In the world of bodybuilding the term intensity is often used, and is most times confused with the term work, or volume of work. So misused is the term that many inexperienced bodybuilders often remark "Man, my workout lasted two hours - it was intense" or "I did 30 sets for biceps, it was so intense."
The sad reality is that many people use the term intensity, but to most it is devoid of any concrete meaning. Sure, people may use the word as if they know and understand it, but often times under questioning it is clear that some have an elementary understanding at best, and a foggy idea at the worst.
Intensity is important for the advanced bodybuilder to understand. In an attempt to understand what intensity is, in this article, we will examine the various aspects of intensity: force, work, power, the mind and their applications for the bodybuilder in his / her quest to build a championship physique.
While considering the information contained in this article, bear in mind that individual responses to stress will vary, as too will the level or work that one is able to do. Everyone is physiologically different and advanced and conditioned athletes will be able to perform at a higher level than their beginning counterparts. The mathematics presented below are theoretical but they are provided to illustrate concrete and applied principles of bodybuilding. With that said, we shall first discuss force.
In bodybuilding force plays a major role. In scientific terms, force is defined as a push or a pull. For our purposes we will discuss only the force of gravitation. The force of gravitation is measured with the scientific symbol N - Newton's. This is because physicist Isaac Newton [1642-1727] formulated the theory of gravitation.
Force - a push or a pull - may be seen with exercises like the bench press, the squat, the deadlift, or in cable movements like tricep pressdowns. All of these things involve pushing and pulling (or both). The gravitational constant - the standard amount of force exerted upon an object while standing level on the surface of the earth - is 9.81 N / kg. To better understand force we turn to the world of physics.
The laws of motion state that all objects on earth are affected by gravity. This is as true for a 45lb plate as it is for a single atom. The laws of motion also tell us that in order to move an object up in a vertical path, it is necessary to overcome the force of gravity upon the object in question. In other words, if the earth is pulling down on an object with a force of 9.81 N / kg, then in order to lift the object you must apply an equal amount of force so that there is a balance between your upward pull and the earths downward pull.
Therefore, for clarity, it will be necessary to calculate the force of gravity on an object moving with vertical linear motion. * To calculate this, we will use the following equation:
Fg = Force of Gravity
M = mass of object (in kg)
G = gravitational field strength in Newton's (N)
Fg = MG
Complicated? Hardly. This is a critical equation because it directly relates to the amount of work (in joules) done upon an object by a lifter. To bring the above equation to into the real world, consider the following scenario: A bodybuilder is standing on flat ground. He has a weight with a mass of 20kg in front of him. How much gravitational force is being done on the weight?
Fg = (20 kg) (9.81 N / kg)
Fg = 1.96 x 102 N
Therefore, on the object the bodybuilder was trying to lift, there was 1.96 x 102 Newtons of gravity's force upon the object. But how does this apply to the real world? What does this mean for the bodybuilder who is concerned with strength, mass and intensity? Everything! And we shall soon see why.
The relevance of the above equation and its resulting numerical value lie in the connection between force and work. Thus, we will discuss the nature of work and its relation to bodybuilding.
Work is defined by physics as a transfer of energy. For example, work is done on an object in the case of a motor propelling a car. Work may also be done on a building when a wrecking ball demolishes a wall. Further, work may be done on a weight when a bodybuilder exerts enough force [through the contraction of muscles] to balance the force of gravity [which is dependant on the objects mass] to move the weight. In either case, energy is transferred from one object to another. This transfer of energy - the work - is measured in joules (J).
In our example above, a bodybuilder was doing an exercise that used uniform motion [a straight up and down movement with no deviation]. As was noted, the weight had a total mass of 20kg and assuming that we are standing even on the surface of the earth, the force of gravity would measure 9.81 N/kg. This is known as the gravitational constant. The lifter in this example will attempt to move the weight 9 feet (3.5 meters).
