What Are the Benefits of High Intensity Weight Training?

Weight Training Benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Short bursts of intense weight training can increase your muscle strength by 50 percent in as little as two months
  • High intensity weight training builds muscle faster, burns more calories after 22 hours, burns fat and takes less time than traditional programs
  • Follow guidelines for repetitions, sets, frequency, progress and speed to get the most from your program and avoid injuries and overtraining syndrome

By Dr. Mercola

One of the biggest barriers many people face sticking with a regular exercise program is the time it takes to do it. Carving out an hour or two to hit the gym can seem daunting, and on some days might be completely unrealistic.

However, short bursts of intense exercise can deliver many of the health and fitness benefits you get from doing hours of conventional cardiovascular training. This is also true for strength training or weight lifting.

Your body may gain more strength and muscle mass by doing high intensity or super slow weight training, than you would receive from conventional weight lifting.

Since high intensity training works more of your muscle than conventional training, you spend less time getting greater benefits. If you have just 30 minutes, you can perform a high intensity weight training session, helping you get fit in just a fraction of the time it used to take.

What Is High Intensity Weight Training?

In the early 1970s, the inventor of the Nautilus weight machines popularized high intensity interval training (HIIT). The idea is to train harder for shorter periods of time, which reduces the frequency required.

The principle is to overload the muscle, creating a greater demand than your muscle is used to accommodating. The greater the demand, or intensity of the exercise, the greater overload is created and the more effective the exercise becomes.

However, this overload is not created by increasing the amount of weight lifted, but rather by increasing the amount of time it takes to lift and return the weight, continuing through your repetition without stopping.

You are essentially training the muscle to fatigue by removing the momentum you normally get when moving the weight quickly.

Maintaining good form during each movement is very important. Once your muscles have fatigued to the point you are no longer able to hold proper form, you must stop or risk injury. It's also important to decrease the frequency of training to allow for proper recuperation.

Training Harder But Smarter

The greater the intensity of the exercise you perform, the less time is needed to accomplish successful results. This means there is an inverse relationship between the intensity of your workout and the frequency.

You may think that high intensity weight training would only be effective for beginners, but intermediate and advanced weight trainers also benefit. However, as you become more advanced and capable of greater intensity in your workouts, you actually need more rest and less frequency in order to avoid overtraining.

It is possible to over-exercise or over-train your muscles and suffer significant setback, illness or injury. When you use high intensity weight training, you shouldn't work out more than three non-consecutive days each week, and even less if you are an advanced athlete, an older athlete or if you don't recover quickly.

Hard training breaks down muscle and makes them slightly weaker. It is during the rest periods between your workouts that your muscles grow stronger.1 This adaptation requires both physiologic stress to the muscles, rest and adequate diet to build strong muscles.

When enough rest is not included between HIIT sessions, your improvements will plateau and your performance will ultimately decline.2 The term "overtraining syndrome" encompasses not only the physiological changes but also emotional, mental and behavioral symptoms that can persist for weeks or months.3

The appropriate volume of exercise to avoid overtraining syndrome will depend upon your age, gender, nutrition, rest schedule, quality of sleep, recovery time, genetics and training goals.4

Keys to Success Using High Intensity Weight Training

High intensity weight training does not allow your muscle to rest between movements and engages more of the muscle being used. You can't use momentum as you go through the movement, and this forces your muscles to work harder.

During SuperSlow weight training you are also working your muscle to the point of failure, or the point at which you cannot do another repetition. This builds more muscle in a shorter period of time and is safer than other forms of strength training. As Dr. Doug McGuff, author of "Body by Science," told WebMD:5

"With other exercises, to make them more challenging, you usually have to increase the force required — the weight level, whatever — which brings on aches and pains. This makes them more dangerous. With SuperSlow, you can make exercise much more challenging without increasing force."

A reduction in momentum and the necessity of proper form also reduces the potential for injury. Increasing the challenge to your muscle without increasing the potential for damage to joints and muscle may improve your overall success with the program.

High intensity weight training also improves your cardiovascular fitness. While you can improve your aerobic capacity with aerobic exercises like jogging or rowing, aerobic capacity also improves with strength training, as your muscles require more oxygen.6

This demand increases the workload on your heart and lungs to deliver the oxygen where it's needed.

High intensity weight training has the added benefit of training your body to increase energy production at the cellular level by delivering substrate to your mitochondria more quickly, effectively and efficiently than traditional aerobic exercise.

Specific High Intensity Weight Training Benefits

Your body experiences several benefits from exercise. However, high intensity weight training offers specific benefits you may enjoy after just a few short months.

