Some training styles rely on creative exercises or complex progression schemes, while others are effective just by forcing you to work hard. If you’re looking to get mentally and physically stronger, bust through lifting plateaus, set new personal records on your big lifts, or even pack on muscle, high intensity training (HIT) can definitely be a powerful addition to your program.
Note that HIT and HIIT — high intensity interval training — are not the same thing. The difference is actually pretty simple. HIT is about lifting very heavy weights, while HIIT is a conditioning tool. Yes, HIIT can get you stronger, and high intensity lifting can — if you program it right — help out with your conditioning.
But for the most part, HIT is about building maximal strength while HIIT is about building maximal cardiovascular strength and endurance. If you’re committed to getting unbelievably strong or add slabs of new muscle, read on to learn everything there is to know about HIT.
Defining High Intensity Training
HIT is the brainchild of fitness icon Arthur Jones, the designer of the widely-used Nautilus lifting machines. Jones’ training methodology isn’t just about training at a high percentage of your 1RM. It’s about maximizing muscle failure in as little time as possible.
Like all good training protocols, HIT can be customized based on your own body’s needs and preferences. In general, it will call for training your entire body three times per week. The challenge and severity of each session forces you to keep workouts brief and to be extra diliegent about devoting time to recovery.
How to Do High Intensity Training
Standard body part splits rely on fatiguing one or two muscle groups or movement patterns at a time. HIT is different. With HIT, you train your full body each session, aiming to reach momentary muscular failure with each movement in as few sets as possible. Ideally, only one.
Achieving complete muscular fatigue in one set is possible, but requires some creativity. You might squat at a tempo of 4-2-3-1 with a suitably heavy weight until you hit failure. A 4-2-3-1 squat tempo means a four-second eccentric, pause for two seconds at the bottom, ascend for three seconds, and pause for one second at the top of the squat.
Alternatively, you could rely on a large drop set, cluster training, or even an extended rest-pause set with ultra-high reps. There’s no need to overthink things with HIT — it’s about putting your body to the test and working as hard as possible.
How to Progress High Intensity Training
If you’re programming HIT sessions over the course of a four- or six-week mesocycle, you can alternate the movements you use and the intensity techniques you rely on. But since you’re only doing one working set with HIT, you must achieve overload by playing with tempo, technique, tension, or time.
In standard training regimes, you progressively overload your lifts by adding one rep to each set every week, or by keeping the rep scheme the same but adding additional sets over time. HIT necessitates that you not rely on volume to make progress. To make progress with HIT, change up the intensity technique you use on each exercise weekly. This ensures workouts are always different and you always have a new avenue to put effort into on the day.
That said, don’t load 90% of your max on the bar and get deadlifting just because the protocol calls for “only one set.” It’s only one working set — you will definitely want to warm up very thoroughly and then perform ramping sets until your body is ready to tackle the real work.
Benefits Of High Intensity Training
Training with such elevated intensity isn’t for the faint of heart. But if you’ve already got a strong base of lifting under your belt and want to push yourself a bit further, there are plenty of reasons to try HIT.
Lift Heavier Overall
Some literature argues that single-set efforts in strength training may provide more strength and muscle gains than standard multi-set protocols. (1) One ultra-heavy set with an intensity technique like drops may recruit more muscle fibers overall, leading to extra growth. So if you’re looking to get stronger, the higher intensity may well pay off.
Improve Mental Discipline
If takes a tremendous amount of mental discipline — both on and off the platform — to follow a HIT protocol. For one thing, you need to push yourself hard, under a lot of weight, to achieve failure in just one set. If you’ve ever tested your 1RM, you know how mentally and emotionally taxing heavy weights can be — even as they’re exhilarating. HIT teaches you to lock in your mindset like little else.
You will also need a lot of discipline off the platform. Avoiding the temptation to slap on another workout when you’re not training may be difficult emotionally, especially if you rely on lifting for mental solace. Playing fast and loose with recovery will make your workouts will be much less effective if you can’t fully show up when it matters.
There’s no doubt that one set takes a lot shorter than multiple sets. And only training three times a week is nothing compared to the hours you might currently be logging. So if you’re looking for a serious strength protocol you can follow on your lunch break, HIT might be for you. Just make sure you’re leaving adequate time to warm up and cool down, too.
Find Your Potential
You can definitely use a 1RM calculator to find your max numbers. In fact, you often should — maxing out is very hard on your body. Actually testing your 1RM too often can not only lead to inaccurate results, but also a potentially heightened injury risk.
That said, when you program tests properly into your programming — which HIT can help you do — it structures in a period of time where you’re preparing your body to find your true maxes. This can help inform your percentage-based training cycles for months to come. Not to mention, testing your max can feel good (which is why people often try to do it too often). It’s nice to see the proverbial fruits of your labor, and HIT can help you do so more safely.
