How Do You Manipulate the Intensity of an Exercise? (Part II)

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Part I of this article addressed:

  • Lever Length,
  • Balance (stability),
  • Manipulating Reps,
  • Tempo and
  • Weight (Loading Schemes).

Other ways to manipulate the intensity of an exercise are:

6) Shape of Implement – Many people think of Kettle Bells as a brand new innovative invention. In actuality they are a throw-back to ancient times when “Gym Rats” lacked the technology to manufacture barbells, dumbbells and plates. Weights were simply made from molds of molten metal, with handles part of the mold.

The modern invention of dumbbells allowed you to grip through the centerline of the weight, eliminating the stress on a bent wrist joint. This invention prevented injuries to the wrist, elbow and shoulder.

Today, in the quest for functionality, many are looking for modes (methods) of training to de-stabilize the athlete to the maximum extent possible. While this will increase the intensity of the exercise, specifically to the core stabilizer and other synergistic stabilizing and supporting muscles and joints, it becomes essential that trainers look closely for break-downs in form and technique that could result in overtraining and both chronic and acute injuries.

Any implement that creates instability in the athletes’ body or joints can be used to increase intensity though there is almost always a corresponding increase in the risk of injury. These implements include Kettle Bells, Battling Ropes, TRX/Suspension Training, CrossFit-Gymnastic Type Equipment, etc. Cross Fit has done a great job of incorporating gymnastics type exercises into their program design.

This results in a new mode of training that can deliver rapid results in a fun and exciting environment. Care must be used however, since this same mode of training can result in injuries if exercise science principles are not adhered to, technique is not taught properly and/or form faults are not corrected immediately.

As a former gymnast, I can personally attested to the efficacy of gymnastics as an incredible training mode. Research shows that not only does gymnastics develop exceptional speed and power, it also shows that gymnasts are the most flexible of all athletes and pound-for-pound among the strongest. Though I do have to warn you, during my gymnastic career, I badly damaged every joint in my body, which resulted in the development of arthritis at the “ripe-old-age” of 23.

7) Stance – The wider, more stabilized your stance, the greater your ability to apply force. Increased stability correlates with increased force production. Decreased stability results in inhibition of total force production while increasing the activation of all synergistic, tertiary, stabilizing muscles.

Using Powerlifters performing a Squat as an example, you can observe them taking a Wide-Stance position when they compete. They may vary their stance during training, but when it comes time for maximal force production, they will take the widest position their individual flexibility will allow.

8) Rest Intervals – Manipulating Rest Intervals is another method of Manipulating Intensity. Typically, Powerlifters will take long Rest Intervals between sets: typically 3-7 minutes of rest between heavy lifts (1-3RM). This Program Design has a goal to allow as close to maximal regeneration of ATP molecules for optimal performance within their ATP-CP Energy System.

See a complete discussion of your Energy Systems in your IFPA Personal Trainer Text-Book.

Bodybuilders, by contrast, take relatively short Rest Intervals between sets: typically 1-3 minutes of rest between relatively light sets (15RM). This Program Design has a goal of stressing their Lactic Acid Energy System, causing the muscles to adapt to the stress of acidic build-up within their muscles. Their muscles will adapt by increasing the volume of water and cytoplasm within the cell to create the hypertrophy a Bodybuilder needs to increase the size of their muscles. Powerlifters observe considerably less size because heavy lifting places considerably less stress on their Lactic Acid Energy System.

Heavy lifts place direct stress on the muscles contractile proteins: Actin, Myosin, Troponin, and Tropomyosin causing an adaptation where these proteins get bigger and stronger, but because they make-up a far less total volume of the cell, you see far less total hypertrophy despite significantly higher increases in total strength.

By strictest definition the Powerlifter at 1-RM Sets is lifting at the highest concentric Intensity. The semantic issue is that Bodybuilders and Crossfitters believe they are lifting at the higher intensity because they correlate intensity with the pain they feel at training deeply into the pain of the Lactic Acid Energy System for relatively long periods of time.

One of the many great things about living in America is you get to pick your own poison and name it what you will! Bodybuilders and Crossfitters may consider their program design of higher intensity due to the fact they maintain much higher heart rate activity for a longer sustained training period than the Powerlifter.

9) Loading Schemes – As it pertains to Periodization, Loading Schemes train at “Microcycles” of approximately 3 weeks.

For example 3 weeks at each of: 15RM, 12RM, 10RM, 8RM, 5RM. For each cycle to be a true RM, the load (weight/resistance) must go up! Periodization is arguably the best method to control the intensity.

