Intensity Techniques For The Natural Lifter

Keep training as simple as possible to achieve the desired results.

Akash Vaghela Akash Vaghela · 13 Mar 2018

Training Advanced
11 Mins

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The beauty of bodybuilding is that there’s no one way to skin a cat. All diet and training systems work provided they’re grounded with sound principles, you enjoy it, and it fits your lifestyle.

One popular part of bodybuilding training is the use of ‘intensity techniques’. These refer to methods such as drop sets, rest-pause, iso-holds, forced reps, partials, pyramid sets, giant sets, and so on.

One question I get asked often is why I don’t make use of many intensity methods in my programming.

My principles of effective muscle-building programming has always revolved around the following:

  • Progressive overload over a wide range of rep ranges
  • Perfect form at all times
  • Using exercises that work well for your body type

With this premise, I’ve always prioritised keeping training as simple as possible to achieve the desired results, as opposed to fluffing up a plan just for the hell of it.

I like to use a three-step hierarchy when deciding whether or not to use an intensity technique:

  • Get stronger with big, compound lifts
  • Get stronger with isolation exercises
  • Use intensity techniques

If the trainee hasn’t milked step 1 and 2 enough, intensity techniques will be unlikely to make a feature in their program.

The problem I see with most guys is they’re so motivated they think pain equals growth. And so they abuse intensity techniques and drive themselves into a hole on a weekly basis.

Now, don’t take this as me saying you shouldn’t be training hard. You absolutely should. But you need to train within your recovery capacities. Especially if you’re natural with average genetics, like most of us are.

I remember when I started working with my current coach; the first piece of advice he gave me was to pull back on the intensity methods. I was running DC training (which is all based around the rest-paused method) for weeks on end and digging myself into a bigger and bigger hole of recovery, to the point injuries were racking up and I was constantly burnt out.

Now, the point here isn’t that DC training is bad, because I happen to rate it as one of the best systems out there. Instead, my motivation abused the methodology, and so I wasn’t able to extract the results I could have.

My approach to intensity methods now is a lot different.


Beginners


For beginners, I never include them. If you’re new to training, your focus should be on perfecting your technique and adding weight to the bar. Nothing else matters at this stage.

Adding in intensity methods will only derail your progress at this stage, as it distracts you from focusing on the single most important factor of muscle growth: progressive overload with perfect form.

Given your technique won’t be too solid either, you won’t be able to maintain tension under extreme fatigue, and likely set yourself up for injury.

Intermediates


If you’re an intermediate lifter, I’d always first question why. What’s the rationale behind adding intensity techniques? Have you truly exhausted progressing using straight sets, or are you looking for a magic bullet?

In most cases, you could probably milk standard progressions for a lot longer than you think.

However, I’m not against adding a little here and there to maximise the pump and drive up a ton of metabolic stress into the muscle.

If you’re at the intermediate stage, you’ll likely have a solid foundation of both strength and muscle. And so you’ll benefit from some high rep work and pump training to further develop your physique.

In addition to some higher rep sets, you could also play around with adding intensity techniques to your isolation exercises like curls, pushdowns, lateral raises, leg extensions and leg curls. Pick one exercise per workout, and add any intensity technique to the last set – no need to go overboard here.

Advanced


Once you’ve been training hard and progressively for at least 5-7 years, this is where you may want to think about using them a little more, or at least more strategically.

Progressive overload will be harder to come by now, and so using new and novel approaches in your training can help keep you both physiologically and psychologically engaged.

It can also help improve longevity, which becomes an important concern when you reach certain strength levels, or you’ve got a history of injury problems.

In these scenarios, I like to use techniques as both ‘intensifiers’ and ‘volumisers’ in a set. What I mean by ‘intensifiers’ is using any technique that makes the rep harder in some way, or as the saying goes, ‘making light weight feel heavy’. This includes pausing in difficult positions, slow eccentrics and using mechanically disadvantageous grips or stances.

I use these a lot in my own training to help protect joints and safeguard against old injuries. More often than not, I always like to use a controlled negative before pausing the rep in the hardest position.

