What is an intensity technique and why should you incorporate it?

When you are just starting to lift weights your focus should be on engaging your muscles fully with control and maximum muscle fiber recruitment. Working out in general is intense at this point and you don't need to train beyond conventional failure. However as you become a little more advanced  you can only add so much volume, you must up the intensity to continue to progress at a desirable rate. An intensity technique allows you to go past conventional failure, range of motion, muscular recruitment and create a greater training stimulus to prevent and break through plateaus. You don't want to go try any of these techniques without having a foundation of stability or strength and you certainly don't need to go crazy with these, I would say unless you are advanced you shouldn't be doing more than 2-4 of these kinds of sets per workout.

Before we get into the techniques lets break down what I consider to be a beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifter. Of course this is not set in stone just a guideline. I know plenty of people in the gym who have been working out for years but are still using beginner technique, and I know people who have worked out for less than a year but become extremely obsessives and focused and progressed their skill level to advanced much faster.

Beginners- less than 1 year of total training. For the first 3 months I consider this almost a "fetal" stage of development. The basic movements are not complicated, and should not be made so by incorporating advanced techniques too soon before you can exhibit truly great muscular control. You will never make the kind of gains you make the first 3-6 months of working out. This is not because you are just gaining huge amounts of muscle or anything. Its because your strengthening your neural connection with your muscles, becoming more apt at recruiting them efficiently. This is why beginners are very shaky and unstable when they first start lifting. First goal for a beginner should be having the ability to move optimally. IE have perfect form when exercising and performing daily activities. After you have appropriate movement capacity I believe in focusing on strength. I recommend keeping it very simple and increasing intensity primarily by increasing control and time under tension, then adding weight, perhaps repetitions depending on individual goals. But after about 3-6 months you probably can start incorporating some more advanced intensity techniques.

Intermediate- I consider an intermediate lifter someone who has been doing it at least a year (however as mentioned earlier there are exceptions). I would say most people who are consistent gym goers for years never really get past this stage. Someone at this stage has developed an acceptable base of mobility and strength. They are no longer shaky or uncoordinated on any exercise and are able to have a connection with their mind and body while I would generally describe beginners as more disconnected. This person would benefit from incorporating 2-4 intensity techniques per workout. The ability for the CNS to recover is not as strong as with someone more advanced so doing too many intensity techniques will actually hinder progress because you will be over training and become catabolic.

Advanced- Most people never become what I consider advanced. This is someone who has been lifting for a minimum of 3 years consistently with no extended breaks. An advanced lifter has a very strong mind muscle connection and is able to listen to their own body for guidance. They have no chronic mobility issues and know how to address them when they do come up. Form is perfect with no compensations. An advanced lifter requires more volume to stimulate further change than do a beginner or intermediate one. Rather than spend 3 hours in the gym (which would end up being counter productive unless you eat in between) someone who is advanced will have to incorporate much more intensity techniques, while doing the same or more volume as well. There's no real guidelines I feel like I need to go over for the advanced. Just make sure to avoid over training when in a cutting phase as being in a calorie deficit and going low carb will hinder your ability to recover. I will typically incorporate 1-2 intensity techniques on every set unless I am in ketosis then I will only do 4-6 techniques maybe for the entire workout.


The Techniques

Dropset- After reaching failure you continue doing the same exercise with a lighter weight with no rest besides the time needed to change weights. This can be done multiple times for those advanced enough to not lose technique. For example, do a set to failure on dumbbell chest press and then immediately grab a lighter pair that you already have next to your setup and go to failure with these as well. More advanced lifters will be able to make smaller drops, less advanced will probably have to significantly drop the weight in order to keep proper form. 

Superset- Supersets are when you perform at least two different exercises back to back. There is an assortment of different ways to apply supersets so lets break this technique down a little further. It's important to play with these and see what you respond best to. There are different theory's out there as to what is the most effective way to superset but you must put them into practice for yourself to truly know what works best. 

