High Intensity Training (HIT) Is It For You ?

Written by  BodyActive Technical Panel
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High Intensity Training is a form of strength training that gained its popularity during the 70’s, popularised by Arthur Jones of Nautilus and MedX. It was later championed by Mister Universe winner Mike Mentzer and is usually associated with this legendary bodybuilder.

In later years the Mr Olympia winner Dorian Yates would become renowned for his adherence to a close form of H.I.T quite at odds to many of his competitors use of low intensity mega volume workouts.

High Intensity training runs counter to much of the traditional bodybuilding training that was popular at the time of its inception. Instead of overall volume and variety of exercises and rep/set schemes, H.I.T declares ‘intensity’ to be the most fundamental component in creating stimulus for new growth. The system was relatively simple to describe but contentious in its effectiveness.

Typical Key Features of the H.I.T method

1. Using a weight that is heavy for the set, i.e. you pick a weight that is the maximum weight you can use for your target rep range.

2. The number of sets performed is low, i.e. for each muscle group trained you do the minimum number of sets required to fatigue the muscle, usually between 1 and 6 sets. Set numbers are generally aimed lower than the high volume practices of traditional bodybuilding which can often see sets in the 10 or more ranges.

3. The reps are executed in good form throughout, with an avoidance of forced reps or training past the failure point however momentary muscle failure is a key sign of ‘intensity’ and is encouraged on the final rep.

4. Great emphasis is placed on keeping all loading parameters the same, with the exception of the weight being used, which should be increased by the smallest amount possible at each workout.

5. The exercises chosen are ones that allow progressive overload, typically 'basic movements' rather than complex or isolation movements.

6. Recovery times between workouts are generally longer than may be used in other methods.

Possible Advantages

1. Volume - is low so workouts are short and simple. Less time in the gym. Traditional two hour bodybuilding workouts are reduced to 30 mins or less.

2. Simplicity – no complex cycles, changes, progression methods to remember or plan. More weight on the bar in tiny fragmentary increases is the only change.

3. Frequency – Pushing the body to failure means fast workouts that require a lot of recovery so high frequency training is not encouraged; fewer trips to the gym mean more of a life outside of it.

4. Progress is easy to observe. If you are getting stronger, in the optimum rep range, at some point you will increase muscle size. You are never making complex changes. One number changes – the weight on the bar.

Possible Disadvantages

1. Increasing the weight at every workout becomes virtually, if not totally, impossible over the long run, and therefore overload comes to a halt.

2. The mental and physical demand of reaching full muscle workouts in a single set can be beyond some peoples resolve/motivation/desire, and the required training intensity is not reached (this is why some HIT schemes contain up to 6 sets per body part).

3. There is insufficient exercise variety to stimulate all components of a muscle, and therefore you may be missing out on some aspects of maximising muscle growth.

4. If you jump straight into heavy duty style reps of training far beyond failure without giving prior due care to fully warming up your musculature then you risk serious injury. Never underestimate the damage that can be caused by poor form or a lack of warm-up on even the lightest sets, let alone critically hard post failure training such as rest pause and heavy negatives.

Is H.I.T for me?

It’s difficult to judge. You will find proponents of the scheme who have had wondrous success and opponents who say the medical and scientific evidence just doesn’t add up. Of course the important thing is whether it will work for you or not. In general people with difficulty gaining weight, hardgainers, slim body types with skinny appendages and those easily burnt out by high volume training or with massive outside gym demands and stresses may benefit from the low frequency, low volume, and high intensity form of training. Also those who have been on a long term programme of high frequency training and suffering mental or physical fatigue may find the prospect of brief 30 minute hardcore workouts more appealing. Those with many time demands also like the fast and simple approach.

H.I.T has generally found less favour with those who gain muscle rapidly or require strength endurance or complex muscular motor skills. There simply is not enough time or variation included for these athletes to receive much gain. Nor does a regular athlete have the luxury of long rest periods between such brutal training sessions to ensure muscle growth can occur without overtraining. However, even for these athletes during off seasons or when stress injuries begin to show, a mental break with such a different style of training may be exactly the stimulus they need.

All training methods done properly can often lead to new gains if they are substantially different to what has been done before.

The Road to recovery – The argument for low volume, high intensity training

One of the fundamental principles in HIT training is that of systemic recovery. This means that every time that you train, every single time, you are causing not only localised stress to a particular muscle group or body part but are putting a huge drain on the reserves of your entire nervous system. A drain on your nervous system whether it be leg day or chest day etc. Not only that, but when it comes to bodybuilding, HIT advocates are famous for there saying that everyday is 'liver' day. What this means is your body has to work hard everyday to build and assimilate the foods that you are eating into new functioning skeletal muscle tissue. Again - a drain on your system, which can only take so much. And so the key focus of HIT training is to maximise recovery. So how does one maximise recovery?

