Resistance training: intensity explained


In a time-short world, to maximise the returns on our resistance training it’s important to understand there are three main variables governing every training program or training cycle:

  • Volume: the number of repetitions, sets and exercises of a specific body part or similar base movement in a workout
  • Frequency: the number of repeat workouts in a week on a specific body part or movement
  • Intensity: the load placed on the body, usually measured by a percentage of your 1 rep max (%1RM)

Any training regime will incorporate these three variables, but there is one important rule; at any single time in a training cycle you can only operate at the greatest magnitude in 2 of the 3, based on three classic combinations. However, while volume and frequency are easy concepts to grasp – intensity is not quite so straightforward, while guidance how to determine a maximum load is essential.


Before any 1RM attempt it is essential to be certain technique is correct and solid. If it isn’t not only will this radically increase the risk of injury, but it will also:

  • invalidate the results
  • create unrealistic intensity targets for your next training cycle
  • most likely be counterproductive in the next phase of your fitness journey

Rather than risk seriously hurting yourself and damage your potential strength gains by registering intensity levels too high for your body to deal with, leave your ego at the door of the gym and give the test the respect it deserves. If we take a deadlift as an example; if you load the bar with so much weight that when to try to lift it you take the shape of a cat, this will both risk injury as well as being a useless indicator of how much you can deadlift.

Measuring intensity: 1RM challenge

To establish an intensity table – 50%, 60%,75% 80% – 1RM is the 100% benchmark. This is the maximum load you can lift for 1 single repetition of a movement. Approach the challenge after an appropriate warm up and with the focus and intensity it deserves. This will be obvious to a strength athlete, but it’s important for everyone to understand. Establishing the 1RM in such a manner will not only govern the correct weight to use for your next training block but will also provide a means of testing each training block to see if you are progressing. Establishing the correct intensity will also help prevent overtraining, whichever training variables you intend to focus on, and maximise your training efforts.

Intensity brings rewards

A great means for testing strength, while providing a way to plan future training cycles as optimally as possible to make the most progress in the time available, 1RM testing for any strength specialist should be carried out after each training cycle, so once every 2½-3 months. For others, no more than once every 6 months or so. This is because 1RM testing places a lot of stress on your nervous system and it’s unnecessary to do this frequently.

NOTE: establishing 1RM is much more relevant and important for some exercises than for others. Most value is derived from focusing on big compound movements like the back squat, bench press or deadlift; all movements in the sport of Powerlifting. Testing your 1RM for bicep curls is unnecessary and not a good indicator of strength.

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Alex is a registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with Level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes. He is also a strength specialist and a Ni Dan in Shotokan Karate.

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