A Call to Action for S&C Writers: Quit Using the Term “Intensity”

If you’re a writer in the strength & conditioning profession, then chances are you’ve used the ambiguous term “intensity” many times over in your articles and blogs. I know I’ve been guilty of this on a few separate occasions.

But what does “intensity” really mean in strength & conditioning? Does it refer to effort, or load? What does it mean in the context of “High Intensity Training” (HIT Training) or “High Intensity Interval Training” (HIIT)? In these contexts, it refers to effort. Usually, when discussing cardiovascular/aerobic exercise, intensity is often represented as a percentage of maximal heart rate (MHR) – a slightly dodgy measurement of effort in this case.

However, in resistance training, intensity is often represented as a percentage of one-rep maximum (1RM) – a measurement of load. Sometimes you’ll hear fitness professionals advise readers to “go at around 70% intensity.” Are they referring to load, or effort? And if they are referring to effort, how is this best fulfilled – through rate of perceived exertion (RPE)? Do they go to failure or leave a few reps in the tank? Are they referring to one set of exercise, or the entire training session? Clearly you can see the ambiguity here in relation to the term intensity.

sled push

In a recent article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (click HERE for an excerpt), James Steele II urges those involved in resistance training to stop using the term intensity altogether for purposes of greater clarity, but suggests that when it is used that it should be paired up with the quality being measured. My take is that the term intensity can and should still be used, as long as we clarify whether we’re referring to effort or load. Just no more leaving the term all by itself and leaving room for ambiguity.

Granted, there are many individuals who have been practicing this policy for quite some time. For example, my friend Joe Dowdell has always referred to two types of intensity in regards to program design; intensity of load (which can be measured in terms of 1RM) and intensity of effort (which can be measured in terms of RPE, for example) If you’re one of these foresighted individuals, just carry-on. But if you’re like me and you’ve neglected to clarify what type of intensity you’re referring to in your articles, then it’s time to step it up. From here on out, if you use the term intensity in your writing, please clarify to the readers whether you’re referring to load, effort, or some other quality.

Lu Xiaojun

19 Comments

  • Bret,

    This is the classification and terminology I use. It is from upcoming journal paper (JASC) and from upcoming EliteFTS article.

    Load – relates to the weight the athlete is lifting in a given exercise expressed as the percentage of his known 1RM (% of 1RM), e.g., if an athlete is performing bench press with 100kg, and his known 1RM is 110kg, then the load is 90%.

    Effort – relates to the athlete’s intent to perform a repetition of a given exercise with maximum possible acceleration and speed in the concentric phase. Effort could be maximal (the synonym would be C.A.T. – compensatory acceleration training) or it could be submaximal (lifting with certain tempo)

    Exertion – relates to the proximity of failure in a given set. It seems reasonable that the degree or level of exertion is substantially different when performing, e.g., 8 of 12 possible repetitions (12RM) with a given load (8[12] or 8 of 12) compared with performing maximum number of repetitions (12[12] or 12 of 12). Exertion, in strength coaches’ jargon, is usually expressed as “reps left in the tank”. Using the previous example, performing 8 reps with 12RM load represents submaximal exertion with 4 reps left in the tank. Performing 12 reps with 12RM represents maximal exertion with no reps left in the tank.

    These are “components” of INTENSITY in strength training.

    Hope this helps,

    Mladen

    • Hi Mladen,

      As always, I enjoy reading your contribution to any discussion. One question, if I may? Why use simply the term “load” to refer to percentage of 1RM? Surely this is ambiguous, as it could refer to the absolute load, which is 100kg in your example. Would it not be better to say “relative load” to mean 90% of 1RM and “load” to refer to the 100kg?

      I look forward to hearing your thoughts,

      Chris.

      • Bret says:

        Hmmm, when I hear the word “relative” I automatically assume that it’s in reference to bodyweight. Which brings up another point. The “load” terminology in reference to 1RM works great for classic exercises such as the squat, deadlift, bench press, snatch, and clean & jerk. It even works well for military press, weighted chins, and weighted dips. But for other exercises such as the hip thrust, back extension, weighted inverted row, bent over row, weighted push up, and Bulgarian split squat, it’s tricky as these exercises aren’t as conducive to 1RM attempts. In this case, a 5RM or 10RM is a more realistic indicator of a maximal attempt. I suppose you could use predictor models, but this just shows the complexity involved in resistance training terminology!

