Athletes and coaches need to realize there are two types of training intensity: Load-Based Training Intensity and Effort-Based Training Intensity.
Load-Based Training Intensity is based as a percentage of your maximum ability and is usually associated with strength training.
Effort-Based Training Intensity is a less definite measure of intensity and is based on the perceived effort of an activity. This measurement of intensity is usually matched with conditioning activities.
They both have their place, and in fact, can and should be used simultaneously. If you’ve ever walked into the gym and have had those days when even a relatively light weight felt heavy (high effort intensity with moderate load intensity), you’ll know what I mean.
Load-Based Training Intensity
Load-based training intensity is most associated with strength training, but can also be used with conditioning style activities. A simple definition is how heavy the load is you are lifting, relative to your 1RM (1 Repetition Maximum). As such, the intensity of a particular lift will be expressed as a percentage of your 1RM.
An example in a conditioning setting would be working at a particular percentage intensity of your max heart rate.
Here’s the basic rule for load-based training intensity for strength training, depending on your goal:
Hypertrophy (muscle gain) – At least 70% 1RM
Strength – At least 80% 1RM
Power – At least 90% 1RM
In the programs you see here on Athletic Workouts, each lift has a designated training intensity. They are listed either as a percentage of your 1RM, or as somthing like 8RM. This would mean that you select a load you can lift for 8 repetitions. I sometimes list it this way, but call for 6 reps in a set, meaning you should be able to complete 2 more reps at the end of the set with the load you selected. This is useful for de-load weeks and active rest weeks.
If you want to determine your 1RM, I prefer finding an estimated 1RM for most people. Lifting at your max can be dangerous, and having an estimated 1RM is more than practical for most guys purposes.
In the AW Training Manual, I have lifters find their estimated 1RM based on a 5RM lift. This is the most weight you can lift for 5 reps.
1. For beginners, start with an empty bar and perform 5 reps. Rest at least 1 minute. With lower weights, you can rest for a shorter amount of time and as the weight progresses, increase your rest time, even up to 5 minutes.
2. If you were able to perform 5 reps with good technique, proceed to the next step.
3. Add 5-10 lbs to the bar for upper body exercises and 10-20 lbs to the bar for lower body exercises, and repeat steps 2 and 3 until you cannot complete a full 5 rep set.
Of course, as the weight get heavier and closer to your 5RM, you may want to increase the weight more conservatively.
To calculate your estimated 1RM, take the highest weight you lifted for 5 reps and multiply by 1.12. for example, if you lifted 150 lbs 5 times on the bench press, you can estimate your 1RM by multiplying 150 by 1.12 which equals 168.
This is much safer than attempting a true 1RM. If you miss the lift, you usually stop at 3 or 4 reps (and can even calculate your estimated 1RM from that result), as opposed to failing with a weight you can’t lift at all. Most of the guys here lift on their own, so this is the safest, most accurate way to find an estimated 1RM.
A lot of coaches argue against using percentages of 1RMs in their training programs, they feel it’s too rigid. I use training percentages to ensure my athletes are working at a proper intensity, and are progressively overloading at proper, regular intervals. But I’m not foolish enough to believe that everyday in the gym will be easy, and not every lifter will be feeling 100%. I use percentages more as suggestion and tracking, and realize that intensity sometimes needs to be scaled back for longer term gains.
Effort-Based Training Intensity
I used to judge intensity in conditioning activities based purely on an athletes MHR (Max Heart Rate). But seeing as the most widely used MHR calculations are far from exact, I began implementing more of an effort-based intensity system.
I still use MHR calculations from time to time, mostly to measure recovery time during intervals (In this instance, the next work period in an interval session would begin once an athletes HR reached a specific recovery level).
There are various ways to measure effort, but I like to keep things simple and keep it out of ten.
For example, a 1/10 would be laying on the couch watching football, a 10/10 would be running for your life. High intensity intervals would occur at anything above an 8/10. The only drawback with this arbitrary method, is sometimes athletes work at a lower intensity than they should be.
Of course then, duration of the activity related to overall intensity of effort. Running at a 10/10 for 2 seconds and running at a 10/10 for 10 seconds are different intensities as well. Without a doubt, it can get complicated.
Putting Them Together
Let’s understand that different manipulations of how drills and exercises are performed results in different kinds of intensities. Both a 1RM squat (max load/max effort) and 100 bodyweight squats (min load/max effort) are both intense, but in different ways.
Properly manipulating both load and effort intensities in a training program relate directly to the training principles of overload and specificity, leading to effective training.
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