By: Dan Hubbard
The holidays are over now and we have started a new year. For many, you find yourself even further away from your health, fitness, and body composition goals. But, you are at a point where you are really ready to start working on those goals. Your motivation has been rekindled. It’s natural to seek out the most effective methods of training in your area. You don't have to go far this time of year to find boot camps, spin classes, and personal trainers barking encouragement to their struggling clients, “Do one more rep!” All of these images of hard exercise imply that intensity is the key. The higher the intensity, the better. Simply push harder (or pay someone to push you harder) and you’ll reach your goals, right? Not so fast! Although intensity is an important variable with exercise training, it is often misunderstood and misused. High intensity has its place, but the most important variable for reaching your health, fitness, and body composition goals is not intensity but consistency. Consistency always trumps intensity.
Exercise training is a stressor that we apply to our bodies, hopefully in a systematic and logical pattern. However, it (exercise training) is not the stressor; it is how we respond to the exercise training that really matters and determines our results. Too little stressor (not exercising) obviously leads to a weakened and flabby body. Too much of a stressor (too high intensity) leads to stress, injury, and psychological maladaptation. The art is applying high enough stress to stimulate an adaptation, but not to overtrain. Unfortunately, the message we get from the broadcast and print media, the internet, and our local gym offering this high-intensity exercise is that you should leave the gym quivering, exhausted, and dripping sweat; otherwise, “they” claim, you have wasted your time. That is because, erroneously, we base “effectiveness” on calories burned and muscle soreness. These are two very wrong assumptions. We need to take a step back and look at our adaption over a period of time (weeks, months, and years). Though one training session won't make you, one training session can certainly break you.
We must all use high intensity exercise appropriately. It does have its place, but often some people use high intensity exercise too early in the training process, too frequently, too often, and/or without consideration of other life events. You must manage the intensity of your training, that is, cycle it up and down to ensure continual positive adaptation. You can't keep the pedal to the floor or you will break down.
More importantly, understand that adaptation takes time. You can't force it. But, it will happen if you apply the stimulus in an appropriate manner, a regular manner, a consistent manner. Consistency is paramount for any health, fitness, or body composition goal. When I work with a client during a training session, I am always thinking, "How is this training session going to affect this person tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year?" I look at it as a stepping stone for future gains. Sort of a deposit in a savings account, not a withdrawal.
If you read this far, then you obviously are interested in training intelligently and not just “killing” yourself in the gym. The most important advice I can give is to find ways to make your training as consistent as possible. Remove barriers to that consistency. Shorten your sessions and err on the slightly more conservative side with how much and how hard you are training. Remember, intensity and volume accumulate. Go by your numbers and how you feel versus how you think (or are told) it should work. Most importantly, don't follow what others are doing in the gym. The majority have no idea what they are doing and are just copying others.
Think about working on your movements (whatever type of training you do) regularly, not conquering them. You should feel good (even if you are working at a higher intensity) when you finish your session, not as if you've been run over by a bus! The effects of exercise training can be evident after only a few sessions, but many other effects or adaptations take months and years.
Consistency always trumps intensity when it comes to exercise training. We are always adapting to our training (or lack of it). In order to keep the adaption positive, therefore, focus on consistency. It is appropriate to vary the intensity, but this needs to be done logically and in the context of a longer time frame (months and years). Ignore the high-intensity pundits – they are simply preying on the assumption that exhaustion and soreness are indicators of effective training. There will be many casualties to this “harder is better” mentality. And, unfortunately, these individuals will keep getting injured, go back to only very low intensity exercise, or give up on exercise training altogether.