    • Bret says:

      Good stuff Mladen. I like the way you’re thinking, breaking up “intensity” into what weight you use, how fast you lift it, and how close you push to failure. These features would certainly sum up most of the directions pertaining to a set of exercise. Nice job!

  • Neal W. says:

    In the past I’ve heard that “intensity” should be used for % of maximum, and “intensivity” is the amount of effort. Have you ever heard that before? It’s still a little confusing because the words are so close.

    • Bret says:

      I remember Christian Thibaudeau using the terms “intensity” (in reference to load) and “intensiveness” (in reference to effort) in at least one TNation article from back in the day and I loved what he was trying to do. It never really caught on though. And since the words are so close, it’s still a bit nebulous.

  • Dave says:

    Bret,

    Wasn’t it your mate Charles (Staley !…… not Poliquin) that suggested the terms “intensity” as a percentage of your maximum effort at “intensiveness” as your perceived exertion

  • Dunkman says:

    I really thought it was just me getting confused when I saw “intensity” being used in a variety of ways. Excellent post. Thanks Bret.

  • Chris and Bret,

    First of all thanks. 🙂

    I would say “Load” represent weight on the the barbell, total weight etc. For the sake of normalization it is usually expressed as relative to 1RM or in some cases BW. So, I would say those are different way to express it.

    There is huge terminology issues including Effort/Exertion/Exhaustion (different definitions of RPE, etc). Same thing with intensity/intensiveness. So, I decided to use those three (Load, Effort, Exertion).

    Hopefully, in the new article for EliteFTS you will see a picture and a relationships between the three.

  • Derrick Blanton says:

    BC, you are getting to the heart of a broader, more fundamental issue: the two separate concepts of “Strength” and “Conditioning” have become combined under one overarching banner.

    This is a bit like saying the “Botany and Physiology” industry, after all both are life sciences, right?!

    (Conditioning itself is a term that is ambiguous.)

    Whatever we term it, these are effectively two different concepts, with a long, muddy bridge between them.

    In Strength, Load = amount of resistance. Refers to a % of the maximal weight that can be lifted. For example, a “supra-maximal” load is one that can not be completed in the prescribed ROM, but may be used as an isometric, or partial ROM variation.

    Intensity, under this strength heading, refers to the relative load. “Load” and “intensity” are then virtually interchangeable in STRENGTH training terminology.

    Difficulty in quantifying load or intensity for certain lifts, ala kettlebell swing or Turkish getup, etc. doesn’t change the concept. We are referring to the relative degree of resistance against the muscles, with the maximal amount that can be a lifted within a prescribed ROM looming as True North on the compass.

    “High intensity interval training” is a “conditioning” concept. We are no longer discussing strength, per se’. Seems to me that we are now effectively referring to the degree of resistance against the heart and lungs. Load has now been replaced by VO2 max as the top end comparative marker.

    (I came up from the running world, and sprinting is far more “intense” than a 12-mile tempo run.)

    Your “1RM” in this “conditioning” context, is the challenge to your lungs, heart, and entire muscular system used in the chosen activity. For example, if you were being chased by a bear, in reality you have about 20-40 seconds of this type of effort, until you will collapse and be eaten.

    Btw, This “true 1RM” ATP/CP type of intensity can not really be duplicated interval style. Watch the runners at the Olympics at the end of the 100 to 200-meters. They are not even close to ready to run another one after a ten second rest interval.

    FWIW. I’m highly interested in how others put this together as well. Great discussion, BC!

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Hence the conditioning term; “energy system work”, which refers to the continuum of aerobic, to anaerobic, to ATP/CP work, and across the muddy bridge could be a parallel to a very light load increasing to 1RM load and beyond.

      And even within each sub-category, there is considerable overlap of adaptation.

