If you want to enjoy the benefits of exercise, get fit and get the physique of your dreams, then you've got to be prepared to push through the pain.
In this article I will argued that we should be regularly engaging in high intensity training. That at a minimum at least one exercise session a week should induce physical discomfort. In addition, it will be shown that failure to over-exert physiological systems – the muscular, cardiovascular (heart) and respiratory (lungs/diaphragm) systems – will result in physical stagnation and/or decline.
But first an anecdote
I was half way through a gruelling circuit and, after completing a nasty series of inclines on the treadmill, progressed onto the rowing machine where I would spend the next 40 minutes fighting to keep the pace below 2:00/500m. Though wearied and feeling lightheaded from fatigue I remember as I sat on the rower a fat woman on the adjacent cross-trainer turn to me and, like Napoleon from his high horse, say, ‘You should be enjoying it.’
When I found my breath and wiped the stinging sweat from my blinking eyes I refuted her statement and informed her that physiological adaptations – that is, improved fitness – will not take place in the absence of intense physical exertion. She smiled sympathetically and went back to watching the collage of flat screen TVs that were suspended in front of the CV equipment.
The majority of people who engage in physical exercise stick to the same routine and complete that routine at the same level of intensity. The ubiquitous yet erroneous belief that any exercise is better than no exercise is perhaps partly responsible for why few people ever exert themselves during physical training.
It seems as though many people who engage in some form of exercise have fallen into the assumption that physical development and the associative health benefits will be conferred by proxy of merely entering a gym, or donning training attire.
This of course is not true and that fat woman proves the falsity. At the time I worked at the gym that provides the setting for the anecdote and that woman had been a member for many years. Yet, even though she exercised three times a week, her disastrous state of health never improved. Of course, I suspect her diet and lifestyle played a significant role in this also.
Another reason that may well explain why a substantial number of people think this way is due to the misrepresentation of reality perpetuated by ‘health gurus’ who have obtained substantial notoriety.
Lean in 15? Total rubbish!
4-Hour body? Pure poppycock!
Let me make one thing explicitly clear from the outset: contrary to the get-fit-quick propagators and their legions of deluded subscribers, to improve one’s physicality, to get that coveted physique, to maintain health, takes a shit ton of effort, self-sacrifice, discipline and, yes, pain.
‘The intensity of the exercise or the amount of resistance/load used for a specific exercise is possibly the most important variable in resistance training’ (Kraemer et al (1998)). If we wish to improve our levels of fitness and advance and develop the systems of the body we must be prepared to vary the intensity at which we train.
Studies have shown that by exercising at greater intensities – otherwise known as moving beyond our comfort zones – the infrastructure of our muscle fibres are disorganised which can cause muscles to split and grow back beyond their previous size/density. This is the process of hypertrophy where the body lays down additional tissue in an attempt to compensate for the physical demands placed on the muscles.
During exercise we cause microscopic tears in the muscle fibres; we are effectively damaging the muscle. But it is this damage that acts as a stimulus for growth and development. However, this tends only to occur when we exercise at high intensities. (Try this high intensity circuit!)
Thus, if it is physical improvement we seek, and the health and fitness benefits that come with that improvement, it is not enough merely to engage in exercise, as is commonly believed. We must step out of our comfort zones by turning up the intensity.
How often should we train at high intensities?
It’s important to point out that frequently exercising at high intensities can be dangerous. Of course, high intensity training places a greater strain on the body. As a consequence, unless well managed through recovery, adequate nutrition and rehabilitation, the trainer who pushes themselves too hard too often will increase their chances of sustaining an injury.
However, that’s not to say that we should avoid high intensity training altogether. We just need to ensure that we sensibly incorporate high intensity sessions into our training regime and ensure to adhere to long established post-exercise recovery procedures; rest, nutrition and perhaps a sports massage (or myofascial release through rolling).
How often we train at high intensities is really very subjective and, to a greater extent, determined by your fitness ambitions. For example, if you desire to win a gold medal in cross-country skiing then the majority of your training regime will be at a high intensity. One study showed that top-level endurance athletes who boasted greater VO2max and greater arterial diameters more often engaged in chronic endurance training (Lundgren et al (2015)).
But if you have your fitness sights set on a more modest ambition and you just want to keep in shape whilst reaping the many health benefits associated with exercise, then one or two high intensity training sessions a week should suffice.
Incorporating high intensity training sessions into an exercise regime
Personally I’ve never taken a scientific approach to high intensity training – I beast myself as and when I’ve got the appetite; so usually three to four times a week. Though this ad hoc approach works for me I wouldn’t prescribe it to a wider audience as a methodology to aspire.
Because few people do possess the hunger for high intensity training an ad hoc approach is doomed to fail. Why? Well it lacks clearly defined boundaries and is woefully inconsistent. It is for this reason why, to the person who is rooted to their comfort zone, I would advise designating a specific day to high intensity training sessions.
What might this look like?
Monday through to Friday you could participate in light to moderate exercise consisting of a mixture of resistance and cardiovascular training. But come, say, sadomasochistic Saturday, you would crank up the intensity and give yourself a thorough good thrashing.
Really, it matters not which day of the week you decide to engage in high intensity training. What matters is that when you have decided you stick to it – and that you ensure to assign the day with a name that reflects the gravity of the occasion. Some examples include:
Total destruction Tuesday
Have the defibrillator on standby Sunday
Throughout this article I have endeavoured to demonstrate the important role high intensity training plays in augmenting physicality. In just a few short paragraphs we have gained a glimpse into the biological processes that give rise to the advancement of fitness and the mechanics by which it is brought about.
In addition, I provided a brief overview of how high intensity training can be incorporated into an exercise regime thus providing you with an opportunity to exploit the benefits. Or that’s left is for you to action the advice and implement this much neglected training principal.
(As we are very interested in user feedback at Hungry4Fitness, I would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, professional personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
Kari Margrethe Lundgren 1, Trine Karlsen, Øyvind Sandbakk, Philip E James, Arnt Erik Tjønna (2015) Sport-Specific Physiological Adaptations in Highly Trained Endurance Athletes [Cited online 31/5/2020] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25668407/
Lundgren KM, Karlsen T, Sandbakk Ø, James PE, Tjønna AE. Sport-Specific Physiological Adaptations in Highly Trained Endurance Athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015;47(10):2150‐2157. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000634 [Cited online 31/5/2020] https://www.jospt.org/doi/pdf/10.2519/jospt.19126.96.36.199