While muscle building isn’t typically the primary goal of a HIT programming block, it is a side benefit. If effort level is kept high and mechanical tension is maintained, single-set workouts can induce muscle growth. (1)
Further, many competitive bodybuilders rely on intensity techniques to gain muscle mass — a phenomenon that also has scientific backing. The common forms of overloading used in HIT are effective at stimulating hypertrophy, even in athletes with years of training under their belts. (2)
[Related: The Definitive Guide to Bodybuilding Meal Prep]
When you’re training for maximum strength, it almost requires your body to pack on a bit more muscle. The literature is confident that you can indeed gain muscle mass with just one working set per exercise per session — as long as you’re pushing hard enough.
What To Consider Before Trying HIT
Before you start any new training protocol, you want to be sure that it’s the right one for you. Does it match your goals and the current needs of your body? Are you ready to take on the challenges it comes with? Here are the factors you should consider before trying out HIT.
Goals And Experience
Are you looking to build serious strength? If so, HIT might be the next place you turn. But if you’re just starting out in the gym, you should probably select another program for now. You’ll want to have at least a couple of consistent years of training experience in the books before trying something like HIT.
HIT isn’t called high intensity for nothing. To lift weights at a high level, you need to make sure that your lifting mechanics are sound and that you have a solid base of strength to build from. If you’ve got even a little bit of doubt as to whether you’re ready — or if you don’t have a reliable training partner — you might want to save HIT for the future.
Your Current Programming
If you just completed a training cycle that ended with you maxing out your lifts — either at a competition or at your gym — then hold off for a bit on HIT. You’ve just built and tested your max strength. Now is probably a time to diversify your training with some mobility, endurance, or hypertrophy work.
HIT will still be around when it’s time to swing back to building max strength again. The same idea holds true if you’re coming back from an injury — there’s no need to dive into extremely intense training when your body is compromised.
On the other hand, if you’re currently working through a hypertrophy cycle, you may not want to abandon ship and program hop over to HIT. Take your time, finish the routine you started, and then dive into a new challenge. The extra muscle mass you’ve built along the way will be helpful when you have to ramp up the difficulty.
Commitment To Recovery
No matter what training protocol you’re working with, recovery should be your top priority. Even with an optimally-designed program, you can still face diminishing returns if you’re not sleeping, eating, or resting enough in between.
This is especially true when you’re committing to a block of high intensity training. Since the workouts are brief and relatively infrequent, you might be tempted to perform some “supplemental” workouts. Don’t give into that temptation. If you’re doing HIT properly, low-intensity yoga sessions or long walks are more than enough to meet your active recovery needs.
HIT will be most effective if you can log a lot of sleep and maintain the mental discipline to avoid frivolous extra training. If you can’t psychologically or physically commit to a strict recovery regimen, HIT might not be up your alley.
How to Warm Up For High Intensity Training
A good warm-up for a HIT session follows the same ruleset as any full-body routine. Since you’re performing compound lifts — usually with a barbell — that involve multiple joints, you need to address your body’s needs from head to toe.
Start with some light cardiovascular activity to get the blood pumping. Once you’ve broken a light sweat, consider the movements you’ll be hitting on the day. If you’ve got multiple kinds of pressing, maybe perform some face pulls for your shoulders.
If you’re doing a lot of leg work, work through a hip mobility flow or slap on a pair of knee sleeves. After that, one or two unloaded sets of each big move before loading up will ensure you’re ready to perform at your best.
Sample HIT Workout
HIT workouts train your whole body, but that doesn’t mean that every workout includes every exercise. Many HIT protocols will include two workouts that you alternate each time you hit the gym.
No matter which three days of the week you train, alternate workouts 1 and 2. This will mean that you’ll double up on sessions every other week, but your long-term training will be balanced and equalized.
HIT Workout 1
- Back Squat: 1 x dropset starting at 90% 1RM
- Dumbbell Lunge: 1 x drop set
- Leg Extension: 1 x drop set
- Bench Press: 1 x drop set starting at 90% 1RM
- Decline/Incline (alternate each session) Dumbbell Bench Press: 1 x drop set
- Push-Up: 1 x max reps, 3-2-3-2 tempo
HIT Workout 2
- Deadlift: 1 x drop set starting at 90% 1RM
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 1 x drop set
- Leg Curl: 1 x drop set
- Overhead Press: 1 x drop set at 90% 1RM
- Dumbbell Upright Row: 1 x drop set
- Pull-Up: 1 x max reps, 3-1-3-1 tempo*
Note: Remember that this notation refers to the eccentric, a pause at the bottom, the concentric, and a pause at the top in that order.
There are multiple pathways to progress. Some athletes do well with body part splits, zoning in on the muscles they want to grow. Others get strong by sticking to the basics and slowly slapping another plate on the bar over time.
If you walk the line between passion and masochism, HIT might be the perfect way to put some vigor back into your training. After all, there’s something alluring about making more gains in less time. Why get fancy when you can work hard and get jacked all the same?
- Eichmann B, Gießing J. (2013) Effects Of Ten Weeks Of Either Multiple-Set Training Or Single-Set Training On Strength And Muscle Mass. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 47:e3.
- Krzysztofik, M., Wilk, M., Wojdała, G., & Gołaś, A. (2019). Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(24), 4897. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16244897
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