Anthony Ditillo, The Intensity Factor

Image of Anthony DitilloTraining Intensity can best be explained as the amount of work you perform in your workouts. Over the past few years, this forgotten and misunderstood concept has begun to gain vast popularity, both in its usage and in its basic approach to training theory. What the proponents of training intensity are saying is: More work is not better than hard work.” What they mean is that it is more important to train hard than it is to train a lot!

Weightlifters and Powerlifters have used this training principle whenever they peak out for a meet. At this time, they purposely cut down on the amount of work, so that recuperation is at an all-time high and therefore , allows them to work to the maximum of physical exertion. At this time, it matters not to them how much work they perform, but how hard (close to their limit) it is.

The routines used at this time are very short, intense and to the point. Assistance movements are cut to the minimum, since their usefulness would be restricted to the
post-contest phase of the training program. To use assistance movements at this time would result in gross overtraining with the end result being a lessening in the amount of weight lifted in the particular exercise used for competition.

The higher you go in intensity, necessarily, the smaller amount of work you can perform in your workout. This principle also causes a period of staleness to become almost mandatory, for without this stale period, our nervous system and muscular system would become overburdened with excessive stress, more than we could adapt to, with the end result being trauma (injury).

We actually have a built-in “stress thermometer” which will switch off when our intensity becomes excessive or too frequent, enabling our systems to obtain a necessary rest.

To properly understand Training Intensity and its importance in the workout scheme you are using, a basic understanding of the terms used to explain this phenomena is necessary. To begin with, by Training Intensity, we mean training to the limit for repetitions each and every set. Such work is very demanding, both on our mental and physical systems; hence, the more of this kind of work we do, the shorter our workout program. The kind of training intensity we are talking about now is a bit different than the kind of training I mentioned before, the kind powerlifters and Olympic lifters use. For them the intensity is governed by how close to their absolute limit in weight their chosen movements progress to. This is because their sport and pre-contest training is based around how much you can do for one repetition. Even during their pre-contest preparation, they would very rarely perform any set of repetitions to the absolute maximum of number and performance. This is just one example of how Training Intensity can have different for different situations.

Training Intensity means the amount of hard work you perform within a given time. Decrease the amount the amount of rest between sets and you increase the amount of work. Increase the amount of  repetitions with a heavy weight and again, you increase the amount of hard work. Finally, work each set “into the ground” until you cannot budge the bar in any direction and again, you have increased the intensity of your efforts. Finally: combine these methods into one basic training methodology and you have a sure-fire effective, muscle and strength stimulating routine.

You can do a lot of work or you can do hard work. You can’t do both! To try and do both would most assuredly to physical collapse. Remember our built-in “stress thermometer?” It will allow us to adapt to stress only up to a certain point. Beyond this lies physical collapse. Only the “naturals” can train to this point of  “no return” without doing permanent harm to their physical and mental state. These are the men who break would records. These are our “Lifting Heroes.”

It is also possible to increase our Training Intensity through the use of negative resistance. This is part of an exercise movement in which the barbell is lowered back to its starting position. Experiments have been done in training camps and in colleges and universities and some interesting findings have come out of all these discussions and tests. Most observers have come to the conclusion that you can develop more strength by predominantly using these negative contractions in your training than in training in the customary manner. It seems that by concentrating on lowering heavier and heavier weights, you obtain not only more strength and size, but the entire movement, both lowering and raising, is greatly improved and strengthened.

Have you ever noticed that any weight that you could comfortably lower, let us say in the Squat or Bench Press, you most assuredly could then lift upward with no problem? This is partly due to physical and partly due to mental reasons. I also believe that this constant bombarding with heavier than usual poundages, in the lowering positions, sets up a strong nerve pathway during the lowering of the lift and the raising  of the weight is stimulated to greater proficiency due to this overload of nerve stimulation! In other words, by constantly practicing how to get into the bottom position of the Squat, using much heavier weights than you could possibly rise with. not only are the supporting muscles strengthened and further developed, but the nerve fiber stimulation is so greatly increased that this sets up a chemical and physiological situation in which the lifting of the weight becomes spontaneous and in the right “motor pathway.” This takes the burden away from the subconscious, “Suppose I fail.” “Suppose I get hurt.” And the whole situation takes on an unemotional, automatic approach. To be sure, negative work will definitely increase your physical strength and one period every three or four workouts on one or two movements should help just about any trainee. Be sure that you have spotters handy when utilizing this training principle, since you will be handling much more than you can properly lift by yourself. As far as an example program, I would say pick a movement and perform 4 or 5 sets of the usual medium-low repetitions, taking the appropriate weight jumps between each set so that set number 5 has you at a 5 repetition limit weight. Take this weight and lower it to your chest (Bench Press) for 8-10 slow, controlled lowerings. Your two spotters will take the bar back up for you on each repetition. Now you increase the weight 20 or 30 pounds and also decrease the repetitions until you are at a point where you are doing 4 or 5  heavy lowerings and the last 2 (reps 4 & 5) are hard to control. This should be your top negative weight. Stay her and do a few sets (amount up to you) and don’t increase this poundage until 5 controlled lowerings are possible.

Since this method is very intense, I would not recommend any more than 2 movements per workout using this principle. To try to so all your exercise movements this way most certainly would lead to overwork. This we want to try and avoid.

We now come to another method of increasing intensity which is quite popular with the bodybuilders. What we are getting into now is the theory of  “burns.” Burns is another name for forced partial repetitions. The title comes from how the application makes the muscle fibers feel. You can actually feel the applied muscle burn while using this training tool. To the bodybuilder this technique aids in the building of muscular definition and when used with heavier resistance it aids in the building of physical strength. For both goals, it is a very helpful assistance principal.

