IS HIGH INTENSITY TRAINING BEST? 

 

High Intensity Training (H.I.T.) refers to the one set to failure type training program promoted as the most effective and scientifically based strength training program by such research scientists as Arthur Jones, Ellington Darden, and Matt Brzycki and by famous bodybuilder Mike Mentzer. In addition to recommending that the smallest possible number of sets be performed, another essential tenet of this training philosophy is that repetitions should all be performed in a slow, controlled fashion. It is argued that such low volume/high intensity training is the most effective way to increase both muscle size and strength.  H.I.T. training is contrasted with volume training, where multiple sets of each exercise are performed, often with submaximal effort.  Volume is the most common form of weight training program seen in gyms and fitness centers.  

Since H.I.T. training is also recommended as the most effective program for improving athletic performance (by Matt Bryzcki and others), it is also often contrasted with high speed, explosive training.  An example of explosive training would be doing power cleans and high pulls to improve leg and overall body power for football.  Advocates of explosive training would argue that in order to train the muscles to contract strongly during the high speeds of athletic competition, high speed, explosive training is necessary.   H.I.T. proponents would argue that using heavy weights, even while performing the repetitions slowly, will stimulate the fast twitch muscle fibers.  This will carry ovedr to sports activities.  They see high speed, explosive training as both dangerous (unnecessary loading of the joints) and ineffective (weights are sub-maximal and therefore not providing a high intensity enough contraction of the muscles to stimulate muscle growth). 

H.I.T. is one of the most controversial training programs available. The following is a series of both pro and con discussions by various exercise science folks.

 

Dr. Fred Hatfield, aka Dr. Squat, starts the discussion with the following critique:

"HIT"

Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D., International Sports Science Association

HIT History:

It all started back in the early seventies with Arthur Jones of Nautilus fame. Arthur's chief mission, of course, was to sell equipment. His marketing plan was brilliant. My interpretation of his plan was that in order to sell his equipment (which for the day was quite expensive) he had to create a religion for the masses. To create a religion he needed 1) churches, 2) disciples, 3) a bible, and 4) clergy.

A scientist (Ellington Darden) wrote his bible, and (much later) a strength coach named Matt Brzycki put the Ten Commandments from that bible into lay language. The Ten Commandments are presented below. Then he paid a bunch of guys to follow the gospel (their test results were later incorporated into the bible).  Later, a chosen few of them became his disciples.

The churches came next (Nautilus gyms sprang up all over the place... most are dead now, their respective flocks having flown the coop upon realizing that they were not making it to the promised land quickly enough -- in my humble opinion). His clergymen (gym owners) LOVED Arthur because he had really neat looking equipment and a way for them to rustle their clients in the front door and out the back real fast by convincing them that one set to failure was "the way."

The New HITters:

There is a small (but utterly vocal) band of Arthur Jones disciples who have, since the early seventies, clung desperately to the oft discredited notion that one high intensity set to failure is all you need to achieve your maximum potential in growing stronger or bigger. In fact, the contemporary interpretation (below) admits that one may profit from three sets, although one set is just as good as three. I say "desperately" for good reason.

These guys (who like to call each other "HIT Jedi") invested their hearts and souls (and, quite often, funds from their respective organizations) in the superiority of both Jones' equipment and his theories on how best to use it. Others have been or are "sponsored" by Arthur. It almost seems as if they are afraid of losing face (if not their jobs) if they were to back away from the tenets of the HIT theory now, despite the huge volume of scientific studies discrediting many of its tenets.

From a social-psychological view, it's utterly fascinating to watch the HIT men scramble. It brings to mind the great movie, "Lord of the Flies," in which a bunch of shipwrecked boys, left to their own devices, created a sort of Pagan society amongst themselves. Some of the Jedi who are more vocal than most, having written many passionate articles or books on their own cute little variants of the old Jones theory, bear mention. How they refer to each other as "Jedi" (which, I'm assured, means "priest") is yet more proof that HIT is a Pagan religion. I must say, however, I admire their zeal for lifting!

