Fred Hatfield, Ph.D., MSS
Int’l Sports Sciences Ass’n
In every gym you’ve worked out at, you’ve seen the ugly grimaces of bodybuilders engaged in maximum effort under heavy iron. Too bad you couldn’t look into the minds of these bodybuilders, for if you could, you would then be able to determine whether they were truly involved in high intensity training. It is the mind, the controlling entity of the organism, that determines the degree of effort expended. It is not the level of ugliness to which one can contort one’s face.
Webster defines intensity as having or showing the characteristic of strength, force, straining, or (relative to a bodybuilder’s focal point) other aspects of his or her effort to a maximum degree. The words intense and intent both have the same Latin root, intendere “to stretch out.” If one is intent on doing something, he does so, by definition, with strained or eager attention — with concentration! That intensity of effort is largely a function of the mind, it is not this writer’s opinion. It is true by definition as well as by practical usage of the word!
NOT EVERYONE CAN TRAIN WITH INTENSITY
In the early years of your training, do you remember approaching a weight with determination? Your jaw was set, your mind narrowed to a laser-like focus, the adrenaline poured into your blood, and your training partners’ screams reverberated in your subconscious. You were READY! Your mind and body were both saying, “GO!”
All the essential ingredients for intensity were there. You wedged your body under the iron, and with a Herculean effort, you lifted the weight from the racks. You stepped back and got set. Down you went. And there you stayed!
What happened? Chances are it was that little bitty devil that resides in all of us saying, “No! Don’t hurt me!”
The link between the mind and body is a strong one, and doubt (that little bitty devil) is stronger still. Until you master, or eliminate entirely, such disruptive anomalies of the mind, your training efforts will always be something less than maximal. Achieving this mastery over mind and body is possible only upon enhancing the intercommunication processes between the two.
THE MIND-BODY LINK
Try to picture your brain and your biceps interconnected by nerves, much the same as a printed circuit might look. Within the brain are your memories and impressions of the way your body responded to that missed 150-pound set of curls you attempted last week. It was the first time you have tried such a heavy weight, and it felt heavy. Deep within your soul you knew that you wouldn’t make it, and now that you’ve actually failed this same doubt response has been fortified.
At the very end of each muscle, where the tendon begins, you have tiny sensory mechanisms that are designed to sense tension within the tendon (caused either by muscle contraction or stretch — it doesn’t distinguish between sources of tension). It then sends messages of such tension to the brain. If the motor memory of past failures is equaled or exceeded by the strength of the sensory message coming from the working muscle, you will again fail. Your job, if progress is to be made, is to alter both the brain’s response as well as the level at which the inhibitory response is initiated at the muscle’s tendon.
This sensory mechanism is called the Golgi tendon organ. Its excitation threshold (the point at which the weight — tension — is too great and an inhibitory message is sent) can be pushed back with proper training. So, too, can the motor memory stored in the brain be modified to ensure success.
Inhibition depends upon the level of learning. Thus, you either learn that you are capable of moving 300 pounds, or you learn that the last time you tried moving it, it proved too heavy. Thus, incremental successes (with say 305) will cause the excitation threshold (the level at which inhibition occurs) to change commensurably. On the other hand, if you once again fail (with say 300), your excitation threshold will not be changed.
The exception to this rule is that detraining (e.g., with age) does indeed cause the excitation threshold to be reduced.
Moving the excitation threshold upward such that more weight can be lifted occurs as a result of 1) controlled ballistic training (sometimes referred to as “jerk training”), and 2) progressive resistance exercise in general (particularly that which follows the precepts of periodization).
Do NOT confuse this with “deinhibition.” One deinhibits the muscle by somehow overriding the GTO feedback loop. I’ve experimented with this in several ways. Four come to mind as being most successful: 1) vibratory stimulation at around 100mhz directly to the GTO, 2) pre-exhaustion (such as that used in PNF stretching), 3) hypnosis, and 4) reducing your negative response to pain (specifically, your pain of effort and pain of fatigue). Successfully deinhibiting your muscle enough times while under supernormal stress will eventually cause an increase in the excitation threshold to occur.
