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3 Rules of Intensity When Working Out

By Tony Horton
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You're tougher than you think. The fear of pain or injury from working out is a mindset steeped in failure. You must learn to "find the line." Do the extra rep or two, increase your range of motion, and increase resistance as you get stronger. Intensity goes hand in hand with variety and consistency. All three factors work together as a triad that creates a platform for success. The programs provide variety. Your plan will keep you consistent.

Intensity is the final ingredient that gives you results. In order for a physiological change to occur, there first needs to be a stimulus. This stimulus comes in the form of an overload. This principle is known as GPO - gradual progressive overload. As you train over time, the overload should be slowly increased. Too much overload too quickly can result in injury. Lack of increased overload over time will result in plateaus. People who plateau often get discouraged and quit.

The three rules of intensity

1. Find the line. The "line" is that special place you need to get to if you want your workout program to be effective. It's the desire to do the extra reps on push-up day, to increase the depth and range of motion on your lunges and squats, and not being afraid to add more weight and resistance as you get stronger. It's discovering your pain/discomfort threshold so you can get the job done without jeopardizing good form and preventing injury. If you under-train or just plain old "give up" because you "can't" do something the first few times, then you'll never know what it's like to be fit and lean. Find the line, do the best you can, and maintain good form.

2. The over-under. You need to understand the difference between under-training and over-training. Under-training is what happens when you keep doing the same thing, with the same weights, at the same intensity, and nothing much is happening. You know you're over-training when you can't get through workouts without hurling (see below), and you're so sore for the next three days that you can't walk, sit down or feed yourself. You're training properly when you have some soreness in your muscles-not pain in your joints.

3. Put on the breaks. I'm a big believer in listening to my brain's interpretation of what's going on with my body while exercising. When looking for the "line," you sometimes discover you've already gone over it. When this happens, it's time for a break. Here's a list of when to take breaks:

  • Mid-set mini breaks. Say you're working biceps and you've mistakenly chosen a weight that's a bit too heavy. You've set a goal of ten reps, but on rep six you know you're not going to make it unless you start crossing the line. Stop and hold the weights down by your side for a breath or two (chill!), and when you're ready, continue to ten. You can also put the weights down and grab lighter ones. This technique will work with almost any exercise. This is why I tell you to keep your remote nearby. Think of it as a mini vacation.
  • Give yourself a break. Far too often I see people trying to be a superhero the first couple of weeks of a program. This aggressive attitude can often cause a phenomenon known as vomiting. To avoid this from happening to you, I recommend NOT trying to "push through it." Superman wasn't built in two weeks. He was born on an icy planet and . . . that's another story. Do yourself a favor and kick it down to 80% when starting out.
  • Illness or injury breaks. If you're getting sick or you're injured, then do the right thing: back off, back down, or modify. Hard exercise when injured or ill can be disastrous. You have to think long term. More often than not, taking a break is the smartest approach for your long-term success.
For a broad overview of Tony's "11 Laws" of fitness, click here.
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