Workout quality and intensity are two important factors that make the difference between reaching your goals and stagnating forever. It’s all fine and dandy to have the perfect workouts on paper, the most effective split, and the most accurate rep range, but without quality, you workouts will not have the desired effects. Without the right intensity you will not progress efficiently or not at all.
I refer to workout quality your ability to work the targeted muscles safely. Too many people try to go too heavy too fast, cannot lift the weights properly, use compensation like only doing half ass reps or cheating reps and risk injuring themselves.
The quality of your workouts come down to the quality of your reps. To have the best quality possible, focus on the following:
Range of motion (ROM): Refers to the amount of movement you have at each joint. Moving the weights through the full ROM will make your muscles get the maximum amount of work out of each rep.
Tempo: Refers to the speed at which you move the weight. Tempo has four distinct parts and is expressed in seconds and formatted like this A-B-C-D. A is the eccentric phase of a lift, like squatting down. B is the time you take at the bottom of each rep (when you are in the lowest squat position), C is the concentric phase (when you squat back up) and D is the time you take at the top of each rep (when you are standing after your squat). There are different rep tempos for different goals. If you goal is the build muscle size and definition, the best tempo is 4-2-1-2, meaning you would squat down for 4 seconds, hold the bottom for 2 seconds, go up for 1 second and stand up for 2 seconds. Tempo is very malleable depending on your goals and experience but it ensures optimal muscle contractions and should taken into consideration.
Mind muscle connection. This simply means that you feel the proper contraction happening. When you do a bicep curl for example, you should feel your biceps working. When you do a deadlift, you should feel your hamstring, glutes and core contracting. Mind muscle connection is something that has to be practiced. You may not feel it right away but after a few workouts it’ll come easier.
Workout intensity refers to how much effort you put in during your workouts. The amount of weight you put on and your rest period affect this. To gauge the intensity of a workout, pay attention to the intensity of each set.
I use for myself and all my clients a scale called the Rate of Perceived Exertion. This scale goes from 1 (easy peasy) to 10 (I am dying). Since this scale is based on how you feel each workout, it accounts for performance variability. Say you bench pressed 100 pounds last week and it felt like a 7 but this week you are sick, 100 pounds will feel more like a 9 or 10 so you can use a weight that feels more like a 6 today.
Rest periods is another aspect of working that is completely neglected by most people. I will say one thing here: get off your phone!
Your rest periods will vary according to the objective of the workout. For muscle size and definition, 45sec-60sec is good. This is not enough time to engage in a texting convo or to scroll aimlessly through instagram. For strength, 2min-3min is a good rest period.
Making it work for you
Properly using quality and intensity will allow you to reach your goals quicker, workout safely and spend less time in the gym.
Workout quality should always be a priority. Managing the intensity is where you can have a little ore fun. Here’s a few tricks.
Vary the load on your sets. Whenever you do an exercise, you should ALWAYS do at least one warm up set. This is a set with very light loads, you are going to focus on moving the weight exactly how it is supposed to move. You can also use this set to see if there are any aches and pains you should attend to. I do not track the performance of my warm up sets
- The first working set should be at an RPE of 4-5. Not very difficult but you are starting to really feel your muscles work.
- The second set is around 7-8 RPE, hard but manageable.
- The last set is at 9-10 RPE, you feel completely exhausted after it. You must use a spotter for this set. If you do not have a spotter, you can still do a very hard set, but keep it at an RPE of 9.
If you are doing more than 3 sets, you can still use the same approach: first sets are fairly light, then hard for the middle sets and the last one should be extremely tough
2. Doing one or two extra reps won’t kill your gains. Say you need to do 8 reps on your second set at an RPE of 7. You do 10 reps but it only feels like an RPE of 5?? Instead of putting the weights down, do more reps until it really feels like a 7.
Similarly, reaching a certain rep amount is not a do or die matter. If you need to do 8 reps but after doing 6 it already feels like a 9 RPE, put the weights down.
Too many people are stuck doing the same weights each set. Your muscles don’t need much to adapt, one super hard set after a few very high quality sets is all it takes. To get the most out of every set, it’s OK to change your weights.
Note: Is training to exhaustion good for you?
Exhausting your muscles (RPE 10) is very taxing on the body and should be done in a controlled environment. Using a spotter is a must for safety.
There are certain exercises that are safer than others to do this with:
- Single joint movements such as bicep curls, tricep extension, leg curls, lateral raises are all very safe to do this with.
- Double joint exercises such as bench press, lat pull down, pull ups, rows require more experience but are also safe.
- Multi jointed exercises such as the dead lift, squats, lunges, cleans, snatch or other full body movements require advanced technique (3+ years of training) and should not be done more than once a week.
Using quality and intensity properly allows you to spend less time in the gym. Focus on doing 2 exercises per muscle group (chest, back, legs, shoulders, arms) 3 times per week. Each week, try to make you last sets a little tougher by adding some weight (3%-5%) will suffice. If doing this each week is too hard, do it every other week.
Enjoy the gains!