Increased Calorie Burn, Fat Loss and Less Time Exercising

Research in the Journal of Translational Medicine determined that participation in high intensity resistance training (HIRT) increased resting energy expenditure (REE).7

Using trained athletes, the researchers compared the REE, or the number of calories burned, between a traditional resistance workout and an HIRT session. They measured the REE 22 hours after each workout and found a significant increase in the number of calories burned after the HIRT program.

The data from the study suggested that shorter HIRT sessions would increase REE and improve fat oxidation or fat loss. The reduced time in the gym may also reduce one barrier to prolonged exercise programs.

Increase Muscle Mass Faster Than Traditional Programs

In the early 1990s, Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., South Shore YMCA fitness research director in Quincy, Massachusetts, learned about SuperSlow weight training and undertook two informal studies.

One in 1993 and the second in 1999 enrolled 75 participants to train using SuperSlow.8 The first study ran eight weeks and the second for 10 weeks. Both times, the participants in the SuperSlow groups experienced greater than 50 percent gain in muscle strength. Westcott found this so difficult to believe that he had the results verified at Virginia Tech.

Strength Training Becomes More Important With Age

As you age, strength training becomes increasingly important to prevent falls and maintain quality of life. While you may not think of falling as a significant health concern, it is the leading cause of death and injury in people over 65. Seniors have a 1 in 3 chance of falling. Of those older adults who fall, 24 percent end up with serious injuries and 6 percent fracture a bone.9

Activities that improve balance, mobility and strength help prevent falls and thus lower your risk for serious medical conditions or even death. As you age, your gait may change based on changes to your joints and muscle strength. Stiff joints, impaired neurological feedback and reduced muscle strength contribute to your risk of falling.

Without intervention, your muscle mass and strength may decline by nearly 41  percent after the age of 40.10 Maintaining daily activities and including strength training in your routine will reduce the amount of muscle and strength loss you experience.

SuperSlow weight training is ideal for the elderly as the program depends more upon your initial abilities than it does upon how much weight you lift. As most people experience quicker results than with traditional weight training, it is also inherently motivational.

In a recent study, researchers found that progressive resistance strength training was more effective for improving balance in non-frail participants over the age of 65 than were traditional balance exercises.11

As high intensity weight training does not necessarily require a gym for participation, many elderly can begin a strength program at home to reduce their risk of falling. However, if you are frail, you'll want to make sure you have an attendant present at all times to help you. Having a personal trainer would be ideal, at least when you first start out.

Determine Your Ideal Workout Frequency

While beginners should not perform weight training more than three times a week on non-consecutive days, you may find you need more rest days one week than another, or need to increase the number of rest days as you become more advanced. You can determine your own ideal workout frequency by monitoring your body and symptoms. Telltale signs you haven't recovered well are similar to those of overtraining syndrome and include:

  • Reduced performance. You'll find you reach muscle fatigue faster for each set of exercises.
  • Fatigue on the days after your workout. You may experience flu-like symptoms including overall muscle ache, exhaustion, headache and a general feeling of malaise that may extend for days after your workout.
  • Fatigue will continue between workouts and you'll feel worse more days than you feel good.

When you are not over-trained you'll experience:

  • Slight improvements with each session. You may not notice these each time but the session will not "feel" harder than the last one, and you'll be able to do more repetitions over time.
  • You may feel slightly tired the next day but will likely be invigorated with a sense of well-being.

You are aiming for a schedule where you don't feel tired after 24 hours, you feel invigorated and healthy, and your next workout is not more difficult than your last.

High Intensity Weight Training Program You Can Start at Home

In this video, personal trainer Jill Rodriguez demonstrates eight SuperSlow strength training moves you can do at home with hand weights and a chin up bar. You'll use the same technique of slow movement as you graduate to using heavier dumbbells. These are the guidelines you'll want to follow as you develop a program specific to your needs and lifestyle:

  • Frequency: Beginners may perform up to three workouts on non-consecutive days per week but should work out less frequently as you become more advanced.
  • Repetitions: The number of repetitions you do will evolve over time. Your aim is to have an amount of weight you can lift for at least eight repetitions but no more than 15 before hitting muscle fatigue. In the beginning, this may take some experimentation.
  • Sets: Repetitions are the number of times you do an exercise grouped together and a set is the number of times you do those grouped repetitions. In traditional weight training you might do three sets of 10 repetitions. With SuperSlow weight training you do only one set.
  • Progress: Increase the amount of weight or resistance you're using when you can complete 15 repetitions using good form without reaching muscle fatigue.
  • Speed: Move through your movements slowly, maintaining strict control of your body and the weight you're using. Count to 10 on contraction and 10 as you return to the starting position. Keep your movements smooth, resisting the impulse to do the movement quickly. Do not rest between repetitions.
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