There’s a lot of debate amongst the personal training community about whether or not we should train less frequently but at a high intensity, or more frequently at a lower intensity. To answer this question accurately, we’ve got a lot of things to consider because as with many things in health and fitness, there are very few absolutes. The answer is often ‘it depends’…
We have to start by saying that both high intensity and high frequency have their place – neither one is better than the other, they just have to be used effectively.
Benefits of High Frequency Training
For the vast majority of people, they’d be better off with high frequency rather than high intensity training. The regular stimulation of muscle and movement pattern at a low intensity helps to improve insulin sensitivity, build muscle, reduce body fat, maintain flexibility and improve the general health of the connective tissues.
High frequency training isn’t fatigue-seeking, in such that it allows you to recover quickly. This means that you’ll be able train almost every day, which is a great way to keep calorie burn at a higher level and maintains a good base level of fitness. If you like your food, then the more training you can do, the better. You keep your calorie burn higher with the more frequent training.
High frequency training is a way for us to maintain a decent level of performance, but it isn’t likely to see us make any real progress in terms of our fitness or physical capabilities.
What Workouts Can I Do in High Frequency Training?
Essentially you can do any workouts you like, but the aim isn’t to seek a level of intense fatigue that you’d struggle to recover quickly from. With that in mind, you look to perform weight training exercises at sub-maximal weights, reps and sets.
If you are capable of performing single rep max deadlifts at 150kg for example, maybe drop to 110kg for sets of 5. Although the volume is higher, the weight is significantly lower than your capabilities so you’ll require less recover time. Another example would be to drop the reps. Say you could do 10 pull ups, but the last 2 are a real struggle. Drop to doing sets of 6 – you’ll still do some work, but you’ll leave something in the tank for tomorrow. Maybe you usually do 5 sets of squats, if you dropped to 3 or 4 sets, you leave some energy behind for tomorrow.
This principle can be applied across the board when it comes to resistance training. You can drop the weights, the reps, the amount of sets you do, or reduce all of the above. You’ll reduce your recovery time and be able to train more frequently.
Benefits of High Intensity Training
High intensity training is the kind of work that really moves the needle in terms of your physical performance. This is the kind of training we should be embarking on in the build up to a particular sporting event – think pre season Football or Rugby, or a training plan ahead of a marathon, half marathon etc.
High intensity works by pushing the body beyond what it would normally be capable of. This systematic pushing of your boundaries brings about a higher state of fatigue, but the extra effort means the intensity level can’t be maintained for long. It’s certainly not sustainable for a long term training approach, but in the lead up to an event, a gradually more difficult training programme helps to improve physical fitness.
If you know what you are training for, a specific period of high intensity training will see your physical capabilities relevant to your sport improve dramatically, as long as you allow sufficient rest and recovery.
What Workouts Can I Do in High Intensity Training?
You can do most types of workout in high intensity training, but the most effective types of workout are shorter, more intense sessions designed to push you beyond your normal training limits. It’s during high intensity training sessions that you’ll be looking to push your boundaries – lift heavier, run faster, perform more sets, keep rest periods shorter etc.
The reasons the workouts are shorter is because of the intensity, but what that also means is that you can repeat workouts. Say for example you are doing a sprint workout – the intensity is high, but the duration is short so that means that you’ll be able to rest at the end of the session and repeat it or perhaps move onto a different training modality, such as weight training afterwards. As long as the intensity is high and the work is specific for the goal, you’ll be making improvements.
High Intensity Training Caution
When you work hard, you have to recover. It’s so important to do this, otherwise you’ll end up with something known as CNS fatigue (central nervous system fatigue). This is when neurotransmitter levels and the central nervous system just can’t cope with the high intensity work after a while.
Symptoms are cold-like feelings, lack of energy, heavy fatigue, loss of strength, aching limbs, slow movement etc. You can avoid it by giving yourself a day or two rest every week and making sure you eat a good diet.
Intensity vs Frequency: Concluded
There’s a time and a place for both approaches, but as a general rule of thumb I’d suggest you use high frequency training for your general approach, then in the weeks leading up to a particular event you could ramp up the intensity to help improve your performance. Just give yourself enough rest in the lead up so you avoid central nervous system fatigue.