The “free-style” lifters are free to argue the Program Design, but many great athletes in a wide range of sports have adhered to the Program Design with great results.

10) Pauses – This is a Program to try and get your ATP-CP Energy System to adapt.

Hopefully, you can use this system to encourage the system to store more ATP and to regenerate ATP more rapidly. To perform this Program Design you pick a weight, typically 1-3 RM and perform your goal set of reps. Put the weight down and rest for a target rest interval (R.I.) typically 30-60 seconds.

One method is to do 5-10 sets of 2-3 RM starting at 60 seconds rest and decrease the R.I. by 10% workout-to-workout. Another method is to start with 4 or 5 sets, with a set R.I. and increase the volume of sets, workout-to-workout.

Obviously there are many variations of the Program Design.

11) Range of Motion – One basic biomechanical theory is that a muscle will not fully contract unless it is pre-stretched immediately before a concentric contraction until 120% of resting length. This allows optimum alignment of the Actin and Myosin filaments inside your targeted muscle cells.

Another method to increase intensity on the target muscle is to complete your set using your optimum ROM and then decrease the ROM to a selected ROM that allows you to complete more Reps.

For example: Complete your 15RM of Bench Press and finish with 3-5 Partial Reps where you only allow the bar to lower 2-4 inches before you push it up to straight arm position.

WARNING: You need an experienced spotter to perform this Program Design Safely!

12) Grip – Different grips can change the intensity of an exercise considerably. For example: observe the decreasing amount of load you can handle by changing the grip in an anterior arm muscle experience by going from “Hammer Grips” to “Under-Hand-Grip” to “Over-Hand-Grip” (Reverse Grip) in Dumbbell Arm Curls. Another Example can be seen in the “Pull-Up” (Over-Hand Grip) vs to “Chin-Up” (Under Hand Grip).

13) Time-Under-Tension (TUT) – Another way to increase intensity is to increase the total TUT of a targeted muscle. This can be done through increased Reps, slower Reps, or some of the previously discussed Program Designs.

Time-Under-Tension (TUT) is an excellent way for you to determine which Energy System is used during any exercise activity. Many rookie trainers make the mistake of which energy system is dominate based on the total participation of an activity instead of TUT.

For example, a tennis match can last 5 hours, but when you analyze tennis, you find that the average length of a point on a Hard Court is 10.2 seconds, 4.4 seconds on a Clay Court and 2.8 seconds of a Grass Court.

Obviously, this is anaerobic activity, not aerobic activity.  The same determination can be made for other, predominately anaerobic events like Boxing, Martial Arts, Baseball, Basketball, Football, etc. Therefore, TUT not only enables you to increase intensity, but aid you in your Needs Analysis as well.

14) Forced Reps – One of the very first increases you may have experience when you started training yourself may have been forced reps. If you and 2 or 3 of your buddies are put in a room with a Bench, despite your best intentions to simply complete the 15RM you carefully planned, when your Spotter looks down at you and says “Come-on wimp! You can do 3 more!” You will comply. No matter how fatigued you are and no matter how much your chest burns, the testosterone surge you got from being called a wimp will probably make you do 5 more! That’s Forced Reps!

15) Cheating – I am not talking about your relationship with your girlfriend! I went through great pains to provide you more detail on how to do your exercises correctly than you will find anywhere in the world, in order for you to complete every exercise in the safest and most effective way possible.

Now I am going to ask you to increase your intensity by breaking the rules I gave you and “Cheat!” I am not suffering from Schizophrenia, at least I don’t believe I am. But, I am telling you, the safe, careful and judicious use of “Cheat Sets” is one of the best ways to develop strength.

Certain exercises, i.e.: Overload Presses and Bicep Curls, can use “Cheating” relatively safely. Other exercises, i.e.: Chest Presses are not considered safe to “Cheat.”

The “Cheat” starts at the beginning of the exercise when it is safe to use the body and legs to swing the weights to the completed position.

To perform: Using the Military Press as an example: Complete 15 RM Set using strict form, at the end of the 15th Rep, when you do not have sufficient strength to do a 16th Rep, bend your knees and “jerk” the weight overhead. Then lower the weight under control as you normally would of the eccentric concentric for as many “Cheat Reps” as you can manage.

Remember, your goals are always safety and effectiveness. Use your own creativity to combine the above listed Program Designs to give your clients variety of programming to meet their needs safely and effectively.

Good Luck,

Dr. Jim Bell

CEO, IFPA

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