I was speaking with a client this morning and she told me that she never really understood what high intensity meant until she started working out with me. She’d read all the fitness magazines and knew she had to lift weights, and also knew about High Intensity Interval Training. It’s just that what she THOUGHT was high intensity and what was ACTUALLY high intensity were two different things. She would spend and an hour+ per day at the gym almost every day yet could never quite get the results she wanted (she wanted to get a bit leaner, be able to do a real, unassisted pull up and be able to see her abs). I promised her she could cut her workout time (almost) in half, be able to eat more, AND see the results she wanted. Huh?
Oh, and those pull ups? She can now do 8 unassisted pull ups in a single set. Okay, I didn’t promise her that (I said she’d be able to do 1 within a month) — she actually surprised the hell out of me with that! And, guess what? She doesn’t look bulky or too muscular. She’s a beautiful, sexy woman who enjoys being strong and fit. How did we do it? I told her she’d have to change ONE thing. Intensity level.
It’s the intensity level, stupid. It really is that simple. Lift heavier? Well, yes, but also lift faster and move quickly between sets. Get that heart rate up and get used to working there. Don’t rest. Get the most amount of work done in the shortest possible time. That’s the secret in a nutshell. You have to go to that place that is not comfortable. You might not look cool, at first. You might even feel embarrassed. But, eventually, you’ll love it. You’ll get hooked on that high of pushing yourself to the edge. And THAT’S when the big changes come.
Use the RPE scale (Rate of Perceived Exertion) to determine how hard you are working out. On a scale of 1-10 (1 being so easy you could do it for hours and 10 being so difficult you couldn’t do it for more than 10 seconds) measure your intensity level. Be honest. You only have to answer to yourself on this one. Simply put, you need to be working closer to 10 than to 1. Most people I see in the gym are working out at a 3 or a 4. I recommend people be working at a 7 or 8. (As always, I’m talking to otherwise healthy individuals with no heart conditions fully cleared by a doctor to work out).
The thing I hate the MOST in the gym? The little charts on the treadmill that show your fat burning zone. What an incredible crock of shit. Makes me NUTS. It encourages people to continue working out at easier intensities and, of course, not see the results they want. So incredibly misleading. Yes, after 20 minutes in your fat burning zone a GREATER PERCENTAGE of the calories you are burning come from fat, not necessarily the greater TOTAL calories! Let’s do some simple math. Say you walk at a 3 on the RPE scale (in the fat burning zone) for 20 minutes and let’s generously assume you burned 250 calories. Yes, a greater PERCENTAGE of the calories came from fat (let’s say 80%). .80 x 250 = 200 fat cal (remember, too, you have to have been walking 20 minutes already to reach the fat burning zone so that’s 40 total minutes). So, 40 minutes for 200 fat calories.
Contrast that with the HIIT sprint workout I outlined a few posts earlier. After a 5 minute warmup, you perform 6 ALL OUT sprints with a minute rest between each sprint (maybe 2 minutes at the last 2 sprints) for a total workout time of 20 minutes. Let’s conservatively estimate that you’ve burned 400 calories in those 20 minutes. You’re body is working so hard during those high intensity intervals where your RPE is at 8, 9, or 10, that it is pulling energy from ANYWHERE it can: glycogen stores, carbohydrates, fat. All of it. And let’s say it only burns 50% of calories from fat. .5 x 400 = 200 fat calories. Huh.
SAME NUMBER OF FAT CALORIES, HALF THE TIME SPENT!
Not to mention you’ve burned more TOTAL calories at the higher intensity. See my earlier post on HIIT training for the explanation of Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). In simple terms, this just means the body burns a greater number of calories throughout the day after exercising at a higher intensity.
Bottom line — it’s about calories IN vs. calories OUT. Knock it off with the fat burning zone and simply get your heart rate as high as you can and hold it for as long as you can. (pre-contest bodybuilders are the exception. They also have the luxury of being able to spend 2-3 hours per day working out).
So, work out harder. Sweat. Breathe more heavily. Think of doing more TOTAL WORK in a shorter period of time. That’s what it means push yourself.