The question as it pertains to our situation is, how much work will be done on the weight by the lifter? How much work will the lifter do? To determine this, the mathematical equation will appear as follows:
W = work
F = force
D = distance
W = FD
W = (1.96 x 102 N) (3.5 m)
W = 6.86 x 102 J
W = 686 J
Therefore, the lifter exerted 686 joules while lifting 20kg 3.5 meters in the air. If we return to our equation, but increase the mass of the object by 2x so that the mass is now 40 kg, and reduce the distance by Â½ making the new distance 1.75 meters the equation will appear as follows:
Fg = Force of Gravity
M = mass of object (in kg)
G = gravitational field strength in Newton's (N)
Fg = MG
Fg = (40 kg) (9.81 N / kg)
Fg = 3.92 x 102 N
If we then take the number given above and substitute it into the formula for work, it will appear as follows:
W = work
F = force
D = distance
W = FD
W = (3.92 x 102 N) (1.75 m)
W = 6.86 x 102 J
W = 686 J
Therefore, the lifter exerted 686 joules while lifting 40kg 1.75 meters in the air.
Notice the following:
EQUATION 1 EQUATION 2
MASS (kg): 20 MASS (kg): 40
DISTANCE (m): 3.5 DISTANCE (m): 1.75
WORK DONE (J): 686 WORK DONE: 686
So what does this mean? What general truths may we extrapolate from the theoretical mathematics presented above? It is possible to lift a heavier weight but do the same work!**
This equation clearly shows the mistake made by many bodybuilders in the quest for intensity. Often times inexperienced bodybuilders, unfamiliar with the fundamentals of the sport, will increase the amount of weight they do but decrease the distance over which they are moving it. Most often this results from an ego that is stronger than the body it controls. Quite simply, the lifter is not strong enough to lift the weight and sacrifices distance in order to move the weight.
In the end, as shown, this practice is of little value. This is not to downplay the importance of partial reps, as they are an important part of any strength-building program, rather to show the fallacy of this practice in the quest for muscle building intensity.
It should also be noted that while work is a measure of work done, not a measure of the effort applied while doing that work, work is one measurement that is critical to determining intensity. Power, the next item that we shall discuss, is a measure of that effort.
Now that we have examined force and work, we shall examine the other principals listed in the preamble of this article as they relate to the intensity principal.
According to physics, the time over which work is done on an object has no impact on the amount of work done on the object. Mathematically speaking, with respect to inanimate objects doing the work, this is correct. For a wrecking ball doing work upon a building, whether the ball smashes a wall in 2 seconds or in 20 seconds, the resulting work is calculated to be the same.
However, as even a beginning bodybuilder will know, with respect to bodybuilding or weight lifting, physics clearly misses the mark. Intensity as it applies to bodybuilding is not a measure of the work done, but the times over which that work is done. This is known as power.
While total work may be measured in Joules, the amount of work done in a specific time period is measured in watts. If you are confused as to how watts apply in a fitness program, the next time you are doing any cardiovascular exercise on a treadmill or machine, usually it will give a reading for the "watts" being generated. If you pedal harder the watts generated by you increase, and if you pedal slower, they decrease accordingly. Hence, you can increase or decrease the power you do in any specific second.
The generation of power (watts) lies at the heart of intensity. A muscle or group of muscles has the ability to contract; thereby exerting force when required to do some form of work. As mentioned above, for inanimate objects, the time over which the work is performed is of little consequence; the effect is the same. But for living creatures, the subject of watts (work over a specified time period) takes on significance.
The Calculation Used To Determine Power Is As Follows
P = Power
T = time
W = work
P = W TNote: A Watt is defined as a Joule / second
Consider our previous scenario:
A bodybuilder is standing on flat ground. He has a weight with a mass of 20kg in front of him. Using previous calculations, we know that the bodybuilder in question did 686 Joules of work upon an object with a mass of 20kg lifting it over a distance of 3.5 meters vertically. For this situation we will add the variable of time. The previously described work will be performed over a time of 3.5 seconds. Applying this to the calculation, the formula will appear as follows:
P = W
P = 686 J
P = 196 W
Therefore, the bodybuilder, while lifting an object with a mass of 20kg over a distance of 3.5 meters, did 196 Joules of work per second. Consequently, then, in one second the bodybuilder did 196 J of work. If we are to modify the time variable to 5 seconds instead of 3.5, what do you think will be the answer? In other words, if we double the amount of time over which the work is being performed, what will the mathematics show?
