Intensity vs. Inanity

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By John Romaniello

Earlier today, I vomited during my workout.

And it was a good one.

Because I can sense your alarm, let me be clear: I don't have an eating disorder. I just have a mildly sensitive system, which reacts to extreme physical demands by rejecting the things I've put into my body.

I stood there, bent at the waist, hands braced on my knees to keep me from tumbling over into my own nastiness, thinking, "Hmmm, more distance than usual this time. Must have been the push presses."

Whether or not there is actually a correlation between push presses and distance hurling, I have no idea; however, what is clear is how great I felt after.

That must sound strange (because it is), and I should mention that I am not generally into vomiting as a rule. I do not, for example, go to vomit parties, or watch vomit porn or anything like that. I just enjoy the way I feel after a workout so challenging that my body responded by voiding the contents of my stomach on the grass. I feel strong. I feel tough. I have proof of the intensity of my workout.

Training hard just feels right to me, and because of that, I suppose I've come to form some strange association between hard work and vomiting, an attitude I have passed on to a lot of my clients.

My clients train hard. They don't scream or throw weights -- they just push hard, trying to get more out of themselves than their bodies want to give, trying to walk that terrible, beautiful line between controlled aggression and all-out insanity.

We train with purpose and intensity.

Strictly speaking, intensity in the weight training context refers to the amount of work required to achieve the activity and is proportional to the mass of the weights being lifted -- that is, how heavy the weight is relative to how strong you are. (For you muscle nerds, it's the range you are working in relative to your 1-Rep Max.)

This definition is a little too neat for me, but it makes a good starting point.

Before I continue with the discussion of intensity, I want to side-bar quickly. At any gym I go to, I generally see two distinct types of people training:

1. The Animals: These are the guys we in the fitness world love to make fun of. Their form is questionable; their workout structure is appalling. They're doing the same chest workout from high school. Sometimes they go in with no real plan at all, they just go in looking to kill it. But they are working hard. Sometimes annoyingly hard, with the grunting and screaming. They push, though. They push to add rep after rep, or put more weight on the bar. They're doing a lot of things wrong, but they are doing them with passion.

2. The Accountants: These are the people that fitness pros love. They read our blogs and buy our programs. They have spent time learning form and have some working knowledge of programming, as well as an opinion about every fitness trend known to man. They keep records, have their programs carefully planned. You can always spot these guys by the training logs they carry around and constantly refer to it between sets.

Obviously, there are people who don't fit into these categories, but for the purposes of this discussion let's just stick with these two.

Which do you think is better?

As much as I hate to admit it, in the short term, the Animal has the advantage. Oh, sure, he will have all sorts of imbalances and possibly get injured, but from the perspective of gaining muscle and losing fat, from all the evidence I've seen, these guys get the W.

The Accountants have more knowledge, better programs, and a higher baseline level of training intelligence -- and suffer from the "curse of knowledge"; they get caught up in minutia. 
Accountants switch programs from week to week, can't decide what to do. And worst of all, they don't seem to be working as hard as their less-intelligent counterparts. (To be fair, most people in the gym are not working hard enough, not just the guys with training logs.)

I know that's hard to hear, particularly if you're one of those people. It doesn't make sense that some "meathead" throwing weights around is going to make better progress than the guys who go out of their way to learn the proper approach to exercise.

If you think it's unfair, ask yourself this: How hard are you actually working?

Bottom line: This stuff is hard. It's supposed to be hard. My man Jimmy Dugan, of A League of Their Own fame said, "It's the hard that makes it great." True words. If getting a great body was easy, every woman would look Jessica Biel, and every guy would have a body like Kellan Lutz.

So, what to do?

The answer, of course, is to be somewhere in between, a mix of these two worlds. That is, to have the proper focus on intelligent program design and execute it with intensity, to have all the right knowledge and apply it with gut-wrenching force.

Which brings us back to our discussion of intensity. If we are not going to define intensity solely as it applies to the relative weight being lifted, how are we using it in the conversation of training?

Simply, we aren't.

Or rather, we use a more abstract, esoteric definition. You know you're training intensely because you ARE. That's it. We can't define it, because intensity is as beautifully abstruse as the reason for the training itself. You can't articulate why you're there, pushing to the brink -- you just are.

There's great quote I like to share with my clients to help them understand: "Obsession is the wellspring of both genius and madness." The idea is to be absolutely obsessed with your training during your session. Focus exclusively on your program, for 15, 30, 45 or 60 minutes - however long your program takes. Forget your problems, your fears, your limits, your homework. Forget that you have a date and need to pick out a sweet outfit.

Just walk the line of obsession -- USE the genius to UNLEASH the madness.

For my fellow comic book nerds, we want to be the Grey Hulk -- the general physical embodiment of the Incredible Hulk, but with the intelligence and reasoning of Bruce Banner. This is what I try to accomplish in my own workouts. Here's a video of a workout session similar to today:  

This is my sixth set of log-bar push presses (in between each is a 120 yard sprint), and the end of the video is me walking off to go empty my stomach on the field.

I only got eight reps here, but you'll notice they were all hard.

These last two reps may have been what pushed me over the brink, but they also helped me reach the next level of my training.

The point here is that you have to reach a level of tolerance -- you have to teach yourself to be comfortable with a certain level of discomfort. From there, you can achieve almost anything you want.

How to do this?

Increasing training intensity is a process, so here is the basic idea. Try to progress, each and every workout, for the next eight weeks.

For the next two months, every single time you train, do one of the following:

  • Squeeze out a few more reps each set
  • Increase the weight from workout to workout
  • Cut down on rest periods between sets
  • Alternate exercises to eliminate rest altogether
  • Push harder, squeeze the bar harder, and generally lift more explosively

Once this post gets 100 comments, Roman will write a free workout that embraces intensity. A version of this post originally appeared here: http://www.romanfitnesssystems.com/blog/intensity-vs-inanity/

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John Romaniello is an angel investor, the author of two upcoming books with HarperCollins, and the founder of Roman Fitness Systems, a training and online coaching company based in NYC. Romaniello regularly works with all types of clients, from youth athletes to social media moguls.

Website: http://www.RomanFitnessSystems.com

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John Romaniello About:: http://www.About.me/JohnRomaniello