How to Make Your Workouts More 'Intense'

STACK Expert Stan Dutton offers two definitions of 'intensity' and shows you how to combine them in a workout plan.

You finish a workout and think, "Whoa! That was intense." And maybe it was. But the word "intensity" has two definitions in relation to training, and you need to understand each one to make your workouts "intense."

Definition 1

If you crack open any strength and conditioning textbook, the definition will probably read something like this: "The weight used in relation to the athlete's one-rep max."

Any time you look at a workout chart and see a percentage next to the number of sets and reps, that's probably what it's referring to. Let's say your Bench Press max is 275 pounds. A 75 percent intensity would equate to about 206 pounds.

Pretty simple, right? That why it's the go-to definition for intensity; it's measurable, precise and easy to progress.

But there is an issue. Sometimes, lifting at 75 percent feels like 90 percent, or even 50 percent. It all depends on how you feel that day, which leads us to our second definition.

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Definition 2

To the layman, intensity typically refers to the difficulty of an exercise. Performing a Squat at 90 percent of your max may be considered intense, whereas a bodyweight Squat is not all that intense.

The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) measures intensity from low to high on a scale from 1 to 10. I like to use RPE because it accounts for the status of the athlete. For example, he or she may be working out under sub-optimal conditions—a lack of sleep, fuel or hydration—and RPE takes that into account.

But, you need to be careful, because you are the judge of your own effort. I often see athletes break their form to move the weight when working at a 9 or 10, because they feel that's giving their max effort.

The Workout

The definitions are different, but you can implement both max percentages and RPE into your workouts. Here's a sample program called Smolov Junior. It's very tough. You must consistently perform high-volume squatting with heavy weight. And you increase the weight with every workout. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Here's a typical Smolov Junior template:

Week 1

  • Monday – 6 sets, 6 reps at 70%
  • Wednesday – 7 sets, 5 reps at 75%
  • Friday – 8 sets, 4 reps at 80%
  • Saturday – 10 sets, 3 reps at 85%

Week 2

  • Monday – 6 sets, 6 reps at 70% + 10-20 pounds
  • Wednesday – 7 sets, 5 reps at 75% + 10-20 pounds
  • Friday – 8 sets, 4 reps at 80% + 10-20 pounds
  • Saturday – 10 sets, 3 reps at 85% + 10-20 pounds

Week 3

  • Monday – 6 sets, 6 reps at 70% + 5-15 pounds (0ver Week 2)
  • Wednesday – 7 sets, 5 reps at 75% + 5-15 pounds (over Week 2)
  • Friday – 8 sets, 4 reps at 80% + 5-15 pounds (over Week 2)
  • Saturday – 10 sets, 3 reps at 85% + 5-15 pounds (over Week 2)

The plan doesn't include timed rest, because that's where RPE comes into play. Rest as much as you need in order to perform your next set with perfect form. The workout will be much more challenging if you rest for two minutes rather than five minutes.

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