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High frequency training, high intensity training, low volume training, high volume training, infrequent training. We’ve heard it all. But what’s the story? What works best? What is most efficient? There is an excess of contradicting information. We have so-called “experts” themselves misunderstanding what they have been told and then passing this misinformation on to the athlete.
In my experience I have observed many different training styles that claim to be superior to all else. This applies to muscle building, strength, sprinting, long/middle distance running, cycling, you name it. The following are the major ones…
High Volume, Low Intensity: This is the method of the western world. I think we as a culture are just scared of intensity. This method was applied in the early days of bodybuilding were they would spend three hours in the gym per day six days a week. It has also been used by athletes and the general public. It is a common belief among old school running coaches that runners must cover enormous amounts of distance in a given training cycle. Also, the general public has been led to believe that this is the best way to lose weight and maintain health. This form of training is also very high frequency with some people training almost every day. There are negative consequences with this approach that include an overworked heart with an excess of scar tissue, loss of muscle mass, poor ability to recover, over training etc.
High Intensity, Low Volume: High intensity training has been advocated by many in recent years. Arthur Jones is perhaps at the forefront of this method when it comes to strength training. Not so many athletes have taken on this approach in terms of volume, however the high intensity model is used now popular. This method involves brief, high intensity workouts performed infrequently such as 2-3 days a week.
High Intensity, High Frequency Training: The primary method we are talking about here is high frequency training at high intensity. High intensity, high frequency training involves shorter sessions performed at higher intensities and very frequent training sessions. This method is now adopted by athletes and the general public.
Lets critically analyse the various training methods and their effectiveness.
High Volume, Low Intensity Training
This form of training seems to be a favourite in the bodybuilding world. It has also taken hold and won’t let go in the general fitness community. High volume, low intensity training aims at completing as much work as possible within a session with no regard for the amount of time that takes.
Training at lower intensity requires this extra volume to actually produce a result. The results produced are slower and less pronounced so it takes a long time to really get anywhere with this method of training.
When the body is trained at low intensity it has little reason to adapt to the demand. So in order to progress the athlete needs to increase the volume over time. This is a common mistake seen in all modes of fitness. In strength training the body is unable to increase in strength by any marked amount. For athletes the result is often a very slow progression over a long period of time. In the general fitness community it tends to simply cause stagnation where people wanting to lose weight for instance can’t commit to the vast volume required.
High Intensity, Low Volume Training
This method is getting closer to the mark. When your body is put under extreme levels of exertion in any form it is forced to adapt. The reasoning behind the low volume and frequency is to allow full recovery between sessions so that maximum effort can be applied to the next workout.
This works well because the body will always adapt at high intensities simply because there is sufficient demand to promote the adaptive response. The downside is that it allows too much recovery and quite often the individual becomes under-trained and hence does not produce the desired results in a respectable timeframe.
Many non-athletes in fitness centres are promoting this type of training for people to better lose body fat and gain muscle mass. It works a heck of a lot better than the low intensity model and allows for adequate recovery in a modestly trained person. however the conditioned athlete needs a little more stimulation than that.
High Intensity, High Frequency Training
High Intensity, High Frequency Training is the one we follow in our approach to physical conditioning in all its forms. For this reason we will delve into it a little further than we did the other two.
High intensity, brief and high frequency training sessions have been shown to be much more effective in producing an adaptive response due to the frequent demand placed on the body combined with adequate recovery.
This method of training involves sessions performed at extremely high intensities and are very brief. Such sessions are done up to six days a week. Due to the brevity of the sessions the body is never over-trained and recovery days are taken only as necessary as opposed to a set schedule.
Lets first look at the high intensity component. Intensity is the primary factor in producing an adaptive response. The body will only adapt to the level of the higher levels of intensity that are performed in a training regime. If a person runs 10kph for a total of 8km in each training session then all they are going to adapt to is running 8km at 10kph. Anything higher in volume or especially higher in intensity will be out of reach due to inadequate preparation.
Training at the highest possible intensity will allow a person to adapt to the highest demands the body is placed under. For this reason intensity is the most important component to consider in any training regime.
Now for the frequency of the training. If workouts are performed infrequently there will be a physical adaptation up to a certain point. Too much recovery results in slightly reversed training results. This is where the body actually begins the process of returning to an untrained state. If the training is frequent yet allows for recovery the body is constantly physically and neurologically stimulated. This results in a frequent message being sent to the body’s systems that reminds them constantly of the demands it needs to adapt to.
High frequency training must be carefully structured to ensure adequate recovery.
How about volume? Even though the training is performed frequently it is still at a lower volume to most long and drawn-out training methods. The workouts are kept brief and as a result the body is able to maximise the use of intensity without an acute decline in capacity.
