Measuring Strength and Hating on HIT

I am so sick of the logic used in articles written by “strength” coaches to dismiss High Intensity Training.

The articles all go something like this:

  1. Using higher volume and lower intensity produces greater strength gains than using HIT.
  2. Strength is measured by PR (personal records) in classic bodybuilding exercises such as the bench press, squat and dead lift.

The first problem with these articles and their studies is that injury risk is ignored. But, I’ve gone down that path many times before. Let us for a moment imagine a world where nobody gets hurt. Every rep is perfect. Rainbows and unicorns.

The movements used to measure strength have a skill component. To develop a skill requires repetition. If you go to failure or use other HIT methods, such as removing momentum, you will not develop the skill portion of the lift. So then when you go back to test your “strength” via PR in the classic metrics, of course the number will be lower. That doesn’t mean HIT is worse for strength. It means HIT is worse for developing the skills used in classic bodybuilding exercises. As it should be.

“Strength” coaches observe this and come to the conclusion that HIT sucks for strength. No it sucks for skill development! I’m not a strength scholar, but this formula quickly came to me.

Weight Lifted = Strength + Skill

Anyone with a basic understanding of algebra can see that one can have the same or even greater levels of strength and still lift less weight if they haven’t developed the skill component of the lift.

I provided an example in the post More Bench Press Nonsense.

To demonstrate just how much skill is a factor, I’ll provide an example of the opposite. After a decade of bench pressing, I was able to increase my bench by 30 pounds in a single week. Did I gain 30 pounds of strength? No. I read a really well written article about elbow position for tall lifters. After reading the article, I went to the gym and tested it out. My SKILL in the bench press went up by 30 pounds. My strength was the same. 


Photo by Jeff Blackler

Maybe someone has figured out a better way to measure strength? Everything I read about comparing which strength protocol is best uses skill based movements as metrics to make their case. When I bring this argument up, the Bros are quick to dismiss the skill component of their lift as tiny. I beg to differ. Anyone that has watched world class lifters can see the tremendous amount of skill they have in timing the movement of the weight. It is the marriage of strength and optimal momentum.

Note that I am not saying HIT is better for strength than traditional bodybuilding methods. I don’t know. I am saying there is a measurement problem. But I honestly don’t care. I no longer need to quantify strength. How close I am to my muscular potential is all that is important. If I get this right, then I should be strong enough, even if I can’t demonstrate that fact in the squat rack. But if you need to wrap yourself up in a number to tell the world how strong you are, knock yourself out bro!

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

11 thoughts on “Measuring Strength and Hating on HIT”

  1. Using your formula weight lifted = strength + skill, couldn’t you compare two training protocols by equalizing the skill? Then weight lifted should show a true difference in strength. What I have in mind is comparing two strength training protocols by using a third movement that has a relatively low skill level but which isn’t used at all in either of the two protocols. For instance comparing bodybuilding training and HIT by using a farmer’s walk (for time or distance).

    Of course this only would be of value in a world where safety isn’t a concern, just strength. But it might be an equal and fair test of which method was better at building strength.

  2. I’m not sure it is fair to say that everyone claims more volume and less intensity is better. Some would say more volume and more weight is what is required to get stronger. In their world view, intensity means intensity of load, so they are advocating more intensity. And doing a 5×5 set of squats with as much weight as you can manage eventually becomes a very taxing and stressful activity, and could also be considered intense in a different way.

    Of course, folks arguing this approach generally don’t like going to failure (they see it as excessively stressful to the nervous system and thus unproductive), tend to view intensity of effort at failure as not useful, and hence not even part of the conversation.

    Now bodybuilders who train very high volume, with lighter weights to achieve deep fatigue may be a better target for your criticism.

    I do think that HIT advocates resort to the “it’s skill, not strength” a little too easily. Maybe adding 10% to your strength quickly could be skill/technique. But the difference between a 180lb bench press and a 360lb bench press is going to involve significant differences in underlying strength.

    The skill argument also cuts both ways: you can argue that learning to move weight slowly for the purpose of deeply fatiguing muscles is also a skill. The way RenEx and SS proponents talk about learning to “empty the tank more efficiently”, it sure sounds like a coachable skill, and progress at moving more weight in that protocol could also involve a skill component.

    In defense of coaches: if their athletes are competing in weight lifting, power lifting, or strong man competition, then of course the weight on the bar is relevant. If not, then any training method that gives good transference of strength to the sport being trained for should be good enough. But it is not clear to me at this point that HIT methods meet that transference test.

    Back when Arthur Jones first introduced the idea of HIT, it would be normal for established coaches to resist this radical new idea. But 40+ years have gone by and it still hasn’t gained a lot of traction for athletic preparation. And in that time, there have been more than a few thoughtful, open-minded coaches that have tried such methods and found them unsatisfactory. (Look up a couple of Dan John’s articles about his experience with Nautilus training and his own performance as a Discus thrower).

    As a non athlete seeking mostly health benefits with methods that are very safe, I’m not sure you should worry all that much about the training methods used by competing athletes. Of course, it is your blog and if this is something you want to rail about, well…. have fun!