In short, one maximises recovery by doing the absolute minimum possible to stimulate muscular growth. You are looking for the fastest and quickest method to stimulate the growth response of the body. And HIT advocates believe this to be possible with just one very brief and intense set of one exercise, at its most extreme. This means chest training can be performed once in a while with a brutal set of chest press and then you go home and eat. Can this be done in just one set? Well, most HIT advocates believe training is a brief and simple stimulation based upon progression. If one was to enter a dark room and flick the light switch, the room would be illuminated. Once it is done, it is done. One does not have to keep flicking the switch on and off again and again, for this would cause wear and tear and eventual damage to the light switch and light bulb. The same goes for HIT training. Once a muscle has been stimulate past the point of failure where it has never been pushed before it will trigger the growth response and so cause you to build muscle. Of course you must consistently, over time, apply further increased demands upon your muscle or it will never be forced to grow. What you have here is a method that actually encourages less. The less - the better. The more stimulation you can create in the shortest space of time will yield the greatest results. Anything that prolongs trauma and stress upon your nervous system (i.e. multiple sets and increased volume) the less you will recover and the more you will find it harder and harder to grow.

To be fair, in terms of volume training, if one was to believe that a muscle needed further stimulation from more exercises or more sets of exercises in order to cause an overload and a response to grow, you would find your workouts getting longer and longer and longer. After a few years of training you would be in the gym everyday for hours because you would have increased the volume so much. This is ludicrous. We already know that if you train too often or for too long then you will yield negative results and actually regress rather than progress. And so logically thinking, if you follow the trend, the opposite scale tells you to decrease volume and increase intensity. This is because you cannot have both factors at the same time. You cannot train for long periods of time at the highest intensity. It is impossible. To train with volume you must lower the overall intensity.

Intensity should not be mixed up with perceived effort. Running a marathon is a high volume activity. It takes a long time of muscular output. Nobody is saying that because this is high muscle output volume that it is not hard. We are saying that your perceived effort is through the roof. Only the intensity of muscular output is very minute and so the leg muscles can keep going on and on. Whereas if you train a brutal set of chest presses past the point of positive failure, and then have a partner assist you with a few negatives and then a few assisted reps, you will of course discover that you cannot keep doing this as the intensity is so high the exercise must be ceased. However, your perception of effort still remains high for both activities. It is just different.

One of the key thoughts behind HIT training is that your sets should be performed very strict and controlled. Instead of thinking in terms of sets, think only in terms of reps. Whereas you will not be performing ten sets, rather just ten reps, and so every rep should be the very best and performed to your maximal level possible at all times. If you can't do that, then the rep is irrelevant and does not count for anything.

The Growth Rep

Now, this is the part of HIT training that is most frowned upon. We know that the body must be placed under muscular stress that it is not used to in order for it to trigger a growth response. HIT promotes the idea that if your set is ten reps long and you only manage nine, or the tenth rep is pitiful, then you will not trigger a response. It is almost like the first nine reps are merely a warm up and the last, final and complete rep is your growth rep. A concept that makes simple logical sense yet does have a hard time to stand up in realm of scientific reasoning precisely. No matter what the science, or the true trigger of the growth response, you will find that HIT suits those who can train with great intensity for brief and infrequent workouts.

HIT has been tried and tested by amateurs and professionals alike. Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates being two of the more famous pros using this method, although not exclusively used by them. After Mentzer and, especially Yates, in Britain, HIT is becoming more a normality than volume training. Again there are extremes on the views of HIT. Some people advocate training a body part once every seven days, while some up to once every sixteen days. And ranging from 1 set all of the way up to 3 sets.

The Importance and Confusion of Warm-ups

It is irresponsible and useless to even attempt to train in HIT fashion with maximal weight to absolute highest levels of intensity without a thorough and prior warm-up first. Some advocates recommend a number of progressively heavier sets working up to your work set. This means you would perform 3 or 4 progressively heavier sets not to failure, before reaching the weight for your working set. Dorian Yates typically performs around three warm-up sets on his exercises. Mike Mentzer used to perform anywhere from three up to fourteen warm-ups as he built up to his supposed work set. Now we know that much volume training theory is based on training sub maximally. You often train to points near but not quite failure with much volume training methods. Are these the same as HIT warm-up sets? This is an area of much debate. In terms of HIT theory these sets are useless for adaptive responses by the body, as if they are not to failure they are well within the bodies abilities to handle. This being the case, they would serve no other purpose than to warm up the muscle and joints being worked. Volume trainers may argue much differently.

