The Internal-External Intensity Continuum: Which side does the “hard” come from in your workouts?

One of the more common responses I get to the early phases of my programs is that they look too easy, especially for those who have some strength training experience under their belt. For someone who has built up to doing 50+ push ups at a time (although I have yet to see 50 perfect push ups from anyone) only doing 5-20 reps seems like an insult to their pecs. Surely they should do more, right?

Go heavy and hard or go home is the battle cry for thousands of well meaning BJJ athletes limping their way to the gym or “boot camp”, never realizing that there is another side to the strength coin that is needed to complete and round out their strength.

Not so fast…I am not impressed when someone tells me that they are not challenged by an “easy” exercise. In fact, when I hear this I know that true strength has eluded that person since strength consists of the ability to not only make heavy weights feel light but also the ability to make your light weights feel heavy.

You should be able to do 50 reps and be able to wear yourself out in 5 reps. When you can make 5 bodyweight reps feel like the hardest thing you’ve ever done then you truly have control of your ability to produce tension, which is the root of strength. If you are always relying on the load or the number of reps to tell you how strong to be then you don’t really own your strength.

This leads us to the Internal-External Intensity Continuum. This is something I made up one day while trying to explain this concept to a guy who trained at my facility. In a nutshell, it explains where the “hard” is coming from during an exercise or workout.

If you are Internally producing the Intensity – like getting really tight and staying that way during bodyweight squats – then you are purposefully producing more tension than you need to in order to complete the movement.

If you are Externally producing the Intensity – like doing a max effort lift or amount of reps – then the load is causing the body to reflexively produce tension in response to it.

You want every workout to be “hard”, you just don’t need or want to be going to the External side of the Intensity Continuum every time you train. Being able to benefit from the Internal side will round out your strength and support the other side of the spectrum.

This explains how you can have a “hard” workout without training balls-to-the-wall every time you hit the gym. When I tell BJJ athlete that they should walk out of the gym during week 1 of a new program knowing that they could do more the old bodybuilding mindset starts to creep in – how can you get results if you don’t max out every time you train?

Notice, though, that I didn’t say that the workout should be easy; you should simply not max out how much weight and how many reps you can do. If you don’t have the ability to internally produce more tension than the weight or reps call for then this sounds ridiculous, however, for those who have learned the art of strength this makes total sense.

For example, during my current training phase I have a workout that calls for me to do 3 sets of 8 reps on the deadlift. I wanted to use week 1 to set up the next 2 weeks and so I didn’t want to go too heavy or I would not leave myself anywhere to go. So, I used conservative weights and built up to doing 185 pounds on the last set.

During week 2 I built up to 205 pounds and then in week 3 I hit 225 pounds for 8 reps, which was my max effort – I walked out knowing I couldn’t have done 1 more good rep. While a bit off topic, I’m going to finish the cycle with 3 sets of 5 reps with 205 pounds to back off a bit after my peak effort.

The point is that if you look at the weight progression (185 pounds to 225 pounds) my week 1 effort looks easy – its 40 pounds less than my max weight. However, I can tell you that week 1 was not easy (I was there). Week 1 was more on the Internal side of the Intensity Continuum, Week 2 was in the middle and Week 3 was on the External Side of it, making every week “hard” in its own way.

This concept also applies to training phases and plans. You have to spend some phases focusing more on the Internal Side and some on the External side of the Intensity Continuum.

This is why the early phases in my workout programs confuse some people – my programs advance from Internal Intensity focused phases to External Intensity focused phases and since they have never been told the value of working on the Internal side of the continuum it makes no sense.

Unfortunately, our training culture seems to have largely forgotten and dismissed the Internal side of the Intensity Continuum. Go heavy and hard or go home is the battle cry for thousands of well meaning BJJ athletes limping their way to the gym or “boot camp”, never realizing that there is another side to the strength coin that is needed to complete and round out their strength.

So if you have an “easy” workout then take that as a chance to work on the Internal side of the Intensity Continuum, not as a chance to breeze through it and tell yourself how super fit you are.

For a lot of people it will be very humbling to realize how little body and tension control they really have. But with focused practice it will come pretty quickly.

Make sure that you have a balance of Internal and External Intensity focused exercises, workouts and phases in your overall program. True strength demands a balance between the two sides of the Intensity Continuum so make sure you respect and practice them both.

If you have any questions about this article please post them below and I’ll get to it ASAP. Also, if you liked this article please click one of the Like or Share buttons to help spread the word.

Until next time…

Roll Strong,

James Wilson

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Naked Warrior revisited – Single Limb Training for Injuries

One of the more common questions I get asked is about what to do while recovering from an injury. While some injuries are harder to work around than others, the most common injuries from BJJ are to the arms and legs and so finding ways to keep strong without all 4 of them is necessary from time to time.

My basic advice for training with an injured arm or leg is to train everything else as hard as you can. The idea of backing off of everything else so you don’t develop a big strength imbalance isn’t the way to go for two reasons.

First, there is significant evidence of a neurological “carryover” from training the non-injured side. What this means is that if you injured your left arm, for example, but kept training the right arm as hard as you could the left arm would lose less strength than if you did nothing at all.

Second, it will speed up your recovery once you’re all healed up. While you’ll want to back off a bit to let the weaker side catch up, it will catch up much faster.Screen Shot 2013-08-07 at 11.45.22 AM

The irony of all of this is that I’ve been nursing an old elbow injury that flared up a month ago and I’ve had to spend a lot of training time following this advice. What I found was that the simplest and best program for me was the Naked Warrior.

The Naked Warrior is one of Pavel Tsatsouline’s many fine training books and centers on only 2 exercises – the single arm push up and the single leg squat a.k.a. pistol squat.

At first this seems like a pretty hard-core approach for someone nursing an injury but once you realize that you can scale the exercises back it makes perfect sense.

This approach allows you to train all of the other limbs hard without a lot of wear and tear from weighted exercises. I tried to lift “normal” for a few weeks just using my left arm and found that after a while I started to feel the stress of all the misloaded lower body exercises and my non-injured arm was starting to feel the stress as well.

After thinking about how I could stay strong (sets in the 3-5 range) without causing some other sort of overuse injury in the process. That’s when it hit me…the single arm push up and squat would be the perfect solution.

So, for the last week I started doing 2 sets of 5 reps every day as my strength training. I’ve had to modify things a bit by using a bar set up in my rack so I can do an elevated single arm push up and I’ve been using the TRX straps to help me maintain good posture on the single leg squats but even then I can already tell my body likes this approach much better.

It’s been tough for an exercise geek like me to stick with just two exercises but I know that it is good to do every once in a while. Plus, I’m going to get really good at my single arm push ups and single leg squats, two exercises I know are important but I just don’t spend enough time on.

This brings me to me final point, which is that with the right perspective even an injury can be a positive experience for you if you stay receptive to opportunities. Hopefully you never have to but if you do find yourself facing an injury to an arm or leg look at it as a chance to work on your strength, Naked Warrior style.

That’s it for now, if you have any questions about how to apply this approach or any tips you’ve found helpful in overcoming injuries please post a comment below. Also, if you liked this article please click one of the Share of Like buttons below to help spread the word.

Until next time…

Roll Strong,

James Wilson

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