It’s no wonder so many of us fail to bring the proper intensity to our workouts, for intensity is one of the most misunderstood concepts in bodybuilding. For powerlifters and other strength athletes, it means training heavy. For others, it means training fast. And some believe it’s a test of one’s pain threshold. All of these may be components, but it’s actually a measure of how hard you train, especially in regards to pushing sets to failure and beyond.
In this class, failure equals success, as we pinpoint the five most common training intensity mistakes and how to stoke your workout fires. Class is in session.
Mistake #1 Failing to fail
Let’s start with a definition. Failure is the point in a set when you cannot complete another full rep with good form. Not every working set needs to enter the failure zone, but many bodybuilders fall far short of failing on every set. Often, this is because they set a target well within their reach, hit it and quit.
- On a failure set, don’t bail out of a strict rep until it has stalled for at least three seconds. Then you can stop, or you can cheat just enough or get just enough assistance to finish the rep.
- Keep a workout log, noting your personal bests in lifts. “Beating the logbook” will give you something to shoot for each workout.
- Don’t set a rep target unless it’s beyond your full-rep comfort zone and, ideally, a personal best.
- To safely push sets of squats and barbell chest presses (flat, incline or decline), as well as many other exercises, to their limit, you will need a spotter.
Mistake #2 Cheating too soon
Cheating is the great tempter. Used correctly, it can up the intensity of sets, but it’s too often employed too soon and therefore lessens intensity. Many bodybuilders cheat (i.e., use bad form) throughout a set, and therefore transfer stress away from the targeted muscles.
- Learn how to do each exercise with the proper form, and then practice until you have this form mastered. Warm-ups and the lighter sets of a pyramid are also like practice rounds to get you into the groove, so you can do your heaviest sets correctly.
- Do not loosen your form until you’ve reached full-rep failure. Cheating should be used to make a set harder (pushing it beyond failure), not easier (preventing you from reaching failure via strict reps).
Mistake #3 Resting too long
Intensity is not only a reflection of pushing sets to failure and beyond. As a measure of how hard you train, another component is workout speed. There are high-intensity and Doggcrapp trainers who can and should rest more than two minutes before their few maximum sets. But, generally, a slower-paced workout is a less intense workout, especially if distractions are stretching out your rest between sets.
- Typically, you should rest no more than two to three minutes between sets.
- Less is sometimes more. To boost intensity, reduce rest periods. Supersets, trisets and giant sets up intensity by reducing between-sets rest to the bare minimum. Sevens, resting 20-30 seconds between sets of an exercise over four to seven sets, is another intensity-spiking method.
- The most common workout speed bumps are conversations. Leave your phone in your car, and iPod earbuds are the best weapon for discouraging chatty gym friends.
In fact, a study from the Weider Research Group found that bodybuilders listening to their preferred music on their iPods during shoulder workouts were able to complete an average of one more rep on every set (i.e., they could train with more intensity) than when not listening to their iPods.
Mistake #4 Not going beyond
It’s not enough to simply reach full-rep failure. Push some sets beyond. There are several techniques for this, including: forced reps, cheating, partial reps, rest-pause, negative reps, static contractions and drop sets. Each of these is frequently misunderstood and misapplied. We covered cheating in #2; now, let’s address how to correctly perform three other intensifiers: forced reps, partials and rest-pause.
- A better term for forced reps is “assisted reps.” A spotter (someone experienced and at least as strong as you) stays at the ready for the precise moment you can’t perform another full rep on your own. Then he or she provides just enough assistance to keep the weight moving until the end of the rep. More assistance will need to be applied on subsequent reps. Typically, two or three such reps is appropriate before your form starts to deteriorate so much the spotter is working harder than you.
- There’s a place in every rep where you start to fail, generally near the bottom or the middle. Partial reps avoid this zone by focusing only on the first half of reps. For example, after reaching failure on full-rep leg presses, lower the weight only halfway on each additional rep. The more tired you grow, the further you can shorten your reps.
- Rest-pause is a short rest within a set that allows you to get another rep. This works best on an exercise like barbell rows or triceps pushdowns, where you don’t have to hold up or re-rack the weight between reps. So when you reach full-rep failure on pushdowns, wait 10-15 seconds with your hands on the bar and the weight stack down and then do another rep. Repeat two or three times or until you can no longer eke out another full rep after a rest-pause.
Mistake #5 Slogging through uninspired workouts
Almost everyone goes through periods when their workout intensity wanes. The mistake is trying to work your way out by doing more of the same. Instead, you need to recharge your physical and mental reserves. To reach your goal in the fastest time, you sometimes need to slow down or stop and refuel.
- Waning intensity is a warning sign for overtraining. Cut down on your workout frequency and/or take a week or two away from the gym.
- Analyze nonworkout factors. Often, the problem is sleep deficiency, insufficient carbohydrates and protein or mental stress.
- Cycle higher intensity periods of 4 to 12 weeks with lower intensity periods of 2 to 4 weeks. In the latter, break up your normal training style with something fresh, such as circuit training, powerlifting or high reps (20-50 per set).
When you’re back on the fast track and trying to push sets to failure and beyond, set challenging but (barely) attainable short-and long-term strength goals.
- Push some working sets to the point at which you fail to complete a full-rep on your own with proper form.
- Only cheat to extend sets beyond full-rep failure.
- Reduce rest between sets to boost intensity.
- Use techniques such as forced reps, partial reps and rest-pause to push sets beyond failure.
If your workout intensity is waning, reduce and/or temporarily alter your training and address the root cause.