What is High Intensity?

posted in: Strength Training | 2
I hope thats sweat, but I have a feeling its just water...
That might be sweat, but I think it's just water...

Here’s an exercise in stream-of-consciousness…

What do you think of when you read the term “high intensity?”

Do you think of gritting your teeth, repping out, squeezing your muscles as hard as possible, running as fast as you can, or sweating a lot?

Now, let me ask you another question. When was the last time you reached high intensity in your training program?

Maybe you train with high intensity every session, maybe it’s once or twice a week, or every now and then. Maybe the last time you reached high intensity was in high school or college athletics.

I’m astonished when I hear of people doing High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) 5-7 days a week, and still seeing very little progress towards their goals. It makes me wonder if most people really have a clear idea about what high intensity training entails.

First, let’s setup a structure to define what high intensity exercise is. I use a self-analyzed rating of perceived exertion/effort to objectify how hard I and my clients are working – this is based not only on heart rate and VO2 MAX, but also on fatigue, respiration, and emotional response to exercise. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest effort your body can possibly produce and sustain, anything at or above an 8 is considered high intensity exercise. If you only work at less than 80% of your training max, then you are not training in the high intensity “zone.”

So, what does an 8-10 range entail?

Well, I think that there are tremendous differences between an effort level of 8, and that of 10. I have only reached a 10 a few times in my life, and only with a coach right there making sure that I’m indeed performing at my maximum ability. It’s not a stretch to say that a 10 cannot be achieved solo, without some external motivator present to guide you.

My NSCA textbook says that “the numerical readings are associated with adjectives that describe the level of exertion. These ratings range from “No exertion at all” to “Maximal exertion.” Likewise, people have very specific ways of explaining their level of perceived exertion.

RPE 2 – “This isn’t so bad”

RPE 5 – “I can still speak, but I’m definitely working it”

RPE 7 – “This is challenging!”

RPE 8 – “Holy crap!”

RPE 9  – (heavy breathing, no speaking, pure concentration, fatigue setting in quickly)

RPE 10 – (no speaking, thinking “I can’t do this for long, I have to stop soon.”, “I don’t know why I’m doing this… etc. etc.”   :-)

I think the NSCA textbook correctly states that “To untrained, deconditioned clients, an exercise level that produces a heart rate of 60% HRR may seem maximal because they are unaccustomed to exercise and do not really know what a maximal effort is.”

I would add in, that anyone regardless of training or conditioning, that has not been coached through a high intensity session may not know what high intensity training really entails. I have very seldom witnessed someone who personally initiates true high intensity exercise (8+/10) during their training sessions. Most personal trainers I’ve encountered don’t even have an understanding of true high intensity exercise, nor do they require it of their clients (some, for good reason). However, that doesn’t mean that high intensity exercise is unachievable. Your potential is not limited to the presuppositions of those around you – only by the barriers you place on yourself.

We are living in a culture that is not accustomed to working very hard – at least physically. In fact, I’m a walking testimony to that almost every 4th day that I visit my local YMCA. Every 4 days, I employ a high intensity training session (8+/10). If I happen to be exercising at the gym, I draw stares all across the room as I exercise. The heavy breathing, the short rest breaks, the pool of sweat that puddles around me, and the unbroken focus on my activity grabs some attention from would-be high intensity trainees. I won’t lie, sometimes I think I convict other gym members because I work so hard and they don’t. But that’s not the point, and certainly not my goal. I know that in order to best reach my physical goals, I need to work very hard to get there.

We all know that hard work will pay off better than “almost” hard work. A good effort will pay off better than a half-hearted effort. If you aren’t sure if you’ve ever reached high intensity in your training program, find a way to test yourself. I prefer a little bit of competition. Putting my ability up against another trainee is the ultimate way to light a fire under my butt and help me access the confidence and drive necessary to reach peak performance levels. You may need something outside of yourself to gain that extra edge, to push into oblivion in your training.

You can do it. I know you can, and you know you can. And if you’re the type who does HIIT 7 days a week, and is still struggling to achieve your goals, then get out of your comfort zone. Your perception of what hard work entails could be wrong. Your own self-delusion may be replacing your confidence – and you won’t excel if you don’t change.

To your health and success,

Fitness Professional

P.S. To learn what high intensity exercise truly entails, I recommend the 4X7 Training Formula which offers specific instructions about differentiating no intensity, low intensity, moderate intensity, and high intensity training sessions to help you reach peak results in your training program.

2 Responses

  1. I love your RPE scale descriptors. With about 10 more pounds to lose I’ve incorporated HIIT 1x per week. Not sure if I should add another day?? These last 10 pounds are extremely stubborn.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Josie! It wouldn’t be a bad idea to add another HIIT session to your schedule, and 3 sessions per week seems to be the gold standard when it comes to losing the last bit of stubborn fat.

    To your health and success,


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