October 25, 2022

Climbing the Intensity Ladder

Your body is an amazingly adaptable machine. When you first start bodybuilding, it will be forced to adapt to the stress you’re putting on the muscles by building more tissue and getting stronger. But it will quickly get used to that increased stress level. At that point, it will stop responding. It is then up to you to increase the intensity level to force new growth.

In this article, I will identify 11 steps up the ladder of intensity. Before we get into them, however, let’s find just what intensity is.

What is Intensity?

Intensity is the degree of effort, or the percentage of momentary ability. At the point of muscular failure, 100% intensity is going to be needed to complete the last rep. The muscle is pushed to its limit and must contract to its maximum capability to complete the task.

If you want to accelerate your muscle gains, you need to go beyond the point of failure and into the zone of higher intensity to make sure that every muscle fiber is maximally stimulated to the point of exhaustion. For hard-core bodybuilders, the set is just beginning when the muscle fails.

One of the most hard-core bodybuilders on the planet was Tom Platz. Check out this video of Tom pushing the intensity on leg extensions until he can hardly move …

11 Steps to Intensity

  1. Increase the resistance
  2. Reduce the rest period
  3. Pre Fatigue the muscle
  4. Add supersets
  5. Add drop sets
  6. Change the rep tempo
  7. Use res-pause reps
  8. Use partial reps
  9. Use static contraction
  10. Add negative reps
  11. Add forced reps

Let’s consider each of these intensity steps one at a time …

1.   Increase the resistance

By progressively increasing the weight on the bar you will be increasing the stress on the working muscle during the last rep. By consistently increasing the weight, the muscle will be forced to go beyond its previous point of failure and it will get stronger. As it does so the muscle will also become larger.

Make it your goal to add resistance every 2 to 3 weeks. But only do so when you can still perform six reps with perfect form. If you go lower than six reps, you will not be doing enough to stimulate hypertrophy. You’ll also be increasing your chance of injury.

When you are able to do 10 reps of the weight you were previously using for 6 reps, increase the weight by 5% and drop back to 6 reps again.

2.   Reduce the rest period

The less amount of time you allow yourself between sets and exercises, the more intense your workout will become. The muscle fibers that are exhausted by the previous set do not have enough time to fully recover so that the second set recruits even more muscle fibers to move the weight.

Reducing the interval between sets also burns more calories to help you get more defined.

3.   Pre Fatigue the muscle

Pre-fatigue training is an excellent way to make the target muscle work harder. It involves doing an isolation exercise before a compound movement. This makes the target muscle temporarily weaker than the other muscles involved in the compound movement. As a result, it will get far more intense and direct activation.

A good example of pre-fatigue training in action involves doing the flat bench dumbbell fly immediately before doing the bench press. Normally when you do the bench press, the three key muscles worked are the pectorals, the triceps, and the front deltoids. The triceps and deltoids are much smaller muscles than the chest. As a result, they are normally the first to give out. But when you do a set of dumbbell flys immediately before your bench press, you have temporarily made pectorals the weakest link. They will, therefore, be targeted far more effectively in the bench press exercise.

4.   Add supersets

The superset involves performing two exercises back to back with no rest between them. The exercises may be for the same or for different muscle groups. When you superset two exercises for the same muscle group, the time and attention increases, and your body is forced to recruit different muscle fibers as you go from one exercise to the next.

5.   Add drop sets

Drop sets allow you to extend muscular failure. You do this by dropping the weight and immediately picking up a slightly lighter one that will allow you to pump out another 6 to 8 reps with good form. Continue this dropping sequence until you have completed 4-5 drops sets in total. Only rest for as long as it takes you to pick up the next weight.

Drop sets are easiest to perform on machines, when all you have to do is remove the person and put it into the next lowest weight slot. If you are using a barbell, it pays to have a training partner on hand who can strip the weights off for you. If you’re going to do drop sets with dumbbells, stand in front of the dumbbell rack and simply work your way down it as you progress through the drop set. If you want a real challenge, work your way all the way down the rack until you’re working with the five pounders.

6.   Change the rep tempo

The speed at which you perform your reps is called the rep tempo. You can lift more weight with a faster tempo but this is usually because you’re able to bring momentum into the movement. This actually makes the exercise easier. Your goal, then, should be to reduce the mentor with a slower rep tempo.

Switching from a slow tempo of two seconds down and two seconds up to a faster tempo of one second down and one second up taps into different muscle fibers. This helps to make sure that there is maximum muscle fiber recruitment. Slowing down the positive or lifting phase of the exercise also accentuates the concentric or negative contraction.

7.   Use rest-pause reps

By pausing in the middle of a set you are able to push past the point of positive muscular failure by giving your muscles a few seconds of recovery in a static isometric contraction position. When you get to the point of muscular failure, hold the weight still for a few seconds. Then attempt to push through another couple of reps.

8.   Use partial reps

When you reach the point of positive muscular failure you will not be able to complete another full rep with good form. But that doesn’t stop you performing partial repetitions. Rewatch the Tom Platz video above to see him doing this.

When doing partial reps, try to move through the range of motion where the muscle is strongest. For example, when doing the shoulder press, the front deltoids are strongest during the first third of the movement, so focus your partial reps on that.

9.   Use static contraction

A static contraction involves holding the weight in an isometric position. You can hold a heavier weight in a static contraction than you can move through a concentric contraction. Even though you can no longer lift the weight, by just holding it in an isometric position, you will be working the muscle past the point of failure. Keep holding the weight until you reach the point of isometric muscular failure.

10.   Add negative reps

You are stronger during the negative, or lowering, part of rep than during the positive, or lifting part. So, once you reach positive muscular failure, you still have some negative lifting potential in the gas tank. Get your training partner to help you complete the positive part of the rep (such as curling the dumbbell up during a bicep curl) and then resist as much as you can during the negative or lowering part. Try to take between five and 10 seconds to lower the weight.

11.   Add forced reps

A forced rep is when your training partner gives you assistance once you have reached the point of positive muscular failure. This only works when you have a partner who knows that sweet spot between giving too little and too much assistance. He should give just enough help for you to complete another positive rep. If he gives too much assistance, your muscles won’t be doing any of the work.

Wrap Up

In order to continue seeing results from your training, you need to constantly be increasing the stress on the working muscle. The 11 steps of the intensity ladder will allow you to do that. I’ve presented them here in order of difficulty, so I suggest that you introduce them to your workouts in the order given.

If you find an intensity technique that works well for you, feel free to stick with it. My two favorites are drop sets and partial reps. I use them almost exclusively to keep ramping up my training intensity. Find the techniques that work best for you and use them to push your muscles to their limit.

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Steve (Qualfied Personal Trainer and Nutritionist)


Steve Theunissen has qualified from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and is a certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist. He has over 30 years experience in fitness and nutrition and currently working with famous fitness professionals. He is currently living in New Zealand with is wife and daughter.

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