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High Intensity Training: Is it completely misguided?

November 6, 2012

I think so. First, have a look at what Wikipedia has to say about HIT, if you’re not familiar with the term:

I’ve read many books about strength training, and of those one in particular promotes HIT: Body by Science by Doug McGuff and John Little. I also watched McGuff’s presentation at the 21 convention, and Drew Baye’s presentations. Those are available on YouTube in full length, if you’re interested. Since I’ve now come to believe they’re bogus, I won’t link to them.
One principle that they both endorse is this (not an exact quote):
“In strength training you have to reach muscular failure to optimally produce adaptations in the muscle tissue. If you do a set of a particular exercise and reach muscular failure at the end, those reps right at the end are what triggers the gains. Attempt to do less volume as you become more advanced while ever increasing the intensity of the exercise, by even going beyond failure.”
Now, obviously they’re talking more about increases in muscle mass (hypertrophy) than raw strength gains. But even then, the statement flies in the face of everything typical bodybuilders do in the gym (and I don’t think that they all use steroids). If their claim was true, and the gains are triggered by reaching or approaching muscular failure, how could anyone gain considerable muscle mass without ever going near failure?
In the last two weeks I have been training using what Pavel Tsatsouline coined “greasing the groove”: Of a particular exercise (let’s use push-ups as an example) I’m doing dozens of moderately intense sets of 3-5 reps spread throughout the week. I never go near muscular failure. Yet even after two weeks I’m already seeing my body fat percentage decreasing from 29% to 27%, and my strength is increasing! And I’m not a teenager anymore (who responds readily to strength training) – I’m 37 years old. 

Conclusion

HIT is bullshit. Plain and simple. I don’t agree with all the claims Pavel Tsatsouline makes (or in fact any expert who publishes popular books about strength training – they all have their shticks). But the central dogmatic claims of HIT are easily disproved by simple common sense. Look at people who like to ride their bicycle a lot (like myself) – they often have huge quads without doing any low volume high (read: failure) intensity strength training. Their quads get huge from a workload that’s not unlike the greasing the groove thing Pavel describes: LOTS of reps with varying intensity, spread over a large amount of time.
As an aside: Be careful not to confuse HIT with HIIT (high intensity interval training) – I’m quite a fan of the latter, and it does not involve muscular failure at all. Well, it may for some, if they overestimate their capabilities – but even for Tabata sprints the goal is to use an intensity which you can endure for all the intervals.
So: If you want to train for strength or mass, consider using moderately heavy resistance, doing lots of sets throughout the week (e.g. 5-10 each day), and only ever doing a set if you feel completely fresh – which means lots of time between sets. You can train that way in a gym, but that would mean that you’d have to spend a LOT of time there. The alternative is to do bodyweight exercises like pull-ups, push-ups and squats (and lots of others – check out books like You Are Your Own Gym and Convict Conditioning), which you can essentially do everywhere. Spread them throughout the day, and do them every day, with a few days (1-2 per week) off. If you’re going for strength, go for fewer reps (1-3 reps per set) with heavier resistance, if you’re going for hypertrophy go for more reps (5-8 reps per set) with a more moderate resistance. After the set you should feel that you worked your muscle, but you should not feel fatigued or worn out. Also, if you’re going for raw strength and want to minimize gains in muscle size, then consider leaving out the eccentric part of the exercise – for example in pull-ups you only pull yourself up and then let go of the bar. This should also help decrease the recovery time (see the next section).
What are your thoughts on this? I will report my progress on strength and lean body mass gains in the posts about my ongoing Weight Loss Experiment, so we’ll see whether my 14 days improvement in body fat percentages was just a fluke – I surely hope not.

Another aspect: Recovery

HIT advocates often argue that because muscular failure takes the muscle a long time to recover from, you should only work out once a week – maybe more often as a beginner, but even less frequently as an advanced trainee, since you’re then capable of causing more damage to the muscle. Well, that’s certainly true, but like I explained above, they haven’t yet proved that muscular failure is necessary to trigger the adaptations in the muscle. If this is not the case, then not only can we avoid going to muscular failure – we can also safely ramp up the volume. So in a way, if one uses HIT then they’re not only focusing on the wrong thing that’s not optimal for either strength gains or muscle mass gains (muscular failure) – by doing so they’re also spending a LOT of time recovering from those freakishly brutal sets. Time they could be using to produce further gains, instead of simply repairing damaged muscle tissue. 

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2 Comments
  1. Paul permalink

    If you actually took the time to read Doug Mcguffs articles he mentions that most clients he dosnt train to failure to improve recovery neither Drew Baye or Doug say its necessary what they say is its the ONLY way to be SURE one has worked hard enough to produce and adaptive response. Most people are not aware of there limits and how hard they can be pushed.

    • They don’t phrase it like that. Besides, I got huge quads from riding my bike – many low intensity reps. And I know from when I tried HIT that I absolutely stalled. Decreasing frequency only led to more DOMS … so not only are there other successful strategies for building strength and size besides HIT, there are also people for whom HIT doesn’t work at all …

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