Meaning to cast no dispersion on these well-meaning gentlemen by identifying them to the readers on this list, and acknowledging that not all those listed may care to admit to their Pagan beliefs, here they are in alphabetical order (this is neither an exhaustive listing, nor is it mine -- it came from their web site):

Matt Brzycki (strength coach at Princeton University);
Ellington Darden, Ph.D. (Jones' longtime science advisor);
Ken Leistner, D.C. (New York chiro who runs a gym there);
Ken Mannie (strength coach at Michigan State);
Stuart McRobert (publishes a "Hardgainer" newsletter);
Mike Mentzer (former bodybuilder who fabricated his own "Heavy Duty" interpretation of Arthur's disproved tenets);
Dan Riley (strength coach of the Washington Redskins);
Rob Spector (keeper of a HIT web site); and
Wayne Westcott, Ph.D. (a YMCA fitness director)
Kim Wood (strength coach of the Cincinnati Bengals)

The Jedi also claim as disciples, bodybuilding converts such as Dorian Yates, Ray Mentzer and Casey Viator.

 Just as Protestants split from Rome, some Jedi have gone their own way to create their own denominations of the HIT religion. The religious wrinkles provided by the various denominations after their split from Rome are quite interesting reading. I mentioned Mike Mentzer's "Heavy Duty" system of training is really no different than HIT with a few funky (read: "mystical") wrinkles added.

 There's also the "Superslow" system created by the Protestant HIT Jedi Ken Hutchins, who actually provides a fitness trainer certification in his system (which can be yours for as little as $495.00). His peculiar wrinkle to HIT theory has to do with friction. Says he: "When you pull a trigger on a rifle or gun, you're supposed to pull with a slow, steady squeeze to the rear - if you jerk the trigger than the shot will be off. Same thing when lifting weights - each repetition should be a slow, steady squeeze of the muscle with no jerking.  "...if an exercise has little friction, it's better to use a longer negative as you don't get the "partial respite" that you would from an exercise with lots of friction."

Now I'd like to introduce you to the HIT commandments and some pointed comments on each relative to some widely accepted laws of training. 

The Ten HIT Commandments according to Jedi Brzycki:

 

1. Train With A High Level Of Intensity.

"Intensity," according to HIT dogma, "relates to the degree of the "inroads"--or amount of fatigue--you've made into your muscle at any given instant. In the weight room, a high level of intensity is characterized by performing an exercise to the point of concentric muscular failure: when you've exhausted your muscles to the extent that you literally cannot raise the weight for any more repetitions. Failure to reach a desirable level of intensity--or muscular fatigue--will result in little or no gains in functional strength or muscular size. After reaching concentric muscular failure, you can increase the intensity even further by performing 3 to 5 additional post-fatigue repetitions. These post-fatigue reps may be either negatives or regressions and will allow you to overload your muscles in a safe, efficient manner."

There is no question that going to failure can constitute a more "intense" workout. But, in the real world -- in the gym -- intensity is so much more than that. Webster defines intensity as having or showing the characteristic of strength, force, straining, or (relative to a bodybuilder's focal point) other aspects of his or her effort to a maximum degree. The words intense and intent both have the same Latin root, intendere "to stretch out." If one is intent on doing something, he does so, by definition, with strained or eager attention -- with concentration! That intensity of effort is largely a function of the mind is not this writer's opinion. It is true by definition as well as by practical usage of the word! 

"Intensity" is increased by:  

* amplification of mental effort -- getting "psyched"

* approaching your training with a burning passion, as though it were your LIFE

* adding reps

* adding weight

* decreasing rest between reps

* decreasing rest between sets

* increasing the number of exercises per body part

* increasing the total number of exercises or body parts trained at one session

* increasing the number of training sessions per day

* increasing the speed of movement

* increasing the amount of work done at the anaerobic threshold (maximum pain

tolerance)

* increasing the amount of eccentric work your muscles are required to perform.

Perhaps most importantly, going to failure is NOT a prerequisite to adaptation!

