In weight training the simple definition of intensity is how hard the exercise is, generally based on the amount of weight or load you lift, the volume is how much work you do, such as the number of reps you perform in an exercise.
Take the squat as an example. If you do five lifts (repetitions) with 50kg’s and you increase this to 10 lifts, you have increased the volume.
If you keep the repetitions at five but increase the barbell weight to 75kg’s, you have increased the intensity of the exercise.
Workout Effects of Volume vs Intensity
You may wonder how this affects your workout and whether the results are the same.
Higher volume and constant load will tend to increase the work your heart and lungs do with the extra movement and effort over time. This will provide you with enhanced cardiovascular fitness and some strength and muscle endurance.
On the other hand, if you increase the weight of the lift and keep the reps the same, you will gain only a little extra heart and lung condition but much more strength and muscle, especially if the weight is near to what you can tolerate for anywhere from 3-10 reps.
If you do circuits where anaerobic running (under 90 sec) or movement is required, then the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or heart rate can be a guide to intensity. RPE is often measured on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is sitting still and 10 is as hard as you can go.
Heart Rate Measurement
As a general rule, the intensity in relation to heart rate is measured as a percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR). You can estimate your maximum heart rate as 220 minus your age for a male and 225 minus your age for a female.
How vigorous you are working out in relation to your heart rate will depend on how to fit you are.
For cardiovascular fitness training, you should aim for 65 to 75 percent MHR, although fitter people can train at up to 85 percent without getting too far into the anaerobic training zone.
In the anaerobic zone, your body uses more oxygen than it can reasonably take in through the lungs to support that level of intensity, and you pay it back with exhaustion.
For high-intensity, anaerobic training you will train at 85 percent MHR and above.
How Intense Should My Training Be?
Controversial statement coming up… ‘You Probably Could Be Going Harder’
If we forget about the technical term intensity for one second and instead focus on capacity, how close to your limit are you working (whether that’s a heavy low rep exercise, a fast high rep exercise, or running at a certain heart rate %). Most people don’t push themselves anywhere even remotely close to their limits.
It’s usually due to lack of desire or knowing (or sometimes not knowing) what it really feels like to be working close to maximum capacity.
Going through the motions simply isn’t enough. Success in any field requires motivation and hard work. One thing that springs to mind is ‘the 10,000 hours rule’. Malcolm Gladwell and Matthew Syed have written and studied on what it takes to be world class in a given discipline. Loosely speaking it requires 10,000 hours of world class training.
Let me put the above statement into context: I’ve probably driven a car for more hours than Lewis Hamilton, however, has my training been of the same standard as his? Nope.
The closer we can mimic the Lewis Hamilton focus into our own training, i.e. increase the intensity, the better the results will be. Remember why you’re training!
Pushing Yourself Has Many Benefits
This ability to deal with discomfort – or become comfortable being uncomfortable – will do a lot more for you than just help you build muscle, get fit, and perform better.
Pushing yourself builds mental toughness.
When you’re able to enter a situation where you feel uncomfortable and stay focused and present instead of feeling sorry for yourself and quitting, you become stronger and more confident. You build trust in yourself and your ability to accomplish difficult tasks that most people wouldn’t be able to.
Giving in and giving up will only train your mind to be weak in other areas of your life.
So Exactly How Hard Should You Go?
Simple: As hard as you possibly can.
There’s no downside to going hard. Only growth – both physical and mental. Just be sure to pick a workout routine that matches your goals.
The best way to make sure you’re giving it 100% is to work with a coach or trainer. Push any thoughts out of your mind, turn your smartphone on airplane mode, and concentrate fully on what you’re doing. Forget the selfies and Instagram fame. Do it for yourself, no one else.
Focus on what you’re doing rather than how bad you feel in the moment. Stay present and don’t let your mind wander, otherwise you’ll just convince yourself to just take a break or finish.
Finally – A Note on Overtraining
The term ‘overtraining’ gets thrown around in the fitness world a lot. What it usually means is that either your connective tissue (ligaments and tendons) or your central nervous system is stressed and needs time to recover.
This is extremely rare in the general population. It applies more to athletes doing intense two-a-day workouts or powerlifters capable of lifting serious weight.
However, one risk that you do need to pay attention to is injury as a result of poor form. You can easily avoid this by making sure your form is on point for every rep. This doesn’t mean to use light weights and take it easy. It just means to drop the weights and end the set when your form breaks down… even if it’s just a little bit off.
Success in fitness,
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