P = W
P = 686 J
P = 137.2 W
When the time allotted for the work was doubled, the amount of work per second decreased. Interesting. So that the above point may be driven home with absolute certainty, consider the situation in which, instead of doubling the time, we half the time, to 1.5 seconds.
P = 686 J
P = 457.3 W
By reducing the time to 1.5 seconds for the lift, 457.3 W of work were done. This shows us that the longer a workout is the less intense it is.
The difference between work and power needs to be understood. Work is the transfer of energy. Power is the time over which the energy or work is transferred. For living creatures, a decrease in the time over which the work is done translates into effort or difficulty. While the work done on the object may be the same regardless of the speed, the power used to do the work is doubled if the time is decreased by Â½.
This reality is easily demonstrated when doing a heavy set of deadlifts. The next time you do deadlifts [you DO include deadlifts in your back program, right?] instead of waiting 2 minutes between sets wait 20 seconds and do another set. Which is more difficult? Which is more intense? In which situation did you exert more power? The answer is clear. This phenomenon is due to the way in which your body, as a living creature, functions. If a muscle is required to contract repeatedly, the efficiency of the muscle (the ability to do work) decreases over time. This has to do with many things such as oxygen consumption and lactic acid buildup.
Understanding how a muscle fatigues is essential to intensity. More importantly, understanding how to fatigue a muscle is crucial to intensity.
The most important part of intensity is the mind. Although the mind is mentioned last in this article, it comes first in the order of importance. Without the mind, nothing is possible. With the mind, all things are possible.
The initial electrical signals to do work are generated from the neurons in the brain, but the orders to generate those electrical signals come from the mind. Although the brain and the mind are separate, they are linked. The mind is a place - a dynamic environment - within your body. It is the invisible place within where the "I" [the true nature of man] lives. In the mind resides the quiet spiritual observer that is man. The brain is simply the link between the invisible and material - your two natures residing within one body.
The quiet observer - that which man is, but that which is not visible to the eye - owns and controls the mind and the body. Hence when people speak of the mind and the body they will refer to them as things they own - "my body" "my mind". You are neither your mind, nor your body; you are more - they are things you possess during your physical life here. As a result, they are tools and you may use them as you desire.
Because the mind is linked to the brain, it is possible to use your mind to signal the brain to activate these neurons and then for the brain to prepare the body for work. For bodybuilders, what is the best method by which to do this? Visualization. While visualization is not perfect, it is very effective. It is a form of mental programming whereby the desired result is achieved in the inner world - the mind.
The great philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked, "The ancestor of every action is a thought." Because this is true, when a thought is created by you and put into your mind, the action (the subject and offspring of the thought) is more likely to come to fruition. The physical world is a reflection of your inner world - your thoughts, convictions, experiences and feelings.
If you program your body to do work by creating a non-physical vision in your mind, the probability that the vision will be physically achieved is increased. This practice has been used by many bodybuilders, powerlifters and Olympic athletes over the years and in my view is this single practice that has been responsible for the achievement of many world records.
The power of the human mind cannot and should not be understated or misunderstood. Many times people program themselves for success, or failure. For instance, a man who has never played basketball in his life was challenged by a friend to play basketball. The man remarked, "I have never played in my life, I can't play, I suck." After being convinced to go play, the man picked up the basketball, shot for the hoop, missed and remarked, "See? I told you I suck." What can be gleaned from his statements? A lot. First, the man stated that he "sucked" - before he even tried. Thus, in his mind he created an expectation - a belief - of how reality in the physical would turn out.