In fact, I’d venture to say that no matter what your training age, you should always aim to intensify every rep of every set in this manner. You’ll enhance your mind-muscle connection, control of the weight and safety when training.

Where things become a little more complicated is with ‘volumisers’. As I mentioned, they can be abused very easily. In my own training, I have a few favourites:

Partials


I like to use these as a way to really destroy the rear delts and hamstrings, a la John Meadows. After you’ve finished your last rep of your last set, simply perform partial reps to failure until you can’t move the target muscle.

This burns a ton, but is brutally effective in getting a big pump. If you then go on to perform a squat type movement after doing partial leg curls, the extra pump should help provide a ‘cushion’ at the bottom of the rep.

Drop Sets


These work great with leg extensions, leg curls, bicep curls and lateral raises as an extra ‘finisher’ and way to increase the time under tension. Nothing fancy is necessary, just use 2-3 drops on your last set and perform them to failure. For a nasty combination, you could even finish the drop set with a load of partials.



Super + Trisets


The only time I like using these are for shoulders. They respond really well to pump work, and so accumulating a ton of volume in a short space of time can help add size to your delts. My favourite combination is the following:

Rear delt raises x 10-15

Side laterals x 10-15

Face pulls x 10-15

The Progression Issue


While the above are all great for maximising the pump and adding a little fun into your training, I have one issue with them: they’re tough to quantify and track progression with. A lot of variables come into play with how much ‘perceived intensity’ you can apply on any given day, so tracking and applying progressive overload becomes tough.

That’s why you should only use these as your icing on the cake, and to be done after your heavy progressive work is finished.

One thing you’ll notice in the examples above is I steered clear of using intensity techniques on heavy compound exercises. This is for safety reasons, and the risk that you put yourself under when doing exercises like bent over rows, bench presses, squats and deadlifts when in a fatigued state.

Rest Paused


All that being said, there is one intensity technique that I truly believe you can get a lot out of, especially for late intermediates and advanced trainees – the rest paused method.

It’s the basis of DC training, and is the only method that allows you to really gauge progression week to week. 

The premise of it is to perform multiple sets to failure with 10-30 second rest periods.

Two of my favourite methods are:

  • DC style: here you’ll perform three sets to failure with 30 seconds rest in between each failure point, while taking 10 deep breaths. This is considered the ‘standard’ approach to rest-paused training in bodybuilding.
  • Muscle Rounds: in this method popularised by Scott Stevenson, you’ll execute 6 sets of 4 with 10 seconds rest in between, using your 15RM. This is brutal – especially on compound leg exercises!

Natural Rules Of Intensity Techniques


Generally speaking, the more intensity techniques you use, the lower your volume of training should be.

If you’re going to use something like a rest-paused set, you only need to do it once. Which is also why beginners won’t get much out of it, because their ability to maximally recruit muscle mass during a set is limited, and they’ll require more repeated efforts in a fresh state.

I’d use no more than one intensity technique per workout, and prioritise them more on your isolation lifts so that your recovery isn’t too taxed.

If you want to use them on heavier lifts, I like to cycle their use. This means you can either use them for 3-6 weeks, and then return to more traditional straight sets. Or you can use them every 3-4 weeks.

Know Your Place


Intensity techniques can work for hypertrophy, there’s no doubt about that. But before adding them in, you need to make sure you’ve got your bases covered.

Traditional strength gains using straight sets on compound exercises will always win. So if you’re not focusing 80% of your time and energy with them, you’re selling yourself short.

Think of intensity techniques as one of many tools in your toolbox that when applied correctly and strategically, may provide you with that extra 1%.

Akash VaghelaAkash Vaghela

Akash Vaghela has spent 10+ years transforming bodies and lives around the world, and in May 2017, founded RNT Fitness to serve this purpose. His vision is to see a world transformed, where ambitious high performers experience the power of the physical as the vehicle to unlock their real potential. He’s the author of the Amazon best-sellilng book Transform Your Body Transform Your Life, which explains his unique and proven five-phase methodology, is host of the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, has been featured in the likes of Men’s Health and BBC, whilst regularly speaking across the world on all things transformation.

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