When we use the burn theory in our training what we are doing is literally taking a muscle by its neck and forcing it to respond! When we do a hard set of squats and at the end of the usual number of repetitions we force more movement from the bar, no matter how slight, we are momentarily greatly increasing our training intensity. Some may feel that these slight, partial movements have little benefit to the seeker of strength, but I beg to differ. If you increase your training intensity using a particular technique, you have to increase your strength, nothing else is possible. While I admit this technique is mostly advantageous to the bodybuilding fraternity, it can also be used with success by strength athletes in general. What we have to do is begin to realize that it matters not how many sets you do but how hard they were. You can train all day and half the night using light weight but this is not going to develop any great degree of strength. To increase your strength you must increase your training intensity and the way you choose to go about this is entirely up to you.

If you are going to use this burn theory, once again, two spotters are necessity. This is because of the pain and sometimes resultant loss of control this type of training methodology causes. You don’t want to get pinned while doing squats or bench presses, do you? Well then, be sure to have adequate spotters.

The application of this principle is relatively simple. After warming up to a fairly heavy weight, merely include a few partial lockouts a the end of each set, so that each set then becomes a set of maximum effort. The number of sets you do this way id entirely up to you. Just take your time and give yourself a while to adjust to this new inclusion in your training, since these burns can be quite uncomfortable in the beginning.

The reason why these seemingly insignificant movements offer such development and strength potentials is that they attack a muscle when it is weakest and ready for rest; at the end of a set. By hammering a muscle at this point in the training program, you greatly magnify the physical results and this increases your muscle mass. You also develop the ability to keep moving the bar during times of great stress and this ability is what increases your strength.

At this point, we should also include in our discussion our old standby, the Power Rack. By utilizing the “Theory of Maximum Fatigue” we are using intensity training to the ultimate degree. First of all, we begin with using a weight for partial repetitions which is already heavier than we can move in the usually accepted manner. We are forcing this heavier than possible weight for repetitions, which also adds to the training intensity. Let us not forget that these partials are a close kin to the burns we have just finished talking about. This also lends itself to the intensity of the exercise performance. Finally, we are combining partial overload with Isometric Contraction. Now I ask you: “How much more intense could you get?!!”

This is why nothing will strengthen you or develop you like Power Rack work! It also has two added features that no other method of training intensity can claim – you do not need spotters and the work can be done in complete safety. This is why I prefer this type of intensity training more than any other. It encompasses all the best training methods for increasing training intenseness and makes it all the more appealing. You can really concentrate on power rack work.

When utilizing the “Maximum Fatigue Theory” I feel it is more beneficial to use the Isometric Hold against the top pin, than to use the supporting  method as advocated by some Why? Because by using the Isometric Hold position you also add to the training intensity of the exercise movement and as we have already come to realize, strength requires optimum intensity.

Merely doing partial repetitions in the power rack without using the Isometric Hold theory at the end of the set will not be quite as effective on your strength gains. However, there is no reason why you should not do some form of rack work periodically, if for no other reason than its place in training intensity.

We finally come to the latest method of increasing training intensity and this is entitled the “Isolation Method of Training.” What we mean by isolation is the choosing of a movement which will work upon one chosen muscle group and one chosen muscle group only. There can be no “cheating” when using the isolation principle, since this would be in direct contrast to our momentary aims while using this principle. This principle shows that not only heavy poundages are required for maximum intensity stimulation, but sometimes the way in which a movement is performed can greatly increase the over-all intensity of operation.

This system also goes hand in hand with the Super Set system. These compound sets for the same or closely adjacent areas on the body have been favorites of the bodybuilders for years. Once again, it should be pointed out that this theory can also be adapted for all around strength training and if used conscientiously, can also give good results over a given period of time.

Compound set training for strength means using an isolation movement for a given body part and then performing a muscle group exercise for the same body part, thereby greatly increasing training intensity. If we were to use the Standing Press as an example, we would combine we would perform Standing Lateral Raises for the deltoids first and then combine them with the Front Presses. This way the deltoids are pre-fatigued with the Lateral Raises and then “worked into the ground” with the Front Presses. Without first pre-fatiguing them, the shoulders would still be ready for exercise, when the triceps would be completely exhausted. While such a severe method of training will initially necessitate a drastic cutback in your training poundages, after a few months performing compound sets, you could drop this theory and try to peak out on the basic movement and I am sure you should register a dramatic strength increase! This is how this system works for strength – you must drop it for a while in order for the pre-development to make itself manifested.

By now I feel you should have a rather well rounded knowledge of just what Training Intensity is and how important it is for proper gaining. There can be no significant strength without it and with too much of it, there can be no recuperation. There must be a constant watch on the trainee’s part to make sure that he is not training too much on his nerves. Such a situation would result in decreased work capacity, decreased training motivation and lack of all-around progress with resultant depression and apathy. This we are trying to avoid at all costs.

Learn to listen to that little voice within you which will tell you when you are working on your nerves too often or too much. When this happens it would be best to utilize a less strenuous form of exercise for a few weeks, giving the entire nervous system a complete rest.

It should also be mentioned here that Training Intensity, although of paramount importance when formulating a result producing training scheme, is not the complete answer to all training problems. For most of us, there must also be coupled with this intensity just the right amount (volume) off work. In the next part of this chapter, we shall be discussing just how important training volume really is and how it is interwoven with our precepts of  “much work and hard work.” In this section we shall see how the Western European athletes make use of both training intensity and training volume to give them their desired results on the lifting platform an in athletics, in general.


Anthony Ditillo, The Development of Physical Strength (1982).

Tell Me What You Think!

Up ↑