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High Intensity Training is a form of progressive resistance exercise characterized by a high level of effort and relatively brief and infrequent workouts, as opposed to typical training methods involving low to moderate levels of effort and longer, more frequent workouts. Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones helped define and popularize high intensity training in the 1970’s, often summarizing the general philosophy as “…train harder, but train briefer” or “…train harder, but train less often”.
The most fundamental principle of exercise is overload. To stimulate increases in muscular strength and size you must impose a demand on the muscles that is greater than they accustomed to. The harder, or more intense an exercise is, the greater the degree of overload and the more effective the exercise.
During high intensity training exercises are typically performed with all-out effort until it is impossible to perform another repetition in good form. While training to muscular failure is not necessary to stimulate increases in muscular strength and size, it ensures one has done all they can for that purpose. Some people believe regularly training to muscular failure is too stressful on the body – specifically the central nervous system – however this is not a problem as long as the volume and frequency of training are not excessive.
High intensity training methods vary with regards to the specific style, speed, and number of repetitions performed, as well as the number of exercises and frequency of workouts, but all emphasize working as hard as possible.
…But Train Briefer
There is an inverse relationship between the intensity and the volume of exercise a person can perform. The greater the effort put into a workout, the shorter the workout must be to avoid overstressing the body. High intensity training workouts typically require around 30 minutes, and some “consolidation routines” may take fewer than 10 minutes to complete.
Almost all high intensity training methods involve only performing one, all-out work set per exercise. Although the majority of research shows no significant difference in effectiveness between single and multiple sets for improving either muscular strength or size for the majority of people, a few high intensity training methods prescribe two or three sets for some exercises.
High intensity training methods also vary in the total number of exercises or sets performed per workout, from as few as two or three to as high as twenty when neck and grip exercises are included. The appropriate volume of exercise varies significantly between individuals based on genetics, age, and lifestyle factors such as quality and amount of nutrition and rest, as well as the specific training goals. Athletes or trainees with physically demanding jobs or lifestyles must also balance their training volume against the amount of other physically demanding activities they perform to avoid overtraining.
While some trainers claim high intensity training routines are only appropriate or effective for beginners due to the low volume, and that an increase in volume is required as a trainee becomes more advanced, empirical evidence shows as trainees become more advanced and capable of training with greater intensity a reduction in training volume becomes necessary to avoid overtraining.
Train Less Often
Intense exercise places a significant amount of stress on the body. Exercising too frequently, without allowing the body adequate time between workouts to recover, will eventually lead to overtraining and a lack of progress.
The majority of people on a high intensity training program should train no more than three non-consecutive days per week. More advanced trainees working at a much higher level of intensity or older trainees and others who don’t recover as quickly may get better results training even less frequently. Most high intensity training methods involve a starting frequency of two or three workouts per week, which may be adjusted depending on the trainees’ progress.
General Guidelines for High Intensity Training
The following are general guidelines for high intensity training. Keep in mind the specific volume and frequency of training and exercise selection should be modified to suit the individual, based on level of conditioning, response to exercise, and goals.
Examples of workouts based on these guidelines:
Basic workout with Nautilus machines:
Basic workout with free weight and body weight exercises:
Advanced trainees working at higher levels of intensity will require a reduction in training volume and frequency, and very advanced trainees may benefit from cutting back to as few as three to five exercises as infrequently as once every 7 to 10 days.
Examples of very low volume high intensity training workouts:
Body by Science “Big Five” workout:
Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty Consolidation Routine:
Full-Body or Split Routines?
Most high intensity training methods prescribe full body routines, however a few like Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty use split routines, which may allow for longer local recovery for certain muscle groups.
Examples of popular high intensity training workout splits:
Basic upper body/lower body split:
Basic push/pull/legs & abs split:
Push (Chest, Shoulders & Triceps)
Pull (Back & Biceps)
Legs & Abs
For more high intensity training workouts see High Intensity Workouts
Machines or Free Weights?
Although high intensity training is often associated with Nautilus exercise equipment due to it’s promotion by Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones, it can be performed effectively with any type of equipment. While good equipment does make a difference it is not as important as how it is used.
Bodybuilding or Strength Training?
High intensity training is not exclusively for bodybuilding or strength training or any one aspect of fitness. High intensity training may be used for a variety of exercise goals, by properly manipulating the relevant training variables. In addition to building muscular strength and size, high intensity training is highly effective for improving cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning along with numerous other measures of health and fitness.
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Smith D, Bruce-Low, S. Strength Training Methods and The Work of Arthur Jones. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online 2004;7(6): 52-68
Darden, Ellington. The Nautilus Book: An Illustrated Guide to Physical Fitness The Nautilus Way. Chicago: Contemporary Books, Inc., 1981