How Do You Manipulate the Intensity of an Exercise?

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In recent years, more and more research is proving that Intensity is the fastest, safest, and most effective way to increase performance and achieve goals in most of the 12 IFPA Components of Fitness.

Intensity should be avoided in Flexibility; since the highest level of Intensity allowed in Flexibility Training should increase the Range of Motion (ROM) within the targeted muscle to a point of “tight”, but never to a point of pain. In Biochemical Balance, Intensity is not applicable.

For you to fully understand how to manipulate Intensity, you will need a foundation of understanding in the biochemical analysis of movement and exercise.

Understanding Biomechanics will enable you to safely and effectively modify forces and levers to change the exercise intensity, making the exercise difficulty increase or decrease to achieve your clients’ goals and your own goals.

There are a great many ways to manipulate Intensity, so we are going to study the primary 12 that are most commonly used in Strength Training.

  1. Lever Length

The classic Bench Press is among the standard exercises used to determine strength. All beginner weight-lifters compete to see who has the “Biggest Bench.”

This is the primary reason why Mondays are the Great International Bench Press Day!

The Bench Press is used as a Standard for upper body strength. The reason for this is leverage. The Bench Press puts your body in a position of best leverage for pushing with your arms and chest muscles.

Compare the amount of weight you can move in the Bench Press compared to the Dumbbell Fly or any other Dumbbell exercise. You should be made aware that there is a trade-off between leverage and stabilization. Your greatest amount of leverage, that enables you to move the greatest amount of weight (load), would be on a Chest Press Machine.

Since the machine stabilizes the lift for you, you can push maximally. As soon as you move to a Barbell Bench Press, you recognize you cannot lift as much. This is due to the need for your stabilizer muscles to work to balance the bar and inhibiting your primary movers from maximal strength.

You will notice another reduction in the weight, if you go from a Bench Press Bar to Dumbbells. If you attempt Chest Presses on an unstable surface such as a Stability Bar, you will notice a very significant drop in the amount of weight you can press.

Research shows that lifting weights on unstable surfaces can reduce primary muscle activation and the load (weight) you can move by 70% or more! This would be highly detrimental to strength or muscle size gains.

So why would you do it?

Highly leveraged exercises, such as the Bench Press have relatively low levels of functionality in real life situations or even in many sports.

The goal of “Functional Training” is to strengthen not only the primary movers, but the body’s stabilizer muscles, the deep and superficial muscles required to align, move, and stabilize all of the joints in the body.

Functional Training also includes CORE Training, which is often described as focusing on the muscles that align, move and stabilize the trunk, abdominals, and muscles of the back (especially the lower back).

Since athletic performance as well as many activities of daily living (ADLs) require and depend on the efficient transfer of forces from where your feet meet the ground, (Ground Forces) through your feet, legs, abs, hips, back, trunk, shoulders-arms, hand or your athletic equipment, functional or CORE Training should be considered a NEED in Sports Conditioning or in your clients whose goal is to improve functionality.

If you have clients that want to increase Strength, Speed, Power or make improvements in Body Composition, you probably want to structure your program around classic stabile exercises.

While it may be an admirable goal to improve functionality in all your clients, your JOB is to meet your clients’ goals as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, your clients will not give you much time to achieve their goals. If they tell you they want to lose fat and to become firm and toned-up, you have a limited amount of time to achieve these results before they lose interest and quit training with you. Therefore, you should and must build your Program Design around the weight training exercises that provide you the greatest amount of leverage: Bench Press, Squat, Deadlift, Leg Press, Arm Curls, Tricep Extensions, etc.

  1. Balance (Stability)

As we previously discussed, your clients will NEED Balance training, but they WANT to lose fat and become firm and tone! You might consider a compromise by adding a few Balance or Stability exercises to your clients’ “Warm-Up” or “Cool-Down”, but focus on the high-intensity stabile exercises as your Warm-Up.