 

The SAID Principle is violated by the first commandment of HIT. Their idea is to go to failure all the time, but certain "specific" training objectives mitigate against it (e.g., speed training). And, the GAS Principle, which states that there must be a period of low intensity training or complete rest following periods of high intensity training, is violated. These guys go to failure all the time!

 

2. Attempt To Increase The Resistance Used Or The Repetitions Performed Every Workout.

 "...every time you work out you should attempt to increase either the weight you use or the repetitions you perform in relation to your previous workout. This can be viewed as a "double progressive" technique (resistance and repetitions). Challenging your muscles in this manner will force them to adapt to the imposed demands (or stress)."

The SAID Principle is violated. Sometimes, lighter weights done rapidly is required. And sometimes heavier weights done for 3 reps is required. (If your training requires that you go to failure with a weight that's so heavy you can only do three reps, you are BEGGING for a MAJOR injury if that takes you to failure!) The GAS Principle is also violated. Alternating periods of high versus low intensity is a better way to go. If you wait until total recovery is accomplished in any given muscle, atrophy place.

 

3. Perform 1 To 3 Sets Of Each Exercise.

 "...numerous research studies -- which I once again am probably viewed as dreaming up--have shown that there are no significant differences when performing either one, two or three sets of an exercise..."

Yep! You're dreaming pal! Dr. Richard Berger (my mentor during my doctoral studies at Temple) years ago showed that there IS a significant improvement in gains with three sets as opposed to one. Other studies have shown the same results. Nowadays, many athletes (bodybuilders included) do as many as 10 or more sets. Even Arthur Jones --the original HIT man --showed that people with white, fast-twitch muscles require fewer reps, sets and workouts per week than people with predominantly red, slow-twitch muscles.

Apparently, all HIT men are white muscle fiber guys? I think not! So, while none of the seven laws are violated here, some (especially the overload principle and the SAID principle) are not being applied to their maximum potential.

 

4. Reach Concentric Muscular Failure Within A Prescribed Number Of Repetitions.

 "Repetition ranges differ from body part to body part and from coach to coach. In the course of training hundreds of collegiate athletes over the past eleven years, these are the ranges I usually assign: 15 to 20 (hip exercises), 10 to 15 (leg exercises) and 6 to 12 (upper body exercises).  Other HIT strength coaches are pretty much in that neighborhood, with a few electing slightly lower ranges but not less than six."

Woah! You guys should be blushing on this one! The SAID principle as well as the principle of individual differences are quite specific in recognizing that not everyone is alike. Not everyone responds in the same way to any given rep/set scheme. Look again at my response to Commandment Three.

 

5. Perform Each Repetition With Proper Technique.

 "A quality rep is performed by raising and lowering the weight in a deliberate, controlled manner. Lifting a weight in a rapid, explosive fashion is ill-advised for two reasons: (1) it exposes your muscles, joint structures and connective tissue to potentially dangerous forces which magnify the likelihood of an injury while strength training and (2) it introduces momentum into the movement which makes the exercise less productive and less efficient. Lifting a weight in about 1 to 2 seconds will guarantee that you're exercising in a safe, efficient manner. It should take about 3 to 4 seconds to lower the weight back to the starting/stretched position.

First, I grow weary of the HIT business of being "safe." Where in the book does it say that going slow and deliberate with a heavy weight is safer? I think otherwise. What about predisposing an athlete to greater harm on the playing field as a result of this sort of nonsensical preparatory training?

And, certainly, these slow, deliberate movements are not as effective as other methods in many instances. SOME reps are well performed in the manner described above. However, this commandment clearly disregards the importance of cheating movements, explosive lifting (e.g., the Olympic lifts), and many other techniques of lifting. 

Further, slow, deliberate movements are nowhere NEAR as effective for forcing an adaptive response in connective tissues as are more explosive (and yes, often "ballistic") movements. So much for their claim to "safety!" Deinhibition of the Golgi tendon organ's protective feedback loop can be moved back far more effectively with controlled ballistic movements than with slow, deliberate movements. Clearly, this commandment is in violation of the Overcompensation, Specificity and SAID principles.

