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Training at 100% all the time is a great way to end up sick or injured. Training with too little intensity means you'll never encounter the stimulus you need to improve. But training at around 85% means you can improve your form and get intensity too.

The intensity of a training program is the single most important factor. 

I don’t just mean how tiring it is. 

Anyone can put together a training program that sees trainees emerge an hour later, smoked and sweat soaked, gasping, ‘that was intense!’  But do they get fitter, stronger and faster continuously?  Not usually. That takes quality programming built around intelligent principles and I’m about to share one of those principles with you.

Training at high intensity is the way to get good results. If you train at below about 70% of your 1-rep max you can still get fitter and stronger, but for many it won’t produce either the physical effects they’re after. To exploit the maximum potential you have for strength and fitness, you need to lift weights that are subjectively heavy.

Training at maximum intensity in weight training means lifting your 1-rep max.  That’s the heaviest weight you can move for a given lift if you only have to do it once.  For raw strength sports, experienced trainees actually do train this way some of the time.  But mostly they train with their 3-5 rep max.

Why?

Because really hyper-intense training wrecks your form. You can imagine yourself lifting a weight that’s the very, very heaviest you can possibly lift.  You’re wobbling, struggling, cheating where you can, wondering if you’re going to manage it… it’s a great way to teach yourself bad habits and ruin your form.  But it applies just as much to other sports.  If you run the very furthest you can run every time you train, how long before you can only just get from your front door to the waiting ambulance? 

Not long. You’ll exhaust your body’s capacity to recover.  And I remember the longest run I ever did; by the last two miles I was staggering like a zombie.  That was my ‘1-run max,’ I guess, but I couldn't have done it every day!

 So what’s to do? Can we find a place that lets you train with high intensity for a long time without an unacceptable decline in form or an equally unacceptable rise in risk of injury?

We can look to where people train really intensely. I’m talking about sports where trainees must combine high quality, high intensity and high volume. I could look in a number of places, so if I've overlooked your sport, I apologize. But my two test cases are Thai boxers and the Bulgarian weightlifting team.

Thai boxers need good form. Every movement has to be the right shape for its intended purpose. And if you knew that if you got it wrong, a professional fighter would hit you as hard as he could, you’d tighten up your form too. 

But they have to be able to deliver power too. Muay Thai has a scoring system but it’s first and foremost a fight; powder-puff punchers don’t survive.  Oh, and you might be in the ring, throwing and blocking, for ten minutes, putting out full power and defending yourself all that time, with only short rests between rounds. Unlike boxing, if you cover up and ride a round out you’ll be disqualified. So you need form, intensity and volume. 

The Bulgarian weightlifting team compete in a sport where there are only two movements, the snatch and the clean and jerk, and you get three attempts at each.

Yet, they often train for six to eight hours a day – incidentally about the same schedule as a pro Thai boxer.  Imagine doing max squat after max squat, max clean and jerk after max clean and jerk, all day, six days a week.

Imagine’s what you’ll have to do. The Bulgarians don’t train that way. Instead they spend most of their time working in the three to six rep range with about 85% of an athlete’s 1RM.

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