  1. Manipulating Reps

There are many Rep Schemes for manipulating Intensity. Most beginners start with 15 RM (Repetitions Maximum) Sets. This is low intensity strength training. Employing the GPO Principle, you can increase the Intensity every 3 Weeks by going from 15RM to 12RM to 10RM to 8RM. The highest Concentric Maximum is 1RM which represents your all out 100% effort.

Powerlifters and other Strength and Power athletes will occasionally do Eccentric Training or “Negatives” where they load the bar with 120%-130% of their 1RM. Yes, this means 20-30% over their Maximum Lift. So if you can Bench Press 300 pounds, you will lift up to 390 pounds.

You will have one or two spotters lift the bar for you. You control the bar on the Eccentric (downward) Contraction and you rely on two competent or one very competent (and relatively strong) spotters to help you with the Concentric (upward) contraction. The spotters should know that they keep the bar level and moving at the assigned pace “Typically” 2 seconds up and 4 seconds down.

Warning: Eccentric Training should only be used by advanced lifters. It is highly recommended that you begin with ONE Eccentric Set starting-out since the program creates a lot of muscle damage (I gave myself Rabado the first time I did this because I did not know better!)

  1. Tempo

We start beginners with a 4-1-2-1 Tempo: 4 secs Eccentric- 1sec Pause- 2secs Concentric and 1 sec Pause. You can increase Intensity by going slower… and by going faster!

Super Slow is a very new High Intensity Training system. There are many Tempo Variations used in Super Slow. One of the more popular is 10-1-4-1: 10secs Eccentric – 1sec Pause – 4secs Concentric – 1 sec Pause.

To perform: Reduce the Load of your 15RM Set by 20-25%. It will help to perform your reps standing in front of a clock with a second hand to maintain your tempo. This system is going to give you the “Burns,” possibly greater than you have ever felt before! Fight through the Burns!

You may only get 4-6 Reps, but you will get more hypertrophy in those 4-6 Reps than you will ever get from your normal 15RM Set. Most people don’t tolerate Super Slow well.

Never give this to a beginner client or you will NEVER see them AGAIN!

On the opposite end of Tempo schemes is Super Fast or Ballistic Training. The Tempo is explosive. Trying to do your Reps as fast as you possibly can!

Warning: It is Dangerous and Ineffective to do Ballistic Training with weight!

Imagine you are about to Bench Press. In Ballistic Training you will Press as fast and as hard as you possibly can! You can imagine that if you don’t try to stop the weight before you reach full extension, you will hyperextend your elbows.

This is bad, but made worse when all of the weight of your bar comes back to your hyperextended elbow joint. Not only can you badly damage the ligament and tendons of your elbow; if you try really, really hard, you can break both arms… Imagine where the heavy barbell goes now!

Instead of using Bars and Dumbbells, use bands, cable/band systems like Vortex, calisthenics like Push-ups, Plyo-Push-ups, etc, Medicine Balls, etc.

  1.   Weight (Load) Schemes

Besides manipulating reps as previously described, you can manipulate weight. One example is “Stripping”. You start with a 15 RM Set and the moment you complete the 15th Rep (on a machine), you can reach down, pull the pin out and immediately put it back in on a lighter weight and keep going.

You continue this until you reach the lightest weight in the stack if you are feeling masochistic. Or…if you are training a client and feel sadistic that day!

Another variation of this technique is “Down the Rack”, where you start with a set of dumb-bells for your 15RM and as you finish your last Rep, put them back, grab the next lightest pair and do as many as you can. Keep going until you get down to the lightest pair.

Some people consider Periodization as a Weight Management system. I described in the “Manipulate Reps,” Item (3) above.

There are many ways to manipulate weight – get creative!

You can find other examples in the Program Design Section of the “Book On Personal Training.”

In the next part (part two), you will learn other ways to manipulate intensity, to include:

  1. Shape of Implement
  2. Stance
  3. Rest Intervals
  4. Loading Schemes
  5. Pauses
  6. Range of Motion (ROM)
  7. Grip

Good Luck,

Dr. Jim Bell

CEO, IFPA

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