 

6. Strength Train For No More Than One Hour Per Workout.

 "If you are training with a high level of intensity--and you should--you literally cannot exercise for a long period of time. ...Training with a minimal amount of recovery time between exercises will elicit a metabolic conditioning effect that cannot be approached by traditional multiple set programs. Don't ask me why cause I've been makin' all this stuff up as I go along."

Ol' Jedi Brzycki continues to put his sandalled foot on top of his golden tongue. Here, I think (one can't really tell) he's claiming that doing one set of squats, then one set of benches, then one set of pulldowns, then one set of curls, and one set of 3, 4, 5 or so additional exercises, and you're outta the gym. C'mon!

Clearly, this commandment is in violation of the Overcompensation, Specificity and SAID principles. Re-read my response to Commandment Three. 

People are DIFFERENT!

 

7. Emphasize The Major Muscle Groups.

 "The focal point for most of your exercises should be your major muscle groups (i.e. your hips, legs and upper torso)." 

Oh? Have we lost sight of training weaknesses first? Bodybuilders know this instinctively. Most athletes do as well. Clearly, this commandment is in violation of the Specificity and SAID principles.

 

8. Whenever Possible, Work Your Muscles From Largest To Smallest.

 "Exercise your hips first, then go to your legs (hams, quads and calves or dorsi flexors), upper torso (chest, upper back and shoulders), arms (biceps, triceps and forearms), abs and finally your low back."

Duhhhhh! Am I missing something? In the Eighth Commandment, you told us NOT to focus on smaller muscles! In addition to violating one of your own commandments, this commandment is in violation of the Specificity and SAID principles.

 

9. Strength Train 2 To 3 Times Per Week On Nonconsecutive Days.

 "...a period of about 48 to 72 hours is necessary for muscle tissue to recover sufficiently from a strength workout. A period of at least 48 hours is also required to replenish your depleted carbohydrate stores.

...Performing any more than three sessions a week can gradually become counterproductive due to a catabolic effect. This occurs when the demands you have placed on your muscles have exceeded you recovery ability. Recovery time is adequate if you continue making gains." 

Sometimes 48-72 hours is sufficient, and sometimes it's not. Depending upon the muscle involved it may be less or it may be more. 

Remember:

* Big muscles take longer to recover than smaller ones

* Fast twitch muscles (your "explosive" muscles) take longer to recover than slow twitch muscle fibers ("endurance" muscles);

* Guys recover faster than girls;

* You recover faster from slow movements than from fast movements;

* You recover faster from low intensity training than from high intensity training.

* The older you get, the longer it takes to recover

 

By carbohydrate stores, do you mean glycogen? Not 48 hours...something closer to 2 or 3 hours! I, and every athlete I've ever trained, often trained twice a day! The Russian athletes do, the Bulgarian weightlifters train 3-6 times a day! And, even if there were (as Bryzcki put it) a "catabolic" effect, wouldn't that call for a "periodized approach to training?

Grand daddy laws violated with this one are the SAID, GAS and Specificity Principles.

 

10. Keep Accurate Records Of Your Performance.

 "Records are a log of what you've accomplished during each and every strength session. Record keeping can be an extremely valuable tool to monitor progress and make your workouts more meaningful. It can also be used to identify exercises in which a plateau has been reached.

OK. I'll give the HIT men this one.

On the other hand, HIT folk will have to use their logs to refer back more often than other (non-HIT) trainees. They're bound to be hitting plateaus a lot more than others.

Jedi Bryzcki ended his "Sermon On The Web" with these words: "Don't be misled by the brevity or simplicity of a program that calls for one set of an exercise done with a high level of intensity. 

Strength Coach Ken Mannie has stated that HIT is "the most productive, most efficient and without a doubt, the most demanding form of strength training known to man [and woman]." Of course, I read that in Nautilus magazine. And Mannie was drunk at the time."

 

Need I say more?

To access the Sports Science News, edited by Dr. Hatfield, through which he can be contacted, see http://www.sportsci.org/ .