The Dirty Little Secret of High Intensity Training
// BY JIM KEEN
We are very much looking forward to attending the Resistance Exercise Conference (REC) coming up next week in Minneapolis, MN!
In preparation for our attendance and the live demonstration of our technology, we wanted to highlight a great piece of research produced by a group that includes REC favorites—and speakers at the upcoming event—Dr. James Steele and Dr. James Fisher.
Does High-Intensity Training Work Long-Term?
The study in question retroactively analyzed data from a Dutch personal training company called Fit20, which boasts “personal health training in twenty minutes per week.”
This is a common format for high-intensity training, which—as popularized by Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones—features brief, intense, and infrequent workouts. Often referred to as a “SuperSlow” facility, this type of training center generally promotes a format of one or two weekly workouts lasting not longer than half an hour, typically in a 1-on-1 personal training format. The trainee performs one set of each selected exercise until they’re unable to continue in good form, repeating this for a total of between five and ten movements.
Previous research has shown that resistance exercise even once per week causes enhancements in blood markers, muscle strength, and mental wellbeing. Another study found no difference in leg press strength between those exercising once per week versus those exercising twice per week. And yet another found that one brief workout per week improves muscle strength and neuromuscular performance, even in older adults.
So this style of training works. But what are the long-term effects? For how long does it work? Do trainees ever get to a point of diminishing returns where the observed improvements stagnate?
This is what the present study sought to find out!
The Data of High-Intensity Training
The researchers looked at the workout records of 14,690 Fit20 clients who had been training with that system for up to 6.8 years. It’s a retrospective study—not a randomized, controlled trial—but the huge numbers and extended follow-up time, along with the highly-standardized training program, make it a very unique data set.
The paper analyzed training loads for leg press, chest press, and pulldowns. Every client produces basically the same pattern: rapid gains for about a year, then more gradual gains thereafter.
Here’s a representative graph showing chest press training load over the course of nearly seven years, as a percentage of the initial load:
After a year, the average subject gets about thirty percent stronger. After seven years, you’re up by about fifty percent. The strength gains continue to increase, but the yearly margins get smaller. The patterns are similar for the other exercises, though the percentages are a bit variable. Leg press, for example, ends up about seventy percent higher than the original baseline level of strength.
The Dirty Little Secret
I personally discovered this phenomenon back about a decade ago when I was employed as a trainer in this style of the protocol.
One afternoon when I was in between clients—but not for long enough to go home and back—I wandered over to the large file cabinet in which were stored the workout records of all the facility’s clients going back almost fifteen years. I decided to pull folders at random just to see if there was anything of interest or any clues as to the best way to keep giving clients the value they were paying for.
What I discovered, however, was similar to what the Fit20 number crunchers found: after a year or two, the strength gains started to flatline. That is, clients who had been coming to this facility for five, six, or even seven years or more were using the same weights for the same set durations as they were during year two and three. Zero gains. They hadn’t gotten stronger in years.
They were paying for the mere maintenance of strength.
I was incensed! Chart after chart, folder after folder, all the same as that graph from earlier.
“Why does high-intensity training stop working?” I wondered.
Plateaus in Strength Gains: Bug or Feature?
With the benefit of a decade of experience and hindsight, I now understand the inevitability of these plateaus, and also the continuing value provided by strength training even in the absence of continuous progress.
Of course there is a limit to how strong you can get. This happens to everyone from novice gym rats to olympic weightlifters. The truth, though, is that someone who is engaged in strength training has built and is maintaining the health of their muscles, bones, connective tissues, and all the organs that support the musculoskeletal system.
Meanwhile, the average non-strength-training person begins losing muscle and bone starting at age thirty! So the people paying for “zero gains” were actually far better off than if they had never engaged in strength training in the first place, or had they stopped their routine altogether.
People on diets don’t just lose weight forever until they weigh zero pounds.
Trees don’t just grow taller forever.
The world record in the 100-meter dash won’t just keep getting lower and lower until it’s zero seconds.
The reality of biology shows us that we move through cycles, seasons, rhythms, and phases, and that we are subject to physical limitations. As well we should be!
The ARX Difference
So the “dirty little secret” of high-intensity training actually isn’t a “secret” at all.
You will reach a plateau in strength gains no matter what strength training tool you’re using.
The difference with ARX technology is that your initial strength gains arrive faster, your progress continues for longer, and your eventual level of strength and fitness is a higher level than could be achieved with any amount of weight lifting.
For example, it is typical for someone consistently using ARX to see a one hundred percent increase in strength levels on all movements within the first three or four months of weekly use. It is not uncommon to see a two hundred percent strength increase achieved within the first year. Yes, a tripling of peak strength in twelve months.
Remember, the weight lifters in the study, on average, only got thirty percent stronger in the first couple years, and just fifty percent stronger after seven years.
So why does ARX produce multiple times the strength increases of weight lifting and why does ARX produce these higher levels of strength so much more rapidly? Why can someone using ARX accomplish in four months what it takes weight lifters seven years to achieve?
There are two primary reasons for this:
- Properly-loaded eccentrics: ARX allows for maximal force production during the all-important eccentric phase of contraction. This represents roughly double the mechanical tension than is possible when lifting weights, which in turn provokes a much more potent adaptive response from the body over time.
- No guessing weights: I would sometimes select a weight for a client, and that client’s performance was such that I knew I could have given them more. I had robbed them of a greater stimulus because I had guessed wrong about what they could handle that day. A huge missed opportunity! With ARX, there is never a time when a trainee is capable of a new level of strength and tension that they don’t get to use. It’s always perfectly matched, which means you never miss the opportunity for new levels of stimulation and new growth, which means progress is much more rapid.
So, sure, after five or six years even an ARX user will experience diminishing returns. But the progress up to that point will have been more rapid, and the user will have reached a higher level of strength and fitness than would have been achieved through weight lifting—and all of that with greater time efficiency and lower risk of injury in the process!
This is why, for example, this study saw double the strength and lean mass gains in the ARX group versus the weight lifting group over twelve weeks, even though the ARX group spent 72% less time working out.
High-Intensity Training: It Works
The main takeaway from the study is actually how effective a small, concentrated dose of intense muscular contraction can be. Most people are spending hours per week in the gym and still max out at those same levels of long-term strength gain.
The fact that those same results can be acquired with one focused weight lifting session per week is a feather in the cap of not just the researchers who compiled this data, but the owners of Fit20 and their trainers and clients all over the world.
The presenters and attendees of the REC are already committed to providing this type of safe, effective, and efficient strength training to their communities, and we’re happy to help accelerate this movement.
Are you new to REC or have not seen ARX in action before at this conference? Check out our recap and some highlights of the REC event in October.
We’ll see you guys there!
For more information, please visit ARXFit.com and join the community on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.