Intensity & Homeostasis: How Manipulating the Weight You Use Will Help You to Grow

In the very first post of this series, I discussed homeostasis and stress. Our body wants to keep everything in balance (homeostasis), but to grow, we must introduce something to disrupt the balance (stress). 

Think of it like Ancient China. The Chinese were constantly getting invaded by surrounding countries like Mongolia. China is our body, and the Mongolians are stress. Rather than let themselves be constantly invaded China built the Great Wall to keep invaders out. In other words, in response to the stress of invasion, China created stronger defenses. If China never had to worry about attacks, there's a good chance they would never have constructed the Great Wall. I may have watched Mulan recently...

Like all analogies, it does not quite do the justice of how our body responds to stress, but I hope it gets the point across. Stressors will help us get stronger, if we manipulate them, and utilize them correctly.

As mentioned in prior installments, five key strategies can help force our body to adapt. The last post I discussed volume, and today I will discuss intensity.

Intensity could also be redefined as difficulty, or how hard are you going? For weight, training intensity is often defined as the weight on the bar relative to your one repetition maximum. However, I just like to think of it as the poundage used, period. Compared to volume there is less to consider in regards to managing intensity. To manipulate intensity change the weight on the bar.

For those of you counting at home, that looks like some pretty high intensity. Also this is what I like to think I look like when I lift...

For those of you counting at home, that looks like some pretty high intensity. Also this is what I like to think I look like when I lift...

However, where it starts to get complicated is when we start to think of the relationship between volume and intensity. In many cases, as intensity increases volume decreases. There is usually a good chance that if you double the weight, you will not be able to do as many sets and reps with that weight.

For instance, let's say you rep out five sets of 10 reps at 100 pounds. Since volume is sets*reps*weight, this would equal 5,000. But if you did 150 pounds you might only be able to handle five reps. The weight has increased by 150%, but the volume has decreased to 3,750 pounds. To quote Hamlet, "Ay, there's the rub."

What do we do then? If volume can help disrupt homeostasis and incur growth, but intensity does the same, what do we manipulate and when? 

I know this may be getting a bit confusing but before you go Avril Lavigne on me allow me to answer your questions. Do not worry about when to manipulate the stressors, I'll explain this later. But in regards to what to manipulate, you can manipulate both. 

Some times, when you just want to go hard and go all out, (these should be few and far between), you can push both volume and intensity up. Your body will hate you for it, but it can be effective every so often. I reiterate though; these should be few and far between.

However, one strategy I like to utilize can be called intensity cycling. Let's say you're doing a three-week program. Well, it may look something like this.

  • Week 1: High Volume, Low Intensity
  • Week 2: Moderate Volume, Moderate Intensity
  • Week 3: Low Volume, High Intensity

By now you should have gotten the hint to read my volume post. If you haven't already, please go back do that. However, if you have, the question may become, "Why is intensity necessary? Couldn't you just keep increasing volume?"

Well, there lies the difficulty. Remember if our body adapts to a stimulus eventually the stimulus is going to cease to be effective. So this is one reason why having another stimulus involved can help with getting stronger.

Along these same lines, each stimulus will cause slightly different adaptations. For instance, volume, more times than not, will help improve muscular endurance, mental toughness, and muscle size. While increasing intensity may help with these as well, it will increase your bodies ability to recruit muscles more than anything. Or as nerds such as myself like to call say, the intensity will help improve your motor unit recruitment. 

Regardless of the vernacular, the better your body can use its muscles the stronger you will become, the stronger you become the higher volume you will be able to endure, the higher volume you can take the bigger or denser your muscles become, the larger more dense your muscles become, the more potential you have to become stronger. And this is the house that Jack built...

Alright, you made it. How are you feeling so far? Take a deep breath.

There is a lot of info in just this little post, but I hope you are starting to get a better grasp of how to make sure you are constantly growing, getting stronger, or getting the physique you've always wanted. Regardless of your goals, forcing your body to have to build more solid walls is the key. 

However, volume and intensity cannot be the only two variables we use. Otherwise, we will eventually cease to keep adapting. This is why in the next post I will discuss exercise variation. But for now, take some time to absorb what you've just read.

- Dave