketers wish to promote, the benefits of all-out training intensity are determined by many factors, not excluding the training experience of the individual. The very term "maximum intensity" is impossible to define.

How many times have you seen a novice struggle with a given weight for 8 to 10 reps and then while providing an encouragement spot you found he was able to complete 15 reps? Here we have an example of someone not approaching the muscle-promoting stress that he is capable of.

Although it has become unfashionable, the expression "no pain no gain" still rings true. As in all aspects of life, be it developing a business, learning to play an instrument, excelling in a sport or building a better body, you have to go through a stage where you are absolutely, passionately obsessed with improvement if you want to be great at it. 

But where does the intensity stop? 
When does the point of diminishing returns begin? 
Again, the point exclusive to the individual.

As an example to illustrate the intensity factor, let's examine a man with a proclivity towards wickedly fierce workout sessions, Tom Platz. No one can ever accuse Tom of doggin' it in the gym. The guy is a veritable symbol of near-maniacal, gut-bursting training intensity. Tom looks every bit as good at age 40 as he did at age 30, but therein lies the dilemma. After thousands of hours of insanely inflicting torturous punishment upon his body, he looks the same. All that talk about "doing whatever it takes to grow" is a moot point. How much more size has Tom really accumulated in the last ten years? I do not mean to disparage his attempt. I find it noble. Still, the truth is the truth. The same level of conditioning could probably have been achieved without a practically psychotic fervor toward reaching ultimate intensity.

The lesson here may be that once one's maximum potential has been reached, one no longer needs to persist in the training that provided the accomplishment. If your genetic potential has yet to be realized, however, is maximum intensity the most efficacious approach? 

Proponents of the heavy-duty style of training insist that it is. In fact, they say that the intensity reached in a single set is what causes muscle hypertrophy. follow the theory for a moment. If you were to tap repeatedly on a nail with your fingertip, the nail would never be driven into a plank of wood regardless of how many times you tapped it. The force is not intense enough. But if you were to strike the nail with a hammer as hard as possible, it would penetrate the plank. Intensity, not duration, accomplishes the goal. Great analogy, huh? There's just one little flaw . . . 

It's wrong! 

Statements like this are the epitome of specious thinking. It sounds good, but the two examples are completely unrelated.

Muscle growth is an adaptive process. It happens in increments. The nail analogy, if your think about it, is actually pretty stupid. A more accurate analogy would be to compare developing more muscle to developing a suntan. (Stick with me on this if you happen to be black, for it still applies.) The tanning of skin is a gradual process. If someone were to expose his skin to more sunlight than it could tolerate at a given time, the skin would become damaged (burned). This injury can be compared to the experience of a person who hasn't stepped into a gym in a while and then proceeds to try every machine in sight. What happens? 

Chances are he'll be racked with pain the next day from overtraining far beyond what he is yet capable of recovering from. If exposure to sunlight is gradual, the skin becomes darker, thus allowing it to get darker still. Such is also the case while training. The muscle gets a little bigger and a little stronger in an adaptive process: stress, then rest, more stress, rest again, and so on until the muscle gets as big as possible. There are many ways of obtaining sufficient intensity. The main requirement is to force the muscle beyond what it's expected to do or what it is easily capable of doing. You don't have to achieve this objective in a single set; moreover, attempting to accomplish it in a single set is unrealistic and risky. The amount of stress needed to sufficiently work the muscle would put undue strain on the joints and ligaments as well as tax the adrenal system. This exertion can lead to increased cortisol production, and you know how that can bring progress to a grinding halt. Why not just do more sets? Bodybuilding is not a race. No extra points are awarded for finishing sooner. 

Three sets at 90% intensity of effort are more intense than one set at 100% intensity. Then again, do those percentages that are so often used have any meaning? I believe it is another example of trying to make something sound more scientific. Statements like "timing your protein intake correctly will determine 64% of your progress" are such nonsense! It's pseudo-data, as is the myth of 100% intensity. The bottom line? Attempting all-out effort all the time an only result in injury, or at the very least a state of overtraining and fatigue.    

The "train till ya puke" mentality of some people results from the belief that many professional bodybuilders use this approach. Certainly anyone of professional caliber lifts with a ferocity few can imagine. However, when a competitive bodybuilder enters a show in May at 220 pounds, then enters his next show in October weighing 250 pounds, the increased size wasn't accomplished by training harder. 

In case you are unaware, pro bodybuilding is at least as much about consuming outlandish quantities of anabolic steroids, mainly hard androgens, as it is about training and diet. 

This point leads me to another misconception I'd like to address. I have heard claims that a steroid user can be identified by his "look." I don't don't think a bodybuilder who does a sensible cycle and goes from 170 to 175 pounds will look obviously steroidal. A five-pound gain over a year's time isn't bad, but to a pro five pounds is a joke. That is why we are seeing more and more professionals sacrificing aesthetics for size. The heavy testosterone-based steroids provide that immediate increase in size. the same quickly obtained androgenic-based steroid gains are the first to go. These are the people who look so obviously juiced. This situation is getting to the point where judges might as well weigh the contestants, subtract the percentage of fat taken by a calibration, and then award the trophy to the competitor with the highest number. 

Devising a training plan in accordance with steroid use is preposterous. Besides, steroids allow for an increase in training intensity. They not only increase strength but they also accelerate repair. Anyone attempting workouts as brutal as those practiced by an athlete using high doses of several steroids will do far more damage than his body could ever hope to recover from. I wouldn't believe what you read in some magazines anyway. When you read an article supposedly written by a pro under contract with a particular organization, your guess is as good as mine as to its validity. 

The only true way of knowing how much training intensity is enough for any specific individual is through examination and experimentation. Discovering what's right takes time. Then again, where are you going? Enjoy the ride. The body is in a constant state of flux. You can't determine a precise amount of stress needed at any given time. Get in tough with your instincts and learn to trust them. They are more reliable than you may be giving them credit for. You'll make progress as long as you work hard. Some days the workload may be too much, other days too little. 

Don't worry. Bodybuilding is not an exact science. Do you actually think someone out there has the "secret?" The perfect number of sets and reps that will make all the difference in the world? ("I used to do 10 or 12 reps but now that I do 11 reps my gains are through the roof.") Come on, you know better. 

The best advice I can give for obtaining intensity is the old standby of judging by the soreness felt after your workout. Not the soreness from thousands of reps with an inadequate weight, or from repeatedly stretching the muscle. Not sharp pain or a feeling of being injured. Simply shoot for a good tight feeling that tells you how you've worked the muscle. Do that enough and you will grow. 

One last bit of advice I'd like to give is to learn as much about exercise form and physiology as possible. Educate yourself about nutrition. Do some research on the various supplements available so that you can invest in the ones that may genuinely enhance your gains and avoid the ones that do nothing more than waste your time and money. 

Having a good understanding of what your body responds best to goes a long way in advancing your progress. Grow in peace. 

Enjoy Your Lifting! 



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