Leveraging Intensity for Maximum Results

Arnold Intense Cable Pull

Leveraging Intensity for Maximum Results

By: Julio Hannibal Canario

Intensity is a good thing.

No, scratch that. Intensity is great thing.

But while bringing your “A” game is a prerequisite for success, it’s also been known to be the downfall of many. And in this article, we’re going to talk about that: the good, the bad, and the ugly of intensity.

But first, what is it exactly?

What is intensity

Intensity is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Depending on who you ask, its definition can take on many forms. For some, it’s the point of no return; the moment when your last rep leaves you wondering if that truly was the face of god you just saw. For others, it’s adding an extra plate to the bar. And for a few, it’s simply showing up consistently.
But no matter what intensity means to you, there’s one thing that we can all agree upon: you’re not going to reach your true potential without it.

Freiza not final form

Intensity is the special sauce that will bring you one step closer to securing the body transformation you’ve long sought after.

And no, it is not reserved strictly for meatheads.

If you’re an average gym goer, you know intensity.

If you’re a 9-5 office worker, you know intensity.

And if you’re a stay at home parent, then you certainly know intensity.

While people can argue about what it means to them personally, intensity always includes having the right mindset to work harder; focusing on the goal at hand and not backing away from it; telling yourself that dropping the bar, slowing down, and giving up is not an option.

Intensity is what separates those who truly want to succeed from those who only say they do.

Without it, you might as well be cast off into the shadows of mediocrity.

Which brings us to a general problem with the word.

The unfortunate truth about “intensity”

The problem with assigning the word “intensity” a clear cut definition is that it’s discouraging.

You see, for the average gym goer, it means the fear of stepping into a place where heavy weights get tossed around and the mightiest of grunts are echoed. And for the more experienced lifters, it’s the quick burnout that takes place after a balls-to-the-wall 60-second sprint.

Comparing intensity levels typically leads to intimidation.

Whether it’s lifting lighter weights than the person next to you or having poor stamina, it’s easy to call it quits when you’re not meeting an arbitrary standard.

For many – especially those new to strength training – comparing intensity levels can hamper your progress by:

       A) causing you to lose the will power to give it your all.

       B) setting you back from achieving your goals

You might as well stay home and binge watch every season of Game of Thrones. Which, you should do anyway. Just saying.

Intensity is whatever you make of it. What’s considered heavy for one person might be a warm-up for another, and vice verse. So long as you’re giving it your all (grunts or no grunts), you’ll be capable of performing at your highest level.

The ingredients for higher Intensity

If you don’t care about what you’re doing, if you’re not enthusiastic about it or if it feels like a chore, then chances are you will never perform at your highest level.

Intensity puts you so deep in the moment that nothing else matters but the task at hand.

Arnold intensity curl

As with anything in life, when you do something with passion you’ll not only do that task all the way through, but you’ll do it to the best of your abilities. When strength training, this means performing each rep with proper form. It means tracking everything you do. And it absolutely means having laser-like focus during each movement you perform.

You see, focus is a driving force behind intensity; the connection between the two is paramount. To reach and maintain this connection, you have to make sure that all outside distractions are eliminated. For most of us this means putting our phones away and getting mentally prepared for the next set.

If you’re busy trying to decide what song will go best with the next set of barbell curls then you’re just not focused enough. And, let’s face it, you were going to play Justin Bieber anyway so stop messing with your playlist and put your phone away.

Being completely in the moment will elevate your intensity level. Which in turn will allow you to perform with proper form and avoid injuries.

How to use intensity

To help you reach your intensity threshold, here are a few tips to quantify and raise intensity during your next workout session.

Shortening the rest periods between sets

An intense set followed by a short rest period will help to elevate your VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen that can be used during exercise). What this means is that you’re body can take in more oxygen, which then gets delivered to your muscles. A higher VO2 max level will increase your work capacity, thus allowing you to perform better, longer.

Adding intensity: Rest periods can be as short as 30 seconds for small muscles and no longer than 90 seconds for larger muscles. This is best used with single joint exercises, not heavy compounds.

Changing rep scheme

Been performing low reps with heavier weight for the past few weeks? Then try more reps with slightly lower weight. Whether it’s increasing or decreasing your rep count, variety in weight training is a good thing. Test yourself by trying something different.

Now, this is not to say that one method is better than another; that all depends on your goals. But a little switch up might allow you to see just how intense your workouts can be.

How to use: Don’t be afraid to use sets of 20 for larger muscles and sets as high as 30 for smaller muscles.

Increasing number of sets

More sets doesn’t necessarily translate to a more effective workout. On the contrary, more sets has the potential to lead to overtraining. With that said, many individuals tend to short change their workouts by sticking towards the lower end of the set count. The most common reason for this being that fewer sets equals shorter time spent at the gym.

Yet, you must remember why you’re doing this. You have a goal and reaching it might require stepping outside of your comfort zone. By adding extra sets you will lengthen your training time, but, pushing through it will be what separates you from everyone else.

How to use: Choose a specific muscle or muscle group you want to work on. Instead of sticking to the usual three sets, try five, or seven, or even 10. With this higher volume, you might want to drop your frequency, only training that body part once/week. Keep this volume up for 4-6 weeks, and then scale back or move to a different muscle or muscle group for a few weeks to keep your joints happy.

Focusing on the eccentric

In strength training, eccentric refers to the lowering of the weight. By slowly lowering the weight under control, your muscles are forced to work harder thus leading to greater muscle gain. Eccentrics can be very challenging so leaning towards lighter weights is usually recommended.

How to use: Use longer eccentric tempos for smaller muscles, as long as 5 seconds. Use shorter tempos for larger muscles and compound lifts.


Complexes are a series of exercises that are done one after another – typically with the same weight – with little to no rest. Getting through the entire series of exercise makes up one set.

Complexes are tough and by far my favorite way to test intensity. They offer a nice change of pace and can be done at any time in a variety of ways. Infact, I wrote a whole article about it here.

How to use: After a good dynamic warm-up, load up a barbell with the heaviest you can lift for your weakest exercise. For example, if the overhead press is your weakest exercise in your sequence, and 6-8 reps with 60lbs is the most you can handle, then you should use this as your weight selection for the entire complex.

Give this complex a try to test your intensity:

  1. Hang Clean 3 x 6
  2. Front Squat 3 x 6
  3. Push Press 3 x 6
  4. Bent Over Rows 3 x 6
  5. Alternating Forward Lunges 3 x 6


Think about the order of exercises, body position, how hard you will push or pull, and so on. Visualizing what you will be doing will allow you to prepare and perform the workout to come with the utmost intensity.

women back squat

How to use: Before your workout, write down the exercises, reps, sets and rest time and think about how you expect the workout to go. Then focus on turning your vision into a reality. And if it didn’t happen, not to worry. Now you have a plan for what to do the next time you’re in the gym.

Closing thoughts

There are many ways to increase intensity. What works for one person might not necessarily work for you. So don’t be discouraged if your work capacity or strength isn’t the same as someone else.

All that matters is that you give it your all and leave nothing on the table.

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Julio Hannibal Canario
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Julio Hannibal Canario

Web Programmer by day, fitness vigilante by night and lover of all things geek. When I'm not helping others to restart their bodies and health through proper fitness strategies, you can find me obsessing over 80's films, time travel, and superheroes, all while saving a puppy's life.
Julio Hannibal Canario
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