Hard Work Is Not Enough [Your Intensity Is Holding You Hostage]
An 8 minute read
Problem: You work out hard, but haven't made noticeable improvements in a while
Solution: Increase your intensity
Chances are, you’re very similar to the majority of new clients I see. From a strictly training/performance standpoint, there is one fundamental theme that stands out above the rest that has held them back:
Not training with enough intensity
The reality of failing to reach an appropriate intensity is perpetuated by one very common, but unfortunately very misguided and nearly-universal belief that hard work is enough. Let me tell you now:
Hard work is not enough
It’s how we get “stuck” lifting the same weight for months and years (and, tragically, often never think of surpassing it). If you’re happy doing the same thing for years at a time, then this isn’t for your eyes. But if you’re a little disappointed that you haven’t progressed like you wish you would have- in weight lifted, weight lost, performance improved, or any other measure- then stick with me.
A Useful Definition
There are a few basic definitions of intensity, but way too many “applications” of it (i.e. one minute of jumping jacks followed by one minute of running followed by one minute of walking lunges without any rest is not high intensity… you can’t maintain high intensity for such a prolonged period without time to recuperate). I like this definition best:
According to Starting Strength, a modern day Bible for strength training, intensity is referred to as “the load being used” and “is typically defined as a percentage of 1RM [one repetition maximum]”. *
Simple, quantifiable, measurable. Thus, it gives meaning to an otherwise meaningless word. Without a number as a guide to our training progress, “intensity” becomes as subjective and useless as “good” or “bad”.
Hard work does not equal intense work, and that makes all the difference
Have you ever known someone that can seem to work out- hard- every day of the week? So have I. In fact, I’ve trained some of them. These people tend to, maybe relatedly, have a compulsive and irrational fear that leads to the belief that they “can’t take a rest day”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to stay fit and work hard. The issue is that it’s not possible to withstand high intensity efforts every day of the week for weeks, months, and years on end. It’s just not doable.
Further, if you look carefully, these people nearly always tend to be in maintenance mode, despite their very best efforts and intentions. They aren’t enacting much physical change despite all the blood, sweat and tears. With so much work being done, how is this possible? It doesn’t seem fair. Truth time: with such a high volume of work, one of two variables has to give.
First and foremost is the obvious phenomenon: the body suffers. This is the ill side-effect from doing too much that we all immediately think of. Joint pain, low back pain, abnormal muscle fatigue, lack of endurance, eventual arthritis, general mental, physical, emotional, or psychological strain or fatigue, etc.
However, if the individual is still standing after months and years, what almost always gives is something we don’t often consider, which happens to be the point of this article:
In other words, if you’re doing all the hard work and aren’t seeing change, you have an intensity problem. This is usually 180 degrees counter to what the individual perceives about their training. While, yes, this person is likely working hard, she will not be working with high intensity, at least not most of the time. And, like it or not, some modicum of high-intensity work is needed for the body to change, especially from a neuromuscular vantage point.
I find it difficult to convince some folks to add weight to their exercises, especially in the group setting. I can see them banging out unbroken reps of overhead presses, squats or rows with the same weight week after week and month after month. They think moving constantly for one minute is better than struggling through 10 seconds. “I can’t take a rest day” often becomes “I can’t take a rest between sets”.
Honorable, well-intentioned...misinformed, ludicrous... reality.
And here’s why it all matters: Because for as hard as you may work, and for as consistently as you may work, and for as much volume of work as you may accrue, at a certain point (and this is usually fairly quickly- in a matter of weeks or months), you will hit a huge plateau and your progress will stall. Your body won’t really change the way you want it to change. Hence the continual maintenance mode.
You won’t look stronger, thinner, more toned, etc. from this work. Because you haven’t changed the work. Now, for some people, getting stronger, better or “more fit” might not be a true goal. And that’s ok. If that’s the case, then do your three sets of 10 pushups, bodyweight squats, walking lunges, and lat pulldowns three times a week until the sun explodes. If that’s the case, you will be performing maintenance work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But again, that’s not who I’m talking to right now.
So why isn’t hard work enough for those seeking real change? First, quite frankly, we have a language issue surrounding the fitness world. We’ve lost concrete definitions and now carry on with an ever-expanding lexicon of meaningless, fluffy words. What’s the difference between “working out” and “exercising”? Beats me, to be honest. That’s why I’ve tried to abandon those words. Same goes for “hard work”. What is hard work? If I asked 100 people, I’d get 100 unique answers. This is the root of our misunderstanding of what it takes to get results. Yes, you have to work hard. But you have to work hard in the right way. Once you understand this difference, the picture paints itself. Enter intensity.
If intensity is a percentage of your maximal effort (one rep-max, per above), then it stands to reason that high intensity would require work being done at a high percentage of your max effort. A perfect real world example of this is when your car breaks down and you have to get it moving by pushing it from a dead stop by yourself, but the gas station is only 15 yards away. You cannot get that car to budge unless you put everything you have into that initial push. Maximal effort. Naturally, then, you can only withstand this kind of work for a short period of time, or a few reps. Limited time. This is high intensity work.