  • Antagonist- An antagonist superset involves supersetting two opposing muscle groups together. Charles Poliquin is one of the most respected trainers in the world having coached many professional athletes, Olympians, and bodybuilders. He's very big on this style and has stated that many bench press world records are set immediately after performing a set of heavy rows. This kind of superset greatly increases circulation to the targeted area and helps flush out lactic acid and other waste products allowing for a greater workload capacity. You will likely be able to do a couple more reps on the second exercise than you would have been able to without the superset. It also reduces the chance of injury or developing muscular imbalances because you hit both sides of the joint evenly. Examples are leg curls with leg extensions or bicep curls with tricep extensions
  • Pre-exhaustion- This technique involves supersetting an isolation exercise with a compound one hitting the same body part. Often times when performing a compound movement its not the main targeted muscle group reaching failure but rather the assisting secondary muscles. For example on bench press someones triceps may get fatigued before the chest is fully exhausted. So before performing the compound movement they "pre-exhaust" the target muscle by isolating it like with a pec flye before a chest press. This will allow the chest to reach full exhaustion before the triceps
  • Post-exhaustion- This is just the opposite of the pre-exhaustion but serves the same purpose, to fully fatigue the targeted muscle of the compound exercise. So you would do chest press to failure (or close to it) followed by an isolation exercise like a pec flye. I prefer this to pre-exhaustion.
  • Jump superset- This is when you superset unrelated muscle groups like quads and shoulders. This is beneficial because it saves time and whatever muscle you work will not tax the other so you will be able to use full intensity. It also will allow for more volume in the same amount of time and provide some cardio work as well.
  • Superset circuit- This is 3-10 exercises in a row typically done for cardio and fat burning benefits. Reps are typically in the 10-20 range and usually hit at least 3 muscle groups, often being done for the entire body.
  • Compound superset- This is when you perform two compound movements in back to back sets for the same muscle group. An example would be doing pulldowns superset with rows
  • Isolation superset- Perform a compound movement followed by an isolation movement from a secondary muscle. For example: Chest press superset with tricep extensions.
  • Target muscle superset- This is a superset technique I first learned of from Arnold's Bodybuilding Encyclopedia. He mentioned he would use it for his calves since it was a weak are of his. In between every set, regardless of the body part, he would superset with a calf exercise of some kind. He credits this method with bringing his calves up to an elite level. This is a method you can use to bring up a weaker body part.
  • Extended Set- A superset where instead of dropping weight to make it easier you increase your mechanical advantage. For example doing a very steep incline dumbbell press followed by a flat press.

Forced Negative- This is an extremely intense technique more geared towards an advanced lifter trying to get a stubborn muscle group to break a plateau. When doing a forced negative you perform the concentric portion of the exercise on your own. You will hold an isometric contraction at the end range of motion, and a workout partner will "force the negative" as you resist it and try to maintain contraction against the negative. My favorite exercise to do forced negatives on are preacher curls. I'll curl and my partner will push down the bar towards the ground while I pull against him. I aim for 4 seconds on the negative portion and keep reps in the 5-8 range, often finishing with a drop set performed with no forced negatives, maybe even forced reps.

Slow Eccentric- This is a technique that can be used without a workout partner. We are typically 60% stronger on the negative portion of a lift. We can take advantage of this and do a more controlled movement with more time under tension on the eccentric. A slow eccentric I like to do often is chest press. I will press up explosively and lower the weight controlled for 4-6 seconds. This is a good technique for intermediate and even beginners as well because it helps form a neural connection to the lift being performed. It will help get rid of that awkward shaky unstable motion beginners often have.

Over load negative- An overloaded negative is ideally performed with a partner but can be done on own for certain exercises. As mentioned above we are stronger on the eccentric portion of the lift. So since we can handle a heavier weight on that portion than the concentric we can reach full exhaustion on the eccentric portion and have help completing the rest of the range of motion. An example you could do on your own would be single arm preacher curls. Grab a heavy weight control it down on your own, and then use the other hand to help bring it up. You can incorporate a workout partner to be able to accomplish this on a number of different exercises.

Negative only- This will typically need to be done with a partner although there are some machines that make this possible on your own. This is similar to the overloaded negative in that you select weight you can manage eccentrically but not concentrically. An example I like to use often is a pull down. Have your partner control it up, you can do a slow eccentric as well, and you pull it back down for them essentially removing the concentric. This isn't just helping a little this is trying to do all the work yourself so your partner can focus on the negative.

Concentric only- A concentric only set is the same as a negative only but just the opposite. This will usually have to be done with a partner using a machine. If you take away the effort expended on the negative you will be able to more fully tax your muscles on the concentric portions. I like to practice this on hammer strength chest press machines with my clients. 