SUCCESS BEGETS SUCCESS
If you have never experienced failure under heavy iron, then the chances of doubt creeping in will be remote. In that case, partner, you’re the quintessential pencil neck. (Not to worry. Pencil necks needn’t remain in that condition forever. All ya gotta do is put yourself at risk of failure under heavy iron multiple times over years, and learn by the seat of your pants not to fail while doing so.)
And, if you have trained for years with heavy weights without exceeding your capabilities but pushing them to the maximum, your Golgi tendon organs will not be stimulated to forward inhibitory messages to the brain, and no progress will be made in strength. Still a pencil neck. It sounds like a Catch-22 situation, but nonetheless it’s true. Success will indeed beget success, and failure will beget failure.
When you have learned the very important lesson of avoiding failure while training, you will have attained the ability to train with intensity. Until that time, your efforts will be something less than maximal, and they will be something less than maximally beneficial. The real secret, fellow iron freaks, is to taste the burning pain of failure — in your heart and mind — and conquer it! Training to failure in the Arthuresque tradition of the phrase means getting a weight that’s “heavy” and repping out with it until you fail. This is utter nonsense. Not that it doesn’t produce overload (it does), but there’s a better way! Train to success!
TRAINING SITUATIONS THAT REQUIRE INTENSITY
Some methods of training, to be truly effective, require high intensity on your part. Others do not. In fact, the injection of intensity may render some methods counterproductive! This is particularly true in certain sports-oriented training methods where speed is required. Intensifying such rapid movements to the point of losing control can easily result in severe injury. While laser focus is needed, all-out effort with maximum muscular strain would be counterproductive.
During off-season periods when low-rep training for limit strength is emphasized, intensity becomes of paramount importance. For example, suppose you are doing five or six reps per set. Of course, the first two or three reps will require something less than maximum effort since fatigue has not diminished your capacity as yet. This is not the way to approach your sets! Each and every rep you perform must be done with maximum intensity! Further, maximum intensity should be applied throughout every inch of movement in each rep! Why? The effect that this kind of thorough intensity has on the Golgi tendon organ is such that deinhibition will, over time, take place. Repeated applications of maximum stress is the only way known to force the Golgi tendon organ to delay sending its inhibitory message to the brain. Such delayed inhibitory response results in increased strength of contraction.
During periods in your training cycle when higher reps with a lighter weight are performed, intensity is no less important, although for a different reason. High-rep training produces intolerable lactic acid levels within the muscle; and effort fails from fatigue. Doubt no longer becomes the inhibitory factor, since the weight isn’t heavy enough to jeopardize your safety. Rather, fatigue and its attendant pain does, and you must through extreme concentration, “will” the weight up. You must disregard the signals your pain sensors are sending to the brain. Concerted effort of this type will, over time, force a different kind of deinhibition to occur.
Perhaps it is a greater chemoelectrical impulse that allows muscle fibers with higher excitation thresholds to respond. Perhaps it is a lowering of the excitation thresholds of these same hard-to-stimulate muscle fibers. It could also be both.
The point is that deinhibition will indeed occur, and the only way to force it to occur is to train against the anaerobic threshold. And you have to ignore the pain to do it. It becomes a matter of mind over muscle. This kind of training must be learned. It is not an innate response, and neither is it easily acquired.
Like your low-rep training, the key to learning how to apply maximum intensity is to use as heavy weights as possible in each and every overload set you do, yet avoid failure like the plague! If your mind says, “No,” you’ve succumbed. You’ve failed, go home! Come back to the gym tomorrow with a renewed determination not to fail. Make your mind say, “Yes,” and then obey the command!
When a harmonious and synchronized link between your body and mind is re-established, you will experience gains in strength more rapidly than ever before. When you begin to realize the awesome power of the mind in controlling bodily functions, including its adaptability to stress, you will have learned what it takes to become a champion.
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