High intensity training (HIT) is one of the more eclectic bodybuilding protocols out there. Though not overly popular, it has had a number of high profile proponents, including Mike Mentzer, Casey Viator, and 6x Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates. This article will serve as a very basic primer on HIT, as well as what you need to know to use high intensity training in your own program.
High intensity training is a form of strength and muscle building developed by Arthur Jones. It’s characterized by after doing minimal warm up, performing only one set per exercise to all out momentary muscular failure.
Because of its acronym (HIT), it is sometimes confused with HIIT – high intensity interval training. The two are most definitely different. The former is the above mentioned method for lifting weights, while the latter is an approach taken on cardiovascular conditioning and exercise.
Jones theorized that muscle growth could best be stimulated by doing a set that was so intense (and even damaging) to the body, that it automatically triggered the growth response. He was often known for quoting:
“Throw a stone into a pool and it will make a splash and the wave will run to the (edges) of the pool. The larger the stone, the larger the splash and the larger the resulting wave.”
The basic point behind high intensity training is to work out in such a way that it signals the body to grow muscle. Once it has been, you stop training, get out of your own way (so to speak), and let the body do its thing. The bigger of a signal you can send the body, the more growth you’ll get.
This is why Jones advocated only one set per exercise. You push that one single set as hard and heavy as humanly possible – until the point you reach absolute failure with what is normally considered a hypertrophy rep range (6-10 reps, depending on the exercise). Jones felt that if you had enough energy left to do a second set with the same sort of intensity and effort, you didn’t push the first set hard enough.
While high intensity training sounds good in theory, it doesn’t necessarily always play out that way in real life. The first issue with HIT is that it is very mentally demanding. Most trainees don’t work to their absolute limit, and honestly don’t even know where that limit is. HIT isn’t just a “work until it gets hard” protocol. It’s a “work until you fail” protocol. Most people don’t realize the mental strength it takes to push this hard.
The problem that arises from this is that if your sets aren’t pushed to their absolute maximum, then you’re drastically short-changing your potential results because you’re doing so little volume. You have to hit that max intensity, or else your results will go to almost zero.
If you are able to push that hard, HIT can be brutal to your CNS. This is why HIT workouts start off only being done 3x/week, quickly dropping to once every 4-5 days. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see HIT practitioners training only once every 7-10 days. This is because this sort of infrequency is needed to fully let the CNS recover.
The problem that can then arise is that the body is physically recovered before your CNS is. Atrophy can then potentially start because you’re training so infrequently and not getting the muscle enough stimulus. It can become quite the balancing act between the body and the nervous system.
If you’re unfamiliar with high intensity training, there’s one characteristic of hardcore HIT workouts that might surprise you – they can often be comprised of many isolation movements. In a protocol where using as much weight as possible is paramount to success, you’d think that nothing but compound movements would ever be performed.
The problem with compound movements is that they always end up limited by the smallest muscle involved. So if you’re bench pressing, you’re going to (theoretically) always hit failure because your triceps are fully fatigued before your chest is fully fatigued. As a result, an advanced HIT chest workout may have you go to failure on a pec dec machine before then immediately going to failure on a bench press variation.
Whether or not you should try HIT is up to you. If you’re in need of something different, it could be a good fit for you. However, you should read up on it quite thoroughly, as it can be an easy program to do incorrectly. Just be ready for a very mentally demanding program that could leave you feeling quite beat up and sore.