    PS: I typically use HIT methods because my time is limited, and I have no athletic aspirations. I don’t really care if I am leaving gainzzzz on the table, or failing to maximize my genetic potential. (I started way too late to do that in any case.)
    I also don’t think it is necessary to get defensive about my choice.

  3. I’ve read your fitness articles with interest, but I feel that there is a middle ground that you are missing.

    Like you, I don’t care that much about the bench press and back squats as movements, both due to safety concerns and lack of carryover to everyday life. However, there are plenty of exercises which are reasonably safe, carry over well, and can also be progressed in a straightforward way.

    As examples, consider the jumping pullup; the burpee; the ab wheel rollout; hill sprints; sled pushes; sandbag carries; farmer’s walks. There are many more.

    The fact that these exercises involve some skill is, in my view, a net positive, because unlike the bench press, these are movements worth doing and becoming proficient in. If that takes more time than HIT, then so be it. Time efficiency is not the ultimate goal.

  4. @Geoff – I don’t know how one would equalize HIT vs non-HIT. Maybe it can’t be done.

    @Craig – We agree that the skill angle could cut both ways. My point is not that HIT is better for strength, it is using non-HIT metrics to demonstrate HIT is less effective isn’t fair. I am open to the idea that volume training might very well be better for strength, but by how much? As long as strength coaches use their sport metrics to discredit HIT, I fail to be convinced.

    @Portabella – This wasn’t a HIT is better than non-HIT post. I’m sorry I wasn’t more clear. It was about unfairly measuring things that aren’t the same and drawing a conclusion that may not be accurate and then peddling that result as science.

  5. “Maybe someone has figured out a better way to measure strength?”

    I have: the best and only only only! way to measure anyone’s strength is by competing in head-to-head underwater thumb wrestling tournaments. If you aren’t doing high-intensity, ultra slow tabata hypoxic iso-hold reps on your thumb curls, you’re training wrong!! And don’t you forget it, Bro!!

  6. The only reason I try hard to increase my strength is because it’s so intimately tied to my health and functional ability in daily life as I age.

    A while back on this blog I commented on how I had switched to a hip belt squat for my Max Pyramid static holds. When first practicing the movement 32 months ago, my starting hold was 70 lbs; now my starting hold is 300 lbs. I have definitely gained strength in my quads.

    Would I have gained more strength with a regular squat? Maybe — and probably thrown my back out or injured something at the same time, which would have totally defeated the ultimate goal of health.

    Not hypertrophy, not strength, Health.

  7. I’ve been reading through your blog and wanted to give some input to readers based on my observations.

    There are a lot of different ways to train and it all depends on your goals obviously. Id say the average person who just wants to look pretty good and maintain pretty good body comp needs shouldn’t over think it. Everyone should be doing some sort of strength training, conditioning, control your calories consistently and aim for .6-.8 g of protein based on your body weight a day to get the 80/20.

    For people who want to aim for more optimal they should be doing a wide range of rep ranges and training methods but this would be laid out in any sound complete training. The reason HIT is working for you is because you’ve never done it before. That being said I personally think if someone is struggling to figure things out they should reach out to someone who has more experience and worked with a lot of people of all types. I myself did this in my early to mid 20 and we figured out what works. I got tired of trying new things and always switching gears all the time.

    Finding a good coach or mentor in whatever you are interested in is invaluable and id recommend seeking one out if you struggle to find what works so you don’t over think and always search.

  8. @Z – 2 points

    1- I am in favor of a wide range of rep ranges and even vary the intensity. What I like about HIT is the safety aspect, which is something that is missing from traditional compound weight lifting protocols. But I have repeated myself too many times on that. It gets old.

    2- The reason HIT works for me is because I no longer get injured, not because it is new to me. Novelty is not a prerequisite for gains.

  9. @MAS

    I am glad you and other people have found things that work for you to achieve whatever your goals are at the time to be more physically fit. I still don’t think HIT is optimal and would just like to encourage you to post about other methods that do work as well for people. Physical health and fitness should never be a quick result thing it’s about forming good habits over time to be healthy so we can enjoy our lives.

    1. I do tend to agree with you when I walk in the average commercial gym 90% of people are moving incorrectly with compound lifts and isolation lifts. This is why I would recommend people learn or really focus on this. People like you mention in other posts should realize these are skills and learn to perform them correctly before you add any weight adding weight should never be done.

    2. If you were getting injured so frequently then you were performing a lift incorrectly for your body, adding weight too aggressively or didn’t have a well-planned training method to account for what you need as an individual. Consistent training years matter with gains. I do agree on your other posts that people do not prioritize their rest, nutrition and training program.

    I’d like to share a few no nonsense resources I think are useful to people if you don’t mind:

    Great article on the genetically gifted vs the rest of us:

    Using proper nutrition(in the comments he talks about all the guru things he tried before):

    Clean eating Myth:

    Strength Training tutorials and free strength programs:

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