Workout Intensity or Consistency: Which is Better?

IvsCHigh intensity workouts are all the rage these days.  Everywhere you turn there’s a new workout system touting its astounding calorie burning and fat torching results. There’s no doubt that many of these systems can deliver those results, but to the uninitiated or someone looking to start a fitness regimen the marketing hype can lead them to dangerously believe that this sort of training is the only way to go.

In reality a more moderate, lower intensity approach can work too, as long as you stay consistent with the workouts. Make it a point to move everyday and there are enormous benefits to reap.  This approach is not without its downsides though. There is the law of diminishing returns as your body adapts to a stimulus and if you do the same workout day after day, week after week, without changing that stimulus results can stall and frustration ensues.

So which of these approaches is better? Is one more effective than the other in producing results? The answer may depend on your fitness levels and goals so let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of each.

Intensity is defined as, “An extreme degree of strength, force, energy, or feeling.” In terms of a workout, intensity can be measured a few different ways, but in the simplest sense it’s how hard you are working in the gym.

This intensity is on a continuum relative to the individual performing the work and that’s what makes this such a useful measuring stick. What’s hard for you could be quite easy for someone else, but what really matters is how hard you’re working relative to your maximum potential. A good, hard workout should have you operating at 80-90% of this maximal output at some point in the workout.

One of the drawbacks though is really knowing how hard you’re training.  This is where things like using heart rate monitoring can be beneficial to compare your working heart rate to a theoretical max. Lacking a rate heart monitor, relative perceived exertion (RPE) is another useful tool. This is where you rate your perceived exertion on a scale of 1-10. Because it’s perception based there are obvious drawbacks for individuals with certain physical and mental barriers that restrict them from reaching their true 80-90% effort.

When training at such a high intensity the work needs to be done in some sort of interval, with rest interspersed with the work periods.  This is what is referred to as High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT. Typically 10-30 seconds is a good work interval. Well trained athletes can stretch that interval out a little further, but intensity for most people will start to drop after that.  That’s not to say a good 400m sprint isn’t beneficial, it just that you’re taxing a different energy system and the body will adapt differently to that training stimulus.

The Tabata set is a popular protocol for this work/rest setup, although it gets misused in the fitness industry.  The original study was done with cyclists doing a max effort interval for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest for four total minutes.  While four minutes doesn’t sound like much, this is a brutal setup when done correctly. Variations of sprints work best.

HIIT workouts have been shown to be quite effective for fat loss when used strategically. This means not overdoing them.  They are not designed to be done every day. That’s just asking for injury or burnout.  You don’t have to leave yourself absolutely crushed by each workout, barely able to walk (or crawl) to your car after the session, despite what television trainers may have you believe. That you have to be going balls to the wall 100% of the time is absolute marketing BS.

There’s a time to push yourself and test your mental and physical fortitude, but there’s something to be said for leaving just a little in the tank so you can recover in time for the next session without jeopardizing performance or health. Being able to consistently show up for your next workout may be even more beneficial than the crushing high intensity workouts.

Consistency is defined as “A steadfast adherence to the same principles, course, form, etc.” It’s the ability to establish a workout or nutritional routine and execute it with regularity. I’ve stressed the importance routines in the past and I’ve personally seen the biggest improvements when I stick to a plan and stay injury free.

For someone just starting out, this plan doesn’t need to be overly fancy.  Something as simple as walking every day can be highly beneficial.  When you’ve become comfortable with that for several weeks it may be time to add a different stimulus.  Bodyweight workouts are a great place to start and ease into things.  Everyone should be able to perform basic movements like a squat, pushup, and plank before progressing to weights or more complicated moves. My Athletic Reboot program can serve as a good starting point and allows for progression to some of the more difficult bodyweight movements if you are up for the challenge.

The main key with following that program or any other is actually doing the workouts consistently throughout the week.  If you fit in the 3-4 workouts per week as recommended for resistance training over the course of 4, 8, or 12 weeks you are going to see increases in performance and progress regardless of how well (or poorly) the program is designed.

Where most people get into to trouble is when they start missing workouts for whatever reason. They show up to the gym sporadically and then blame the program for their lack of progress. You have to allow the plan/system time to work and that includes getting in the workouts routinely. Don’t bail on a program just because you didn’t see results in the first week. Stick it out. Stay consistent and the results will come.

Now if you’ve been religiously following a plan for 12 weeks and you look and feel the same as you did when you started it may be time to reconsider.  It’s likely that stimulus is no longer having an effect on your body.  You’ve adapted and it’s time to mix things up.  Knowing when you need to mix things up versus riding it out can be difficult to ascertain, especially for a beginner.  As I pointed out last post progress isn’t always linear and you could be close to a breakthrough if you would just continue to plug away.

One final note on consistency. The most common excuse for skipping a workout is time. You don’t need a crazy amount of time to squeeze in a workout. Ten or fifteen minutes five times a week could be far more beneficial than a couple of long, one hour sessions spread sporadically throughout a couple of weeks.  Strive to do something, even if it’s not the full workout you have planned. Those little bits of effort spread out daily are important to your overall health.

So after all this discussion is there a clear cut winner in the intensity vs. consistency battle? I would argue for for consistency based on my own experience in the gym and as an endurance athlete.  Strive for that first. That’s your foundation.

Once that foundation has been built through habit and routine and you start seeing the diminishing returns it may be time to interject some intensity into your workouts. Do so with caution though, and progress slowly. There has to be some modicum of balance and intuitive approach to testing yourself with higher intensity.  It’s true, if you never push yourself you will likely stop seeing progress, but if you overdo it and try to crank out every workout red-lined you are flirting with disaster.

Finding that balance between consistency and intensity may be the key to longevity in the gym and perpetual progress. And it’s the pursuit of that balance that keeps us coming back for more.

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