Why we swear allegiance to short, intense and often

Featured Strength Equipment: barbell, weightlifting plates, dumbbells

Squat and Leave! Unbeknownst to me, my right-hand man Jim Steel had a t-shirt made that said in big letters, “Squat and Leave.” When he told me about it, I grinned ear to ear. Those three words sum up a philosophy to which I subscribe. Steel’s T-shirt motto was a pithy encapsulation of a complex, layered and iconic approach towards resistance training that could be summarized as “less can be better if less is way more intense.”

I like less. I always have. As an athlete, as a person with a full and complete life, I have no desire to engage in long, extended resistance training sessions, five to six times a week. Empiricism has taught me that there is an inverse relationship between volume and intensity and long and extended always compromises the depth and degree of intensity.

I like intense. I always have. I have always been comfortable working at or slightly past my current limits and capacities. Time and experience have taught me that (within this proportional relationship: how hard versus how long) I have a natural affinity towards short, violent and intense.

Some guys like volume training: my excellent friend, Brad Gillingham, multi-time IPF superheavyweight world champion powerlifter and world record holder in the deadlift, simply loves his time in the gym. 4-5-6 nights a week he trains with a select group of highly motivated lifters. Brad thinks nothing of training for two solid hours. He trains more in a single session than I allot to barbell training for an entire week.

In my world, intensity trumps volume and William of Occam, a 14th century Christian monk agrees with me. He posited that (and I paraphrase) “When outcomes are identical, choose the simpler system.” If two progressive resistance systems deliver identical results, pick the simpler training system: Occam’s razor says select the system with shorter sessions, sessions that are done infrequently and use fewer exercises. William would love intensity-biased training.

Further, in my humble opinion, outcomes are not equal. With all due respect to volume trainers, when it comes to building raw power and brute strength the majority of all-time powerlifting world records have been set by intensity-biased trainers. Even if we make the (fallacious) assumption that, when it came to creating muscle and power, volume and intensity are equal, insofar as outcomes, why not go with less? Why not use the recovered training time to hone other skills and pursue other pursuits?

At one extreme of the volume spectrum lies the “high-volume/moderate intensity” approach, best exemplified by elite pro bodybuilders. At the other extreme of the spectrum lies the “low-volume/high intensity approach” best exemplified by elite powerlifters and strength athletes.

Squat and leave. Perform a single barbell lift and end the session: is this not the ultimate in progressive resistance minimalism – what less could you do? How do we make minimalism work? The secret to making low volume training succeed lies in generating 100% effort. The goal is to work so hard, go so all out, that any further efforts are ridiculous.

The volume trainer must modulate intensity to make it across the finish line. The man that trains for 90-minutes must hold back if he is to last the 90-minutes. If you are performing 20 sets for the thighs, five sets each for barbell squats, leg presses, hack squats and leg extensions, no single set can be truly all out as the energy expenditure need be rationed. If you go all out on your top set of barbell squats, the first exercise in the enduro training session, poundage handling ability on all subsequent exercises will be decimated, destroyed.

What good is it to perform leg presses, hacks and thigh extensions if you can only handle 40% of what you are capable of when fresh? Because you went all out on the squats, everything afterwards sucks. Ergo, don’t go all out. Hit 85% to 90%, a sustainable energy expenditure rate for a fit and ferocious pro bodybuilder.

The volume trainer performs a series of 85% of max effort in each exercise. The 85% volume trainer essentially flogs a muscle to death. The intensity trainer shoots the muscle pointblank with a shotgun, or in this case barbells, weightlifting plates and dumbbells. Volume is many sets, wearing the target muscle down with a relentless series of sets, carpet bombing the muscle into submission. The intensity trainer drops an atomic bomb on the muscle, blasts the muscle to smithereens and moves on. One and done.

The question becomes, how to define “all out?” The benchmark is failure. When you push or pull until you are unable to perform another repetition, you have exerted 100% effort. Period. This is an important point: 100% effort can be achieved in any and every progressive resistance training session and in every exercise.

The 100% effort is the eternal benchmark for intensity-biased progressive resistance training. Human capacity modulates, day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year. What is 100% of maximum poundage capacity on a good Monday (100 pounds X 10 reps, a new personal best) might drop to 80% (100 X 8 reps) on a bad following Friday. Still, the trainee can generate a 100% effort in both sessions.

Regardless if the athlete’s capacity is enhanced, diminished or normal, it is the trainer’s responsibility to work up to (or past) capacity. Regardless the exercise, regardless the technique or the rep target selected, regardless the previous best benchmark, success, i.e. intensity sufficient to trigger hypertrophy, is verified by a “barely completed final rep.”

If you struggle mightily to lock out a rep, there is no need to attempt another rep, one that you would surely fail with. You do not have to fail with a rep to know that you should not have attempted that rep. The barely completed final rep is always and forever the benchmark for 100% (or more) effort. In every workout, the duty of the low volume trainer is to generate some expression of 100% effort.

Back to Steel’s T-shirt: Pick a single lift, a big lift, an important lift, a barbell back squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, power, clean, snatch, clean and jerk, front squat…select a specific technique and select a top set rep target. Start off with a light barbell: groove in pristine technique. Take your time and with each successive set hone and refine the technique. Think about technique. Exercise technique should be approached with reverence.

Establish the technique on the first sets. Modest poundage increases, set to set, ensure that pristine technique, once established, can be maintained. On the top set, the final set, the all-out set, rep the barbell until you encounter the barely completed rep. One and done. Leave.

There is much to be recommended about devoting an entire session to one important lift. Steel’s t-shirt could have said, Deadlift and Leave” or “Clean & Jerk and Leave,” or “Power clean and Leave.” The point being; concentrate your energies and focus on one lift and nothing else. Take as much time and many sets as you need: no rush, there is nothing past this. No reason to hold back or keep anything in reserve.

In a singular lift workout, my strategy is to start extremely light, at say 40% of what I intend to lift. Modest poundage jumps allow to lifter to establish and maintain perfect technique even as the sets progress and the payload increases. I like to end the single-lift workout with a technically perfect top set, a set that concludes with a barely completed final rep.

The barely completed final rep is indicative of a 100% to 105% effort, an intensity needed to trigger the adaptive response. All the good stuff, the power increases, the muscle size increases, the strength increases, only occur in response to superhuman effort. The wonderful thing about the barely completed final rep is that once it is completed - you are done.

When a man finishes a barely completed rep, they can rest assured they have done all they can do, on that day and at that point in time. By struggling through a sticking point, by exerting 100% of capacity, the athlete triggers the adaptive response and reaps all the amazing benefits associated with expertly applied progressive resistance training.

When outcomes are equal, I will pick intense minimalism over expansive volume every single time. Intense, infrequent sessions are, for me, preferential over frequent, less intense sessions. Occam’s razor affirms the validity of our approach: less can be better if less is way more intense.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.