In his mind he had already envisioned himself failing. He programmed himself for failure and then when he went to try, reality conformed to his subconscious or unconscious [Freud or Jung, take your pick!] belief. Anything you think, your subconscious mind accepts as true and accurate.
So what does this mean for bodybuilders? Quite simply, be very careful about what thoughts you have about muscle growth and strength. Deep inside man - in the very depths of his being - is a force so powerful that if more people were to tap into it, they would literally astound themselves at what they would be able to achieve. It is this force that must be used in order to generate the blinding intensity needed to overcome not only the obstacles presented to us in life but also those present in the gym that seek to keep us in our present state.
The use of the mind in generating intensity is the single factor that will make or break a workout. No matter how quickly one completes a workout, and no matter how heavy the weights used, if the mind is absent the workout will have been for naught. Your mind is a garden for the physical world. Whatever you plant in your mind or allow to grow therein will manifest itself at some time in your physical world. As within so without, as above so below. Use your mind wisely and correctly.
Your body is like a rechargeable battery. A battery stores energy for future use and your body is the same way. When you use batteries to power electronic devices (do work) power is drained from them, and their efficiency decreases. Your body is the same way in relation to physical work. But your body, like a rechargeable battery, has the ability to recharge itself and recover. This is where everything discussed above comes into play.
The purpose of bodybuilding is to exhaust the muscle being worked, so that it is overloaded and must adapt and become stronger (more efficient). By increasing the weight, distance, or by decreasing the time over which the work is done, the probability of muscular failure may be increased. It is only when the muscle is exhausted that maximum adaptability and maximum growth can occur. So what truths can be gained from everything written thus far? How may these things be applied toward the efficacy of a workout?
1. Intensity is a combination of four factors: The mind, work, force and power.
2. Changing the distance over which an object is moved, or the mass of the object can alter the amount of work done. When you are trying to increase the amount of work, either increase the distance and keep the mass the same, or keep the distance the same and increase the mass.
3. It's possible to use a heavier weight, but if you don't get a full range of motion you may be doing the same amount of work, or less!
4. When the range of motion is full and the work is easy, increase the work by adding weight.
5. Don't buy into ego's claim that "heavier is better"...it's not. Best, precise and complete are better. If not able to move a heavy weight, decrease until you find one that you are able to move over the full distance and takes you to failure for the appropriate number of repetitions.
6. The shorter the workout, the more intense! Thus, for intensity, keep workouts no longer than 45 minutes (there are physiological and hormonal reasons why this is wise, but we will discuss these in other articles).
7. If you do a certain amount of work over 10 sets, try doing the same amount of work in 5 sets. It is possible to fatigue a muscle in less than 10 sets. The results you may get will surprise you. 8. It is important to make the muscle less efficient over the course of your workout by using the information presented above.
9. Reduce the amount of time you spend resting between sets, and tell Joe Schmoe who wants to have a long conversation about the raiders game to take a hike - your one intense beast when you set foot in the gym!
10. The mind is a dynamo - a source of power. One of the Greek words for mind is noema and means "a thought, a design."1 Your thoughts are exactly that: designs. You must design and carefully craft your ideas so that they will program your body to perform like a well-oiled machine. They must assist you in preparing the body for work. Use your mind - the dynamic source of power - with wisdom and respect.
So there you have it! Intensity - a concept far more complicated and crucial than what many think or understand it to be. If you understand the knowledge presented above and follow the tips in this article, I am confident that your physique will see continual improvements.
* For purposes of ease we will avoid discussing opposing forces, directional force, vectors and other aspects of physics. The mathematics presented in this article is not intended to be overly scientific but display and explain easily observable and verifiable principles of fitness training.
** While it is true that we are not taking into account the decreasing efficiency of muscle tissue under repetitive exercise over time, individual athletic conditioning, lactic acid buildup, or weight induced nervous system stress, from a mathematical standpoint, discounting all of the mentioned factors, the theoretical calculations are correct regarding work done upon an object by another object as calculated under the conditions specified.
1. Vine, W.E. Vines Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1984.
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