Implementing High Frequency Training
High frequency training needs to be approached in a well thought out structure. The following are some ways to begin adopting it.
BUILD UP TO IT
Jumping straight into a high frequency training regime at full intensity will often result in over-training. Take a few weeks to build up to constantly back to back training sessions.
KEEP IT INTENSE
There is no point adopting a high frequency training regime if there is no intensity. This would defeat the purpose of training frequently and briefly. The idea is to achieve maximum output in minimal time.
KEEP IT BRIEF
Brief training sessions produce greater results when intensity is the focus. This is because the body remembers the effort it had to undergo, not the length of time. By keeping sessions brief you are able to ensure a whole training session is completed efficiently and effectively as opposed to holding back psychologically due to the thought of a long and arduous workout. Once performance begins to drop the session has run too long.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Quite often people embark on a fitness regime or prepare for athletic competition and go at it a little too hard. This results in a gradual decline in performance due to over-training. Most “tough” people push through it and keep packing one training session on top of another until each successive workout loses its potency.
When your training performance begins to drop off it’s time to have a few recovery days.
A Word on Intensity
The general fitness industry got lost many years ago in the dogma that the body only burns fat and increases in fitness when continuous, low intensity training occurs. So does that mean that nothing happens during high intensity training? It makes perfect sense that the harder something is the more energy it takes and the more energy it takes the better adapted your body will be to cope with any demand equal to or less than the training effort.
The problem is that the fitness industry has not found its way back from this pattern of thought. Low intensity “cardio” and long sets of weight training are still implemented in most fitness centres around the world. The idea is that the primary energy system used is aerobic, which utilises mostly fat as a fuel source.
The issue with this mindset is that its advocates don’t get that overall, the energy consumption is lower and therefore produces slower results. Of course, I do believe that low intensity endurance training is valuable, however it should not be applied to the exclusion of high intensity training.
High intensity training produces a faster result in the context of general fitness simply because more energy is consumed in a shorter space of time. The primary source of energy during the workout is carbohydrate. However post exercise the metabolism is raised immensely due to the need for recovery and so the body ultimately consumes more fat as a result of higher intensity training.
Athletes are another bunch that are divided. To provide an example we will look at distance runners. Run a marathon and you will realise that it requires a lot of endurance, so long sessions are required in order to cope with the demand. However when a person runs a marathon their performance is determined by the level of output they can sustain for the duration of the race. A person training only at lower intensities is able to sustain only the intensity at which they are conditioned to sustain through their training. On the other hand someone who has engaged in high intensity, high frequency training will generally have a higher anaerobic threshold, which has been linked to endurance performance. In fact anaerobic threshold is considered more relevant than VO2 max for predicting performance. This aspect can only be trained with high intensity training. No amount of volume will condition this component.
In the western world athletes are still training for volume. These athletes, runners in particular, focus on the genetics of the Kenyans and other African runners. They believe the Africans are superior runners entirely because of genetics.
Recent research has shown that Kenyans actually train differently than everyone else. Their training regimes are actually faster and more intense than that of runners of other nationalities. This is never taken into account to explain their superior performance in events ranging from 5, 000 metres to marathon. This training likely provides these runners with a higher anaerobic threshold and allows them to deal with oxygen debt much more efficiently.
Training intensity needs to be considered in any training regime. This includes endurance, power, strength, weight loss and anything else you can think of. It is intensity that promotes the most pronounced and rapid physical adaptations. This intensity needs to be incorporated into high frequency training, not performed sporadically. By performing it frequently the body gets conditioned constantly to adapt to the highest of output levels.
Lets look at the humble pull-up. This can be a test for you to perform as a bit of personal research into high intensity, high frequency training.
Perform only five pull-ups per set and perform 10 total sets but do them every single day for a few weeks. After a few weeks test your maximum number of pull-ups.
Next do one absolute maximum set of pull-ups only once per week and test your max after a few weeks.
Lastly do three maximum sets of pull-ups every second day. Test your max after a few weeks.
I guarantee that the last method will produce a greater percentage gain in pull-up ability than the other two training methods.
So in conclusion here is a summary of the points to remember…
Train brief yet extremely intense. This includes maximum or near maximum efforts performed within sessions lasting less than an hour for athletes and less than 30 minutes for non-athletes.
Train 5-6 days a week.
Listen to your body and take extra recovery days when your performance begins to drop.
If you want to increase endurance performance then high intensity, high frequency training should still play a major role. You will need endurance specific training, however the bulk of training should be done at high intensity.
Remember that fat loss and increased fitness in any capacity responds most efficiently to intensity. It is intensity that will determine what level of fitness one ultimately reaches over a given time period, regardless of volume. When this is done frequently you grease the neurological groove and virtually force your body to improve.
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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Unleashed Training, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.