(NEAR) MAXIMAL EFFORT AND LIMITED TIME.
This is not the same as work done at a low or moderate percentage of your max effort for a long time or many reps. Think, instead, of pushing the already-rolling car with four other people, but the gas station is a quarter mile away. Not nearly the same effort, but that effort is produced for a much longer time before stopping. Still with me?
While the intensities of the two situations are very different, the general feeling of fatigue turns out to be quite similar after both methods of work. Hence, the group doing low- or moderate-intensity work for a long time will still feel tired, and thus the “hard work” label is applied. But in training, exercising, or working out to create a change, fatigue for fatigue’s sake is not what we’re after. It may be the most common enemy for growth and change.
Our bodies are incredibly adaptive (see Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome and the principle of Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand). And that is a good thing. Evolutionarily, if we were not able to hold onto body fat well, we would die during times of famine or otherwise lack of food. Likewise, if we never learned to sprint away from predators at a quicker pace, we would get eaten and die. Our bodies adapt well- and specifically- to the stress we indirectly or directly put on it.
This includes the world of fitness and training. If you keep doing bodyweight squats and sets of 10 pushups, you’re going to adapt to that and get really comfortable doing it. And none of us are doing this for continual comfort. You’re not going to all of a sudden push through any strength, hypertrophy or weight-loss roadblocks. Your body is already used to that stimulus. It then becomes time to up the ante. Add. Weight.
Take a look at the mother-child relationship. A mother quickly get used to picking up her newborn. Then, a wonderful process begins. The child grows in size and weight (increased load), and the mother’s body is forced to adapt in order to account for the increased weight. Thus, the mother’s strength grows. Then, by golly, the process repeats indefinitely until, at a certain point, she can’t pick up her 90-lb fifth grader.**
This process of General Adaptation is as natural as it gets. There’s the alarm stage: “Holy cow, my little baby boy is growing like a horse!” Then, there’s the resistance stage: “Hey, my body is responding by getting stronger so I can still give him piggy-back rides!” It works, and it couldn’t be more functional. So why do we think adding five pounds to our overhead press is suddenly going to cause our rotator cuffs to explode? One obvious reason is that we have a fear of injury based on disgusting misinformation from ignorant sources (my own dad still routinely ask-tells me how hard squatting is on the knees and back). But for our purposes today, we can blame a misguided preference for volume over intensity.
You have a choice to make
This mindset is a pandemic. It is common in nearly all new prospective clients I meet, and it can take a long time to beat it out of them. If I were to guestimate, I would say about 95% of the time I ask a client if this weight is appropriate for our work set, he/she will say something along the lines of “Yeah, this feels good for X reps”... when in reality, it’s still a warm-up set. And then I’ll usually add five-10 pounds, get to the weight I wanted us working with in the first place, and the five reps is no problem-- hard, but no problem. Underestimating our capacity for high intensity is staggering.
The five percent of the time I don’t add any weight to what they said they felt “good” is a split: Either they’re right, and it was the perfect weight for the day (generally meaning they weren’t feeling as strong on the day, were overworked or under-rested lately or possibly getting to overtrained, or are sincerely reaching a plateau), or they rocket past the 5 reps to 7, 8 or more. Is it ok to “over-perform” from time to time? Sure. Sometimes it even shows someone how far they’ve come. But there’s a deeper mentality issue with this. Until I train them to think otherwise, nearly all of my clients think shooting past the ideal rep (ideal meaning there is literally no better rep goal to hit, right?) is a good thing. But in reality, it’s a failure to push ourselves on the one hand, and a failure to understand the underlying principles of what brings about the best strength gains on the other. And as a trainer and coach, I can’t let that happen.
After a while, most of my clients shift their mindset from “I did 8 instead of 5, hooray!” to “I stopped at 5 but could have done 8. Let’s add weight next set”. This is what forces change, and nothing in the weight room changes the body if you don’t consciously plan and implement change. Those that can’t quite seem to shake their irrational belief that pushing the car with four friends for a long time is better than putting everything they have into getting it moving from a standstill unfortunately don’t tend to last long. It’s a massive limiting belief.
So, next time you go out for your twentieth workout of the week, ask yourself if you’re just working hard, or if you’re working with high intensity as well. The answer might surprise you.
Are we afraid of real hard work?
**At that point, the beautiful, predictable process of linear progression stops. I.e., her strength no longer improves in direct proportion to the increase in the child’s weight. In the weight room, that’s when it’s time to get more creative with the plan. But until that time, simple added weight each session is all that’s needed. Let’s save that discussion for a later date, because you are likely light-years away from the point in time where you have hit a true plateau. For now, reset your weights, start at a moderate load, and add modest weight, and then light weight, each session, until your sets get very, very heavy. This should take weeks and months.