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Training Intensity

Written on January 17, 2008 at 10:04 am, by Eric Cressey

Subscriber-Only Q&A

Q: I purchased The Art of the Deload earlier in the week and I must say I’m very happy with the purchase.  There is very little info about deloading around – not even enough to scratch the surface of your option #1. So, having nine more alternatives is great!

I was just curious about something mentioned in it.  You discussed your preference for a High/Med/Very high/low set-up.  I was wondering how you determine how much volume is a “high” week and so on.  Is it based on the primary lift (e.g., singles at >90%), or on total volume of a workout?

A: Thanks for your email and kind words.

I’m referring to overall training stress.  When I first started pulling these classifications together, I had a whole elaborate equation in place that took into account:

1. Total Reps

2. Intensity

3. Exercise Complexity (e.g., Deadlift vs. Curl)

4. Tempo

5. Range-of-Motion

6. Miscellaneous – everything from accommodating resistances to time under tension for isometric holds (and probably a dozen more things that escape my memory now)

The end-result was a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that was very colorful and elaborate – very pleasing to the eyes.   The problem was that it took me forever to write a program!  Fortunately, I started to get a “feel” for it over time, and ditched my system and went with my intuition.  So, now, I just “know” where total training stress is.

For instance, I can tell you that 10 singles over 90% on front squats is going to be a LOT harder than 4×3 on that same exercise.

Assume the ordinary Joe can do 4×3 with 87% of his 1RM (for ease of calculations, we’ll call it 300 pounds).  He is using 261 for 12 reps, or a “tonnage” of 3,132 pounds.  If he hit a PR of 300, and then nine more singles at 270 (90%), he’d “only” accumulate 2,730 pounds of total work.  Density isn’t everything.

Normally, volume is a pretty good measure – but in situations like the one above, it doesn’t hold true. Intensity can really beat you up.

So, I guess the answer is that “stress” will be highest when there is a lot of volume, high intensity, compound lifts, longer eccentrics, full ROM, and accommodating resistances.  You learn to eyeball it.

I generally “set the stage” for my total stress of 100% in week 1 (the high week).  Week 2 is set at 80%, as my goal is to take advantage of familiarity with the exercises in order to incorporate heavier loading.  In week 3, the stress is 120% for intentional overreaching; you’re hoping to apply the strength gains you realized in week 2 in a higher volume scenario.  Week 4 is set at 60%, which gives you a chance to rebound before picking it up with a new program in week 5.

All the Best,


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