Training Your Brain

One of the fundamental arguments against extreme high intensity methods to extreme muscle failure is a point raised by Arthur Jones, a forerunner of HIT training, and the inventor of the Nautilus equipment, before this term was coined, and now scientifically proven. The principle of training your brain and nervous system. Now this is a very interesting and important point that many people should take note of and decide for yourself what you think. Now, the human body is an adaptogenic organism. It adapts very well indeed to the stimuli you place upon it. Biologically, physiologically you will adapt. Your nervous system adapts and your muscular system adapts. And your brain and your nervous system are very clever things indeed. They are clever because they learn.

Does anybody remember the Pavlov's dog study? Pavlov was a psychologist that ran a very famous stimulus-response experiment. What happened was Pavlov had a group of dogs that when he was about to feed them, he would ring a bell. And as he rang the bell the dogs would come running and salivate, hungry and ready for food. After a very short space of time, Pavlov could merely ring his bell, with no food whatsoever and still elicit the same salivating and running response in his dogs. This response remained. The dogs had learnt.

Another example for those of you who drive - When you first start learning to drive you have to consciously think about what it is that you are doing. You must think very clearly about what you are doing, pressing the clutch, observing, turning the wheel, changing gears etc. You may talk to yourself in your own head and even make mental images of what you are doing and about to do. This makes it hard to concentrate, until you learn. Once you learn how to drive, all of these drop down into your subconscious processes, making driving entirely automatic. Your brain and nervous system has learnt. And your muscles and motor units etc have also learnt. Now you can listen to music, talk and drive all automatically.

When you train with weights, not only are your muscles responding and being trained but you are also training your nervous system. You are training your brain. Now, there is a huge difference between perceived failure and actual full blown momentary muscular failure. Most people don’t have the ability to put in enough intensity to actually achieve true muscular failure, only they still do fail. This is actually just their perception of failure, not true failure, but once the nerves stop firing and the muscle stops contracting, you have ceased your exercise. This means you have in effect failed. When you train with such high intensity intensifiers such as drop sets and negatives and rest pause training, well beyond the point of positive failure you are causing much stress, trauma and damage to, not only your muscle fibre, but your whole autonomic nervous system. And what you are essentially doing here is training your body to fail. You are training it to feel unnecessary pain and discomfort beyond its abilities and this can even strike fear of the thought of a workout - such as when trainers fear leg workouts. When you train your brain and nervous system, you are also training the muscle at the site of contraction, how to and shut down the muscular contractions. Next time you work out it is highly possible that your brain and nervous system don't want to experience this pain and discomfort you have trained it to respond to with such resistance training stimulus and so you nervous system terminates the exercise long before true muscular failure. This is proven science. Training your body to total failure all of the time, may cause you to limit your progress and results. We know for sure that this stimulus response actually happens. We are not sure yet whether or how much it may limit your growth.

Dorian Yates and many other advocates of HIT, and those of other schools of thought, have proclaimed that one should terminate the exercise one rep prior to total muscular failure. This way you never train the body to fail. You train it to be successful at the target rep range to your near maximum. This doesn't mean you take it easy. It means that every repetition is performed and executed perfectly. There is no cheating or bouncing or forcing the weights. You are able to control and handle the weight and stop before that rep where your arms and legs shake and your whole body trembles and you try your damn hardest to move that weight, yet it will not move. What is happening here is your nervous system is being exhausted by firing nerves and firing and firing and no muscle tissue is contracting as it has reached positive muscle failure.

So how intense does one go? This is a question you will have to try a little personal experimentation with. Needless to say, training past the point of total muscular failure on a regular basis can lead to exhaustion of your nervous system and recovery ability - causing your gains to come to a grinding halt. This is part of the variation of orthodox H.I.T methods. While originally many proponents believed firmly in the 1 set of 10-12 reps with a final rep at momentary failure - over the years slight tweaks in volume, rep ranges, exercises and failure demands have grown under the umbrella of H.I.T.

Conclusion

H.I.T remains one of the most controversial and novel ideas in the weight training world which is always ebbing and flowing from one perceived ‘wisdom’ to another. Science continues to show a whole variety of pathways, ingredients and conditions that are involved or cause muscle growth. H.I.T may never be the answer for everyone but it is difficult to deny that a sensible interpretation of it has worked for a lot of people. So it may be worth trying it out and learning for yourself. At worst you will have learnt the meaning of intensity and pushing yourself in a few sets harder than most people do in an entire training career and that at least is a skill you can apply to all your future training.

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