Measuring Training Intensity
Many people that train independently will suffer through a period where they plateau and fail to see improvement over an extended period of time. Contrary to what most people would think, this happens to people who have trained for a long period of time more than it happens to the beginner, as the person who has trained for a long time has less capacity to improve due to their years of training. There are multiple factors that can lead to a plateau in training and most of the time it comes down to the basics of exercise prescription being ignored to some degree. We need (amongst other things) a combination of adequate consistency of training, required volume, variability of movement and sufficient intensity. If one of these factors are sub-optimal, it will make it easy to plateau and fail to see progression.
In this blog we will discuss the intensity component of this in some detail, and shed some light on a couple of ways in which we can monitor this throughout your training program to ensure that you are reaching the required intensity to elicit change within the body. Our body is very efficient and likes to run a tight ship in regards to energy expenditure. Muscles, because of their function and makeup, require lots of blood flow and energy just to survive. Therefore, when muscle fibres aren’t being used (which happens when we don’t train to a high enough intensity – a principle of motor unit recruitment or muscle fibre engagement) then the body wants to get rid of those muscle fibres as it deems them not necessary. When this happens, it makes it very hard to progress in your training and hence we can easily end up in a plateau period if the problem isn’t addressed.
Two easy and free ways to monitor your intensity are an RPE scale or using Reps In Reserve (RIR) when you are training in the gym. RPE stands for Rating of Perceived Exertion and you can see how that would work within the table below:
Reps In Reserve is pretty self explanatory, but it is how many reps you think you would have left at the end of your set, if you were to continue through to failure. Often with RIR, we see people undershoot how many RIR they actually have by 1-3 reps. It is important to test this out every now and then when you are training, just ensure you always have someone as a spotter. The way to test it is to continue through to failure and see how many reps you actually do have in the tank. If done semi-regularly, this will give you an accurate idea of how many RIR you really have at the end of the set.
When training for strength, which is higher weight and lower rep ranges, we want to be generally sitting in the 8-9 RPE or 1-2 RIR intensity. When training for hypertrophy (muscle growth), which is lower weight and higher rep ranges (+/- slow tempo), we generally want to be training in the 6-8 RPE or 2-3 RIR intensity ranges.
If you are struggling with a plateau, try using one of these tools to monitor your training intensity. It will help identify whether or not you are hitting the appropriate intensity in order to progress. If you are reaching sufficient intensity, then you would look to some of the other principles of programming to identify if there is an error within those principles. If you find you are training with too low an intensity, it makes for an easy fix, and increasing the intensity should help you break through that plateau!