  • Robert Wynne says:

    Derrick, I have also always thought of “Intensity” as either referring to: a % of 1RM strength, or to: a % of VO2max aerobic capacity. And as you mentioned, the word “Conditioning” can be highly ambiguous and is typically thought of by the majority of people (i.e. the layperson) as being some sort of training modality designed to improve aerobic endurance or work-capacity.
    (Although I’ve also heard of ‘conditioning’ as being a generalized term for any activity that specifically prepares an athlete for the demands of their sport/competition/goal. For example, Strongman ‘conditioning’ would look very different, and much less aerobic, than say Ironman ‘conditioning’ or a figure model’s contest-prep ‘conditioning.’)

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      You make a great point, Robert, when you start digging it gets very confusing!

      “Conditioning” becomes almost too general a term when you try to sort out all of the various types of activity that you are “conditioning”. I suppose the same goes for “fitness”!

      And I just realized that I conflated VO2 max with “effort” on my HIIT example from above, which is exactly the slippery slope that BC is talking about, ha ha.

      But I think there is a pretty close relationship between these two variables, if you are physically maxed out at VO2, you can’t “try any harder”, so to speak.

      Where it gets really tricky is when you start mixing the two different definitions as in 20-rep SQ’s, for example. Now you might use a 75% intensity load, but you must perform the reps in a rest-pause fashion, as your VO2 is maxing out every rep! So you might have 75% strength intensity, and 100% conditioning intensity going on simultaneously!

      You win, Contreras. 🙂

  • Carl Valle says:

    Nice discussion. Anyone have examples of this in workout sheets? All you can do is see outcomes based on output and perception. Intensity is very relative and it’s good to compare what is done and the outputs and outcomes of games and practices (including training).

  • ted says:

    good day, Bret.

    is it really possible to burn 600 calories in 4 minutes?!

    im new to weight loss and exercise.

    is it true what the guests said?

    that:
    – we only burn 150 calories if we run for 1 hour &

    – we can burn 600 calories in 4 minutes using their workout?

    here’s the link http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/lifestyle/01/17/14/4-minute-workout-promises-burn-600-calories

    thanks.

  • JeanChris says:

    Thank Bret and all the contributors to the discussion.

    After reading your comments, one could put variables in 2 categories. One category might be called “external” and other “internal” category.
    By “external” I mean external to the body and the mind, is for example the load on the bar or the distance in interval training, duration of repetition (tempo) or of the interval, the number of repetitions, number of series, the inter-repetition / inter-series recovery.
    By “internal” I mean the parameters for the individual himself, and what he is capable of, in this case the effort, which is connected to the energy system and the nervous system (systems capacity of athlete). I put there too the explosive concentric tempo, depending on the nervous system.

    The external variable is fixed. The gravity of the Earth is not going to change tomorrow (weight on the bar), seconds either (tempo). It is easy to use for us coaches and our choices will focus primarily on it in programming.
    As for the internal category, it changes all the time, depending on the life of the individual. Does he sleep well? Does he eat clean? Everything concerning the lifestyle. And it is extremely fatigue-related component. Take the example of an athlete who performs on day 1 squat with maximum effort. He performs 8RM (and maximum repetitions to failure). On day 3, parameters equal otherwise, he can just do 6RM. On day 7, same thing, this time he reaches 10RM. In all cases, the effort was the same and maximal, but the number of repetitions has changed. Of course, often it is the objective of improving the number of RM for the same weight. But all this to show that this internal component is ultra dependent variables we can’t control. So, it is very difficult to manage and periodize. I’ll be curious to know how Mladen manage this variable with its athletes.

    In terms of conditioning, I don’t necessarily agree with Derrick. I think we can consider as common the human movement. And for all movements, there is a limit beyond which the movement no longer exists. This is true for the squat (called 1RM). But one could also translate to locomotion: if a weighted sled is attached to an athlete, there is also a “RM”. Same for the speed of movement: in resistance training is the tempo, in locomotion is the running speed. There is really no difference between strength training and metabolic or conditioning training. One has to do to the same system (athlete) and in the same environment (Earth). Whether it’s the force produced measured or measured VO2, these are only consequences of human movement. In all cases, these events will take place. And circuit training workouts based on strength training movements, in a objective to improve VO2, are a reminder that there is no real difference.

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