Partial Reps- Partial repetitions are done to keep more continuous tension on the targeted muscle group by limiting the range of motion. One reason to do this would be to put more time under tension on a larger muscle group while limiting help from the accessory muscles. I'll often do this on chest presses and go through a full range on the eccentric part of the exercise but only press up about halfway. Another purpose for a partial rep would be to reach full exhaustion and then do a smaller range of motion as if you're doing a superset within one set. For example on preacher curls start with a full range of motion, once you reach full fatigue you can shorten the range of motion on the way down. One more reason to perform a partial rep would be to strengthen up a weak area on a compound exercise. When I was a power lifter my triceps would fail before my shoulders on my overhead presses. The way I overcame this was by only performing the second half "lockout" portion of my press. My shoulders were already strong enough to do more weight, but my triceps had been holding me back, this allowed me to break my plateau.    

Pyramiding-  A pyramid set really helps with your muscular endurance and ability to handle volume with proper form. A pyramid is usually set up by starting with a lighter weight with higher repetitions and increasing the weight while decreasing the repetitions. For example a squat pyramid I might do is 135lbsx20 then 205lbsx12 followed by 275x6 and finishing with 350x3. Take no more than 20 seconds rest between sets and ideally closer to 10 seconds.  

Cheating Technique- Unfortunately most people use cheating technique on every single rep they perform! And its almost always done in a way that stresses joints and reinforces poor movement patterns. Even when cheating you can't put yourself into too compromised a position, you still have to keep form. The trick is to use momentum or accessory muscles while maintaining proper dynamic posture. I am not a fan of doing an entire set with cheating technique, I have found it to be much better to start with strict form and when approaching failure go ahead and cheat enough to maintain full (or as close to full as possible) range of motion. For example when doing barbell curls you should start in a braced neutral position with your shoulders neutral as well. Don't let them roll forward to a protracted position. Once reaching failure you can let the shoulders help or I actually prefer to add a slight squat and sway in to help squeeze a few more reps out. This allows for continuous tension on my biceps rather than having my shoulder take over and break it briefly.

Rest Pause- Rest pause is a technique most everyone can utilize efficiently and can be done using any kind of exercise. Simply perform any exercise until you reach failure and then rest anywhere from 5-20 seconds and continue a few more reps until you reach failure again. You can do this more than once in one set.

Target Rep- Target rep is a technique I use very often in two different ways. I will have a target number of repetitions, call it 10, to reach on an exercise. Sometimes I do this with a lighter weight and increase the time under tension to reach failure right at 10. For example when doing a new exercise you may not be sure of the weight you are capable of doing. You can start a little lighter and after a few reps slow the eccentric, concentric or both to reach full exhaustion at the target number. Another way to do this is by selecting a rep number using a weight that you know you cannot achieve, and then use forced reps, rest pause, partial reps, or cheat reps to reach the target number of reps. For example on bench press maybe you can do 275lbs for 5 rep max. A target rep of 8 would be good. After reaching failure you finish the last 3 reps by performing one of the intensity techniques listed above.

Forced Reps- This is  done using a partner but certain machines make it possible as well. Once you reach full exhaustion on and exercise have a partner help you finish a few more. Its important to keep the weight going in a continuous controlled motion while only applying just enough support to finish the full range of motion of the exercise. Less experienced lifters should only do 1-2 forced reps while the more experienced can push that up to 5 or even more. 

Combining techniques- Those that are considered advanced can combine any of the above techniques. For example I may do a chest press to failure and then go to partial reps with the same weight. Then I may go to a drop set and start again using a lighter weight and finish with some forced reps with the help of my partner. Use your imagination you can combine intensity techniques in tons of ways.

Some notes

  • Most people tend to make things too complicated. 90% of the gym population does not need to incorporate a single set of any of these intensity techniques. You have to master your form and stability, and have an established base of strength and muscular endurance. The first intensity technique you should try is to slow down the eccentric and really focus on control.
  • Some techniques that should be reserved for the more advanced would be: compound supersets, overload negative, negative only, concentric only, cheating technique and forced reps. 
  • If you are in ketosis or going very low carb you should not do very many, if any, of these techniques.
  • Its very helpful to have a trainer or good training partner examine your form when performing these because you will be unaware of all the compensations that are happening as you push yourself past failure
  • These techniques are very taxing on the CNS and can actually increase stress hormones if you are not adequately hydrated, fed, rested etc.. so if you didn't sleep too well or you have a little cough you don't have to skip the gym, just skip the extra intensity for the day and do normal sets.