A Loss of Strength From High Intensity Training?

I’ve read several claims that people tend to lose strength after they start a High Intensity Training program. I started HIT in December 2010. Have I lost strength? I guess it depends on how you measure strength.

My thesis is that using traditional weight lifting exercises as a metric for measuring strength is unfair when measuring the efficacy of HIT. The reason is the bench press, squat and dead lift are highly technical moves. When you stop training a technical move, you get rusty and are unable to lift as much safely. What you perceive as a loss of strength might really be loss of technique.

weights-in-gym

Photo by Garen Meguerian

A Tale of Two Exercises

About 6 months after I started High Intensity Training, I took a break and did some flat bench presses. My “strength” was off considerably. I had to lower the weight by about 30 pounds. For a brief moment I was concerned. Then I realized there was no way my strength had declined. I had never felt stronger. In an instant, I knew just how worthless the bench press was for measuring chest strength. I wrote an entire post on why I believe this to be true. See My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care.

Another strength exercise that is far less technical is the chin-up. You basically just lift yourself up and then lower yourself down. When I do a chin-up, I’m just thinking about pulling my elbows down to my side in a direct line. Unlike a bench press, I don’t have to worry about safety issues. If I fail to complete the repetition, I can safely lower myself down. Today I perform chin-ups in a slower controlled manner. None of that CrossFit Kipping nonsense [*]. Anyway, I can perform more consecutive chin-ups today than when I did traditional weight training. And I’m not using ballistic momentum movements to squeeze out extra reps.

[*] Before someone asks me what I have against the CrossFit Kipping pull-up, I’ll refer them to an interview with Dr. Doug McGuff on Conditioning Research.

You can only do kipping pull-ups or clapping pushups so long before you tear the labrum of your shoulder or injure your rotator cuff. Further, these injuries are not always acutely evident. You may tear your labrum in your 20’s and “mysteriously” end up with a frozen shoulder in your 50’s.

Did I Lose Strength Doing HIT?

I didn’t lose strength doing High Intensity Training. I lost technique, which is something I no longer care about. I can prove that my back strength is greater now. I can’t numerically prove that my chest is stronger today, but it is.

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MAS

Critical MAS is the blog for Michael Allen Smith of Seattle, Washington. My interests include traditional food, fitness, economics, and web development.

8 thoughts on “A Loss of Strength From High Intensity Training?”

  1. How many reps did you use to test your bench press? I remember an article by Ken Leistner about the futility of using low reps to train / test exercise like the bench press. He alluded to what you mentioned, that exercises like the bench press have a skill element. Get out of the groove with singles and lower reps and it is difficult or nigh on impossible to pull the bar back on the right path. With higher reps it is easier to complete the rep if the bar gets out of the groove. I can’t personally understand why people insist on testing, or if it is so necessary, why they can’t use higher reps instead of singles.
    I do agree with the whole premise of this article however. You see it all the time in gyms….people contorting their bodies and using terrible form in order to claim superior numbers in front of their gym buddies. That is one of the reasons I cancelled my gym membership and committed to training at home.

  2. Good stuff, MAS.

    The psychology of how strong we feel plays a crucial factor in how strong we actually are. Of course, you will need a sufficient number of muscle motor units to resist a certain load but on the mental side you need also need to be strong.

    As an increasing number of people are gaining access to more sophisticated training equipment (Nautilus, MedX etc.) and following a safe + efficient workout routine, it should be easier than ever to quantify relative strength progression.

    The settings on a given machine are not subject to change once they are personalised. This means that a person can pretty much eliminate the variable of changing equipment and solely focus on increasing relative strength.

    I also think that with a retaught technique for example for the bench press, you would quickly see major improvements as to what kind of load you can resist. This skill reconditioning process would take some time but you would eventually witness considerable gains.

  3. @StuartG – I used a 5 rep test, which was the rep number that I used the most frequently when the bench was part of my regular rotation of exercises. Had I trained with higher reps prior to the switch over to HIT, I would have done the higher rep test. So, I guess I was doing an apples to apples test. Your point about using higher reps makes perfect sense.

    @Stephan – You brought up a point I hadn’t thought about and that is the time it takes to both learn a good form and the time it takes to relearn. The assumption is that the first was done correctly, which may or may not be true. Especially for the lifter with longer arms. Having never had a coach for these movements, I relied on my understanding of articles and hoped that I was doing it correctly.

  4. Here, here! Absolutely correct in my experience.

    For example I am sure I need to row (indoor) at least every other day in order to keep my technique at the current level. Technique erodes incredibly quickly.

    In the words of the great pianist Vladimir Horwitz:
    “If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don’t practice for three days, the whole world knows it.”

  5. With regard to your observations about the bench press and it’s value as a measure of chest strength, if my memory serves me correctly I think I read something similar about Arthur Jones and the squat. I remember reading that he once tested the quad strength of Fred Hatfield ( who had just squatted over 1000lbs in competition ) on one of his (MedEx? ) pieces. I think Jones was quite surprised at how low Hatfields quad strength was. The problem with compound exercises are that there is no way of accurately knowing which muscle(s) in the chain are bearing what amount of force at any one time in the movement. It will obviously also vary from individual to individual. With the bench as an example results, if they could be accurately measured would vary from an individual who is chest dominant to one who relies more on anterior deltoid strength. This is how I see it anyway….

  6. @StuartG – I’ve been reading a lot of Arthur Jones recently. Brilliant man. Way ahead of his time.

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